50 Years Ago: The Wild Death of Gram Parsons

Gram Parsons is one of the most complex characters to regard in the history of country music. Though he wasn’t especially prolific over his truncated career, or regarded highly inside the country music establishment in Nashville or even the Bakersfield scene out in California, history has proven Parsons to be one of the most important and influential characters in the history of country music in the way he popularized country among people outside of the genre.

Though Gram started in The Byrds as nothing more than a salaried piano player, he brought his passion for authentic country music to the legendary West Coast band, persuading them to record a full-blown country album in Nashville that ended up becoming the iconic Sweetheart of the Rodeo. When he left The Byrds shortly thereafter, he became close friends with Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, and was seminal in persuading that legendary band in a more country direction with their albums Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers.

Then of course Gram Parsons helped found The Flying Burrito Brothers, which was the prototype of the American country rock band, and later Parsons launched a solo career that among other accomplishments gave rise to the career of Country Music Hall of Famer Emmylou Harris. It’s really hard to to oversell just how significant Gram Parsons was for conveying the beauty of country music to audiences outside of the genre’s fold.

But all of that came to a crashing end 50 years ago today, September 19th, 1973, in Room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn in Joshua Tree, California. Gram had just finished up recording what would be his final album called Grievous Angel, and was looking to decompress after the sessions. A notorious drinker and drug user, Gram had actually tackled his heroin addiction significantly before starting the recording sessions for the album. But near the end of the project, he began using heavily once more.

So to dry out and decompress, Gram Parson’s manager—the notorious Phil Kaufman—suggested Gram take a retreat to his favorite place in the world, Joshua Tree. At the time, Joshua Tree was not the haven and destinations spot it’s considered today. It was a remote desert area than few saw use for aside from the occasional camping excursion. But Gram Parsons was one of the first to see the beauty in the landscape.

So much of the mystique around Joshua Tree these days is tied in many respects to the Gram Parsons story, and what happened afterward, which is one of the most wild accounts in country or rock ‘n roll history.

After finishing the Grievous Angel sessions, Parsons took his new Jaguar out to Joshua Tree with his high school girlfriend Margaret Fisher that he’d recently rekindled a relationship with. They were joined by an assistant named Michael Martin and his girlfriend Dale McElroy. They stayed at the tiny Joshua Tree Inn in Room 8. Parsons spent time out in the desert during the day, and they would hang out in local bars at night. There was plenty of alcohol around, and the couples were also using barbiturates.

At one point, Michael Martin was sent back to L.A. to resupply Room 8 with marijuana. While he was gone, Parsons purchased some liquid morphine from a local woman who injected Parsons and girlfriend Marget Fisher in the Joshua Tree Inn’s Room 1. Gram Parsons overdosed. They transported him back to Room 8, where they tried to help him by giving him a cold shower and coffee, but it was to no avail. They called an ambulance, and Gram Parsons was declared dead on arrival at High Desert Memorial Hospital, 15 minutes after midnight on September 19, 1973.

Though the death of Gram Parsons was definitely mourned by the music community, it wasn’t like the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, or others of the era. Gram was really just getting started with leaving his mark on the music world, even if that mark would go on to prove itself indelible and long lasting in the future.

But what did keep the public intrigued about Gram’s death was the wild aftermath. The body of Gram Parsons was supposed to be loaded up in a Western Airlines jet and transported to New Orleans for burial by his family. However, manager Phil Kaufman had other plans. While laying to rest another critically-important California country contributor in Clarence White, Gram had intimated to Kaufman that he didn’t want to be interred in the ground. He wanted to be cremated, and his ashes spread in Joshua Tree.

So in a semi-drunken expedition, Phil Kaufman and a friend borrowed a hearse, talked their way onto the tarmac at the airport and to the hangar where Gram’s body was being kept, and even convinced the individual at Western Airlines to release the body to them under the false notion they were transporting Gram to another airplane. There was even a police officer at the hanger who helped them load the casket into the hearse. They were so nervous, as they were driving out of the hangar, they ran into a wall.

Eventually Phil Kaufman made it out to Joshua Tree, wheeled Gram Parsons in his casket out into the desert, drenched him with five gallons of gasoline, and lit him on fire, leaving him there to burn. Some nearby campers saw the smoke and alerted authorities. Meanwhile Kaufman and the hearse broke down, were involved in a fender bender getting back to Los Angeles, and eventually he got caught and charged with Grand Theft. The remaining remains of Gram eventually made their way to New Orleans where he was laid permanently to rest.

In Joshua Tree, you can find a guitar-shaped memorial to Gram at the Joshua Tree Inn. Room 8 is reserved for those who want to stay where Gram passed into the great beyond. Though many visit Cap Rock in Joshua Tree as the place where Gram was “cremated” and there is a makeshift memorial there, it was actually about a 1/4 mile away where the incident occurred. The National Forrest Service does not officially recognize the incident, perhaps not wanting others to try something similar. The story of the aftermath of Gram’s death was made into a movie called Grand Theft Parsons (2003) starring Johnny Knoxville.

The life of Gram Parson was marked by planting country music seeds in fertile ground that would eventually grow into a deeper appreciation for the genre well beyond its conventional borders. But his death also left a significant mark that continues to be felt in country music and beyond. There is a reason why so many artists choose Joshua Tree as the setting for their album covers or promotional photos, and continue to adopt the Gram Parsons take on Western fashion. He made country music cool.

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