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Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music

By David Meyer

Villard, 592 pages, $29.95 hardcover

Reviewed by Robert Loy, May 2008

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It seems as though it's almost impossible now to mythologize the man Ingram Cecil Connor III into legend of Gram Parsons. This is after all the guy who gets credit for integrating country (or roots) music into the mainstream of rock, the guy whose Nudie suits actually featured nudes - as well as marijuana leaves, barbiturates and LSD sugar cubes, the guy whose two solo albums have attained cult status (not to mention his seminal work with The Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Emmylou Harris). And then there's that whole messianic episode where his dead body was stolen from LA International Airport and cremated at the Joshua Tree National Monument. Previous Parson biographies have fallen into this trap to some extent, and David Meyer seems determined to balance the scales and present the artist, warts and all.

And God knows the man had warts. He was self-centered, self-destructive (Keith Richards himself marveled at the amount of heroin Parsons put away), utterly disloyal to everyone, and it's not hard to make the case that he squandered the lion's share of his prodigious talent. Meyer refers to the subject of this biography as an "unrepentant dick" in the introduction and goes on to list, in encyclopedic detail, examples to back up that claim - all the bands Parsons abandoned, the girlfriends he cheated on, refusing to tour South Africa ostensibly because of Apartheid, but actually because he wanted to lay around and do drugs.

We probably do need to get a more balanced picture of Parsons, but Meyer may erred in going on for almost 600 pages, since few people other than those who venerate the man are going to wade through it, and those that do may not appreciate this extensive list of clay spots on their hero's feet. (It should be noted that the book could have come in a lot shorter if it weren't for Meyer's tendency to inject his off-topic opinions into the book, i.e. the screed on page 366 where he rants about the Eagles and their "soulless, over-rehearsed, antiseptic, schematic, insincere, sentimental" music and how this "most consistently contemptible stadium band in rock" is full of "self-satisfaction, misogyny, absence of pain, junior high emotions, pop hooks and facile faux virtuosity." Whew, okay, Dave, we get it; you don't like The Eagles. That's no reason to bring your Parsons bio screeching to a halt - not to mention using every negative adjective in your thesaurus.)

And in the end, Meyer too buys into the myth. Parsons, he suggests, has "exerted greater influence on our national musical taste than any other single musician." And that's an exaggeration. Parsons had a vision of a new amalgamation of American musics, a vision he did not live to see fulfilled because he died before he could burn out or get fat and complacent. And we're still not sure what demons drove this grievous angel. A man, a myth and even after 592 pages, still a mystery.