Monday, August 9, 2010
Flogging Some Dead Rockers
I note in passing that the Elvis Industry proceeds apace. Consider these elements... Continuing Big Apple performances of the stage musical recreation of The Million-Dollar Quartet. New 75th Anniversary tribute DVD boxes of touring performances (Scorcese involved in the editing) and of his familiar Hollywood films. (That latter set holds 17 DVDs offering 14 movies and the three original tour documentaries, plus commentary, special featurettes and, mustn't overlook, an on-stage photos book and copies of memorabilia for anyone needing Elvis's letters or signed checks.) Also new CD sets devoted to expanded versions of How Great Thou Art, previously unreleased live shows from '74 and '76, and best of all, his Tupelo, Mississippi homecoming concerts back in 1956. I'm sure there must be some new books out too.
Certain dead artists are resuscitated regularly. Besides Elvis, this year one can already point to previously unreleased music CDs and/or DVDs authorized by the fractious Jimi Hendrix estate; discoveries demonstrating that Jim Morrison and the Doors played live and erratically, hither and yon; and new looks at the same old sad stuff about Janis Joplin. England's fragile folksinger Nick Drake is another whose unhappy suicide haunts fans and Rock mags alike. And then there's Gram Parsons, "Crazy Eyes" victim of his own excesses and universally credited originator of country rock--except that he wanted to call it "Cosmic American Music," a blend of C&W, Blues, Gospel/Soul, and a Rock'n'Roll beat. Alt.country performers nowadays revere the sultry, selfish, finally tragic kid too.
I knew Gram briefly and have written about him a few times, which makes me one of the "vultures" picking at his sparse body of work too--another venal journalist or record company shill using him to gain personal attention or actual cash. I absolve the true Parsons fans who flock to Gramfests, love his heartfelt and heartsick Southern Soul music, and work to keep his name... alive, shall we say? One of those is the Seattle woman who sells beautiful t-shirts commemorating various stages of his career, separate shirts for the International Submarine Band, Sweetheart of the Rodeo album (the Byrds), Flying Burrito Bros, eventual solo career cut short by his death, and one or two others. (The shirts are top quality and I own several; go here if you want your own.)
Another is a tall, older guy, a graying Baby Boomer who works at the supermarket I frequent; and every time he sees me has a question to ask or new Gram story to tell. Having seen me wearing those t-shirts, he knows I must be a serious Gram fan too. (Okay, guilty, sort of.) The shirts have persuaded other strangers and working musicians to accost me too, everyone wanting to talk Parsons. Could be a whole new trivia game maybe, called Tell-a-Gram!
Since his death in the early Seventies, every year or two a new compilation recycling old tracks, or a disc issuing unreleased material, or a bootlegged live show, or some bigger combination of the same has appeared. And the number of biographies and analyses and wildly speculative axe-jobs is up to a half-dozen at least, with more in the pipeline. The t-shirt seller friend keeps me apprised of the latest and worst. Among the latter was Grand Theft Parsons, a pathetic movie a few years back about his death and the subsequent stealing and burning of his coffin and corpse. (The oddest new wrinkle for me personally was when I went to New Orleans Jazz Fest a decade ago and by total coincidence wound up staying in the home of Gram's stepmother, last older survivor of his strange Southern Gothic family story.)
But now: coming soon to a stage near you, Grievous Angel: The Legend of Gram Parsons, a new musical based on later solo tracks and a supposedly all-inclusive interview--which lasted only 30 minutes, folks! (Hell, I hung out with Gram four times for several hours, and I don't pretend to have any answers. The long, long interview part of those encounters was posted starting here.) That source half-hour chat was conducted almost four decades ago by the same guy now trying to make a musical and some bucks from it. Parsons was creative and petty both, lived like ol' Hank and sang like an angel, mixed so much sin and salvation into his 26 years that folks have been trying to sort him out ever since. Emmylou Harris still can't get over her year with him. Chris Hillman, bassman for the Byrds and the Burritos with his pal Gram, and a steady-working musician for almost 50 years now, has a chip on his shoulder and a bellyful of too many questions about Gram, Gram, and Gram. Why, he wonders, does the world love Parsons so yet care so little about what his songwriting partner--surviving bandmember Chris, that is--has done in the four decades since? (Supplying an answer, Hillman recently helped write a rather bitter book about those crazy days called Hot Burritos.)
Also scheduled to appear sometime soon is another fancy box set of unknown Gram recordings. I hear it will be very early tracks including folksongs taped during his few months at Harvard, and the package tarted up with a poster, memorabilia, maybe even yet another Parsons t-shirt. Will anyone care? (Advance subscription sales have been meagre.) The last essential Parsons release was 2007's 2CD set (in a deluxe booklet) of the Flying Burrito Bros in live recordings from the Avalon Ballroom 1969; the band was hot and Gram was sober enough. Compared to that one, the next box sounds like more wretched excess--digging, as Tom Rush's song puts it, at the "Wrong End of the Rainbow."
But Gram's fans will keep looking for the gold.