By Michael Aushenker
He was no Jim Morrison; was not nearly as famous or had as many hits. But country rock pioneer Gram Parsons, in hindsight, had much in common with the leader of the Venice-formed band The Doors and, in some ways, has proven himself as influential on today’s rock music, some say.
As Sept. 19 marks the 40th anniversary of the untimely death of the singer-songwriter – who at one time led The Byrds and formed his own group, Flying Burrito Brothers – musicians with a local connection paid tribute to Parsons’ legacy, which includes a heavy influence on the Rolling Stones’ stylistic changes in the early 1970s.
A contemporary of Morrison, Parsons had much in common with the Doors leader, who died in 1971 at the age of 27. Two years later, Parsons was dead from a mix of alcohol and drugs at 26. Both singer-songwriters were handsome and charismatic front men with long dark mains, originated from Florida, and bucked musical trends, choosing instead to march to the beat of their own drummers. Whereas Morrison, save for a few tight leather pants, was a low-key, rag-tag dresser, Parsons infused his persona with flamboyancy courtesy of Nudie Cohn, Elvis Presley’s Nashville-based tailor who designed Presley’s and Parsons’ flashy, rhinestone-studded outfits.
“Growing up in the South,” said Westchester-based teacher and former City Council candidate Odysseus Bostick, “Gram Parsons was a legend, revered as the thinking man’s version of The Eagles. Where they had steeped themselves in emotion-driven songs of love and loss, Parsons was the embodiment of a generation’s struggle to deal with its own national identity and who they should be within it. This was clear to me in my favorite song of his, ‘How Much I’ve Lied.’ For me, it was the line ‘don’t you forget how much I’ve lied’ that rang truest, almost like Parsons was more concerned with the broken idealism of his lies than he was worried about losing his lover.”
Doug and Alyssa Grahams of The Grahams, who played McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica on Sept. 6 in support of their new album, “Riverman’s Daughter,” are among the neo-country rock musicians impacted by Parsons’ music.
“He didn’t care if he was too country for rock, or too rock for country and his personal sound developed out of that disregard for traditional boundaries,” said Doug Graham. ”Unfortunately, we feel Gram Parsons is not acknowledged enough as a groundbreaking artist and one who was instrumental in shaping the history of today’s alt country music scene. Without Gram, we wouldn’t have artists such as Ryan Adams, Wilco, Sheryl Crow, the list goes on and on.”
Parsons’ “A Song For You” touched the Grahams.
“I was drawn to the desperation and soul in Gram’s voice,” said Alyssa Graham. “It’s the most heartbreaking kind of love song… having to leave behind a love because the possibility of sticking around too long is more devastating than losing love.”
The Grahams normally shun performing covers, with the exception of an occasional tune by Neil Young or Parsons, each of whom have “an imperfect voice,” Doug Graham said, and an “ability to break your heart with one word or one phrase.”
Singer-songwriter Jonny Kaplan was not only influenced by Parsons, he portrayed him in singer Allison Moorer’s video for “Send Down an Angel.” As the Marina del Rey resident explains it, six years ago, he got a call from a producer looking for someone who could play Gram’s ghost in the clip.
“I’ve been compared to Gram Parsons,” said Kaplan, whose group, Jonny Kaplan and the Lazy Stars, has a new album, “Sparkle and Shine,” out Sept. 26. “We’re both countryish. I sort of resemble him a little bit. (His music has) been a strong influence on my music for sure.”
Outside of his resemblance to the late singer, Kaplan learned that his criteria for the role in Moorer’s video hinged on something material.
“It was sort of like Cinderella,” he said. “They told me, ‘We want to see if you fit the suit because we already made it.’”
The suit fit, Kaplan got the part, and the video eventually won awards.
Parsons’ music “had a profound influence on me,” continued Kaplan, admitting that his gateway to the singer came through his influence on the Rolling Stones before he delved deeper into The Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” and various Flying Burrito Brothers albums.
Before the release of the Rolling Stones’ album “Sticky Fingers,” Parsons had befriended Stones guitarist/songwriter Keith Richards and they spent hours playing together and doing drugs. It was during this period when Parsons reportedly influenced Richards’ experimentation with country music, exemplified by tunes “Dead Flowers” and “Wild Horses.” With the latter, Parsons had asked Richards and his collaborator, Stones frontman Mick Jagger, if he could record it, and while Parsons’ version appeared on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Burrito Deluxe” in 1970, the Stones reclaimed “Wild Horses” and put it on 1971’s “Sticky Fingers.” Debate continues to this day, Kaplan noted, as to whether Parsons had a much greater hand in penning the Stones’ countrified rock songs during that period.
What happened right after Parsons’ death only gave Parsons an eerie, Morrison-esque mystique. On Sept. 19, 1973, Parsons was found unresponsive in room 8 at Joshua Tree Inn. An autopsy revealed he had overdosed tequila, pharmaceuticals and morphine at Hi-Desert Memorial Hospital. In a lurid, posthumous escapade that inspired the 2003 film “Grand Theft Parsons” starring Johnny Knoxville, Parsons’ pal, Phil Kaufman, and a friend (supposedly following Parsons’ wishes) stole Parsons’ body from Los Angeles International Airport as it was being transported to the South for burial and tried to burn it in the Cap Rock section of Joshua Tree.
Spotted by police and engaged in a car chase, the pair managed to escape but were arrested days later. They were ultimately fined $750 for stealing the coffin and released. Today, Parsons’ body is buried in Garden of Memories Cemetery in Metairie, La.
By no means a Parsons impersonator (outside of his video gig), Kaplan, with his band, will nevertheless take part in a concert tribute to Parsons on Oct. 5 in Joshua Tree, where the infamous room 8 has become something akin to Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris for Parsons fans.
Kaplan described the Parsons legacy and influence as “a blurred line. Essentially, it sounds ridiculous, but he showed longhaired rock ‘n’ roll people how cool and beautiful country music can be,” he said. “Back then, it was different. There were definite lines drawn. People who liked rock did not listen to country.”
Parson’s legacy is two-fold: “A true window into his soul filled with nothing but pain, honesty and love which he graciously was willing to share,” Graham said. He added that another influence is singer Emmylou Harris, the member of Parsons’ touring band The Fallen Angels whose big break was dueting with Parsons on the posthumously released “Grievous Angel” and “Sleepless Nights” albums.
Music historians continue to parse whether it was Parsons or Bob Dylan’s 1969 album “Nashville Skyline” which technically proved the catalyst for the sound that would beget The Eagles, the Neil Youngs and the Lynrd Skynrds of the music world. But whereas Dylan flirted with country rock, some say Parsons personified it.
“It’s such a tragedy he passed away (and) never got the recognition he deserved,” Kaplan said. In the early 1970s, from the Eagles to Jackson Browne to Linda Ronstadt and Fleetwood Mac, “every single artist was country rock and it’s pretty much because of Gram Parsons.”
“He’s a legend that never became world-famous,” Kaplan said.
Remembering the Grievous Angel: Locals look back on the legacy of alt-rock pioneer Gram Parsons
By Michael Aushenker