Monday, June 25, 2007
Parsons and Hillman, Part One
By the late Fifties and early Sixties I'd moved on from my rockabilly roots to become a confirmed folkie, just starting to head into an every-day-since love of the Blues. But The Beatles and Stones, and Dylan's adventurous changes leading into The Byrds, made me take another look at rock music. I began writing rock criticism for various magazines, including Rolling Stone back when it mattered. And it was as a member of the press that I came to discover young musicians Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman and their new band The Flying Burrito Brothers.
Not-too-long after their split-off from The Byrds, the Burritos played Seattle three times in a short period. I caught them live and persuaded Gram and Chris to agree to an interview; and as a result of that, Southern-genteel Gram and I hit it off (more than Chris, whom I admired much but who was more stand-offish). Parsons and I both had Georgia roots--he from birth and me from my mother's family who were South Georgia farmers; I'd spent many weeks there as a kid.
As well as hotel or backstage talking, the guys came to my house for dinner during one visit, and I edited together a long interview that appeared in Seattle's underground paper The Helix in late-Summer 1969. But in typical hippie-lackadaisical fashion, my byline was omitted from the layout, and even though the Los Angeles Free Press subsequently picked up the piece, I never was credited! I heard later that the quotes from Chris and Gram made Jim/Roger McGuinn curse and gnash his teeth and threaten reprisals, demanding that The Helix fly down to L.A. to hear his side of the story. But he calmed down and nothing further occurred.
Meanwhile the Burritos came back north to play the Seattle Pop Festival; and since I was covering that one for Rolling Stone, I hung out backstage, part of the time with Gram--which lead to the ride through the country with Jim Morrison I wrote about in an earlier blog posting. I still have a photo from that day, seen up above, with Gram looking great and me looking goofy (probably snapped after that wild ride); this was posted somewhere years ago and wound up used in a Parsons bio written by some Australian journalist.
The last time I got to visit with Gram was at the ugly and depressing Altamont Festival--which I will write about at some future date. But today I'm launching a multi-part project, to put down in electronic print for the first time the unedited Hillman-Parsons interview, whole chunks at a time, and maybe complete eventually if there's enough interest. First, the lead-in I wrote for The Helix:
The Flying Burrito Brothers, in their own bittersweet honkytonk way, have become the subject of much foolish controversy. Hailed by numorous critics, fans, and even straight c&w artists as a breath of fresh country air in the cloying citified, low-down-and-blue world of rock, the Burritos have also been scoffed at and berated by other purist listeners as being slick and phoney rock musicians jumping on the country bandwagon. These decriers all manage to make the somewhat irrelevant point that Buck Owens is just so much "truer-to-life." (It would be enlightening to hear from Owens himself on the subject of the Burritos.)
The fact is, the so-called "citybilly" Burritos have deep-down rural roots. Chris Ethridge (bassist with the group at the time of the interview, since departed) hails from Meridian, Mississippi, and has been scrabbling for several years in the South and in the recording studios of Los Angeles. Sneaky Pete Kleinow (yes, Virginia, he does have a surname), a true genius on pedal steel guitar, has been playing that demanding instrument for more than a decade. Chris Hillman was strictly country/bluegrass until he hooked up with The Byrds back in the mid-Sixties. Gram Parsons escaped from Waycross, Georgia, and is still shaking the dust from his heels; and he has many fervent admirers among the c&w folk. Mike Clarke, another ex-Byrd, hails from the Spokane area and Texas.
That the Burritos' country music has some of the frills and fills of rock most often seems to offend only the people who demand categories and pigeonholes. The Burritos' A&M album exhibits some mixing problems, it is true; but the infectious country spirit and hick hijinx of their music, on record and especially in live performance, more than compensate for any first-album flubs.
When the Burritos are on, they're right on--as anyone who saw them at the Seattle Pop Festival or the Trolley Tavern or Sky River Festival can attest. Everyone on stage and off has a high old time as the Burritos' special magic turns a big, crowded open field into (alternately) a backwoods hoedown and a honkytonk bar...
But that's enough ancient set-up. Today Chris Hillman is still touring and recording beautiful bluegrass-based CDs; and though Parsons died too young, the usual drugs/health stuff, he's now viewed as the "father" of country rock and a major influence on alt.country and Americana performers. What the two had to say nearly 40 years ago may still be of interest; Ethridge was present part of the time but mostly silent, and Kleinow wandered in and out.
Here now, without my previous editing and rearranging...
GP: Johnny Cash? Why don't they talk about us? Bob Dylan? Why don't they talk about us? Waylon Jennings? Why don't they talk about him? I'm just saying it's about time people wised up. We're together with Waylon in a big way. Take Dylan and Cash, McGuinn and electricity, the Burritos and Waylon--same combinations.
Well, is he your main man as far as country music is concerned?
GP: No, not at all, just a good friend. There are very few country artists alive today that are top shitkickers that are willing to come down to the Whiskey and make friends with people like us. Moody, Tompal Glazer, and Waylon were the only real country artists at our last gig at the Whiskey. Roger Miller has been at some things that we've done, some other people--but I'll take Waylon. The Burritos' favorite artists would include George Jones, the Louvin Brothers (one of whom is dead), the Everlys. Yeah, I've played on Everly records, but I don't know if they're aware of us.
Somebody got a quote from one of them on your International Submarine Band album.
GP: Oh yeah, I played that album for Don. But he's a little bit out of touch. They ain't the old Everly Brothers, if you know what I mean. Not like those old Boudleaux Bryant... that stuff, man... They could still get that heavy, you know, but I guess they've got a brother thing goin', one of those brother problems.
You're from Waycross, Georgia, right? I guess you read that thing in Rolling Stone talking about Waycross. It was in a review of y'all's record.
GP: Yeah, yeah, that was really nice. And whoever said that was right about Waycross, although I felt sort of bad that it was so much about me. Chris is one of those hicks too--he's from Rancho Santa Fe.
Wow, where's that?
CH: It's down about a hundred-twenty miles from Los Angeles. It's inland; it's just a real small town.
GP: And knowin' him, it's just got to be weird. And Chris Ethridge is from Meridian, Mississippi, which is most certainly weird.
Yeah, I was telling him that I lived in Montgomery for a year back in the Fifties, and my mother's from Georgia... ((nervous interviewer forgets name of town of 300, which actually was Mystic!)) What the hell's the name of the place...
GP: If you say Macon, I'll die.
Well, I've got relatives in Macon.
GP: That makes eight people this week who've told me they have relatives in Macon, Georgia. There are more hippies from Macon... Waycross, Georgia is in the wiregrass country and the Okefenokee swamp--and that, I will admit, is one of the strangest areas of the world. Strange for many reasons, a lot of them he ((RS writer)) didn't cover because he'd never lived there. It was a very comprehensive article except for the damn quotes from the songs, which were just all wrong: "Ventura may be just my kind of town." Really. "I'm your top, I'm your old boy." Jesus Christ, you cats. (We said "Jesus Christ" before John Lennon!) The right words are "Vancouver may be just my kind of town"; "I'm your toy, I'm your old boy."
How about "This whole town's filled with sin..."?
GP: "It'll swallow you in."
CH: That's L.A., boy.
Did y'all write that in honor of the coming earthquake?
CH: We wrote it when we were very dragged one morning. It was just before Christmas and it was about to rain; and we were living in the San Fernando Valley in a tract type home.
GP: We were looking forward to the earthquake!
CH: A bunch of redneck creeps all over the place. Fuck. Town's full of sin, you know.
GP: It really is, and it'll swallow you in--the sooner the better. ((laughs)) We drive down Lancashire Boulevard all the time just to take a look at it. The people who don't look at what's goin' on are in trouble, the ones who think the Sunset Strip is what makes you hip. The Sunset Strip is about ready to...
CH: Blow up.
GP: That's the "earthquake" ((song)) line.
CH: It's lousy. We all hate it. But there's one side of L.A. that's rather funky--North Hollywood and the valley. There's all kinds of clubs in the Valley that have all these good bands--clubs that we haven't even been to. And we check them all out.
Is this the area where Delaney and Bonnie got together?
CH: Yeah, and there's the kid ((pointing at Gram)) who found them. He was the first guy to find them.
GP: Me! Chris E. worked with them three years ago; I was working with them--we were together, and they were workin' at the Prelude and Snoopy's. And now we're out at the Palomino, a place where no one can play. I just dare 'em to try playin' at the Palomino. ((laughs)) The Palomino is the toughest...
Chris Ethridge: Delaney worked there.
GP: But he worked there five years ago, before he had long hair.
CH: It's a country-western club, the top club in L.A.
GP: Tough mothers. Truckers galore. It's like a truckdrivers' Whiskey; it's got red velvet and everything. It's the biggest, money-makin'est club in the Valley. But we fill it up every Monday night, or whenever we play there now, with a bunch of long-haired, long and lanky people. And girls... at first they wouldn't let the GTO's dance with each other there. Now they will. Leon Russell comes in, Leon and Rita--Rita sat in with us there, Rita Coolidge, Leon's wife. She sang back-up on Delaney and Bonnie, as they call themselves; I've always called them Bonnie and Delaney. I have a big plaque they gave me that says "in appreciation" to me and to the Burritos for all the nice things we've done for them. And it's signed "Bonnie and Delaney."
They're playing up here in about a week with Blind Faith.
GP: That cat who plays bass with Blind Faith, Rick ((Gretch, originally in the group Family)), I lived for a while with him in England. He's really a nice cat. Rick and I honkytonked it throughout London; he was the only cat I could find who liked honkytonkin'. I first met Rick in Rome, met him on a bus--he had a bottle of Scotch in one hand and a bunch of pills in the other. ((to Hillman)) You remember that, when we met Family on that bus?
((Arrival of Kleinow prompts a question.)) "Sneaky Pete..." Do you spell that with an "a" or an "e"? I've seen it both ways.
SP: Everybody spells it different. I don't care.
GP: I can't even figure out if in Kleinow the "e" comes before the "i"...
SP: Sometimes. Well, excuse me, please. ((He leaves again.))
That was quick.
CH: Yeah, he snuck off.
GP: I told you we were the most misunderstood band in show business. ((And then he cryptically writes "MOURNING BECOMES ELEKTRA" on the tapedeck mic.))
((more to come on other posts soon.))