Perfect Sound Forever

A personal reminisce about Gram

by Kurt Hernon
(July 2001)

You could look at him, then look at me, and in a lifetime never see us as brothers. Certainly not now, with all of those tubes and wires running out of his nose, mouth, and arms. One even drips like drool from under his chin down through a white sheet and then puddles onto his big toe. His hands, bloated as if he were wearing wool gloves under a pale green-gray flesh, twitch occasionally, not reacting to any particular stimulus, rather the consequence of brain signals sent adrift by a near fatal collision between head, metal and pavement. I can look at him now and also never recognize him as my brother - something nearly as mystifying to me as we probably are to others. Brothers brought together by adoption's fate, now detached by the prospect of death, with no regrets, nothing left unsaid. Which only seems to make it all the more grievous.

Gray clouds spill themselves gently across the windshield as I drive home. Fall has set in and the chill is hardly as ironic as it is real. Forty-eight hours earlier my brother's life had been a train running mostly off the rails, and now, finally, maybe mercifully, it had jumped the track and come to a quiet rest having hurt nobody else - probably the silent wish all of us who knew and cared about him had kept. My stomach turns sharply as I catch myself ruefully thinking aloud, "Thank God." I glance into the rearview mirror to chance catching the person who dared mutter such thoughtless suggestion. Gram Parsons voice gently meets the rain that mists the world outside and darkly challenges its gloom. The doleful longing of "Hickory Wind" speaks in hushed reservations about wanting to be - needing to be - someplace other than here. It sounds like it should be a joyful song, or at least contented, but it isn't. Nothing Parsons sang ever was; often sounding as if someone had, early in his young life, revealed to Gram his very own fate, and then left him to forever contemplate such horrible enlightenment.

At times it seems to me that, being thirty-four years old now and hardly all of six years old when Gram escaped eternally into the California (the American) desert, Parsons might have only existed as an idea -such is the largesse of his myth. Gram Parsons, folk legend of the sort that only America can breathe life into. Gram Parsons as fiction become non-fiction. A spectre of possibilities; a little boy lost at the county fair and never wanting to be found by his parents; the inverse Paul Bunyon. Parsons sounds too good to be true - in story and in song - as far as that takes you with such a socio-tragic figure. Perhaps that is the undying pull of Parsons' music, its mythic heroic pathos. It is certainly the central theme in Parsons' story; the angel crowned with a broken halo, one that everyone else seems to see. But, in the dream cloud that exists around Parsons' name, that is surely what pulled me to Grievous Angel on such a night as this. A brother is a brother, no matter his story, no matter the avoidable tragedy, and lying on that gurney in the intensive care unit, a few hours removed from the motorcycle that seemed to give him his greatest joy in life, my brother wore a broken halo of his own. And for a moment he looked, to me, just like Gram Parsons.

Such ghastly melodrama usually seems trite. So does Gram Parsons music - if you take it out of the context in which it needs to be viewed and heard. When Parsons sings Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard's "Streets of Baltimore" on GP (the first solo record) you probably couldn't slip in a more maudlin mud puddle. Yet, Parsons takes this extraordinarily simple blues and inserts himself with such subtle assertiveness that you cannot help but relate to the song's protagonist. In fact, as Parsons is always apt to do, Gram walks those streets of Baltimore for two minutes and forty-five seconds and you'd be damned, if you didn't know that the song wasn't really his, to figure the tune as anything less than sober autobiography.

GP is filled with this sort of distant autobiographical metaphor. It's also graced with some of Parsons' most personal and deeply religious influenced songs. "A Song for You" weeps with passionate Old and New Testament imagery. "She" drifts in humility and the sense of a maligned Old Southern, and slightly Confederate, upbringing. Parsons rummages through, and evolves, the slightly more literal approach that will come to fuel his more urgent work on Grievous Angel with "The New Soft Shoe". GP, far from perfect, sends Parsons into his fateful last act with a delicate confidence that doesn't come knowingly, but rather emanates from someplace that cannot be understood, let alone established.

It sounds foolish to claim that Grievous Angel is a ghostly document that somehow always knew its doom. It's naïve to wade through the murky analytical waters of assumption post facto, but Angel harbors the infinitely weird sensation that Parsons was a man who'd read his own story and was prepared to leave behind a statement about the hand he'd been dealt and knew he had to play.

I suppose that's the reason it wound up on my car stereo while my brother lay comatose, kept alive by luck and machinery. His was a similarly preordained tale. We all knew the figurative crash was coming at some point, and were hardly moved when that crash became literal. I'm pretty sure he knew it too. He lived his life seemingly forever knowing the course his story would take. Like an actor poured into a new skin he's created, my brother always radiated the notion of someone who'd read the entire script already too. His droopy eyes and quiet, infrequent words worked futilely to disguise a resigned melancholy - one that, presumably, was tormenting. The first time I'd ever heard Parsons (aside from Elvis Costello's fine cover of "Hot Burrito #2") he was singing "In My Hour of Darkness" with Emmylou Harris and others, Carter family style. Immediately I thought of my brother - long before his turbulent downward spiral. I made nothing of it at the time, but I must have taken note of the fragile pain that seemed to line Gram Parsons vocals. When I eventually came around and purchased the Warner Bros. two-fer of GP and Grievous Angel the booklet back cover photo of Gram only steadied the correlation. Oddly contented far away eyes searched for something no one else could see. They were the same eyes I knew so well, the ones I grew up looking into on my brother's face. Inviting eyes, warm, and mischievous eyes, but also eyes that kept the soul's doors closed.

Despite the painful pensiveness of his music, Parsons' was an enigmatic energy that seemed to become the sun at the center of its own universe, constantly finding creative souls pulled into its orbits. He was the original urban cowboy. He was the easiest going hippy. He was a rock and roll spirit with a bumpkin's heart. He was a Southern gentleman and a suave, savvy metropolitan ladies man. He was a Confederate son who exuded an American ideal. He was beautiful and wounded. He became what he wanted to be but never was what he thought he should be. He bore country music's long-haired step-child and turned punks into pokes. He was reality but has become fabled. His ashes risen to the heavens from the dreary beauty of the California desert, drifting across the land in gray clouds that drip onto windshields in Ohio. He was nobody's son and everybody's brother. My brother.

So what's it all worth if the music can't find its way into your life like this? Nothing really, but you have to let it in, because it doesn't find its own way. My brother recovered from his accident, or rather, he survived it. He's not the same, never will be they say, but what would the same be for someone who never revealed himself to begin with? He's moved South himself nowadays - Gram Parsons territory, amongst the cotton and the tall pines, underneath the shady oak trees where that hickory wind still blows. No one can be sure for how long, or how and when it may end, but I have his music - thanks to Gram Parsons, I'll always have his music.

See the rest of our Gram tribute

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