Posts Tagged ‘Gram Parsons’

Normally, when I take a particular band as my subject I listen to their music while I write. This installment of “Sins of the ’70s Week” is an exception. Our guest band this evening is Chicago, but after listening to a few tracks from Chicago Transit Authority (1969) and skipping desperately to Chicago II (1970) I felt that I was about to lose molecular containment.

Right now I’m listening to a disc from 1979: Jackrabbit Slim by the singer-songwriter Steve Forbert. Forbert sings a mash-up of folk, country, and Americana. (He’s Canadian, so I should call that North Americana.) I hear him as a happier version of Gram Parsons, who was glum, or of Elvis Costello, who started out angry and still strikes me as grumpy. I would also rate him approximately 1,000 times more literate than anyone in Chicago, the band that gave us the following thoughts, from “(I’ve Been) Searching So Long”:

I’ve been searching
So long
To find an answer
Now I know my life has meaning
Whoah whoah

When I was in high school I loved Chicago (the two albums I mentioned above). To try to understand why I did, I must first consider the case against them.

1) When Terry Kath, James Pankow, Robert Lamm, and the other Chicagoans formed their group, they called themselves The Big Thing. Great name! What compelled them to adopt Chicago Transit Authority? Did it sound more grown-up? Shortening it to Chicago when the real grown-ups at the CTA threatened to sue didn’t help. There is no personality involved in calling your group Chicago (or Boston, or Kansas). You’re just borrowing a label with its own emotional shadings, not venturing any of yours.

2) Almost all of Chicago’s hundreds of albums are double-record sets with the word “Chicago” on the cover with artsy things involving the letters and then a number. I guess this makes it easy for their fans to find their records. You might as well print covers with “Music Product” in black letters on a white background and then add the number.

3) OK, let’s get to the music. That’s what really counts. Chicago has an unsurpassed ability to write songs that are too sweet for Muppets. Exhibits A through D are “If You Leave Me Now,” “Saturday in the Park,” “Wishing You Were Here,” and “Colour My World.” Why were they using British spellings in the Midwest in 1970? Did the Brits win the War of 1812?

4) OK, let’s stay with the music. Much has been made of Chicago’s horn section, but what I often hear are a lot of held notes as in The Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life.” I have much more respect for their first guitarist, the late Terry Kath, and their keyboard player, Robert Lamm. They could take a pop song and floor it.

That fourth point helps explain why at the ages of 14 and 15 I so enjoyed this band. “Beginnings,” for example, impacts like a meteor. The lyrics are easy to learn and sing and the emotions are imaginable, if not tangible, for any teenage male geek:

When I’m with you, it doesn’t matter where we are
Or what we’re doing. I’m with you, that’s all that matters

“Beginnings,” which is just short of 8 minutes, ends with 2 minutes of congas, cowbells, and guys shouting like they’re living la dolce vida. The ending didn’t mean much to me then because this self-indulgent stretch was usually cut off on the radio. Also, if you owned the LP you could turn the volume way up on your console stereo and hear an extra 30 seconds of congas and etc. that the engineers had faded out. It was like spinning Beatles records backwards to find out what happened to Paul.

Chicago sometimes broke songs into prologues, movements, and “ballets”; this seemed significant to me. The adults in my life considered my music juvenile; I could counterattack with Chicago, because they had brass instruments just like jazz players and their songs had movements so shut up. You can see how this perception would change as I got a little older.

But the final reason why I liked Chicago was because of, yes, “Colour My World.” (The formal title is “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon: Colour My World”). When they played it at a school dance in 1970 it was the signal for girls and boys to pair off on the dance floor and crush themselves into each other while circling very slowly so as not to get dizzy and topple into the crushed couples nearby.

When I played “Colour My World” today, after not hearing it for almost 40 years, I was immediately up to my neck in that hormonal melting pot. I still didn’t make it to end of the song, though, and it takes up a mere 2 minutes and 39 seconds.

Chicago (the current highest-numbered album is Chicago XXXII, but there are also a few unnumbered albums) is one of those bands that are popular for reasons I don’t understand. But there’s plenty in this life I’m trying to understand. “Does anybody really know what time it is?” Chicago asked on their very first record, “time” meaning life in general. Their best metaphor.

Tomorrow, “Sins of the ’70s Week” continues with: Grand Funk Railroad! I’m your captain, yeah yeah yeah yeah.

Random Pick of the Day
Steve Forbert, Jackrabbit Slim (1979)
This gentleman is pretty good. I haven’t listened to him since forever. The individual songs don’t stand out for me yet but I’ll listen again and try some of his other releases.

Random Pan of the Day
Chicago, Chicago 25: The Christmas Album (1998)
Panning this one is totally unfair because I refuse to listen to it, but I get paid to be unfair. Well, no, I don’t get paid, I just like to be unfair. I have an uneasy relationship with Christmas music, as I demonstrated here and here. The thought of Chicago muscling in on Mannheim Steamroller territory makes me wish for a silent night. Produced by Springsteen pianist Roy Bittan.


Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons
Various artists

I’d like to have a few words with you today about country and western music, which has been handed down to us from our forebears, who were probably trying to get rid of it. Not only has no one succeeded in this quest, those of us who make our living in the music-writing dodge and the rest of us who write stupid blogs must reluctantly admit that country has influenced every aspect of rock ’n’ roll. (Except for the music of Yes. Too bad, because Tales From Topographic Oceans, which has a running time of three days, cries out for banjos and at least a couple of songs about railroads or prisons.)

In searching for the countrified man, woman, or lonesome coyote who first infiltrated rock you can find no end of candidates but the one I wish to concentrate on today is Gram Parsons, who overdosed in 1973 in Joshua Tree National Park. Though this sad event pretty much rang down the curtain on Mr. Parsons’ life and career it by no means arrested his influence, and I don’t just mean the title of the 1987 U2 album. Parsons altered the course of the mighty Byrds, created the hybrid called country-rock, gave Emmylou Harris her break, influenced artists as diverse as Keith Richards, Elvis Costello, and Wilco, and became the kind of cult figure I would like to become if I had any talent and if I didn’t have to die first. His second album, released the year after his death, was Grievous Angel. Hence the title of this collection of covers from his abbreviated time on this planet, released on Grievous Angel’s 25th anniversary.

Let me state forthrightly that I never paid attention to Gram Parsons when he was alive and I haven’t paid attention to him since his passing, but though my knowledge of his music is zero and though I approach country music as reluctantly as I’d approach the front door to Bob’s Country Bunker I have come to appreciate Return of the Grievous Angel. If like me you’re looking for a relatively painless way to mosey on up to this painful music, this may be the album for you.

My father loved Hank Williams’ music
When I describe a song as being “too country” I am probably remembering being trapped in the car while Hank wailed away on the radio. My father moved on to muzak and then silence while I headed in almost every direction that wasn’t country. Some of the songs on Return of the Grievous Angel are so country that they disturb my sleep. However, I can state unequivocally that several songs lurking in this lineup are quite interesting and that three are sublime.

Gillian Welch turns “Hickory Wind,” a meditation on lost youth, into something almost spiritual. Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris sing like angels on “Juanita,” which, though it is sung in waltz time, is not one of your more upbeat numbers:

No affection were the words
That stuck on my mind
When she walked out on me
For the very last time
Oh, mama, sweet mama
Can you tell me what to say
I don’t know what I’ve done
To be treated this way

The song that laps the field, though, is “Ooh Las Vegas,” as covered by The Cowboy Junkies. “Ooh Las Vegas” is the story of a man lost in an artificial world:

Well, I spend all night with the dealer
tryin’ to get ahead
spend all day at the Holiday Inn
trying to get out of bed

This is so not Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas” (“I’m just the devil with love to spare!”). But it is the song the intensely quiet Cowboy Junkies were born to play. While in the past I’ve often wondered whether I was listening to one of their songs or just the wind in the willows, here they produce real pathos, virtuosic singing, and a knock-down punch. Their interpretation rocks so hard that after 13 years of listening to it it only occurred to me when I began writing today’s post that I should give the original a go. I did. Parsons had a pretty good song up his sleeve, but his Foggy Mountain Boys delivery is too happy. The Junkies are the ones who understood what he meant and the ones who bring it home.

Return of the Grievous Angel may not be everyone’s Rocky Mountain high, but it deserves your attention. Gram Parsons deserves to be remembered. And Yes still deserves banjos.

Random ’90s Pick of the Day
Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
This is a tough choice for me, because I hate rap, plus one of this group’s founders (long gone) talked a lot of smack about Jews. But Public Enemy is one of our most influential bands, and this is probably their best album of the 1990s. It’s certainly one of the best album titles of any decade. I give them credit for staying true to their politics and to the album format (they’re releasing two of them this summer) for 25 years. In a recent interview, when asked to pick three albums that would best explain modern music, Chuck D said they’d have to be by Run-DMC, The Beatles, and James Brown. Those are three good picks.

Random ’90s Pan of the Day
Candlebox, Candlebox (1993)
This band will never get anywhere near my list of the Best Debut Albums of the 20th Century By Newcomers Who Aren’t Somebody Stupid Like Foreigner(with the album having the same name as the band), even though this disc contains their big fat stupid hit, “Far Behind.” Grunge can be hard enough to take, but this 1% low-fat grunge did not convince me to ask for more.

Tomorrow on ’90s Week: Computers explained!