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The Thing Itself: The Gram Parsons Project

The Thing Itself—Return to Sin City: The Gram Parsons Tribute Concert, Santa Barbara, CA

Image courtesy of Musicians’ Assistance Program.
Image courtesy of Musicians’ Assistance Program.

About 35 years ago, Gram Parsons, the man who invented country-rock, abandoned his girlfriend Nancy and their infant daughter Polly. Growing up in the inescapable shadow of her father’s legend, but without her father—who died in 1973—wrung some stringent emotional dues from Polly; it took her most of her adulthood to sort out her dad’s demons from her own. Armed with Parsons’s smarts and Parsons’s charm—but not Parsons money—Polly spent two years creating a tribute concert to her dad. The proceeds went to MAP (Musicians’ Assistance Program), a nonprofit that helps get musicians off drugs and alcohol. For the cynical, it’s a California personal-redemption-through-growth-and-embracing-one’s-pain kinda story. But it comes with a happy ending.

Even without the curiously absent Chris Hillman and Emmylou Harris, Polly gathered an all-star roster to play for no pay in the Santa Barbara Bowl, a stone amphitheater high above the town, surrounded by palms and eucalyptus, with the Pacific sunset visible between the California trees.

Next to Polly stands her strong right hand and link to her father’s era, Pamela Des Barres, an L.A. legend. Miss Pamela made her name as the queen groupie of the Sunset Strip/Whiskey-A-Go-Go scene, the leader of the Frank Zappa–recorded GTO’s (Girls Together Outrageously) and author of the quintessential rock tell-all memoir I’m With the Band. Whatever sordidness she’s witnessed during her life spent backstage, she still has a soul as light as a feather. Like most of the women with guest passes, Pamela wears a cosmic-cowgirl outfit harkening to the very first go-round of fringe and bell-bottoms. She and twenty nonmusician women spend the show shimmying with their arms in the air, as Pamela first did at the Whiskey nigh-on forty years ago.

Facing a crowd that knows all the words and holds their emotional connection to Parsons’s music dear, the musicians walk a tightrope. They’re preaching to the choir, but it’s a choir with high expectations. It’s not a night to interpret songs, but to inhabit their strange landscapes. Canadian folkie Kathleen Edwards, Jim Lauderdale, a surprisingly weak-voiced John Doe, and the Mavericks’ Raul Malo all fall short.

Jay Farrar wanders out blank faced, dressed like a car parker in a baggy white shirt and baggier black pants. Without introducing himself, he sings "Drugstore Truck-Driving Man" and "Devil in Disguise" in a rich, full-throated voice at odds with his narcoleptic stage presence. Farrar’s passionate reverence underscores Parsons’s brilliant, quirky arrangements and love of waltzes—so much country anguish over the years hidden in 3/4 time.

Jim James of My Morning Jacket sports a tangerine nudie suit and the grin of a mule eating briars. The band needs half of "Dark End of the Street" to realize (1) how completely James surrenders to his love of singing it and (2) what an effortless set of southern Baptist church-choir pipes the boy has. During the banjo solo, James gleefully funky-chickens around the stage.

Steve Earle stalks on in a jean jacket and chain wallet looking dangerously skinny, agitated, and preoccupied. Turning sideways to the mike, he croons "Luxury Liner," Parson’s lonesomest song. Earle’s soulful, heartfelt delivery gets the applause due a folk hero. Earning more, he gives a brief political intro to a political song, the Hillman/Parsons anti-Vietnam "My Uncle," about heading to Canada to avoid the draft. It’s a generous performance; Earle makes sure the songs remain bigger than him.

Lucinda Williams, a battered straw cowboy hat obscuring her face, fearlessly embraces the pain-wracked "Sleepless Nights" and "Song for You." Her drummer demonstrates the subtlety of Satan, and Lucinda’s bottomless voice fills the night. Behind her, archetypal Nashville cat James Burton (Elvis’s guitarist, who played on Gram’s solo records thirty years ago) caresses his white Strat. He and pedal-steel maestro Al Perkins (who also recorded with Gram) watch Lucinda like bodyguards. She’s defenseless before the songs, so lost in their hurt, so attuned to all their loss. Lining the stage, awestruck, worshipful, is every other musician, turned to waxworks. Like the rest of us, they’re too swept away to move.

Dwight Yoakam, resplendent in a white sequined suit, leaps onstage, and his four-piece tears into "Wheels." It’s all wrong. Yoakam’s arrangement butchers the song. He encores with Parsons’s strangest waltz, "Sin City," featuring Gram’s least explicable but most moving chorus: "On the thirty-first floor/A gold-plated door/Won’t keep out/The Lord’s burning rain."

Yoakam shits all over the song, turning it into a 4/4 rocker that drowns any meaning or poetry but showcases that little toes-up heel-swivel he’s been doing for twenty years. He takes chorus after chorus as the crowd rears back, withdrawing from the spectacle. When it’s over, Dwight races to his giant RV, which he insisted be parked stage-side. Steve Earle’s backstage saying howdy, as are Lucinda and Norah Jones, but Dwight’s too cool for that school.

Norah Jones, all ten million album sales of her, ambles out looking like an ordinary girl. The J. Geils Band stomper "Cry One More Time" could not be less suited to her quavering, anonymous voice. James Burton, feeling the song get away from her, steps up to deliver a cascading solo that gently eases Norah to the side. When Burton finishes, she waits expectantly, like the rest of us.

Then, after a breathless moment, there he stands, Gram’s one-time best friend in the world. Keith Richards: the thing itself. The only man on earth, Terry Southern wrote, who can play a Chuck Berry song worse than Chuck Berry. Not a drop of his own blood left in his body, and the skin to prove it. Here’s the only guy as mythical as Gram who still walks among us. But how long have the Stones been a joke, an abomination, the band you most wished would just fade away? The question is: Will Keith measure up to this night or remain the fraud he’s seemed for decades?

Looking nervous, Richards reaches down in slow motion and hits the opening chords of "Wild Horses" on his boomy acoustic. And that’s it. Then you remember why at one time he seemed the absolute incarnation of rock and roll, why the most discerning sensibilities on the planet, like Gram Parsons, turned their lives inside out just to hang.

Because no one in the history of rock or country can hit an acoustic guitar and make it sound like Keith. Then, as the effect of those chords reverberates, Keith opens his yap to sing. Only, he can’t "sing." He can’t find the notes or the key and his breath-starved croak barely lets him reach the end of each line. But the soul in his voice, the depth of feeling, the ache, the connection to that longing…it’s heartbreaking.

It’s scary.

Keith sings, and the gospel choir kicks in behind him, soaring, and everyone in the show—save little asshole-boy Dwight cringing in his RV—backup musicians and stagehands and girls of all decades twirling in their Whiskey finery and Lucinda and Norah and Earle and Jim James and even James Burton, who’s seen it all (twice), look around the stage and at the crowd and at each other, beaming, every one of them clearly thinking, "How fucking great is this?"

Steve Earle leads an adrenalized jam-session finale of "Ooh Las Vegas," with everybody sharing choruses as Polly Parsons swing-dances ecstatically with Lucinda down the middle of the stage. Santa Barbara has a strict nighttime noise policy: At 9:59 p.m., Polly takes the mike to say good night. Her speech is simple and eloquent, no showbiz clichés, no mention of God (thank God), her face glowing with the righteousness of one who found redemption in hard work and the embrace of difficult memories. Awash in the music she’s brought together, and the genuine joy welling out of these well-traveled pros, you could believe the recurring theme of Parsons’s music: that pain and heartbreak and irreparable loss—faced directly and described clearly and owned without sentimentality—can actually provide transcendence.


David N. Meyer

David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2004

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