First spotted at the premiere of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, Gram Parsons – the new Byrd, then Flying Burrito Brother and later, solo artist – made an instant lifelong impression
You know how potent that often unexpected moments in our lives stand out like an eternal photograph? Or how they’re like a slow-mo video that you can replay in your mind whenever you want to live it all over again? The first time I laid eyes on the divinely fine Gram Parsons plays on repeat—in blazing Technicolor with swirling confetti and multi-colored glitter—floating through my precious memory banks.
My loopy all-girl group, the GTOs were invited to attend the premiere of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine and, of course, the seven of us were determined to steal the show, stir things up, make a scene and cause our usual vivid ruckus. We arrived in Sparkie’s ’49 Hudson Hornet, painted yellow for the occasion, complete with portholes, and wound up on the local news tumbling out of the massive tub of a car, swaddled in our most outrageous ensembles, as the flashbulbs popped in our painted-up eyes.
Along with my wildest partner-in-rhyme, Miss Mercy, we swept up and down the aisles, looking for kicks, stopping simultaneously in our platformed (in her case, booted) tracks as we spotted a slim, dreamy cat decked out in a red cowboy suit emblazoned with rhinestone-rimmed yellow submarines. He stood by himself, surveying his surroundings, shimmering up the joint, creating rainbows on the walls as we zeroed in on him. After we sashayed over and introduced ourselves, he held out his long-fingered hand to us.
“I’m Gram Parsons,” he said softly in his cracking Southern drawl, “from Waycross, Georgia.”
Welcome to town, delicious stranger.
It was Spring of ’68, and I had been an obsessed Byrds fan from the get-go, standing below Chris Hillman as he solemnly plucked his bass at the Whisky, Troubadour, love-ins, and various places around Hollywood, making tempting goo-goo eyes at him if his glance happened to settle upon me. We’d had several interactions since I’d knocked on the backstage door at Ciro’s in ’66, when Jim McGuinn handed me a joint and invited me inside to join them. Hey, you have to seize every moment you’re in, right? But like our good ol’ ex-prez, I didn’t inhale that night. Instead, I passed the reefer between the band members, trying to maintain my unstoned, teenage cool.
There was talk around town (that’s how we found things out waaaay back then!) that the Byrds had a new member and he was none other than the sparkling fellow we’d encountered at the Yellow Submarine premiere. I remember sitting cross-legged, close to the front (always) at the Kaleidoscope Club when Gram Parsons loped across the stage along with the rest of the Byrds and changed music forever. What the heck was this?
I know now, of course, that the band was already working on the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, much of which they played that night, blowing the minds of their fans who’d never heard country music before. Actually it was a combo of country, rock, R&B, gospel and soul, which Gram would later call “Cosmic American Music.” Schmoozing the fans after the gig, the genteel Southern gentleman remembered me from the theater that Beatle night and hinted about a change a comin.’ (In those days, band members often commingled with the audience. Amazing, eh?)
I had never even considered country music, looking down on the crew-cuts and goofy spangled suits worn by George Jones and Porter Waggoner, turning up my Zeppelin-honed nose at such cornpone country bumpkins. I would soon discover an expansive new musical universe, thanks to Gram’s devotion to those brilliant men mentioned above, and his insistence that I get with it already. Sheesh.
Before the Byrds, Chris Hillman had fronted a bluegrass combo deftly called The Hillmen, so when Gram suggested they join like-minded forces and start a new band, they flew the Byrd coop together. Haha! They were soon scooped up by A&M and began recording across the street from a Burrito stand, which is where they came up with their oddball name – The Flying Burrito Brothers. During my I’m with the Band Rock Tours, we stop the van where that long-ago decision took place and I regale my passengers with loads of Burritos lore, insisting they listen to them, just the way Gram made sure I was countrified. It still surprises me when my riders have never heard of Gram or the Burritos. Get with it already. Sheesh.
Mercy and I became immediate audience members when the Burritos began playing the clubs around town, sometimes dancing across the Palomino floor, just the two of us, while much of their early audience sat stupefied, jaws dropped, as the longhaired hippie-types launched into such country classics as “Six Days on the Road” and “Dark End of the Street”.
“Dark End of the Street” from the Gilded Palace of Sin album:
Gram had taken the band to Nudie the Rodeo Tailor in North Hollywood, and they’d each designed their own western suits. Gram had to wrangle with Nudie about the marijuana plants, naked ladies, acid cubes and downers that decorated his white bellbottomed number, but he ultimately won the fracas, proudly sporting the gigantic red cross on the back of his fitted jacket.
Although I was wild about Hillman, he often took very little notice of me, so when Gram suggested we go out on the town, I thought “Why the heck not?” He picked me up at my very first Hollywood apartment in his white T-Bird and we went sailing off into the night. How I wish I remembered where he took me on our only two dates, but my diary from that time was stolen by a klepto married to one of the Beach Boys, and Gram’s marijuana was of the highest quality. (I was no longer a pot-virgin, having taken my first toke when I realized Bryan MacLean from Love just wanted to be ‘friends’). I do have some letters Cynthia Plaster-Caster saved from those heady days, so I know Gram definitely took me out. I do recall one dinner at a brightly lit soul food joint in Venice, so close to the waves, we could hear them crashing.
It soon became clear to me that not only did Gram have a lady-love sequestered in Santa Barbara, but a baby daughter too, and I honed back in on Hillman, hoping that he’d at last, give me a tumble, which he eventually did — an on-again-off-again romance that ping-ponged for decades.
Another slo-mo recollection is the first time Mercy and me were invited to the ranch house in Reseda to visit Chris and Gram at their latest digs. We hitchhiked over the hill and wandered up the wagon-wheel enclosed driveway, finding Gram leaning against the doorframe, waiting for us, lithe and lean, shaggy-haired and grinning. He handed us a joint and sat us down on a pile of pillows in his bedroom, handed us each a few record albums to peruse, and told us to sit and listen. To say that my life was forever enhanced, expanded and exalted that day, just doesn’t cut it, dolls. I owe Gram such an exquisite debt of gratitude for opening my ears, heart and soul to the majesty of real country music. Gram’s influence affected Mercy in the same way.
As each album by Merle Haggard, George Jones and Waylon Jennings played, we studied the covers featuring obvious manly MEN, despite their gaudy ensembles and slicked ‘do’s. Waylon had an Elvis quiff, black leather wristbands and a look in his squinted eyes that could melt steel beams. I was mightily intrigued, but that’s another story entirely. Gram’s favorite seemed to be George Jones and, choked up, he told us very solemnly that George was, ‘The King of Broken Hearts.’ When “She Once Lived Here” and “She Thinks I Still Care” played, Gram was so emotionally moved by the plaintive grief pouring from his little turntable, that tears trickled down his angular cheeks.
George Jones singing “She Thinks I Still Care” on the Johnny Cash Show, followed by the “Love Bug”:
We were all caught up in the depth of such angst, especially Gram who looked into my eyes to make sure I was getting it. I was. I did. I still do.
I am often asked who was my favorite band and what was my favorite live music experience. Being onstage with The Jimi Hendrix Experience at the Hollywood Bowl was a close second, but people are usually surprised to find out that The Flying Burrito Brothers is the answer to both questions. I have been aroused by certain musicians, entranced and excited seeing them perform live, but the night Gram wept at the Whisky A Go Go takes the goshdarn freaking cake.
I was front and center as usual, and by this time the Burritos had gathered a fairly substantial crowd, chit-chatting, grooving, spinning around the dance floor while I just stood still, gazing, waiting for a George Jones song. Aaaahhh. When the band got to the bridge of “She Once Lived Here” – “I see her face –in the cool- of the evening/ I hear her voice – in each breeze loud and clear…” sure enough, Gram began to weep, his voice cracking throughout the sad story of lost love, his heart breaking to the beat. He felt everything so deeply, and to me, that’s the purpose of any great art. To feel, to share human emotion, to remind us we’re all on this sweet, spinning stewpot of a planet together. This is another moment I relive when I question what-the-fuck-is-it-all-about? I close my eyes and I’m standing once again at my home away from home, the good ol’ Whisky A Go Go, while Gram’s tears trickle down his cheeks and my heart swells out of my body, floats above me and unites briefly with All-That-Is.
When “She Once Lived Here” and “She Thinks I Still Care” played, Gram was so emotionally moved by the plaintive grief pouring from his little turntable, that tears trickled down his angular cheeks.
The original release of “She Once Lived Here” by George Jones:
Although Gram was a sad-eyed country boy, he saw something in me and Miss Mercy besides our fantastical clown/gypsy get-ups and enjoyed having us around, inviting us to several recording sessions at A&M, just to hang out and vibe. It helped that we were also, truly, their biggest fans and voiced our appreciation vociferously. We sang in the chorus of “Little Hippie Boy”, on the Gilded Palace of Sin album, and later on, were the only two visitors at the dreamy “Wild Horses” sessions. Keith Richards, Gram’s dangerous beloved pal, had given the Burritos the song to record, even before the Stones’ version came out, and Gram considered it quite an honor, slaying the vocals while Leon Russell elegantly plunked the piano keys – with a couple of goofy GTOs as the only witnesses.
“Hippie Boy” off the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Gilded Palace of Sin album:
I rarely missed a Burritos gig, except when the GTOs had rehearsals for our upcoming Christmas extravaganza at the Shrine Auditorium, where we were opening for Alice Cooper and the Mothers of Invention. The entire event was a thrill, but when the curtains parted and I saw that Chris and Gram had come backstage to see ME, sparks danced around me like joyous fireflies. Before we went on, however, Gram drove us round and round the Shrine in his T-bird, sharing his absurdly strong pot, and somehow I got through the set without screwing up my wackadoodle lyrics. I had to tell Rodney Bingenheimer, dressed up as Santa, my three Christmas wishes — the last of which was, “I want to fly with the Burrito Brothers!” A wish that had already come true.
Gram and Chris also came to visit us, way out in Glendale when we were recording our album, Permanent Damage, with our mentor, Frank Zappa, at the helm. When Gram politely asked Mr. Z if they could offer their services, Mercy and I were devastated when Frank said “No thank you.” What? Gram even offered to play tambourine, to no avail. But he later discovered a baby grand piano tucked away in a small studio and, during a break, he played song after song for us. We sat astounded, and speechless, caught up in Gram’s trance-like reverie, knowing how rare and hallowed this experience would always be for us. As he got up from the piano, he held his sublime, long-fingered hands out in front of him, marveling, “I don’t know where these hands came from. Sometimes I expect to see stitches around my wrists.”
His daddy shot himself when Gram was only twelve, and his mama later drank herself to death, and even though he never spoke about his wealthy, weeping willow childhood, his grievous history had a hidden, unbidden hold on him. Every spring, he’d trek down South to pick up his annual inheritance, about $300,000, which was all gone by the following spring. Besides the hot new T-Bird, and increasing plethora of drugs this bundle of dough bought him, he and Chris were able to move from the valley into a spectacular spread, high up in Nichols Canyon.
I needed a Burritos site where I could bring my Rock Tour fans, and couldn’t remember how to get to that house I called ‘Burrito Manor,’ but while thumbing through my old diaries, I came across a note Gram had given me at a gig one night, along with his new phone number and a hand-drawn map. Oh joy! I followed Gram’s directions to their Nichols Canyon pad and, thank heavens, I had several GP fans in the van that day who gazed at Gram’s scrawled map like it just might be the holy rockin’ grail. I had written a song called “Brick Pillars” about the house, and they still stand sentry at the driveway. Needless to say, memories of all sorts tumbled inside me like diamond shards.
When I moved from my family home into my own Hollywood apartment, one of my first calls was from Gram, inviting me to the new Burrito pad to meet Miss Nancy, visiting from Santa Barbara with his baby daughter, Polly. She was a perfect cross between Gram and beautiful Nancy, with her wide bright blue eyes and his captivating, light-up-grin. I adored her instantly and it seemed she was entranced with me too.
Keith Richards, Gram’s dangerous beloved pal, had given the Burritos the song to record, even before the Stones’ version came out, and Gram considered it quite an honor, slaying the vocals while Leon Russell elegantly plunked the piano keys – with a couple of goofy GTOs as the only witnesses.
I became a regular visitor at Burrito Manor, sometimes babysitting my adorable babydoll, Polly, and occasionally dallying with Chris. I cooked my first fried chicken in their kitchen, peeking into the dining room at the boys playing poker and snorting cocaine. It wasn’t offered to me then, and I didn’t mind. It was rainy that winter, and I’d lie in front of the blazing fireplace on a soft fur rug, cooing to Polly, feeling perfectly blessed, at home, and wrapped in Burrito love. I also began spending weekends with Nancy and Polly in Santa Barbara, which was where I made my first cowboy shirt for Chris, to show my adoration with embroidered stitches. He lost it in a poker game to their drummer, Michael Clarke, which shattered me.
When I made a purple one for Gram, with his initials in beads, he promised to treasure it, and he did. Years after his death, his widow, Gretchen, gave it to me, and told me that’s exactly what he’d said to her. I did see him wear it once, onstage, with the sleeves rolled up. His fingers were long, and so were his arms. There’s a little hole in the front, where I’m sure one of his constant reefer cigs burned through the fabric. I’m leaving it to my goddaughter, Polly, who will most likely leave it to my great goddaughter, Harper Lee, who knows all about her troubled, esteemed granddaddy.
I was at the train station when the Burritos took off for their U.S. tour, which proved to be disastrous due to the amount of cocaine on board. I was awoken many nights by Gram, calling from the road, singing me songs and telling me road tales. He often sounded disoriented and sorrowful. I was worried for him, even more so when he crashed his motorcycle and wound up in the hospital. Mercy went with me to visit him, and we tried not to show our horror upon seeing him swaddled and bruised, his lovely face a gigantic battered balloon. My beloved Gram was still devoted to his music, but his lifestyle was starting to take him away.
There’s so much more I shared with Gram. When he saw Mick Jagger approach me on the dance floor as the Burritos played the Corral Club in Topanga, he said into the microphone, “Watch out for Miss Pamela. She’s a beauty but she’s tender-hearted,” making me feel protected and cherished. I was at Altamont with the Stones after the nightmarish murderous afternoon. The Burritos had played too, and in the hotel room afterward, I remember Gram and Keith sitting across from me on the floor, wearing each others’ clothes, leaning on each other, seemingly transforming into one another — but somehow Gram is gone and Keith is still very much alive.
The Burritos fell apart, and Gram went out on his own, and despite his gothic childhood and various spiraling addictions, managed to create some unimaginably beautiful music on his GP and Grievous Angel albums. The last time I saw him, he was on the phone at the Troubadour, trying to reach his dealer. He looked forlorn and weary, and as I recalled in I’m with the Band, his beautiful hands dangled beside him like “forgotten flowers.” I ached for him that night and I miss him terribly to this day. He died in a motel room in Joshua Tree, a place where he felt free and sane most of the time. Gram Parsons went too far that September day, and he’s been gone for almost forty-six years. But his music is wildly alive.
A few days after he died in room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn, I drove through the desert amidst all those crooked beseeching Joshua trees, and spent the night in the same room, offering love and light, safe passage to parts unknown, and promised to do all I possibly could to keep his Cosmic American Music alive. A promise I’ve kept. A promise I will continue to keep as long as I’m still here.
During my recent teaching trip in glorious New Orleans, my hostess and longtime friend, Cree McCree, suggested we visit Gram Parsons’ grave in nearby Metairie. I’d never made that particular pilgrimage because I know how Gram longed to escape his tangled sorrow-laden past and take his final rest in his beloved Joshua Tree desert. But many years have passed, I’m here, and the time has come.
Gram’s grave sits among hundreds of others, near a huge Last Supper plaque in the Garden of Memories Cemetery right off a main highway, — which feels like the Middle of Nowhere. But here is where his bones rest, and here I am, flooded with my own precious memories…”