Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons by Ben Fong-Torres
Originally published in Rock and Roll Disc, October 1991
“Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse,” the classic punk credo spoken by John Derek to Humphrey Bogart in Knock on Any Door (1949), has proved to be a handy epitaph for a number of deceased musicians, each of whom seems destined to be brought back from the dead in a pop biography.
Ex-Byrd and Flying Burrito founder Gram Parsons is the latest to get the between-the-covers treatment. And why not? The market for Elvis Presley and John Lennon bios is about tapped out, and if one more gets printed on Jim Morrison, it may have to be called Peace Frog—all the good Doors songs have already been appropriated for book titles. If not Gram, then about the only rock ‘n’ roll grave left unexhumed is Al Wilson’s, and there’s probably not much money to be made off the sad story of the Canned Heat guitarist who curled up in a sleeping bag to OD on pills after a groupie turned him down for not bathing often enough.
At least with Gram you get real scandal: Famous names, sordid tales, lots of drugs, and even a fiery finish—Gram a smoldering corpse in the desert, dead at 27. But do we need all the twisted details? The man’s music is still here to be heard, and that’s what should be important.
In any biography, the reader has the right to expect scrupulous research and accuracy, whether the biographer is writing about 19th century poet John Keats, who died at 26, or a kid from the South who managed to create something new during his short life by fusing country with rock. The author of Hickory Wind, Ben Fong-Torres, was part of the original staff at Rolling Stone during its halcyon years in San Francisco. He was often a sympathetic interviewer and an insightful observer, but like his magazine, he was more attuned to the Bay Area in the ’60s than to the LA scene that was for a time Gram Parsons’ way station.
Some mistakes slip through: Gram and Roger McGuinn wrote “Drug Store Truck Driving Man”, not Gram alone; the Byrds recorded “Farther Along” in 1971, not 1970; disc jockey B. Mitch Reed spent nearly his entire career in LA, not New York (though he did work there briefly); the We Five, early signees with LA-based A&M, sang “You Were on My Mind”, not “You Were Always on My Mind”; Gram’s father-in-law, Larry Burrell, identified as a “well-known television news anchor,” was less Walter Cronkite and more the guy who read occasional news spots and did voice-overs for the Million Dollar Movie matinee on the lowest rated VHF station in Los Angeles, and so on.
It is disappointing, too, that Fong-Torres, who had a ringside seat to the ’60s, has not better captured the time and mood. Here is how he sums up the counter-culture and its rock soundtrack: “By the late ‘60s more than a few political protesters were digging drugs and rock ’n’ roll; more than a few flower children were joining in peace rallies. The two-sided coin was becoming a marbled ball.”
Also, there is some hearsay passing as reporting. Gram’s stepfather, Bob Parsons, is made out to be a villain, plundering the family estate and pushing Gram’s mother over the edge when she is dying from cirrhosis, but there is no hard evidence, and Bob Parsons isn’t alive to defend himself.
Fong-Torres also speculates about Gram and Emmylou Harris’ relationship, rehashes various pharmaceutical misadventures, alludes to a conspiracy theory surrounding the death, and even manages a story about Gram’s ghost appearing at a memorial concert.
Okay, inquiring minds do want to know. But what should matter is that Gram was a good songwriter and musician who could tear your heart up when he sang “Brass Buttons” or “Hickory Wind.” His solo releases, the albums with the Burritos and the International Submarine Band, and his contributions to the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo changed rock ‘n’ roll and made him much more than just another musician who screwed up and checked out early.
These are the achievements that Sid Griffin (ex-Long Ryders and now the Coal Porters band) celebrates in his 1985 book Gram Parsons: A Musical Biography (Sierra Books, $10.95). These are the things that make Gram Parsons worth remembering, not for living fast and dying young. After all, there are no good looking corpses.