Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music by David N Meyer

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Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music by David N Meyer

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Category: Biography
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of the country rock musician, briefly a member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, whose life was cut short at 26 by drug and alcohol abuse.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 592 Date: August 2008
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747565772

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Gram Parsons was in effect rock music's James Dean. He died too young to have achieved much, but in going to an early grave he seems to have achieved this iconic status of one of the 20th century's legendary might-have-been-greats if only he had lived longer.

Born to a wealthy Southern-Gothic family of alcoholics and suicides are the first words of the blurb. This is the story of a man who carried the self-destruct gene in his soul. His father committed suicide immediately before Christmas while Ingram, to give him his full name, was still a boy. His mother died of acute alcoholic poisoning a few years later, though how much Gram's much-hated stepfather helped her on her way is still hotly debated by surviving members of the family.

Like many others of his generation, Gram found a release of sorts in his passion for rock music, and was totally spellbound after seeing Elvis Presley perform. He became a reasonable self-taught guitarist and keyboard player, though the impression this book gives is that he never fulfilled his potential. Blame an excess of alcohol and drugs of every sort on that one.

He joined seminal folk-rock pioneers the Byrds, whom Meyer calls Lord of the Flies with guitars but only for a few months, during which he contributed little. After that he helped form the Flying Burrito Brothers, who could have been great but were apparently an utter shambles who soon exhausted the patience of their record company. (Which explains why you're unlikely to hear them even on the more specialist Radio 2 programmes).

A brief solo career followed, with a band who seemed irritatingly incapable at times of rehearsing properly. Little was committed to record before one binge too many sent him to join the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison in 1973 – coincidentally, all were in their mid-20s. Ironically, as the book suggests, he seems to be less remembered for his patchy career as a musician than for hanging out with the Rolling Stones and enthusing them with his love of modern American country-meets-rock. In particular Keith Richards, the man who had better coke than the mafia was much influenced by him, as some of their recorded output around the late 60s and early 70s reveals.

The unhappy story of Parsons did not end with his death. As for the black comedy surrounding his wishes to be cremated and his stepfather's intention to reclaim the body and be given a normal burial – although sad, it certainly does have its funny side.

This really is a full biography in every sense of the word. Meyer has done his research exhaustively, seemingly interviewing nearly everyone who had any connection with Parsons. The text occupies over 450 pages, followed by detailed references, bibliographies, discographies, an appendix with notes on the main dramatis personae – all in all, making it a superb work of reference. (I'll forgive him the occasional opinionated blast – he seems to have a particular antipathy to the Eagles.) As a read, some editing might not have come amiss here and there. During the first few chapters I found the detail about Parsons' family background almost never-ending. In particular the blow-by-blow account of his parents' wealth, relevant though it was, soon began to pall.

I'm tempted to recommend skimming briefly through some of the earlier chapters. Having said that, don't let me put you off. Anyone with a serious interest in rock music of this period will find the rest of it a rewarding read.

Our thanks to Bloomsbury for sending a copy to Bookbag for review.

If you enjoy this title, you might also like Song Man: A Melodic Adventure, or My Single-minded Approach to Songwriting by Will Hodgkinson.

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Buy Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music by David N Meyer at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music by David N Meyer at Amazon.com.

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