“Morality is lyrical and narratival before it is analytical.” — David Dark, The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend our God-Blessed, God-Forsaken Land, p. 95
This past year has provided a number of occasions for nostalgic reflection on the 1960s. 2019 marks fifty years since 1969, the last decade of a tumultuous, creative space in American culture. While the actual timeline of the 60s ended on December 31, 1969, we still debate when the spirit of the cultural revolution associated with the decade ended, if it ever did. Some may argue “the Sixties” ended with the assassinations of King and Kennedy in 1968 or with either the Manson murders or the death at Altamont Speedway in 1969 or the reelection of Richard Nixon in 1972 with its resounding defeat of McGovern’s peace platform.
Wrestling with these questions is probably more instructive than any attempt to settle the larger issues implied. But writing about this topic at the end of 2019 seems timely, even if by the time of our printing, folks will also be wrapping up retrospectives and looking ahead at 2020.
In the midst of the many rock classics released 50 years ago, there were two separate albums released in 1969, often credited with pioneering the fusion of traditional country music and its seemingly conservative values with the transgressive genre of rock: Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and the Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace of Sin. Dylan continued his string of recording in Nashville with some of the city’s ace session musicians that had begun with Blonde on Blonde. But this time, he recorded a set of traditional sounding country tunes. Kris Kristofferson credits Nashville Skyline with opening a crack in Nashville’s staid conservative culture, where transitional artists in country rock like himself would emerge and flourish.
Nashville Skyline peaked at #3 on Billboard’s rock charts while failing to crack the Country charts but nevertheless is seen as profoundly influential. This owes as much to Dylan’s stature and reputation as it does to the seal of approval the folk and rock pioneer received from The Godfather of Country Music, Johnny Cash. Cash’s unabashed embrace of Dylan rendered the Minnesotan a “made man” in heartland Nashville.
By contrast, The Gilded Palace of Sin was at the time a commercial disappointment, peaking at a distant #164 on Billboard charts. It did enjoy critical acclaim, then as well as now. Bob Dylan himself named it his favorite country-rock album. There is no doubt that both albums deserve their status as influential ground-breaking amalgams of genres. It seems to me that Nashville Skyline could be classified as an album that emerges at the transition between the 60s and 70s, while the Flying Burrito Brothers’ debut is itself an expression of cultural trauma at the end of 60s and the emergence of 70s. As such, it speaks to us now in the midst of rising cynicism, culture wars, and fragile hope.
Some interest in The Gilded Palace of Sin is driven by the tragic figure of Gram Parsons, his untimely death, and the bizarre tale of a failed attempt to steal his body to honor an alleged pact. Lost to us at 26 from an overdose of alcohol and morphine, Parsons is often encased in mythological amber, a semi-blank slate on which to park our ambitions and wishes. Parsons’ own biography is full of the complexity, excess, and tragedy that mark the rock bio genre.
These details along with the debate on his influence in softening the borders between the domains of rock and country are worthy of exploration, but my own immersion in his body of work has less to do with these academic-versus-fandom discussions and more to do with what theologian of pop culture, David Dark gestures at by saying that “[t]hrough indirection and misdirection, music provokes contemplation….”
Dark attends to the paradoxical but real presence of art within mass-produced commodity, an aural transubstantiation effected in the ritual act of the needle meeting the spinning platter. We are drawn into an engagement, he says, with our inner drama and transported to a contemplative communion, freed from the compartmentalizations that shield us from engaging our lives more deeply.
Like many mystical experiences, in cosmic musical communion, notions of time and space are made relative and cease to separate us in any definitive manner.
This is akin to where I find myself listening over and over to the Parsons influenced Flying Burrito Brothers’ 1969 debut The Gilded Palace of Sin. It is a threshold artifact—existing in and between the 60s and the 70s. It traverses the spaces of country, gospel, and rock; chaos, cultural decay, war and peace; moral certainty and love’s possibility. Could what Parsons called “Cosmic American Music” lead us into places of greater healing or wholeness in our own time of wars of culture and hope-piercing indifference?
I was a toddler when The Gilded Palace of Sin was released. I have no direct frame of reference for the spirit of the 60s outside of pop culture nostalgia. But the tensions of hope and despair are eternally recurring narratives within the human struggle. Our faith in humanity—what we alternatively term our “better angels” or “image of God”—is set in stark relief to our propensity for cruelty and selfishness.
The Gilded Palace of Sin is a deeply soulful album, teetering on the threshold of fragile hope in a morally tumultuous time.
We are alternately tossed between declarations of the end and proclamations of new possibilities. In 2007’s Sky Blue Sky album, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy cuts this image in stark relief, “When the mysteries we believe in aren’t dreamed enough to be true, some side with the leaves; some side with the seeds.” (Elsewhere in this edition of Ordinary Space, one of my collaborators takes a deep autobiographical look at Wilco’s part in this Cosmic Americana.)
Yet, there is something about picking up this album by Parsons and his Burritos at 53 that speaks to me at this moment in time.
Perhaps it is Parsons’ haunted vocals; vulnerable, pained, and world-weary in a way unusual for a twenty-something; this haunting, however, echoes my own adult children’s anxiety about daring to hope in the Trump era. Riffing on Aretha Franklin’s evocation of soul, David Dark hints that soul is coming out of hiding and holding one’s hope and one’s heart with open hands. If so, The Gilded Palace of Sin is a deeply soulful album, teetering on the threshold of fragile hope in a morally tumultuous time.
Themes of treachery, betrayal, and dark forces permeate the album. Heartbreak is present, whether in romantic relationships or in weighing one’s debt to the country (“My Uncle”). Dark remarks that “...there is always a more imaginative way to interpret the sounds and fury of the debilitating Babylonian present.”
In this light, then, The Gilded Palace of Sin offers us an invitation to alternative hermeneutics. It transgresses boundaries and refuses to accept what is often presented to us as incompatible on the surface. If, as Dark states, soul is shorthand for the Beloved Community and music is its movement, what might be gained from dwelling in the dissonance that Parsons and company effect?
The experimental fusion of traditional country and psychedelic rock is suggestive in multiple ways. “Sin City” gestures at a way of reading Los Angeles and the nation in apocalyptic terms, seeing both judgment and an uncovering taking place. Jesus beckons from the margins, possibly the stranger who, like Bobby Kennedy, is cut down for proclaiming his truth. Sneaky Pete’s pedal steel guitar fuzzed through varying effects stands as an incarnation of the encounter of the psychedelic search for meaning and enlightenment with the gospel-infused morality underlying much of country music. It’s not hard to hear the echoes of the Louvin Brothers assertion that Satan is Real in both the music and themes.
The contemplative punch of The Gilded Palace of Sin is in its messiness, its acknowledgement that these conflicting strands are of one piece of a narrative yet to be written while not collapsed into one another.
In this way, Gram Parsons’ own semi-ironic adoption of the country and western Nudie suit is a cipher for this ambiguous melding. Marijuana and quaaludes adorn his suit alongside an illuminated sequined cross. What’s being said? Is religion another opiate? An escape from reality? Are they varying ways of gesturing at enlightenment, like the hippie idea that weed is a sacrament? Or are they in an ongoing tension with one another, a clash of cultures and generations? A midnight encounter with a divine yet dangerous stranger, with no clear resolution to the divine confusion?
Music in the service of contemplation, David Dark suggests to us, serves to challenge our systems of avoidance (be they pharmaceutical or religious) and permeate the barriers through which we seek to cordon off parts of our life along with strangers and neighbors. Seeking the answer in this album is retroactively forcing an agenda on a text that can’t carry it.
But opening ourselves to the creative ambiguity of this slice of time in an era not unsimilar to ours may hint at ways forward. The album ends with “Hippie Boy,” a spoken word story with musical background in the tradition of the recitation song, “Deck of Cards”-an often heavy-handed, religious morality tale. But here, the closing track does not resolve any of the tensions present throughout the album in terms of capitalist greed, the military industrial complex and its need for human sacrifice, honor and duty to country but also to neighbor, with this foreshadowing Tweedy’s tension between siding with the leaves or the seeds.
Peace here is neither failed project nor a step-by-step plan. Peace is rather a persistent soundtrack to the messy, halting conversations we must have with one another.
Instead of tidy resolution, The Gilded Palace of Sin invites conversation and a consideration of communion, past appearances and assumptions. The old hymn “Peace in the Valley” frames the spoken, ambiguous story of innocence (and possibly life) lost in the clash of generations and ideologies at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, until it emerges, Emmaus-like, at the end in both vocal and instrumental form. “There will be peace in the valley someday” is more prayer than exclamation here, suggesting that the evocation “Jesus Christ” in “Hot Burrito #2” might also be polyvalent.
Peace here is neither a failed project nor a step-by-step plan. Peace is rather a persistent soundtrack to the messy, halting conversations we must have with one another; a soundtrack both reminding us our need for one another and calling us forward to experimentation and hope that dwells not in tangible signs but, as Rebecca Solnit points out, in the creative uncertainty of the future.