Gram Parsons - Fallen Angel
Not.a Starving Artist
Full movie on YouTube
September 19, 2023 will be the 50th anniversary of Gram Parson’s passing.
The usual “artist dying young” story involves someone who had it hard, somehow made it, and tragically was taken from us. That’s not the Gram Parsons story. He was a Trust Fund Baby who was fabulously talented, fabulously good-looking with enormous charisma, and who always got what he wanted.
(His signature song, “Hickory Wind”)
Gram Parsons almost personifies the word “legend.” Suddenly in L.A. in the late 60’s / early 70’s, country music was cool and the Flying Burrito Brothers burst on the scene. Of course, Bob Dylan had done his Nashville Skyline album already, so as usual, he was out in front. But long after the Eagles, Jackson Browne, the Byrds, Emmy Lou Harris, and almost everyone else had started doing country-rock, Gram Parsons was the name they all revered.
He grew up in a rich family in Winter Haven, Florida: the Snively’s, one of the original and biggest citrus growers in the world. Chris Hillman, original member of The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Gram’s friend, referred to his background as a classic Tennessee Williams play: riches, fights, rumors, alcoholism, and tragedy
Gram’s mother Avis was a Snively, and she married “Coondog Connor,” a World War Two hero, whose chief pleasures were hunting and fishing. Coondog was dispatched by the Snively’s to Waycross, Georgia to set up a factory to build the fruit boxes. Gram came with him.
In 1957, Elvis came to town and Gram actually got to meet him (because Gram was one of the richest people in town, probably)
This was it for Gram. People said he was a different kid afterwards. He wanted to be a rock star. Unlike with most teenagers who say this, people couldn’t see a reason why he wouldn’t be.
When Gram was 12, Coondog shot himself. A few days later, Bob Parsons came to visit (we’re given no idea why), and he fell in love with Gram’s mother Avis, and the two were married. The Snively’s didn’t like Bob because they thought he was just after her money, but Gram adored him, and the feeling was mutual. But Bob and Avis were both heavy drinkers, and Gram began hanging out with his friend Jim Carlton to get away. They formed a high school band together.
Carlton tells us that Gram knew what he wanted even then: he wanted to be famous. His parents actually bought him a club to perform in! How often do you hear that in a pop star’s biography?
He went to a prep school in Jacksonville, and his classmates said they all could tell he was going to be successful. He just exuded charisma.
When he graduated prep school, he got the news that his mother Avis had died of an alcohol-related disease. Rumors spread that Bob Parson had killed her. Talk about a Tennessee Williams play! We’ll return to this topic later.
Graham got away from all the drama and enrolled in Harvard. His advisor says that it was clear he didn’t really want to be there, and just wanted to pursue his real interest: music. His friend John Nuece turned him on to country music, especially Merle Haggard and Buck Owens.
He flunked every course because he never went to class, and was dismissed from the school. He and John moved to New York, where they founded the International Submarine Band
Their singles didn’t sell. Then Gram made a move that clearly shows the advantages of money, power, and good looks: he moved the band to LA and was introduced to the inner LA rock scene. He got invited to a party at David Crosby’s house, and stole Crosby’s girlfriend, eventually marrying her. He got the band a record deal (things were just so easy for him!) and produced an album, which also didn’t sell.
Chris Hillman, one of the original Byrds, tells how he met Gram in a line at the bank, had heard of him, and invited him to one of their rehearsals. Gram aced it and was invited to join the Byrds. He was instrumental in their 1968 country-ish album Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
The Byrds went to England where they became friends with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The Byrds were booked to play in South Africa, and when Keith told him about the harshness of apartheid, he said he wasn’t going. They went anyway and kicked him out of the band. Chris Hillman says he doesn’t believe Gram’s reasons were political; he thought he just wanted to keep hanging out with Keith. Keith is interviewed in this movie, and he says the two of them spent a lot of time listening to country music and talking about songwriting.
Back home, Gram reconciled with Hillman, and they formed The Flying Burrito Brothers. They made a hugely influential (but not huge selling) album, Gilded Palace of Sin
Their suits are worth a mention: they are Nudie suits, which, despite the name, has nothing to do with nudity. Nudy Cohn, born Nuta Kotlyarenko in Kyiv, became the tailor to the stars, and wearing one of his custom suits was de rigeur for country musicians
and thus, Gram had to have one. His featured marijuana leaves and other drug symbols, with a big cross on the back
You can get your own Nudie memorabilia. Nudie’s granddaughter has a website.
The band was not a hit as a live act. It was observed that they sounded like they never rehearsed (and they didn’t). They had a tour where they went by train, which was pretty much a disaster and was aborted early.
Gram’s background as a Trust Fund Baby showed through. He sometimes arrived at shows in a private limo, where the rest of the band came with all their equipment crammed into one car. He seemed to lose interest in the Burritos and began hanging out with The Rolling Stones as much as he could. The Burritos were an opening act at the infamous Altamont concert (sometimes called “the death of the 60’s”), where an audience member was stabbed to death during the Rolling Stones set. After the debacle, Gram left in the helicopter with the Stones, leaving his own band to fend for themselves.
Later he was fired from the Burritos for skipping rehearsals, showing up stoned for a gig five minutes before show time, and playing the wrong song in the middle of a different song. He hung out with the Stones at the Exile on Main Street sessions in the South of France, playing music with Keith all day, although he’s not featured on the album (except, possibly, in the background vocals on Sweet Virginia, as Keith tells us).
He’d become addicted to heroin, one of the occupational hazards of rock musicians back then. But he cleaned up, although he kept drinking. Somehow, he got a recording contract as a solo artist, and hired some of the best studio musicians in LA, including Elvis Presley’s band. Chris Hillman tells how he had to twist Gram’s arm to call a young singer named Emmy Lou Harris
who didn’t know who Gram was. He flew her out to LA to sing on his album. She’s interviewed here, where she says Gram was often too drunk to sing, but somehow the album GP got done
it was a moderate success. Emmy Lou says she took her $500 and bought a guitar with it, not being sure the album would even be released.
It was, though, and Gram invited her to go on tour with his new Fallen Angels band. She was taken aback by their lackadaisical attitude towards rehearsals, where they never worked up an entire song. At one point in the tour, they were fired from a show, since they couldn’t actually play any songs. Emmy Lou seems to have taken him and the band in hand and forced them to learn to play songs with a beginning, middle, solo, and end. She was exactly what he needed. At one magical moment at Liberty Hall in Philadelphia,
it all came together, and she says she realized then how great he could be. The two of them had an extremely close musical relationship, at least, enough to make Gram’s wife Gretchen feel uncomfortable.
After the tour, Gram and Gretchen went on a sailing expedition in the West Indies with Bob Parsons and Gram’s little sister. They fought constantly, possibly, in part, over those old family rumors that Bob had killed Gram’s mother in the hospital. His sister suspects that he might have brought her alcohol because she demanded it, and that was what killed her. At any rate, Gram and Gretchen left the boat, and according to his sister, he was never the same after that. Gram and Gretchen separated, and Gram’s old friend from Waycross, Margaret Fisher, flew out to be with him.
He made a second solo album, Grievous Angel, once again with the best studio musicians around. He was still drinking and using pills, and went out to Joshua Tree National Monument with Margaret and some friends to dry out once and for all. Instead, he crossed over the line one too many times, and died of a combination of alcohol and barbiturates.
What happened after that, unfortunately, is part of the legend. Phil Kaufman, who had served time with Charles Manson on Terminal Island and acted as his road manager, claimed that Gram had expressed a wish to not have a funeral like Clarence White, the guitarist with The Byrds (killed in an auto accident) had. He said that if anything ever happened to him, he wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered in Joshua Tree.
Bob Parsons tried to have Gram’s body flown back to New Orleans where he lived, supposedly to solidify his claim on the Snively money. Kaufman decided that Gram wouldn’t have wanted that, and actually stole the body out of LAX, convincing the attendant that it was going to be flown by private aircraft out of Van Nuys Airport. He and his friends drove the casket out to Joshua Tree, poured 35 gallons of gasoline on the body, and lit it.
Incredible. Kaufman was only fined for stealing a casket, there being no crime in the statute books for stealing a body, and he claims even now to have no remorse for his act. The pain he caused Gram’s family and friends doesn’t seem to bother him. What was left of Gram was flown back to Louisiana and given a traditional burial.
Personal notes: I was aware of Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers even back in the day, but I don’t think I ever heard him! As I said here, his albums never sold very well, but his influence was enormous. If you listen to his music now, you feel like you’ve heard it before, and that’s because you have: in all the people that he influenced.