Sweet Black Angel

Dazzling selection from back catalogue of the "cosmic" country visionary who changed the face of American music

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There’s a lot to be said for the charisma of premature death. And the manner of his particular dying?turning blue on a motel floor at the age of 26, his heart fatally faltering, ice cubes being stuffed up his ass in a pathetic attempt to bring him back from the brink after one binge too many?booked Gram Parsons an automatic place of honour in a rock’n’roll Valhalla already overcrowded with dead young heroes, Jimi, Janis, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and more already among its spectral population.

And then, of course, there is the bonfire they made of his body, the macabre drunken ritual of his Joshua Tree cremation, his friend and roadie, Phil Kaufman, fulfilling a pact he made with Gram at the funeral of former Byrds guitarist Clarence White. Which was basically that if either checked out while the other was still living, the one still standing would take the other, now dead, and burn the corpse out there in the Mojave desert?where Gram had dropped LSD, partied, died. Kaufman may have thought he was merely honouring a boozy promise. He was actually creating a legend.

If Gram’s early exit ensured a notorious immortality, it has also to some extent unintentionally overshadowed the music he left behind, which is his true legacy. People who’ve never heard him, however, may wonder whether the myth looms larger than the music, about whose merit they may be somewhat suspicious. After all, an image has grown since his death of Gram as something of a playboy, a rich southern kid living off a substantial trust fund who was more interested in narcotic debauchery and reckless living than the nurturing of a sublime talent. In the circumstances, can his music really be as good as his fans say it is?

The answer, provided emphatically by this handsome two-disc compilation, is a deafening fucking yes.

On his way to the grave, Gram produced some of the most moving music ever made. He was a true visionary, inspired from an early age by something he called “Cosmic American Music”?a heady mix of rock’n’roll, gospel, southern soul, R&B and, most unfashionably at the time, country. Astonishingly, the year The Beatles released Sgt Pepper and the Velvets and Jimi Hendrix released their mind-blowing debuts, Gram was rediscovering Hank Williams, Buck Owens, George Jones and Merle Haggard with The International Submarine Band, who in 1967 recorded their debut, Safe At Home, arguably the first “country rock” album.

Sacred Hearts & Fallen Angels takes the ISB as its starting point (there’s nothing here from The Shilos, Parsons’ previous band, which unfortunately means no “Zah’s Blues”) and follows a chronological narrative arc, with the occasional rarity strongly bolstered by representative cuts from the groundbreaking albums he went on to make with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Bros, the live album he recorded with his touring band, The Fallen Angels, and the two immaculate solo albums he made with Emmylou Harris as his vocal partner?which according to Elvis Costello’s sleevenotes for the 1982 compilation Gram Parsons “featured some of the finest duet singing ever put on record”.

For Costello, Parsons?especially on songs as “mysterious, almost philosophical” as the Burritos’ “Sin City” and later solo recordings like “Return Of The Grievous Angel”, “$1000 Wedding” and “In My Hour Of Darkness”?was the legitimate heir to Hank Williams, a view often endorsed by his friend Keith Richards, with whom he enjoyed such a close relationship during the making of Exile On Main St, an album partially shaped by his influence.

Gram’s back catalogue, so brilliantly reflected here, consists of?what??only six complete albums, and a couple of collections of outtakes and rehearsal tapes. But when those albums include masterpieces like The Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, the Burritos’ immortal The Gilded Palace Of Sin, and the solo GP and Grievous Angel, you begin to realise the extent to which this fated young man changed the face of American music. None of these records sold during Gram’s lifetime, but their influence has been widespread. Thirty years after his death, the music he made has lost none of its magic?these honky tonk laments, country death songs and heartbreaking ballads remain uniquely unforgettable, forever haunting, eternally beautiful.


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