While watching a recent interview with Emmylou Harris, I was horrified when a member of the audience asked a rather personal question about Gram Parsons (“Why did Gram Parsons kill himself at such a young age?”). Ms. Harris handled the question gracefully and moved on to other, more pertinent topics (the sad state of commercial country music), but the question got me thinking. I’ve been a fan of Parsons’s music but don’t really know all that much about him as a person, other than he died young and there was some controversy surrounding his death. Can you fill me in?
–Jamie D., East Lansing, Michigan
Gram Parsons has become something of a cult figure in the music business. He never hit it big, and few outside a small circle remember him now. But people who ought to know say he was one of the pioneers behind the country-rock phenomenon of the late 60s and early 70s. For a short time he was a member of the Byrds, and he was the creative force behind their 1968 country album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which many consider a classic. He went on to form the Flying Burrito Brothers and later invited the unknown Emmylou Harris out to LA to sing on his solo album, GP (1973), helping to launch her career. He hung out with the Rolling Stones (his influence can be heard on several cuts from Exile on Main Street) and had a big impact on Elvis Costello, Linda Ronstadt, Tom Petty, and the Eagles. Remember New Riders of the Purple Sage and Pure Prairie League? They owed a lot to Parsons. He’s received many posthumous honors and musical tributes; Emmylou Harris is working on a tribute album now, 24 years after his death. Best of all, he was born Ingram Cecil Connor III (Parsons came from his stepfather), and you gotta love a guy with a name like that.
Parsons wasn’t a suicide, but he killed himself all right. Blessed with charm and cash (his mother’s family had made a pile in the citrus business), he got into booze and drugs early. In September 1973 he finished recording an album and went with some friends to an inn at Joshua Tree National Monument, one of his favorite places. The group spent much of the day by the pool getting tanked. By evening Gram looked like hell and went to his room to sleep. Later, on their way out for some food, his friends were unable to rouse him, so they left, returning a little before midnight. By that time Parsons was pretty far gone. Taken to a hospital, he was pronounced dead shortly after midnight on September 19. A lab analysis found large amounts of alcohol and morphine in his system; apparently the combination killed him. News coverage of his demise was eclipsed by the death of Jim Croce around the same time. Parsons was 26 years old.
So far, your typical live-fast-die-young story. Then it gets strange. Before his death Parsons had said that he wanted to be cremated at Joshua Tree and have his ashes spread over Cap Rock, a prominent natural feature there. But after his death his stepfather arranged to have the body shipped home for a private funeral, to which none of his low-life music buddies was invited. Said buddies would have none of it. Fortified by beer and vodka, they decided to steal Parsons’s body and conduct their own last rites.
Having ferreted out the shipping arrangements, Phil Kaufman (Parsons’s road manager) and another man drove out to the airport in a borrowed hearse, fed the poor schmuck in charge of the body a load of baloney about a last-minute change of plans, signed the release “Jeremy Nobody,” and made off with Parsons’s remains. They bought five gallons of gas and drove 150 miles to Joshua Tree; by moonlight they dragged the coffin as close to Cap Rock as they could. Kaufman pried open the lid to reveal Parsons’s naked cadaver, poured in the gas, and tossed in a match. A massive fireball erupted. The authorities gave chase but, as one account puts it, “were encumbered by sobriety,” and the desperadoes escaped.
The men were tracked down a few days later, but there was no law against stealing a body, so they were charged with stealing the coffin or, as one cop put it, “Gram Theft Parsons.” (Cops are such a riot.) Convicted, they were ordered to pay $750, the cost of the coffin. What was left of Parsons was buried in New Orleans.
So, youthful high jinks or breathless stupidity? All I know is, I’d want my friends to show a little more enterprise in keeping me alive than in torching my corpse.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.