Saturday, June 14, 2014

American Sing--a-Long, Part 2

So there are sweet moments in the truck when all of us are singing along with “American Pie” or “Alice’s Restaurant” and relearning/learning our lessons in sympathy, grief, and anti-disestablishmentarianism.  There are other moments when I just decide there are some things I want to think about.  So I plug in the Ipod, pick out an album (cause I download entire albums, not individual songs), and let it play, while I guide The Monster down the road.  The other day, as we drove from Sacramento, California, to Ciloquin, Oregon, I took the opportunity to indulge in music from “my generation.”  No, not The Who.  You will remember that while on this journey I am listening, almost without exception, to American music.
Where Gram Parsons Died September 19, 1973
No, I was actually catching up to some recent moments from the trip, Joshua Tree and Venice Beach, places where I wanted to sit and think, but the Caravan had to keep on rolling.  At such times, I just have to make a deal with myself that now I will move on with the family but sometime later I will return in memory and in contemplation.  Joshua Tree and Venice Beach, Gram Parsons and Jim Morrison, my favorite themes, art and mortality.
Both singers and performers were important martyrs to the rock and roll cause.  In just a matter of a few years, my generation experienced that weird sensation of moving from Peace, Love, Turn on, and Expand Your Mind to Chaos, Cruelty, Turn Off, and What the Fuck.  From Woodstock to Altamont, from “California Dreaming” to “Hotel California.”  Famously, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison all died at age 27.  Joplin and Hendrix died in1970, less than a month apart, and Morrison followed not quite a year later.  Always precocious, Parsons didn’t make it to 27, dying two months before his birthday in 1973.  
For those of us who were paying attention, I don’t think there is a way to measure the meaning of the deaths of these artists.  Maybe Kurt Colbain’s suicide (at 27) was more moving and more tragic for his fans.  I don’t know, but Amy Winehouse’s death (also at 27) a couple of years ago was just plain sad.  Back in the late sixties, there we were, all us baby boomer types, trucking along thinking we were going to end war, establish racial unity, end hypocrisy, save the environment, and all that good stuff, and then our heroes just start succumbing to over-indulgence, carelessness, and personal pain.  You begin to think:  if they can’t make their worlds better, with all their success and all their genius, what chance have I, what chance have any of us to make the world a kinder and gentler place. 
One can sort of understand the deaths of John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King.  These guys made people really nervous.  Vested interests were in danger.  Deep prejudices were being threatened.  These were assassinations, murders, real people inhabiting real good and real evil.  These were the forces of a social war expressing themselves clearly.
Morrison Still Hovers over Venice Beach
It is difficult to locate evil in the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Gram Parsons.  Still, I want to find some meaning in the deaths of these young artists.  And as soon as I write that sentence, I feel a rush of shame or perhaps it’s intellectual honesty that backs me away from the brink.  I know better.  We will rarely understand the deaths of anyone except with the most banal platitudes.  Simplified:  these young artists were addicts.  At that time, my generation and most of America didn’t know much about addiction.  I have not read deeply into any of these performers’ biographies (that will happen next year, I hope), but as far as I know, none of them came from particularly happy homes.  However, in most cases it is pretty difficult to parse out culpability.  Being these kids was difficult, I’m sure.  Being theirs parents would also have been difficult. 
Jim Morrison’s dad was an admiral in the United States Navy, by God.   The story is that he eschewed corporal punishment but “dressed down” his children, a la boot camp.  What’s an admiral going to do with a high school kid who reads Nietzsche and Ginsberg and Rimbaud?  Jim lived in a different world from his father.  Parsons, too, grew up in a family of high achievers.  His mother came from a very successful Florida farming family and his father was a famous war pilot.  All was fine, we are told, except that both parents were alcoholics and both died while Parsons was still young:  the father by suicide when Parsons was 12 and his mother from cirrhosis when he was 18.  Both boys were quite intelligent.   Morrison earned a degree in film from USLA, and Parsons attended Harvard for a semester until he heard some Merle Haggard and decided he needed to play country music.  After a couple of years of feeling his way around the music scene in New York, Parsons wound up, in 1968, at the age of 22, in Los Angeles joining the Byrds and helping inspire their great album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.  Meanwhile, three years older than Parsons, in 1968, Jim Morrison, as a member of the Doors, released their third album, Waiting for the Sun, which made it to number one on the charts.  An amazing amount of success for both of these men at such a young age.
Selfie at Joshua Tree Inn
Do I mention here that I had a parent who died when I was young?  Do I mention that my father was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force in the Sixties and assumed I would join the ROTC and become an officer also?  Are these points of contact important?  No, let's not go there.
But these guys couldn’t be more different.  In spite of a shared early love of Elvis, their musical tastes couldn’t be more different.  And as I drove through northern California to southern Oregon listing to both, I was struck, of course, by their different voices—Parsons a bell clear tenor, and Morrison the throaty baritone.  Listening first to Parsons’ two records, I was lulled into his sweet sentimentality, and a compassion reaching out of himself toward others.  With songs like “She,” “Old Soft Shoe,” “A Song for You,” “The Return of the Grievous Angel,” “Brass Buttons,”  “1000 Dollar Wedding,” oh my God, Parsons just breaks your heart. 

From “She”: 
They use to walk singing songs by the river
Even when she knew for sure and she had to go away
She never knew what her life had to give her
And never had to worry about it for one single day
Ooh my but she sure could sing, ooh, she sure could sing

From “The Return of the Grievous Angel’:
Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels

And a good saloon in every single town

Oh, but I remembered something you once told me

And I'll be damned if it did not come true

Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down

And they all lead me straight back home to you
Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down

And they all lead me straight back home to you

Is there a better song for this trip?  Maybe.  Maybe it is “Wheels” from Parson’s Flying Burrito Brothers days.  Parsons' dream of "Cosmic American Music" is just what the Caravan of Wonder is looking for.
            But here is the rub.  Parsons angered and disappointed just about everyone he worked with.  He got himself fired from the Byrds and from the Burritos, the band he helped create.  He recorded two lovely records with Emmylou Harris on background vocals backed by the amazing Glen Harden and James Burton (Harden played with Elvis, and Burton played with Rick Nelson and Elvis).  These guys are among the best in the business.  They can make anybody sound good.  Then Parsons killed himself, accidentally, through drink and drugs in a motel in Joshua Tree, California.  A couple of friends, who remembered his vain wish to be cremated in the desert, stole his body before it could be flown to his step-father and burned it in the desert in what is now Joshua Tree National Park.  There’s an ending for you.
Dr. J. at Venice Beach
            When I shifted to listening to The Doors, the transition was shocking.  While Gram Parsons’ songs are tender and touching and, like many country classics, can be sung by just about anyone, Morrison and The Doors are anything but tender, and their sound is so unique, I have trouble believing anyone can sing them without sounding diluted.  Parsons was a pain in the ass; Morrison comes across as just plain dangerous.  His various arrests—whether deserved or trumped up—illustrate how good, clean folks reacted to him and how much he appealed to their children.  It can be argued that Morrison was essentially a blues artist, but there was also a great deal of French surrealist/ Dadaist/German expressionist to him.  I always felt that his vocal on  Kurt Weil’s “Alabama Song” was indicative of a sympathetic aesthetic that wasn’t purely American.  Parsons was a Southern boy; while Morrison was something bigger.  Partly western in that the Southwestern desert slithered in his sub-conscious.  Parsons was the kind of guy who would sit around a campfire and play his guitar and pass the whiskey bottle back and forth.  Morrison was going to strip naked and dance around that campfire and inspire you to do the same.  Parsons wanted some recognition from us, from you; Morrison wanted acknowledgment from the gods.
            I don’t think either of these guys were particularly good poets—as poets.  And I am convinced that the other members of The Doors have not received their full share of the credit for their amazing music.  I mean look at the instruments they are playing.  Go to Youtube and watch some videos. Densmore has a dinky little drum kit, but watch him play.  The best drummers are smart drummers and their silences and fills are as important as their pounding.  Manzarek’s keyboard work is The Doors most distinctive musical element.  Long before you hear Morrison, Manzarek ‘s carnival jazz and weird chord progressions announce that this is a Doors' song.  Take Manzarek out and you have merely another blues band.  Maybe I am being unfair to Krieger on guitar with that statement, but his playing does not define the Doors the way Manzarek’s keyboard does.  I used to dismiss Krieger and his playing until I learned that he wrote “Light My Fire” and was trained as a Flamenco guitarist.  Then I started noticing how he fell in under Manzarek and just kind of laid that psychedelic dance into the song.  These boys were not your Byrds-inspired “So you want to be a rock and roll star” guys.  Except for Morrison who was lost poet wandering the beaches at Venice, they were accomplished musicians.
Captain Crunch Climbs at Joshua Tree
But in front was Morrison, the sex king anarchist.  If anyone has satisfied our projection of what Dionysus should be in the flesh, Morrison is it.  But, of course, he burned out also.  Drink and drugs.  Like Parsons, it was a combination that killed him, but it was the alcohol that brought him to the doorstep.  Supposedly he had moved to Paris to get clean, to distance himself from the distractions and destruction.  But no such luck.  The end came as the end must.   If I ever go to Paris again, I will, of course, go to his grave. 
So in the past month, I have visited Joshua Tree National Park and the Joshua Tree Motel, and paid my respects to Gram Parsons and I have biked around Venice Beach and gandered at the giant mural of the young Jim Morrison.  I have listened to a sizeable selection of their music.  And I have thought about two types of the American outlaw that they might represent.  Parsons understood that sincere hopeless desire of the prodigal to return home, to the gentle welcoming arms of a community.  He wanted and needed to be forgiven.  Morrison, on the other hand, just cut loose.  Early promotional material announced that his family was deceased, a lie he concocted.  He let go of convention, conventionality, family ties; he leapt into the unknown and seemed not to turn around looking for lost hand holds.  He had moved beyond salvation, beyond the desire for salvation.  Or so I imagine. 

Maybe.  Or maybe it is just my need, as a stuck-in-the-mud, conventional middle-class guy to have someone like Morrison to project upon.  Parsons, I know and understand.  Morrison is a mystery to me.  It is good to admit that.  Still, part of May and part of June has been spent thinking about these two American artists.  Both have meant something to me.  I wonder why two such different guys are both still so important. 

Soundtrack.  Gram Parsons:  "The Return of the Grievous Angel."
Dwight Yoakam:  "Wheels."
The Doors:  "L'america."
The Doors: "Roadhouse Blues."


  1. Interesting commentary but I think you have a few things wrong. This particular era produced many excellent musicians - many things influenced the direction they went and the music they produced and their deaths. The Viet Nam war was a major factor and the reaction of youth to a war that no one wanted. Drugs were easily available. Many of the groups had access to significant money - more than they had ever known. While no connection to Joshua Tree - you forgot Jimi Hendrix, Creedance Clearwater R. Buffalo Springfield. The remnants of many extraordinary bands that evolved into something else based solely on the times - They Yardbirds became Led Zeppelin, many bands became CSN&Y and the list goes on. Always think of the lyrics from one Buffalo Springfield song - "somethings happening here and what it is ain't exactly clear" when I think about this period.

    1. Yes, I knew I was biting off more than I could chew in one post. I didn't want to get off into the entire loss of hope for a generation, but sure enough there I wandered into that territory. I wanted to stick with Parsons and Morrison because I had visited their territories. After i wrote this blog I watched a program on youtube called something like "From the Byrds to the Eagles" that looks at LA and the country rock folk scene. I recommend it--though it too is incomplete. For instance it never mentioned The Doors.

  2. Hey! Contact me if you haven't already passed through!

    Rich P

    1. I am trying but the email gets bounced back. We will be in your city on Monday (tomorrow) and Tuesday. my personal email is lymanwgrant at gmail dot com