Gram Parsons, the fallen angel of rock, would’ve turned 65 this past November 5th. Instead his memory is a faded segment of musical recollection. His story is not typical even in the wild realm of rock.
Parsons never quite reached his potential and the thing about that is, for the short time here was here, he made an impact. He bridged the chasm between rock and country like nobody else before him. Had he not died when he did I’m convinced Gram Parsons would’ve been a super star in the same vein as Elvis, Ricky Nelson, and Neil Young.
Born into money, Parsons attended a semester at Harvard University, but his love for music provided escape from his inner demons developed while growing up in an alcoholic home.
After seeing Merle Haggard in concert, Parsons knew what he wanted to do. He left school, formed a band and moved to L.A. The band never went anywhere but his talent got him an invitation from Byrds bassist Chris Hillman to audition after David Crosby exited in 1967.
Although never a full-time member of the Byrds, Parsons was a major contributor on Sweetheart of the Rodeo. He toured with the band and became close friends with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on the European leg of their travels. In the summer of ’68 Parsons, Hillman, and Roger McGuinn, lead singer and co-founder of the Byrds, joined Jagger and Richards for a tour of Stonehenge. Parsons left the Byrds shortly after.
Parsons stayed in England with Richards for several months before returning to L.A. where he sought out Chris Hillman to discuss forming a new band. Together they formed the Flying Burrito Brothers and released The Gilded Palace Of Sin. Though not a commercial success the album was a brilliant collaboration between Parsons and Hillman and launched the Burrito Brothers on a whirlwind U.S. tour by train. Throughout the journey the band squandered what little bit of money they were making on all night poker games and debauchery.
Parsons was frequently indulging in massive quantities of psilocybin and cocaine. His performances were increasingly erratic and much of the band’s repertoire consisted of vintage honky tonk and soul standards with few originals. In many ways the tour was a disaster with few high spots with the exception of the Philadelphia show where they shared the bill with their old bandmates, The Byrds.
Gram Parsons began to spiral out of control in a drug crazed string of parties. The musical direction of the band suffered and their second album Burrito Deluxe was even less succesful than their first.
By 1970 Hillman was tired of babysitting his friend and finally, with mutual blessing, Parsons left the Burrito Brothers and signed a solo contract with A&M records. The production effort never went anywhere and Parsons returned to England to visit Keith Richards as the Stones were in the studio producing Exile on Main Street. He moved in with Richards hoping to sign a deal with the newly formed Rolling Stones Records. His drug use and constant state of inebriation strained the relationship with the Stones and ultimately Parsons was asked to leave.
Gram Parsons returned to the U.S. with his new wife, Gretchen Burrell, and worked hard to kick his heroin addiction. Finally free of the drug he began to seek out former bandmates and reconnected with Chris Hillman once more. Hillman took Parsons out to a club in D.C. to hear Emmylou Harris one evening. Shortly after, Parsons began touring with Harris doing a string of country duets across the country.
One of the high points of Parsons career came in 1973 when he released his GP album on Reprise Records. The album featured new songs from a creatively revitalized Parsons such as “Big Mouth Blues” and “Kiss the Children,” as well as a cover of Tompall Glaser‘s “Streets of Baltimore“. Parsons was joined on this album by Presley’s sideman James Burton (who also played with Ricky Nelson.)
During this time Parsons was shadowed on tour by the road manager, Phil Kaufman. It was Kaufman’s job to ensure that Parsons stayed away from substance abuse, limited his alcohol intake during shows and to trash any drugs smuggled into hotel rooms.
Gram Parsons would release one more album before his death, 1974’s Grievous Angel. Emmylou Harris and James Burton joined Parons on the album The record, which was released after his death, received even more enthusiastic reviews than had GP, and has since attained classic status. Among its most celebrated songs is “$1000 Wedding”, a holdover from the Burrito Brothers era, and “Brass Buttons”, a 1965 opus which addresses his mother’s alcoholism. Also included was a new version of “Hickory Wind” and “Ooh Las Vegas.” The album released after his death.
In the summer of 1973, Parsons’ Topanga Canyon home burned to the ground, the result of a stray cigarette. Nearly all of his possessions were destroyed with the exception of a guitar and a prized Jaguar automobile. The fire proved to be the last straw in the relationship between Burrell and Parsons. She left Parsons shortly after.
In the late 1960s, Parsons had become enamored of Joshua Tree National Monument in southeastern California. Alone or with friends, he would disappear in the desert for days searching for UFOs while under the influence of psilocybin or LSD. Before his next tour was scheduled to commence in October 1973, Parsons decided to go on one more excursion to his beloved Joshua Tree.
Less than two days after arriving, Parsons died on September 19, 1973, in Joshua Tree, California, at the age of 26 from an overdose of morphine and alcohol.
What happened next is the kind of stuff they make movies about.
Parsons’ body disappeared from the Los Angeles International Airport where it was being readied to be shipped to Louisiana for burial. Phil Kaufman would later say that Parsons had told him a few weeks prior that if something ever happened to him he wanted to be cremated and his ashes returned to Joshua Tree. Kaufman, wanting to fulfill his friends final wishes, enlisted a friend to help and borrowed a hearse for the trip back to Joshua Tree. Once they got the body to Cap Rock, a prominent feature in the park, they attempted to cremate it by pouring five gallons of gasoline into the open coffin and throwing a lit match inside. What resulted was an enormous fireball. Police chased them, but according to one account they “were unencumbered by sobriety” and the pair got away.
The two were arrested several days later. Since there was no law against stealing a dead body, they were only fined $750 for stealing the coffin and were not prosecuted for leaving 35 lbs of his charred remains in the desert.
The site of Parsons’ cremation was marked by a small concrete slab and was presided over by a large rock flake known to rock climbers as The Gram Parsons Memorial Hand Traverse. The slab has since been removed by the U.S. National Park Service and relocated to the Joshua Tree Inn where Parsons was staying at the time of his death. At the site of the original memorial now are simple rock structures and writings on the rock.
Parsons ranks #87 on Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.” Although the Byrds (exclusive of Parsons) are inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame, a solo induction for Parsons is unlikely in the foreseeable future.