Gram Parsons is one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most mythical characters. Briefly a member of the International Submarine Band, the Byrds, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and a close friend of the Rolling Stones, he popularised the style of music that he dubbed “Cosmic American Music”. It was a unique hybrid of country, rhythm and blues, soul, folk, and rock, that marks Parsons out as one of the most recognisable artists of the era.
Although he passed away in 1973, aged just 26, Parsons is one of the most influential musicians from the late ’60s and early ’70s scene, and fittingly, his life reads like a Thomas Pynchon and Tennesse Williams novel blended into one dense volume. It is a colourful, hazy journey featuring ample of the era’s most recognisable musicians. It contains no end of larger than life characters that give Parsons’ short life a slightly fantastical quality.
What we have to remember though, is that Parsons’ life also had a lot of sadness and tragedy. His father committed suicide when he was just 12, and that in life, both of his parents were alcoholics. This was a theme that would prove to be an ever-lasting spectre in his life. After his father’s death, his mother remarried, but his stepfather, Robert, had an affair, which tipped his mother’s drinking over the edge, resulting in her death from cirrhosis when Gram was only 19 years old.
Whilst Parsons is certainly remembered for his brilliant musical output, he is also afforded a mythical status owing to his tragic, premature death. A proponent of alcohol and narcotics, unfortunately, Parsons’ life becomes an all too familiar tale. It was the era of excess, particularly in relation to musicians. However, because the medical dangers of substance abuse were not fully realised until much later, Parsons would become just another one of the numerous casualties in the fallout of the “classic rock” era.
Parsons is widely remembered as being a fan of psychedelics and the Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, where he is said to have had numerous UFO sightings. Unfortunately, it was in the Joshua Tree Hotel that he passed away owing to an overdose of morphine mixed with copious amounts of alcohol suitable for three people. Since, he has been described by his estranged widow Gretchen, as “a victim of the times”.
Before his death, Parsons had made it clear that he wanted his body to be cremated at Joshua Tree, and that he wanted his ashes spread over the geological beauty of Cap Rock, one of the park’s most defining natural features. However, Parsons’ stepfather, Robert, had other ideas. He organised a private ceremony back in New Orleans, where the rest of the family resided and hadn’t invited any of Gram’s friends.
This is where it gets interesting. Taking on the Pynchonesque feel, it is said that Robert was in line to inherit Gram’s share of his grandfather’s estate. Now, this was not any ordinary estate. It turns out that Gram’s late mother, Avis, was the daughter of citrus fruit magnate John A. Snively. In addition to his fortune made in the fruit industry, Snively also had an extensive property portfolio across Gram’s native Florida and his adoptive state of Georgia. This meant that Robert was in line for a rather large nest egg.
Why hold the funeral in New Orleans you may ask? Well, that is where Robert was living. Although the provenance of the source is opaque, it is also said that if Robert could prove that in life Gram was a resident of Louisiana, he would be in line for that massive family fortune. This goes some way in explaining his drive to have the late musician buried there, somewhere in life he had no real connection to. The only palpable connection to New Orleans is the fact that Parsons and Gretchen got married on Robert’s estate there, given our earlier use of “estranged” you might have sensed that their marriage was far from happy, but that is a story for another day.
Parsons’ sidelined friends weren’t having it. His manager and minder, the equally as mythic Phil Kaufman, attempted to save the day. In a totally bonkers turn of events, Parsons would get most of his wish.
Clad in rhinestone jackets and cowboy hats, and “well oiled” by ample amounts of Jim Beam bourbon, Kaufman and Parsons associate Michael Martin commandeered a beaten up hearse. They then committed to stealing Parsons’ body from Los Angeles International Airport, where it was waiting to be flown across the country.
When they reached Cap Rock, the pair attempted to cremate Parsons’ body by dousing it in five gallons of gasoline. This didn’t go to plan, though. They threw a lit match into the open coffin, but what ensued was a colossal fireball.
According to one source, the local police chased the hapless pair, but they “were unencumbered by sobriety”, and somehow managed to escape. Again, given the perpetually inebriated feel of the era, the accuracy of accounts vary. Another maintains that the police didn’t give chase, but that the pair were arrested for violating road rules and a suspected DUI, but somehow dodged incarceration.
Eventually, the two were arrested several days after the heist and again evaded the full wrath of the law. For some reason, California had no law against stealing a dead body, so the pair were only fined $750 for stealing the coffin. Furthermore, charges were not brought against them for leaving the charred remains of Parsons‘ body in the desert either. This reads more like a mission from a Grand Theft Auto video game rather than real life.
Ironically, the remains of Parsons’ body were ultimately interred at the Garden of Memories Cemetary in Louisiana. Thankfully though, Robert never made a cent off the late musician. Not long after the burial fiasco, a Florida court thwarted his scheme, and he himself would pass away a year later. Luckily for Gram Parsons, it is tales like this that have added to his mythical reputation, and added to his brilliant back catalogue, he will continue to be remembered fondly.
Listen to Parsons and Emmylou Harris’ ‘Love Hurts’, below.