Before Melody Maker swept me off the street in the manner of a benevolent old codger taking a pallid waif into his kindly, white-haired care in something written to make you weep by the venerable Dickens, I worked for a bleak season or two in the mail order department of a bookstore near Piccadilly Circus.
It was my habit in those days to take a late lunch in Ward’s Irish Pub, a famous drinking den of distant legend, a series of dark subterranean rooms beneath Piccadilly’s busy pavements. Ward’s one afternoon in September, 1973, was where I found out that Gram Parsons had died.
Someone had left a newspaper on the bar, opened to an inside page, where a story caught my attention, something about a rock star’s body found burning in the desert according to the headline. Whoever the rock star was, he clearly hadn’t been too famous if this small story, not much more than a footnote, was all the prominence the news of his passing had merited. But the circumstances of his death certainly invited investigation. I took a closer look and the next thing you know a jolt goes through me and I jerk like someone in an electric chair, the prison governor throwing a switch and the court’s reprieve arriving too late to save me from a trip to the yonder side of things. The rock star turned out to be Parsons, dead at 26 from an overdose. Calling Gram a ‘rock star’ was something of an exaggeration. The only place he’d been a star was in his wildest dreams. How many people reading the story would even have heard of him or the great albums he’d made? These included The Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, The Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace Of Sin and Burrito Deluxe, and his first solo LP, January 1973’s GP – Grievous Angel, finished just before he died, would come out posthumously. These were records that meant as much to me as anything by Dylan, the Stones, whoever. None of them sold during Gram’s lifetime, but his vision of what he called Cosmic American Music – a heady mix of rock, gospel, Southern soul, R’n’B and, most unfashionably then, country – has been vastly influential.
Astonishingly, the year The Beatles released Sgt Pepper and the Velvets, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd released their mind-blowing debuts, Gram was rediscovering Hank Williams, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, with hostile reactions from audiences, as his International Submarine Band colleague Ian Dunlop recounts in his excellent memoir, Breakfast In Nudie Suits. Country was for certain folk the most conservative of all forms of popular American music, synonymous in the public imagination with an unfortunate stereotype – men with big hats bawling into their beer, crude and unsophisticated – that made people look at you like you’d just joined the Ku Klux Klan if you admitted liking it. Gram railed against the caricature, tapped into the music’s dark, poetic traditions, inspiring what we call Americana, and making music that 40 years after his death and the distracting legend of it remains as beautiful and unforgettable as anything you’ll ever hear.
As Ryan Adams once put it, “If someone tells you they’ve got a cool record collection and they don’t have a Gram Parsons album in it, shoot ’em.”
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