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Honky- tonk angel

RJ Smith is the author of "The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Lost African-American Renaissance." He is a senior editor at Los Angeles magazine.

SOME suits tell a story, like the one on the cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ 1969 album, “The Gilded Palace of Sin.” It is worn by the band’s leader, Gram Parsons; perhaps nobody else could have stood up to it. On the bell-bottom pants, embroidered flames crawl up the legs, all the way to the roses that cover the front and back pockets. Parsons’ jacket lapels sport naked women, in the style of old-school sailors’ tattoos. Rising up the front are impressively embroidered marijuana leaves; the sleeves feature Seconals, Tuinals and a presumably LSD-dosed sugar cube. On the back a blood-red cross is shot through with blue and gold rays.

Made for Parsons by Valley couturier Nudie Cohn, this wasn’t a mere set of threads; it was the Sistine Chapel of Hollywood Hillbilly Heaven -- pleasure and pain, death and transfiguration all accounted for. It defined a moment, and to this day, when many think of Parsons, they see him in this suit.

In “Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music,” David N. Meyer provides a more complicated point of view. This is far and away the most thorough biography of Parsons, who comes across here -- as he did at many a gig, party and late-night soiree -- as an elusive, never-quite-present figure, quickly retreating behind a carapace of women and drugs, guilt and hopefulness. Parsons was beloved and maddeningly separate from the scenes to which he was most attached, and it is both Meyer’s achievement and his affliction to render fully a man who craved attention without understanding and got his wish. Parsons needed to be noticed, and to be apart.

He was born Cecil Ingram Connor III into a wealthy family overstocked with drunks. His mother was heiress to an orange empire in Florida, his father a decorated World War II fighter pilot known as Coon Dog, who projected “a kindly remove, an ambivalence about the world of ambition, a winning charm that drew people toward him but left them baffled as to his essential nature, a love of fun and taking risks, a tendency to addiction, a surprising lack of common hypocrisy when it came to pursuing his pleasures, and a Southern gift for doing very little but doing it with grace.” These words richly suggest those of Southern historian W.J. Cash, and Meyer -- a Southerner himself -- barely raises a sweat showing how they apply as well to Coon Dog’s son.

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Parsons grew up with much of what he could have wanted: A driver chauffeured him to school, and playmates were in awe of his toys and the parentless spaces he commanded. As drinking ripped up family ties, he became a discipline case, falling in and out of a military academy. He took a stab at a Harvard education, then landed in New York City with the folk scene in its mid-1960s peak. He never looked back at school.

In early 1967, Parsons followed buddy Brandon De Wilde to Los Angeles and encountered a whole other kind of scene: If Village folkies were “authenticity” obsessed, the Sunset Strip bands were addled with artifice. He found a way to split the difference, using roots music as both a gesture at “truth” and a kind of cosmic play.

Parsons arrived in Southern California lugging his own version of the cardboard suitcase -- a love of country music. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of country songs and singers and made mix tapes for his friends. Still, it’s impossible to say how much he truly identified with the white working-class culture of the South (Meyer leaves room for doubt) and how much he played it for calculated shock. Parsons must have loved the looks he got from Laurel Canyon mandarins when his International Submarine Band hit them with a pedal steel melody. Meyer portrays him as an equal-opportunity offender, risking his neck by learning his craft in blue-collar dives like the city of Industry’s after-hours joint Aces, with its trucker clientele inclined to beat up a longhair from Hollywood.

It’s hard to imagine now, when country bands rap and rock out and lay plausible claim to the mainstream, but once country was the rarest of taboos -- about the only way a rich kid could slum and not look cool. Although Parsons helped change that more than anybody else, Meyer is right to point out how courageous it was to play country, and represent the South, in the early 1970s. Of all Meyer’s claims for Parsons’ greatness, the ultimate, and least disputable, one has to do with his fearlessness. That fearlessness found its emotional level on his later majestic duets with Emmylou Harris.

Parsons joined Strip stalwarts the Byrds in 1968, steering them to Nashville via their LP “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” It was one of their creative shining moments and, at the time, a commercial flop. Meyer recounts how easily Parsons led the band, seemingly without trying. This so infuriated bandmate Roger McGuinn (who could teach Mike Love a thing or two about priggishness) that he erased most of Parsons’ vocals from the very album he’d made possible.

“Twenty Thousand Roads” skewers any number of myths surrounding this endlessly mythologized performer. Parsons, it’s routinely said, high-mindedly left the Byrds when the group booked dates in apartheid South Africa. But, as Meyer suggests, it was Parsons’ preference to hang with his new buddy Keith Richards that inspired his departure. Most important, Meyer provides fresh details surrounding the singer’s 1973 death of a morphine overdose in a Twentynine Palms motel. (You can reserve the Gram Parsons room today.) Drawing on the first-hand testimony of the girlfriend who was with Parsons, as well as other sources, he brings one of rock’s haziest myths into the bilious light of the autopsy room. It’s a passing that has come to signify even more than the Nudie suit and to some, perhaps, more than the songs he sang.

AS legend has it, Parsons declared, after the funeral of Byrds guitarist Clarence White, that he never wanted a service when he died. His wishes were for a desert pyre. Apparently, he had long given thought to how his corpse should be presented. Meyer describes him in the mid-1960s, a Harvard freshman under the influence, racing back roads with a buddy in an Austin-Healy convertible. As the car passed 100 mph, his companion asked why he had to go so fast. “If I get into a wreck,” Parsons said, “I don’t want to be maimed.”

After his death, Parsons’ corpse was sent by his family to LAX, en route to a New Orleans burial. His road manager swiped the corpse at the airport and, according to his own romantic retelling, left the body flaming in Joshua Tree before fleeing from an oncoming car. The story has been popularly recounted as one of loyalty and an artist’s vision fulfilled; as depicted by Meyer, what happened was more like grisly drug-culture antics, which left anything but a beautiful corpse. As it happens, filmmaker Arthur Penn was shooting scenes for his movie “Night Moves” in the road manager’s home as the cops closed in. “I have a feeling I’m directing the wrong movie,” Penn mused.

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“Twenty Thousand Roads” is clearly a labor of love, although Meyer sheds his fan goggles for a clear-eyed look at a man who ultimately stays just out of focus. He holds our interest for most of the book, although with its heft -- 560 pages -- comes the temptation to make extreme claims about the wide-ranging importance, the gravity, of the subject. At the end of his introduction, after linking Parsons with other great flameouts of the era (Jimi, Janis, Morrison), Meyer moves in for the kill: Parsons, he suggests, has “exerted greater influence on our national musical taste than any other single musician.”

Memo to all future rock biographers: This sort of utterance may help sell a book proposal, but it should be extracted before publication. Parsons was a beautiful, inexact singer. He cut an astonishing figure and was someone people naturally wanted to get next to. He had a vision -- mingling country with R&B;, as well as bringing it into the mainstream -- but it was hardly his alone, although he gets much credit. (And don’t blame him for the Eagles.) He made six albums, two or three of them classics.

But he was hardly one of the leading innovators of his era, and indeed, any number of more influential figures died the same year as he did: Tex Ritter, Clara Ward, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Lowman Pauling. That isn’t to diminish what Parsons was about -- it’s to point out that his achievements were as flickering and elusive as the man. He filled the suit, but the suit was not him.


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