Gram Parsons: The Mysterious Death - and Aftermath

The singer-songwriter guitarist dies suddenly from unknown causes

Gram Parsons
Ginny Winn/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Gram Parsons
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JOSHUA TREE, CALIF. – One hundred and fifty-six miles east of Los Angeles, in the high desert country of Joshua Tree National Monument, a two-story tall outcrop of quartz monzonite, solidified perhaps 150 million years ago, casts a wide shadow alongside the two-lane road.

The pile of stone is known as Cap Rock because of the flat, ten-foot, oblong boulder that rests at a slightly cocky angle at the peak of the formation. At the base of its north side, Cap Rock's light gray coloring is charred black, and visible in a patch of sand are bits and pieces of burnt wood the size of barbecue briquets.

The debris is the remains of a coffin that contained the body of Gram Parsons, who died September 19th while vacationing at a Joshua Tree motel. The singer-songwriter-guitarist, a former member of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, was 26 years old. The San Bernardino County coroner's office said Parsons apparently died of heart failure due to natural causes, but the exact nature would not be known until after a toxicology report was received.

Parsons died in an interim period between the completion of his second solo album (working title: Return of the Grievous Angel) and the start of a short European tour. Although described as a person who "lived hard" – he drank heavily at times; there was talk of heroin use – his death shocked friends and business associates. Even more startling was the series of events culminating in his cremation in the desert on the morning of September 21st. Parsons' family had planned a New Orleans burial, but his coffin was stolen from Los Angeles International Airport. Friends claimed the cremation near Joshua Tree had been Parsons' wish. The family – Parsons' wife, mother and stepfather – went into seclusion.

Initial news reports made reference to a "ritual" at the cremation site, but Los Angeles Detective Sgt. John Hamilton said later the reports were "completely false."

Within a week police arrested Phil Kaufman, 38, Parsons' road manager, and Michael Martin, 26, reported to have been a roadie with the Byrds during Parsons' one year with the group. They were booked on suspicion of grand theft and released on $1000 bond.

Two days after the cremation, and before the arrests, an anonymous source, in a telephone conversation arranged through a known associate of Parsons, told Rolling Stone:

"It was done by people who really loved him  . . . .

"They had this old hearse and they thought they'd wear suits and pretend to be hearse drivers, but that didn't work, so they decided to be off-duty hearse drivers, and they made up this story about how they didn't really want to go get this body when they had a girl all ready someplace to fuck them out of their minds; so they played that out to the guy –'Come on, we gotta get to this girl, we're working overtime, let's get out of here' – like that, so they signed a name, 'Jeremy Nobody,' to the slip and took the body off.

"It was Gram's request, just something he had told them not too long before he died –'If I go, I want to be in Joshua Tree and I want my ashes scattered here' – that sort of thing.

"They resented the stepfather [Robert Parsons] who came in and arranged for burial in New Orleans and didn't even invite the friends . . . ."

Yet to be determined is just when, if at all, Parsons made his request. Was it an offhand remark, a moment of melancholy? And if so, why was the request undocumented, leaving friends open to prosecution?

* * *

Parsons was born November 5th, 1946, at Winter Haven, Florida. He spent his childhood in Waycross, Georgia. ("There's an old saying about it; as soon as you learn to walk, you start walkin' out of town.") He took up guitar in his early teens and played with several Georgia teenage bands. Elvis Presley was his idol, but his most direct influences were his father, Coon Dog (Conner), a country singer and songwriter, and the family radio, usually tuned to country or gospel music stations.

Parsons escaped Waycross in 1964 by gaining acceptance to Harvard. ("At Harvard you don't major," he said. "You concentrate. One thing I was hellbound to concentrate on was what Alpert and Leary were up to with LSD. But they'd left. Mainly I was turned off by the fact that I had to study all these things I didn't understand. I lasted four or five months by playing music and having good times.")

In 1965, at age 19, he organized the International Submarine Band, a collection of young rock musicians who played country – unprecedented at the time – with the unlikely base of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"I just passed my identification crisis and came back to country music," said Parsons (Rolling Stone, March 1st, 1973). The band eventually moved to the Bronx, did some small-change session work, moved to California and broke up. However, Parsons, in one final effort, scrounged around for enough musicians to put out the ISB's obscure album, Safe At Home.

In Los Angeles, Parsons met the Byrds' Chris Hillman, and in 1968 joined the band. His country influence was heard almost at once on the Byrds' LP Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which includes two Parsons compositions, "Hickory Wind" and "One Hundred Years from Now."

But when the Byrds went to South Africa at the end of summer, 1968, Parsons refused to go along, and he left the group in England. There, he struck up a friendship with Keith Richards and the other Stones. Mick Jagger is said to have written "Wild Horses" for and about Gram Parsons.

Parsons kept in contact with L.A. friend and bassist Chris Ethridge, and the two plotted a new band, which eventually resulted in the Flying Burrito Brothers, a band which made more of an impact with its flashy embroidered Western threads than its music. Ethridge was the first to leave, and Parsons, claiming boredom, followed.

Early in 1970 Parsons was injured in a motorcycle accident. The recuperative period lasted almost two years. He traveled, wrote songs and contemplated his future. He decided to do a solo album.

GP, an album with a classic C&W feel, featuring Alabama singer Emmylou Harris, Rik Grech and three members of Elvis Presley's touring band, was released earlier this year. Then, in midsummer, life began to go sour on Gram Parsons.

One morning, just two weeks before he was scheduled to go into the studio to record his second album, Parsons awakened to find his bedroom on fire. The blaze swept through his Laurel Canyon house, and he moved in with friends. However, his wife, Gretchen, a sometime actress (Pretty Maids All in a Row), moved elsewhere. The marriage was said to have been a shaky one for some time. Parsons talked of filing for divorce.

At the sessions, according to photographer Ginny Winn, Parsons appeared to be in good health, and things went well – up to a point. "He had split from his old lady and was really getting it together," she said, "hardly drinking and not doing dope. He was putting down three songs a night." But then, she said, she sensed a change. "All I knew was that something was happening, and I didn't know what. The album was finished. There were a couple of things that didn't come off  . . . ."

On the weekend of September 15th-16th, Parsons checked into the Joshua Tree Inn, a quiet hideaway on Twenty-nine Palms Highway 140 miles east of Los Angeles. The place is a favorite of several show business personalities. Its simple attractions, besides the quiet, are a swimming pool and a sweeping view of the surrounding desert country.

"He was always anxious to go there," said Parsons' manager Ed Tichner. "I visited him there once. It was nothing exciting . . . but he knew every bar and saloon in the area."

In Parsons' party this time, according to police, were two women, Margaret Fisher of San Francisco and Dale McElroy of Van Nuys; and a man believed to be Michael Martin.

Frank Barbary, whose wife, Margaret, owns the motel, said the group didn't party, but just sat around and relaxed.

On the day of his death, said Margaret Barbary, Parsons "looked a little pale." Then near midnight, said her husband, the others in the group went for food. A short time later they came running up to his door and began pounding on the windows. Parsons, they said, was unconscious. Barbary called for an ambulance and then attempted to revive Parsons by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Parsons was rushed to Hi-Valley Memorial Hospital at nearby Yucca Valley, where he was pronounced dead.

* * *

A week later Frank Barbary expressed surprise at the arrest of Phil Kaufman in Los Angeles. "I thought, 'not Phil.' He was up here once before with Gram. I knew him better than Gram because he usually dealt with the bills and things."

Kaufman's arrest is not his first. Several years ago he was imprisoned on drug charges at Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institute in San Pedro, California. Another prisoner at the time was Charles Manson. Upon his release, Kaufman lived with Manson and his followers for two months. A believer in Manson's music, Kaufman formed his own company and produced Manson's album LIE after being turned down at major record companies.

Kaufman was arrested at his Van Nuys home on September 26th. A dabbler in various Hollywood ventures, he had recently volunteered his house for the filming of a movie (starring Gene Hackman and directed by Arthur Penn) and the crew was working away when he was taken into custody.

Kaufman was booked at the Venice police station. He said later: "I'm charged with stealing a coffin. One of the cops called it 'Gram Theft Parsons.' He said, 'We had the damndest time trying to figure out what to charge you with . . . .'

"I didn't know what the charge was or I would have turned myself in; but people were telling me 'Oh, God, they're out to get you; they'll set up a million dollars bail,' stuff like that. I had no concept what the charge would be. Not armed with that knowledge I just sat tight. I was only gone about three hours. I went right back to the house and the movie crew cheered when I walked in . . . ."

Michael Martin, accompanied by his attorney, surrendered the next day, September 27th.

This story is from the October 25th, 1973 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 146: October 25, 1973