“The Return Of The Grievous Angel”: The story behind Gram Parsons’s signature song

By on November 5, 2015

Today marks what would have been Gram Parsons’ 69th birthday — born Ingram Cecil Connor III on November 5, 1946, in Winter Haven, Florida — and to celebrate, we’re highlighting the story behind Parsons’s essential signature song “The Return Of The Grievous Angel,” which you may be surprised to learn features lyrics written mostly not by Parsons, but by a shy young poet named Thomas Stanley Brown.

Brown was giving poetry readings in Cambridge at the time, and when he contacted me five years ago by email, he told me it all began because he was already a fan of Parsons’s music. Brown said he wrote the lyrics in about twenty minutes and then gave them to Michael Martin to give to Parsons, in a bar called Oliver’s in Boston, Massachusetts, where Gram and Emmylou Harris were performing during the summer of 1973.

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Brown says that Martin handed Parsons the sheet of lyrics he’d written, asking him to please consider setting it to music and that if Parsons wanted to chat with the writer about the song, Brown would be over at the bar, talking with Emmylou Harris. Brown says that Parsons was fighting with Gretchen at the time. Brown told me that Parsons changed the word “roughnecks” to “kickers,” and added the two bridge lines.

Here are the lyrics:

Won’t you scratch my itch, sweet Annie Rich
And welcome me back to town.
Come out on your porch or step into your parlor,
And I’ll tell you how it all went down,
Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels,
And a good saloon in every single town.
Oh, and I remembered something you once told me,

And I’ll be damned if it did not come true,
Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down,
And they all lead me straight back home to you.

‘Cause I headed west to grow up with the country,
Across those prairies with those waves of grain.
And I saw my devil and I saw my deep blue sea,

And I thought about a calico bonnet,
From Cheyenne to Tennessee.

We flew straight across that river bridge,
Last night half past two.
The switchman waved his lantern goodbye,
And good day as we went rolling through.
Billboards and truckstops pass by the grievous angel,
And now I know just what I have to do.

And the man on the radio won’t leave me alone,
He wants to take my money for somethin’ that I’ve never been shown.
And I saw my devil and I saw my deep blue sea,

And I thought about a calico bonnet,
From Cheyenne to Tennessee.

The news I could bring I met up with the king,
On his head an amphetamine crown.
He talked about unbucklin’ that ol’ bible belt,
And lightin’ out for some desert town.
Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels,
And a good saloon in every single town.

Oh, but I remembered something you once told me.
And I’ll be damned if it did not come true.
Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down
And they all lead me straight back home to you.
Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down,
And they all lead me straight back home to you.

“Return Of The Grievous Angel”
music by Gram Parsons / lyrics by Gram Parsons and Thomas Stanley Brown
Produced by Gram Parsons for Tickner-Dickson Productions
Engineered & Mixed by Hugh Davies
Recorded in July 1973 at Wally Heider Studio 4, Hollywood, CA:
Mixed at Capitol Records Studio, Hollywood, CA
Personnel on “Return Of The Grievous Angel”:
Gram Parsons: lead vocals, acoustic guitar
Emmylou Harris: vocals
James Burton: electric lead guitar
Bernie Leadon: acoustic rhythm guitar
Herb Pedersen: acoustic rhythm guitar
Byron Berline: fiddle
Al Perkins: pedal steel guitar
Glen D. Hardin: piano
Emory Gordy: bass
Ronnie Tutt: drums

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As you can see, Brown’s poetic lyrics tell of a man coming home after having lit out for the west, to unknown territory, in order to experience life and get a little livin’ under his belt. Now he’s coming back, hat in hand, asking the girl he’d left behind to let him inside so he can tell her about all of the things that he’s seen on his adventures. There’s also an idea here that you see in some of the best American literature, the idea of a young man having to head west  to grow up, to mature (in this case, “to grow up with the country”) and in this song’s lyrics, his Kerouac-ian adventures westward have led him to places unknown, places from which he hasn’t returned, psychically, even if he has physically returned.

This reminds us of George Webber at the end of Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again, when he has found that ”You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood,…back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame…back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” Nostalgia makes us yearn for places from our past, but those places — perhaps in the mostly metaphysical sense — no longer really exist, at least not in the way that we’d hope to find them.

In Hickory Wind: The Life And Times Of Gram Parsons (St. Martins Press: NY, 1991), author Ben Fong-Torres includes just two short mentions of Brown, and reveals that Gram Parsons had visited Harvard earlier the same day as the gig in Boston, where he had paid a visit to a friendly college adviser of his named Reverend James Thomas, who was also known to some of his friends and colleagues as “Jet.”

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Fong-Torres says that “Return Of The Grievous Angel” actually chronicled Brown’s romance with his wife, or the woman who became his wife (“Sweet Annie Rich”) but that Brown also “had Gram in mind, too. The title was inspired by a photo he’d seen of a sad-looking Gram; the king with the head full of speed was Gram.” Fong-Torres describes the song in this way: “‘Return Of The Grievous Angel’ sounded like pure Parsons with its conversational tone, its crisp descriptions evoking the South and ‘the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels,’ its Dylanesque reference to a meeting with ‘the King’ ‘on his head an amphetamine crown,’ and it’s swooping chorus tailor-fit for Gram and Emmylou’s hand-held harmonies.”

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As good as Brown’s lyrics are, Parsons’ melody makes them all the more memorable, especially the gentle but determined chorus that gives the heartstrings a firm and determined yank. Parsons’ original recording played the “lovable rogue with a heart of gold” card for all it was worth, while Lucinda Williams’ 1999 rough-and-ready cover managed to up the toughness quotient a few notches. Other artists have covered the song as well, but we always return to Gram’s version. Despite rave reviews in Rolling Stone, and the L.A. Times and placing at #15 on the Village Voice‘s list of top 20 albums of 1974, Grievous Angel did not sell very well (Gram’s albums both sold an average of 40,000 copies at the time of their original release). It peaked at a disappointing #195 after only 3 weeks on the Billboard album charts.

According to Fong-Torres, in December 1973 as Reprise prepared Grievous Angel for release, Gram’s wife Gretchen (with whom he’d filed papers in order to begin divorce proceedings) put a stop to plans for the album to feature a cover photo of Gram and Emmylou astride his Harley-Davidson motorcycle (with Emmylou’s arms resting on Gram’s shoulders). Joe Smith, the president of Warner Bros. Records at the time (Reprise and Warner Bros. would later be combined as Warner-Reprise), chose to “respect the family’s wishes,” and Emmylou was relegated to a back-of-the-cover LP credit with no photos of her whatsoever.

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Brown to this day is credited with co-writing the song, which first appeared as the lead-off track on Parsons’ second solo album, Grievous Angel (Reprise 2171). The record was released posthumously, in January 1974, just a few short months after his death (at age 26) on September 19, 1973. The album turned out to be both Gram Parsons’ artistic peak as a solo artist and, some might say, his last will and testament. Parsons’ affairs were in such disarray after his death that initially the song was credited solely to him in the first pressing of the album, but Parsons’ estate later acknowledged the actual authorship as soon as Brown came forward. Parsons also added a few lines of his own and fine-tuned it (particularly, the section where he sings about the “man on the radio”). These lyrics, incidentally, were in a notebook that Gram grabbed as he fled from his home, which burned down shortly before the second solo album sessions were scheduled to begin.

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Brown was, unfortunately, not given credit on any releases until the early ’80s when a 45rpm single was released with an alternate version of “Return of the Grievous Angel” (backed with a purported remix of Parsons song “Hearts On Fire”).

At one time there was a magazine or fanzine called Cosmic American Music News which actually featured a short interview with Tom Brown, of which here is an excerpt:

CAMN: Did you give Gram the lyrics in Boston?

BROWN: Yes, I gave Gram the lyrics at a club called Oliver’s, near Fenway Park in Boston. I believe the club is called something else now.

CAMN: What were you doing as a living when you gave Gram the song?

BROWN: At the time of the meeting in Boston, I had been studying and writing poetry for about a dozen years. Only once had I tried to adapt my writing to music; a high school friend had a band that got a record deal out of New York. He asked me to help him write some material, but his label people had no idea what to make of our work. They said it was too “wiggy” for release. A year or so later, Bob Dylan’s first record with obscure, scatter-shot lyrics came out. We had to laugh and like so many others, we got a huge hit off it.

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Just a few years ago, Brown himself was posting in a Gram Parsons web forum and then he just … disappeared. For a long time, before I first wrote about the song, I surmised that the words Brown wrote in his youth were yet another example of a truly American experience, of trying to find one’s place in the world.

We lost touch with Brown for quite awhile after he got in touch about the post I’d written about his song for another blog, and we were friends on Facebook for awhile, and then he disappeared one day. It happens on Facebook quite a bit. Perhaps now he’ll read this new post, and come back again, and offer up more comments.

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Invoking Gram Parsons’ name today will bring forth a variety of substantially differing points-of-view, about what the man and his music means to his fans, from the mythic and messianic, to perspectives that are probably a little more rational and realistic. To many, Parsons was, of course, the Florida-born rich kid who left home at 19, attended classes at Harvard and played with the International Submarine Band before westering to L.A., where he spent some of his free time playing music, writing songs and touring before binge-drinking and drugging himself to death in September of 1973, just a few months shy of his 27th birthday — he was very nearly a member of infamous “27 Club,” in fact.

Invoking Gram Parsons’ name today will bring forth a variety of substantially differing points-of-view, about what the man and his music means to his fans, from the mythic and messianic, to perspectives that are probably a little more rational and realistic. To many, Parsons was, of course, the Florida-born rich kid who left home at 19, attended classes at Harvard and played with the International Submarine Band before westering to L.A., where he spent some of his free time playing music, writing songs and touring before binge-drinking and drugging himself to death in September of 1973, just a few months shy of his 27th birthday — he was very nearly a member of infamous “27 Club,” in fact.

The unimpressed non-fans frequently use the term “wasted,” as in Parsons’ — like so many others — “wasted” his life away on drugs, or spent much of his last days “wasted” — it works, I suppose, in all of its various applications, if you mean to describe a self-martyred musician during those last days whilst ignoring everything that came before.

To some of his fans and followers, Parsons was seen as a champion of traditional country music, and as a result, he helped to create, or maybe further expose, a hybrid sub-genre blending country and rock that we now familiarly call, simply, “country-rock,” although Parsons preferred to use a neologism of his own invention, “Cosmic American,” which was more prophetic than practical perhaps, but it best described the “cosmological” confluence of indigenous U.S.-bred genres (country, rock, blues, bluegrass, and gospel) that he envisioned coming together to form a universally appreciated “new” sound. It had a cosmic feel to it, you see: he wasn’t simply a California-based hippie twanging his way through country tunes of the past, or penning his own, he was trying to connect it all up in the way the ancients would try to connect the stars in the sky.

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To these fans and followers who see the cosmic side of Parsons, it’s usually more about the music and less about his persona, per se — the focus remains where they believe it should, on those recordings he made, on the songs he wrote and the covers he performed, and with possibly even a little bit of reverence for Parsons’s brittle, often plaintive voice, and it matters less so to them that others see that distractingly marketable cowboy angel image that Parsons helped foster for himself… the Gram from the photographs where he can be seen primping and posing in that infamous roses-and-drug paraphernalia covered Gilded Palace of Sin white Nudie suit, sewn by Manuel Cuevas, Nudie Cohen’s protégé, who has called the suit “a map for him to follow to his death,” with custom hippie accoutrements including uppers and downers, pot leaves and poppy flowers, and cartoonish nudes, along with that stark red cholo cross on the back of the jacket and the red flames burning up the legs of his trousers, like a cowboy angel walking out of hell.

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But Parsons certainly didn’t always wear the suit or other flashy stage attire offstage— sometimes he’s seen in casual bellbottomed Levis, cowboy boots and an untucked floral western shirt or a t-shirt bearing his own band name, his center-parted shaggy hair framing those somewhat angelic features and an easy smile; just look at the pictures of Parsons in 1971, sprawled lazily over the hood of a gleaming black-and-chrome ’56 Cadillac in the parking lot of the Burrito King, a late-nite hipster haven at Alvarado and Sunset in Echo Park, and you will see someone enjoying a life he’d made for himself, at least parts of it.

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Then, there are those among his fans and followers who love the music he made but dislike, somewhat intensely, what amounts to his following, or his followers, which one of his better biographers David Meyers has referred to as “a mix of Bitter Lieutenants (ex-bandmates and contemporaries)” and “possessive necrophiliacs… Grampires.” These fans probably fall somewhere in the middle ground between simply being fans of the music and what comes after, a recognition that — while Parsons can certainly be seen as an early 70s rock starrish poster-boy, it’s true — they would prefer instead to highlight his musical accomplishments rather than sit around in rooms filled with candles, waiting for his resurrection. But it’s the followers that ruin it all, the way they’ve come along and made the man out to be some kind of god when, clearly, he wasn’t.

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To his rabid detractors, who are more extreme in their dislike, I suppose, Parsons was no more, and no less, than a trust-funded twenty-something Icarus who flew too close to a metaphorical sun, wasting his high time and short life partying with the likes of Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg at Villa Nellcôte, or wherever he happened to be, because they can only see the destruction and not any of the creative life he led before he burned away those wings and fell.

In July of 1973, coming just a few months before his death, Parsons’s Topanga Canyon home burned to the ground, the result of a unattended lit cigarette, and nearly all of his possessions were destroyed with the exception of a guitar and his prized Jaguar automobile, and anyone can certainly make the case that his final trip to Joshua Tree was during a time when he was sorting out every aspect of his life, from his marriage to Gretchen, to his career, to his relationship with his family back in Waycross, Georgia.

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If you know the details about how Gram Parsons’s life ends, then you likely know how the infinite desertscape of Joshua Tree National Park and the surrounding Mojave plays a part in the redundant re-telling of the story. Parsons had been making his own pilgrimage to this expansive California state preserve for weekend getaways for quite some time, with friends and fellow musicians, escaping from the suffocation of the city in order to free his senses, and perhaps even get a little out of his mind in a kind of self-styled spiritual journey. You can probably imagine Parsons even scanning the skies from some lofty perch, hoping to see a UFO perhaps, or simply communing with the twinkling stars or marveling at the odd-shaped Joshua trees, Yucca brevifolia, so-named by 19th-century Mormon settlers who thought the trees resembled the biblical Joshua, his arms lifted toward the heavens.

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You can imagine Parsons standing in silence and breathing in the crisp night air, or perhaps even laughing and climbing around on distinctive otherworldly monzogranite rock formations, a moonlit playground of surreal spheroidal shapes unlike any other place on Earth. You may also know the significance of a particular outcropping of jagged rock, jutting out from the boulder-mantled grus-lined slopes on the backside of Cap Rock, a 200-foot formation topped by a boulder that seems to defy gravity at the junction of Park Blvd. and Keys View Road.

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You probably already know how the spot has for the past forty-plus years become a destination for many of his fans who regularly make their own desert pilgrimage to pay tribute to Parsons, often leaving behind their own personal affects or scrawling familiar lyrics from his songs on the rocks — “Safe At Home,” “Fallen Angel” or “God’s Own Singer” among the favorite graffito slogans, or that simple red cross with rays of light spreading out from the center.

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You may often hear the combined voices of less-celebrated but certainly just-as-worthy musicians who found themselves standing just outside the spotlight centered on Parsons, grousing all these decades later about how, because they’d survived to tell their own tales, and sometimes telling Parsons tale, deserve to have that light shined upon them now and then. There are stacks of biographies and numerous articles about Parsons to peruse should you want to work your way through an often spurious lacunae, not to mention a few filmed documentaries and at least one misguided feature film to view should you want to have a more visual experience. There have been many tribute albums to Gram Parsons’s music, and many concerts held in tribute, many of them in Joshua Tree, California, where some of his fans have make a pilgrimage, sometimes even to stay in Room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn, where Parsons is said to have spent his final hours.

The truth about life and death Gram Parsons is, certainly, whatever that truth means to you — and I suspect, if you’re reading this, you probably already know where you may fall on the aforementioned spectrum of available choices — but we should all agree that Parsons’s death ended an accomplished career that was still undertaking its uncertain next steps. Although it seems difficult to escape Parsons’ ubiquitous presence now — his birthday, November 5, and the anniversary of his death, are two annual calendar dates observed by many of his fans — we should remember that Parsons was not actually a household name in his own lifetime, this despite being a former member of the Byrds and a founder of the Flying Burrito Brothers.

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Ben Fong-Torres gets the final word about this lovely song of Parsons and Brown’s: ‘Grievous Angel’ became the album’s signature song. It also served to show how resourceful Gram was when he needed to be, as he applied the perfect, lilting melody to Brown’s words. Whether he did it be design or out of desperation, Gram’s resulting set of original songs was brilliant, a dossier of a life lived and deeply felt.”

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.