A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
July 28, 2006
The new documentary Fallen Angel: Gram Parsons, by longtime Parsons fan Gandulf Hennig, is a thought-provoking look at an enigmatic musician whose life — from his Tennessee Williams/Southern Gothic childhood through his early death and bizarre desert cremation — is a fascinating tale.
When some people talk about Parsons, they salute him as a musical visionary who in the 1960s, garbed in a Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors suit embroidered with marijuana leaves, combined country music and rock ’n’ roll, into a glorious mongrel called “Cosmic American Music.”
That assessment always strikes me as shallow. After all, just 10 years before Parsons’ short stints with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, a good number of rockers — Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison — were pretty dang country. And many country stars — from Hank Williams through Johnny Cash through Buck Owens — were pretty dang rock ’n’ roll.
And besides, Parsons can’t really be credited with inventing “country rock.” Someone with a stronger right to that claim is Ringo Starr, who, with The Beatles, covered the Buck Owens hit “Act Naturally” and sang the country-flavored “What Goes On” in 1965 — two years before Parsons joined The Byrds.
But Parsons did bring country music to Los Angeles hipsters in the ’60s. Recalling how he first turned her and her friends on to records by real country singers, supergroupie emerita Pamela Des Barres says, “Everyone thought that country music was lame and for old fogies and people in the South and the Midwest [giggles]. Unhip people. And it was like light bulbs going off, you know, because they were so brilliant.”
But don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking Parsons and his music, the best of which — “Hickory Wind,” “Hot Burrito # 1,” “Sin City,” “Return of the Grievous Angel” — ranks up there in the same pantheon as Hank and Merle and The Beatles. His two solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel, the Burritos’ The Gilded Palace of Sin, and, of course, The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, are some of the greatest country albums ever made.
Parsons deserves to be remembered not as someone who created some musical subgenre that goes in and out of style every few years but as a powerful songwriter who saw through the artificial boundaries imposed upon American music.
In Fallen Angel, Parsons’ tale is told through interviews. There are family members such as his half-sister, stepsister, and niece; old family friends; and boyhood pals. And there are the musical greats who worked and hung out with Parsons: fellow Byrd and Burrito Brother Chris Hillman, Emmylou Harris, guitar great James Burton, and Keith Richards, an inspiration and ultimate bad influence.
It turns out that Parsons was somewhat of a starry-eyed Stones groupie. Hillman tells a story of the difficult time he had pulling Parsons out of a Stones recording session to go to a much-needed Burritos rehearsal. It took Mick Jagger to talk Parsons into leaving, Hillman says.
My major complaint about Fallen Angel is that there’s not nearly enough live musical footage.
My guess is that there’s not a whole lot of quality footage available. And from hearing descriptions in the documentary of some of Parsons’ gigs with his various groups, it’s apparent that the Grievous Angel was a spotty performer at best, especially in his latter years, when he was usually in some stage of intoxication.
Grand Theft detour: It’s downright astonishing that until Fallen Angel, the only film to even touch upon the Gram Parsons story was Grand Theft Parsons, a 2003 Johnny Knoxville (Jackass) vehicle in which Parsons appears only as a corpse and a ghost.
It’s the story of how after Parsons’ 1973 drug overdose death, his road manager, Phil Kaufman, stole his body from the Los Angeles airport, took the corpse to Joshua Tree National Park and set it on fire.
In interviews on both Fallen Angel and the Grand Theft Parsons DVD, Kaufman said he did this because of a pact that he and Parsons made after the funeral of Byrds guitarist Clarence White.
In Grand Theft, Knoxville tries to portray Kaufman as a classic antihero. The movie devolves into a near-slapstick chase flick — a morbid, hippie version of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World — with Parsons’ father and a hysterical money-grubbing girlfriend (Christina Applegate) hot on the trail of Knoxville in a psychedelic yellow hearse. Later, Parsons’ father (in real life, it was his stepfather who flew to Los Angeles to claim the body) watches in tacit approval as his son’s body burns in the desert night.
However, in real life, that didn’t happen. In Fallen Angel, Parsons’ half-sister, who was a child in 1973, still cries when she talks about the pain that Kaufman’s actions caused.
Bernie Leadon, a former Eagle who played in the Burrito Brothers with Parsons, was not impressed with what Kaufman did.
“In the first place, it wasn’t a proper cremation. It was a partial burning,” Leadon says in the documentary. “And they left him; that’s what’s so stupid. If you’re going to cremate someone, do a little research, you know, and like do it properly. But don’t go leave him in the desert by the side of the road half-burnt. That’s not cool.”
I don’t think many people would cry if someone stole Grand Theft Parsons, burned it, and left it in the desert.
A recommended music DVD:
* Rude Boy. This is a surprisingly dull 1980 British movie about a kid who quits his job at a dirty bookstore to become a roadie for a punk-rock band. That band happens to be The Clash, and that’s the saving grace here.
As far as I’m concerned, the best part of this DVD is a feature called “Just Play The Clash.”
There you get seven full Clash songs performed live in the late ’70s. And you can find a few more in the “Extras” section, including the powerful “English Civil War,” the band’s rewrite of that classic anti-war song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”
GP on SFO: I'll do a set of Parsons tunes on The Santa Fe Opry tonight. Show starts at 10 p.m., the Gram set will start at 11 p.m. That's on KSFR, 90.7 FM. (And it streams live on the Web.)
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