With the help of road manager Phil Kaufman, a tour was set up to promote the GP album and the band was called the Fallen Angels. There must have been some financial support and there was a tour bus with “Gram Parsons” on the side. They didn’t rehearse with any seriousness and their first gig in Boulder was a disaster. That forced them to rehearsal and they gave a fine show at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin. A radio show in March was recorded and released as Live 1973 in 1982. It is a fine album and contains some tracks which they didn’t otherwise record. Gram prefaces his version of Drug Store, Truck Drivin’ Man by saying that he feared for his life in Nashville.
While in Boston, a student called Tom Brown gave Gram a lyric called Return Of The Grievous Angel and Gram set it to music. It contained some great words, “20,000 roads I went down, down, down / And they all led me straight back home to you.” The first issue of the album omitted to credit Brown but his name is there on reissues.
Some rehearsal tapes have been released on Cosmic American Music (Magnum Music, 1995). On the cover, Magnum Force has put “Quality 6/10”, a remarkable thing to be putting on their product but presumably to say, “Okay, you’ve been conned, but we did warn you.” These are rehearsal tapes made in various hotel rooms and friends’ houses in 1972/3. Gram is working acoustically on various songs and the 10 minute A Song For You is unlistenable. The tapes were obtained in auction at Christie’s and were duly licensed to Magnum Force by the purchaser. Sid Griffin does his best for them in the sleeve notes, but even the most dedicated fans would have difficulty enjoying them. If these were the best bits, why do hear Gram complaining about room service? Some of the titles are misleading – Ain’t No Beatle, Ain’t No Rolling Stone is a jam between Gram on guitar and Ric Grech on fiddle and includes references to Ferry Cross The Mersey and not much else. Gram, Ric Grech and Barry Tashian sound the worse for wear on That’s All It Took.
Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels were included on Warner/Reprise’s country-rock tour with Country Gazette, a reformed Kentucky Colonels (with Clarence White) and Gene Parsons. On 5 June 1973, Gram Parsons made what was to be his final live appearance. Gretchen was arguing with Gram but it’s hardly surprising: her movie career was on hold and she had no defined role on the tour. A medley of the Louvin Brothers’ Cash On The Barrelhead and Hickory Wind, recorded in Northern Quebec, was included on the posthumous album, Grievous Angel, albeit with heightened applause, taken from a Merle Haggard concert.
Back in Los Angeles, Gram and Clarence White worked together on stuff for their new albums. He liked the fact that Clarence had a family and he was beginning to think that the same way now that Gretchen was pregnant. In July 1973, Clarence was killed while he was loading equipment into a truck by a drunk driver. In yet another example of his appalling behaviour, Gram turned up wired or drunk to the funeral but he was able to sing the gospel song, Farther Along. Around the time, he told Crawdaddy magazine that many of his friends had died. “They wouldn’t want me to grieve. They would want me to go out and get drink and have one on them.”
Gram didn’t care for the lavishness of Clarence White’s funeral and he told his road manager, Phil Kaufman, “If I die, I want you to take my body to Joshua Tree and burn it.” We only have Kaufman’s word that he said this, but in any event he was intoxicated at the time, so it was more a figure of speech than a pact.
In late July 1973 a fire tore through Gram and Gretchen’s home at Laurel Canyon and they broke through a window to escape. Many of their possessions were destroyed including, it is said, the only copy of the tracks he had recorded with producer Terry Melcher. I doubt the veracity of this story: what record label would entrust master tapes to Gram Parsons?
The fire was the final straw, leading to a separation with Gretchen and she had an abortion. Gram was relieved when the sessions for the new album started. Emmylou was more to the fore on these sessions and they create an excellent honky-tonk album.
Herb Pedersen worked with Gram Parsons on his solo work: “I may have done some overdubs on GP, I can’t really remember, but I was certainly on Grievous Angel. I remember him showing up late for the first session. We were at Wally Heider’s studio in Los Angeles and he wandered in with Emmylou and that was the first time I had done any recording with him face to face. We had 12 tunes to record and very little time to record them. He had some talent and had his moments here and there, but I don’t think he was a great talent. There were a lot of great singers who contributed a lot more to country music scene as we know it. Gram got caught up in the whole glitz and glamour of the Hollywood scene.”
They had Michael Clarke on drums when they did $1,000 Wedding: “None of mine ended up that cheap. Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson and Larry Williams were in the booth and they were hilarious. We were playing this stupid slow tune with them in the booth talking like Wolfman Jack.”
Not only had Gram lost his friend Clarence White, but Brandon de Wilde had been killed in a car crash and Sid Keiser from the Delaney and Bonnie band had also died. Although not mentioned in the song, Miss Christine from the GTO’s died from a heroin overdose in October 1972. This prompted his apocalyptic song, In My Hour Of Darkness.
“In my time of darkness,
In my time of need,
Oh Lord, grant me vision,
Oh Lord, grant me speed.”
The double meaning in the last line is often remarked upon, but actually it is a single meaning. Why would he want to move faster if he was depressed? It can only be a request for amphetamines.
Emmylou Harris: “I didn’t see this side of Gram as he had put that aside when I knew him. I knew him for only a very short time, only for a year, and at that time he was clean. I was also very naïve about all that stuff. I suppose that compared to LA, where I lived was the boonies and the backwoods, and Gram seemed so full of life and was such exerting such a strong influence on me that I didn’t see the danger signs. He was drinking, you know, and that’s like an excuse: people say it’s better to drink than do the other, and this is a gradual way to get off everything. Gram and I sang all the time and when we were singing, he didn’t do a lot of drinking so most of the time I saw him sober and so I didn’t believe that he was in the kind of trouble that obviously he was. Apparently, if you go back to bad habits after you have tried to give them up, you are a lot weaker than if you continue. His death was certainly a great shock to me.”
“We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning”
Gram filed for divorce in September and he drove to Joshua Tree with a former girlfriend, Margaret Fisher, and the roadie Michael Martin and his girlfriend, Dale McElroy. They stayed at the Joshua Tree Inn and on September 18, after playing pool, Gram and Margaret took heroin in his room. He lost consciousness and the others believed that the best way to revive someone from an overdose was by pushing ice cubes up his bottom. Gram didn’t regain consciousness at he was pronounced dead at 12.15am. A cocktail of drugs and alcohol was found in his system, but the coroner’s report attributed his death to “heart failure”. Yes, but why did the heart fail?
Michael Clarke: “Gram and I were best buddies, poker-playing buddies together. He was intelligent and carefree. He didn’t care what anybody thought about him. He was well-educated and good with the ladies. He would go for it. I cried when he died, one of the few times in my life I have done that.”
Al Perkins: “Love Hurts was a great song. Warner had sent out singles of Love Hurts and they had sent one to me, just prior to me finding out that he had passed away. I listened to it that night and it was very moving. Still has that effect on me. I still have a hard time listening to it but it is a beautiful melody.”
Bob Parsons arranged for the body to be flown to New Orleans. It has been mooted that this would give him a greater right to Gram’s inheritance, but I have never seen a satisfactory explanation for this. He himself was undergoing treatment for cirrhosis so why was he even concerned? Nevertheless, he checked himself out of hospital and flew to Los Angeles Airport to accompany the body back to New Orleans.
On September 21, Phil Kaufman and his hippie friend, Michael Martin drove to Los Angeles Airport in a hearse and persuaded a Western Airlines baggage handler to release the body to them. They drove 80 miles to Cap Rock at Joshua Tree, put a can of beer in the coffin, doused the body in petrol and set it alight. The flames could be seen some distance away but they made a poor job of it, destroying only three-quarters of the body. They were arrested on September 26 and because bodysnatching had long since fallen off the statue books, they were arrested for stealing a coffin.
There had not been much coverage of Gram’s death, certainly not as much as that for Jim Croce, who had died the following day. Now Gram was headline news and Phil Kaufman an instant celebrity. Kaufman held a funeral party to meet their $300 fine. Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett performed and there were bottles of ‘Gram Pilsner’ with the motto ‘Life’s Too Short’ on the label. Meanwhile, the remainder of Gram’s body was taken to New Orleans for burial in the Garden of Memories Cemetery in Metairie. The headstone reads, ‘God’s Own Singer’, the title of a song (but not one of his) on Burrito Deluxe.
Emmylou Harris: “There was no funeral and there was no way to get together with people who had known him. That is the point of funeral: that’s what happens when you lose someone that you care about.”
All this is reminiscent of the death of the poet Shelley, whose body was washed ashore after a shipwreck in 1822. In keeping with his wishes, he was cremated on beach, but his heart was taken from the funeral pyre and given to his widow, Mary. His ashes were interred in a cemetery in Rome.
The Grievous Angel album was released in January 1974, but there was not a cult surrounding his career which would lead to instant success. That was to follow. Peter Doggett: “By the end of his life, he was in pretty rough shape whereas Emmylou was young and in fine vocal shape but they are still classic albums and again they didn’t sell at the time. I am pretty sure that if Gram had managed to live for another couple of years, he would have been dropped by his record company and he would be a very minor cult artist amongst Byrd fans instead of being this very influential artist.”
Emmylou Harris: “I feel it was just the beginning for us, but of course it was both the beginning and the end. We had definite plans to continue to work together. This was what I wanted to do. When I hear the albums there is a certain amount of sadness because Gram’s career was cut so very short and he had so much to offer. His vision is inherent in the records he’s left behind and it is carried on by musicians who are influenced and affected by those records. Certainly I am the most obvious one, but a lot of people in music today are affected by what he did.”
Make My Old Memory Come Alive
Emmylou Harris formed the Hot Band for both recording and touring purposes. She says, “It was Glen D Hardin who wanted to go on the road with me. We did a couple of dates and had a really good time. It was a wonderful group of people and we had a real affinity for each other. Rodney Crowell came in and we all knew that something special would happen when we got out on stage. I was lucky in that Elvis didn’t tour very much at the time so it was easy for the musicians to work around that. I doubt that Elvis even knew that any of his band was going out with anybody else. We weren’t keeping it from him but he was so cloistered that I doubt that he was even aware of it.”
How did Emmylou afford the band? “I didn’t. I went a quarter of a million dollars into debt with the Hot Band but I managed to recoup it through album sales. There was no guarantee that I would do that but here was an opportunity to work with the musicians that Gram had worked with. I wanted to put forward as much of Gram as I could and I wanted to carry on with them, plus the fact that they were terrific and that gave me a sense of confidence about what I should be doing.”
So many of Emmylou’s albums include Gram’s songs and she called one of the LPs, Luxury Liner. Emmylou wrote about her experiences in Boulder To Birmingham, Michelangelo and White Line (“I’ll be the keeper of the flame / Till every heart hears what you are saying.”). The album, The Ballad Of Sally Rose (1985), is a fictional account of their relationship. Emmylou Harris: “I was in Los Angeles as Linda Ronstadt had asked me to come out and sing with her, she was doing a few nights at the Roxy and she had been extremely supportive towards me after Gram died. She was instrumental in helping me to get a record deal. I was back in Los Angeles for the first time since Gram’s death and the whole city around me was on fire. It was an extraordinary thing to see as well as to be grieving.”
The homages to Gram include Richie Furay’s Crazy Eyes for Poco (which was written before he died), John Phillips’ He Had That Sweet Country Sound, Bernie Leadon’s My Man for the Eagles (“We who must remain must go on singing all the same”), Tom Russell’s Joshua Tree and Chris Hillman’s Heavenly Fire. Although Chris Hillman has not said so, I feel that he must take exception to all the attention lavished on Gram Parsons. He knows that they wrote many of the songs together and his own contribution to country-rock is just as significant. When I broached this with him, he said that it didn’t bother him because, after all, he is still alive.
Mike Brocken, a lecturer at the Institute of Popular Music at Liverpool University, says, “In an odd kind of way, Gram Parsons’ contributions to country music have been over-exaggerated because people get hold of the wrong end of the country-rock stick, as it were. However, I do think his contributions to US rock music are pretty hefty. Not only did he help to place the Byrds (a very important band, who are second only to the Beatles in my book) on a new musical direction, but he also laid down a musical template for what was or wasn’t acceptable in rock. The Rolling Stones’ use of Wild Horses is a case in point. They understood that they were dealing with something that was supposed to be outside of their generic area but nevertheless, they pursued it and befriended Parsons in the process because they believed he had something to say in a sonic sense.”
As well as new compilations, there have been several tribute CDs and concerts. In 1993 there was the tribute CD, Conmemorativo: A Tribute To Gram Parsons (Rhino), and the artists included his daughter Polly with The New Soft Shoe, Carla Olson, Clive Gregson and Victoria Williams. Gram’s sister, Avis, died in a boating accident in 1993, and it is Polly, who continues with his legacy. She says that she has been “battling some of the same demons”.
I was misled by the Magnum Force CD, Tribute To Gram Parsons And Clarence White, which was released in 1996. This features nine tracks from a tribute night at the Cannery (misspell as Canary on the CD package) in Nashville in 1988, and you might wonder where the audience is. Larry Murray, Freddy Weller and Bobby Bare are backed by Swamp water. The only two songs associated with Parsons are Miller’s Cave and Streets of Baltimore, both performed by Bobby Bare. Bare tells a shaggy dog story about being with a host of naked country stars and as the last life is mumbled, I don’t know what the punch line is. The album is completed by two songs from the Flying Burrito Brothers when they opened for Hank Williams Jar in 1989. The link is the guitarist John Bland, who played guitar with both Swamp water and the Burritos and licensed these tracks.
In 1998 Sid Griffin’s band, the Coal Porters, recorded The Gram Parsons Tribute Concert (Prima Records) at the Garage, Islington, but this is a carelessly produced CD. Sid tells the audience that time is short and he has to drop a couple of songs but later he says he is closing with Six Days on the Road, which has been played earlier – well, on the CD, it hasn’t. It’s a shame because Sid is an engaging front man and I did enjoy his comment that they weren’t the Bootleg Beatles but the Bootleg Burritos.
The tribute concert, Return to Sin City, recorded at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, was released on DVD in 2004. Dwight Yoakum loses the plot with Sin City, but his Wheels are much better. Steve Earle is a bit old for the draft-dodging My Uncle but he is fine for Luxury Liner. I loved Raul Milo doing Hot Burrito No 1 and I wish he had done a couple more. The concert also features Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams, John Doe, Jim James, James Burton, Al Perkins and Jim Lauderdale, often wearing Nudie suits, and it is extremely well filmed. Once you get past Keith Richards’ opening verse, the ensemble Wild Horses is terrific. The show was staged by the charity, the Gram Parsons Foundation for the Musician’s Assistance Program of which Steve Earle is a director. However, the audio commentary by Polly Perkins and her friend Shiloh Morrow is unbearable. It sounds like two girls who have come back from the pub and are having a very silly, girlie talk with the film in the background. Still, it’s not without interest. Their initial wish-list sounds like they wanted to stage Woodstock.
In 1999 the CD, Return of the Grievous Angel, a Tribute to Gram Parsons (Alma Sounds), was produced by Emmylou Harris with the proceeds for a landmine free world. Alma Sounds is owned by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, the owners of A&M Records, who signed the Burritos. The CD concentrates on Gram’s compositions with the exception of Sleepless Nights, performed here by Elvis Costello. The insidious Ooh Las Vegas from the Cowboy Junkies brings out the despair in the song. Gillian Welch contributes a lovely Hickory Wind, while Lucinda Williams and David Crosby combine forces for Return of the Grievous Angel. Chris Hillman was glad to record High Fashion Queen with Steve Earle as he felt they could improve on the original.
Although there hasn’t been a bio-pic, there has been Grand Theft Parsons (2003), directed by David Caffrey and starring Johnny Knoxville (star of Jackass), Michael Shannon and Christina Applegate about the mayhem surrounding his death. Knoxville plays Phil Kaufman and he wears the ‘Sin City’ jacket that Kaufman wore when he buried the body. The byline on the DVD rental box says, “One of the funniest films of the year”, which took me by surprise. How do you make a comedy out of stealing a body and burning it in the desert? Strangely, it almost works as one mishap follows another and the soundtrack, which includes original tracks, Bruce Springsteen and even some of the Emmylou-produced tribute CD, is impressive. Phil Kaufman adds an audio commentary and he says that at first the wrong body was delivered to him at Los Angeles Airport: there was an old lady in the coffin and he comments, “I knew Gram looked bad from drugs, but not this bad.” Gabriel Macht plays Parsons in a fantasy sequence, but there is nothing in the film to suggest his importance, and making Carry On Cremation hardly gives his legend any gravitas.
For the ghoulish, you can stay at Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn and you can also visit where his body was burned. The stone tablet says, “Safe at home” and there is an annual Gramfest there. Rather more tastefully, you can see the display for Gram at the Country Music Hall Of Fame. There are also some excellent websites including www.gramparsons.doc and www.gramparsonsproject.com,which features interviews with many key figures.
The latest tribute is the BBC documentary, Fallen Angel, which has been shown at least three times and now is available in an expanded version on DVD. The classification says “contains drug references” – oh no, surely not. This film has been put together by the German director Gandulf Hennig working from a script by Sid Griffin. In the past, Sid has been quick to attack those who sensationalise Sid’s death, but this film could hardly be more sensation seeking and as there are no complete performances, we are not able to judge his musical ability. Maybe it’s me getting old, but time and again, I was shocked by how young Gram looked in several of the clips. The only special feature is an interview with Hennig in which he reveals of the difficulties of getting some of his contributors. He doesn’t say it but I would guess that the real difficulty was people saying, “You can interview me providing you don’t talk to so-and-so.” Still, it is a very impressive list and he secured over 100 hours of interview for the 100 minute film. That being the case, couldn’t some of the interviews have been DVD extras? What happens to them now?
Both Grand Theft Parsons and Fallen Angel reveal that Phil Kaufman never had a second doubt about the validity of what he did. He has wrecked several lives by his actions and yet he appears unaware of the pain that he caused. He comments in Fallen Angel, “If Gram were here today, he’d still be dead.”
I began this feature with an open mind. I regarded Gram Parsons as a tragic figure who made some good records but through the nature of his death, was hailed as the instigator of country-rock. However, Parsons didn’t create country-rock as many musicians had put country and rock together before him, some of them – Roy Orbison, Michael Nesmith, Rick Nelson – creating something similar to his own work. However, Parsons undeniably created the image of country-rock: asking Nudie for that specially designed suit was a masterstroke, akin to Elvis donning gold lamé. Furthermore, his political views were in line with the youth of the day and against the prevailing right-wing attitudes of Nashville.
Gram Parsons’ musical legacy is influential but it is also patchy and he wasted strong ideas by messing about. This is why Emmylou Harris was good for him as it was a meeting of the sensible with the senseless. She was the junior partner but she realised he was throwing it all way, and she had the discipline and I presume the authority to make him work. I can’t recall any instances of irresponsibility in Emmylou Harris’ career so maybe in time she would have changed Gram’s life. He was 26 when he died and though there is little evidence that he was becoming more dependable, it could have happened.
What I can’t take about Gram Parsons is his personality. Right from the start, he was letting others down, be it his family, his teachers, his girlfriends, his daughter or his band members. Nothing lasted for long because as soon as there was any hint of commitment, he was away. His studies are a good example: he found school work easy and had the intelligence to go to Harvard, but once he was there, it was too much like hard work, so he didn’t do anything. Several of the books and articles say that the Parsons family is typical of Tennessee Williams’ melodramas and that Gram was doomed from the start. That is not so: you can learn from your parents’ bad examples and as he had both the intelligence and the wealth to sort out his life, it is difficult to feel sorry for him.
Gram Parsons acted like a spoilt child most of the time, and yet he had charm as several people, notably Chris Hillman, forgave him time and again. The solipsism is very marked and in a world of monstrous egos, he must be among the most self-centred of all music stars.