Some of the earliest and greatest marriages of country and rock preceded Gram Parsons’ untimely death at age 26. Parson’s “cosmic American music,” a progressive musical approach that made the folk-leaning Byrds and the bluesy Rolling Stones sound more country, was a precursor to Americana music. Billed as if it fell from outer space, Parson’s music blended his Waycross, Ga. upbringing with the influence of Laurel Canyon’s psychedelic and folk-rock sounds.
The events following Parson’s Sept. 19, 1973 passing are nearly as legendary as his rise to cult status, as a race to control his final resting place led to one of the most bizarre and infamous crimes in popular music history.
Parsons had stated in the presence of road manager Phil Kaufman and others that instead of a church funeral, he’d prefer having his ashes scattered at Joshua Tree National Park. Ben Fong-Torres, author of Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons, suggests that Parsons made this pact with friends at the funeral of fellow country-leaning Byrds alum Clarence White.
Parsons died in the area from a reported overdose, with his body discovered in room eight of the Joshua Tree Inn. Logistically speaking, following through with Parson’s wishes should have been simple enough.
Meanwhile, Parsons’ adopted father Bob planned a proper funeral in Louisiana. Rumors persist that the elder Parsons was concerned with state inheritance laws that favored the closest living male relative.
Kaufman and his assistant Michael Murphy’s solution to the Bob Parsons problem was simple. They needed to steal their friend’s body before it was flown from California to Louisiana. The thieves had a hearse at their disposal, so they drove it to Los Angeles International Airport. There they posed as mortuary workers, claiming the deceased’s family had changed funeral arrangements.
Kaufman and Martin then drove out to the Joshua Tree desert with the coffin and a can of gasoline. The park’s ban on fires proved to be the flaw in the near-perfect crime. Campers spotted the smoke and reported it to police.
Authorities later identified and arrested Kaufman and Martin. With no law on the books for stealing a dead body, the charge was misdemeanor theft of a casket.
On Nov. 5, a judge fined the pair $300 each and ordered them to pay the $750 cost of the damaged coffin. The court date, by chance, would have been Parsons’ 27th birthday.
To recoup costs, Kaufman staged the Gram Parsons Funeral Party. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers headlined the event, hosted at Kaufman’s house. Admission costs plus the sales of specially-printed Gram Parsons t-shirts and beer bottles re-labeled as “Gram Pilsner” raised $800, per Fong-Torres.
Parson’s partially-burned corpse eventually made it to Louisiana. Memorial Lawn Cemetery near New Orleans became Parson’s final resting place. There ended up being a memorial at Joshua Tree after all, although it’s not officially acknowledged by the park. It’s a concrete slab that reads “Safe at Home,” referencing a 1968 album by Parson’s International Submarine Band.
In the aftermath of all of this drama, Bob Parsons failed to claim his adopted son’s inheritance in court. Contrarily, the exploits of “Phil Coffin” became the stuff of legend.