One reason I will never be a music journalist is because I really do believe what Martin Mull said (or at least what I think he said) that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. I know the good ones, the Lester Bangses or the Greil Marcuses of the world, can do it without showing the dotted lines between their steps, but I don’t know if I have the chops. Still, here I am again, trying to hack my way through it. Like that silly Kevin Bacon game, there usually are six degrees, or less, of separation between different forms of music or musicians. Just last week I found out, from reading the 33 1/3 edition of the making of Big Star’s second album Radio City, that Alex Chilton didn’t care for (or “get” as he put it) Led Zeppelin, but he did like Todd Rundgren and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Forget the Todd Rundgren-Runt-Healing-Something/Anything?-rabbit hole that I went down a few days ago. That’s the subject of another post.
I started listening to the Burritos, which lead me to Gram Parsons , which lead me to the International Submarine Band, which lead me on a detour with Emmylou Harris (not a bad place to run off the road), which lead me to the Byrds and to the “country” album they did with Gram Parsons, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I say “country” in quotes because although the songwriting and musicianship is off the charts, I’m still not sure that Gram and Roger and Co. aren’t just putting us on. Maybe the same way five British guys called the Rolling Stones haven’t been playing one massive joke over the years, with their “rock and roll” and all. (Remember, Mick Jagger has a degree from the London School of Economics. That should cause you some worry, right there). Maybe the fact that Gram Parsons grew up a privileged white kid who dropped out of Harvard makes me think he couldn’t have had the street cred to write songs like Sin City, Christine’s Tune, or Do You Know How It Feels. No way he could have suffered that much. But maybe it’s the fact that he dropped out of Harvard instead of graduating from Harvard that gave him all the cred he needed.
Which brings me to the third song on Sweetheart. It doesn’t even matter that Roger McGuinn sings lead vocals or that the song was actually written by the Louvin brothers. It’s Gram (and Alex before him) who lead me to the gold-plated door, knocked, and opened it for me. Again, the dancing about architecture thing. I’m not going to say too much about it because you should listen to it for yourself. But there is one line that resonates with me deeply, even though I laugh out loud every time I hear it, and I’ve heard it now at least fifty times in the last three days. It goes: “Others find pleasure in things I despise/I like the Christian life.”
The line means so much to me now, because even though I don’t consider myself a Christian (Whatever that is. Ask a million people and you’ll get a million answers. Gandhi famously responded to a question that he wasn’t a Christian because he never met one), I’ve chosen to eliminate alcohol from my life. ( Again, another subject for another, much longer post. Maybe even a book-and-movie deal) To live a life of temperance, of self-control, even, yes, of purity. I don’t judge others who drink. God knows in my forty-six years I’ve drunk enough for five lifetimes. I certainly don’t “despise” what others find pleasure in. I have my own freaky pleasures that I’d rather not be judged on, thankyouverymuch.
Even though Roger is singing, I can see Gram’s knowing wink and wry smile in the corner of that studio in Nashville. He’s actually winking at me, in his hand-made, rhinestone-covered Nudie suit (no, it’s not what you think), across the grave (and his half-burnt coffin in the Joshua Tree National Park. Look it up.) and across the years. With that flick of his eyelid, the Grievous Angel is telling me to chill.
“Dude”, he’s saying, “Don’t mess with the alcohol. Do you want to end up like me? You’re twenty years older than I was when I died. Think about it.”
Well, I did.
Can someone live a Christian life without being one? I guess I’m about to find out.