To place Gram Parsons properly in the pantheon of musical pioneers would be an impossible task. This willowy, dreamy country boy is right up there with Elvis, The Beatles and Bob Dylan when it comes to his influence on the state of popular music. From the time he left behind his troubled, complicated, southern gothic family life in Waycross, Georgia, Gram was on a mission–still undefined, but forming quickly. He wasnineteen years old. Even though he had already recorded his seminal first album in New York City, the International Submarine Band’s, “Safe at Home,” it hadn’t created a ripple. Undeterred, Gram headed west.
It was 1968 in Hollywood, California when I first spotted the dashing, brazen newcomer. My all-girlgroupie group, The GTOs turned up at the Beatles “Yellow Submarine” premiere in full regalia, feathers, lace and sequins, but we were certainly outdone that night. We watched agog, as a tall, slim, tousle-haired fellow came gliding down the aisle clad in a sparkling red Gabardine cowboy suit covered in bright yellowrhinestone submarines. Gram Parsons had arrived and he made sure the trippy hipster crowd took notice.
At this point in my life, if I thought about country music at all, it was with disdain, as I pictured square geeks with buzz cuts, yodeling about trains and jail, but that was all about to change. The next time I saw this handsome stranger was at the Kaleidoscope Club when he walked onstage with my favorite band, The Byrds. It was quite a thrilling shock to see the mysterious beauty singing along with my local heroes. Their seminal countrified album, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” was still in the future, but already the sound had changed. My ears perked up; what was this?
Discovering a partner in musical rebellion, my longtime Byrd crush, Chris Hillman soon absconded with Gram to form the Flying Burrito Brothers, and along with my GTO galpal, Miss Mercy, I never missed a show. I wish I could say that there was a whole gang of Burrito fans who felt the same way, but quite often, the two twirling and spinning GTOs made up half the crowd.This band was doing something that hadn’t been done before: combining soul, country, rock and blues, which Gram soon entitled “Cosmic American Music.” TheBurritos seemed nonplussed by the lackluster response, and in fact, it seemed to fire Gram up even more. Alongwith their timely, charming originals, Gram tore into honky-tonk Buck Owens tunes and George Jones weepers, thoroughly enjoying merging the seemingly disparate musical styles, presenting them as entirely unique. Country fans were appalled that these long-haired, pot-smoking hippies dared to use pedal steel and cover Merle Haggard, and the rock fans were dumbfounded by the Porter Wagoner Nudie suits and unrepentant twang. They were creating a brand new musical genre, and their real fans joined the Burritos smack dab in the middle and never looked back.
As soon as Chris introduced me to Gram, we became fast and forever friends, and I treasured our time together like shimmering gold dust. He was a southern genteel gentleman to the hilt, opening doors for ladies, pulling out chairs, picking up tabs. He was thoughtful and generous, always saying sweet things in his laidback Waycross drawl. He smiled often and had the most exquisite hands. One night after playing piano for me, he held his hands out in front of him, marveling at his long, long fingers, “Sometimes I expect to see stitches around my wrists,“ he sighed. My new palentrusted me with his baby daughter, Polly, and I happily babysat her at Burrito Manor while he took her mama, Nancy, out on the town. The night the GTOs played our big show at the Shrine Auditorium, Chris and Gram came to see us backstage before our set, which thrilled us to the core. Gram gallantly drove us round and round in his T-Bird, offering us joint after joint; it’s a wonder we made it to the stage.
I am often asked to recall my favorite live show ever, and people are surprised when I swoonily tell them about a certain Burrito’s gig at the venerable Whisky a Go Go. I was standing close to the stage, leaning against the short metal fence that surrounded the dance floor, gazing up at Gram as he sang one of his favorite George Jones numbers. He had gone through a lot of loss in his short life, and could express the pain though music like nobody else. As people frolicked, gabbed and danced all around me, Gram was swept up in the sorrowful lyrics, lost in the heartache …”there must be a tow-own without memories, but not this one, ‘cause she once lived here…” He choked up, hardly able to get the words out, “I see her face in the cool of the evening, Ihear her voice in each breeze loud and clear…” As the tears ran down Gram’s face, no one seemed to notice, but I experienced the purest musical moment of my life.
I am so grateful that my friend Gram took the time to mentor me on the power of country music, enhancing my life, widening my musical scope and acceptance beyond measure. He spent an entire afternoon playing me song after song, album after album, making sure I was “getting it” – the passionate angst of George Jones,(“George is the king of broken hearts,” Gram said solemnly) the wit and sensuality of Waylon Jennings, the earthy realism of Merle Haggard, the wisdom of Willie Nelson. We sat on pillows in his shaded bedroomwhile he played certain songs over and over on his little portable record player, pointing out passages and lyrics as if they had been spoken by the Lord and written in red.
After the Burritos called it quits, Gram went on to make some of his most exquisite, ethereal music, getting better and better, going deeper and deeper, sharing his tender heart to all who would listen. He was such a young man, and had so much more to express. I know he didn’t want to leave when he did, but he got caught in that same sticky, precipitous web that took away so many of his peers, and suddenly, at twenty-six years old, he was gone.
He was not with us long enough, but Gram Parsons accomplished what he set out to do. A vast array of musicians have Gram to thank for loosening the invisible, yet powerful restraints that shackled the music he loved so dearly. He opened countless hearts with his expansive desire to shake, rattle and roll the status quo, and as I said in the beginning, his profound and continuing influence will always be impossible to measure. Gram was my friend and I miss him every day.
Pamela Des Barres