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The Strange Death of Gram Parsons:
1973


Gram Parsons Discography

Gram Parsons Bibliography




Courtesy White Boucke Publishing.

Close calls:
The trip back to L.A. after burning the body of Gram Parsons was every bit as weird as the trip out had been for Phil Kaufman and Michael Martin. Part way home, the drunken pair decided they'd better pull off the road and sleep for a few hours. When they woke up, the hearse wouldn't start. They were stuck in the middle of the desert. Martin went for help and came back with a tow truck; after a few hours, they left with a fresh supply of cold beer.
They were nearly home when they got into a multi-car pile-up on an LA freeway, rear-ending another car. A highway patrolman approached and opened the door to the hearse. When beer bottles fell out, he handcuffed Kaufman and Martin together and told them to stay put. Then he left to attend to other drivers. Before he could return and take their licenses, the very thin Martin had slipped his hand from the cuff. Kaufman started up the hearse and fled the scene. When they got back to chez Kaufman, they sawed off the other cuff, stashed the hearse, and went into hiding.*


"God's Own Singer":
"God's Own Singer," the title of a song from the second Flying Burrito Brothers LP, may express an appropriate sentiment, but one suspects that the responsible parties were unaware that the song was written by Bernie Leadon, not Gram Parsons.





To read about the last Gram Parsons tour and album, see Gram Parsons & the Fallen Angels: 1972-1973. This section covers the death of Gram Parsons in some detail. Although his music is by far the most vital part of the Gram Parsons story, his death is the first introduction to that story for many people. Perhaps some of those looking to read about that death will be persuaded by other parts of the profile to check out his music too. So think of this section as being sort of like sex education... Since the events of that day are the subject of so many myths, mistakes, and mysteries, better to describe frankly those events (as best as they can ever be known now) than to have people believing the even wilder gossip they pick up on the street.


Joshua Tree:

Gram Parsons had been hanging out at the Joshua Tree National Monument for several years -- he went there regularly, with Chris Hillman when they were bandmates, and later with Keith Richards, to get high, commune with the cactus, and watch the sky for UFOs. He reserved two rooms at the nearby Joshua Tree Inn, a modest cinder-block motel whose owners had come to know Parsons after several visits. Along with Parsons on this trip were his "valet" and chum, Michael Martin; Martin's girlfriend Dale McElroy (no fan of Gram Parsons); and an old friend from his high school days in Florida named Margaret Fisher.
The events of that trip have been recounted by Dale McElroy, who told her story to Ben Fong-Torres when he was writing Hickory Wind, then retold it in her own words in Phil Kaufman's 1993 bio. Other accounts differ, but hers seems the most reliable.
The foursome arrived Monday, September 17, 1973. That day they indulged sufficiently that Martin returned to Los Angeles the next morning to score more marijuana -- even though Martin theoretically went along on the trip so he could look after Parsons. Parsons dragged the women out to the airport for lunch, throughout which he drank Jack Daniels non-stop.
When they returned from lunch, McElroy excused herself -- she couldn't drink because she was recovering from hepatitis, and she wasn't having any fun watching Parsons drink.
Meanwhile, Parsons scored some heroin in town and then topped it off with morphine he acquired from a drug connection, who was staying at the Inn. Several hours later, a wasted Fisher showed up at McElroy's door in a frantic state. Parsons had overdosed, she said. They grabbed some ice and went to Room 1, where he was passed out on the floor, blue. There Fisher revived him with an ice cube suppository -- an old street remedy for overdoses. When McElroy left the two alone again, he was walking around the room, seemingly recovered.
After another hour or so, at about 10:00, Fisher returned to McElroy's room and asked her to sit with the sleeping Parsons while she went out to get some dinner. McElroy grabbed a book and went to Parsons's room -- Room 8. After a few minutes, she realized that his breathing had gone from normal to labored. McElroy had no experience with drug overdoses and no training in CPR. Believing (incorrectly) that there were no other people in the hotel, she never called out for help. Instead she tried to get him breathing again by pumping his back and his chest and giving him mouth-to-mouth. "I tried to figure out whether to stay and keep him breathing or leave and get some help.... I figured if I left, he might die."*
After about a half hour of futile pumping and pushing, McElroy realized that Parsons was probably beyond help. At this point Margaret Fisher returned, then left to call an ambulance. The rescue crew arrived quickly, but concluded that CPR would not be successful. They got Parsons to the nearby Hi-Desert Memorial Hospital in Yucca Valley by 12:15 AM. The doctors there found no pulse and, after trying unsuccessfully to restart his heart, declared him dead at 12:30 AM, Wednesday, September 19, 1973.
The press were told that Parsons had died of natural causes, but after performing an autopsy, the coroner listed the cause of death as "drug toxicity, days, due to multiple drug use, weeks."* A blood test showed a blood alcohol level of 0.21% -- high, but nowhere near fatal standing alone. No morphine showed in the blood test, though it did turn up in more than trace amounts in urine and liver tests. The urinalysis also revealed traces of cocaine and barbiturates. Since substances may accumulate in the body over a long time, it's unclear from the urine and liver tests whether Parsons used morphine, cocaine or barbiturates that day.
Fisher and McElroy were questioned by the police at the hospital. McElroy called Phil Kaufman in Los Angeles, who persuaded the sheriff that he could answer all their questions as soon as he arrived. The sheriff then permitted Fisher and McElroy to stay at the motel until Kaufman arrived. When Kaufman got to the hotel, the women gave him Parsons's drugs, which they had gathered up before the ambulance and police arrived.* Kaufman took the drugs and hid them in the desert, then called the police station. He promised the police he would bring McElroy and Fisher in for further questioning, then piled them in his car and drove them straight back to LA, where he hid them out for a few days. The Joshua Tree police never sought out the two women.
Both Margaret Fisher and Alan Barbary, the son of the hotel owners, told conflicting versions of that night's events, which added to the confusion and exaggeration that soon surrounded the death of Gram Parsons.


Safe at Home:

When the news of his stepson's death reached Bob Parsons, he immediately realized that his own interests would be best served by having the body buried in Louisiana, where the senior Parsons lived. Parsons knew that under Louisiana's Napoleonic code, his adopted son's estate would pass in its entirety to the nearest living male -- Bob Parsons -- notwithstanding any will provisions to the contrary. But the code would only apply if Bob Parsons could prove that Gram Parsons had been a resident of Louisiana. Burying the younger Parsons in New Orleans would bolster the tenuous arguments for Louisiana residency. Bob Parsons booked a flight to LA to claim the body. At stake was his stepson's share of the dwindling but still substantial Snively fortune.
When Phil Kaufman learned of the plan to bury his friend in New Orleans, he became distraught. He knew that Parsons had no connection whatsoever to that city. He knew that Parsons had little use for his stepfather, and would not have wanted any of his estate to pass to him. He knew that Parsons had not wanted a long, depressing, religious service with family and friends. Most of all he knew he had made a pact with Parsons, at the funeral of Clarence White: whoever died first, "the survivor would take the other guy's body out to Joshua Tree, have a few drinks and burn it."*
After a day of vodka-enhanced self-recriminations, Kaufman decided he had to try to make good on his promise. Thus began one of the most unforgettable episodes of what hackers call "social engineering." For the full story, check out Kaufman's biography, Road Mangler Deluxe, which describes the whole episode in Kaufman's own inimitable fashion. What follows is only a taste of Kaufman's tale.
Kaufman called the funeral parlor in the town of Joshua Tree and managed to learn that the body would be driven to LAX and then flown on Continental to New Orleans. He called the airline's mortuary service and found out that the body would arrive that evening. Kaufman recruited Michael Martin, who knew about the pact, and commandeered a hearse of Dale McElroy's, which she and Martin used for camping trips. It had no license plates and several broken windows, but it would do. They tried on suits, but decided they looked so ridiculous that they changed into their tour clothes -- Levi's, cowboy boots, cowboy hats, and jackets with the legend "Sin City" stitched on the back. They loaded the hearse up with beer and Jack Daniels and headed for LAX.
Kaufman and Martin arrived at the loading dock just as a flatbed truck rolled up with the Parsons casket. A drunken Kaufman somehow persuaded an airline employee that the Parsons family had changed its plans and wanted to ship the body privately on a chartered flight.
While Kaufman was in the hangar office, signing the paperwork with a phony name, a policeman pulled up, blocking the hangar door. Kaufman was sure his operation would be shut down, but the officer didn't do anything -- he just sat there. So Kaufman walked out to him, waved his copies of the paperwork, and said, "Hey, can you move that car?" The officer apologized, moved the car, and then, remarkably, helped Kaufman load the casket onto a gurney and into the back of the unlicensed, liquor-filled hearse.
Martin, also liquor-filled, got in the hearse and headed out of the hangar, only to run into the wall on his way out. The officer observed all this, and commented ruefully, "I wouldn't want to be in your shoes now." Then he left, and the two drunk bodysnatchers departed the airport with the body of their friend. They stopped at a gas station and filled a gas can with high test ("I didn't want him to ping," Kaufman says.) Then they headed back for Joshua Tree.
They reached the Monument and drove until they were too drunk to drive any farther. There, near the Cap Rock, a landmark geological formation, they unloaded their friend's coffin. Then Kaufman saw car lights in the distance and concluded the police were coming. He quickly doused his friend with fuel and lit him. The two watched as a giant fireball rose from the coffin, sucking his ashes into the desert night. Then they abandoned the charred remains and headed for LA.
After a trip home filled with close calls, Kaufman and Martin laid low. The morning after their return, the papers were full of the story of the rock star's hijacked and burnt corpse, playing up baseless speculation by local police that the amateur cremation may have been "ritualistic."*
Kaufman knew the police were looking for him, so after a few weeks, he and Martin just turned themselves in. They appeared in West L.A. Municipal Court on Parsons's 27th birthday -- November 5, 1973. Since a corpse has no intrinsic value, the two were charged with misdemeanor theft for stealing the coffin and given a slap on the wrist: $708 in damages for the coffin, and a $300 fine for each of the bodysnatchers. Kaufman has surely made that amount back just dining out on the story -- his misadventures have been legendary in rock and country music circles ever since.
The aftermath of the court's sentence was as unlikely as the events leading up to it. Kaufman threw himself a party to raise the fine money -- Kaufman's Koffin Kaper Koncert. They pasted beer bottles with some homemade labels featuring a bad likeness of Parsons and the legend, "Gram Pilsner: A stiff drink for what ales you." Dr. Demento served as deejay, and live music was provided by Bobby "Boris" Pickett and the Crypt Kickers of "Monster Mash" fame and a young band being managed by Tickner and Kaufman at the time, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. Despite the gruesome streak running through the party, it was a memorable wake for their friend.*
On the other side of the country, some other friends mourned Parsons in a somewhat quieter fashion. Emmylou Harris met with John Nuese, Bill Keith, and Holly and Barry Tashian for a quiet weekend at the Tashians' cottage in Connecticut, where they listened for the first time to finished versions of the sessions from Grievous Angel (Reprise, 1974).


We'll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning:

Gram Parsons left more than his share of loose ends.
Bob Parsons had the charred remains of his stepson shipped to New Orleans, where, after a small service with family only, he was buried in The Garden of Memories, an unimpressive cemetery on a highway near the airport. A bronze plaque marks the gravesite; it reads "God's Own Singer." Although Bob Parsons succeeded in getting the body to Louisiana, his scheme to seize control of the Snively fortune was nevertheless thwarted by a Florida court. About a year later, Bob Parsons died of an alcohol-related illness. He never made a dime off of Gram Parsons.
When Parsons left for Joshua Tree, he believed he had initiated divorce proceedings against Gretchen. As it turned out, this was not the case. Kaufman had the papers to serve on her but hadn't yet done so by the time Parsons died. Along with Gretchen Parsons, his daughter Polly, his sister Avis, and his half-sister Diane all received some money from his estate as well.
Reprise finally released Grievous Angel (Reprise, 1974) in January of 1974 to rave reviews. Yet, despite the notoriety resulting from the death of Parsons, the LP peaked at a disappointing #195 on the album chart.
Despite his lack of commercial success, Gram Parsons acquired a small but fervent following. These fans paid for a plaque that was placed near the Cap Rock, with the words "Safe At Home."


You're Still On My Mind:

Twenty-two years after the death of Gram Parsons, his music is still very much with us. His major releases, from Safe at Home (LHI, 1968) to Grievous Angel, are currently available in the States, at least on import, as are compilations such as Farther Along (A&M, 1988) and Out of the Blue (A&M UK, 1996). Cosmic American Music (Magnum America, 1995) featured rehearsal tapes for GP, while Live 1973 (Sierra, 1994) offered a live performance by the Fallen Angels.
Cosmic American Music also lives on in the music of others, from Emmylou Harris to Country Gazette to the Eagles, from Elvis Costello to Tom Petty to the Long Ryders, from the Mekons to the Jayhawks to Uncle Tupelo. Today there is an explosion of country-influenced rock, as chronicled in the magazine No Depression, among other places. It's clear now that Gram Parsons and his music will not be forgotten.


Know More About It:

Nearly all of the Gram Parsons catalog is available through Sierra Records. Sierra is currently preparing for the release of a Gram Parsons CD called The Early Years, which will feature the tracks from the earlier Shilos release, plus nine solo tracks recorded in New York with Dick Weissman, and concluding with the four early single sides by International Submarine Band. Sierra also specializes in the work of Clarence White, Gene Clark, and Gene Parsons. Anyone interested in these artists should check out their website (temporarily offline as this is written but due back soon) at www.sierra-records.com. You can also write for the Sierra catalog at the following address:

 Sierra Records
 P.O. Box 5853
 Pasadena, California 91117-0853

You can also request their catalog by e-mail at sierra@sure.net.




Notes

"...[H]e might die." Kaufman at 292.

"...[M]ultiple drug use..." Fong-Torres, Hickory Wind at 198.

Gathered drugs: Kaufman at 114.

"...[H]ave a few drinks and burn it." Kaufman at 118.

Close calls: Kaufman at 124-126.

Kaufman's story: Kaufman at 117-126.

Koffin Kaper: Kaufman at 129-131.


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Band Members | Gram Parsons | 1973

Welcome | News | LPs | History | Members | Spinoffs | Related | Reference | Sanctuary | About | NEXT SECTION

McGuinn | Clark | Crosby | Hillman | Clarke | Kelley | Gram Parsons | White | Gene Parsons | York | Battin | NEXT CHAPTER

1960-1965 | 1965-1967 | 1968 | FBB '68-'69 | FBB '69-'70 | 1970-1972 | 1972-1973 | 1973 | NEXT PAGE






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