Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I Slept with Gram Parsons

The other morning, I was listening to my favorite online radio station, KPIG, out of Freedom California, when the old George Jones song, You’re Still on my Mind, began playing. But the honey-washed voice I heard couldn’t have possibly been ole Possum hisself. It was surely the voice of Gram Parsons and it certainly took me back.

If you don’t know about Gram Parsons, I need to tell you that this is going to be a cautionary tale, not because I slept with him, but because of what became of him. In addition, it’s going to be a story about a great coincidence, just one of a host of occurrences that seem to continue to happen in this big old world of ours.

Until around 1995, I’d never even heard of Gram Parsons. Having been married to The Big Kat for many years, I knew of the Byrds and then, later, the Flying Burrito Brothers. But when Gary, who loves most things eccentric and esoteric, started talking about Gram Parsons, I didn’t know the name and I wasn't particularly interested until he told me of his top-shelf band memberships and that he’d even stayed for a while at Keith Richards' home near Stonehenge in England.

Although Gram Parson’s story is, in itself, interesting, with his hanging out with the Stones and later collaborating with Emmy Lou Harris, it was his death at age 27 that adds his name to the long list of crazy cult figures of our time, and offers to us all another obscure, yet tasty, tidbit of Americana.

Both of Parson’s parents were alcoholics and both died relatively young. His family was quite well to do, his grandfather being a citrus fruit magnate, but his childhood was painful and his upbringing haphazard at best. Although Gram had dabbled in music as a teenager, he'd managed to be accepted at Harvard, where he matriculated for all of a semester before dropping out to follow his bliss after hearing Merle Haggard (of all people) in concert there.

After leaving Harvard, Parsons went on to join the Byrds in 1968 and the Flying Burrito Brothers in 1969 as a singer, guitarist and piano player, but his drug use got in the way of his music and ultimately, his life. He did manage to go solo for a few years, making a couple of albums and touring with Emmy Lou Harris for a while in the early seventies.

Gram Parsons took a liking to Joshua Tree National Monument in California, where, in the midst of desert winds and sidewinders, he could mainline LSD, drink Jack Daniels, and look for UFOs. On his last sad trip to Joshua Tree in September of 1973, he overdid, overdosed, and died.

What happened next, which is the wackiest piece of this crazy story, has been described pretty well by the Wikipedia people, so I'm going to turn this part over to them (with a couple of addenda from me):

Parsons' body disappeared from the LA Airport, where it was being readied to be shipped to Louisiana for burial. Prior to his death, Parsons stated that he wanted his body cremated at Joshua Tree and his ashes spread over Cap Rock, a prominent natural feature there; however, Parsons' stepfather arranged for a private ceremony back in New Orleans and neglected to invite any of his friends from the music industry. Two accounts claim that Bob Parsons stood to inherit Gram's share of his grandfather's estate if he could prove that Gram was a resident of Louisiana, explaining his eagerness to have him buried there.

To fulfill Parsons' funeral wishes, his road manager, Phil Kaufman, and a friend stole his body from the airport and in a borrowed hearse drove it to Joshua Tree where they attempted to cremate it by pouring five gallons of gasoline into the open coffin and throwing a lit match inside. What resulted was an enormous fireball. Police chased them, but according to one account the thieves "were unencumbered by sobriety" and the pair got away.The two were arrested several days later. Since there was no law against stealing a dead body, they were only fined $750 for stealing the coffin and were not prosecuted for leaving 35 lbs of his charred remains in the desert.

Okay, great story, right? Sad but fascinating in that way that shooters and bridge jumpers are fascinating, when we suddenly feel so well adjusted and lucky. But where's the coincidence and what's the titillating part about me sleeping with a cult rock and roll hero?

Back to The Big Kat for that. In one of several phone calls with Gary waxing forth in his OCD way about Gram Parsons, he mentioned he was from Waycross, Georgia - my home town. That was no big deal as Billy Joe Royal, Pernell Roberts, and Burt Reynolds are also purported to be native sons, so I thought little about it.

It wasn't until a couple of weeks later, when looking through a box of old photographs, that I came upon a picture I'd seen many times, one I'd almost thrown away on several occasions. It was obviously a school picture and, because of the boy's dark good looks, I could tell he wasn't related to me in any way.

This kid was apparently a friend of my brother's from elementary school - in Waycross. So I called my brother, Sandy, the Washington attorney, to ask if he'd known Gram Parsons. He said he didn't, but I thought he did. I dialed up The Big Kat who told me that Gram Parsons had been born Cecil Ingram Conner and that, later, after his father died, he'd taken his step-father's last name.

Another phone call to my brother, who said, "Yeah, I knew Gram Conner. He and I used to spend the night at each other's houses. Why?" A rather long conversation ensued, but I have to say Sandy never seemed to appreciate the story as much as I did.

Okay, so I didn't really sleep with Gram Parsons, but my brother did. I, on the other hand, slept in the very next room, the pink one with the stuffed animals decorating the floor. I think Sandy's room at the time was done up in a cowboy motif or perhaps baseball.

All I have left of Cecil Ingram Connor Parsons is a scanned copy of his school picture and a certain sadness about a young boy who spent a few nights at my house when I was a little girl, a boy who never got the chance to grow up or old. Pondering his talent, drive, and good looks, it seems like such a waste.

The only insight I can think of to offer is that some fires burn so quick and hot they can even light up the desert sky - so maybe Gram Parsons' final goodbye was an appropriate one

As for that original photograph, I sent it to The Big Kat.


Olga said...

We have to take our brushes with fame where ever we can. Can't say as I heard of--or at least remember--Gram Parsons, but you do have the pictures to prove he was real. And you just can't make up stories like this:)

Wisewebwoman said...

Fierce and hot,I think of Janis and Jim and so many more. they get used up so quickly.

Amazing story, Marcia. Reminds me of one of my own, but he is still alive and I'm DYING to share it but I'd have to show pics and clips.

And no, he didn't sleep next door. Not remotely.


cile said...

God. Who needs fiction when we have reality...?

Anonymous said...

Takes me back to my "old days" when I was married to a musician and heard tales such as this on a regular basis. Gram Parsons is new to me but I won't forget him. After all he slept in the house with you! Mary B

marciamayo said...

WWW, now I'm definitely going to show up at your mailbox in Newfoundland so I can hear your story firsthand.

Freda said...

Brilliant piece of writing which had me on the edge of my seat! What a wonderful story.

Arkansas Patti said...

That was a great story and a great piece of sluthing on your behalf. Think I will see what Amazon has on him so I can hear him.
I adored the phrase "were unencumbered by sobriety".
Think you are so right about burning too hot.

Friko said...

You made me read through this post and then didn't deliver!

What is it with musicians? Even the ones who play 'respectable' music tell the most outrageous tales, not fit for publication. I know, I am sleeping with one regularly.

Kate said...

You should have heard KPIG when it was KFAT. These days, it's a mere shadow of its former self, and most of the good, original DJs are gone. I think Uncle Sherman is still there, & Cousin Al but the rest are all newcomers -- who are content to fit themselves into the new playlist. I don't listen any more -- it's too painful.

marciamayo said...

Kate, I didn't know it then but I will take it now. What's my alternative?

Vagabonde said...

What a tale! It’s great how you found out the real name of Gram Parsons. I did not know of him. I am reading Keith Richards story on the Rolling Stone right now. He also did quite a lot of stuff in his youth.

marciamayo said...

Vagabonde, from what I'm hearing, there's a good bit about Gram Parsons in Keith's autobiography. I look forward to reading it.

joared said...

Interesting story. I don't recall hearing about that Joshua Tree/LAX event but it is bizarre. There are musicians and then there are musicians.

Anonymous said...

Wow! This is a great story. I love the school picture. Gram Parsons is sometimes called the founder of Country Rock, although he hated that term. I love his music. His voice has a high-lonesome quality. I hope that those of you who have never heard Gram sing can check out some of his videos on YouTube. I especially like his duets with Emmylou Harris.

Terry said...

I had forgotten about Gram Parsons until reading something about the Byrds today...which included him and it was like his name rang a bell! While searching the www I ran across some great articles, pictures and this blog (which btw I really enjoyed). Thanks for sharing his school picture (I had always thought he was so cute). As a Southern girl myself I had also forgotten that he had grown up in Waycross and how that must have shaped his music!
It is sad that he isn't with us now to enjoy his influence of Southern rock and "kicked-up" country!

Unknown said...

I just watched Ken Burns series "Country Music " and fell in love with Gram Parsons all over again. Amazing! What an incredibly talented young man that influenced the course of "Americana" music at a pivotal time. I listened to GP today and was so moved.

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