As Bob Kealing notes in his new book, most folks who drive by Orlando's Loch Haven Neighborhood Center have "no idea how it used to rock."
Inside the building, the place looks much like it did in the 1960s, when it was the Orlando Youth Center. Then, teens filled its terrazzo dance floor on weekend nights. I remember lurching about with the best of them, my teased hair bobbing to the beat in one large, lacquered bubble.
But, until I read Kealing's book, "Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock," I didn't know the larger picture — the role the Youth Center played in rock history. I knew even less about Gram Parsons.
The youth-center circuit
In 1962, when Parsons was 15, he and his bandmates in "The Legends" opened at the Orlando Youth Center for 18-year-old Bruce Channel, famous for his hit "Hey Baby."
Lots of groups played there, Kealing writes — even big-name acts such as the Turtles.
"Most nightclubs and bars weren't about to let 15-year-old kids play there," Kealing writes. "That's why youth centers were so important."
The legend and the legacy
"What do you know about Gram?" Kealing asked his audience.
He sang with Emmylou Harris, someone volunteered.
His body was burned at Joshua Tree, another offered, referring to the bizarre episode in which Parsons' manager apparently stole Parsons' corpse, took it to Joshua Tree National Park, tossed five gallons of gasoline on the coffin and threw a match at it.
It's part of a "crazy overblown legend" that's tended to overshadow Parsons' musical legacy, Kealing notes — a legacy in which Central Florida played an important part.
In his book, though, Kealing is quick to acknowledge that "it's impossible to tell a Gram Parsons story without taking a serious and sober look at the devastating effects of drugs and alcohol."
Parsons was only 26 when he died of an overdose of both.
He was a child of wealth — his mother was the daughter of Winter Haven citrus pioneer John Snively Sr. — but that had not guaranteed a carefree youth.
"There was strong line of addiction in his family," Kealing notes. There was also a strong line of tragedy. When Parsons was 12, his father killed himself, a few days before Christmas. "Everyone I've ever loved ends up dying," Parsons told a friend several years later.
Country and contemporary
Yet, in his brief life plagued by tragedy, Parsons accomplished enough to be ranked among Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Artists.
His embrace of country music in the 1960s (a time when that was anything but fashionable among rockers) created an influential legacy.
He "was actually playing pure country with contemporary lyrics and attitude," Kealing writes.
It was a legacy rooted in the South, in Florida and in Georgia, where a 9-year-old Parsons saw Elvis Presley perform at the Waycross City Auditorium; after that, like so many boys, "All Gram wanted to be was Elvis," Kealing says. The warm-up acts were country royalty: the Louvin Brothers and the Carter family.
After his father's death, Parsons' family moved to Winter Haven.
There, his legacy had its roots in the days when music came to Southern teens across the sweet night air, "far-off voices crackling in via AM radio," as Kealing writes.
It's a legacy we can understand and embrace, thanks to Kealing's book and to the recordings Parsons left.
At Kealing's talk, his young son, William, helped out at the audio-visual controls, cueing up recordings of Parsons singing. One song featured a duet with Emmylou Harris. Everyone in the audience seemed to listen intently to those voices, blending beautifully in words of poetry.
At its best, as Kealing writes, "the power of music brings about change, heals the soul, and binds generations of us together."