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Thursday, April 9, 2009

GMVW # 66: "Heartache"

Gem Music Video of the Week # 66:  Heartache
Song:  $1000 Dollar Wedding by Gram Parsons
(Songwriter: Gram Parsons)
April 9, 2009

I received plenty of great album recommendations after my request a month or so ago (the write-up for Gem # 58), so it is going to take a while to sift through…. a good thing.  However, the first returns are in, and a new Gem has been found.  The Gem is off the Gram Parson’s album ‘Grievous Angel’, released posthumously in 1973.  The album recommendation is from Jeff Strause, former fellow USGS employee (now retired), good friend and concert-attendee extraordinaire.    A Jeff Strause recommendation is nothing to shake a stick at.  On the contrary, I’m thankful for this and all his recommendations over the years, because Jeff has a keen ear for music.  He’s attended so many live shows that he has developed an osmosis-like ability to sift through gravel to find nuggets.  With that pressure hanging over me, I hope to do his recommendation justice here.

I’ll start with a bit of Rolling Stones history for some context.  Fans typically break up Stones albums into two categories: ‘Mick albums’ and ‘Keith albums’.  Mick Jagger has been credited as leading the Stones through a fair share of albums over the years (‘Emotional Rescue’, ‘Some Girls’ and ‘Tattoo You’ come to mind), but it was Keith Richards who was running the show in the early 70’s, and it was during this period that one of the Stones most critically acclaimed albums was produced: ‘Exile on Main Street’.   ‘Exile’ rounded out a sound that was slowly evolving in the Stones music over previous albums.  The music on the album straddled the boundaries between Country and Rock.  I once read that the Stones spent time in the Deep South during this period, so that was explanation enough for me.  However, as I listened to Gram Parsons music this past month, it became apparent that the influence was not so much a region as it was a person.  I should have pieced it together years ago….Parsons after all, was one of Keith Richards best friends.  

Country and Rock music have both had their fair share of deep thinking musicians with fine music writing abilities, but those musicians who are recognized as the trailblazers for having a foot in both realms are statistical anomalies, since most ALL of them have depth.  There’s The Band, Booker T and the MGs, Emmylou Harris, Towns Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Shawn Colvin, and Nils Lofgren among others.  The guy who did it first, however, was Gram Parsons.  The Byrds certainly found this out when they welcomed him into their ranks for the ground breaking Country/Rock album ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’.  Parsons was also a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers, an under-the-radar band in the late 60’s who had Country listeners thinking ‘Rock’ and Rock listeners thinking ‘Country’…. just the way Parsons wanted it. 

Gram Parsons personal life had more than its share of heartache, which is why this week’s Gem follows on-the-heals of the last.  Where last week’s Gem reveals the thrill of love in good times, it is part of the human condition that love can also bring anguish.  The saying goes that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.  This may have been taken to the extreme in the case of Gram Parsons, who lost his Dad and Mom in separate tragic incidents in his teen years.  Then there was his called off wedding, the story behind this week’s Gem, “$1000 Wedding”, one of the best songs on ‘Grievous Angel’, which is full of great songs.   The lyrics switch from third person to first and back again, as if he could not accept the fact he was singing about himself.  It’s one of the few songs I know that is too personal for anyone to cover it appropriately, although Emmylou Harris does an amazing job backing up the vocals in this version.

There are plenty of great songs about love lost.  I was watching ‘Saving Private Ryan’ yet again the other night and the moments just before the German tanks role into the bombed out French village (as intense of a scene as any I’ve viewed in film), when the rag-tag group of soldiers are waiting for the inevitable.  One of them puts an Edith Piaf song on the phonograph and another interprets her French lyrics, which are of intense heartache.  More recent songs that come to mind: Richard and Linda Thompson ‘Withered and Died’ (an earlier Gem), The Beatles ‘Oh Darling’, The Pretenders, ‘Back on the Chain Gang’ (another Gem), Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl’, Green Day ‘September Ends’, Dylan’s ‘Simple Twist of Fate, The Who ‘Don’t Let Go the Coat’, The Everly Brothers ‘Love Hurts’.  This Gem, however, takes the cake.

Gram Parsons favorite place was the 800,000 acre Joshua Tree National Park where the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts meet in Southeast California, and which is where Parsons ultimately passed on.  One location in Joshua Tree, Cap Rock, was a particularly fascinating place to him.  I had an opportunity to go there a number of years ago.  It’s in the middle of nowhere, many miles from the nearest anything, but naturally spectacular.  There’s a plaque there which reads “Gram Safe at Home”. 

Parsons was a compassionate soul, which can be heard in his music, but can also be seen in a letter he wrote to his lone sibling, Avis, written at the time of their mother’s death when Avis was being sent to boarding school against her will.  The letter was part of a short story of his life I read recently.  Here is an extract:  “The best thing we can do is learn from the past and live our lives the right way so, in time, when we can do something to change things, we will be real people.  Not sick or haunted by what life has done to us.  We have the advantage of seeing definite examples of what can happen when people permit life to tangle them so badly that there is no escape.  For us there is time – life can be real and beautiful if you build it that way honestly so there will be no lies or shadows to be afraid of later….it requires a lot of work, knowledge, and love”. 

It’s no wonder Keith Richards is renowned for his all-nighter lifestyle. With friends like Gram Parsons, there was much to hash out.

Now, the one problem with new music recommendations is that finding Gem Videos becomes all that more difficult.  This is particularly the case with Gram Parsons, as there is precious little footage of him, so this still-shot Gem of “$1000.00 Wedding” is all I have to offer.  To make up for the lack of video, I suggest the audio be played loudly.

Thanks again, Jeff. 

- Pete

“I hate to tell you how he acted when the news arrived
 He took some friends out drinking and it’s lucky they survived”

Gem Music Video: $1000 Dollar Wedding

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About the Video: still shots with the studio version

Video Rating: 2 (although I can’t imagine there is a live recording of Parsons performing this song)

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