Monday, February 2, 2009

The Gilded Palace of Sin

I've posted here before about the terrific 33 1/3 series of short books on classic rock albums; I've read about a dozen of them (out of, presently, about five dozen). The books are about the height of a CD and fit on your CD shelf (if you still have one) right next to the album in question. My enjoyment of the series has precipitated an era of closer listening to old favorites and new appreciation for records I might once have dismissed, and the books' size and length makes them perfect for moments of anticipated boredom: I enjoyed Kim Cooper's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, for instance, while waiting in an interminably long line with my family at Disney World. I was the only one having a good time.

The trouble with these books is that, if you are fussy about what you read, you will hate about half. The series' editors have aimed for a broad range of literary styles and approaches, but in so doing have commissioned a few clunkers, and you never know what you're going to get. This is why I was so delighted to see that Ithaca's own Bob Proehl, owner of No Radio Records on Seneca Street, issuer of incredibly long, rambling press releases, ace bartender, and all-around hardcore popular music nerd, has written my favorite book in the series so far: The Gilded Palace of Sin, a chronicle of the Flying Burrito Brothers' 1969 Americana classic.

I'm not going to go into the Burritos' history--I'll leave that to Bob. Suffice to say that they were an offshoot of the Byrds and showcased the songwriting talents of the now-legendary Gram Parsons (and those of bandmate Chris Hillman, though Hillman lacks Parsons' flamboyance and early self-destruction, and thus doesn't get enough credit); and that "Gilded Palace" was their only really great record. They have been lovingly covered by every imaginable current roots-based act, but never got the popular recognition they deserved.

But the point of reading this book is Bob's writing, which is detailed, discursive, and extremely funny. The footnotes alone are worth the cover price; I found myself reading them aloud to Rhian every five minutes until she was compelled to leave the room. "A caveat," Proehl writes early on, in a footnote that follows a Keith Richards quote (he appears to have actually interviewed Richards, by the way--quite a coup), "many of the Keith Richards quotes in this book have been transcribed by the author and should be taken only as approximations of the sounds Keith Richards produced." Later, he writes of having viewed a monumental Elvis Presley exhibition at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, featuring "a dozen iterations of Elvis in [his] gold suit, each one at least twelve feet tall. Filled with a Kantian terror at the sheer size of Elvis and his fan base upon viewing this, I returned home and meekly submitted to liking Elvis's music." Or my favorite, which underscores a highly entertaining tangent about the bling-studded suits of country-music clothier Nudie Cohn:

Years later, Hank Williams, Jr. commissioned a reproduction of his father's burial suit, which he sported when posing such timeless musical questions as "Are You Ready For Some Football?" One can only wonder what a rhinestone suit sounds like when its wearer is spinning in his grave.

Also included is a harrowing description of the events at Altamont Speedway in December 1969 (the murderous anti-Woodstock that marked the decade's end), some highly entertaining musings on the longevity of the Rolling Stones ("Frankly, the Rolling Stones scare the fuck out of me"), and a thoughtful essay on the relationship between dying young and being famous forever.

Highly recommended, along with the record, which I have listened to dozens of times but (shockingly, now that I think about it) never actually owned. I will have to remedy that pronto.


Anonymous said...

The CD comes, as do many CDs of groups that released their music on record, with their follow-up album, Burrito Deluxe, packaged with it. (Such set-ups quickly provoke questions about the affect on the music of writing it to fit into a certain technology.) I have nonetheless never been able to get through the entire second album. I remember that the first time I listened to Gilded Palace, as "Hippie Boy" ended and "Lazy Days" began, I ran to the CD player to turn it off and keep the moment alive. I didn't know the track listing then, but something had clearly changed. Its version of Wild Horses is beautiful though.

I should listen to Gilded Sin again -- over time I've found it's gotten less play than the other albums I own to which Parsons was attached; Sweetheart of the Rodeo, GP, Grievous Angel. The songwriting of the latter two is probably comparable to that of Gilded Sin, and the instrumentation not as interesting, but Emmy Lou Harris's luminous voice mingling with Parsons's or splitting away from it is so incredible that I cherish many of those songs.

Matt said...

Nice that the 33 1/3 series is getting some attention. I've just started (and by started, I mean half-way through) Carl Wilson's "Let's Talk About Love: A Journey To the End of Taste" which references Celine Dion's "Let's Talk About Love" album. The hook (because I've never liked her music) is that Wilson admits the same early-on, but the more he researches the more respect he has for her. Well-written.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I definitely want to read that one! It's very appealing, conceptually.

Richard said...

Wilson's book is flat-out great.

Pete said...

Funny to run across this post. I'm in the middle of reading this, my first of the 33 1/3 series, right now. And loving it. Yes, the footnotes are genius!

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