Some of the earliest and greatest marriages of country music and rock preceded Gram Parsons' untimely death at age 26. The singer-songwriter and talented guitarist's "cosmic American music," was considered a progressive musical approach. It made the folk-leaning of The Byrds and the bluesy Rolling Stones sound more Nashville country, acting as a precursor to Americana music. Billed as if it fell from outer space, Parson's music blended his Waycross, Georgia upbringing with the influence of Laurel Canyon's psychedelic and folk-rock sounds.
Born in Florida, the "Return of the Grievous Angel" singer first developed a passion for music after seeing Elvis Presley perform as a child. He really started pursuing country music while attending Harvard when he formed his first band, The International Submarine Band. He was inspired after first listening to Merle Haggard. He joined The Byrds briefly in 1968 where he helped record their sixth album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo before going on to form The Flying Burrito Brothers with Chris Hillman, The Byrds' bassist. This group released hits like The Gilded Palace of Sin. This was around the time Parsons met rock & roll king Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, showing him country music and forming a friendship that would last until his death. He spent much of his time partying with Richards and the Stones making his music underperform, including the last Flying Burrito Brothers album, Burrito Deluxe. He even wanted to plan a tour in South Africa.
Right before his death, recorded GP with Reprise Records featuring several members of Elvis' TCB Band, led by lead guitarist James Burton. 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. It was unfortunate to lose such a talent after only 3 years as a solo artist. His last solo album released posthumously, Grievous Angel, with the help of friend and duet partner Emmylou Harris (their group Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels also released an album) lives on in country-rock history with incredible songs like "Love Hurts".
The "Honky Tonk Women" and "Brass Buttons" singer 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 in California 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. Today, you can still hear Parsons music live from his tribute band, New Soft Shoe.
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