Was listening to music on the way into work and Gram Parsons’ song “Hickory Wind” came on. This is one of my favorite country songs ever and it’s been covered by pretty much everyone. Hearing it this morning got me thinking about music, about Parsons, and about friends.
Parsons came from money but had a terrible personal life. After attending an Elvis Presley concert, he threw himself into music to deal with his disintegrating family. Parsons had so-so grades but wrote a stunning admissions essay to Harvard. He attended the Ivy League School for only semester (that’s what happens when you attend none of you Gen Ed classes) but it was there he discovered country music when he heard Merle Haggard for the first time.
When the Byrds later toured England, Parsons become good friends with Keith Richards (the two reportedly spent a lot of time alone listening to and playing along with obscure country albums). Through the Stones, Parsons met and became close friends with a guy named Phil Kaufman.
Kaufman is a tour manager, record producer, and author. He started as an actor with a number of bit parts in some big Hollywood films like Spartacus, but a felony charge for smuggling marijuana got him sent to Terminal Island (where he befriended fellow inmate Charles Manson). When Kaufman was released from prison, he lucked into a job driving for Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful who were in LA for the mixing for the legendary Beggar’s Banquet album.
Parsons called his style “Cosmic American Music” (a mix of country, blues, soul, folk, and rock). He was hugely influential on music. He played with the International Submarine Band, The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and had a solo career (that included a lot of amazing duets with Emmylou Harris). His influence extends beyond rock. If you like “country rock” and “alt-country” at all, then you should think the ghost of Gram Parsons.
However, Parsons had two problems. His financial success with music never matched up to his critical success (he lived on a large trust from his grandfather’s estate) and a longtime battle with drugs.
Beginning in the late 60's, Parsons fell in love with and vacationed quite frequently at Joshua Tree. And it was there, he died from an accidental overdose in 1973.
Now, everyone knew Joshua Tree is where Parsons wanted to be buried. He frequently told his friend Kaufman that when he died he wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered at Cap Rock. The problem was Parson’s stepfather stood to inherit a lot of money from Gram’s trust, if he could prove Parsons was a resident of Louisiana. So the stepfather arranged a quickie private funeral ceremony (in New Orleans without any of Gram's friends) and for the body to be transported to Louisiana.
Kaufman was having none of it.
Knowing his friend's wishes, Kaufman and another friend borrowed a hearse. The two stole Parson’s body from LAX and drove it to Joshua Tree. They set the coffin up at Cap Rock and doused it in 5 gallons of gas and tossed a match…resulting in a massive fireball shooting through the night sky.
Kaufman and his friend managed to escape the police initially but were arrested several days later. Luckily for them, they had borrowed the hearse, and there was no law at the time against stealing a dead body, so they got off with a $750 fine for stealing the coffin and not charged at all for stealing the body and managing to scatter 35 lbs of Parson’s remains across the national park.