Monday, July 15, 2013

The Shuffle, Like In Cards

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels, Live 1973. I'm going to venture a possibly heretical theory about the brief, boozy blur of a life misspent by one Ingram Cecil Connor III, a musical wanderer and inveterate instigator who recorded a mere handful of records between legendary benders, which seem to have had as much to do with feeding an addiction to jamming and playing old records with his famous friends (Keith Richards, Roger McGuinn) as with the more familiar vices which claimed his life at the tender, Keatsian age of 26. The theory is this: that Gram Parsons' outsized influence on what would variously be called folk rock, roots rock, and years later alt country came less from the wisps of actual music he left behind--a strong record here, a great song there--than on the force of his personality, the force by which he impressed on his more well-known (and well-adjusted) comrades the restless, expansive, quirky taste that still makes his name, among a certain set of clued-in musicians, the byword for country-rock cool.

Parsons is one of those you-had-to-be-there artists, in short, since for those seeking the source of his purported genius, frankly, the pickings are relatively slim. I admire his solo albums and his work with the Flying Burrito Bros., and I've heard the stories about his late nights at the Villa Nellcote, but I could never quite hear what the fuss is about. Until, that is, I came across this modest-seeming but indispensable live record in a used record store in Ashland, Ore., decades ago. In its warm, mud-honey country sound, heavy on the midrange but with a solid kick on the bottom and a sweet topping of pedal steel and Emmylou Harris, this record conveys the gnomic, deceptively casual Parsons charisma in spades. It has an intimacy and a presence unlike any other live record I know apart from this one. You can almost hear the shy, ironic smile in Parsons' shambling stage patter, though one of the record's most startling moments is the sharp transition from his soft-spoken demurral about being a Harvard dropout into the full wail of J. Geils' "Cry One More Time."

That contrast--between hipster detachment and naked soul--is just one key to Parsons' unique magnetism. There are only two and a half GP originals here, including the haunting slow-burner above, but all the songs are suffused with a kind of wry, old-soul ache, a circumspect heartbreak that's no less shattering for being underplayed. Many young rock 'n' rollers try to sing the white man's blues, which is what country & western is at heart, and sound snotty or heavy-handed, either condescending or over-reverent. I think of Parsons' approach as sidelong, as both leaning into the music's deep roots and treading them lightly--because, after all, it's music, and it's got a dance in it even when it's down.

It's a postmodern version of authenticity, in other words, and it's one I recognize as a way into music traditions that aren't  "my own," whatever that means exactly. This simultaneous acknowlegment--that what he's doing is both an act, a bit of showbiz razzle, as well as a deeply felt personal expression--seems to me the essence of Parsons' justly influential aesthetic. And until T-Bone Burnett came along, I think this record represents the apotheosis of this new-old tradition.

Chris Coffman thank god you have brought it back!
Patrick Corcoran I lived in the house Gram Parsons and his wife lived in on Laurel Canyon that burned in July, 1973. I didn't know this until the morning in 2003 when I stepped outside to get the paper and found a BBC documentary crew filming on the porch.

The scorched paneling on the walls and ceiling finally made sense.

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