Monday, October 11, 2010

AMERICAN SONGS: "Return of the Grievous Angel"

Gram Parsons--"Return of the Grievous Angel" (mp3)

One could probably put together a list of the best American songs and then discover that, wait a second, they've all been written by Gram Parsons.

Consider this list, for example:

1. "Hickory Wind"
2. "Sin City"
3. "Wheels"
4. "A Song For You"
5. "Return of the Grievous Angel"

If you don't know all of these songs, I'll wager you've heard at least some of them, as performed by The Byrds, Bob Mould, Emmylou Harris, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Peter Holsapple, and, best of all, Gram himself with Emmylou singing backup. On his new CD released just this past week, Pete Yorn has taken a shot at "Wheels."

Now I'm not the one to give you a history and a context for the life and curious death of Gram Parsons, his time in the Byrds, his connections to the Stones, and all of that. Those are available to you all over the Internet. I'll only say this: if country-rock has a father, it is indeed Mr. Parsons, and without him, you would not have the Eagles (a mixed blessing), Ryan Adams, and, ultimately, perhaps not even the alt-country movement at all. Without Gram Parson's use of Emmylou Harris as his back-up singer, everyone from Bob Dylan to Connor Oberst would not have been dialing her number for the past 40 years.

But the song calls me tonight, and it is "Return of the Grievous Angel." Yes, to me, it ranks as one of the very greatest American songs, another one that captures the space, the essence, the mystery of our country.

Usually, when arguing for the quality of a particular song, I find myself quoting and analyzing lyrics. I'm not going to do that here, maybe because that approach seems to draw almost no response, except from those already know the song. I'll only give you the opening couplet, because it serves my larger purpose:

Won't you scratch my itch, sweet Annie Rich,
And welcome me back to town.

Parsons has taken a great American tradition and added love, romance, even sexuality to that great genre, the road song.

Without a doubt, there are other wonderful examples of this kind of song--Chuck Berry's "The Promised Land" and the Beach Boys' "Surfin' U.S.A." stand as perhaps the most famous; Peter Case's "Satellite Beach" is an effective, though obscure, rendering of the same kind of journey. I love these kinds of songs that take the listener all over the country, aural road trips to parallel the Great American Journeys--Lewis and Clark, Huck Finn, the Joads, the Oregon Trail, the Great Migration after the Civil War, Jack Kerouac and Neal Casady, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.

But Parsons, like I said, adds romance, so even though his narrator "headed west to grow up with the country" and has encounters with "prairies," "waves of grain," "the King," the Bible Belt," nothing touches him as much as returning to the woman he loves. In doing so, he captures the dichotomy of American life--the lure of big cities and wide open spaces and the comforts of home and small town life.

Musically, the song is transcendent, containing, arguably, some of the finest harmonies ever put to vinyl and beyond. When Parsons and Harris sing "Out with the truckers, and the kickers, and the cowboy angels," when they take it even higher on "twenty thousand road I went down, down, down and they all led me straight back home to you," if you don't feel the chills, if you don't feel like an eagle soaring over the land, all I can say is, play it again. And again and again and again. Until you get it.


Thom Anon said...

Now you're talking. GP is the bees knees.


Hank said...

Huge Gram fan. I just wish that you could get a quality Nudie suit these days.

jed said...

love it! i got it back in 1989 and i've never been the same since.