One more time through the gaudy life of the ’60s country-rock pathfinder.
Though he released only six albums in his 26 years, Gram Parsons was and remains legendary for his affecting, unprecedented music, his drug- and booze-saturated lifestyle and the sensational story surrounding his demise. (After he overdosed in 1973, two friends stole his body, took it out to the desert and set it on fire.) This fifth full-length biography is by far the longest, but it doesn’t top Ben Fong-Torres’s Hickory Wind (1991). Meyer (Cinema Studies/New School for Social Research) is strongest on Parsons’s privileged youth as scion of a wealthy Florida citrus family. His Southern-Gothic upbringing and a round of tragedies—father’s suicide, mother’s death from alcoholism—receive deep, riveting scrutiny. When Meyer turns to Parsons’s life as a trust-funded rocker, however, the narrative bogs down in thrice-told tales. His move to Los Angeles with pioneering country-rock unit the International Submarine Band, his trend-setting sojourns with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers and his dope-suffused solo career are all dutifully logged in frequently superfluous detail. Meyer attempts to sift the plentiful legends about Parsons but eventually somewhat wearily admits that many witnesses were just too stoned to remember what went down. Though well-researched, the book is hampered by reliance on secondary sources and the non-participation of such crucial family members, friends and collaborators as Parsons’s oft-bashed widow Gretchen, Keith Richards and Emmylou Harris, all of whom appear in Gandulf Hennig’s excellent 2005 BBC documentary. Small, irritating factual errors abound, but the book’s uninformed observations and suspect critical judgments are even more aggravating. Meyer finally loses patience with his gifted, self-destructive subject, and the resulting snarky tone does not serve his story well. He also misses the heart of “Cosmic American Music,” the term Parsons coined to describe the synthesis of country, R&B, gospel and rock that he aspired to play.
The Grievous Angel never takes flight here.