The father of Americana and country-rock music
An American legend
Gram Parsons was born on November 5, 1946, and died on September 19, 1973 - he would have been 27 years old less than 2 months from the day of his death. Parsons died of a drug overdose in room number 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn in the town of Joshua Tree, California, in the Mojave Desert.
As close as he was time-wise to the other members of the famous group, his life and death fit the profile so smoothly that he should be considered an honorary member of the forever 27 club. He was one of those artists that gets labeled at a young age "influential" as opposed to "successful," because his career was more active posthumously than while he was alive. He is known as the pioneer of Americana music, blending country, rock, folk and blues in a unique way. His work as a recording artist has influenced countless artists and created a new genre- alt country - that grows in popularity with every passing year.
Born into a wealthy Florida family, educated at Harvard, he formed his first band in 1966. The debut album from the International Submarine Band, Safe At Home, wasn't released until after they had broken up, in 1968. He joined the Byrds shortly thereafter, and recorded the enormously important album Sweetheart of the Rodeo with them. He and Byrd Chris Hillman left after that album to form the Flying Burrito Brothers.
The Burritos recorded 2 albums with Gram and then fired him. For a short time he hung out with his friend Keith Richards and the Stones in France during the recording of Exile On Main Street. Upon returning to the states he met Emmylou Harris and began recording his first solo album, released in 1973 as GP. He recorded Grievous Angel as well, but it was not released until after his death. Of all his recordings, the Byrds album was the most successful financially - none of the others sold very well during his lifetime.
Parsons was in the habit of spending time at the Joshua Tree National Moument and the nearby inn with people like Keith Richards and Chris Hillman, and with female companions. On the occasion that resulted in his death, he was there with his friend and assistant Michael Martin, Martin's girlfriend Dale McElroy, and Margaret Fisher, an old Florida friend.
It's hard to imagine how a person could think that such abuse wouldn't catch up to him, but it seems like that's what happened - a day of reckoning. Parsons was using hard drugs, smoking lots of dope, and drinking heavily from the moment he and his entourage arrived. He sent Martin back to LA on the second day of the outing for more marijuana, and proceeded to find a dealer to supply him with more heroin, all the while drinking whiskey like it was water. Sometime that night he crossed the line with the hard stuff, and despite the efforts of his companions, could not be brought back from death's door.
The interesting part of the story actually begins after his death on that September night. The 2 women who were with Parsons when he died were the subjects of questioning by the police at the hospital when Parsons was brought in. McElroy told friend and road manager Phil Kaufman back in LA what had happened, and he spoke to the cops. He promised them that he would bring the women in to provide a more complete account as soon as he could get there. Instead, after getting rid of incriminating evidence from the hotel, he spirited McElroy and Fisher off back to LA without talking to the police at all, recommending that they lay low for a while. There was never a followup from Joshua Tree's finest.
Parsons' stepfather Bob Parsons was a man of action, and when he heard about his stepson's death, he sprang into it with a plan to get the body. He was hoping that if Gram was buried in Louisiana, Parsons' home state, that the estate would pass to him because of an ancient residency law. His plan was to have the body transported to the airport in LA where it would then be flown back to Louisiana.
Kaufman got wind of the plan and devised one of his own. He was aware that Gram was not enamored of his stepfather and would not have liked the outcome of a return to Louisiana. The friends had made an agreement one time that if either one died, the other would take the body out to the desert and burn it, partying all the while. So Kaufman and Martin conceived a plan. They found out when and where the body was being delivered to LAX and arrived there in McElroy's old hearse, pulling up to a private hangar pretending to be a representative of the Parsons' family. Somehow they convinced a poor employee of Continental airlines that they should take charge of the delivery. A policeman who had happened by even helped them load the casket into the beat-up hearse, which was filled with beer cans and liquor bottles.
The partners in crime drove the body back to Joshua Tree after replenishing their supply of alcohol and getting a few cans of gasoline. They headed for the National Monument area and chose a famous formation known as the Cap Rock or the ritual immolation. By this time the pair had probably consumed enough alcohol and other substances to kill a horse, but they doused the casket as best they could with gasoline, and set it on fire. As the flames rose to the sky, they saw headlights in the distance and freaked out, thinking the police had tracked them down. They headed back to town as fast as they could, not knowing if the casket and body had burned completely.
The next day the news was out - the body had been only partially burned, and the reports hinted at dark satanic rituals by unknown persons. Kaufman and Martin decided to stay out of sight for a time, but then they got tired of hiding. They simply turned themselves in to the police, and appeared in court on Gram Parsons' 27th birthday. They were given a small fine to pay, since there was no value involved, and charged with a misdemeanor. Kaufman held a party to raise money to pay the fines and it served as a commemoration of Parsons' death to boot.
Bob Parsons was ultimately successful in bringing Gram's body back to Louisiana, but not at making any money from the whole escapade - he didn't earn a cent from the estate. And in a further ironic twist, when Gram went to Joshua Tree, he believed that divorce proceedings had begun against his wife Gretchen. But it was Kaufman's job to serve the papers, and he didn't quite get it done before Gram died. His estate therefore went to his wife, daughter and sister. He is buried in The Garden of Memories in New Orleans, with a grave marker that says "God's own singer." Fans have had a plaque placed on the site of the casket burning fiasco near the Cap Rock that reads "Safe At Home."