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Murder Inc.

Murder by Death

Take a mental Polaroid of Murder by Death, and what will you see? Pretty-boy metal-heads with black-painted fingernails? Starving rockers with welts under their eyes? You just may be surprised by what develops; namely, three guys in button-up shirts and a girl armed with a cello. The Bloomington, Indiana, quartet composes emotionally heavy art rock gleaned from country-folk roots. Lead vocalist and guitarist Adam Turla talks songwriting technique, band health care and -- oh, yeah -- Great White.

Wack: Your songs tend to be very thematic. What's the inspiration?

Adam Turla: I don't usually like to write very personal stuff, because whenever I tried to be more personal, I always found that it seemed trite. I had trouble creating something that I thought was unique and powerful; instead, it was just incredibly common. It's funny, because sometimes the best songs are the simplest, with the most universal message. But for whatever reason, to me, being personal just wasn't the best way to do it.

I just wanted to be more of a storyteller than someone who was pouring out his soul for you.

Our first record was very pieced together, as we were trying to figure out what kind of band we wanted to be. The second one, we wanted to do something that was more uniform. We wanted to try to lock in a sound and, as an experiment, to do a whole concept piece. I've always said that I never want to do the same thing twice. It grew over time into this pattern of how I wanted to keep this narrative storytelling, but I wanted to present it in a different way each time.

I remember seeing you guys light the cymbals on fire one time. Do you still do that?

No, ever since Great White had that tragedy, where everyone died and all that. The clubs won't allow it anymore.

Did you hear that the tour manager just got sentenced to four years in prison?

It sucks, because it was his job to make sure that everything was okay. But there are a lot of people, probably, who are looking right by it.

What about your band? Who's taking care of you?

For this tour, we will have a tour manager, a merch guy and a sound guy. We have a permanent tour manager, but he got another job for the summer. So we got some friends from home to come with us.

Is it nice to be able to afford to take your friends on the road?

Absolutely. And not just that, we have a lot of friends who are photographers or artists, who have done posters and shirts for us. It's really cool, because you're paying your friends for their skills. You're not dealing with strangers; you're dealing with people you know.

So it's like an extended Murder by Death family?

Yeah, it's like we have health care, even. We just got it. It's for the band and our permanent tour manager and merch guy -- the two who are always with us -- because we consider them equal members.

Who pays for the insurance?

The band pays for it. We sell CDs on the road, and we allot a certain amount to make sure that we're covered. Most of us couldn't afford health care, and we were just thinking, like, this stinks, you know? We just kind of went out on a limb and did it. We've only had it for about two months now, so we'll see if we can actually continue to do it. -- Tuyet Nguyen
Murder by Death appears Wednesday, June 7, at Walter's on Washington, 4215 Washington Avenue, 713-862-2513. Langhorne Slim and Metal Hearts open.

The Abattoir

Truth is, I'm supposed to adore the estimable Gram Parsons.

I've been in a band or two and written a few tunes, and more often than not I've been tossed into the mostly appalling "country-rock" genre, of which Mr. Parsons is the patron saint. But I'd sooner be tossed into a moist and humid pile of horseshit. Parsons should be the patron saint of that, too, come to think of it.

The Parsons myth has grown so large it completely obscures the fact that he was a hack and, except when it came to drug addiction, a poseur. And as it turns out, the not-so-great man was a plagiarist to boot.

Here's the story, as recounted by the herds of baa-ing Parsonites:

Parsons, born Ingram Cecil Connor III, emerged from a wealthy but dysfunctional Florida family to attend one semester at Harvard. While in Massachusetts he discovered country music, and shortly after dropping out of Harvard he formed the International Submarine Band with a group of other Boston folkies. They released an album, Safe at Home, in 1968. The album flopped.

 

But that same year Parsons got the break of a (very short) lifetime: Chris Hillman, of the by-then-already-legendary Byrds, asked Parsons to join his band. They recorded only one album during Parsons's tenure, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Considered the prototypical "country-rock" album today, the record featured some Parsons originals, including what was to become his "signature" composition, "Hickory Wind." Most of Parsons's vocals on the album, however, were replaced because of "contractual issues." The album was not a commercial success, and Parsons left the Byrds that same year.

During his brief stay with that band, though, Parsons struck up a friendship with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Parsons's "influence" on Richards and Jagger supposedly brought the world such songs as "Wild Horses" and "Dead Flowers."

Indeed, the first version of "Wild Horses" released to the public wasn't performed by the Rolling Stones, it was performed by the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons's next (and final) band.

Let's pause here. Download yourself a copy of "Wild Horses," as sung by Parsons on the album Burrito Deluxe. It's pretty easy to find, shouldn't take more than a few minutes. I'll wait here for you.

Okay, got it? Now give it a listen. The first thing you might notice is that this "interpretation" isn't doing much interpreting at all. It's basically a note-for-note re-creation of the Stones song we all know. The playing is strong -- even at his most addled, Parsons always had the good sense to surround himself with fine musicians, since his own playing never rose above competent.

The next thing you will notice about this track is the dismal Parsons vocal, which is revered by Parsonites for its "raw" beauty and "emotional power." Bullshit. The vocal is awful, amateurish and dull. Listen to Parsons sing the line "Now you've decided to show me the same," and recall how the words were sung and phrased by Jagger. Jesus God, Parsons has stripped every emotional nuance and vestige of passion from the song; Jagger sings the damned song, Parsons is reciting it.

I use the "Wild Horses" example not because it's unique but because it offers the listener an opportunity to compare Parsons with an actual standard of quality. Fact is, all of Parsons's vocals from throughout his brief career are merely serviceable at best, "your little brother caterwauling to the country radio in the backseat" at worst. None of which would matter so much were it not for the fact that Parsons was not a prolific -- or really great -- songwriter, so he was always doing covers and inevitably coming up short. In contrast to Neil Young, Parsons's lack of songwriting chops and need to cover other people's stuff makes one unable to become lost in his artistic "vision." He sounds perpetually like some nervous kid auditioning for the band, rather than, say, a professional who was actually a member of the fucking Byrds.

Parsons ended his days with a couple of solo albums that, you may not be surprised to read, were commercial flops. They were nevertheless largely critically acclaimed, and despite the fact that Parsons had become a major drug and alcohol abuser, he appeared to have a career ahead of him.

He discovered Emmylou Harris and made her his duet partner on his two solo albums. But come on, Harris was far too great a talent not to be noticed sooner or later. Parsons did get there first, though, and for that -- and only that -- will I give him full credit.

Of course, being a marginal player, an okay songwriter, a lousy singer and a staggeringly fucked-up drug abuser won't usually be enough to get you into the country-rock-legend pantheon, no matter how many genuine rock stars you share a needle with or honey-voiced future legends you discover. No, your story has to have a twist, something that takes you into the realm of myth, and for Parsons it was his death in 1973 at the age of 26 from a purported tequila and morphine overdose.

While his body waited at Los Angeles International Airport to be shipped to Louisiana for burial, Parsons's former road manager, Phil Kaufman, managed to steal the corpse and, with the help of a friend, transport it to Joshua Tree, California, where they cremated it under the desert skies. All of this was according to Parsons's wishes, or so claimed Kaufman. But whatever the reasoning, one thing's for sure: Getting your remains snatched from the airport, hauled out to the desert and openly burned will secure you a place in the "legends" category.

Today Parsons is fiercely revered and defended by his fans. It's no stretch to say that, had the guy lived, he might eventually have made something of himself for real, and not just as a footnote. But the simple fact is the guy didn't do much that was very good, and nothing that was truly transcendent.

 

And country-rock? Well, sure, I guess since dozens of musicians say he influenced them, then I guess he did. But what the hell were Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis if not "country-rock"? Without the country, there wouldn't be any rock, so all this talk of "pioneering" and "discovering" is a load of crap. Tastes change, things cycle through, and every few years someone new "discovers" country music and fuses it with rock. Could Kid Rock be the new Gram Parsons? Nah, Kid Rock's actually a star.

As an addendum to this, it needs to be pointed out that though Parsons wrote few songs, "Hickory Wind" has long been considered one of his finest. Only problem is, he apparently didn't write it. Parsons's most famous composition was actually written by a blind woman named Sylvia Sammons from Greenville, South Carolina, who was singing the song as early as 1963. Parsons knew of her, had seen her sing and prompted his publishing company to purchase the song outright from Sammons, which it then did. Voil, Parsons had written a classic country song!

It might seem a bit redundant sending a guy whose body was stolen and burned in the desert to the Abattoir, but the Gram Parsons legend is so bloated and puffed up that it must be popped and drained. So off you go, Gram Parsons -- Patron Saint of the Chronically Overrated. -- Greg Wood


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