Rock ‘n’ roll has been around long enough to give rise to many a legend. From the archetypical tale of a bluesman selling his soul to the devil, to the sheer banality of “The King” found dead on a toilet, there’s no shortage of myth-making material.
Chris Price and Joe Harland are British radio producers whose mutual passion for rock ‘n’ roll begat a fast friendship. Price has long harbored a fascination with Gram Parsons, the seminal yet somewhat shadowy “cosmic cowboy” whose body was cremated by his (ex, obviously) manager in one of rock’s more bizarre episodes. And so their journey to find the heart of rock ‘n’ roll begins with a trek to Joshua Tree, the desert monument that Parsons loved in life and where his final immolation took place, and ends some 4,000 miles later in Parson’s home town.
We first meet Price and Harland as they launch their adventure in L.A. An initial mix-up regarding their car rental gives us a chance to get to know the two friends a bit – the book is written as a series of alternating blog entries, with each traveler recording his own impressions and thoughts. They’re both witty and pleasant chaps, bonded by music but distinctly different in temperament, and come across as good company for an extended road trip.
On the way to Joshua Tree, we’re taken through legendary Topanga Canyon, once home to an astonishing cross-section of rock royalty. (Jim Morrison of the Doors, most of the Eagles, Jackson Brown, Mama Cass, Crosby, Neil Young, Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell … the list goes on and on). From there it’s the desert, and a visit to Cap Rock, long thought to be the site of Parsons’ botched cremation. We visit Grand Canyon (which has nothing to do with rock ‘n’ roll, but makes a lasting impression on our two lads from London). We travel to Nashville for a visit to the Cash Cabin, where Johnny Cash made his final recordings with producer Rick Rubin, and stand on the riverbank where Jeff Buckley entered the muddy waters of Wolf River for his final, fateful swim.
The itinerary is as varied as a three-week, cross-country trip can be. The boys travel to Wichita, just to experience the solitude that inspired Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” as made famous by Glen Campbell. They pay a visit to Dodge City (again, not much connected to rock ‘n’ roll, but it holds an almost archetypical place in American culture), and Charleston, where they catch a concert by The Charlie Daniels Band. They even go “down to the crossroads” in Clarksdale (at midnight, of course), where legend has it that Robert Johnson exchanged his soul for supernatural skill as a musician.
Along the way we’re treated to pithy observations of America and American culture from an outsider’s perspective, along with a running commentary on the trip and its impact on their friendship. Alternating entries allow them to bicker a bit - it turns out Harlan isn’t all that much of a country fan, and that fact that Parson’s appeal continues to elude him results in a bit of proximity-fueled friction between the two.
But in the end, as the two pluck out a version of Parsons’ “Return Of The Grievous Angel” on a pier in his hometown of Winter Haven, Florida (Chris is a guitarist, while Joe vows to learn to play the ukulele during the trip), it becomes apparent that there is no single place that encompasses the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, and the myths are just that – tall tales at best. Despite their best efforts to entice him, Beelzebub fails to appear, and their souls remain their own. Wolf River turns out to be a muddy mess, a not-very-romantic departure point for one of music’s tortured romantics. And we learn from larger-than-life Phil Kauffman – Parsons’ former manager, the man who brazenly stole his body in a drunken attempt to fulfill Parsons’ final wishes - that the facts are a little more mundane than the legend of his cremation, and details have been (this is America, after all) mythologized somewhat.
Yet what emerges is a tale, not so much of music, as one of enduring friendship, and not so much about place as it is about people. Readers looking for insights into American music won’t find much to chew on – despite being the premise of the book and the purpose of the trip, there’s surprisingly little music involved. There are a few too many obscure pop culture references – most readers will miss a connection or two – and as cultural commentators, both Price and Harlan are more observers than analysts.
But as with rock ‘n’ roll itself, there’s a heart beating here, something that endures beyond the tawdry Graceland souvenirs and third-rate dreck clogging the airwaves these days. Great music is a vibrant, living thing, as long as there’s someone to listen and to care. It’s as unique and as colorful as the eccentric characters we meet along the way. It’s a constant source of discovery and of comfort. And music, like wine, like friendship – like a good book - is best when shared. Live Fast, Die Young (a true rock ‘n’ roll title if ever there was one) is a road trip well worth taking...