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Gram Parsons' bright flame keeps burning

Philip Kaufman had made a promise to a friend, and on this September evening he planned to make good on it. So, he borrowed a broken-down hearse with no license plate, tossed in a case of beer and some liquor and drove to Los Angeles International Airport to steal the body of Gram Parsons.

The guys at the loading dock didn't like the look of the rusty old hearse. Kaufman, Parsons' road manager, affectionately known as "the road mangler," almost lost his nerve when a cop had to help push-start the wreck.

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But all that drama was behind them now, parked next to imposing Cap Rock in the desert quiet of Joshua Tree National Park.

He flipped open the lid of the casket and looked at his friend.

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Parsons, one of the first "hippie singers" to combine country and rock, went to Joshua Tree a lot. He'd smoke pot, look for UFOs and talk about music with his buddy Keith Richards. Other times he'd talk about wanting to fly above the desert like a bird.

Back on Earth that night, 30 years ago now, Kaufman touched his finger to Parsons' chest, then to the singer's nose, as if he could still trick him into looking down. He left a can of beer in the casket, doused the body with gasoline and lit a match.

The fireball was visible for miles.

"His ashes went straight up in the sky like a little dust devil," Kaufman remembers. "There was nothing left but bones and brass." That, and the legacy of a promising young singer that stretches from his Winter Haven, Fla., hometown to Waycross, Ga., Los Angeles and around the world.

Elvis Costello has performed his songs. Parsons' influence colors the music of acts ranging from Beck to Wilco. He discovered Emmylou Harris, who wrote one of her most poignant songs about him:

"You really got me this time," she sings in "Boulder to Birmingham," "and the hardest part is knowing I'll survive."

Survival was too much for Parsons, who died at age 26 on Sept. 19, 1973, in Room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn after a binge of drugs and alcohol. As the 30th anniversary of his death nears, there's a feature film, a BBC documentary and more tributes in the works.

He was born Ingram Cecil Connor III in Winter Haven, but before he finished high school a smooth-talking stepfather would make sure that a new last name -- Parsons -- was emblazoned on his birth certificate.

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Death and drinking stalked the family, undercutting the advantages of his mother's hefty inheritance as heir to the Snively citrus dynasty. It's tempting to imagine that those circumstances inspired Parsons' passion for the heartbreaking country songs he did with the International Submarine Band, the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Fallen Angels. His signature "Hickory Wind" is a nostalgic Southern ode that likely owes more to fanciful imagination than personal recollection.

In retrospect, no one who knew him is surprised that Gram Parsons died so young.

"He was almost destined, like Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, to come for a short period," Kaufman says. "They did their work, and they were taken away."

He was born to be a star.

Pamela Des Barres -- a now-famous groupie who recounted her exploits in the book I'm With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie -- remembers being mesmerized when Parsons strolled by in a bright-red gabardine stage suit emblazoned with glittery yellow submarines at the London premiere of the Beatles' animated film Yellow Submarine in 1968.

"He was incredibly good-looking," she remembers. "He could just melt you with his smile and his bedroom eyes. I just loved being around him."

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'Everything negative'

There's debate about whether Gram Parsons deserves credit for inventing country-rock.

Chris Hillman, his band-mate in the Byrds and later with the Burritos, says the Byrds had already started moving toward mixing rock attitude and steel guitars before Parsons came on board for Sweetheart of the Rodeo in 1968. Jon Corneal says he shared a demo of rock-flavored country music with Parsons that predated Sweetheart.

Parsons didn't like the term country-rock, preferring to call his sound "Cosmic American Music." The country-rock style encompassed classic R&B; and soul influences on songs such as a twangy cover of Aretha Franklin's "Do Right Woman." It was an idea Hillman calls "pure genius."

"That's the thing that works. He took these soulful R&B; ballads and did them country, and it worked. Gram got me more into that area of music, the old Delta blues, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson."

For Hillman, however, that gifted vision is overshadowed by destructive forces that eroded a promising career. After a magical collaboration yielded the Burritos' brilliant debut, The Gilded Palace of Sin, Parsons became enamored of the Rolling Stones.

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He hung with the band during sessions for Let It Bleed and is thought to have lent uncredited harmonies to "Sweet Virginia" on Exile on Main St. He was considered a possible replacement for Mick Taylor, but ultimately it was the band's lifestyle that made an irrevocable impact on Parsons.

"That brief time with the Byrds and into Burrito Brothers, I had a very focused, hard-working, disciplined kid, and the future was unlimited for him," Hillman says. "I lost him within a year to everything negative. It became comical in the Flying Burrito Brothers when he was hiring a limousine to take him to a club where the whole band was making $300 for the night."

Parsons kept temptation at bay long enough to launch a solo career, teaming for inspired duets with then-unknown folk singer Emmylou Harris, whom he and Hillman had discovered in 1971 in Washington.

Harris would repay the favor by devoting her career to keeping Parsons' memory alive. Texas singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, her first post-Parsons duet partner in the Hot Band, received death threats from Parsons fans at a show in Long Island, N.Y. Crowell says, "I didn't think it would really happen, but I was scared. The Gram Parsons lunatic fringe was pretty scary."

There's a unique talent and personality at the core of such devotion, Crowell says. "It is a spiritual path, the way Gram was upholding acts like the Louvin Brothers as well as writing his own songs. A spiritual element very much alive when he hooked up with Emmy. It did expand Emmylou into the roots of real country music, and from there to what rock and roll really is." A contemporary of Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt, Crowell also saw in Parsons a distinctive Southern style.

"Gram Parsons was the first kind of long-haired alternative artist that really was Southern in his veins. It resonated, and I think it was charismatic."

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When Parsons went to Joshua Tree for the last time, he had just finished tracks for a second solo album that he planned to call Sleepless Nights. He had kept his drug use under control for the recording sessions -- now he was ready to let off steam. Corneal, his off-and-on drummer over the years, was surprised at Parsons' bloated appearance when they bumped into each other in Los Angeles.

"He had put on so much weight, and he had been so thin before," Corneal says. "All of a sudden, he's pudgy with a double chin and a pretty big stomach. Basically, the alcohol had puffed him up."

Keeping buzzards at bay

Parsons had separated from his wife of two years, Gretchen, and was living in a cabin behind road mangler Kaufman's house in Van Nuys, Calif.

"Phil was busy running off some of the buzzards who were bringing things to him that would kill him eventually," Corneal says with slight weariness. "Apparently, he couldn't keep all the buzzards off."

When tequila and morphine took Gram Parsons' life, the buzzards scattered. Kaufman heard that Bob Parsons wanted to bring the body back to where he was living, in New Orleans, for burial, ostensibly because Louisiana state law would have entitled him to control of the singer's estate.

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Fueled by alcohol, Kaufman remembered how his friend had wanted his spirit set free at Joshua Tree, how he had promised Parsons not to let anyone bury him.

"I was drunk," he says now. "I always tell people that it took five of us to do it" -- friend Michael Martin, Jose Cuervo, Jack Daniels and a case of Mickey's Big Mouth beer.

Kaufman has recounted the tale in a book, Road Mangler Deluxe, and there is a feature film on the way about Parsons' fiery exit. Grand Theft Parsons stars MTV's Johnny Knoxville as Kaufman.

What was left of the body eventually was laid to rest at a low-end cemetery next to a busy highway in New Orleans.

For Chris Hillman, the Parsons story might be fodder for one of the heartbreaking country songs the singer so admired.

"If he had the focus and discipline, he would have turned into an unbelievable presence in the pop-music world. Here was a very gifted man, but a man who threw that gift away. God knows what he would have accomplished had he stayed alive."

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The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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