“This old town’s filled with sin, it’ll swallow you in .” Chris Hillman woke up with the words in his head one morning in early 1969 and, as he made his way to the kitchen of his rented house just off Ventura Boulevard, a few more lines came to him: “If you got some money to burn, take it home right away.”
The former member of the Byrds made a cup of coffee, but the words kept coming and he couldn’t wait any longer. He woke up his roommate, Gram Parsons, who was drowsy but quickly found a tune to go with the words; it was a loping lament, like those old Baptist hymns the pair loved so much.
“We were done in 30 minutes with the whole song,” Hillman said. They called it “Sin City,” and on the first Burrito Brothers album, they sang it together, sounding like a world-weary version of the Everly Brothers. It became one of the signature songs of the country-rock movement in Los Angeles and a lasting, cynical anthem for the music industry.
This old earthquake’s gonna leave me in the poor house
It seems like this whole town’s insane
On the thirty-first floor
Your gold-plated door
Won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rainHillman and Parsons were fresh from bad romantic breakups and Hillman, a founder of the Byrds, was still deeply embittered by the implosion of that band and the machinations of its manager, the late Larry Spector. “Spector was a thief, it was as simple as that. And his condo, he lived on the 31st floor behind this awful, garish gold door.”
The song was also a cautionary dirge, Hillman said, to “people like Gene Clark from the Byrds, who came here from Kansas with all that talent and all bright-eyed and talented and idealistic, and the whole thing just swallowed him up.”
Parsons, who is more famous among musicians than among music fans, would himself be swallowed up by the rock lifestyle. He overdosed in September 1973 in Joshua Tree. Parsons was already suspicious of the fame game in 1969 and added a line to “Sin City” that took a shot at the industry crowd that approached music as fashion instead of art: “Cause we’ve got our recruits/And our green mohair suits/So please show your I.D. at the door.” Hillman chuckled while reflecting on that one. “That was all Gram, that line, it’s a great one.”
A lyrical mystery of the song is the unidentified “friend” it mentions, who is punished for taking a stand. It turns out it wasn’t a music business figure. “We were talking about Robert F. Kennedy.” Now the line could be about Parsons, the overlooked, beautiful dreamer who sang Southern church songs to L.A. sinners.
A friend came around
Tried to clean up this town
His ideas made some people mad
But he trusted his crowd
So he spoke right out loud
And they lost the best friend they had.
— Geoff Boucher