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Twenty Thousand Roads

The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music

Twenty Thousand Roads
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Gram Parsons lived fast, died young, and left a beautiful corpse–a corpse his friends stole, took to Joshua Tree National Monument, and set afire in its coffin. The theft and burning of his body marked the end of Gram Parsons’ life and the beginning of the Gram Parsons legend.

As a singer and songwriter, Gram Parsons stood at the nexus of countless musical crossroads, and he sold his soul to the devil at every one. Parson hung out with glamorous women and the coolest friends. His intimates and collaborators on his journey included Keith Richards, William Burroughs, Marianne Faithfull, Peter Fonda, Roger McGuinn, Clarence White, and Emmylou Harris. Parsons had everything–looks, charisma, money, style, the best drugs, the most heartbreaking voice–and threw it all away with both hands. His ballad is one of gigantic talent colliding with epic self-destruction.

Parsons led the Byrds to create the seminal country rock masterpiece Sweetheart of the Rodeo. He formed the Flying Burrito Brothers, helped to guide the Rolling Stones beyond the blues in their appreciation of American roots music, and found his musical soul mate in Emmylou Harris. Parsons’ solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel, are now recognized as visionary masterpieces of the transcendental jambalaya of rock, soul, country, gospel, and blues Parsons named “Cosmic American Music.” Four months before Grievous Angel was released, Parsons died of a drug and alcohol overdose at age twenty-six.

In this beautifully written, raucous, meticulously researched biography, David N. Meyer gives Parsons’ mythic life its due. From Parsons’ privileged Southern Gothic upbringing to his early career in Greenwich Village’s folk music scene to his Sunset Strip glory days, Twenty Thousand Roads paints an unprecedented portrait of the man who linked country to rock. Parsons’ creative genius gave birth to a new sound that was rooted in the past but heralded the future.

From interviews with hundreds of the famous and obscure who knew and worked closely with Parsons–many who have never spoken publicly about him before–Meyer conjures a dazzling panorama of the artist and his era. Shedding new light and dispelling old myths, Twenty Thousand Roads is a breakthrough in rock-and-roll biography and more–a chronicle of creativity, drugs, excess, culture, and music in the ferment of late-1960s America.

Visit the official website: www.twentythousandroads.com


From the Hardcover edition.
Random House Publishing Group; January 2008
587 pages; ISBN 9780345507860
Download in secure PDF format
Excerpt
ONE

Coon Dog Connor and Avis Snively

Gram Parsons sprang from rich white trash and rural gentility. The antecedents of Ingram Cecil Parsons, ne Ingram Cecil Connor III, were pure Faulkner, his upbringing a catalog of Southern dysfunction. The critical pathway of his ancestry brings together the moralistic complacency of small-town wealth and the hunger of the small-town hustler: two key routes to the American dream, played out in their most lurid Southern form. Out of generations of wanting sprang a man who never pursued anything because he was too busy fleeing from himself.

Gram came from money, vast amounts of it, and alcohol, in equally vast amounts. He had three parents--his father, Ingram Cecil "Coon Dog" Connor; his mother, Avis Snively; and his stepfather, Robert Parsons--and amid all their differences and conflicts, pedigree, money, alcohol, and self-destruction ran through their lives like the helix of their doomed Southern DNA.

Coon Dog Connor came out of his sky. He tilted the shark-painted mouth of his black Grumman P-40 Warhawk into a blinding shaft of glare and dropped straight down from the sun. When he thumbed the red button centered on his joystick, the wing-mounted .50-caliber machine guns made the whole plane shudder. The balsa-wood Zero in his crosshairs exploded into flinders. Dead Jap aviators floated like eiderdown through the soft warm air over the far southwestern Pacific. Turning his fighter back to the sun in search of new prey, Coon Dog Connor never saw them splash.

When he touched down on the clanking metal airstrip, his canopy was already shoved back. Coon Dog's mechanic ran alongside the plane in the crushing jungle heat, leaped onto the still-moving wing, and passed Coon Dog his celebratory bottle of Jack Daniel's . . . or maybe it was Rebel Yell or Maker's Mark or homemade jungle hooch; who knows?

Coon Dog Connor shot down numerous Japanese pilots over the Pacific Ocean in World War II, bombed and strafed even more of them when they were on the ground, and consumed vast quantities of whiskey, in the process becoming an Army Air Corps flying ace, a genuine war hero, and a certifiable alcoholic. After two years of aerial combat, Coon Dog sailed from New Guinea for Australia on a hospital ship. There he was treated for the malaria that eventually sent him stateside for good in 1944.

His specific flights, number of kills, and the date and route of his rotation back to the States vanished on July 12, 1973, when the Defense Department's World War II archives in East St. Louis, Illinois, went up in flames as all-consuming as those that broiled Coon Dog's airborne enemies. What we do know is where his unit served and in what battles they fought, and there's no question of Coon Dog's prowess, courage, or fightin' want-to.

Ingram Cecil Connor was bred to the military. He and his brother, Tom, attended their father's high school, Columbia Military Academy, in Columbia, Tennessee. Cecil's folks were native Tennesseans. His father was born in Mount Pleasant in 1887, his mother in Columbia in 1889, and both would outlive their son by more than a generation.

Cecil's dad came from a well-to-do farming family. His mom's father was a lawyer. Amid the rolling hills and small lakes of eastern Tennessee, that placed both families solidly in the haute bourgeoisie. Though the two families had been in the South--and well off--for more than a hundred years, and though they had illustrious ancestors who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, surviving family members insist that none of the Connors ever owned slaves. On this they are adamant.

After graduating from Draughn's Business College in Nashville, Cecil's father settled in Columbia. He worked as a sales rep for two Nashville hardware companies, Gray & Dudley and Keith-Simmons. He traveled for work and was seldom home during the week. He made an excellent living and provided a good life for his family.

Cecil, his younger sister, Pauline, and his brother, Tom, grew up on a dead-end street in a big formal house with an entrance hall, four bedrooms, and front and back porches. The front room held a piano and all three kids took lessons. Cecil's mother's side of the family supplied the musical genes. Cecil's maternal grandmother, Ella Dotson Kelly, played the organ at Columbia's First Methodist Church for thirty years. Grandma Kelly was always at the piano in the Connor parlor, playing but never singing. Cecil Connor never sang, either.

Pauline Wilkes, Cecil's sister, recalls three kinds of music in the household: hymns, classical, and big band. She remembers Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, and especially "Moonlight Serenade." The children took classical lessons three times a week, but their relationship to music was lighthearted. In high school and college Cecil clowned around with an old ukulele. When brother Tom attended Vanderbilt University, he followed in his grandmother's footsteps and played organ in church. "We never listened to country music," Pauline Wilkes says.

Cecil, Pauline, and Tom were raised in the old-school, small-town Southern manner, a manner that lingered well into the sixties. "We answered a question with 'sir' and 'ma'am,'" says Pauline Wilkes. "We stood up when an adult entered the room; that was good manners. We never questioned anything our parents told us to do. If they told us to do something or not do something, that was all that was necessary. That was the way children were brought up in the South. My children were raised the same. Gram was raised that way too, until his father died."

Columbia prospered as a mill town. When Maury County, of which Columbia is the county seat, was found to be full of phosphate, Monsanto and other big chemical companies built plants. The county's economy was rock solid and thriving. Cecil's father was on the road five days a week, but his family enjoyed their leisure.

Cecil's dad had grown up on a gentleman's farm; he was bred to the woods and loved hunting and fishing. As soon as his sons were old enough, they were given .410 shotguns. The .410 is a small gauge with a light kick, light enough for a young boy to shoot. Cecil Connor loved guns; he was an avid hunter and an excellent shot. In Columbia he hunted dove and quail, wandering through the fields with the family dogs; when he was stationed in New Guinea he wrote home of wild boar hunts in the jungle.

Their father bought the boys an Indian canoe in which they plied the local Duck River, paddling and swimming. Cecil had a best friend, Van Shapard, whom he met at the age of five; they stayed best friends for life. Together they took the canoe to the local landmark, Big Rock, for overnight campouts. Big Rock was known as the place where only boys swam. No girls were allowed.

Pauline Wilkes recalls lazy summer evenings with the neighborhood adults gathered on the deep shaded porch after dinner, watching their children play Kick the Can and Capture the Flag. Kids and parents always gathered at the Connor house.

All of Cecil's people concur: For all the good it did him later, Cecil Connor, a beloved son in a loving family, lived a sheltered, privileged, stressless childhood and adolescence. Life came easily to Cecil, as it would to his son.

Cecil was a Boy Scout. And when he left the Scouts in his teenage years his passion turned to cars and airplanes. Cecil's folks drove regular old vehicles, but Cecil dreamed of a red convertible. His other dreams centered on flight. He and his pal Van Shapard were always talking about planes and how they would learn to fly. When Cecil (and Shapard) entered Columbia Military, his ambitions were all about the Air Corps. The school closed after World War II, but for the time it had a demanding curriculum.

As a young man Cecil's eyes seemed to slant a bit, so the first nickname he acquired at Columbia Military was "Chink." That was the name everyone in town, children and adults, called him. "Chink" was in the old Southern manner, too.

Pauline Wilkes remembers her brother as "an extremely popular boy. He was a good-looking boy all his life. My friends would come over just to be with him." Although Cecil dated often, he had no great love in high school. Already Cecil manifested the same quality of relaxed separateness that would mark his son.

Cecil grew to be manly, affable, charming, and socially at ease. At Columbia he became a student leader and the alpha of his social pack, pulling out his ever-present ukulele at parties and taking it on dates. In school he devoted himself to the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) to ensure that he would join the service as an officer, because it was officers who became pilots.

When Cecil graduated, he and Van Shapard set off for Alabama Polytechnic Institute in Auburn. Established in 1856 and made coed in 1892, the Polytechnic is today better known by the name it took in 1961: Auburn University. Van Shapard and Cecil studied aeronautical engineering and both were officers in the ROTC. Cecil's family says he graduated in 1939. Auburn University disagrees; he attended Alabama Polytechnic, but no record exists that he left with a degree.

In any event, when Cecil was done with college, his and Van Shapard's paths diverged. After joining the Army Air Corps together, Cecil stayed in the Army while Van Shapard opted for the Flying Tigers. Cecil would end up in the Pacific Theater; Van Shapard would fly "over the hump" from India to China over the Himalayas.

Cecil took his aviation training at Kelly Field in Texas. During training he drove around Kelly Field in the red convertible he'd always wanted. On May 11, 1940, he graduated flight school and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps. His proud mother pinned his flight wings to his chest.

Cecil remained at Kelly Field until March 1941, when he transferred to Wheeler Field near Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. There Cecil Connor did not live like an ordinary officer. His life aligned more closely with the languidly structured peacetime pleasure dome depicted in From Here to Eternity. Cecil rented a house on Diamond Head and acquired another red convertible. In addition to being tall, handsome, socially adept, and well-to-do, Cecil was also a pilot, which at the time was among the coolest, most badass identities a man could earn. He lived in the most beautiful place in the world and he tore around that paradise in a new red convertible. Cecil Connor did not live like an Army Air Corps second lieutenant--he lived like a rock star.

The rock-star life came to a halt when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. Asleep on Diamond Head, Cecil was awakened by explosions--he could see Japanese planes over Pearl from his house. He leapt into his red convertible and raced to Wheeler Field. When Cecil got there, the base was a shambles. Bomb craters littered the runway, planes were burning on the ground, and the few hangars still standing were in ruins. There was nothing Cecil Connor could do. After the war, he told a coworker, "I didn't even get up to my plane to get it cranked up . . . but I made up for that later on." If in civilian life Cecil was sometimes regarded as a hard-drinking laggard with an overdeveloped gift for indolence, during the war there was no questioning his sense of duty or adventure.

With Wheeler Field destroyed, Cecil's 6th Pursuit Squadron of the 18th Fighter Group shifted to Kahuku on Hawaii and later to Kipapa Field until they were sent overseas late in 1942. The 6th Pursuit had trained as interceptors, meaning they flew close support for bombers. In May 1942 their name was changed to the 6th Fighter Squadron, and later to the 6th Night Fighter Squadron. Their mission changed with their name. They would still escort bombers, but they were also turned loose to pursue aerial combat and to execute bombing and attack runs on their own. The 6th Night Fighters were sent to the Pacific to be aggressors.

In honor of their new name, their emblem became a gray skull outlined in black, the outline forming the hub of a spinning propeller blade in black on an orange background. Painted on the side of each plane below that emblem was the squadron's nickname: the Flying Vampires.

Here history gets a little murky; surviving records address the Flying Vampires as a unit and not Cecil specifically. At some point in late 1942, the 6th Night Fighters headed out of Pearl Harbor to war. In January 1943 they spearheaded an extended attack on Japanese forces centered around Munda Airfield, on the island of New Georgia, in the Solomons. Cecil's group attacked a Japanese transport at sea; they bombed an airfield on Bougainville Island; they assaulted Munda field repeatedly. All this was in support of the U.S. Marines' invasion of and attempt to secure Guadalcanal Island.

At some point while fighting the war, stationed somewhere in the Pacific--most likely New Guinea--and bombing jungle airfields at night, Chink Connor became Coon Dog. And Coon Dog he remained for the rest of his life.

While coon was the South's vilest, most hateful racial epithet during Cecil Connor's time, there's no evidence that his nickname derived from that slur. Cecil was a well-bred, civilized Southerner, and no one remembers him ever using or condoning that kind of language. But raccoon hunting was, and remains, a popular slice of backwoods Southern culture. And if you're going to hunt raccoons, you got to have coon dogs. There are two ways of hunting raccoons, and neither could exist without the dogs. In one variant, the dogs track the scent of a raccoon, find the beast, harry it through the woods, and, if the raccoon outruns them--if it doesn't turn and fight--chase it up a tree. When the hunters catch up to the dogs, which can take a while, they shoot the raccoon down so the dogs can rip it to shreds. Another method is more amiable: The hunters send their dogs out to find a raccoon somewhere in the summer night and sit around a fire drinking and listening as the dogs' voices cut through the humid darkness. An experienced dog handler can tell when his hound is on the scent, when it's on the chase, when it's treed a raccoon, and when it lies down to sleep at the bottom of the tree. Dawn finds the dogs loping back into the camp from however far off they might have treed their prey.

It's probably from those hounds that Coon Dog got his name. He became Coon Dog in New Guinea and never told anyone why. Raccoons, however, can be mean sumbitches when brought to bay.


From the Hardcover edition.