Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Genius of Gram Parsons: Making the Uncool Cool

gram 1

I was doing my tour of duty in the waiting room at the dentist’s office this morning when “the music snob within” reared its ugly head.  I’ve tried hard to overcome this personality flaw, and I like to think I’ve made some progress over the years from my original “disco sucks” snobbery, but today, being forced to listen to modern country music brought about a snobbery-relapse.

At first, I tried to overcome it with reason…“Now, Marie, just keep an open mind.  You might hear something you like.”  Wrong.  Each song seemed to be worse than the one before.  Looking around at the faces of the other waiting room inhabitants, it didn’t seem to be bothering anyone else.  One might even think they were enjoying it.  I, on the other hand, was gritting my soon-to-be-examined teeth and reading the same magazine paragraph over and over.

“What”, you may ask, “does this have to do with Gram Parsons?”  I’m glad you asked.  There’s always been a cultural divide between rock fans and country music fans.  Although it exists to this day to some extent, the division that we have now pales in comparison to the musical enemy camps that existed during the sixties and seventies.  There’s a whole history lesson in the multiple reasons for this, but for fear of slipping into my professorial persona and losing you altogether due to mind-numbing boredom, suffice it to say that it had to do with the fierce societal clash created by the post-war cultural revolution and political climate.

imagesCAN4GEUV

These two camps now live in a state of musical détente, cooperating and collaborating, crossing-over and synthesizing.  Not so in Gram’s day.  These two “diametrically opposed” forms of music represented an utter and insurmountable (so it appeared) cultural, political, economic, and age-based chasm.  It was not a matter of simply changing the radio station – your choice of music was fundamentally connected to your identity in the world.

Into this deeply divided music scene appeared Gram Parsons, a son of wealthy citrus growers in central Florida who was a well-trained musician and a highly intelligent Harvard dropout.  It’s been conjectured that Gram brought an appreciation of country music to the Laurel Canyon musicians (The Byrds, etc.) simply because he was from the south, having lived in Florida and Georgia, but I don’t really agree with this.  Middle-and-upper-class kids from the south in that era generally didn’t listen to country music any more than kids in the rest of the country (trust me, I was there), and Gram was definitely from an “upper-class” family.

His early music career consisted of playing standard rock-pop tunes of the day, but he later began to investigate country music and became fascinated by the intense pathos of the music.  Country music in those days was much more reflective of its origins in the emotional Scotch-Irish ballads and folk tunes of immigrants in the southeast region of the U.S.  It was a far different animal than the one that is forced upon us at the dentist’s office today.  Gram looked past all the “enemy camp” craziness and sought to bring the elements that made this music so appealing to so many to the “rock camp”, thereby introducing a new sound to a new audience.

In other words, he had the courage to go against the flow, to risk having his “cool badge” revoked, in order to bridge the chasm. His legacy is multi-layered.  On one hand, without Gram, it’s possible that country music wouldn’t have evolved to the hybridized genre that it is today and would have remained true to its original roots to a greater degree, but on the other hand, without Gram, there would have been no Eagles, no Outlaws, no Pure Prairie League, no Marshall Tucker Band, no Charlie Daniels – and the list goes on.  Or at least, they probably wouldn’t exist in the form in which we know them.  And you know that country twang you hear in some Stones songs?  That might not be there either.  Gram was buddies with Keith Richards, and apparently was quite an influence on him.  (We won’t get into the whole “Wild Horses” controversy, but it’s worth looking up if you’re interested.)  It’s truly not an exaggeration to credit Gram Parsons as the “father of country rock”.

gram and keith 2

Going back to the whole music snob thing, in actuality, it’s perfectly fine to have musical preferences, of course – we all do.  It’s when these preferences result in an overly-derisive attitude toward other types of music that we have a problem. That mentality only serves to reinforce musical enemy camps and increase cultural divisions, as history has taught us.  It also means that we may miss out on some great tunes. So with Gram as my example, I’ll keep fighting the “music snob within”.  With that said, however, I’ll be bringing my earphones (or earbuds, if that’s the current term, I never know) to the dentist’s office next time.

The song I chose for this post is “A Song for You”.  Gram’s genius and contributions can be seen and summed up in his pronunciation of one word – the word dance, pronounced daynce.  The first time I heard this song, I did a mental double-take.  I couldn’t believe he said daynce.  I’d bet my bottom dollar that he did this intentionally and for a purpose.  Remember that he was a smart rich kid who was widely travelled and well-educated – he knew what he was doing by using the industrial-strength southern pronunciation of that word.

Of all the linguistic/speech patterns and colloquialisms of my regional culture, daynce was one of those that used to make me cringe the most.   For example…“Well, Marie, did you have fun at the daynce?  Did you do any dayncin‘? I bet you daynced all night.”  I made darn sure that I didn’t say daynce myself.  That way of speaking was a source of shame and embarrassment to me, and I consciously trained myself to speak differently.  And then, all of a sudden, this super-cool rock-dude, a former Byrd, was saying daynce?  Openly and in public?  In front of non-southerners?  Wow.  Courage, for sure – and pure genius.

Through this song and others, Gram took what was perceived as profoundly un-cool (and still is, really) and made it okay. He took the shame away that shouldn’t have existed in the first place.  I strongly suspect that Gram knew all about those feelings (he was a southern boy at Harvard, after all) and was thumbing his nose at that whole condescending attitude that made people like me (and him, maybe?) feel embarrassed about their southern roots.  Thank you for that, Gram.  I think you were wise beyond your years.

Gram-Parsons

     Enjoy this sublimely beautiful song and the pictures of old Florida.  It’s a different place now – this is a glimpse into a world gone by.   There is a brief excerpt from an interview with Gram at the beginning, which explains the meaning and background of the song.  Oh, take me down to your daynce floor…

As an added bonus, I am including one of my favorite songs that can be considered part of Gram’s legacy, what I believe to be among the “cream of the crop” – the incredible “Green Grass and High Tides”, by The Outlaws.  I recommend high volume for this gem.  And if you’ve never heard it before – hang in there; the song builds to a crescendo, and the ending may just wow you, like it does me.

Finally, I highly recommend the Gram Parsons biography, “Twenty Thousand Roads”, by David Meyer.  I enjoyed this book greatly and some of the things that I learned from it about Gram’s life are discussed in this post.

gram bio

Thoughts or Comments?  Please share! 

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Diamonds and Rust: The Big Own Up

Bob-Dylan-Joan-Baez

Ah, the lovely “Diamonds and Rust”, by the even lovelier Joan Baez.  This is one of those songs that I sometimes sing (not too well) to the accompaniment of dear hubby’s well-played guitar (you just knew, somehow, that I was married to a guitar man, right?).  Sometimes I pull out the old flute or saunter up to the piano and we play a duet of this song.  No matter how it’s done, it’s always achingly beautiful – delicate and sad with its minor chords, vivid imagery, and heart-rending lyrics.

This is undoubtedly a Joan Baez masterwork, written about her relationship with Bob Dylan and released in 1975.  Apparently, she tried to pretend to Bob at first that it wasn’t about him, and tried to pass it off as a song about her ex-husband, but Bob wasn’t fooled, and according to legend, he asked her about it.  I imagine the conversation went something like this…

Bob: Hey Joan, you know that song that you wrote about diamonds and cufflinks and whatnot?  The one that plays on the radio non-stop?

Joan: (cautiously)…Yeeaahh?

Bob: Well, it’s about me, right?

Joan: (hooting with laughter) Ha!  You’ve got to be kidding.  I’m so over you.  Why would I write a song about you?  It’s about my ex, of course.  Geesh.

Bob: But the robin’s-egg-blue eyes?  The unwashed phenomenon?  All that?

Joan: (rolling eyes) That could be anybody, Bob.  You’re not the only blue-eyed phenomenon in the sea.

Bob: But the part about “the Madonna was yours for free” – remember how they used to call you the “Madonna of folk” back when we were together?  I mean, c’mon, Joan. Admit it. You wrote the song about me.

Joan: (frowning) Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s all about you, Bob.  Everything is all about you.  Gimme a break. (rolling eyes again)

Bob: Okay, Joan. Okay.  (walks away shaking head sadly)

I kind of slipped over into 1920’s gangster lingo, and Joan sounds a little like a gangster moll, but you get the picture.  Anyway, Bob wasn’t fooled, and neither was anybody else.  Everybody waited around for Joan to own up, which she ultimately did.   How embarrassing.  Sounds like something that would happen to me.  Or you.  Or any of us, really.

Fortunately for us, the listening public, Joan’s candid airing of her heartbreak linen resulted in an exceptionally powerful, poignant song about still being in love with, or at least still hurting over, someone that left you behind and broke your heart long ago.  Cringe-making, humiliating emotions, but Joan was just the lady to tackle them.  A mightily talented class-act, Joan exposed her own vulnerability to the world through this song, and thereby shone a little light on our own.

Enjoy this unforgettable song and the slide show of Joan and Bob.  And if you want to imagine yourself telling “that person” no thanks for the diamonds and rust, and that you’ve already paid, and walking away with dignity and with brown leaves falling all around and snow in your hair, go right ahead.  That’s Joan’s gift to you.  And me.  And all of us, really.

There’s also a popular version by Judas Priest – not really my cup of tea, but I’m glad they honored Joan by covering this song. I do like the version below, by Blackmore’s Night, with Ritchie Blackmore on guitar and his beautiful partner, Candice Night, on vocals.

Reminiscences? Reflections? Crazy about Joan or Bob? Want to talk about Blackmore’s Night? Please share! 

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Dedicated to Mrs. Street: “Oye Como Va”

glasses

I had the coolest teacher in the world in my tenth grade Spanish class.  She wasn’t young, she wasn’t funny, she wasn’t what the boys would call a looker, and she certainly wasn’t an easy grader – but she was the epitome of cool, because she made us learn all the words to “Oye Como Va”.

One day, she says, “class, I have a surprise for you”, and she puts a record on the portable record player that we normally used to listen to  conversational Spanish, and much to our astonishment, out comes the searing hot sound of “Oye Como Va”.  Needless to say, the class went berserk – high fiving and doing that pretend-cha-cha-cha-thing with our shoulders and fists.  You know the fake-dance, right?  I’ve been doing it all day, listening to Santana on the kitchen Bose while making fajitas and guacamole for dinner.

Anyway, when the song ended, Mrs. Street set about teaching us the lyrics.  She did this by passing out a sheet with the words along with their meaning in English, then walking around the class, wearing her glasses with the chain accessory (I know that’s a teacher-cliché, but I’m not kidding), clapping in time as we all spoke the words, then getting us all to clap too…ready?…here we go…clap, clap, clap….oye-como-va-mi-ritmo.  I can only imagine how laughable we were, speaking the words in our drawly, southern voices – a bunch of kids clapping in unison and going, “oiyaaay-cuumoohh-vaaahh-meee-reeetmoohh”.

We learned that the words were basically saying “hey, listen to my rhythm, it’s great for having fun”.  And I agree with that assessment.  The song was written by Tito “The Mambo King” Puente in 1963.  In the Santana version, the guitar takes the melody part that is carried by the flute in the original version.  Being a flutist (I claim the right to call myself that – I did six years of flute playing in a marching band, in the Mississippi heat, in that uniform, and in that hat) and an admirer of the electric guitar, especially when played by a master like Carlos Santana, I love both versions.

At the end of the year, we had a party in the classroom, and we got to listen to Abraxas in its entirety.  I got Abraxas on eight track and it travelled with me in the floorboard of my car all through college, plus I had the album.  We know what fate the album met (see post titled something like “Why the !@#$ did I give away my albums?”).  We’ll talk about the fate of the eight track later.  For now, let’s just eat our yummy fajitas, do the fake cha-cha-cha, and have fun with the great Carlos Santana.

And here’s the original, by Tito Puente.

Comments?  Santana fan?  Puente fan?  Please share!

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To: Mountain; From: A Mississippi Queen (Sort of.)

Dear Mountain,

When I was eleven years old, Santa brought me a transistor radio for Christmas.  The greatest thing about this radio was not that it was blue and shaped like a doughnut, but that it had FM on the dial.  Up to that point in my career, I had only listened to AM, but I knew that FM existed and that there was supposed to be something cool about it.

Panasonic radio

I loved my new radio and every night, I buried my head under my pillows and blankets to listen to it after lights out, hoping my parents wouldn’t catch me.  Fiddling with the dial on FM, I discovered one radio station that had a strong signal and I eagerly settled down to listen.  The song that I heard, ringing forth in tinny tones from a tiny speaker, spoke of ships and whales and true love. I had never heard anything like it.  I thought it was the most beautiful song I’d ever heard.  It didn’t hurt that the words “Robin-Marie” were in there, what with “Marie” being my name and all.

The thing about FM stations at the time was that there wasn’t much talking.  They would play a long list of songs before they would pause and tell you who and what you had been listening to, and often they never told you at all.  That was a wonderful thing, but for a rank novice like me, it was a problem. I had no idea what the title of the song was or who the band was.  I kept listening every night, hoping to hear that incredible song again, but I kept missing it.  I drew pictures of ships and whales in my notebook at school, and waited – all in vain.

Time passed and spring was at our doorstep, bringing the neighborhood kids out of doors – me to practice my hula hoop in the driveway, and the cool teenage boys who lived next door out to wash their Chevelle.  Being the sons of Mr. and Mrs. Holmes, they were the Holmes boys – that’s what everyone in the neighborhood called them – not to be confused with the modern expression “home boys”.  Standing in the driveway, concentrating hard to keep the hula hoop going, I hear a sound…a lovely sound…coming from the vicinity of the Chevelle in the driveway next door.  Ships…whales…and what to my wondering ears should appear….my SONG!

Too over-awed by their teenage boy status to cross the great gulf (of lawn – a few yards) fixed betwixt me and their driveway, I wait until the song ends and I shout out…

HEY, Y’ALL!  WHAT SONG WAS THAT?

One of the Holmes boys shouts back, “THAT WAS ‘NANTUCKET SLEIGHRIDE’ BY MOUNTAIN”.

I shout back something like, “OH”.

Then I hear, “YOU LIKE THAT, MARIE?” (I nod.)  ‘WELL, LISTEN TO THIS ONE!”

At this point, one of the Holmes boys fiddles with the 8 track player in the car and suddenly,

MISSISSIPPI QUEEN, YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN, fiercely erupts in a cloud of metal and testosterone, causing my jaw to drop as I freeze in mid-hula.

The song ends and Holmes Boy A shouts, “HEY MARIE, MAYBE THEY WERE TALKING ABOUT YOU!!”

Holmes Boy B responds with “DOWN AROUND VICKSBURG, AROUND LOUISIANA WAY, LIVES A CAJUN LADY” (All of which was quite true and applicable. Well, the location part was reasonably close, and there’s a little Cajun in my bloodline, so I’ll claim that part as true too. But don’t hold me to the details, Mountain.)

Both Holmes boys fall about with derisive laughter as only teenage boys can do, while I stand, staring, mouth agape, clinging pitifully to my hula hoop in my culottes and flip-flops.  I muster my remaining shreds of pre-pubescent dignity, turn on my heel, and walk inside, going straight to my room, muttering Mountain, Mountain, Mountain to myself so I won’t forget.  I write Mountain – Nantucket Sleighride and Mississippi Queen on the inside of my notebook, then I walk to the kitchen, where my mom is making lunch, and I say,

“Mom, will you take me to the record store?”

The point is, Mountain, I love you deeply.  “Nantucket Sleighride” was my first crush, I think.  I know it sounds weird that my first crush was a song, but there it is.  And I’ve shaken a tail feather or two to “Mississippi Queen” in my time, reveling in its sizzlin’ magnificence, as have so many other would-be-Mississippi-queens.

Thanks for everything, Mountain.  You started me on a musical journey that has lasted a lifetime.  Also, thank you, Holmes boys, wherever you are.

And to my first crush, Nantucket Sleighride, I’d just like to say, back at you….

There are years behind us reaching

To the place where hearts are beating

And I know, you’re the last true love I’ll ever meet

And I know, you’re the last true love I’ll ever meet

Yours Always,

A Mississippi Queen (Sort of.)

And here it is, “Nantucket Sleighride”.  What a masterpiece!  The font on the first few slides is a little hard to read at times , but it’s worth trying because it’ll tell you all about the meaning behind the song.

Still sizzlin’…

Thoughts?  Comments?  Mountain-lover?  Please share!

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I Missed the Mod Boat: Confessions of a Who Fan

When I first got my driver’s license in the late seventies, I used my new-found freedom to drive my 1972 Ford Elite with the vinyl landau top to a run-down theater across town to watch “The Kids Are All Right” over and over.  Note the “over and over” part.  At first, I enlisted friends to go with me, but being non-Who obsessed so-called “normal” teens, they eventually abandoned me to my folly and I wound up sitting alone in the theater, a teenage girl, week after week, absorbing The Who in all their Who-ish glory.  The theater surely couldn’t have shown the movie for more than a couple of months (could they?), but in my memory, it was playing all that year, and by the time it ended, I was changed from your every day, average geeky band geek to a self-assured, “I’m a Who fan, that’s who I am” kind of geeky band geek.

Ford Elite

Mine was silver with a maroon landau.  I wish I still had this car.

The Kids Are All Right

There was something about that attitude, that strut, that powerful siren call of rebellion and stickin’-it-to-‘em-ness that just reeled me in, creating a life-long member of the Who army, as is evidenced by the framed Quadrophenia poster on my wall and the Who mug, purchased at their concert in Nashville last summer, from which I drink my morning coffee.

Immediately upon watching the “Kids Are All Right”, I started using my allowance money (what I had left from buying movie tickets) to collect all of the Who albums (naturally), one of which being Quadrophenia.  I would stare at the pages of the booklet that came with the album as I listened to the musical story of teenage angst and disillusionment (ummm…just a little apropos).  Slowly, a “look” started to form in my mind based on just a few pictures from the booklet, and then it got stronger when I saw the “Quadrophenia” movie.

Quadrophenia

Keep in mind that there was no internet, no ready source of information, and recall from my earlier posts that I was deep in the bowels of the deep, swampy south, so I didn’t know that the “Look” had a name, or that there had been a huge following of the Look in the past decade, or that the Look was still hanging around stubbornly and continued to have adherents, or that The Who was pretty much the cornerstone of the whole thing.  When I visited England a year later, the Look was everywhere, all around me, but back home in Mississippi, I was still surrounded by, and myself wore, the standard seventies uniform of bell bottom jeans and concert tees.

But I set out on a mission that fall when I came back from England – I had to have the Look.  I searched everywhere for the straight, skinny-legged pants, the Ray-Bans, the smooth, tailored clothing, and I cut my long, hippie-fied hair into a short bob.   I still didn’t know there was a name for what I was doing, but I finally achieved the Look that would express my essential Who-iality to the world.

But alas, you know what happened, don’t you?  Yep.  Pretty soon, as in almost instantaneously,  the bell-bottoms were out and everyone was wearing the skinny-legged pants and everyone was bobbing their hippie hair and everyone was wearing Ray-Bans.  My “statement” was lost among the throngs of conventional fashion-wearers.  Thus, I had to go back to being a hippie.  Well, I flirted with the punk thing too.

The point is, no way would I be conventional in those days, even if it meant giving up the Look.  I remember thinking something along the lines of “I bet those plebeians don’t even like The Who” as I resentfully pulled my bell bottoms out of the back of my closet.  It wasn’t until years later, when internet finally came to the swamp, that I put the term “Mod” together with that period of my life or the fashion that I had attempted to emulate.  It was a light bulb moment for me.

Now, as I sit here in my elastic-waist jeans, no fashion at all, and not caring in the least, I raise my Who mug in the direction of my Quadrophenia poster, and I salute the guys – Pete, Roger, John, and Keith, who somehow broadened my tiny world in that crummy theater years ago, helped me to find an identity for myself besides band geek, and found the words for me when I “couldn’t explain”.  Like Adam Sandler once said about Pete, “behind his blue eyes there’s a big ole’ brain.”

The Who

Enjoy this video and the Mod-ness of it all.  It’s one of the best things I’ve ever come across on Youtube.

Here’s Adam Sandler doing his Who tribute song at the VH1 Rock Honors.  It appears that Adam’s a fellow member of the Who army. I should’ve guessed that years ago, though.  It’s a fitting tribute – nice job, Mr. Sandler.

Lastly, I highly recommend Pete’s autobiography, “Who I Am”.  It’s outstanding – piercingly honest and well-written, of course.

Pete's Book

Thoughts?  Observations?  Fellow fan?  Successful Mod?  Fellow failed Mod?  Please share! 

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