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Grievous Angel

The ballad of alt-country pioneer Gram Parsons.



"He was a good Southern boy," Chris Ethridge said of his onetime bandmate Gram Parsons. "Loved to rock and roll, sad all the time."

"With certain people," Chris Hillman said of his onetime bandmate Gram Parsons, "you figure there is nothing you can do."

Ethridge and Hillman were right. Gram Parsons had the wealthy makings of a good Southern boy, and he loved to rock when he wasn't crooning according to the sounds laid down in Nashville and Bakersfield. At heart, he was a sad guy too, and what could anyone do? Nothing, apparently, but watch as drug usage and drinking landed Parsons — former member of the International Submarine Band, the Byrds, and the Flying Burrito Brothers and later solo artist or in partnership with Emmylou Harris — in an early grave.

Parsons died in 1973 at 26. But before he could reach that grave, there was one thing ex-con artist Philip Kaufman could do: honor Parsons' wish to be cremated and scatter his ashes at a site where Parsons, in life, found peace: Joshua Tree, California.

So, following Parsons' death, Kaufman and Parsons' friend Michael Martin stole the coffin containing Parsons' body in Los Angeles, drove it to Joshua Tree (where Parsons had died of an overdose), poured gasoline on the body, and set fire to it. Then Kaufman and Martin drunkenly hit the road back to L.A. But Parsons' remains didn't stay in Joshua Tree for long. Parsons' stepfather had them flown to New Orleans and buried.

And yet, today, when it comes to Gram Parsons, things still don't go right. As David N. Meyer reports in the 500-plus pages of Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music (Villard), the singer-songwriter's date of birth on his grave is off by two days. But that figures, given the facts of Parsons' emotionally charged household chronicled in the opening chapters of Meyer's thoroughly researched and highly readable biography:

Those facts include (but are hardly limited to) the suicidal gunshot death of Parsons' biological father, Ingram Cecil "Coon Dog" Connor, when Parsons was 12 years old and the alcoholically fueled death of Parsons' mother, "Big" Avis, after she entered into a tumultuous marriage to Robert Parsons, himself a towering alcoholic. And what of "Little" Avis, the sister Parsons adored. In 1991, she and her daughter were drowned in a freak boating accident. And what of Polly, Parsons' daughter? She's seeing to her father's musical legacy in the form of tribute albums, which comes as a surprise, since Parsons hardly saw to Polly's welfare growing up.

More on his mind was music in all its popular forms, be it rock, country, pop, gospel, folk, R&B, or rockabilly — the more "authentic" and unpolished the better. It was that way when Parsons was a teenager attending prep school in Florida and already playing in bands. And it was that way when Parsons entered Harvard. ("Attended" isn't the right word; he split after one semester.)

But if Parsons' sights were on making music, recording that music was another matter. So too, rehearsing. So too, performing, all of which Meyer covers in often depressing detail. Only his late work with a team of seasoned musicians (including members of Elvis Presley's Las Vegas band) and his duet work with Emmylou Harris gave Parsons the discipline and professionalism he needed — and then only when he put his mind to it. Parsons' fabled friendship with Keith Richards, no stranger to excess? As Meyer explains, even the Rolling Stones knew when to get down to business and nail the details.

"Gram fled those details, refusing to confront them, thus avoiding the rigor of making good work great and great work immortal," Meyer writes.

And that's not all. Meyer condemns the romanticized circumstances behind Parsons' death and calls the man himself, by turns, "a pathological liar, an unreliable friend, a narcissistic husband and careless father." Parsons' sizable talent? "He threw it all away." In the same breath, though, Meyer will add that Parsons' "songwriting showcases the bravery with which he described the self he could not bear."

That's beautifully put by David Meyer. And though Gram Parsons didn't write it, that's just what you hear from Parsons on a song called "Sleepless Nights."

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