17 January 2012
John Einarson with Chris Hillman
336 pages, Jawbone Press 2008
The story of "The Flying Burrito Brothers", probably best known as the bridge between "The Byrds" and "Gram Parsons'" solo career, is brief and oft-told.
"John Einarson"'s biography of the "Burrito Brothers", written with co-founder and longest-serving original member "Chris Hillman", attempts to redress the oversight of the post-Parsons band by following their story to its conclusion. But that's not its only goal. "Chris Hillman" says in the introduction, "Certainly Gram's mystique has overshadowed me. I know that. He overshadows all of us in The Burritos, even if we've gone on to bigger careers since, like Bernie [Leadon] in The Eagles. I don't want to dwell on it. It just is what it is". And yet "Chris Hillman" also calls "Gram Parsons" "the Paris Hilton of rock 'n' roll", and all but dismisses the entirety of his output: his vocals on "The Byrds"' "Sweetheart of The Rodeo" "aren't that good".
The only Burritos-era Parsons songs worthy of high praise are "Hot Burrito #1" and "Hot Burrito #2", and of his solo albums "Chris Hillman" says: "Some of it makes my skin crawl. It's just bad country music". The song "$1000 Wedding", which is usually held up as an example of "Gram Parsons" at his very best, comes in for particularly harsh criticism from "Chris Hillman" on several occasions. "John Einarson" even adds: "It's not one of his finest hours, and the decision to take it out of contention for the second Burritos album, despite a scarcity of material, was a wise one". I suspect you'd be hard pressed to find many "Gram Parsons" or "Burrito Brothers" fans who agree with that point of view.
It's true that the Cult of Parsons has grown considerably over the last decade or so, with CD reissues, books, documentaries, appearing to capitalize on his commercial viability. And that must get frustrating for someone like "Chris Hillman", who worked hard for years with absolute professionalism, didn't die at 26, and will probably never get the attention he deserves.
"John Einarson" skillfully weaves together a massive quantity of quotes and firsthand observations into what turns out to be an exhaustive history of the band in all its various incarnations (along with each player's pre- and post-Burritos activities). The 336-page volume comes liberally decorated with both familiar and rare photos and probably stands as the definitive word on the band and the musical milieu within which it operated.