Twenty Thousand Roads: The ballad of Gram Parsons, By David N Meyer
This iconic 1960s bad boy needs rescuingfrom possessive, necrophiliac fans
Sunday 03 August 2008
Although Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison were far more famous when they died, Gram Parsons is, perhaps, the ultimate 1960s music martyr. He was unappreciated during his life, but since his overdose in a grimy motel in the middle of the Californian desert in 1973, his reputation has mushroomed. He has become a chief influence on generations of country and rock artists with his vision of a Cosmic American Music, a synthesis of country, rock, soul and R&B.
David N Meyer effectively traces Gram's progress as the counter-culture Zelig: always present as things are going off, yet always on the edge. He hits New York and Greenwich Village during the early 1960s folk boom, flits to LA just as New York is getting boring, dates Steve McQueen's ex-girlfriend, joins The Byrds and introduces them to country, and hits London at its Swinging Sixties height, where he teaches Keith Richards the roots of country and is present as the Stones record Exile on Main Street. Meyer describes the album, not inaccurately, as their own take on Cosmic American Music.
Meyer is clearly on a mission to establish this book as the definitive account of Gram Parsons' 26 years. In the first 200 pages his method is simply to bludgeon the reader into submission with the sheer weight of his research and detail, undermining the thrust of the narrative in the process. No one is too trivial or too anodyne to be included. Meyer gallops across the fine line between exhaustive and exhausting: poor old Gram doesn't get to record his first solo demo tape until page 136. (Meyer diligently records that the instrument used is a Gibson B-25 flattop six-string guitar.)
Meyer misinterprets minute detail as a passageway into the soul of his subject. Gram – or his name at least – is on every page of this book, but his essence is frequently all but absent. It's not surprising, as a notion of a single Gram Parsons has always been difficult to nail. Partly this is down to Gram being an inveterate liar (at 16 he told his mother he'd written the Frank Sinatra standard "It Was a Very Good Year"), and partly it's the factions warring for Gram's soul, which Meyer memorably describes as a mix of Bitter Lieutenants (ex-bandmates and contemporaries) and "possessive necrophiliacs... Grampires". Meyer's modus operandi is to give all these people the opportunity to tell their story. While this succeeds in painting a multifaceted portrait of Gram, it's also one that emphasises his self-centred fickleness, at the price of his humanity.
Meyer does, however, grant Gram a single positive emotional trait. It is, perhaps, Parsons' strangest contradiction. Beyond the rich kid who loved poor people's music and the wimp who played the roughest hippie-hating country dives, even as he neglected friends, bandmates and lovers, Parsons stayed true to his music vision. Why the uncharacteristic fidelity in someone whose very name was a byword for flightiness and unreliability? Frustatingly, Meyer never really explores this paradox; the closest he comes is the implicit influence of the tragedy of his family and its echoes in the story songs of country music. Although, arguably, Gram's story is too much even for the most outrageously melodramatic country music song: his father committed suicide before Gram's 12th Christmas, and his mother died of drink on the day of his high school graduation, her last drink supplied by his stepfather.
People are baffled by the fact that Parsons, with his voice of peerless yearning, didn't achieve fame during his lifetime, but Meyer non-judgementally spells it out again and again: he couldn't be bothered. Talent, like money, looks, girls and drugs came all too easily; he was rarely motivated to work on rehearsals or recordings. So, inevitably, he had to suffer the indignity of seeing others dilute his vision and forge success. Perhaps the most galling example of this for him (and certainly for Meyer) was the easy drivetime country rock of The Eagles, who became the biggest-selling act of the 1970s.
Meyer's book, true to the spirit of Parsons, is frequently repetitive and frustrating, and lacks focus in its desire to bust myths and make overwrought claims for Parsons' genius. Nonetheless there is much here that is surprising and new and so it is, to date, probably the closest thing we have to a definitive biography.
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