Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Life, Death and Strange Last Rites of Gram Parsons, Part 2

Last week’s instalment looked at the life of Gram Parsons, remembered today as the father of country rock, the fusion of country music and rock.  His music influenced Elvis Costello, U2, Tom Petty, The Eagles, The Rolling Stones and Emmylou Harris among others. Born Cecil Ingram Conner in 1946, his father committed suicide when he was 12. Parsons’ mother remarried not long afterwards to one Robert Parsons, inspiring a name change to Gram Parsons. Although he had a dedicated cult following, especially amongst fellow musicians, he never achieved commercial success and died at the age of 26 of an overdose of morphine and tequila. 

Dan Swinhoe's book review of a new work about him, Jason Walker's Gram Parsons - God's own Singer, contains an accurate summation of his life and influence:
Had Gram Parsons lived he would have been 65 years old by now, but instead biographies recounting the man’s short but explosive life are being released. Widely known as the founder of Country-Rock despite hating the term, Parsons died aged 26 in 1973 after destroying himself with booze and drugs. Though he saw little acclaim or success in the few years he was making music, he managed to create a legacy that still resonates today. 
But his personal life wasn’t never as smooth as his music; a rich boy who’s father committed suicide when he was twelve while his mother slowly drank herself to death, his life was filled with constant ups and downs. Addiction and loss were commonplace throughout his time, as was a longing to succeed that was never fully satisfied. This book documents the man, the music, and his early and unfortunate burn-out. 
Parsons life was a contradicting roller-coaster; a rich boy playing music of the poor man, constantly lauded for his talents but success constantly out his reach. For every victory or good thing that happened, the Jinx of Parsons would strike, and he’d be left back at square one. Sometime fate was against him, sometime his own self-abuse, selfishness or stupidity would cause him problems. Yet everyone interviewed talks of his kind nature and charm, making it difficult to dislike him, despite his flaws.

The following account of the death and last rites of Gram Parsons is a reprint from a web site, Byrd Watcher, A Field Guide to the Byrds of Los Angeles. The item – The Strange Death of Gram Parsons – sets out in detail the final days in the life and death of Gram Parsons and is well worth the read: 

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 band mates, 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. 

Joshua Tree Inn

Gram parsons at Joshua Tree

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. 

[Phil Kaufman was a road manager for Gram Parsons, his first gig as a roadie. Kaufman produced and released Charles Manson's album LIE and spent time living with the Manson family.  His autobiography Road Mangler Deluxe records his experiences in the music business.)

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' 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' 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, Jonathon 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.

  • What remained of Parsons' body was eventually buried in Garden of Memories of Metairie, Louisiana. 
  • The site of Parsons' cremation was marked by a small concrete slab and was presided over by a large rock flake known to rock climbers as The Gram Parsons Memorial Hand Traverse. The slab has since been removed by the U.S. National Park Service, and relocated to the Joshua Tree Inn. 
  • There is no monument at Cap Rock noting Parsons' cremation at the site. 
  • Joshua Tree park guides are given the option to tell the story of Parsons' cremation during tours, but there is no mention of the act in official maps or brochures. Fans regularly assemble simple rock structures and writings on the rock, which the park service sand blasts to remove from time to time. 

  • Robert Parsons was unsuccessful in his claim to his stepson’s funds. 

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