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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Gram Parsons, The 27 Club, And The Utter Waste Of A Beautiful Corpse

I was recently in the company of a noted songwriter who'd spent time in his youth with some of the greats of the music business like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. There I sat in my skull-and-crossbones-bedecked cowboy hat and shedding-snakeskin pointy boots and faded-from-glory denims, throwing my two cents into the lighthearted conversation with a respectful nod to the great man's senior status. Finally, he got up to leave, and when he shook my hand he said, "Well, I gotta tell ya what a pleasure it's been. It's been just like sitting and chatting with Gram Parsons again."

Totally gobsmacked, ya coulda knocked me over with a Nudie shirt. My head was swollen for a week and a half.

I went on a bit of "Gram" binge thereafter, listening to his music, rereading favorite bits of biographies, and watching a documentary or two, and I've got something to say:

I like listening to the man sing, admire the man's achievements, and tip my aforementioned cowboy hat to his undeniably great contributions to American music, but his untimely death on September 19, 1973 was not a glorious, myth-making moment. It was sad and pathetic and utterly unnecessary and wasteful, and you'll never hear me longing to live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.

Now, let me say that the legitimate fears of old age hold no glory for me either. I'm not looking forward to the gradual thickening and sagging of my body, the stiffening joints, (the other parts that oughtta be stiff but aren't!) the diminished energy, the failing hearing and eyesight. Hell, the eyesight's going already. And worst of all, I fear losing my mind in the long, ugly, ever-steeping slope of Alzheimer's disease, spending my last lonely days in some stinking nursing home, yelling at phantasms while underpaid immigrants change my diapers. There's a point where anybody with even a fragment of sanity would be happy to bow out.

But... a long life, even with its disappointments and pain and frustration, seems to beat the alternative.

So much has been made of "The 27 Club," the long, freaky list of great artists and musicians that have died at age 27. A lot of myths have been cobbled together about these titans: Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, Rod "Pigpen" McKernan, Kristen Pfaff, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Amy Winehouse, and of course, Jimi Hendrix. Who knows how many more there are? And poor Gram didn't even make it that far... he was just 26. They're counted as legends all, but what are they really? Dead kids, once great, that could have lived to be even greater. It's one of the saddest things I've ever heard.

As a practicing musician, writer, and artist, I want to once-and-for-all dispel the ridiculous notion that burning out is better than fading away. Bullshit!  (Apologies to Neil Young, who I greatly admire, but you're just plain wrong, buddy.) There are plenty of artists that have been creatively fueled by family dysfunction and drama, alcohol, drugs, violence, sex, and dissipation, but they're way outweighed by artists that manage to create powerful, vibrant, culturally resonant and long-lasting works without wanting or needing to debase themselves and die in a naked heap in some anonymous hotel room. 

Let me be clear about one thing right now: I've been known to take a drink or two, and I'm not judging anybody else for drinking either. That extends to drugs, sex, bondage, bacon-double-cheeseburgers... name your poison, you're welcome to it. I happen to hold the unpopular opinion that whatever you want to do that doesn't hurt the person of property of a non-consenting other ought to be legal, even if you permanently party yourself right into the ground. But I have yet to understand why I should deliberately draw from that wellspring to enhance my art, or take it to its ultimate extreme to create a "legend" that I won't be around to enjoy.
Gram Parsons was a great artist. He is generally credited with bringing the brilliant potentialities of country-rock to the masses (even if I think his real achievement was combining country and R&B, not country and rock... not to mention that Chris Hillman ought to get at least as much credit, yet he seems to be comparatively forgotten by the tequila-swilling longhairs that canonize Gram) and he made some damn fine records, not to mention giving a start in the business to the great Emmylou Harris. 

Gee. Imagine what he could have done if he'd lived to be 50. Or 65. Or longer. Goddess, how I'd love to hear him sing "Love Hurts" with Emmy at next year's Grammys.

Oh well. The law of averages if nothing else predicts that I'll die poor in obscurity, at least for my artistic efforts, despite the compliments of a famous songwriter who might recognize a kindred spirit at the very least. Yes, I had a near-unbearable case of the big-head for a while. Believe me, I'll take the compliment, and I'll assume it refers to my Southern manners, my fluency with country music, and my amiable personality. If Mr. Famous Songwriter also meant the compliment to extend to my art, well then I'm even more humbled and blessed and proud. 

Call me an "old fuddy-duddy" or "grandpa" or "old fart" or whatever you like. I may not ever be famous, I may not ever make a great contribution to American arts and letters and music, but I'll ride a lot more highways, see a lot more sunsets, love a lot more friends, play a lot more music, make a lot more art, and yes - take a few more drinks - than any dead legend ever will, and I consider that coming out ahead in the end.  

Chipper, on his way to being fat, old, and happy. Photo by Kim Treiber-Thompson


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