And he swore the fiercest beasts could all be put to sleep the same silly way
'Gram Parsons - Fallen Angel' BBC TWO, Friday 25th September
About four years ago I went into the local HMV and asked if I could listen to the Gram Parsons double album of 'GP' and 'Grievous Angel', mostly out of curiousity and the thought that really, with titles like that, these were songs I should
like. I stood and flicked back and forth through the tracks for about 15 minutes, before surreptitiously hanging up the headphones and walking out, uninvolved. Clearly something happened in the intervening years, as when the record was given to me by a friend about six months ago it hit me hard. Eventually though, I had to give it back.
Today, I finally got round to buying myself a copy, after listening to ripped MP3s during the interim. About twelve hours later, in one of those serendipitous bits of scheduling, BBC2 decided to show one of their 'Originals' documenataries, smuggled out of the digital ghetto of BBC4 under Jack Davenport's overcoat. Mercifully, minimal time was given to the details of Parson's botched cremation in Joshua Tree National Park and the subsequent burial of what was left by his step-father and remaining family. Rather more time was given to his tragic family background; parental alcoholism and suicide, and rumours of foul-play in the death of his mother. This patina of darkness over the early years of his life is in fairly vivid contrast to his later reputation has a good-time guy, more interested in hanging out with Keith Richards than touring with the Byrds, or recording his own material. The two extremes are there even more explicitly in the songs; in the clear-eyed sadness of 'Brass Buttons' and the whiskey/gin/anything-soaked rush of 'Ooh Las Vegas'.
Rather what harp on endlessly about various songs, I'll limit myself to one. A notable part of the documentary was Keith Richards reminiscing on Parsons' ability to make every woman in a audience cry. Either Keith was being a little disingenuous in protecting the inheritance of masculinity, or I'm just not much of a man, but '$1000 Wedding' has made me cry more than once. Coming to it late, the cliches of vernacular American speech in this little country-tinged saga are probably more seductive than they would be if my country wings had been taken by someone with slightly less finesse than Gram in years past, but I particularly love the "mean ol' momma" lyric. The gentle piano introduction, and the eventual percussive swing of the main sections of the song are counterpoints to a narrative of almost unbearable melancholy - a succession of abandonment at the altar, drunken confession to concerned friends and the consoling words of a priest. Parsons and Emmylou Harris harmonize as beautifully as on any track on either album, but for me the most perfect moment in the song is in the final section, when Harris' drops out, and Gram Parsons' voice has a bruised, fibrous quality as he sings the line I've used as the title... Beautiful.