I’ve been squashing my yen for portraits. I painted people from 2000 to 2005, and then found myself in a room full of stares. Portraits used to be the thing to have before daguerreotypes came to be. In every tasteful dwelling, there hung an oversize oil painting of Crusty Old Ancestor scowling over the fireplace. Now we have thousands of pictures on our computers never to be printed, although we swear we’ll print them someday.
This is Gram Parsons, inventor of Cosmic American Music. His life could have come straight out of a Tennessee Williams play, or at least the Twilight Zone. His family owned the largest citrus plantation in Florida, thriving in rapidly rotting opulence. Raised a true Southern gentleman, he was reported to have always pulled back chairs for all the ladies. Gram was both blessed and cursed with the bad combination of unlimited wealth and a hereditary addiction to alcohol and drugs. Growing up, there were numerous toys and gifts, wild bourbon-fueled parties, a giant swimming pool. His father committed suicide when he was 12. His mother drank herself into oblivion and died the day he graduated high school. His stepfather had a pet ocelot and drove a Jaguar convertible.
Gram had a talent for music early on. There was no doubt his playing and song-writing provided a catharsis for all of his painful experiences. In the late 1960s he moved to Los Angeles and dove headfirst into the hippie music scene, fiercely defending country music to his peers. He took rock and roll, stirred in some country and called it “Cosmic American Music.” With his hair hanging in his eyes, he took his creation to the old honkytonks in Los Angeles. The rednecks would have beat him up in no time, had he not played so well and sung so earnestly. (Actually, he did get beat up, never was able to keep his mouth shut.)
Gram played with the International Submarine Band, the Byrds, and the Flying Burrito Brothers. He turned out two brilliant solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel, then died of a heroin overdose at the age of 26, on the verge of hitting his stride and making music history. He not only sang sad country songs, he was a sad country song. Like so many other musicians of his time, God only knows what he could have accomplished had he lived. But with a life so complicated with tragedy and hereditary addiction, it seemed destined to be short.
Perhaps Gram himself puts it best:
“It was a dream much too real to be leaned against too long.”
( Thanks to David N. Meyer for Twenty Thousand Roads, a great, in-depth biography of Gram Parsons.)