Gram Parsons died young, at 26 - partaking of heroin, morphine and tequila can do that to a fella - and likely would have left a beautiful corpse had not one of his closest friends attempted what became a botched cremation in the wilds of California's Joshua Tree National Park.
Since that September day in 1973, Parsons has risen phoenix-like from the commercial failure of his lifetime to become one of rock's immortals, as much myth as man. Hailed as the progenitor of country-rock, he has been saluted in tribute albums and concerts, obsessed over by fans known as Grampires, and memorialized in critical studies and biographies, including a 559-page behemoth published in 2007.
What struck me was how gracious he was, a real Southern gentleman … so laid-back, so cool.
Now there's Grievous Angel: The Legend of Gram Parsons, a kind of play/musical/revue produced, directed and co-written by Ottawa's Michael Bate. It had its world premiere last fall at the National Arts Centre, and makes its Toronto bow Saturday at Hugh's Room.
If the Bate name prompts a twinge of familiarity, shurely it's because we're talking that Michael Bate - the guy who for almost 20 years published legendary satirical gossip magazine Frank. After folding the publication in the fall of 2008, Bate tried his hand at writing a history/memoir of Frank's wild years. When no publisher bit, he started work on what became Grievous Angel with friend and broadcaster David McDonald.
Bate comes by his interest in Parsons honestly. In the mid-seventies, he played pedal-steel guitar in a country-rock band that had several Parsons tunes in its repertoire. "I refused to do any Eagles songs," he says. Even more germane to Grievous Angel is a chance one-hour interview Bate taped with the creator of Hickory Wind and Sin City in a Holiday Inn room near Fenway Park.
"I happened to be going to Boston for March Break in '73," Bate recalled recently. "We were driving down the highway, actually listening to a bunch of music on the old cassette player, including GP [Parsons's first solo recording] We pulled off at [the Massachusetts Turnpike]… and there was his bus on tour. I didn't know he was on tour, so I just jumped out and asked, 'Where are you going?' And they told me."
Bate was working as a freelancer with CBC Radio, hosting his own late-night music show in Ontario. Luckily, he made a point of carrying a Sony cassette recorder with him pretty much all the time. Parsons, Bate remembers, "was really at the fat-Elvis stage then.… He'd really gone soft, gained 20, 25 pounds, bloating up, the junkie look." At the same time, "what struck me was how gracious he was, a real Southern gentleman … so laid-back, so cool."
With its mix of music (22 songs in total) and monologue, Grievous Angel owes a lot to the play Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave, written in the late seventies by Canadian Maynard Collins and performed most famously by Sneezy Waters. In the current tour, Parsons is played by Ottawa musician/self-confessed Parsons fanatic Anders Drerup (who's the same age as Parsons was when he died). Kelly Prescott, daughter of country stars Randall Prescott and Tracey Brown, plays Emmylou Harris, Parsons's famous duet partner, a big star in her own right, and a major carrier and tender of the Parsons flame.
This summer, Grievous Angel is making a few Ontario stops, and one in Montreal, before Bates takes it on a fall tour of several small theatres in California and Oregon. "A three-day break has been scheduled in the middle of it," he says, during which "we're gonna bomb down to Joshua Tree … shoot videos, get Anders and Kelly to sing." They may even rent Room 8 in the Joshua Tree Inn - the site of Parsons's untimely - and career-making - demise.
Grievous Angel: The Legend of Gram Parsons shows at Hugh's Room, 2261 Dundas St. W., Toronto (www.hughsroom.com), Saturday at 8:30 p.m. Later this summer, it will run in Ottawa, Montreal and Eganville, Ont. For more information, visit legendofgramparsons.com.