September 19, 1973—It wasn’t enough that Gram Parsons influenced generations of musicians with his hybrid mix of rock ‘n’ roll and country, nor that he followed the pattern of contemporaries with an early death brought on by intense substance abuse. No, the 26-year-old former member of The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers overdosed on a combination of morphine and tequila at the Joshua Tree Inn in California –then his road manager engaged in a serio-comic body snatching that one cop, challenged to cite what law was broken, responded, “Grand Theft Parsons.”
Grievous Angel, Parsons titled his last, posthumously released solo album, and that neatly sums up the promise and pain of this singer-songwriter with such a deep affinity for country done-somebody-wrong songs--and such a lack of commercial success in his lifetime. Groupies fell in love with his ethereal face even before hearing his equally mesmerizing voice. (His embroidered Nudie tailored suits, in emulation of hero Hank Williams, didn’t hurt in the eyes of female fans, either.) Hearing him play and listening to his lyrics altered the career trajectories of musicians as disparate as Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, Keith Richards and Emmylou Harris (who has probably done as much as anyone to keep his memory alive).
His real name was Ingram Cecil Connor III, but that and the rest of his life changed when his father, a country music musician, killed himself when the boy was 13. (Compounding the misery: On the day of the boy’s high-school graduation, his mother died of alcohol poisoning.) In the following year, his stepfather had the boy’s surname legally changed to his own, and the youth ran away from home to ply his trade as a folk musician.
That attempt to break away failed; he was too young. He was likewise unsuccessful at conformity: only a year at Harvard. But from now on, when Parsons failed at his work, he did so in ways more innovative and interesting than anyone else was doing.
Still only 20 years old, he founded what is often considered the first country-rock group, the International Subway Band. A year later, he was jamming with the whimsically titled Flying Burrito Brothers when he made the acquaintance of Chris Hillman, bassist of The Byrds.
Over the years, the list of musicians influenced by Parsons was lengthy: The Eagles, Elvis Costello, Ryan Adams, Wilco, Lucinda Williams, Rodney Crowell, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, The Jayhawks, Marty Stuart, Black Crowes, The Lemonheads, Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, and Tom Petty. (Oh, yes—and, reminded now of the circumstances of his death, you’re sure to remember another group—U2—and perhaps its most successful CD: The Joshua Tree.) But three musicians especially benefited from direct contact with him:
*Chris Hillman. Parsons’ meeting with Hillman was catalytic. Oddly enough, he’d been hired to play jazz piano, as part of Roger McGuinn’s project to release an album that served as a virtual history of music. Parsons soon persuaded him and the rest of the group to junk that for a country-influenced LP, Sweetheart of the Radio. The wonder was not that it didn’t sell well, but that it was made at all, at a time when true believers in both rock ‘n’ roll and country found it impossible to think of any point of intersection between the two. Parsons’ decision to quit the band, just as it was about to fly for concerts in South Africa, came at an awkward time for the group, but it also presaged the rising concern of rock ‘n’ rollers with apartheid. Shortly thereafter, Hillman followed his friend to the Flying Burrito Brothers. (In the 70s, Hillman, in turn, would continue his own explorations in country rock as part of the Souther Hillman Furay Band.)
*Keith Richards. Parsons’ growing drug abuse led to his dismissal from the Flying Burrito Brothers. Getting wasted with Mick Jagger's songwriting partner didn’t do much for his health (not that Parsons was innocent in this regard: Richards remembered, “Gram could get better coke than the Mafia"),but it did much for Richards’ art and, in turn, the Rolling Stones’ work. Nearly four decades after his friend’s untimely death, in his autobiography Life, Richards recalled: “Gram taught me country music -- how it worked, the difference between the Bakersfield style and the Nashville style. He played it all on piano ... I learned the piano from Gram and started writing songs on it. Some of the seeds he planted in the country music area are still with me.” The flowering of those “seeds” are apparent in the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” “Dear Doctor,” “Country Honk,” “Dead Flowers” and “Faraway Eyes.”
*Emmylou Harris. She had only about a year to work with him, but that was enough to change her life forever. "I didn't get his music; I didn't quite get his singing either,” Harris recalled, in an interview with Fiona Sturges of the U.K.’s Independent. “I had always sung folk music and I saw country music as kind of hokey. So at first I just saw what we were doing as an opportunity to make some money singing on a record. But as we began singing these harmonies it seemed like we sounded good together and I began to appreciate what he was doing." He validated her talent, giving the single mother the courage to continue her work when the music industry seemed aligned against her.You can hear the piercing results of that collaboration in songs such as "Love Hurts."
The end for Parsons came predictably, as it did in that era for others that the Eagles called, in “James Dean,” “too fast to live, too young to die”: Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. The mix of morphine and tequila was insane, as if he yearned to be with his father and mother immediately.
Parsons’ stepfather planned to transport the body to New Orleans, the better to bolster his claim to Grams’ estate as the nearest male relative. Road show manager Phil Kaufman also recalled the pact he had made with Parsons that, in the event of death, he should take the body, transport it to Joshua Tree National Park, and burn it.That is what Kaufman now tried to do—intercepting the body at the airport, taking it out to the preserve, and setting the coffin alight.
Kaufman and an associate eventually turned themselves in and were fined $700. As for Parsons, his death was a real-life answer to the climactic cry of Meursault in Albert Camus’ The Stranger, that it was better to burn than disappear. His posthumous legend has only grown with each passing year.
(The image accompanying this post is a publicity portrait of Parsons for Reprise Records, 1972)