Country Muse Gram Parsons Fill the Desert Skies
On the morning of Friday, September 21, 1973, tourists entering the vast deserted stretches of California’s Joshua Tree National Park, approximately 150 miles east of Los Angeles, came upon a sight not mentioned in their guidebooks. Near a huge outcrop of stone called Cap Rock, they discovered something smoldering under the hot morning sun. Upon closer examination, it looked to be a coffin. The charred remains of a body lay inside. Shocked and terrified, the visitors contacted the local sheriff’s office. Media swooped in to learn the identity of the mysterious corpse. By mid-afternoon, it was revealed to be Cecil Ingram Parsons, otherwise known as Gram Parsons. He was a musician who had passed away the day before in a nearby motel. Police were baffled by this new twist in their investigation into the entertainer’s demise. Newspapers like the Los Angeles Times cited the scenario as one harboring ritualistic underpinnings. Who Gram Parsons was, and how he ended up scorched in a coffin amidst cacti and desert winds has captured the imagination of rock folklorists for many years since.
Outside of the music industry, not many people are aware of Gram Parson’s body of work. Most folks would be hard-pressed to name just one of his songs. But in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the Los Angeles music scene was evolving into a hybrid sound that would soon be called Southern California rock. The Eagles would ultimately become the most identifiable progenitors of this style of music. One of the Eagles’ founding members, Bernie Leadon, had played in a band named The Flying Burrito Brothers shortly before taking up with Glenn Frey and Don Henley. Gram Parsons was a pivotal voice in the Burrito Brothers and what he brought to their sound influenced many artists within the industry. Parsons unabashedly promoted country music as a means to influence rock. Others would claim they originated the ‘country-rock’ sound, and it is evident that several artists were introducing country elements into their music all around the same period of time. But, Parsons was easily identifiable as the one voice above the rest who never wavered from his pursuit to create what he called ‘cosmic American music.’
Unlike countless other musicians who have headed west to southern California to struggle their way to the top, subsisting on very basic means, Gram Parsons never had to struggle, at least financially. He was rich. His dad’s family had owned the vast Snively citrus farms in Florida, and Gram lived off a semi-annual dividend left to him in a trust fund. What Parsons did wind up struggling with was the gnarled tangle of familial wrangling that ultimately took its toll on his psyche. For his extremely successful father, one day in 1958, had calmly gone to the office, taken care of a few bills, and then, blew his brains out with a .38-caliber revolver. His mother quickly devolved into a haze of booze and prescribed drugs, remarrying to a man whom Gram perceived as a gold-digger. His new stepfather, Bob Parsons, adopted Gram and his sister Avis, changing their surname, and attended to Gram’s ailing mother. Years later, Bob confessed to Gram that he’d made martinis in the hospital room his mom was being treated in so she could continue to drink. This obviously hastened her declining health, and she died, leaving Gram and his sister a phenomenal inheritance.
Gram was not one to rest on his unearned laurels. He’d grown to love music, particularly rhythm & blues and gospel, and formed early bands in his town of Winter Haven, Florida. When he’d become proficient on piano and guitar, Gram struck out for Harvard in 1963 and met a fellow musician at a party by the name of John Neuse. It was through Neuse’s influence that Gram apparently became enamored with the country style of music. “Gram had played a little country music back in Florida,” Neuse told author John Einarson. “But he wasn’t really interested in it. He wasn’t into country music. I introduced him to the music of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, and the people who were doing great music at that time.” Neuse and Parsons roped in three other musicians and formed a country-tinged, rhythm & blues outfit known as The Like. Gram met another friend at this point, a former child actor who had starred in the western “Shane.” His name was Brandon de Wilde, and together with the band, he’d chime in with harmonies and partake of their burgeoning experimentation with drugs.
The Like were invited to go to New York by de Wilde to record some demos. They wound up staying in a rented house in the Bronx across the street from two other musicians, Richie Furay and Stephen Stills. The group changed its name to the International Submarine Band and played its brand of country & western-R&B throughout Greenwich Village coffeehouses. “Thanksgiving time 1966,” Neuse told author Einarson, “our dear friend, actor Brandon de Wilde, went to Los Angeles to do some television and movie stuff. Gram went to visit him and met a girl who was with David Crosby…” 19-year old Nancy Lee Ross had met the famed Byrds folk singer earlier in the year and was living at his house the day Gram dropped in. “When I saw this guy who looked like a coon dog/drowned water puppy come up the driveway,” she recalled to author Pamela Des Barres, “it was not in my mind to be unfaithful.” Gram said, “I’ve been looking for you for a long time, and I’m going to take you with me.” He went back to New York, collected his band, and moved everyone, including Nancy, into a huge home in the Laurel Canyon section of Los Angeles. Gram married Nancy shortly thereafter.
L.A. was oozing hippie love at this point, with the sounds of Stills and Furay, who had joined Neil Young, Dewey Martin, and Bruce Palmer forming the group Buffalo Springfield. The Mamas and the Papas were at the height of their career. And folkies-turned-pop stars, The Byrds, were commanding respect amongst their peers as the original rock stars of the Hollywood scene. It was while Gram Parsons stood in line at a Beverly Hills bank that he met Byrd’s songwriter, Chris Hillman. The two had an instant rapport in that they both loved country music. Hillman had grown up around horses in rural Southern California and had played the bluegrass circuit for many years before turning to folk and The Byrds. David Crosby had recently left Hillman’s group, and Hillman was looking for a musical equivalent to fill the gap and help steer them in a new direction. Roger McGuinn, Hillman’s founding partner, wanted to create an album centered around the Moog synthesizer. Chris wished to tap into country. He brought Gram Parsons aboard the group in February 1968.
In the studio, Gram immediately tossed about his country music ideas for the other members to absorb. McGuinn appeared to be threatened by the new teaming of Hillman and Parsons and their twangy renditions. Recruiting sidemen like “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow on pedal steel guitar and Clarence White of the Kentucky Colonels on bass, The Byrds recorded the album “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” It was more country than it was rock, and Parsons had crafted the majority of the tunes on the album. John Neuse, Gram’s old friend in the International Submarine Band, would later proclaim his designation as the king of country-rock to author John Einarson. “We were the founders. We predated ‘Sweethearts of the Rodeo.’ Let me make a definitive statement. Gram turned the Byrds on to country music, and I turned Gram on to country music.” Nevertheless, history of rock has seen fit to award Gram with the honor of being the most influential advocator of the country-rock genesis.
Parson’s stint with the Byrds was short-lived. Five months to be exact. In July 1968, while touring in London, he decided to stay at his hotel and not head to the airport when the band was readying to move on to South Africa for a gig. With his experience witnessing segregation firsthand in his own state of Florida, Gram did not wish to participate in concert before a segregated audience. While drug use was becoming a regular diet in his life, Parsons simply found that the Byrds would ultimately be branded as a pop band, and he wished to continue exploring his country leanings. “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” only rose to number 77 on the Billboard chart later that autumn of 1968, but for many within the industry, it represented a turning point in the southern California country-rock vibe.
During the summer, Gram remained in Europe and became friends with two guys named Mick and Keith. He had spent a rainy night at Stonehenge with them while on tour with The Byrds, and now, Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards let him sit in on sessions while The Rolling Stones were completing their “Beggars Banquet” album. It was at this point that a man named Phil Kaufman, who had been hired to attend to the Stones’ every whim when they came to the United States, caught his first glimpse of Parsons. “Keith Richards flew in (to L.A.) to take over mixing the album,” Kaufman recalled in his autobiography. “He brought his lady, Anita Pallenberg, with him…and an American guy called Gram Parsons who had been staying with Keith and Anita in the south of France. I wasn’t very impressed with Gram at first. My job was to stay with Mick and Keith and look after them, not this skinny little redneck from wherever he was from. I didn’t know where he was from, and I didn’t care either. As a matter of fact, he was supposed to be a millionaire, and the first thing he did was borrow money from me to buy a six-pack.”
Meanwhile, Richie Furay was forming a new group after the demise of Buffalo Springfield with his musician friend Jim Messina. The two considered asking Gram to join this new band, Poco, around late 1968. “I saw Gram Parsons as a very talented young man,” Messina later related to author Einarson, “but there was an edge about him, even back then, that was very destructive. It came across when we were auditioning him. I didn’t feel good about it. As much as Richie wanted him in the band, I think he felt a little of that too.” An invitation to join was soon dropped.
Ex-International Submarine bandmates Ian Dunlop and Mickey Gauvin had formed a group named The Flying Burrito Brothers shortly after Gram had left to join the Byrds. When these friends decided to relocate back to New York, they let Gram take over the wacky moniker for his own band. In the fall of 1968, Parsons found a country co-hort for his new group in the form of Chris Hillman, who had left the Byrds a few weeks after Gram. Corralling “Sneaky” Pete, bassist Chris Ethridge, and eventually, ex-Byrds drummer Mike Clarke, the newly-refurbished Flying Burrito Brothers started performing around dive country bars in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, owners of A&M Records, quickly signed this unusual band.
Hillman and Parsons lived together in a Topanga Canyon home and spent their days smoking a lot of dope and writing songs. “Probably the most grounded time in Gram Parson’s life was that period,” Hillman later recalled. “I was getting a divorce, and so was he, and we shared a house and were putting the Burritos together…Gram woke up one morning, got the mail, and found his draft notice. We wrote ‘My Uncle’ because of that. ‘Sin City’ was about our manager, who had robbed us.” Pamela Des Barres, a famous groupie at the time and a member of Frank Zappa’s girl group, The GTOs, became pals with Gram. “Gram Parsons befriended me,” she wrote in her book “I’m With The Band,” “much to my constant thrill. I considered him to be a heavily misunderstood genius, a gentle soft-spoken, well-mannered country boy who drowned his and the world’s sorrows in little vials of powder and reams of reefer. When he sang about the agonies of love, his heart-breaking tears rolled down his cheeks without his knowledge.” Parsons’ love of drugs led him to wear custom-made cowboy outfits festooned with marijuana and pills. These fashions were designed at Hollywood’s leading country costumier, a place called Nudies in the San Fernando Valley.
The band’s debut album, “The Gilded Palace of Sin,” was released in February 1969. Containing R&B covers like “Do Right (Woman)” and “Dark End of the Street,” and a GTO-backed ditty named “Hippie Boy,” Parsons and Hillman had tinged all of the tracks with a country flair that made it a standout recording unto itself. Tom Russell, a local country singer/songwriter at the time, recounted for John Einarson the launch party held at A&M’s studios for the Burritos’ album. “The music was real interesting, though the sound was really loud. It sounded like Buck Owens turned way up. The audience was a mix of rednecks and hippies. Gram was famous for trying to bring these two elements together. The music was loud, and ‘Sneaky’ Pete was playing extremely bizarre steel guitar; nobody’d ever heard fuzz-tone on a pedal steel, with this rock edge. And the songs were about pills and drinking. The whole thing really set the stage for what came after, that southern California country rock.”
While the Burritos were admired for their craft within the industry, their music wasn’t exactly snapped up by a record-buying audience eager to embrace their Opry-rock. The album only rose to number 164 on the Billboard chart. Drugs hindered performances from the outset. ‘Sneaky’ Pete recalled a gig at L.A.’s Whisky-A-Go-Go for label chiefs Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss. “Gram was so stoned he couldn’t play the piano. Chris Hillman, of course, was right up there plugging, but Chris Ethridge had smoked a little too much of something. As we started to play, after about three or four songs, Chris Ethridge got to the point where he wasn’t able to stand up anymore. As he continued to play, he got more and more stoned and finally passed out, dropping his bass. One of our roadies picked it up to play. The suits got up from their table in mid-concert and walked out. We thought we were finished. It was typical.”
After a narcotic-fueled train tour around the country, the Burritos looked to churn out another LP, however, Parsons began hanging out more and more with newfound friends, The Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger later said to interviewer Ben Fong-Torres that Gram was “one of the few people who really helped me sing country music. Before that, Keith and I would just copy off records.” Parsons had first lent his country flair to several of the tunes on the Stones’ “Beggars Banquet” album. His touch was definitely discernable on their song “Country Honk” off their “Let It Bleed” album, for which he recommended the fiddling contributions of musician Byron Berline. When the Stones were putting together tracks for the “Sticky Fingers” LP, they gave Parsons a demo of their tune “Wild Horses” in hopes he would coerce ‘Sneaky’ Pete to lend some pedal steel guitar licks to the song. Gram asked them to let him record “Wild Horses” for his own Burritos sophomore album, “Burrito Deluxe,” and the Stones gave him the go-ahead. “Wild Horses” appeared on the Burritos Brothers’ album before it hit stores as a Stones’ original. Needless to say, no one remembers the Burritos’ version.
For that matter, not many people would recollect anything about “Burrito Deluxe,” which turned out to be a commercial failure. One thing Gram did get out of this recent recording spell was another girlfriend – 16-year old actress, Gretchen Burrell. The two holed up in L.A.’s Chateau Marmont hotel getting stoned out of their minds. Phil Kaufman observed their behavior from the sidelines. “Gram would do stupid things,” he wrote. “One time he left the Chateau Marmont to go to Schwabs drugstore. It was only about 100 yards away, but because he didn’t trust his old lady, he took all his drugs with him. He got busted for jaywalking, and they found drugs on him. He must be the only guy that got busted for felony jaywalking.”
Parsons was becoming disenchanted with his group, neglecting to rehearse for an upcoming tour, and spending more time with Keith and Mick. Chris Hillman recalled to author John Einarson, “Gram was hanging out with the Stones and almost being a pest. We had a gig one evening, and I had to go find him. I finally found him at the Stones’ session! I go in there to get him, and he’s going, ‘Ah, I don’t wanna go.’ And Jagger got right in his face and told him, ‘You’ve got a responsibility to Chris Hillman, the other band members, and the people who come to your show. You better go do your show now.’ He was very matter of fact, I’ll never forget that. So Gram got up and went to the show.” Hillman continued, “Gram was getting into a lot of drugs. He just went headlong in the direction of abuse, and it was an area where I just couldn’t help him at all. There was nothing that any of us could do. I think his major failing as far as being a member of the group was concerned, was that he lacked the sense of responsibility, which you must have if you work with others.”
Pamela Des Barres noticed the change in Parsons. She wrote in her diary in November 1969: “Gram took Keith (Richards) to Nudies on his motorcycle, and they came back late. Keith scares me, he’s like a foreign object, and my sweet Gram is becoming his clone.” She took to calling her good friend Gram Richards. Parsons and Richards were prone to swap clothes, Keith wearing Gram’s country duds and Gram donning Keith’s leathers. Parsons was able to secure a place on the bill for his Burrito Brothers at the Stones’ ill-fated Altamont concert appearance in San Francisco that December. As that afternoon turned into a disaster, so too was Parsons’ association with his fellow bandmates. Phil Kaufman related one of the final performances Gram played with his Burritos that summed up the anger bubbling beneath the surface. “Gram was stumbling around and Chris Hillman was really unhappy with him. He took Gram’s brand new, very favorite guitar and made toothpicks out of it. He smashed it against a wall. The group had deteriorated to that level.”
Parsons was fired from the Flying Burrito Brothers in May 1970. Chris Hillman explained to interviewer Sid Griffin that Gram “worshipped the Stones. They could do no wrong. That’s why we parted company: it was becoming more important to hang out with the Stones and play rock star games than it was to do his own thing with the Burritos.” Guitarist Bernie Leadon, who joined the band a few months before, became the defacto songwriting partner with Hillman. The country flavor the band still exuded would help to inspire Leadon’s country-rock sounds he would later bring to his band The Eagles. Artists like Linda Ronstadt, Rick Nelson and the Stone Canyon Band, John Stewart, Michael Nesmith, and Poco all began to flourish in their careers with this new hybrid genre.
Gram spent the better part of the next two years tagging around with the Stones. He and Gretchen moved to London in March 1971 and took up heroin. Gram was a significant contributor to the Rolling Stones’ masterpiece album “Exile on Main Street.” He lived off and on with Richards in the south of France, abusing massive amounts of drugs. Keith mentioned to author Stanley Booth that “Gram gets better coke than the Mafia.” When in Los Angeles, the duo would oftentimes head out to the Joshua Tree National Park to swig whisky, shoot up with needles, and search the skies for UFOs. Richards was keen on producing a Parsons solo album, but he was never in good enough condition to get started on the project.
In late 1971, while in Washington D.C., Gram met up with an old Burrito Brothers bandmate who wanted him to check out a folk performer at a dingy bar named Clydes. Parsons told author Pete Frame, “Chris Hillman was so enthusiastic when he told me about Emmylou that I just had to go and see her…and I was knocked out by her singing. I wanted to see just how good she was, how well she picked up country phrasing and feeling, so after her set…I introduced myself, and we sang one of the hardest country duets I know – ‘That’s All It Took.’ Emmy sang it like she was falling off a log.” Gram phoned the talented Emmylou Harris a year later when he had a deal with Reprise Records to do his solo debut album.
Enlisting the talents of Elvis Presley’s backing band, along with artists like ex-Byrd member Clarence White, Gram and Emmylou made sweet country music in the recording studio during the months of September and October 1972. Along with the aforementioned “That’s All It Took,” sweet harmonious ballads like “She” and “A Song For You” stood out as inspired, soulful downhome tearjerkers. The results were captured in the album “G.P.,” and it was strong enough to warrant a tour, which got underway in the early spring of 1973. Dubbed the “Fallen Angel” tour, Parsons was blitzed out of his mind during the opening sets in Boulder, Colorado. Old chum, Richie Furay, was in attendance and called the performance “one of the most pitiful things I ever saw.” For the sake of Emmylou and his bandmates, Gram pulled himself together and delivered the goods on subsequent gigs. “We set out to play country music and rock ‘n’ roll in the better hippie honky tonks of the nation,” Emmylou wrote in the liner notes to a Parson’s compilation album “Sleepless Nights.” “The rooms were small but the energy generated was of a special intensity. We didn’t exactly break any box office records, but there are people who will remember.”
Gram and Gretchen were arguing incessantly on the road. She was jealous of Emmylou and her sweet connection onstage with Gram. By all accounts the two musicians never had an affair. Guitarist Jock Bartley played on the tour and described their chemistry to author John Einarson. “The singing was so emotional. ‘Love Hurts’ was the most amazing one. It still makes me cry to listen to it today. Gram’s frail voice cracked a lot and was not always in control, but what they created together was unbelievable. They made love with their voices.” Gretchen was finally tossed off the tour by road manager Phil Kaufman, who had become good pals with Gram.
During the summer of 1973, Parsons was retreating into the solace of drugs and drink. His old actor friend, Brandon de Wilde, had been killed in a car accident, and his musician pal, Clarence White, was fatally struck by a drunken driver. At Clarence’s funeral on July 19, 1973, Parsons sang the gospel tune “Farther Along” with Bernie Leadon. Outside the proceedings, Gram allegedly turned to Phil Kaufman and, according to author Ben Fong-Torres, said, “Phil, if this happens to me, I don’t want them doing this to me. You can take me out to the desert and burn me. I want to go out in a cloud of smoke.”
A few days later, Gram’s Laurel Canyon residence burned to the ground. He and Gretchen were able to make it out of the smoky inferno in time, but the occasion marked the end of their marriage. Their relationship had deteriorated immeasurably over the previous months. Gretchen had allegedly struck Gram with a wooden hanger a month prior to the house fire, causing him to go deaf in one ear. Gram moved into Phil’s house and had divorce papers drawn up on her. Meanwhile, Parsons entered the studios once more with Elvis’ sidemen and Emmylou to record his sophomore effort, “Grievous Angel.” This time the singing connection between he and Harris was solid and the contributions from guests Bernie Leadon and Linda Ronstadt rendered the album with a polished, ambitious sound. Gram was proud of the results and looked forward to touring in support of it in the fall. To relax and gather his strength, Kaufman advised him to go out to Joshua Tree for a short respite.
Accompanying Gram on the trip out to the desert were his friend and personal assistant, Michael Martin, Martin’s girlfriend Dale McElroy, and an old friend of Parson’s from his Florida high school, Margaret Fisher. The foursome arrived at the Joshua Tree Inn on Monday, September 17, 1973. They spent much of the afternoon smoking the stash of marijuana Parsons had brought with him. By Tuesday morning, it was apparent their stock of the drug had dipped considerably, so Martin drove the 150 miles back to Los Angeles to score some more. Parsons took Dale and Margaret over to the Joshua Tree airport for a little lunch and a lot of whisky. Both women drank very little that afternoon but watched Gram consume booze and pills. After the three-hour lunch, Dale went back to her and Michael’s room, but a short time later, Margaret knocked frantically on her door, claiming Gram had overdosed. She brushed by Dale, grabbing ice cubes from a tray, and the two scurried to Room 1, where a dealer Gram knew was staying. There they discovered just Parsons lying on the ground, turning blue.
Administering a suppository of ice to the stricken musician, Margaret was able to jolt him out of his declining fate. Gram snapped to and walked around the room, appearing as if he had not overdosed at all. He cracked a few jokes, and Dale was convinced enough that he was okay, so she returned to her own hotel room. Later that evening, Margaret asked Dale to watch Gram while she went out to grab some dinner. Parsons was back in his own room, Room 10, and was apparently asleep in bed. He seemed to be breathing normally, and Dale sat in a chair beside him, reading a book. About 20 minutes later, his breathing turned ragged. As it grew more labored, Dale panicked. She tried to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Margaret returned and dialed for an ambulance. Parsons was rushed to nearby Hi-Desert Memorial Hospital, but attempts to revive him proved unsuccessful. At 12:15am, in the early Wednesday morning of September 19, 1973, 26-year old Gram Parsons was pronounced dead.
The local sheriff detained the two women for questioning, and a call was placed to Phil Kaufman back in Los Angeles. The quick-thinking road manager immediately drove out to Joshua Tree, sweet-talked the police into letting him look after the two witnesses, promising to return them for questioning, and he drove Margaret and Dale straight back to L.A. Phil buried drugs the girls had hidden from the authorities in Gram’s room out in the desert. The two women were never questioned by the police. Meanwhile, autopsy reports indicated that Gram had died of drug toxicity over a period of days, due to multiple drug use over the period of weeks. Amphetamines, morphine and cocaine traces were found in his system.
When notified of his stepson’s death, Bob Parsons, who now resided in New Orleans, Louisiana, told funeral authorities to send his beloved’s body back to his state. Most reports speculate that Bob wished for Gram to be buried in Louisiana, to establish a residency of sorts, which in turn, would allow for a greater control of his royalty shares and inheritance to be controlled by his stepfather. Phil Kaufman still had the divorce papers Gram had drawn up on Gretchen, having failed to deliver them in a timely manner. Thus, she was entitled to half his share of wealth since she was his legal widow.
Kaufman caught wind of Bob Parson’s plan to have Gram’s body flown back east. He remembered the pact he’d committed to with Gram just a few months before. Kaufman was convinced that Gram’s body was to be destroyed out at Joshua Tree. Phil phoned Dale McElroy and Michael Martin the next day on September 20th. He knew they owned an old 1960 Cadillac hearse. Kaufman coerced Michael into accompanying him in his plan. Calling the funeral home in Joshua Tree where Gram’s body was temporarily being stored, Phil found out that they were going to take the corpse to Los Angeles International Airport for transportation to New Orleans. Contacting the airport’s Mortuary Air Service, he discovered the body was being driven into LAX that night. With the aid of many Jack Daniel drinks for their courage, the two men drove in the hearse to the airport, decked out in their usual jeans, cowboy boots and hats.
Just after their hearse pulled up to the airport mortuary loading dock, a truck carrying Gram in a coffin parked next to them, having driven in from the desert. Phil’s drunken mind went into overdrive as he got out of his hearse to greet the truck driver. “I said, ‘The family has changed their mind. They want to fly the body privately by private plane out of Van Nuys (an airport in the San Fernando Valley),” Phil wrote in his autobiography. “He looked at me and Michael and our unusual attire. I said, ‘Look, man, it’s late in the night. We’ve got a couple of girls lined up, and then we got this call. We want to do this quickly,’ and he said, ‘Oh, yeah, I understand. I’ll just go inside and get the paperwork.” The truck driver went into the mortuary offices and returned with documents for Phil to sign. A passing airport policeman pulled his car up to the dock. The two phony morticians almost fled from the scene, but the cop offered his services in moving the coffin from the truck into the hearse. Michael and Phil thanked them and nervously got in the car.
“Michael was driving,” Kaufman wrote. “You know how big a hangar is? Airplanes fit in it, that’s how big. Michael managed to hit the wall of the hangar as we were driving out of it – that’s an indication of the condition we were in.” The drunken duo stopped at a filling station on the way out to Joshua Tree and purchased a five-gallon can of gas. Inebriated and extremely wary, they drove into the park for a number of miles. After a while, they didn’t feel like driving anymore and pulled over at the next convenient spot. It was an area known as Cap Rock. Even though they were later told Gram loved Cap Rock and would have been honored that he was burned there, Kaufman claims it was just a coincidence they stopped there.
Dragging the coffin out the back of the hearse with a thud to the ground, Kaufman open the lid to see his buddy lying naked inside, no sign of trauma except for the surgical tape across his chest where the autopsy had been performed. Fearful they could be caught at any moment, Phil quickly poured the gas into the open coffin and lit it. “When high-octane gasoline ignites,” he later explained in his memoirs, “it grabs a lot of oxygen in the air. It went whoosh and a big ball of flame went up. We watched the body burn. It was bubbling. You could see it was Gram and then as the body burned very quickly, you could see it melting. We looked up and the flame had caused a dust devil going up in the air. His ashes were actually going up into the air, into the desert night. The moon was shining, the stars were shining, and Gram’s wish was coming true. His ashes were going into the desert. We looked down. He was very dead and very burned. There wasn’t much left to recognize.”
Kaufman and Martin high-tailed it out of the area. Pulling over in another section of the Park, they slept in the back of the hearse that night. Gram’s smoldering corpse was discovered around 9:00am the following Friday morning. The body was eventually flown back to New Orleans and into Bob Parson’s custody. But Gram’s stepfather never made a dime off his inheritance. He passed away a year later of alcohol abuse.
Phil and Michael were later arrested and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of theft. The body had no intrinsic value, but the coffin did, so they were each required to pay the Yucca Valley funeral home in Joshua Tree $708. They were also each given a fine of $300. Phil had unloaded a bit of expense to cover his legal costs and was in need of extra cash, so he hatched one last plan involving his ol’ deceased buddy Gram to make back some money. “Phil had a tasteless benefit for himself in his own backyard, called it a ‘wake,’ and charged ten dollars a head to see Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett sing ‘The Monster Mash’ amid a bunch of paper-mache tombstones and crabgrass,” Pamela Des Barres wrote. “He sold Gram Parsons T-shirts and bottles of Gram Pilsner beer. I bought everything, and still use the beer bottle as a candle holder, even though I thought the dingy event was a dismal finale for the world’s most underrated country soulman.”
Indeed, many of Gram’s friends hold fond memories of the gentleman who instilled a little country in their souls. Keith Richards told John Einarson, “He redefined the possibilities of country for me. If he had lived, he probably would have redefined it for everybody.” Richards told Des Barres, “Gram was special. If he was in a room, everyone else became sweet. Anything that Gram was involved in had a touch of magic to it.” Chris Hillman succinctly said to Einarson, “If Gram had stayed on the straight and narrow, he and Emmylou would have been huge.”
As for Gram’s rather macabre ending out in the hushed silence of the wilderness, these friends seem to respect what Phil Kaufman attempted to do. “Several years later, I was in London,” Phil wrote. “I was at a party, and I ran into Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg. Keith saw me, brushed everybody aside and gave me a big hug. He said, ‘Hey, you took care of our buddy, pal.’ I said, ‘Yeah, thanks.’ Then he and Anita went to the bathroom. I held the door closed while they proceeded to do more drugs.” Emmylou later wrote, “We all cared about each other and certainly Phil cared about Gram. He might make light about stealing the body and all that, but he took a big chance. Although he might be the last one to admit it, he did it out of friendship because he felt a commitment to Gram. I think it was Phil’s way of grieving.”
Parson’s influence on the direction of country-rock in American music is undeniable. As to whether he “discovered it” or “invented it” is completely argumentative. As his friend Richie Furay said to author Einarson, “Gram is given way too much credit. That really bothers me. He was stoned out of his brain. But he knew a good idea when he heard it.” That was the quality through which shone his talent. Gram took those ideas, songs laid down by country greats like Buck Owens and George Jones, and translated them into a contemporary rock approach for all to digest. It was his honesty and commitment to the material that made Parsons stand out far from the crowd. Emmylou Harris summed up this trait to Pamela Des Barres. “He cut straight through the middle with no compromises. He was never afraid to write from the heart, and perhaps that’s why he was never really accepted. It’s like the light was too strong and bright, and people just had to turn away…because it was all too painful. It could rip you up. Not many people can take music that real.”
© 2001 Ned Truslow