[31 March 2009]
Like punk rock and the Smiths, Gram Parsons has a much wider fan base among those who write and read about music than among the general public. So it’s surprising that it took 61 installments of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, compact and concise books on a single album, aimed at an audience that reads books about music and still cares about albums, for Parsons to be covered.
In 33 1/3: The Gilded Palace of Sin, Bob Proehl (country music columnist at PopMatters) examines Parsons’ first brush with semi-fame, the Flying Burrito Brothers’ debut album. Released in late 1968, The Gilded Palace of Sin is considered (problematically so) one of the first and most influential albums in the idiom that would eventually be dubbed alt-country, essentially a subgenre for taste-conscious rockists too snobby to listen to actual country (albeit a subgenre that has, over the years, produced some amazing music).
In readable, often humorous prose, Proehl wisely emphasizes that the Burritos were an accomplished band, not a vehicle for Parsons’ genius, as many devotees (and even Parsons himself during his lifetime) would have you believe. Co-founder and often co-vocalist Chris Hillman, portrayed here as the stabilizing glue that honed in his flamboyant bandmate’s more reckless tendencies, is given equal credit for the Burritos’ artistic success.
Furthermore, Proehl firmly and successfully argues for the album’s historical weight: how it ponders America’s past, present, and future with equal import. He casts a bold, penetrating eye to the literary and historical contexts of Palace’s 11 tracks. Each dissection is original, though some are more convincing than others. The suggestion that the final verse of “Sin City” refers to Robert Kennedy is a eureka moment, a revelation so sensible that it should already be widely accepted. However, the analyses of the album’s soul covers, “Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Man—Do Right Woman”, as commentaries on racial and musical miscegenation are a bit far-fetched, assuming a reverence (not to mention a degree of white liberal guilt) that Parsons, by most accounts, lacked.
Proehl, to his credit, refuses to worship at the altar of Saint Gram, acknowledging the myriad flaws of its creator alongside the brilliance of the music. He does not excuse Parsons’ nonchalant and egomaniacal antics, antics that would destroy the band and eventually the singer himself. In the early chapters, Proehl talks frankly and honestly about Parsons’ considerable privilege, but underemphasizes how that background bled into the Burritos’ musical output.
Yet that well-off upbringing is key to what makes Parsons such a fascinating figure to rock writers: here was a rich white kid singing, sometimes mocking, more often fetishizing, the musical and creative expression of poor whites (and poor blacks as well). In the grand (and long discredited) myth of rock and roll as a racial and economical transgressor, he is a towering figure.
But too many Parsons boosters fall into hagiography, rationalizing or justifying Parsons’ monumental sense of entitlement. For example, many (including Proehl) blame narrow-minded Nashville prejudices for Parsons’ inability to gain country radio airplay, when Parsons’ arrogance and spoiled-brat attitude probably had just as much to do with it.
With his reporting and track-by-track analysis, Proehl reconstructs the Burritos’ tenuous balance of ‘60s revolution against American traditionalism. That tension informed the band’s music, and imbued in it a timelessness that many of its era’s more commercially viable acts lacked. But Proehl too often plays it safe, seldom falling into the risky flights of fancy that mark the best (and worst) 33 1/3 books.
Too much of the story is regurgitation, anecdotes, and allusions already covered in the mounds of previous Parsons scholarship. The chapters are arranged according to the Seven Deadly Sins, but Proehl generally leaves that novel conceit unexplored, stimulating think pieces reduced to docile headings.
Also unexplored is the entire concept of alt-country that Palace helped birth. The notion that nobody blended country and rock before Parsons is absurd, as country was every bit as important in rock and roll’s creation as gospel and blues. To credit Parsons (and the Burritos) with the invention (or even innovation) of country-rock is to diminish, if not flat-out erase, everyone from Elvis Presley to Buddy Holly to the Everly Brothers. Whatever bridge Parsons built, it’s a fairly shaky and narrow one. More people have bought Garth Brooks records than Gram Parsons ones, and Garth would exist with or without Parsons.
Too often, Parsons is a patron saint of people, many from backgrounds similar to Parsons, who technically enjoy country music but would rather not be associated with NASCAR fans and Bush voters. Proehl himself takes some offhand and unfair potshots at the Eagles (a band that featured onetime Burrito Bernie Leadon), without exploring how and why they had the mass success (and even eventual Nashville acceptance) that eluded Parsons. In ignoring these problematic facets of the Parsons mystique, Proehl prolongs the trappings that have befallen so many Parsons acolytes (including those behind works he has cited) before him.
Thus, 33 1/3: The Gilded Palace of Sin is a solid, engaging read, with plenty of cogent insights. But it is a missed opportunity for substantial reevaluation, not only of one of rock’s most bewitching and befuddling icons, but one of rock’s most perplexing movements.