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.
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.
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.