I get daily updates from History, a website for TV’s History channel. A recent “This Day in History” post concerned the death of Gram Parsons, a country-rock musician who died of a drug and alcohol overdose in 1973. Most of us die and our bodies are disposed of rapidly. Gram’s corpse had a remarkable life after death that was also a legendary event in music history. I was not expecting to see this reminder of his death in my In Box, it gave me pause.
Gram Parsons was an eclectic bad boy in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when
his distinct musical genius took him on quite the ride. He was also a serious substance abuser, partying hard with the likes of Keith Richards during the legendary making of
The Rolling Stone’s Exile on Main Street. Gram famously lived with Richards and his entourage for a while at
Villa Nellcôte in the south of France until he was asked to leave.
Parson’s music was not traditional country, although he revered country music.
His music is considered country rock.
He is remembered as one of the founders of what has come to be
referred to as alternative country, or alt-country. However, in true wild child style he wanted
his music to be thought of as “Cosmic Americana” or “Cosmic American Music.” Although a lot of people have never heard of him, his brief career profoundly influenced
He was a replacement member for the Byrds in the final days of that band's heyday. His influence was strongly felt on the one album he did with them, Sweetheart
of the Rodeo, a watershed moment in the then fledgling country rock style. He was a bit of a Young Turk in the music industry at that time. In his early 20's and with minimal street cred, he persuaded Roger McGuinn and the Byrds to change course on that record, and he also wrote and contributed the songs, "Hickory Wind" and "One Hundred Years from Now."
Subsequent to leaving the Byrds he became an
original member and creative force behind The Flying Burrito Brothers. Gram did two albums with them: The Gilded Palace of Sin, and Burrito Deluxe before he was fired from the band. He then put out a solo album called G.P. Later he teamed up with the young Emmy Lou
Harris, with whom he performed some stellar duets on a truly great album called Grievous
Angel. Their cover of Felice and
Boudleaux Bryant’s song, “Love Hurts,” is spooky damn good. If all you are familiar with are the versions
done by The Everly Brothers in 1957, Nazareth in 1975, or Joan Jett in 1990, do yourself a favor and download Gram and Emmy Lou’s
take from 1973. Like way too many great musicians,
performers, and songwriters from my generation he died young, at 26, from substance abuse.
He died from a lethal overdose of morphine and tequila in a motel room at
Joshua Tree National Park in southeastern California on September 19, 1973. If you are my age, and of my background, you
are too tired of this nonsense to even say the obvious, “What a waste.” It went so far beyond wasteful, it was maddening.
His parents were both alcoholics. He was born Ingram Cecil Connor III at Winter Haven, Florida in 1946, and he was raised in both Georgia and
Florida. Gram’s father committed suicide when Gram was 12. His mother remarried and Gram took his stepfather's last name, Parsons. His mother died from cirrhosis of the liver the same day he graduated
from high school. Addiction was always going to be a factor in this boy's life!
Gram had previously told his friend, an ex-tour manager and producer named Phil Kaufmann, that when he died he wanted to be cremated at Joshua
Tree and have his ashes distributed there over Cap Rock. However, when he actually died his stepfather made arrangements for his body to be sent to New Orleans for burial. Gram was not from
Louisiana and did not have a particularly good relationship with his stepfather. The
story goes that his
stepfather thought, because of Louisiana's Napoleonic Code, as the
senior male relative he could claim the majority of Gram’s estate if he
prove Gram was a resident of Louisiana.
In true rock and roll style, Phil and a roadie named Michael Martin drove
a borrowed hearse to the Los Angeles airport and managed to steal the coffin with
Gram’s body in it. They drove it to Cap Rock at Joshua Tree National Park, doused it with gasoline and lit a match.
They split when the police arrived, but were
captured later. It turned out there was
no law against stealing a body in California at that time, so they were merely
fined $750 and set free. Can you believe this
stuff? I mean who gets away with stealing a corpse? And who has friends so committed to you that after you die they will STEAL YOUR DEAD BODY from a major airport to honor a promise!
The stepfather had the authorities pack up the 35 pounds of physical matter that survived the Joshua Tree cremation attempt and deliver said remains to him in New Orleans for burial. If his hope to inherit Gram's money was true (and not just the stuff of legend), it didn’t work. Gram’s money went to
his daughter, wife, and sisters like it should have; which proves that sometimes the good guys do win.
Anyway, there are plenty of references to his wild young life and unfortunate
death on the internet if you are interested.
A particularly nice one is on his tribute web page http://www.gramparsons.com/#/story.html
written by Pamela Des Barres, the famous rock and roll groupie, former GTO, and author also
known as Miss Pamela.
This all reminded me of how crazy and transcendent the late 1960's were. We all had one foot in heaven and one foot in hell and that's how we walked around, limping and stumbling. Believe it or not, for a short while the nascent psychedelic drug culture was not dominated by drug dealers, substance abusers, or witless thugs. At first young people were not taking drugs to get wasted, they really were trying to expand their minds and test the limits of reality. True story. Cross my heart!
At the time it seemed like an interesting endeavor, a noble experiment. Unbeknownst to us, it was also dangerous. Our innocence did not last long. Greed and/or addiction always seem to ruin everything. Soon decadence and decay settled in and opportunistic scoundrels were everywhere. Some of us did not survive the decline, the excess. We all lost someone to drugs and alcohol. And then there were the cultural heroes like Gram Parsons who checked out early. Sheesh, there were so many of them. It makes you wonder why all those beautiful and talented young musicians threw their lives away?
Actively creating something beautiful can be similar to a mystical experience. Tapping
the creative imagination is a powerful rush. I am sure they loved that feeling. The sad and perilous truth is
that drugs and alcohol provide an easy alternate route to ecstasy. For a few moments it feels the same, but of
course it is not.
For those lucky people who have a gift, and their gifts are recognized and
rewarded, it must be hard to come down to earth after a performance, a recording session, or a song writing experience. Imagine how high you can fly when the spirit moves you. Instead of
surrendering to The Muse, artists and musicians are sometimes seduced by and then surrender to a lesser stimulus.
Anyway, I think this is what happens to many artists, actors, and musicians especially when they are young and
foolish. Sometimes they do not live long
enough to grow out of it or grasp the complexity of a life well lived. Such was the case with Gram Parsons.