When Gram Parsons died of booze and pills (natural causes said the coroner's finding) in 1973 his friend and road manager Phil Kaufman lived up to his end of a deal that they had made earlier. He stole Gram's body and burned it in the desert; at Joshua Tree, California. It was a moment typical of Gram's desire for the big moment, the flamboyant gesture that would set him apart from the rest.
There's a mystique that has built up around Gram Parson's since his too short life came to an end that has been fuelled mainly by the amazing body of work he left behind and the haunting sound of his voice that lives on even after he's been dead for more then thirty years. But who was this man who has inspired more posthumous tribute albums than people who achieved far more fame then he ever did, and is credited with being the influence behind the whole country-rock genre which birthed bands like The Eagles?
Gram Parsons Fallen Angel, a documentary film by Gandulf Henning attempts to answer the enigma of Graham Parsons by interviewing the famous, the family, and all of those who knew him during his brief, meteoric passing. Keith Richards, Emmylou Harris, Chris Hillman, and other musical luminaries talk freely and candidly about their times with Gram and his influence on them and their careers.
Going back into his childhood they attempt to find out the causes of his self-destructive behaviour. As Chris Hillman of the Byrds and latter The Flying Burrito Brothers said, "It was a classic Tennessee Williams play." Now Southern Gothic may be all right to watch on stage, but growing up in that atmosphere sounds like it wasn't the healthiest of upbringings.
His father shot himself when he was still young. His mother was an alcoholic who had been hospitalized for alcohol-related problems and died of mysterious circumstances. Her second husband whose name Gram would bear for the rest of his life, Bob Parsons, was known to have been in her room just prior to her death and had been sneaking her booze and pills up until she died. He latter married his adopted children's baby sitter.
The emerging picture of Gram from these early years up until the end of his one-year stint at Yale University was of the poor little rich boy who could have anything money could buy, but no love. When he became interested in music in high school his parents converted a room in the house into a music room for him to rehearse in. He obviously loved the music but he also saw it as a ticket to being famous.
The film-makers follow Gram's career from his early days in New York City, followed by his joining the Byrds, the birth and death of the Flying Burrito Brothers, and his short lived solo career where he worked with Emmylou Harris. At each stop along the way the people he played with say the same thing; when Gram was together he was the best.
His voice was the quintessential "high lonesome" which could make you feel the sadness of the world and rip your heart right out. Creatively he could be without equal as well. Hillman credits him as the driving force behind Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, one of the Byrds' best albums. Songs like "Drug Store Truck Driving Man" with its country sound but socially conscious lyrics were part of his distinctive sound and the change he wrought on the Byrds.
But even then, according to the film, he was more interested in fame and the rock star lifestyle than the work involved with achieving it. Through Chris Hillman he met Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones for the first time and that began his fascination with what he saw as the glamour of their career.
The Byrds had come to London England as a prelude to going on tour of South Africa, and Gram had asked Keith Richards to explain what the situation was like there. Keith laughs about the conversation in an interview saying if he knew it was going to cause him to leave the Byrds he might not have told Gram about apartheid.
Gram used the situation in South Africa as an excuse not to make the trip, telling them two hours before the flight was to leave. But in Chris Hillman's opinion he didn't want to go because he wanted to hang out with Keith Richards instead.
This pattern of abandoning his own work because he was attracted to the lifestyle of fame and adulation continued with his own group, the Flying Burrito Brothers. According to Hillman, who obviously didn't stay mad at Gram as he became part of the Burrito Brothers, Gram wrote some of the best music of his career during that time.
The filmmakers have pulled together old promotional clips from the time period of the Burritos performing together, and Gram's voice is amazing even in these battered old pieces of film. But it was also him that suggested the band go out and buy the really expensive Nudie suits (the rhinestone cowboy outfits associated with Country and Western music to this day) they wore on stage and in promotional shots.
Everybody had their own personal suit designed and Gram's became as infamous as him, covered with pills, booze, and marijuana plants. In an interesting little interview with the tailor who made the suits, he says he thought it interesting in retrospect Gram would ask him to cover the suit with all the things he'd use to kill himself.
But even while everybody being interviewed is painting a picture of a totally irresponsible and almost selfish individual, they talk about him with love and affection. Even when Hillman talks about punching a hole in Gram's guitar on stage one night, he's laughing as he recalls Gram, in all innocence asking, "Why'd you do that Chris?"
Everyone, from his wife Gretchen to the guys that played with him, talks about him like he was a miscreant child who didn't know any better. He genuinely didn't understand why Chris was frustrated with him for not rehearsing and nobody seemed to make the effort to tell him.
Part of it was the fact he had never needed to work for anything in his life. As a child and teenager he had all his material needs fulfilled by his mother's family, and as an adult he had a trust fund which according to who you listen too ranged from $20,000 – $50,000 a year. Even the low end of that scale in the late 1960's was more then most people's annual salary. He was without a financial care in the world.
The Burritos dissolved after the night Chris put his fist through Gram's guitar and the other band members went on to other gigs. Gram and Gretchen were invited to visit Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones in the South of France for a summer as the Stones prepared for their next album. While neither Keith nor Gertrude mention it, it's implied by another Gram became involved in heroin at this time.
It was when Gram got back from France he embarked upon the final stage of his career and life. He managed to convince a record company to fund him for a solo album, and this was when Emmylou Harris became his backup vocalist. Like everyone else she adored and respected him, but at the same time recounts at how frustrating he was to work with.
She talks about being amazed that the album G.P. was ever released because she never saw anyone else actually do anything. When they prepared for their tour they never actually rehearsed a song from beginning to end, and it wasn't until they were fired from their first gig for not being able to play one song she took matters into hand.
She ended up becoming the road "mother", making everybody sit down and rehearse properly and ensuring they could all begin and end a song at the same time. After that she claims the tour was a huge success with audiences loving everything they did. I don't know if you've heard Emmylou and Gram sing together, but it sounds like their voices were designed for each other.
There are some grainy clips included in the film of the two of them from this tour; they would stand at right angles to each other so that Emmylou was sideways to the audience but looking at Gram. In a voice over we hear an old interview with Gram talking about singing with Emmylou. He says all he had to do was make eye contact with her and she'd know exactly how to harmonize a song, even if she'd never heard it before.
The filmmakers have done an amazing amount of research and the interviews included in this documentary are with people from all aspects of Gram's life. The one thing everyone agrees upon is he was a musical genius whose time ended far too soon. But even those who loved him the most – Chris Hillman, his wife Gertrude, and Emmylou Harris are all too aware of his failings as well.
Something else that becomes clear is that nobody ever really did anything to get him to change. The first person that seems to have been able to exert any sort of authority over him was Emmylou Harris, when she imposed her will on the band to make them rehearse for that tour. Up until then everybody else seemed content to suck what they could from Gram and than discard him when he became too difficult.
Maybe nobody could have done anything for him. Perhaps the seeds of despondency had been planted too deep by the deaths of both his natural parents. His sister Avis who grew up in the same circumstances ended up spending years in mental institutions because of what they survived as children.
While this movie was an attempt to show who Gram Parsons was and try to answer questions about why he did what he did, it also raises questions about the people who were around him. Why would they let him continue stuffing himself with booze and drugs in the last six months of his life when they knew he was so self-destructive?
Sure he always said he wanted to go out in a blaze of glory – hence the funeral pyre in Joshua Tree – but how could they let him have the means to his destruction so readily available. He had separated from Gertrude and for his own protection was living with friends, which in her opinion was a joke. They were as big as users as he was.
Gram Parsons Fallen Angel fills in a lot of holes in the biography of Gram Parsons the person. For those of you who didn't know much about him before, this is a great introduction and summary of his all too brief life and career. A real sense of loss and waste for what Gram could have been pervades the whole movie.
What I found most disturbing about the movie was the image it left of a lost little boy who everybody continued to indulge no matter what. Everybody was just happy to be along for the ride and with a few exceptions, sat back and let him self-destruct. These same people still seem content to bask in his reflected glory to this day.
This is a great documentary which reveals things I don't think the subjects being interviewed realizes are being unveiled. Their own sense of self-importance is more damning to them as accomplices in his self-destruction than anyone's accusations.
Gram Parsons Fallen Angel doesn't shy away from anything in regards to its subject matter or the circumstances of his life and death. This is a must see for any fan of Gram's because even with its warts and all portrayal it does nothing to diminish his musical accomplishments. In some ways it makes them seem all the more remarkable.