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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Sunday
Nov012009

In Which We Conjure The Ghost of Gram Parsons

“A Far Away Feel”: Gram Parsons and the Birds of Creation

by MATTHEW HENRIKSEN

Gram Parsons introduces “Hickory Wind” in the live version that appears on Grievous Angel, recorded only months before his death in 1973, by saying, “Here’s an old song from a long time back.”

A long time back meant 1967, when Parsons first recorded the song with the International Submarine Band. I’m not sure how to measure the last seven years of Parsons' life, from the age of 20 to his death at 26, but time seems mostly irrelevant when I listen to any of the records he’s on.

His voice haunts more than Jeff Buckley’s. His delivery, which is both country and modern with complexities that exceed any of the alt-country stars in his wake, conjures the ghosts of southern music and reckon a place and time Parsons never lived in, while his style resides in the world of post-blues rock and roll, in newly imagined honky tonks in Los Angeles, Chicago and Canada, as well as the tonks in the south.

Emmylou Harris says of their 1973 tour:

We set out to play country music and some rock & roll in the better hippie honky tonks of the nation (some didn’t know they were honky tonks till Gram brought it to their attention).... The crowds were there. The rooms were small, but the energy generated was of a special intensity. It may not have been as audible in Chicago as it was in Austin, but it was always there. And they came to see this young man and to hear the voice that would break and crack but rise pure and beautiful and full with sweetness and pain.

Parsons' lyrics, both those borrowed and his own, speak of the hard times of a naive country boy in the big city:

It’s a hard way to find out
Trouble is real
In a far away city, with a far away feel
But it makes me feel bitter
Each time it begins
Calling me home, hickory wind

He died from an overdose of heroin mixed with morphine from which an ice suppository had partially resurrected him earlier in the day. The overdose had been days if not weeks in making, as the coroner found evident in the build up of toxins in his tissues and organs.

His road manager, who left Parsons' body burning beside a stretch of highway in Joshua Tree National Monument, failed to deliver the divorce papers Parsons had asked him to earlier in the week. The body did not burn to ashes but merely charred, and is now interred along a stretch of highway outside of New Orleans.

I listen to Gram Parsons in Brooklyn; in Fayetteville I read Frank Stanford.

Stanford ended his life at the age of 29 on June 3rd, 1978 (my first birthday) with three shots to the heart from his .22 caliber handgun. On several occasions I have been asked to offer evidence that such a suicide is possible. Stanford left behind thousands of pages of the gorgeous, unsettling poetry, each line as dense as a Kandinsky painting, yet stark and startling in the clarity of its images, which come at you as rapidly as film frames. Nowhere else have I seen the potency of the single line delivered more truly and pervasively than in Frank Stanford’s poems:

While my mother is washing the black socks
Of her religion,
I climb out of the washtub,
Stinking clean like the moon and the suds
In my ass,
The twenty she earned last week in my teeth
My shoes and my pistol wrapped in my pants,
Slip off the back porch
And head down the road, buck naked and brave,
But lonely, because it’s fifteen hours
By bus to the capital
And nobody will know
How it feels to nail down a heart
Black as tarpaper.

—from “Terrorism”

In her introduction to the posthumous re-publishing of Stanford’s 15,283-line poem The Battlefield Where the Moon Say I Love You, C.D. Wright says,

I do not know whether he was drinking steadily or heavily—water or strictly whiskey. I believe he was both dreaded and loved for his intelligence, his beauty, and his pervasive mystery. I believe that the poem anchored him to the world, and that it stood solidly between himself and a much earlier death than he died.

When I lived in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where Stanford studied briefly and settled, I felt his ghost most acutely when I walked the railroad tracks from Dickson Street to my apartment. I always imagined that Stanford walked the same tracks, with cliff faces on both sides revealing the history of the stone civil engineers carved through. I’m not as sure about Parsons, but I am certain Stanford felt an unimaginable loneliness and blessed us with it in his poems.

It is incredibly difficult to explain that my love for Gram Parsons' music and Frank Stanford’s poems has nothing to do with their early (excessively brutal and un-romantic) deaths, but that their creative processes I admire and to an extent try to follow contributed dramatically, though not entirely, to self-destruction. Hard living for some folks implies a lifestyle image, a self-promoting façade, but some folks prefer to live hard, or have to live hard. Hard living is one of the few outlets for people of irrepressible energy. I guess you can say stillness is the only other outlet aside from suicide, but I don’t understand how to be still.

I’m trying to write about my neighborhood in Greenpoint, on the northern tip of Brooklyn. We’re on the very edge, on a tiny peninsula ending at the confluence of the East River and Newtown Creek, which divides the western border between Brooklyn and Queens. Our rooftop overlooks the BQE and a major sanitation plant to the east, condos under construction in Long Island City, Midtown Manhattan to the west, and to the south in Brooklyn mostly old three and four family houses and church steeples.

At night that’s the quiet, bluer side; during the day that’s the side where I watch birds flying.

Our lives and deaths are not as much ours for the making as we’d like or have to think, but in each poem I can fashion an end and a beginning that make sense together and (I hope) makes sense to others. Trying to make sense of how another artist lived and died only confuses me more.

What I am trying to understand about Gram Parsons and Frank Stanford is how their creative acts could not save their lives. I understand the impulse to self-destruct, but even on my worst nights when I see the early morning light I know that creation is grace. Those mornings I don’t want anything to ever end, and that’s when the songs and the poems seem eternal.

Matthew Henriksen co-edits Typo and Cannibal and curates The Burning Chair Readings.

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gram.jpg

Insomnia

by MATTHEW HENRIKSEN

I had the busted leg of a plastic chair
to pillow a highway sign’s dream.
Once a person on his roof begins to think
about saying fuck you to the particulars,
the only blessing is a stagnant block
in the middle of a dead neighborhood
in a city that has been nowhere since
before you or I were born. And who
and what are we, after words, but
mourners signing a petition at someone’s
grave, for better dreams, better meals, better
orgasms, though most of us would rather just
sleep well more often. Jesus, why must it
be so late, so bright and so early?

"I Can't Dance" - Gram Parsons (mp3)

"Hearts on Fire" - Gram Parsons (mp3)

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

"How Much I've Lied" - Gram Parsons (mp3)

Friday
Oct302009

In Which The Trick Is To Stay Alive

This Recording and Laundromat United present

WE MIX ON YOUR GRAVE

Halloween Mix for Ghoulish Occasions

a seasonal tradition, like It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or eating ghost meat

some last minute Halloween costume ideas:

Vinny Vedecci

Bram Stoker's Lady Gaga

Skateboard Cat

Sexy Marge Simpson

Gilly

American Psycho Tom Cruise

Nicholas Cage's goth black metal son

a bear in a tree

Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording.

HAPPY HAUNTINGS FROM THIS RECORDING

Friday
Oct302009

In Which These Are All The Hot Places In San Francisco

Go West

by DANISH AZIZ

I recently read a piece on This Recording about "hot places" in LA, which Alex asked me to replicate for my adopted home of San Francisco. I agreed, but with the caveat that there are no hot places in San Francisco. The closest thing to a celebrity you're likely to encounter here is some dude who's "big on Twitter" or who perhaps even "founded Twitter."

The lack of celebrities is actually one of the better things about this city though, maybe second only to the fact that we have the most restaurants and bars per capita of any city in the country. 

When other people write about SF they generally focus on the BoBoBo© (boutique bourgeois bohemian) side of things and/or the Mission. It almost cannot be argued that the Mission is the best place to go out in the city for the non Ed Hardy crowd, so I've included a few of my favorites from the NorCal Silverlake, but the "I'm a contrarian, just like you" spirit of the Mission (cf. Williamsburg) influenced me to settle in a slightly less cliché neighborhood (Nob Hill/The TenderNob/The Tenderloin) for a mid-20s non-bro which I've tried to sort of focus on here.   

Drink

THE ATTIC I never really thought of the The Attic as anything more than another dive bar until my girlfriend pointed out that they have a capable DJ in house every night. Since "discovering" this fact, it's quickly become my favorite place to hit up when I make it to the south of the city.

EL RIO Hot days are rare in SF, so when they do arrive people flock to drink outside. Of course you can always hit up the Hipster Hamptons for free, but many people prefer Zeitgeist. On a recent 90 degree day, though, I actually witnessed a NYC/LA club line outside of Zeitgeist and after pointing and laughing decided to hit up El Rio instead, which boasts both a music stage and friendlier bar staff along with a spacious outdoor patio. 

geary clubPHONEBOOTH/AMBER/GEARY CLUB Bars that allow smoking in SF are kind of like cities with winters, they weed out the wimps. If you want to know what it's like to hang out in a bar before the year 2000, these three establishments are able to skirt the smoking ban by virtue of their cooperative ownership/bartending.

UPTOWN/KNOCKOUT/POPS Along with the above Phonebooth and the aforementioned Attic, these bars form the Mission's "frat free corridor" where you likely won't find any Marina refugees on the weekends.

TONGA ROOM This place is like Disney Land for old people. Located in the historic Fairmont Hotel, Tonga Room is the ultimate in Tiki Bar experiences. Not only are there endless tropical drinks in bowl-sized servings, but on some nights there's a cover band that floats out into the middle of the artificial lagoon and plays in the "rain" while empty nesters get their grooves back. Ex-This Recording CFO R. Rutherford once had the time of his life here. 

Listen

BOTTOM OF THE HILL Shows here are usually under $12 and whoever handles their booking here is very good, usually landing acts that are still in their blog hype stage.

RICKSHAW STOP Similar to Bottom of the Hill in terms of landing great acts early in their careers, although with a slightly more electronic/pop leaning.

HEMLOCK Like El Rio, this is a bar with a separate but attached venue. Great place to catch local bands with national followings, or visiting bands with cult followings.

EAGLE TAVERN This place is usually a gay bar with a great outdoor space, but on Thursdays it transforms into an all persuasions live music venue. 

Dance

CEREMONY OR BOOTY BASEMENT AT THE KNOCKOUT The 90s alternative night every first Saturday of the month at The Knockout, is fun but you can't go without ruining a pair of shoes. For similarly well-curated but slightly less sloppy fun check out Ceremony every third Monday for New Wave/Industrial/Dark Pop or Booty Basement for Hip Hop every third Saturday.

SHUTTER AT THE ELBO ROOM Goth and New Wave night. When I went Davey Havok was there...

DIARY AT POPS Named for the Sunny Day Real Estate album, this Emo/Screamo/Pop Punk night isn't actually one you're likely to dance at, but the nostalgia's deep and the booze is cheap every first and third Tuesday.

Eat

SHALIMAR Food like your moms used to make, if your moms is Pakistani.

ON THE BRIDGE Yoshuko style Japanese food for when you're in search of authentic inauthenticity.

CORDON BLEU Vietnamese chicken joint with excellent imperial rolls. 

YAMO The hole in the wall alternative to Burma Superstar for Burmese cuisine, though it will always be Myanmar...ian cuisine in my heart.

The vegan "chicken steak" sandwich with everything on it is warm, fresh and satisfying.LOVE AND HAIGHT SF is notoriously lacking in sandwich shops, but this family-run spot in the Lower Haight gets it right. I'm no a vegetarian but their fake chicken sammich is off the hook.

EL TONAYENSE Best known for their taco trucks scattered throughout the Mission, I find the goods at the brick and mortar location just as delicious. San Francisco burritos are wiki-famous, but the tacos are where it's at.

Danish Aziz is the senior contributor to This Recording. He tumbls here.

"Buried In Ice" - The Felice Brothers (mp3)

"Boy From Lawrence County" - The Felice Brothers (mp3)

"Sailor Song" - The Felice Brothers (mp3)