It’s fitting that yesterday’s birthday boy, Gram Parsons—born November 5th in 1946, died September 19th in 1973—should follow Tom Greenhalgh, since Greenhalgh, with the Mekons, covered a couple Parsons songs, including today’s song and “Sin City.”
Parsons is someone whose work I knew not at all when he was alive. I know I heard of him because he was hanging with the Stones—Keith Richards particularly—during the phase leading up to Sticky Fingers (1971), and he was much ballyhooed as one of those guys that every hep cat had to know about. But it wasn’t my thing—country-rock. I was cool with it when Neil Young went that way with Harvest (1972), which preceded the two Parsons solo albums but not his groundbreaking LP with The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) and his first foray with his own band—formed with Chris Hillman, formerly of The Byrds—called The Flying Burrito Brothers. Their eponymous debut album (1969) is still probably the high point of Parsons’ career, but I’m partial to most of both his solo LPs. I like the second one, Grievous Angel, from which comes today’s song, better, but I get annoyed by the faux live tracks. That aside, it’s a lovely record. And it's mainly thanks to my friend Rob—staunch supporter of classic rock and country—that I had sufficient curiosity to visit Parsons' output earlier this century when it got CD re-release.
Today’s song, like a handful of Parsons songs, is a classic. It’s the kind of song that many people like to think they’ve written and few ever really do. Wow. What the hell does that mean? Just this: “$1,000 Wedding” is a true “cry in your beers” kind of song, but it’s not maudlin, it’s not mawkish, and why? Probably because of what Parsons had in mind when he spoke of “Cosmic American Music,” which is a way of saying it’s “Trippy Country.” And who the hell had any purchase on trippy Country music in those days?
Now, the brilliance of Parsons approach is that the song doesn’t “sound” trippy. The great thing about Parsons’ records is that they sound Country, but just a little askew. Not psychedelic, mind you, but there’s a rock ethos at work in the midst of it all. And it’s also “trippy” to some extent because it’s based on an older style of Nashville that wasn’t the going thing any longer. Parsons is after a sound that takes from the past and brings it into the present—late Sixties, early Seventies California—for the sake of the future: where we all live with rocking Country, and countryfied Rock, and Americana music in alt circuits and “cow-punk” and the whole deal. But what I really admire about “$1,000 Wedding” is how understated it is. You’ve got to listen well to get how bleak it is—because, and this is the trippy part, it’s hip in a way that beats down the bleakness, somewhat.
It all comes down to what happened to the bride-to-be. There was going to be a $1,000 wedding, “and with all the invitations sent, the young bride went away.” Now, if this were maudlin Country, she would’ve died and we’d all piss and moan about a beautiful bride done-in before she done the deed, gone to ground before she wore that gown, pushing daisies instead of carrying a bouquet, etc. But no. Here “went away” means she just . . . left. “And where’re the flowers for the girl / She only knew she loved the world / And why ain’t there one lonely horn / With one sad note to play?” [Gram really gives it his all on that “lonely”.]
The gal went on sojourn. She loved the world gives me the image of a free spirit who just couldn’t be tied down to one guy. And the poor guy—he’d even like to see her mean old mama (just to claim kin I guess)—takes his buddies on a drunk “and it’s lucky they survived.” And a key line: “And he felt so bad when he saw the traces / Of old lies still on their faces.” His buddies, not ‘fessing up to the mess of their own lives, looking on at his bad luck: “Why don’t you do him in some old way / Supposed to be a funeral / It’s been a bad, bad day.” So, it’s not a funeral and it’s not a wedding. It’s a wedding day that feels like a funeral because . . . she gone. But not dead and gone—if she were then the funeral wouldn’t just be metaphor, which it is.
Anyway, it’s one of Parsons’ best vocals—another is on “Hot Burrito #2 (I’m Your Toy),” and he also co-wrote “How Much I’ve Lied” and both of those were covered to great effect by Elvis Costello on Almost Blue (1981). Parsons' performance is understated, but with lots of heartache. And that part about the “Reverend Doctor William Grace” is classic too, as he, of course, insists that all that sorrow can be overcome by faith in God’s plan. “And he swore the fiercest beasts could all be put to sleep / The same silly way.” Crying won’t help ya, and praying won’t do ya no good—as when the levee breaks.
Stood up at the altar. And the “trippy part,” if you will, is that this guy gets it, deep down. It’s everyone else’s bad vibes that’s bringing him down. Sure, it’s a bad, bad day, but “the funeral” is for the sake of all the onlookers, just as a wedding would be. Is there something between two lovers that gets beyond those things? Well, maybe, but there has to have been some kinda mind-meld, no?
And Parsons gives to us a great line—“Supposed to be a funeral / It’s been a bad, bad day”—that can apply to many things. And what about Parsons, after his untimely death—a month and a half short of 27—buddies stole his body in its coffin in order to cremate him in Joshua Tree Park as he said he wanted. It was another bad, bad day because it didn’t quite go as planned, and what was left of Parsons’ remains was eventually buried in Louisiana, where his father lived.
And why ain’t there a funeral if you’re gonna act that way?