Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Any rock music fan who was around for the Sixties and Seventies and Eighties probably has a favorite Bob Dylan song. I heard "Song to Woody" on a Chicago radio show in early 1962, and was hooked on Bob forever, through thick, thin, and the impossibly arcane or silly. His debut album was its own challenge, with the artist presenting himself (like the songs he chose) as an odd mix of aspiring white bloozer, Guthrie folk-protest novice, Chaplinesque hobo/poet/clown, bashful teenager, and rockabilly punk. He also soon used the pseudonym "Blind Boy Grunt" on some other early recordings, partly as a hip joke, but with a nod to all the blues predecessors too.
As Dylan's career gathered steam, many of his best songs weren't officially issued by Columbia Records but only showed up on the amazing series of Bob bootlegs (expansive but not expensive, and not seen as a threat to record companies back in those halcyon days), starting with the two-LP set usually identified as Great White Wonder. Favorite titles discovered on the boots immediately included "Lay Down Your Weary Tune," "I'll Keep It with Mine," "Percy's Song," "Tears of Rage," "I Shall Be Released," "Walls of Red Wing"... Brilliant gems, each one, and there were many more, Dylan was so prolific during those years; he'd just write 'em and demo 'em for others to consider, and then move on to the next tune.
Now, in the 21st century, his abundant songwriting continues unabated behind the scenes, and once in a while an unissued, unknown number surfaces still, but by popular acclaim and bemused wonder the supreme masterpiece among all of his once-unheard works (at least until some other newly discovered song displaces it) was recorded back during the Spring 1983 sessions for the Infidels album, but then blithely omitted. A perfect marriage of blues and rock and surreal singer-songwriter story, "Blind Willie McTell" is Dylan's terrific, somewhat indirect tribute to Georgia's great blind bluesman, a singer of agile voice and mellifluous fingers (and vice versa), known for "Broke Down Engine," "Statesboro Blues," "Mama, Tain't Long Fo' Day," "Travelin' Blues," "Southern Can Is Mine," "Searching the Desert for the Blues," "Razor Ball," and a hundred other classic 78s.
The song was only a rumor to most Dylan fans until the release of 1991's three-CD longbox, longwindedly titled Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991. That superb series is now up to Vol. 8, with many more to come (one hopes), and there are splendors and surprises on each volume, but Bob's heartfelt homage to McTell--which also subsumes a condemnation of race relations in America and a crafty disclaimer of his own meagre performance skills--remains unique and unchallenged.
Even the instrumental parts are more polished than is usual on a Dylan album. The musicians for the sessions included co-producer and guitarist Mark Knopfler, ex-Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor too, crack Jamaican rhythm kings Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, and Dylan himself occasionally playing his patented, precisely measured, semi-whorehouse piano. The six-minute "Blind Willie McTell" take issued in 1991 features that piano lead throughout, with a steady rocking rhythm, and subtle finger-picking by Knopfler, plus Bob sounding plaintive and impassioned, openly staking his own claim to vocal blues mastery.
But at least one other version of the song exists, circulating on an unofficial bootleg of Infidels outtakes; it plays less than five minutes, with Bob singing more quickly, sounding less confident, or his character possibly more beaten down by circumstance... till he pulls out his harmonica for a fine brief solo that becomes a duet with the guitar, Knopfler this time up in the mix playing sharp-edged slide-guitar licks throughout. The whomp of the drums, the sting of the slide, and Bob's crying harp make for a more driven reading perhaps--call it a rhythm 'n' blues performance--but his vocal is less assured and less mournfully soulful.
Whichever one prefers, both takes are winners (one merely perfect, the other imperfect but compelling), and both deliver Dylan's dark message of injustices, the apocalyptic lyrics almost a return to his social consciousness songs of the early Sixties. Here's a sampling of the lines:
See the arrow on the doorpost,
Sayin' "This land is condemned,
All the way from New Orleans
I've traveled through EastTexas,
Where many martyrs fell,
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell...
See them big plantations burnin',
Hear the crackin' of the whips,
Smell that sweet magnolia bloomin',
See the ghost of slavery's ships...
Well, God is in His heaven,
And we all want what's His,
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is.
I'm gazin' out the window
Of that old St. James Hotel,
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell...
Well, for a restless Jewish kid from Northern Minnesota, Dylan fakes it pretty good, in a career that's lasted almost 50 years now, with hundreds of remarkable songs written--then sung, sealed, and something... always delivered.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Jazz pianists often are asked which other piano players are their favorites or the most influential among their forebears, and I'd wager that the most commonly named elders are Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Count Basie, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, and Thelonious Monk, with Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Horace Silver, and Jelly Roll Morton in a second tier, and modern names Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones, even Dave Brubeck and Ahmad Jamal all out of the running.
Acknowledging such influences, it's common for younger players to add a tune or three, written by or associated with one of their idols, to some album project or club set list. I believe that the piano master who has been honored most regularly by entire albums interpreting his compositions--dozens of releases for over 50 years--is Thelonious the Onliest, Monk among ordinary men. Most of his peers mentioned above were masters of interpretation rather than composers (Waller, Tatum, Wilson), and those that did write original tunes were either not very prolific (Powell and Evans, for example) or their compositions were sui generis and not commonly taken up (Brubeck, Jarrett, not to mention largely ignored figures like Tadd Dameron, Randy Weston, and Herbie Nichols). Ellington remains hugely popular, and will be forever and a day, of course, and his tunes played both routinely and rousingly, but they weren't often works for solo piano--mostly not even for small groups--and his own altered stride style has not been all that influential.
I realize I'm making sweeping generalizations here that can certainly be argued (where does Morton fit? how many Ellington tributes?), but I still think that over the last half century Monk has outlasted and out-"performed" the competition. Why? Relatively straightforward numbers like "'Round (about) Midnight" and "Monk's Mood" have entered the playbooks of most Jazz pianists and many small groups, in contrast to his obscurities like "Shuffle Boil" or "Green Chimneys." But even the obscure tunes have their day on some Monk tribute or another (one fan has compiled a list of 60 such albums). And the irregularity, angularity, repetition, broken tempos, scattered notes, strange chords, surprising melodies--whatever one hears or singles out among Monk's keyboard habits--seem magnetically to attract other pianists' fingers. "Shall I prove I can mock Monk effectively, or shall I offer a new interpretation?" That's the choice facing every pianist (or guitarist, or saxman, or vocalist) contemplating one of his compositions, and all options are to be heard somewhere.
I thought it might be interesting to examine, briefly, a few of the better tributes issued over the years. Steve Lacy by himself or with others, for example, has released a half-dozen albums heavy on the Monk, and pianist Jessica Williams at least two CDs. As early as 1957, Riverside put out an anthology record singling out strong versions of favored Thelonious tunes, and in the five decades since there've been memorable releases by artists as diverse as Anthony Braxton and Andy Summers, Mal Waldron and Bill Evans (three tracks on Conversations with Myself, Bill needing to duplicate himself to master Monk?), the Kronos and Sphere foursomes, even standard-bearers Charlie Rouse and Monk's drummer son T.S. I've picked four releases to examine, a mix of the familiar and the possibly less-known.
Blind pianist Marcus Roberts offered an excellent triple tribute with his Novus/RCA CD titled Alone with Three Giants--issued in 1991--the three being composers Morton, Ellington, and Monk, with three tracks by Jelly Roll and six each from the stride-derived, duelling duo. Only a track or two by Morton or the Duke were piano-centered in their original versions, but Monk moodily trinkle-tinkled while Bud walked in, Pannonica sat down, and a misterioso crepuscule descended...
Do the precise titles matter? Everything Thelonious wrote sounds like no other composer was involved; and Roberts does jaunty justice to each tune's eccentricities while also playing more of the piano and less of the bounce than Monk would, more connecting notes and fewer dis-chords. Marcus's keyboard choices are convincing in context--the resulting interpretations lush and lovely--and the carefully chosen order for all three masters' tunes makes for a grand tour of Jazz, but I do still yearn for more of Monk's patented "ugly beauty."
The ghost of Thelonious hovers, maybe literally, over a surprise classic set by Walter Davis, Jr. Monk was his actual mentor and in the mid-Eighties, Davis decided it was time to say thanks. In Walked Thelonious (on Mapleshade) is a stunner, seemingly channeling Monk through 15 tracks kept mostly under three minutes--wham, bam, thank you, Thelonious! Walter apparently believed that he was visited by Monk's spirit during private rehearsals and even in the studio during recording. The photo of Davis placed on the back of the CD booklet looks haunted enough to support such claims--and the music in the grooves shimmers too, with all the right rhythm 'n' blue notes.
From the opening vents of "Green Chimneys" to the slowed second take of "'Round Midnight," Davis is slamming and hammering, drifting and droning, twinkling and tickling, praising and pausing, balking and walking right next to some form of Monk--simultaneously sounding like his mentor and himself. How the two of them make a tuned Steinway chime like a prepared-by-Cage rickitick upright remains a mystery. (Or maybe I should say: as misterioso as some off-minor eremite.) Whatever the case or cause, Davis's tribute is a delight, just one small step removed from the master.
It's no giant leap to the next album, though it is quite out of this world--Carmen Sings Monk on Bluebird/Novus (remastered and expanded to 18 tracks in 2001). McRae and Monk were friends for decades, and she too decided in the late Eighties to tackle a selection of his tunes; that she was also thinking of retiring from performing is definitely not apparent on the career-masterpiece album she cut with the aid of musicians Clifford Jordan, Charlie Rouse, George Mraz, Al Foster, et al, and new lyrics written (and new titles somehow mandated by the copyrights) by Jon Hendricks, Abbey Lincoln, Sally Swisher, and Mike Ferro.
The vocalist's jagged, piercing way with a lyric, sometimes offputting when she sang standards, here became a perfect foil for clever words and angular music--and her way of singing behind the beat a suitable reflection of Monk's skewed attack. Studio or live, scatting or musing, Carmen found the door to open each song. From the very first notes of Mraz's bass plus Carmen's appreciative laugh (opening track "Get It Straight"--i.e., "Straight, No Chaser"), through Rouse's tart sax solo, and back to Carmen for the hip closing, you know that "now is the time" indeed for this Monk-McRae match made in heaven, and down here in Wordland too.
And so it goes through poignant ballads ("Dear Ruby" and "Little Butterfly"/"Pannonica") and happy-feet steppers ("It's Over Now"/"Well, You Needn't" and "Listen to Monk"/"Rhythm-a-Ning"), every track a brave new look at a classic tune, with McRae and Mraz and the saxes providing the bulk of Monkisms (rather than the piano). But I'll mention just two other standouts, both graced with skilled lyric updates by Jon Hendricks. "How I Wish" lets Jordan burn at a low flame and Carmen yearn and yearn more as she tells the story and edges towards the final "How I wish you'd ask me now." And her near seven-minute performance of "'Round Midnight" is purest vocal artistry, with the singer quietly baring her heart as she also bears almost every second of the song (piano only comping beneath)--"There's a brand new day in sight... Let my dreams take flight, 'round 'bout midnight."
So: three albums, each faithful to Thelonious in its own way. Well, the fourth takes off the gloves, grabs hold of Monk's melodies, pokes and prods and stretches them into new skewed shapes. I'm talking about the Bill Holman Band's fiery attack titled Brilliant Corners: The Music of Thelonious Monk (from 1997, on XRCD/JVC). Every track save one on this bright disc rides out beyond five-and-a-half minutes, twisting and turning and finally sliding into some unexpected place.
Where Hall Overton long ago basically just orchestrated Monk's solos (for the Town Hall Concert), Holman launches rockets into the spaces left between notes. Abetted by ever-brash bandsters Bill Perkins, Pete Christlieb, Ron Stout, Lanny Morgan, Andy Martin, Dave Carpenter, and others, Holman shapes new things, mutant Monkachos that churn and scream and make you laugh out loud. You'll recognize every tune at some point but you can also get cheerfully lost in the mad mix of Gil Evans, Kurt Weill, West Coast jive, Fifties Stan Kenton, and Bill Hol(y-Moly-Bat)man himself.
Some tunes stroll straighter than others ("Bemsha Swing" and "Rhythm-a-Ning"), and the ballads are quite beautiful in Holman's arrangements ("Ruby My Dear" and "'Round Midnight"), but other tracks just roll merrily off... the beaten path if not the Holman charts ("Misterioso" and "Friday the 13th"). Then there's that title track, notoriously impossible to play, with Monk's original recording a studio cut-and-paste assemblage. Bill and his boys simply shift at the corners and blow... brilliantly... all the way to Free Jazz.
Still, a grand good time was clearly had by all--as by you too, Mr. Listener, should you choose to accept this mission, imperturbable as Thelonious, shuffle-dancing off. What you may need now, however, after all these fine-but-faux Theloniousnesses, is a pure dose of the originator. In such instances I can wholeheartedly prescribe any of the albums pitting Coltrane against Monk, or the Brilliant Corners remaster, or the purity and joy of Thelonious Alone in San Francisco.
Of course, you are likely to find Monk wholly addictive, in which case there's only one solution. Forget the Columbia albums, as cheery as they are. Save for some future rainy day the historically important Blue Note originals. What any true fan of Modern Jazz needs most is Thelonious Monk: The Complete Riverside Recordings--22 LPs in the original box set, and cheap at any price.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Our story begins in 1964 as a young man we might call "Yardbird" roams the streets of London with a likeminded chum, the two lads searching for any Jazz record shops that have a specialty Blues section. Our hero plays electric guitar in a brash and raucous rock 'n' roll band, a popular group making some waves on the British club scene, but his real love is the Blues, and he dislikes the louder and poppier direction taken by his fellow 'Birds. So when the honored leader of a band called the Bluesbreakers approaches him with an offer to join as lead guitarist, he casually steps aboard.
That leader was John Mayall and the guitarist, of course, Eric Clapton. Mayall quickly persuaded Eric to listen to Freddie King and others, gave him free run of the massive Mayall record collection, and soon happily saw Clapton switch from a Fender Telecaster to a Gibson Les Paul played through a Marshall amp--which gave the guitarist a unique-in-U.K., blurred and "dirty" sound immediately memorialized on the album they cut together, titled something like Blues Breakers: John Mayall with Eric Clapton, but often called the "Beano" album for short due to the British comic book Clapton is shown reading in the cover photo.
In the nearly 45 years since that fortuitous merger of talents, Clapton has morphed from hotshot rocker ("Clapton is God") to incipient Bluesman (his apprenticeship with Mayall), from brazen soloist driving supergroup Cream to regressive support player for Delaney and Bonnie, from electric Blues powerhouse as Derek and the Dominos to reggaefied pop hero ("I Shot the Sheriff"), from worldwide star in love with his best friend's wife (George and Patti Harrison) to grieving father ("Tears in Heaven"), and finally to beloved elder statesman of every sort of Blues and Rock music, able to take the stage and more than hold his own with Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Cray, Carlos Santana, Duane Allman, all four Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck, and scores more, all the way from backing Sonny Boy Williamson to duelling with Doyle Bramhall II, Clapton's favorite guitarslinger foil these days.
And every step of the way, Clapton has pursued the fleeting ghost of Delta great Robert Johnson, performing one or two or several Johnson songs regularly whether on stage or on record. It began when Mayall talked him into doing "Ramblin' on My Mind" back on that splendid 1966 Blues Breakers album; and has continued through the years since. Cream's signature tune was a balls-to-the-wall version of "Crossroads"; and Eric dropped further hints of his fascination here and there on various solo releases (playing "Come On In My Kitchen, "Malted Milk," "Walkin' Blues," "From Four Till Late," and other Johnson songs). Then finally in this new century he took the bull by the horns and released a whole album, Me and Mr. Johnson, offering 14 of the songs written or at least codified on 78 by Robert...
But our story doesn't end there. The Johnson CD was largely an unplanned accident, the booked musicians trying to fill unused studio time. As many critics and Blues fans immediately declared, although a popular sales success, the album was too tame and shallow, just not gritty enough--sorely in need of some of that lone-guitar firepower and old 78s crackle-and-hiss authenticity that fills the deep grooves of every one of the 40-some known takes of Johnson's 29 recorded songs. Slick production and studio gadgetry needed to recede, and the muscular musicians to step forward, especially Clapton himself.
So Eric went back into the studio--two of them actually--and then to a pair of unexpected other settings, ostensibly as rehearsals for the Mr. Johnson tour, but fortunately leading to a terrific DVD and accompanying CD called Sessions for Robert J. And this time--to my ears and eyes anyway--he got things well nigh perfect. Each of the four taped sessions in fact has its own distinct flavor and choice of musicians or style. The initial gathering in England fielded a full electric band in support of Eric's amazing vocals and stinging lead guitar, including keyboards by Chris Stainton and Billy Preston (both of them especially fine on the fills), snarling second guitar from Bramhall, electric bass by Nathan East, and power drumming by Jazz session ace Steve Gadd. The versions of "Kind Hearted Woman Blues" and "Sweet Home Chicago" recorded thus are a smashing vindication of Clapton's near five decades dedicated to the electric blues. He and Bramhall fit together like hand in glove, but it's a combat-hardened fist in a heavy-bag boxing glove!
Clapton and the guys then shifted to the States, stopping at a small studio in Irving, Texas, where the solid six recorded several songs as a largely acoustic group, with East on guitar-bass and the duelling leads snapping strings and sliding the Delta (Bramhall on a dobro or National steel). "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day" (think "Rollin' and Tumblin'"), "Milkcow's Calf Blues," and "Stop Breakin' Down Blues" are premier examples of the new, learned-over-decades Blues power in Clapton's vocals. He can cry or elide, sound strangled or mushmouthed, hit a nice falsetto, and just generally get closer to the original Johnson spirit (without trying to sound Black), moans, whoops and all, than the majority of white players essaying boringly ordinary Chicago Blues, well-played but poorly sung, all the 12-bar, shuffle-beat cliches intact... while most Black listeners no longer pay heed and certainly none of their hard-earned money.
At any rate, Clapton and crew nailed the sound that Robert Johnson himself probably wanted and may have enjoyed occasionally when playing live (not on his records), that of several acoustic players pulling together, briefly fitting "tight like that."
Yet even more powerfully representative are the songs from session three--Clapton and Doyle Bramhall only, on five brilliant guitar/dobro duets (great stinging versions of "Terraplane Blues" and "Me and the Devil Blues," plus tender-as-a-thorn takes on "From Four Until Late" and "Love in Vain") recorded as afternoon winds down into evening in the very Dallas building, now largely abandoned, where Johnson recorded his last sessions. Robert's were solo performances, of course, but he routinely played duets with his pals and travelling companions like Johnny Shines. (The never-filmed script I wrote on Johnson's life decades ago made a point of portraying Robert and Johnny performing together, in clubs and on the street both; many witnesses to Johnson's career spoke later of his willingness to "jam" with others--though he was also chary of showing anyone his secret guitar-fingering tricks.)
Ultimately, though his recordings sound so rich and complex that many musicians on first hearing (among them Keith Richards and Clapton himself) were convinced there was another guitarist adding backup, the fact is that Robert recorded alone only. Clapton explains, in one of several interview moments included on the DVD, maybe giving himself an alibi in advance, that Johnson's astonishing solo guitar work--performed, remember, while he was singing too, often in a competing rhythm--requires skills beyond the abilities of nearly every Blues player. (Sold his soul to the devil, anyone?)
Then, sitting in a Southern California hotel room for session four, Clapton proceeds to play and sing scene-stealing solo versions of "Stones in My Passway," "Love in Vain," and (my favorite) "Ramblin' on My Mind." Eric admits it took days of hard preparation, but comparing his tentative Blues Breakers approach of 40-some years ago to the recent "Ramblin'," with his surety of voice and vision and that impossible-yet-perfect fingering, is tantamount to matching apples and oranges--or dwarf seedlings with giant Sequoias maybe!
So in the course of the DVD's 97 minutes, mesmerized viewers get to experience the mature Eric Clapton, Bluesman, at his best. His personal statement included in the definitive Johnson box set of 20 years ago remains pertinent today:
"Robert Johnson is to me the most important blues musician who ever lived. He was true, absolutely, to his own vision, and as deep as I have gotten into the music over the last 30 years, I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human race, really. I know when I first heard it, it called to me in my confusion; it seemed to echo something I had always felt."
Hellhound on the trail or dedicated lifelong acolyte, Clapton finally caught up with Robert and laid his ghost to rest.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Courtesy of the 18,000 listeners who voted, the BBC recently announced poll results showing T.S. Eliot, quirky Missourian turned quintessential Englishman, as the most popular poet in Britain--"a serious, philosophical poet full of classical elusions" was the serendipitous, e-literate description issued in a press statement.
Eliot beat out John Donne, Wilfred Owen, a Rastararian named Bernard Zephaniah, even Keats and Yeats. Masters as varied as Milton, Wordsworth, and Robbie Burns finished out of the running, and 20th Century greats W.H. Auden and Philip Larkin, Dylan Thomas and Seamus Heaney, even the troubled duo of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath (the other American transplant), were simply left standing at the gate. Seems that BBC listeners, like Eliot's familiar bowler, prefer to be old hat!
Meanwhile a separate news note elsewhere reminded me that the second Dylan (born Zimmerman actually) had an Eliot connection: Bob's "Desolation Row" (and possibly bits of "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands") reads like a folk-rock version of Eliot's masterpiece "The Waste Land," and Dylan's lyrics actually namecheck Eliot and Ezra Pound ("Il miglior fabbro," as T.S. wrote in his thanks to Pound for editing) while moving through a somewhat French-surreal landscape in general.
Bob even had his own religious conversion period sort of mirroring Eliot's embrace of the episcopal High Church of England, but songs like "Gotta Serve Somebody" and "Man Gave Names to All the Animals" are a poor match for Eliot's haunting religious poems ("Journey of the Magi," Ash Wednesday, and portions of Four Quartets). Luckily Dylan recovered his senses and his own variable Muse in time (particularly from his Oh Mercy album on), while Eliot just waffled on into old age, his anti-Semitism, mistreatment of women, and learned snobbery all sadly intact.
As a pop culture kid my allegiance definitely rested with Dylan, but decades ago when I was also a practicing poet--I never got past the "just practicing" stage--a quasi-vanity press solicited my participation in a poets' tribute to Eliot, an anthology of celebratory pieces to be published in 1988 "On the Centennial of His Birth." (Those capital letters suggest the near-religious veneration involved.)
Well, I was a confirmed "Modernist" myself donkey's years back (in grad school), so I had no trouble generating some silly verses bearing that title, which the compilers were willing to include in their book--and I am about to revive the wee beastie here.
(Think of this thankfully brief episode as a placeholder while I ponder what might be important enough to write about next.)
Not molasses, but treacle:
that's your path through earth.
You sheath your paws and glide
beneath tumulus. You burrow older,
old barrow-hoarder, digging up the past.
No gopher, you direct silence,
pictures moving underground,
scene by scene connecting our inner worlds.
Feeding on your nerves, you snout it new,
a timid observer no longer:
fabricator now, busy shoveling humus,
turning compost, rearranging
grubs and dull roots,
drab fragments of existence.
With radiant star and umbrella of loam
you suit yourself complete.
Near-blind dreamer, unseer,
I think of you as the spirit
that underlies: caved-in: tunneling
in your root-room: hoping
to rise to light again in time
to mark the sun going down the world,
its usual easy commerce coming on darkness--
all that you long imagined
now achieved: rendered hole.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
I knew country-rock legend Gram Parsons slightly... interviewed him and fellow Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman at great length (that five-part interview starts here), had him over to dinner, hung out with him at a couple of major rock festivals, and watched him get druggier as the months passed. He was a nice guy--a Southern boy charmer, really--but a main chancer too. (Hillman scorches that side of Gram to this day.)
Yet the Parsons hagiographic cult rolls on--tribute festivals in several locales every year, petitions to induct him into the Country Music Hall of Fame, even an effort to get his face put on a stamp, plus more and more books about him, including one co-written by his troubled grown daughter. Gram's cracked singing voice and his "Cosmic American Music" (he disliked the "country-rock" pigeonhole and wanted soul to be included) are solidly fixed in the firmament.
As someone once said, It's a funny old world.
I've been thinking about Gram again for a couple of reasons. A short piece I wrote some years ago about him and Jim Morrison at the Seattle Pop Festival has just been reprinted in Shake, a music magazine out of Nashville. And the rafting trip my wife and I recently took down the Grand Canyon inadvertently resurrected the whole bizarre "Joshua tree" tale associated with Parsons.
Seems that the early Mormon pioneers of Utah and the barren strip of Arizona north of the Canyon were the first white people to think much about the tall, multi-branched yucca plant that they soon named after the biblical Joshua, his arms outstretched in prayer. That naming story was emphasized by the bus driver who hauled us rafters back from Lake Mead, as we rode through a Joshua tree "forest" lining the two-lane highway heading for Hoover Dam. And (per that driver) did we know that the trees grow at only certain altitudes, at the approximate rate of a foot every hundred years? And if one gets uprooted, it has to be replanted exactly as originally oriented; otherwise, it dies...
Registering all this, it became impossible not to think of that other Joshua tree forest (actually a national park) some ways out of Palm Springs, California... where various L.A. rockers like to hang out and get high and search the skies for UFOs, and where in 1973 ol' still-not-straight Gram somehow got to partying too hard (alcohol, morphine and more) and wound up dead in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn. So far, so bad.
But of course the rest of that tale is the real kicker: his friend and road manager Phil Kaufman and another cohort proceeded to steal Gram's corpse from the L.A. airport, where it was about to be shipped to Louisiana for burial. Driving a beat-up hearse, the two guys hauled the casketed remains back to a favorite huge rock at Joshua Tree monument for a Viking-style funeral pyre. The daring duo poured gasoline, struck a match... and then the police came speeding to the scene. Kaufman's inflammatory action earned him a ludicrously small fine, but a wild man rep and "Road Mangler" title (that's how his business card read), employed thus for years after by the young Emmylou Harris, back then just emerging as Gram's sweet-voiced, country-duets discovery.
As the tale of Parson's death and quasi-resurrection entered rock 'n' roll lore, Joshua Tree (the Mojave Desert locale and Inn) became a kind of pilgrims' shrine--most recently complete with an annual Gram festival, plus young alt.country and country-rock fans making the trek repeatedly in the same way that folks still travel to visit Jim Morrison's headstone in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
So when the then little-known Irish band U2 released its great "American" album in 1987, it was pretty much impossible to believe that The Joshua Tree had nothing to do with Parsons, even though the band never openly acknowledged any relationship. Certainly the boys had their own rockin'-for-Christ axes to sharpen, but who wouldn't assume some sort of Gram-"tribute" connection, given the specifically American-sounding tracks of country/blues/gospel rock 'n' roll (the U2 version of Cosmic Soul) driven by Bono's stream-of-consciousness meanderings and the steely, surging guitars of The Edge?
With Gram Parsons' unacknowledged ghost looking over their shoulders, and out-there producers Daniel Lanois and Eno working the pots, the lads had gotten things perfectly right--and the album soared like a bottlerocket shot off in the desert, eventually winning two Grammies and selling over 25 million copies, in a world suddenly clamoring for more of U2.
But though their many albums since have been praiseworthy and sometimes edgily experimental, none has equaled that Joshua Tree masterpiece. Maybe confirmed-believer Bono not only channeled Parsons during those sessions but also briefly forged some sort of mystical link all the way back to the worshipful LDS pioneers. (One can imagine Bono on his knees in the sand praying like Joshua, but Parsons? Not very likely.)
Well, fanciful or not, the Joshua tree connection has continued to be a touchstone in rock. Emmylou Harris shaped her own brilliant country career, regularly citing and reciting Gram, but she also went on to issue a stunning, somewhat avant garde album in 1995 produced by the ever-inventive Lanois, titled The Wrecking Ball and sounding way beyond country, that some listeners have nicknamed "The Joshua Tree 2." And then, late last year, Yank-in-England rocker Chrissie Hynd cut a new CD touting her Americana roots, which she proudly says resulted from a pilgrimage to Parsons' desert sites and the epiphany she experienced.
So the burgeoning hommage a Gram proceeds apace. But there's more to the story: environmental problems are building out there in the desert, and many Joshua trees are dying. Other than naturalists and park rangers, few people realize any of this.
You might say that unless major controls are imposed on human encroachment and deleterious climate change, the Mojave's Joshua trees ultimately don't have a prayer. It may well be that Parsons' fans and gawking tourists--forgive the obvious image--still can't see the forest for the trees.