Where're The Flowers For My Baby?
Over time, most things lose their value. Money. Art. Even Love.
Sure, certain things get more valuable over time (sometimes even reaching "priceless" status), but the universe churns on and eventually everything we value is reduced to dust and ash.
This, naturally, brings us to one of the most important musicians of the 20th century, Gram Parsons, and "$1000 Wedding," his heartbreaking biographical song about being left at the altar:
Parsons wrote "$1000 Wedding" around 1970, so adjusting for inflation, it would be "$6000 Wedding" today. Pretty fancy.
The lyrics tell a story about a groom whose bride doesn't show up for the wedding and the awkward and painful aftermath for the groom. We don't ever really hear about what caused the bride to leave or learn what happened to her. All we can assume is that she ultimately decided she didn't want to marry the groom.
In the song, the wedding becomes a metaphorical funeral for the relationship instead. At one point, their love was powerful enough that they decided they were going to have an expensive wedding. By the wedding day, that just didn't seem worth it to the bride anymore. How painful is that? Their loved burned hot enough that they agreed to be married and even though he still loved her, her fire had gone out.
I could probably create a great deflation metaphor here that would describe how love can suffer deflation just like money. The accolades would pour in!
That's not really what I want to talk about, though.
What I want to talk about is a phenomenon that I think of as "The Curse of the Innovator."
Are you old enough to have played Pong? By choice? And you thought it was pretty amazing? I am, I chose and I did.
My mother used to play tennis in an indoor club. There was daycare, but I got too old for that (I turned 8) so she let me stay in the balcony lounge overlooking the tennis courts. There was a table top Pong console there and she'd give me a few quarters so I could play. Once the quarters were exhausted, I would watch the game play itself for what felt like hours.
I was 8 though and an hour seemed like a much bigger thing then than now. This could be another amazing deflation metaphor.
Its about 40 years later now and I don't think I would willingly play Pong if there were any other options. I acknowledge that the game was extremely important in the development of video games, but we've advanced so far since the 70's that Pong seems, at best, quaint. How fickle love! If Pong had proposed to me, I'd have left it at the altar for Space Invaders.
Gram Parsons is one of the true innovators of country music and rock and roll. Almost any band that played country rock in the 70's and beyond owe a debt to Parsons. For example, that means you can thank/blame him for The Eagles.
Side note: Country Rock is not the same as Southern Rock and I'll wrassle anyone who thinks otherwise.
But if you listen to modern country rock, its advanced so much since Parsons that his music no longer sounds like that big a deal. The same thing can be said of Big Star and their huge influence on modern rock - or of a band like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and their influence on hip-hop. Indeed, most of the great innovators in the development of rock and roll - like Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats or Jimmie Preston and his Prestonians - produced songs that couldn't be more different from today's rock.
Just like Pong seems quaint now, there is a naivety to Parsons music that belies its importance. Indeed, you'd be forgiven if your reaction to "$1000 Wedding" was "well, Parson and Emmylou Harris sound great, but what's the big deal?"
The Big Deal of course is that Parson moved country rock forward in a way that nobody before him had.
And then he died young, which also sort of cements a legacy in contemporary music and what happened to his body after death was so nuts that they made a movie about it. The short version of the story is that Parsons step-father allegedly stood to inherit Parson's song catalog if he was buried in Louisiana, so Parsons' friends stole his body and tried to cremate him near Joshua Tree, California. What an amazing metaphor I could create about the value of a deceased human body...
Parsons barely had any music chart success in his life - though his music was met with great critical acclaim at the time. It takes the world a little time to warm up to the new. Parson's song catalog is worth more today than it was during his lifetime, but I think its almost impossible to hear how revolutionary his music was outside of the context of his time.
So how should we assign value to Parsons work? By its influence? By how much money it brings in to his estate how? By how much it moves us as individual listeners?
And, of course, what is happening right now, right under our noses in music (but also art, film or just life) that is going to change and influence the next 40 years of our culture? Will we be wise enough to see it or will we only recognize its value once its become a quaint memory of another time?
Parsons wasn't necessarily even trying to innovate. He loved country music and he loved rock. He wanted to create music that he loved and to write songs that meant something to him.
And that's the amazing thing about this $1000 Wedding. The relationship ended before the song was written. The money for the wedding? All long gone. The groom has been dead sing 1973. When you listen to the song, that love and pain is still as fresh as it was the day Gram Parson and Emmylou Harris recorded it.
Ars longa, vita brevis.