Gram Parsons: A Memorable Swan Song

When he wasn’t making music, Gram Parsons spent much of his life abusing his body with drugs and alcohol.  Although he lived long enough to help create a distinctive style of country-rock music, his struggle with addiction led to his death at the age of 26 and, indirectly, to one of the strangest post-death odysseys ever recorded.

Gram Parsons

Parsons’ career intersected with some of the most influential musicians of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  He hit the big time with The Byrds in 1968, and expanded his musical network by partying and jamming with the Rolling Stones.  With Chris Hillman, The Byrds’ bassist, he formed The Flying Burrito Brothers, where they joined future Eagles’ founder Bernie Leadon, and, according to the New York Times “helped define the country-rock genre.”

He developed that sound further when he split from the Burrito Brothers in 1970.  After kicking around with the Rolling Stones on their 1971 United Kingdom Tour, Parsons decided to go solo.

He found strong support from a young vocalist named Emmylou Harris, whose sweet harmonies enhanced his music and whose back-stage presence provided him with much-needed professional structure.  In the last two years of his life, he was able to complete a successful (if erratic) tour, and two solo albums.

Nevertheless, his career lasted only about six years, and he never fully established himself with a band or as a solo performer.  His addictions made it difficult for him to work productively with any consistency.

The Byrds, for example, kept him on salary rather than a full-fledged member.  It was, according to fellow band member Hillman, “the only way we could get him to turn up.”  Sometimes he turned up, but was too impaired to perform, a habit that eventually got him fired from The Flying Burrito Brothers.

Even his time knocking around with the Rolling Stones ended with Keith Richards telling him (politely) to move on.  When Keith Richards urges you to get your life in order, you’ve got problems.

Too unreliable to maintain lasting relationships among musical collaborators, Parsons’ closest professional associate may have been Philip Kaufman, his road manager from 1968 through 1973.

Phil Kaufman: Would you trust this man with your corpse?

Kaufman, who had served time with Charles Manson in the mid 1960s, was responsible for Parsons’ road schedule and, at times, for helping him function.  “My job,” Kaufman recalled, years later, “was primarily to get…him fed, get him to rehearse a little bit, [and] hide the drugs.”

Kaufman couldn’t hide the drugs all the time, however.  Parsons liked getting away, especially to Joshua Tree National Park, where he enjoyed doing drugs and looking for UFOs.  It was, Parsons told Kaufman, where he wanted his ashes spread following his death.

His death came in 1973, and although life hadn’t been kind to Parsons, death wasn’t much of a picnic, either.

His family arranged for his body to be flown home to New Orleans.  Kaufman, however, had other ideas.  He was determined to honor the musician’s wish to be cremated, so he and a friend borrowed a hearse, posed as representatives of a funeral home, and intercepted Parsons’ corpse at the Los Angeles International Airport.

With corpse in tow, they headed to Joshua Tree National Park, stopping for the occasional drink along the way.  When Kaufman was too inebriated to drive further, he pulled over.  The men hauled the coffin out of the hearse, doused it in gasoline, and set it afire.

It was a botched job.  As Parsons’ corpse was burning, the body snatchers heard a police siren and fled.  “Unencumbered by sobriety,” they managed to elude the police for a time, leaving behind the partially burned corpse.

Parsons’ body, weighing only 35 pounds by this time, was flown to New Orleans, where it was given a proper burial.

The culprits were eventually apprehended and brought to justice, although the Judge seemed at a loss for charges.  Finding that a corpse had “no intrinsic value,” he fined Kaufman and his confederate $300 each for starting a fire in a national park.

The whole thing, as you might imagine, was unsettling to the family.  “You don’t just take a friend,” noted Parsons’ wife, Gretchen, “and pour gasoline on them and light a match.  How do you do that?  It’s insane.”

Gram Parsons’ music fared has better than his corpse.  He is widely respected by musicians, Rolling Stone magazine named him one of the “Greatest 100 Artists of All Time,” and his fans, called Grampires, still buy his music.

But his strangest legacy is commemorated by a makeshift memorial in Joshua Tree National Park.  Even by the standard of rock-star deaths, his was the oddest swan song of all.

"Home of Gram Parson's Spirt:" The Joshua Tree Inn's Marketing Campaign

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8 Comments

Filed under Articles, Music, Society

8 responses to “Gram Parsons: A Memorable Swan Song

  1. Paul Robertson

    Very sad life. He was destined to burn out early given his childhood traumas. Not many could endure what he did before he grew into an adult. I believe had he lived, and given time to straighten out he would have realized the appreciation he deserved for the musical pathways he forged. I am a fan of the music he made, and sad for the lack of music he never had the chance to make.

  2. amy blanford

    gram parson’s was a great artist who cares about his addictions. he should be in the hall of fame.

  3. Oh God bless him he was a great one! Keith Richards says “we wore each other out,” but it was more that K had the stronger constitution. Gram may certainly have been the bigger genius. So sad.

  4. Gram Parsons’ music continues to be listened to and find new fans because Gram could Sing (and write) like no one else. Even if he never invented ‘Cosmic American Music’ , his description of the blend of Country, and Rock, he’d still be remembered for what he did with every song he sang. The honesty in his voice gives away the hurt that must have been living in him. It’s a no brainer that Gram should be in both the Rock and Country Hall of Fame.

  5. Love the tunes where Gram Parsons sings with Emmylou Harris (possibly called Stone Ponies back then). EL of course has a voice to almost die for. Still have the LP’s (the big flat, round plastic things with a hole in the centre) of their combos. Shame no happy ending. I would like to re-write the story.

  6. terence winslow

    cosmic american music on facebook

  7. terence winslow

    it is somewhat an omission and a disservice to start the story in the middle like he just showed up on the scene abusing drugs and heavily influencing a movement………kinda like a junkie ben franklin…………..lol…………to me his childhood as the son of “coon dog” connor-a real south jawja country boy hunting and fishing with his pop and then with his fathers shotgun suicide around xmas (how do i or you feel how we would have made it thru that?)and being thrust into his elite upper class mamas orange growing plantation familys life with anything he wanted is so essential to trying to understand him as a person……whos true closest friend was his siste(just listen to brass buttons if you got some liquor handy)……o yeah and mom drank herself to death around the time…….leaving him without his own name…..rooted yet rootless….with always the raging torrent of pain and sadness……………he was the epitome of what i call the “Great Lost Mysterious South” thru his art…….rich and poor ……black and white………ya’ll and ma’am……..and a selfishness and arrogance that came with a sixty thousand dollar a year trust fund……and pure heart of gold……read ben fong-torres book and watch fallen angel the documentary……and a movie called gram theft parsons for the last chapter in his life……and watch the tribute to gram video with dwight yoakum and keith richards and just see if you dont cry when keith sings hickory wind,

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