Thursday, January 27, 2011

You Don’t Miss Your Water

In August 1978, I interviewed Roger McGuinn and Gram Parsons of The Byrds. It was the tenth anniversary of the release of their landscape-changing country-rock album, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”Parsons, one month away from his 35th birthday, was an anachronistic vision, his shoulder length hair unchanged since the early years of the decade, though it now framed a slightly puffier face. He still dressed in the expensive Nudie shirts and jackets he’d always preferred. McGuinn, the founder of the seminal jangle-rock band that exploded onto the charts with their 1965 electric version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” was, at 37, more in tune with the fashions of the time, wearing a mostly unbuttoned button- down shirt with oversized lapels, and flared blue jeans decorated with metal studs.


JK: It’s been a decade since “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” came out. Did you have a clue that it would be such a historic album?

RM: (Laughs) No, no. It was a flop! After we fired [David] Crosby, Chris [Hillman] and I were looking to do something different. Chris always loved old timey country music, Crosby hated it I might add, and I was good with that. We’d both heard Gram on The International Submarine Band record and figured we’d give him a call.

GP: I was floored when Roger called. I mean, Roger McGuinn of The Byrds! They were huge, right, and I couldn’t figure out what he wanted from me. Our album didn’t sell anything…

RM: Oh yeah! Why did we think Sweetheart would sell? (Laughs)

GP: True. Why did you? But when we talked, he told me he dug the record and wanted to cut some country tracks along the lines of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, I was in.

JK: You recorded from March to May 1968 and then flew to London to start a tour. Those were difficult times and tested the strength of the new Byrds roster.

GP: I’ll start, since I acted like an asshole. We played Middle Earth, a great old club. It was a huge basement, actually, in a warehouse I think, but they had an amazing light show and the audience was all hippies, headbands, psychedelic glasses, loud print blouses, you remember. Of course, they were high on whatever was available at the moment. We played some old Byrds stuff, some of the newer songs and country standards, like Buck Owens’ “Under Your Spell Again” and “Excuse Me.” It came off really well. And the Stones were in the audience that night.

RM: I’d known Keith [Richards] for a few years by then and he came to the gig to see me. When Gram and Keith met, they hit it off in a big way, like long lost brothers. After the show, we all left together, Stones and Byrds, in Mick and Keith’s Rolls Royces and drove to Stonehenge for a miserable, rainy photo shoot.

GP: Keith and I bonded right away. We liked the same music, talked for awhile about Lefty Frizzell and Felice & Boudleaux Bryant, who wrote so many great tunes for The Everly Brothers, and, I don’t know, we just got on well. It could’ve been the Johnnie Walker Red and LSD, I don’t know.

JK: It was soon after that The Byrds almost broke up.

RM: Yeah, we were back in England in July for a charity event called “Sound ’68” at Royal Albert Hall. Lots of cool people played on that bill, great old lost ‘60’s groups like The Move, The Easybeats, The Bonzos. Brian [Jones], Mick [Jagger] and Keith were there, a couple of Beatles, I think George and John, and Hendrix also. We opened with “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” and just killed. There were 4,000 screaming kids in the audience. We were heading to South Africa next and all was well until Keith and Mick started telling Gram about apartheid, how wrong it was and that the band shouldn’t go there.

GP: I was really obsessed with the Stones, I have to be honest. They were the coolest, the best. Can you blame me? So when Keith said [with British accent] “Darling, you just can’t go to South Africa, it’s a drag,” I listened. Looking back, I didn’t know shit about apartheid, and neither did they, but Keith said it, so it had to be true, right?

RM: The more Keith and Gram hung out, sharing guitar tunings, collaborating on tunes and doing drugs, lots of drugs, the worse it got for both bands. I admit I was jealous of Gram being swept away by Keith and, years later, Mick told me he was jealous of the attention Keith paid Gram. Keith would go on and on, “Gram Parsons this, Gram Parsons that.” Mick was always very protective of his relationship with Keith. You know, Mick stole Keith from Brian. It was a weird scene and Gram was in it.

JK: So Gram, tell me about the day the band was set to leave.

GP: Oh man, do I have to? (Laughs) It was not one of my shining moments. I had decided I was not going to go on moral grounds, right, though I just wanted to stay and be with Keith. I didn’t have the guts to tell Roger or the rest of the band, so I never left my room!

RM: It’s funny now, but man I was angry. There we were in front of the hotel, packed and loaded to go the airport and Gram wouldn’t come down. After I while I said “Fuck it,” and we dumped all his gear on the curb and took off.

JK: Six months after Gram joined the band, he was out.

RM: That’s what we thought. In fact, I was so pissed off that I erased Gram’s vocals from five of the “Sweetheart” tracks and did them myself!

GP: I didn’t know that.

RM: Once you came back, there was no reason to get into it again.

JK: Talk about why you came back, Gram. Keith had something to do with that, didn’t he?

GP: Keith is a very loyal dude and has very strong ideas on how bands should behave. I’ve heard him say, “Nobody can quit the Stones. You have to die!” That’s why he still angry at Mick Taylor for leaving a few years back. Anyway, after The Byrds left town, I rang Keith up to tell him I was out of the band and ready to do some songs together.

JK: What was his reaction to that?


GP: Well, he was livid. “That’s your band, mate. The Rolling Stones are my band. I’m not looking for a new one, got it?” I was floored. I think I mistook Keith’s friendship with a desire to be with me. Keith went on that bands are like brothers and should stick together. He really dissuaded me from leaving the group and I called Roger to apologize. Happily, he accepted and took me back.

JK: The ‘70’s have been a great decade for The Byrds.

RM: I can tell you it’s been a relief to have a steady lineup for ten years after the turmoil post-Crosby. And the success we’ve had with what is now called “country-rock” has been terrific.

JK: Though “Sweetheart” didn’t sell, it wasn’t long before you had more big hits, especially “Take It Easy.” How did you meet Jackson Browne?

RM: Before Jackson became a huge star in his own right, we knew him around L.A. as a talented songwriter. He brought us “Take It Easy” and it was the first number one hit we had with Gram in the band. We loved the song and the twangy country arrangement we had worked very well.

JK: What do you think of some of the newer groups that have copied your sound, like The Eagles?

RM: Oh, they’re fine. I don’t want to speak badly of them. They have a little different angle than us – we shoot for authenticity, they looking for a more AM radio type sound. We’re not aiming to make America’s Top 40.

GP: Yeah, let The Eagles have Casey Kasem! (Laughs)

JK: Final question, how have you lasted all these years?

GP: Less drugs.

RM: That and we’ve learned to live with each other. We even get along with David Crosby these days!

On July 8, 1968, six months after joining The Byrds, and one month before the release of the revolutionary country-rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Gram Parsons left the group. After Keith Richards spoke to him on the evils of apartheid, Gram wouldn’t leave his room to join The Byrds on their flight to South Africa. The band left without him. Parsons would form, and leave, The Flying Burrito Brothers and hang out with the Stones through much of the making of their album Exile on Main Street. Eventually, Gram was banished from the inner sanctum due to Mick Jagger’s jealousy. Parsons recorded two solo albums before dying of an overdose of morphine and tequila on September 19, 1973.The Byrds would meet their own demise that same year. Keith Richards remains alive.

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