Perfect Sound Forever

Gram Parsons

Against Legacy
by Shane O'Connell
(February 2011)

December 2nd, 2007

The postman delivers a package to my Brooklyn apartment. A note reads: "Your sister went up to Bellingham last weekend and found some of your dad's old records. Thought you might want them. - Mom."

Most of the records I know, and have long since mined for the particular kind of nostalgia I have been obsessed with over the last four years. One LP stands out. Four men are pictured on the 12-inch sleeve wearing flamboyant suits embroidered with images of birds, flowers, and marijuana leaves. In late 1960s pink and blue font is written: The Flying Burrito Bros – The Gilded Palace Of Sin.

The needle drops on side one track one – a song called "Christine's Tune." A strange déjà vu seeps up, and then turns into a real memory: I'm 11 and my father and I are driving through fields – on our way to Tennessee for some reason. Two men sing "She's a devil in disguise" out of the car's tape deck. I look at my dad and the tiny houses that pass by and feel weightless.

November 5th, 1946

Ingram Cecil Connor III was born and never had to worry about money again. At least not about running out of it. Ingram's mother was a Snively, born to a family that made their money from the huge citrus groves they owned in Florida. The money was so old that none of the Snivelys could remember what it was like not to have it, or even what it was like to have to think about it.

Ingram's father called him "Gram" for short. His father was Cecil Conor, but everyone called him "Coon Dog." Gram adored his father and probably liked it that people called his dad by a nickname and called him by one too.

Coon Dog fought in World War II and came back a different man. The army said that people like him were shell shocked – mixed up and confused about what they had seen in war. When he came back, he went to work for his wife's family. This always made him feel strange. He felt useless, like less of a man because his family didn't rely on him to pay the bills. His wife was distant - she spent her energy planning her famous dinner parties that all of Waycross's important people liked going to, seemingly uninterested in her husband's life. And Cecil was not deaf to the rumors that his wife had other men to share beds with. So he drank hard, and his moods swung wildly. But he was a good father, and he tried hard at it, and he loved Gram and little Avis deeply.

December 23rd, 1959

Gram's mother sat him and his little sister down and told them that their father was dead. The day before, Cecil had stayed in Georgia as Gram, his mother, and his sister left for Christmas at the Snively's. The next day he was found with a bullet hole in his head. They told Gram and Avis it was an accident.

Gram was confused. He didn't understand how his mother could take the news so lightly. She seemed unfazed, unwilling to mourn – she even went through with the Christmas party she had planned, acting as if nothing had happened. Gram had no one to worry about him, so he stayed in his room kept to himself.

After Coon Dog shot himself, Gram obsessed over his father's memory. He ran the last moment they saw each other in his head over and over, looking for clues in his father's demeanor of what he was planning to do. He took other memories and reshaped them, like the one of his father picking a guitar and singing old-sounding songs. Gram compiled all the memories of his father similar to this one, and created a new reality in his mind. One where Coon Dog was meant to be a great country singer, but was stifled, and beat down by the Snively family, leading to him to fail at music, and fail at life. So Gram got serious about his own singing, and decided that he would become the star his father was supposed to be.

It wasn't long before Gram's mother remarried. She met a man called Bob Parsons who was charming and sleazy, but he was rich himself so the Snively money could never make him feel small. Bob adopted little Avis and Gram and tried to make them think of him as a father by buying them things. Gram would tell stories to his friends at school about going to the toy store and nearly clearing the place out with Bob's help.

But by now, Gram was 13, and was not interested in what kinds of toys Bob's money could buy him – he was in love with rock and roll. He went to see Elvis Presley when he came to town, and the experience opened something up inside of Gram. He loved the way Elvis looked on stage, the way he moved, how he made a spectacle out of the music, and how he hypnotized all of the girls. After seeing Elvis Gram would have his friends over to put on concerts on his front porch where they would hold their instruments and mime along with the Elvis records playing behind them. Gram would be upfront, and he'd play the part of Elvis, mimicking Presley's moves, and imagining a crowd watching him that would one day actually be there.

In the beginning, Gram hated country music. He formed a rock group with the coolest kids he could find in Winter Haven, and would scold his bandmates mercilessly when one of them would propose covering a country song. Gram liked the Ventures, so that's what they played. They called themselves the Legends and played every high-school dance in town. When school was out and there were no dances to play, Bob Parsons bought a nightclub so Gram would have a place to put on concerts. Gram loved being on stage, and like Elvis "loved the image of being the guitarist/singer," according to Jim Carlton, one of the other Legends. He stood on stage copying the moves of his favorite rock stars, playing the brand new Fender Stratocaster with the gold plated pick guard his mother bought for him. Girls fell instantly in love with Gram – they were mesmerized by his charisma, and especially that shiny guitar that if they got close enough to, they could see their own reflection in the gold.

By the early 1960's, Gram's life was more than halfway over. As he made his way through high school his infatuation with rock and roll began to erode. Folk music became the object of Gram's obsession, so he formed a group called the Shilos and bought all of Bob Dylan's records.

The Shilos became a big deal in Winterhaven. They were playing nearly every weekend and they had a real manager too. Their manager, Buddy Freeman, knew that the boys would have to branch out from Florida to be successful, so they visited New York City, and tried to make themselves known to the folkies in Greenwich Village.

Buddy was never interested in the Shilos all that much; he thought Gram should go solo, so when they went to New York City, Gram brought his mother instead of the band. Gram and Buddy convinced Gram's mother that to be a successful folk star, he needed a new guitar--the golden Stratocaster would not do--so she bought him two: a brand new Martin and a Goya 12-string. In New York, Gram played his new guitars in a few clubs, and went to the parties that all of the folkies went to.

In New York, Buddy got news from the Ed Sullivan show that they wanted the Shilos to come on TV to play. Buddy decided that the group was not ready for national television exposure, so he declined the offer on the band's behalf without talking to the boys. Gram was crushed. He would go on to see this moment as one in a long string of events that piled up against him to obstruct his path to stardom.

June 1965

On the day Gram graduated from high school, big Avis, as Gram's mother was called, died. Her years spent drinking heavily at the endless parade of social gatherings did her in. Avis developed cirrhosis of the liver frighteningly early on in her life. She was told to give up alcohol, but her weak attempts to quit were undermined by Bob Parsons, who would sneak tiny bottles of booze to Avis even as she lay in her hospital bed. Avis died when she was 38. Bob Parson got her money, and the babysitter he had been cheating on her with.

Gram was straight-faced and stoic in the wake of his mother's death, but the weight of his grief and disappointment pulled down hard. His father's suicide, the missed opportunities in his musical career, and the slow and ugly decline of his mother accelerated by his callous stepfather felt like a terrible burden. He began to refer to his life up to that point as "the failure of childhood." So Gram quit the Shilos and left Florida to study God at Harvard. Gram claimed that he got into Harvard's divinity school on the strength of a single essay he wrote on God, but others knew (and in the back of his mind he probably did too) that the Snivelys' money had something to do with it.

On campus Gram felt mostly out of place. He was one of the rare Southerners on a campus full of rich Yankees. He found a father figure in one of his professors; Reverend James Ellison Thomas, whose nickname was Jet. Gram liked that Jet was also from the South. He would come over to Jet's house high on LSD to talk about God for hours. Other times, he would show up unannounced with his guitar and sit with Jet singing southern Baptist hymns from back home.

Only a few months into his career at Harvard, Gram lost interest. His fantasies of discovering the nature of the universe through the use of LSD under the guidance of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert didn't materialize, so he left the university before the end of his second semester.

For a while, Gram bounced around the Cambridge music scene not really knowing what he wanted to do next. Folk music had peaked and was in a quick decline – the idea creating a group in the same vein as the Shilos was unappealing. Gram's Southern accent stuck out in Cambridge. He had access to a kind of authenticity that his peers did not, so when he went to see Merle Haggard play in 1966, he lost his disdain for country music.

Gram formed a band with his friend John Nuese, and they called themselves the International Submarine Band. With his bottomless trust fund Gram bought a house in New York City, and relocated the group. The work that Gram and ISB did during this time is thought by some to be groundbreaking. They were inventing country-rock music, but Gram, who suffered from a severe lack of patience and an inability to see any task through, became irritated by the band's lack of immediate success.

Gram's friend, the actor Brandon DeWilde, convinced him to move the band to Los Angeles with the promise that ISB was better suited for the scene there and could find their success in the movies. Through DeWilde, Gram met Peter Fonda. Fonda got the band a cameo in his movie The Trip, but the appearance failed to yield the fame that Gram was looking for. It was no matter though, because Gram had already met Chris Hillman.

The Byrds were a folk band, but unlike their contemporaries, they were not interested in purveying politics. David Crosby was, however, very interested in doing just that. When the band's success inflated, so did Crosby's ego. At shows, Crosby began to rant about the John F. Kennedy's assassination and the benefits of LSD. Hillman saw no room for Crosby in the band any longer, and Crosby was forced out of the Byrds.

Gram was asked to join the group. His influence on their sound was immediate. With Hillman's help, Gram turned the Byrds into a country-rock band. But there were problems early on in Gram's time with the band. He was still under contract from his days in the International Submarine Band and was not allowed to sing on any of the Byrds' records. Gram was too big of a star in his own head to back up anyone else, so he left the Byrds.

Soon Gram and Hillman formed the Flying Burrito Brothers and recorded the best country-rock album of the 1960s – The Gilded Palace Of Sin. Chris and Gram sang together on nearly every song, harmonizing seamlessly, each secluded to their own speaker on the record – Gram on the left and Chris on the right. Gram was one half of a lead singer – a position his ego would not let him occupy for long. But Gram enjoyed the Burritos' modest success, and he liked that he now had lots of famous friends – people like Keith Richards – so he stayed on with the band for a while.

Less than two hours outside of L.A. is Joshua Tree. It's miles of strange desert with piles of rocks that look like they were deposited from space. The park and the town get their name from the bizarre human-looking trees that resemble Joshua reaching towards heaven - towards God.

Around the time Gram was playing with the Burritos, he started making trips out to Joshua Tree. Gram would go out there for long stretches of time, always staying at the Joshua Tree Inn, room eight. Some nights he'd go out to the local bars and sing unannounced, making like he was a regular person – a Joshua Tree native, someone without an endless trust fund. Other nights he'd go out to the desert to drop acid and lay on his back looking for UFOs, or God, and think about how small he was, and wonder if he'd see his father again.

September 19th, 1973

Gram had long quit the Flying Burrito Brothers, and just finished his solo record. He was finally going to be the country star that Coon Dog was supposed to be. But it never happened for him. Gram died in room number eight at the Joshua Tree Inn.

The strange events that followed Gram's death have nearly eclipsed anything Gram accomplished in his life. No feature film will be made about Gram Parsons the country star, but the theft of his dead body, and the gasoline burning of his corpse at the hands of his closest friends has already produced a B movie.

June 23rd, 2003

Some days have greater weight than others. They can redirect a person's life – create strange obsessions that determine odd trajectories.

Two days after deciding that he didn't want to live another day, my father was found in his home in Bellingham Washington. In the years that followed, I have been consumed with dredging old memories – the last time I saw my dad; he acts strange; now I realize too late that he knew it would be the last time he would see me. The music I listen to and the music I play changed too: my bandmates become sick of me purposing we cover Parsons's songs. Nearly every decision I make is in some way influenced by that loss.

Some events are so immense that they shade a person's whole life. The things Gram Parsons experienced early on changed the way he saw the world. What happened after he died changed the way we see him. Legacy is something he struggled against, and will continue to be haunted by even in death. He could not divorce the pleasant memories of his father's life from the failures of his death, so he tried to right those failures by making himself into the county singer Cecil Conor was supposed to be. But going up against legacy is always futile; once you're dead, no one is left to make sure you're remembered fairly. The memory of Coon Dog will always be skewed by the thought of him lying there on that floor with a bullet hole in his head. And my father's too-- him swinging alone in the basement. And so will Gram's legacy be clouded – he forever wedded to the image of his corpse mutilated by a fire that burned brighter than his country star ever did.

Also see our previous, multi-part Gram Parsons tribute at PSF

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