Contra "The Gram Parsons Zone"


This post is the first in what I hope will become standard fare at Mock Duck – a polemic against a prior post by a different author.  My target is Dan’s “Gram Parsons Zone.” First, to be clear, I am entirely on board with the concept – it’s the use of Gram Parsons as a namesake that irks me.

I have actually had a very similar experience with Radiohead as Dan’s – I never really understood their appeal until, hilariously, I was asked to “jam” with some Radiohead fans who wanted to get together and play their songs.  I was given a list of 15 or 20 songs to learn on bass, which I did, and over the course of the next 2 years I got together with these guys five or six times to play them – often, their insane Radiohead groupie friends would show up.  (It’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to being in a cover band.)  I thus became intimately familiar with Radiohead’s catalogue, and really enjoyed rocking out to it – but I was never able to escape that sensation that Dan describes of respecting them without every really wanting to listen to them.

What is it about Radiohead that is so “respect-worthy” but ultimately not quite as enjoyable as the constituent parts would suggest?  Part of it perhaps is captured in the refrain to one of their more popular early songs, “I wish it was the 60s/I wish that something would happen” – they seem to be peculiarly trapped in a sound whose time has come and gone.  The innovations they practice are no longer innovative.  Their dabbling in electronica seems forced.  And Thom Yorke, for all of his brilliance, just doesn’t seem totally convincing as a lead singer.  I don’t know – probably there is a counter-argument to each of these points.  But I think they are an appropriate namesake for this phenomenon because whether you like them or not, it’s hard to say how they really changed music – it’s more like they squeezed a few more drops of “innovative, Beatles-esque rock” out of a dangerously dry sponge.

Gram Parsons, on the other hand…along with Alex Chilton, Nick Drake and Lou Reed, he belongs, in my mind, in the Mount Rushmore of under-appreciated and wildly influential musicians of that era.  He invented an entire genre, practiced today by lots of horrible mainstream country musicians but also by some pretty good ones too like Wilco or Lucinda Williams.  And the first side of the Burrito Brothers’ “Gilded Palace of Sin” is one of the very greatest LP sides in existence, along with Side One of “Exile on Main Street,” Side One of “After the Goldrush,” and a few others (and, by the way, he was basically a member of the Stones when they were recording Exile, and a lot of its rootsy sound is thanks to him.)  (Indeed, a little known Parsons fact is that the Burrito Brothers released the first-ever version of “Wild Horses,” which Keith gave to them.)  “Christine’s Tune” and “Sin City” are one of the best one-two punches on any record, maybe second only to “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll.”  Considering how little music he released before his death in his mid-20s (a few Byrds records, a few Burrito Brothers records, and the two solo albums), the ratio of influence-to-released tracks is basically unparalleled.

In short, Parsons is way too influential and significant to be an acceptable namesake for this phenomenon.  Dan would probably counter that it is exactly because Parsons is so revered that he fits the bill – the whole point of the “Zone” is that you have to respect the musician/band and accept his/her/its place in the canon, etc.  But with Parsons, not only is he just too towering a figure, but also, I think that his cross-pollenization of country and rock, and all of the controversy this has caused, adds too many layers of complexity for him to stand in for the relatively simpler phenomenon Dan describes.  I have a friend who is an obsessive country purist, and he hates Parsons, because he thinks that he bastardized country, just as the folk purists called Dylan a Judas.  Likewise, lots of rock fans can’t get into pedal steel guitar, etc.  (I still remember how I first discovered Parsons as a teen through Evan Dando’s cover of “Brass Buttons,” and how I scrunched up my nose at the country stylings of the original.)  Whatever Dan’s particular take on this aspect of Parsons’ sound and influence, I think that it makes him too complicated a figure for the Zone in question.  Or, to put it slightly differently, I think that the reasons why Parsons “just doesn’t take” for Dan or any listener are unique to Parsons and his particular place in American musical history, and can’t stand in for a similar reaction to Radiohead or anybody else.

So how about “The Radiohead Zone” instead?  Admittedly it doesn’t have the same ring to it, but that’s just because Gram Parson’s name is so awesome.

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