[29 March 2009]
If memory serves, it was R.E.M.’s Peter Buck who said, speaking of Velvet Underground & Nico, that the album only sold about 400 copies, but everyone who bought a copy started a band. Buck would certainly be an authority on the subject, being a member of just one of the bands who traced a lineage back to the Velvet Underground.
Forty years on, Velvet Underground & Nico is a certified classic: the Warhol cover is one of the most iconic in rock history and the album is in print as an inexpensive but well-remastered CD, a deluxe box set and a virgin vinyl pressing. Meanwhile, another low-selling, highly influential album from the late ‘60s remains mostly out of print, almost entirely unavailable except for a flimsy, anthologized German import. Despite being cited as an influence by acts ranging from Dinosaur Jr. to Elvis Costello, the album celebrated its 40th anniversary last month in print limbo.
The Gilded Palace of Sin by the Flying Burrito Brothers was released by A&M Records in February of 1969 to critical acclaim and low sales. The band included the original bassist from the Byrds, Chris Hillman and a young Gram Parsons, who had worked with the Byrds on Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Charting poorly and sliding downward, the album was revered by a devoted few and ignored by the rest.
Its blend of country, rock, psychedelia and R&B failed to find a large audience, but its influence stretched through the country rock movement of the ‘70s and laid in wait behind the commercial success of bands like the Eagles, waiting to be discovered by a new generation of rockers who would spearhead the alt-country movement in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The Burrito Brothers’ ability to fuse the country music they loved with disparate musical elements encouraged these bands, many of them raised on a combination of country and punk, to go back to the roots of country music and find its still-beating heart, buried under the shellac of commercial country.
I should mention at this point that I spent much of 2007 researching and writing a book on The Gilded Palace of Sin. In the course of writing that book, I made the decision to leave out my personal experience with the album, what is sometimes referred to as the “authorial boner”: the moment at which the author reveals his undying personal love for/life-changing experience with an album or artist. I guess this is my chance.
My first encounter with Gram Parsons, one half of the driving force behind The Gilded Palace of Sin, was a 1999 tribute album to the deceased singer called Return of the Grievous Angel. Any music fan knows tribute albums are dicey and unpredictable affairs. It’s as easy to err on the side of over-reverence as on the side or reinterpretation, and fans of the original artist can be equally turned off by either.
Some Dylan purists may cringe when faced with the reggae renditions on Is It Rolling, Bob? but thrill to the bluegrass interpretations from Pickin’ On Bob, while most anyone would be left scratching their heads at 1997’s The Duran Duran Tribute album, featuring Wesley Willis, the Deftones and Less than Jake (ahh, 1997).
Even a talented line up of artists is no sure indicator of a tribute album’s quality. Return of the Grievous Angel boasts a daunting line up of artists, including Wilco, Gillian Welch, Elvis Costello along with the above mentioned Chris Hillman, and the song selection showcases Parsons’ ability to write simple, devastating tunes with melodies that seem inevitable, as if recalled from somewhere.
The tribute album was played incessantly by me and my college roommate, to the horror of our other housemate, who viewed anything with twang as unbearable. Beyond Johnny Cash and Wilco, I wasn’t a huge country fan myself, but I couldn’t get the Parsons tribute out of my CD player. Being in a small college town, there was little opportunity to follow up and hunt down more Gram Parsons material, so we contented ourselves with what we had.
When I moved out of our one-stoplight college town to Boston for graduate school, I almost immediately tracked down my first Gram Parsons disc: Grievous Angel, recorded just weeks before the singer fatally overdosed in the Joshua Tree desert at the age of 26. I was completely unimpressed. The quality of the songs was still there, but it was hidden under a destroyed voice, the husk of a once great vocalist. I put the CD back on the shelf and hardly gave Gram Parsons another thought.
Except that I did.
Those songs, both the cover versions and the sort of Platonic form of song they built upon, haunted me in their simplicity, their directness, and I found myself returning to the tribute disc again and again. One day wandering through Newbury Comics, I spied a Gram Parsons anthology, curated by Rhino records and covering Parsons’ work with his fledgling International Submarine Band, his time with the Byrds, songs from the only two Burrito Brothers albums he participated in and then his various solo efforts. Even though I was a graduate student and thus, perpetually impoverished, I happened to have an extra $20 in my pocket and picked up the set, determined to learn to like the man who’d written those songs I’d been obsessed with for over a year.
Two hours and a six pack later, I was a convert. I listened to the discs out of order, starting with Parsons’ solo material, moving on to his earliest efforts and finishing in the middle of his short career with tracks by the Flying Burrito Brothers. By the time I got to their rendition of “Wild Horses”, a song on loan from the Rolling Stones, I was in tears.
After weeks of searching, I found a used copy of The Gilded Palace of Sin at Mars Records and snapped it up, listening to it obsessively and in secret. Of course, when I had people over to my apartment, it was the hipster standbys that got spun: Pavement, Built to Spill, the Pixies. But alone, late at night, The Gilded Palace of Sin, with its country DNA spliced full of rock and R&B, like Arthur Lee fronting Buck Owens’ Buckaroos or Merle Haggard singing for the Jefferson Airplane, was a constant.
It’s curious thinking of it now. My roommate, the one who’d been as keen on the Parsons tribute as I was, drifted into bluegrass music, becoming a disciple of Del MacCroury and Bill Monroe, learning the banjo (an excruciating process to watch, even with someone initially talented) and forming his own old time band. The music of Gram Parsons pushed me, ever the archivist, likewise into research, trawling through the country masters, Hank Williams, George Jones, Sun Studios, along with the geniuses of southern soul who held equal sway over the Burrito Brothers as they forged their masterwork: James Carr, Aretha Franklin, Stax Records. The Gilded Palace of Sin not only opened my mind to the possibilities of country music, but showed me how it was connected to other forms and genres, by currents running deeper than I could imagine.
A latecomer, of course, I wasn’t the only one. In the ‘60s, the Flying Burrito Brothers reinvigorated country music for a generation that included Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn. In the ‘90s, their spirit of inclusion sparked the imagination of artists like Jay Farrar, J. Mascis and Rhett Miller, who might otherwise have shed their country leanings to better fit into the burgeoning indie rock scene.
For people lucky enough to stumble on them, they made country cool, not just in the sense that Johnny Cash is inherently cool, but in the sense that the raw parts of country music, its simplicity, its emotive directness, often derided and mocked by hipsters, could be valid, could be vital and could mean something to a modern audience.
Forty years on, that might not be worth a slot in the Country Music Hall of Fame or a tribute show at the Grand Ole Opry. But it should earn The Gilded Palace of Sin another look, another CD pressing, and another chance to teach a new audience why country music continues to matter.