When Ingram Cecil Connor III or Gram Parsons as later became his favoured nom de plume, shuffled his mortal coil on September 19th, 1973 in one of the most notoriouslycelebrated Rock N’ Roll burn outs, a gigantic void appeared, ripping a gaping hole through the horizon of “Cosmic American Music“. It would be another 24 years before his north south east and west, Emmylou Harris, would venture towards his final earthly battlefield, the Joshua Tree Inn, accompanied by her daughter and pet dog. Harris describes in the few words necessary, how a presence of great energy at the site reduced her normally docile canine companion to an emotional quivering. That was all Harris needed to know, if ever any doubt lingered regarding the kind of magnetism Parsons could summon up, even in supposed death.
This is one of the many anecdotes and shared memories that unfold in the booklet accompanying the Rhino box set, Gram Parsons – The Complete Reprise Sessions. On first inspection, I was somewhat cynical towards this package that lay inanimate before me. Seemingly nothing more than a promo containing Parsons’ two post Flying Burrito Brothers’ solo albums, buffed up by interviews and alternative studio cuts.
Free samplers to a large degree, can be misleading affairs.If in doubt, reference Kananga in Live And Let Die, as the glaring epitome of this philosophy. Although the connectionsbetween the fictional narcotic underworld of Ian Fleming/GuyHamilton and the full force reality punch of Parsons’ deadly subterranean pursuits are a perfect match down to the calendar year, Rhino have mercifully done us all a huge favour by serving up a dish of prime cuts that will leaveour senses tingling for a long time to come.
Sure we’ve all locked horns with these songs before, imagining we could rejuvenate the legend while slouched in a
trucker’s greasy spoon somewhere between Athlone and the Roscommon heartlands, but that is to completely miss the
point. Loving nurturing care has gone into this presentation. Disc 1, featuring 1973’s seminal GP, sounds
more relevant and pristine than ever, boosted amicably by a tet a tet collection of musings from the original Cosmic Rough Rider himself, highlighting the remarkably soft spoken and articulate man who often remained hidden steadfastly behind the excesses the graphics on his notorious nudie suiclearly hinted at.
Parsons’ ‘Last will and testament’ before he spectacularly leaped out of this dimension, Grievous Angel (1974) can now climb on to the pedestal it was long denied, overshadowed by the swift tolling of the bell that echoed in it’s daddy’s ears, shortly before it saw the light of day.
A Reprise records bio in the booklet quotes Parsons as saying “I’m willing to take responsibility for what comes
next”. In the context of the moment, it would be wiser not to engage in uber chic psychiatric analysis of the ‘deeper’ ramifications hidden in such a statement, and instead concentrate on the musical values that Gram took under hiswing and was responsible enough to mould into some of the most vital statements in post WWII American culture.
Grievous Angel draws to a close with In My Hour Of Darkness, a Parsons/Harris co-write. This tune is a prime candidate for positive scrutiny. We can only be fair and suggest that the duo did not envisage recreating the song’s mortal and moral anxieties in sleazy motels, the parched desperation for literally mind blowing hypodermics, and a guard of honour in the shape of a Joshua Tree horizon. When they spun this eerie prophecy, they perhaps instead focused their cautiousness a little further down the trail. 1974, 1975, 1976, everything’s gonna be just fine when the sky stops rumbling.
Sessions from the two albums compromise the bulk of CD3. She stands for everything The Eagles gladly bargained away when they were willingly dazzled by the false promises of the west coast illusion. Gram was already grinning wryly upon L.A. before most of that set had even wiped their first pharmaceutical bloody nose. Yeah, she sure could sing…….
Other highlights include the alternative take of Streets Of Baltimore which is no disgrace when placed in comparison to its better known version. In fact, it is this particular disc which gives the box set its vital edge, and could even be described as the reason the compilation is such a success.
Listening to how Parsons and his crew of studio hardened session players work these tunes into classic components of the American quilt, is almost worthy of a release in its own right (but don’t get TOO greedy, Rhino…) Has there ever been a greater opening line than “Won’t you scratch my/Sweet Annie Rich”, that slickly and brashly jumps from the opening notes of Return Of The Grievous Angel?
Contenders will be bowled over by the ease of how sweet desire rolls from Parsons’ lips and all territories further south, regardless of how the alternative production may alter its instrumental vessel.
For 26 years, Gram Parsons graced us with his presence. Those years flashed past with a bolt of lightning. The fact
that he has been out of this world longer than he had beenin it, unfairly adds a hint of nostalgic romanticism to his ghostly presence. As even his most beloved soul mates will confess, among them, Chris Hillman and Emmylou Harris herself, Gram wasn’t always the easiest guy in the world to be around. Chronic drunkenness, an ego that could swell to Mount Rushmore proportions, and engagements often abandoned at the last possible second to follow more lethal lines of inquiry, can sometimes cloud the brightly shining stars on Parsons’ cosmic portfolio. But the overwhelming genius as more than capably displayed in this collection, as well his often ignored generosity, which including crediting Harris as a co-writer on his finest composition, despite her noble denial of involvement in its creation, are what have propelled Parsons’ passage to Immortality and more.
Rhino are tuned into every aspect of Gram Parsons, the man, the musician, and most certainly mystic, giving us a collection that meets all the right criteria in continuing the cosmic legacy.
Annie Rich, I’m coming to getcha.