The FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS – ” The Gilded Palace of Sin ” Classic Album

Posted: May 22, 2021 in Classic Albums, MUSIC
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The Flying Burrito Brothers: The Gilded Palace of Sin

One of the first times Gram Parsons played an open-mic night at the Palomino, a dive in North Hollywood that, in the late 1960s, was patronized mostly by hippie-hating country-music fans, a bar regular approached him right after his performance. “I want you to meet my three brothers,” the man said to Parsons, who was wearing his favourite pair of satin bell-bottoms and whose chestnut hair was longer than pretty much anyone else’s in the place. “We were gonna kick your ass,” the man continued, “but you can sing real good, so we’ll buy you a beer instead.”

No response could have flattered Gram Parsons more. The grand aim of what he would come to call his “Cosmic American Music”—an aural/spiritual fusion of country, R&B, gospel, rock, and good ol’ Southern charisma was to find subcutaneous common bonds between people who, on the surface, seemed to be at odds. And in the late 1960s, as the Vietnam War raged and the generation gap widened, that kind of unity was hard to come by. He wanted to convince more conservative folks that unshorn draft-dodgers couldn’t be all bad if they could appreciate, say, the bottomless pathos of a George Jones ballad or the glittery grit of Buck Owens. And on the flip side, as the writer John Einarson put in his 2008 book Hot Burritos: The True Story of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons was also interested in “educating the hippie masses on the wealth of wonderfully authentic American music hidden right under their noses.” Parsons had lofty goals for his art. A superstar in his own mind before almost anybody knew who he was, he believed fervently that his Cosmic American Music could deliver nothing short of salvation.

Throw these two perspectives together the idealist and the pragmatist toss in no small amount of drugs, as well as a pedal steel virtuoso who never quit his day job as a claymation animator on Gumby (!), and you get all the tension and late-’60s weirdness that resulted in an imperfectly near-perfect record, the Flying Burrito Brothers’ 1969 cult-favourite country-rock touchstone, “The Gilded Palace of Sin”.

The production on Gilded Palace is especially rich. (A&M’s house producer Larry Marks, assigned to helm the debut album of his label’s newest signees, later described his role on Gilded Palace quite humbly, as more of a “hall monitor on the job [to] make sure the album got finished and things didn’t get out of hand.” In that sense at least, mission accomplished.)

But there’s a strange vitality to this record that makes its supposed imperfections feel charming, even meaningful. Many people close to the band believed Marks never got the vocals to sound quite right. Certainly one of the strangest and most polarizing choices he made was, on the many songs that employ the Burritos’ Everly Brothers-inspired two-part harmonies, to split the frontmen’s voices into separate stereo channels: Parsons’ high lonesome drawl on the left, Hillman’s earthy croon on the right—and your impressionable skull in between. But that means listening to the record on headphones gives the intimate and uncanny feeling that you’ve got a little devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, each murmuring their conflicting advice right into your ears before joining together in the mellifluous conclusion that maybe they’ve both got some pretty good points after all.

Parsons was born, infamously, into a wealthy family that controlled one-third of the citrus crop in Florida. Both parents drank prodigiously and neglected their kids’ emotional needs. Parsons’ father killed himself two days before Christmas, when Gram was 12. He left his son a generous but haunting Christmas present: A reel-to-reel tape recorder a rare thing to own at the time on which Gram’s father had left a recording telling his son he’d always love him.

Around the same time, across the country in San Diego County, Hillman’s idyllic middle-class childhood had become saturated with cowboy imagery and country music. He learned to play mandolin as a teenager and gigged with bluegrass bands like the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers and the Hillmen. But then Hillman’s own father died when he was 16, and unlike Parsons, that meant he had to transfer to night school and work a day job to help support the family. From that divide came the lopsided work ethic that would later define their band.

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In mid-1968, though, Parsons and Hillman found themselves with quite a bit in common. They’d both just exited serious relationships and they’d both quit the same band, the Byrds. Hillman had been a Byrd since his late teens, and he’d been around for the band’s sudden success. Parsons was a late-comer. His stint in the group lasted less than a year, but he had helped steer them in a new, countrified direction on 1968’s prescient country-rock landmark “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”. Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn was never sure that was the right direction. “He turned out to be a monster in sheep’s clothing,” he notoriously said of Parsons, “And he exploded out of that sheep’s clothing. Good God! It’s George Jones in a sequin suit!”—but now in their own band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons and Hillman were finally free to be as twangy as they damn well pleased.

One of the first and finest songs they wrote together was “Sin City,” a mournful ballad that blends Biblical imagery and vivid psychedelia; a smoggy cast of late-’60s-California impending doom holds the whole thing together. “This whole town’s filled with sin, it’ll swallow you in, if you’ve got some money to burn,” the boys begin in tandem. In this song at least, “Sin City” is not the town of latter-day Elvis and roulette tables, but Los Angeles, the dreamscape that each of them had migrated to, hoping in vain to satisfy their earthly desires.

Parsons and Hillman wouldn’t always get along, but they did then. When they were writing some of the songs that would appear on “Gilded Palace of Sin”, Hillman described them as “two heartbroken bachelor guys sharing a house together.” They rented a three-bedroom rancher in Reseda, far enough from the Sunset Strip to stay focused on writing and relatively out of trouble. Hillman has called it the most creatively productive time of his and Parsons’ lives. “We woke up in the morning and would write as opposed to the usual being out until five in the morning,” he said. “We were writing every day on a spontaneous schedule. I’ve never peaked like that, working with other people.”

With Parsons and Hillman both playing rhythm guitar and splitting up lead vocals, the Flying Burrito Brothers’ sound had room for a lead instrument. Enter “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow, a visual effects animator who moonlit around L.A.’s country bar circuit as a well-respected pedal-steel player. He joined the Burritos shortly before they hit the studio in late 1968. Parsons and Hillman had both wanted Kleinow to join the Byrds on the “Sweetheart” tour, and McGuinn’s refusal was one of the many reasons they both left. Putting such emphasis on Kleinow’s instrument was certainly a gamble. To rock audiences of the time, pedal-steel was the cilantro in the soup—a single element with the dubious potential to overpower everything.

“Sneaky” Pete was no ordinary pedal-steel player. He used unique, unorthodox tunings and ran his instrument through a fuzz-box as though it were an electric guitar. The 16-track console at A&M Studios allowed Sneaky to experiment with space and time more than he ever could on stage, overdubbing lacerating licks and layered textures at the forefront of songs like “Christine’s Tune” and “Hot Burrito #2.” “Country is a music of traditional forms; Sneaky Pete played a classically country instrument in an entirely new way,” Meyer notes. His distinct signature blazes through “Gilded Palace of Sin” like wildfire.

Mississippi-born bassist Chris Ethridge rounded out the band’s original line-up. (They had trouble finding a drummer in the beginning, and a handful of different session players contributed to Gilded Palace.) He, too, was a fruitful writing partner for Parsons: Together they composed two of the record’s most beloved songs, “Hot Burrito #1” and “Hot Burrito #2.” .

The Burrito suite contains Parsons’ only solo lead vocals on the album, and taken together they’re two sides of the same coin the glinting fool’s gold of human desire.

“Hot Burrito #1” is a swooning, barroom-piano ballad that Parsons animates with a wrenching vocal performance. “I’m your toy, I’m your old boy, but I don’t want no one but you to love me,” he croons, grasping in the direction of something—someone—just out of reach. Then a song later—as Ethridge’s melodic bassline kicks off “Hot Burrito #2” he’s got the girl he wanted and now he’s restless as hell, dissatisfied with the sudden demands of domestic life. “When I come home/Carrying my shoes/I’ve been waiting/To tell you some news… And you want me home all night?!” he hollers, in passionate disbelief. It would seem that the burrito is always hotter on the other side.

For a wannabe rock star, Parsons innately understood the power of spectacle. Before the album cover shoot, he took the band to be outfitted for custom Nudie Suits, by the legendary country-spangled tailor Nudie Cohn. Each member’s outfit reflected something of his personality: Hillman looks regal, if a little stiff, in blue velvet, Ethridge plays Southern gentleman in a long floral-embroidered jacket, Sneaky Pete asked for a velvet sweatshirt with a huge pterodactyl on it, because why not. The pièce de résistance was Parsons, who, ever the purveyor of self-mythology, requested a personalized collage of all his vices: Marijuana leaves, pills, pin-up girls, and sugar cubes dotted with acid proudly besmirch the pure white sleeves of his suit.

One good thing about discovering “Gilded Palace of Sin” long after its 1969 release is that it was not really one of those “you had to be there and see ’em live” things.“I cannot recall one performance that the original band did where I wasn’t embarrassed to tears,” Sneaky Pete told an interviewer in 1999. It was difficult to replicate all those pedal-steel overdubs on stage, yes. But also quite often various band members would be… well, “high” goes without saying, but sometimes high on different drugs, which makes staying in rhythm a real adventure. (A coked-up lead singer and a bassist on downers is what we call a complicated time signature.) This original incarnation of the Burritos was generally a mess on the road, which did not do much to put them in their label’s good graces. Slashed promotional budgets followed, and though it earned some critical acclaim and coveted co-signs “Gilded Palace” sold only about 40,000 copies in its first run.

When he co-founded the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons already had a reputation for leapfrogging unceremoniously from band to band. He left the International Submarine Band before their first album even came out to join the more successful Byrds, and an accelerating factor in his abrupt departure from the Byrds was the fact that he’d suddenly befriended members of the even-cooler Rolling Stones. When “Gilded Palace” flopped and it became clear that the Flying Burrito Brothers weren’t going to be his ticket to overnight stardom, he veered sharply into self-sabotage until, inevitably, Hillman kicked him out of the band. They continued releasing tighter, if less soulful, records with various revolving-door line-ups; a version of the band with no original members and only vague connections to the original name is still making music. Parsons’ drug problems, on the other hand, worsened. He continued to live hard, fast, and impatiently; he died of a morphine overdose in a Joshua Tree motel room when he was just 26 years old.

Gilded Palace of Sin” would not have existed without Chris Hillman, and for that he deserves infinite credit. It was no small feat to keep Gram Parsons out of his own way for a few focused months in the fall of 1968; the unfortunate failures and tantalizing what-if’s that marked the rest of his recording career are a testament to that. But it’s also true that on this wonderful record Parsons is clearly able to access a current of emotion and vulnerability that still remained elusive to Hillman. “They did the same thing,” Byrds producer Jim Dickson reflects in Meyer’s biography, “but Gram was willing to put feeling into his songs and Chris never was.”

Gram Parsons’ mid-’70s solo records, “GP” and the posthumously released “Grievous Angel,” have an almost talismanic power, Such is their cult appeal. “Gilded Palace of Sin” is different: The last track on the record, “Hippie Boy,” captures that. It is at once the least and most serious song in the Flying Burrito Brothers’ arsenal a spoken-word imagined conversation between a long-haired youth and the sort of seemingly close-minded guy Parsons might have encountered at the Palomino bar. Hillman plays both parts, though Parsons directed him accordingly (“He has to drink a fifth of scotch before he does it to feel the whole thing,” he insisted at the time. “He can’t smoke an ounce of grass.”) “Hippie Boy” is a utopian vision of togetherness, so sincere it has to be played a bit ironically. As the song, and the record, concludes, a drunken chorus of off-key voices join together to sing a few quick lines of the old hymn “Peace in the Valley.” It’s a beautifully stirring moment, and it ends too soon. The cosmic promise of a better world streaks momentarily across the sky, and then in an instant it’s gone.

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