Byrds of a Feather—How Addiction Brought Down Two Rock Legends - Page 2

By Matthew Greenwald 07/01/15

While Gene Clark and Gram Parsons—both members of The Byrds, one of the most influential groups of the '60s and '70s—had a lot more in common than music, both shared some of the same bad habits.

Gene Clark/Gram Parsons
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Gram Parsons

Gram Parsons had no such economic problems growing up like Gene Clark. His family owned one of the largest sections of orange grove acreage in Florida (where Gram was born), and his childhood was surrounded by alcoholism, tremendous wealth, suicide and madness. If Gene Clark’s youth was like a Norman Rockwell painting, Gram’s was more akin to a Tennessee Williams play. His father committed suicide when Gram was a teenager, and his mother apparently drank herself to death just prior to Gram graduating from high school. Despite the family money (he had a large trust fund throughout his life); his family life was extremely unstable.

As young Gram grew up, he began playing piano and guitar, and was soon developing a near-encyclopedic knowledge of country music. Gram not only knew how to play the music, but he had an intrinsic ability to deliver the emotion and soul that the music promised. In this light, many say, he had no equal. 

By 1965, following a brief run in a folk act called The Shilos, who were influenced by The Kingston Trio and The Journeymen, the group played the Greenwich Village, N.Y., folk scene, but never really went anywhere. During this period, Gram was known for his refreshingly unconventional manner; he also was befriended by legendary songwriter Fred Neil (writer of "Everybody’s Talkin'”), a notorious junkie who shared some of his bad habits with Gram, who was apparently no stranger to heroin. After the band broke up, Gram briefly attended Harvard where he studied theology for one semester. During this period, he was beginning to become heavily influenced by contemporary country music, particularly Merle Haggard and George Jones. This, along with the current British Invasion of rock and roll, led to Gram forming his first real band, The International Submarine Band. The group, sounding a little like The Kinks crossed with Bakersfield country, were interesting, but clearly ahead of their time. Their L.H.I. Records' debut sank without a trace, but Gram and the group—having relocated to Southern California—were becoming known in town. 

By late 1967, David Crosby and Gene Clark had both left The Byrds, who were down to a duo of Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. Unsure of their musical direction, they were planning to expand into the jazz-based psychedelia that had informed their music since 1966. Needing a keyboard player, Gram auditioned for the band through Chris Hillman. Amazingly, after faking his way through a few blues/jazz-based piano passes, he was hired. However, when Gram and Chris started to play acoustic guitars together, they found a mutual love of country music. The pair convinced McGuinn and Byrds' producer Gary Usher to make the next Byrds album swing into a country music direction, down to cutting the record at CBS’s Nashville studio.

The result was the startling 1968 album, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. Although the record sold poorly, it was clearly a sign that country music was going to be a part of the pop music scene in a big way. The only problem with the sessions was that Gram was apparently still signed to L.H.I. Records, and it limited his participation on the record until clearances could be obtained, resulting in McGuinn having to re-record some of Gram’s lead vocals. Nevertheless, the finished album was a brilliant pronouncement. 

The band went to England to do a short tour prior to a two-week engagement in South Africa. While in London, the band reacquainted themselves with the Rolling Stones, and Keith Richards and Gram struck up a friendship that would last until Parsons’ death in 1973. Keith always appreciated country music, but by this time, Gram happily reintroduced him to the form, and this would have a profound influence on the Stones' records for several years. The pair also shared a mutual fondness for opiates.

During one conversation, Richards mentioned that his band had been asked to perform in South Africa in the past, and they wouldn’t due to the political state of affairs and apartheid. This was clearly enough for Parsons, who announced the next morning while the band packed for the trip that he wouldn’t be accompanying them on the trip, and was indeed leaving the band, which pissed off The Byrds immensely. While the stance Gram was taking was indeed valid, it was also true that he preferred to spend time hanging out with Richards and sundry English pop tarts.

Upon returning to the States, Gram hooked up with Chris Hillman a few months later, Chris also having left the Byrds in October of 1968. The pair healed their wounds, and set about forming The Flying Burrito Brothers, an ambitious project that would combine country music along with soul and some rock. It was also Gram’s hope that this would unite the two diverse audiences. It very nearly happened. 

Signing with A&M, the band recorded an excellent debut album, but when the time came to perform live, the lack of rehearsal and generally carefree attitude—especially Gram’s—affected correctly promoting the record. They did indeed tour, certainly more than label-mate Gene Clark, but it was definitely half-measures. A lot of this had to do with the fact that Parsons was…well, lazy. According to Chris Hillman, “Gram got $50,000 twice a year; and he knew how to spend it.” His trust-funded lifestyle led to a general malaise; if he didn’t play live gigs, he was still going to survive just fine, as opposed to the rest of the band, all of whom had to gig in order to survive. Gram was also developing a serious heroin habit, and this didn’t help at all. By 1970, following a second, somewhat inconsistent album, Gram left the band he had founded. Prior to his exit, however, he helped record a version of Jagger/Richards' “Wild Horses,” which the pair wrote after meeting Gram, and could rightfully be known as the result of Gram and Keith’s musical union. This was also several months before the Stones recorded it for Sticky Fingers. 

By 1971, Parsons was somewhat adrift, and heavily addicted to heroin. During the summer of that year, the Stones had moved to France as tax exiles, and Gram spent a lot of time there, hanging with Keith, and generally influencing the Exile On Main Street album, particularly the country-influenced cuts such as “Torn And Frayed” and “Sweet Virginia.” It has long been rumored that he sang back-up on these songs. Eventually, however, he was asked to leave, partly due to his drug usage. It must have been pretty bad when in 1971 Keith Richards says you have to leave the party. 

Returning to the States, Gram cleaned up to some degree, and signed a solo deal with Reprise, recording a pair of excellent, if poor selling albums, G.P. and Grievous Angel. These albums also featured the talents of Emmylou Harris, who was just starting her career. The pair had a gorgeous vocal blend, and the recordings, in a way, influenced the multitude of male/female country duet albums that would follow. 

Gram’s death in September, 1973, was sadly a classic in terms of junkie deaths. He had cleaned up for the recording sessions for Grievous, but upon completion of the record (it had just been mixed) he decided to spend a few days at Joshua Tree State Park, a favorite spot of his. Already a little loose from alcohol, Parsons had brought a stash of morphine with him, and mistakenly took a “normal” dose thinking he could handle it…and of course, he couldn’t. 

Gram’s musical legacy is extremely solid. His influence can easily be heard in much of “alt-country” music and rock, from Ryan Adams to Wilco and beyond. Many more mainstream country artists such as Waylon Jennings speak fondly of Gram and his influence in modern country and rock. Without him, it is doubtful that there would have been the “country outlaw” movement from the late 1970s. 

Both Gene Clark and Gram Parsons clearly left their mark on American music. Both were innovators and visionaries whose music was usually ahead of its time and had a boundless emotional sensibility that beguiles the heart as well as the ear. 

Matthew Greenwald is a Los Angeles-based musician and writer. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Mojo/U.K., Analog Planet, Record Collectors/Japan and other outlets, both print and web. He currently writes and records music in duo with Greg Berg called The Holy Smokes, based out of San Clemente, California. He last interviewed Grace Slick and her daughter China Isler.

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