Hearts on Fire: The strange tale of Gram Parsons
Although his life and his music were warmly remembered, it was what happened after his untimely death that created one of the strangest tales in the tragic and some times comical history of rock and roll. Country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, a hired gun for The Byrds, a founding member of the Flying Burrito Brothers, solo artist and duet partner to Emmylou Harris, died of a lethal mixture of morphine and alcohol at the age of 26 at the Joshua Tree Inn in Joshua Tree, California. Although tragic, it set off a chain of events that has rarely been equaled in weird stories.
Parsons had set off for Joshua Tree on September 17th, 1973 in the company of friend Michael Martin, Martin's girlfriend Dale McElroy and an old friend from Parsons childhood, Margaret Fisher. The partying began before they arrived at the hotel and there has never been any indication that it ever slowed down throughout that day, that night or the following morning. At lunch, Parsons consumed a steady flow of Jack Daniels and following lunch, managed to find some heroin while in town. He topped off his party with some morphine that he managed to score from another person who was staying at the hotel that knew Gram.
Early in the evening of the 18th, Fisher, drunk herself, showed up at McElroy's door in a panic shouting that 'Gram's overdosed". McElroy and Fisher returned to find Parsons collapsed on the floor, his breathing shallow and his skin had turned blue. After using an old street remedy for an overdose, they had revived Parsons who was up and walking around his room. McElroy returned to his room. A few hours later, Fisher asked McElroy to sit with Parsons while she went out to eat. McElroy went to Parsons room where she sat and read while Gram slept. As the night wore on, it became evident that Parsons was having a tough time breathing. When McElroy checked on him, she realized he was in serious distress. Now in a panic, McElroy thought that there was no one left in the hotel at this point and never called for help. She had no training in CPR but she tried to revive the now collapsed Parsons by pounding on his chest and delivering mouth to mouth. After a half and hour, Fisher returned to the room and realized that Parsons was probably beyond help and called an ambulance.
Parsons was transported to the Hi-Desert Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 12:30 AM on September 19th, 1973.
Although there were serious questions surrounding his death and the poor choices made by both Fischer and McElroy, the local police bungled the initial investigations and allowed McElroy to call Phil Kaufman who happened to be the Road Manager for Gram Parsons as well as close personal friend of the singer. Kaufman made a beeline for Joshua Tree where he managed to get the women out of the area and back to L.A. before the police came for them again for additional questioning.
Kaufman then heard that Parsons step-father, Bob Parsons, was flying up from Lousiana to claim Grams body and have it returned to Lousiana for burial. Kaufman knew that the senior Parsons and Gram were not close and even that Gram had very little use for Bob Parsons and the two hadn't seen each other in several years. It was obvious to Kaufman that Bob Parsons was only trying to secure Grams body and return it to Lousiana so that he could lay claim to Gram's personal effects and cash through a strange loophole in Louisana law. It allowed for a will to be circumvented and all of their assets be transferred to the closest living relative IF the deceased could be shown to be a legal resident of Louisana and being buried there was a good place to start.
Add to that, Kaufman and Parsons had made pact years before that whoever was the first to die, the other was to take their body out into the desert and burn it.
With that, Kaufman made a few calls and found that Parsons body was being flown to LAX where it would be claimed by Bob Parsons and then flown back to Louisiana. Commandeering Michael Martin and a beaten old Hearse that Martina used for camping, Kaufman and his now drafted driver, headed to LAX. The hearse had no license plate and had several broken windows. On their way, they stopped for gas and loaded a jerry can with hi-test. Kaufman has said in past interviews that he "didn't want Gram to ping". Arriving at LAX, they drove to the mortuary service and 'convinced' the mortuary attendant that the family had changed their mind about sending the body back on a commercial flight and opted for a private jet and that they would move the body.
When Kaufman returned to the vehicle with the coffin, he found that a local police officer had pulled in between the hearse and the door. He was convinced that the gig was up and was prepared to try and explain himself to the officer. The officer, however, apologized for blocking the damaged hearse and even went as far as to help Kaufman load Gram Parsons body in the vehicle.
As they began to pull away, Mitchell drove clipped the side of the large hangar door. Again, Kaufman was waiting for the police officer who had just watched the accident. Instead of arresting them, he smiled at Martin and said "I wouldn't want to be in your shoes now" and proceeded to leave the hanger without saying anything about the incident.
With luck on their side, Martin and Kaufman continued towards the desert until too drunk to go any further, they stopped at Cap Rock, a geological landmark and unloaded the hearse. In his account of the incident, Kaufman downplayed the choice of Cap Rock for Gram's cremation. "Later on, people said that Cap Rock was Grams favorite place and Gram wanted to be buried near Cap Rock. The only reasons we stopped at Cap Rock were a) we were too drunk to go any further; and b) it was a large enough place to turn around and make our escape. That's the only significance of Cap Rock. It was a coincidence."
They drug the coffin out into the desert a short ways and were in the process of saying their good-byes to Gram when they saw lights off in the distance. Thinking it was the police, they quickly doused the coffin with gasoline and lit it on fire. After the fire had reduced the coffin to nothing but ash, the pair returned to the hearse and headed back to L.A.
Initially the papers reported that the body theft and burning had been 'ritualistic' in nature and threw a little more fuel to the oft attempted tie between Satanism and Rock and Roll.
Kaufman and Mitchell knew that the police were looking for them and a few days later, they turned themselves in to authorities. Appearing in Municipal Court on Grams birthday, November 5th, 1973, the two were essentially slapped on the wrist with a $300.00 dollar fine for each for stealing the coffin and a total of $708.00 for the damages to the coffin.
According to the law at that time, it was found that a corpse had no intrinsic value and no charges were leveled against the pair for the theft of Parsons body.
Bob Parsons did eventually secure a small amount of Gram Parsons ashes and had them buried at the Garden of Memories cemetery in New Orleans. However it did him little good. A judge in Florida ruled that Gram was a resident of Florida at the time of his death and awarded Bob Parsons nothing from Grams estate. He died a year later from complications from alcoholism.
If you listen to Gram's last album, 'Grievous Angel', released four months after his death, it's hard not to smile at the irony of one of the tracks titled 'Hearts On Fire'. I'd like to think that Gram is smiling about that too.