Perfect Sound Forever

Gram Parsons

Burrito Brothers wardrobe

Stanley Booth interview
by Jason Gross
(July 2001)

PSF: Could you talk about the first time you heard about Gram?

Well, Gram wasn't born in Waycross. He was born in Winter Haven but his parents lived in Waycross, where I was born. He was four years younger than I. He was a contemporary of my friend's younger brother, Henry Clarke. Boykin, Henry's older brother, and I were in the same school around the late '50's.

Now, this is something that's important. Dan Penn had, from God knows where, a WWI recruiting poster, a picture of a black Doughboy with the words, "The colored man is no slacker."  If there were ever a racist environment, it was Waycross, Georgia. Gram -- a few of us -- stood in total opposition to that. He didn't know about the poster. But he knew what was in Dan Penn's heart. That was partly why he loved Dan's songs and recorded them. Young black people today -- my friend Latif Gaskins, for example -- hear Gram sing those songs and are amazed at his courage.

But I never even knew anything about Gram until I was in London in 1968. They had an acetate of the Byrds' record Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which didn't sound like any Byrds record I ever heard before but it sounded wonderful. They played it over and over in the (Stones') office. It was then that I probably heard about this boy named Gram Parsons. Then it was in the summer of 1969, probably before Brian (Jones) died, that the Burrito Brothers album came out. Everybody I knew loved that record. I remember played it for friends at my home in Memphis, like Charlie Freeman. Gram did "Dark End of the Street" and "Do Right Woman." Charlie said 'that's what the original demos of those songs sounded like' because those were supposed to be R&B hits, done by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, these wonderful redneck geniuses from Alabama.

PSF: What was it about that music that struck you?

They were just so off the wall. There was this great golden era of rhythm and blues music that derived from these white guys who were my age, from Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee. Young people are hearing these Aretha records and these Otis Redding records and they're thinking 'Wow, what great black music!' There was certainly a black element to it but it was not black music. That's what I try to tell people. It's not black music, it's not white music. It's American music. These guys were geniuses. I don't know anybody who would have not liked to have written "Dark End of the Street." 'That's where we always meet, hiding in the shadows where we don't belong, living in darkness to hide our wrong.' I mean, my God, what poetry! It's fantastic. It's got this Protestant sickness to it that is just very, very seductive.

And there was a structure (then). There was R&B, there was country, there was pop music. It was all segregated. Then suddenly, here's this guy wearing a nudie suit with marijuana and naked girls on the lapels, singing 'at the dark end of the street.' And he's also singing 'if you want to do right, all-night woman.' And he's singing so sincerely- he had no irony there. We all just had to love it because he was not making bones about how he was white, he was Southern, he was doing country music. And what was country music? It was something that everybody assumed was this real deep R&B. I mean, God that was heroic, it was tremendous! It was absolutely fantastic. Hey, you just had to respect it.

PSF: Didn't other people like Buck Owens and Ray Charles cross over the country line to incorporate other music into it before Gram did though?

Absolutely. I couldn't agree with you more. I think that it's bullshit to say that Gram created country-rock. Buck had already created it. Merle had some great records like that too. I think it's nonsense and it's stupid because Gram Parsons was great in his achievement. He didn't have to create something new. Hell, Bob Wills created it. Milton Brown created it. Cliff Bruner too. You can just go back and back. But that's critical bullshit that people think they have to perpetrate for some damn reason. I despise that sort of thing frankly.

PSF: When did you actually meet up with Gram?

I met Gram on October the 19th, 1969 when the backdoor opened at 14 Oriole Drive in Los Angeles (one of the Stones' houses there). I was sitting on the couch with Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman and Shirley (Watts' wife) and Astrid (Lindstrom, Wyman's girlfriend). These guys came in and among them were Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and then there was this guy between the two of them, slightly taller, tanned. He was just an incredibly gorgeous human being. I looked and I thought 'that guy looks familiar.' I'd seen him on television and I had reviewed the Burritos album for Rolling Stone. I realized 'that's Gram Parsons!' I had NO idea he was within a thousand miles of there.

I got up, shook hands with Gram and introduced myself. I was smoking some killer dope that the late Lee Baker had given me. We went out on the front porch of the house there. We sat there, smoked that joint and looked out there across America and became friends. We talked about Waycross, people we knew and it was a little bonding moment there. Keith came out and sat down with us and talked a little bit. He tried to take the joint away and I said 'Ah, ah, ah!' (laughs) 'Don't bogart the joint.'

Gram later told me, and I'm not saying this to pat myself on the back because it was nothing more than he deserved, that the only real thing that happened to the Burritos was that review (I did). He said that part about not feeling at home anywhere, 'that's really where I was at the time.' I can certainly understand that for a lot of reasons.

PSF: How would you describe his personality?

He was physically one of the handsomest people that you'd ever want to meet. He was just obviously someone who lived on an idealistic plane. He had such humor and such focus. That day, we were looking out at the hills and it seemed like you could see across America. He said something like 'There's America out there and there's television...' He was saying that there was a lot of bullshit and a lot of falsity. It was 1969 and the Mets had come from last place. He said 'And then the Mets come along and win the series.' (laughs) Hey, you had to love this guy!

At the same time, he had this really (this word is so overused) spiritual focus. But at the same time, he had his feet on the ground. A lot of people resented Gram because of his gifts and because he had money from home. Keith said he was the best gentleman he ever met. He was certainly a great gentleman and a great spirit and I'll tell you what, I still miss him to this day.

PSF: The first Burritos record didn't sell anything, right?

It sold forty copies, if that! None of his records ever sold very well. If he sold 4,000 records, I don't know about it.

PSF: Didn't he have a critical rep though?

No, he didn't. I was the only one writing about him. Nobody reviewed that record really and that was another amazing thing about it. Here was Mick Jagger and Keith Richards who were struggling at that time themselves even though they were the Rolling Stones... Allen Klein was still running things for them and stealing from them. But they were supposed to be a big deal. And here's this guy that NOBODY has ever heard of who just came in and suddenly turned Roger McGuinn's head around and around like the little girl in the Exorcist. He's got cooler clothes than they do. He's got better dope. He knows more about music than they know. He's got Keith Richards sitting at the piano singing Hank Williams songs like 'In Sooooouth Carolina...' and "Long Lonesome Whistle" ('They threw me off the Georgia Main/tied me to a ball and chain'). I was thinking 'my God, what is going on here?'

Mick was thinking the same thing. He was freaked because he thought he was Mick Jagger and here's this kid from Waycross... That was another bizarre thing. They had two Americans with them (except for Jo Bergman, who was working for them), hanging out. And they're both from Waycross, Georgia? Explain that. That is just too weird.

PSF: How would you describe Gram's relationship with the members of the Stones?

He was Keith's friend. Keith is a great lover of music and so was Gram. That was what we had in common. Charlie liked Gram an awful lot because Gram was a gentleman and Charlie's a gentleman and he appreciates good manners. Wyman, he had his own problems, he could care less. Mick Taylor was just... talk about a deer caught in the headlights. He was twenty years old! Suddenly, he's thrown in with these devil worshippers, just woo-hoo, man! Trying to tread water just to stay alive.

Gram, Keith and I were just basically staying up playing Dorothy Norwood, Magic Sam, Link Wray, Ernest Tubb, Miss Peaches, Dorothy Love Coates, Juke Boy Bonner and having a MARVELOUS time. Mick is all in a TIZZY because he's not in control. It was kind of weird, really. Everybody -- (Keith, Charlie, me) -- loved him except Mick Jagger. Mick had his little snobbisms, and what scared him about Gram was that Gram hadn't sold forty records in his life and here he was in the position of mentor, simply because of his superior knowledge. Gram had more ready money, better clothes, dope, and music -- Mick was uncomfortable around Gram. So were other people, underlings, but Gram proceeded as a gentle man and didn't have no truck with devilment.

Keith and I heard the Burritos live, and they were a tight, driving rock and roll country band. Gram was in his way a pure soul, pure and driven as the driven snow. When I met him, he looked like a green-eyed Palomino pony.

PSF: What kind of effect do you think Gram might have had on the Stones' music?

I don't think he really had a hell of a lot of effect on it. Keith was already into Jimmie Rodgers and all that stuff. People talk about "Wild Horses"... That had NOTHING whatsoever to do with Gram. Henry Ford said 'a lot of history is more or less bunk.' A lot of history is wishful thinking. They do a country-seeming song and people say 'oh, they were hanging out with Gram!' That's not true at all.

The Rolling Stones, as little as I like some of the stuff they've done lately, are brilliant, brilliant songwriters. They had everything they needed. They didn't need to steal anything from Gram. Gram knew that. It would have never occurred to him to suggest that they were depending on him for inspiration.

PSF: What about their effect on Gram's work? Anything there that you saw?

Well, he cut "Wild Horses" and had the first released version of that. We had been at Muscle Shoals and then we came out to do Altamont. We had "Brown Sugar" and "You Got to Move" (finished) and "Wild Horses." We were playing this thing over and over and over in the hotel room in Keith's suite. Gram was there and he heard it. They needed to do another Burrito's album and Gram said 'would you mind if I did "Wild Horses"'? Keith said 'It's fine with me. Mick what do you think?' Mick said 'OK, as long as you don't put it on a single.' So that's how it happened.

Gram loved the Stones, he loved Keith. He was a fan. Hell, how could you NOT be?

PSF: How did Gram figure into the Stones tour at that time?

We hung out with Gram in L.A. and he came up to San Francisco. We went to New York, Chicago, Miami, Vegas, Texas. But the Burritos played at Altamont. As I was carrying Charlie Watts across 300,000 limp hippie bodies, I could hear them (the Burritos) playing in the distance.

Gram and I started the 1969 Altamont tour squatting on our haunches smoking a joint on one mountain and ended it on another, under a tent backstage at Altamont, where Gram told me how much he'd appreciated what I'd written about The Gilded Palace of Sin, and asked me to write him a letter. I wrote a letter to Polly, his daughter, later.

Altamont certainly was a bizarre experience for us but it didn't have any effect on Gram particularly. If you see Gimme Shelter, you see Michelle Philips (Mamas and the Papas) and then Gram and then the last thing you see leaving on the helicopter is my Levi's. It was made to hold maybe 8 or 10 people. We had like 18 people on it. Gram, Michelle and I were standing back away from the blades. They managed to drag the three of us on there. They closed the door and they nearly crash landed because they were so overloaded. It was a hairy night, I'm telling you. We were mighty glad to be leaving there.

PSF: When was the next time you saw Gram?

I tried to get him over to England. I went over there. There was this guy named Michael Alfandari. He wanted to get the Burritos over to play some gigs in England. I remember calling Gram and talking to him about it. He was cutting the second Burritos album that had "Wild Horses" on it. He was telling me about "Farther Along," which he knew I liked. I remember talking to him but then I remember that Gram came over to France and stayed at Keith's house (there) for a while. I was not there. I was in Memphis getting into another kind of trouble, growing marijuana in my back yard and having the police kick my door down. That's the kind of thing that'll bring you down in a hurry.

I don't think I saw Gram again until the Stones came back around the summer of '72 and we were all up at Michael Butler's house (he produced Hair on Broadway). I think by then, Gram had that motorcycle accident because he looked bad. He had gained a lot of weight and he cut his hair. He didn't look like himself.

Then he was kind of getting it back together when he met Emmylou (Harris) and they were touring and he was working on those records for Warner Brothers. What happened was that he went down to New Orleans and ate a lot of that good food and cleaned up his system. Then he came back out to L.A. and got some of that serious L.A. dope. It was just a combination of things that did him in.

PSF: What did you think of the second Burrito's record?

It didn't have quite the same power I thought. There was a great feel of exhilaration about the first one. Gram talked about how cocky they were. They were a hell of a band. They were a fantastic band to go out and listen to and dance to. They were falling apart then. There was a lot of negativity by that time.

I can understand it. Gram was not really the best person to be in a band with because he didn't need the money and he was overdoing a lot of things. He offended people. You could see the cracks and it all falling apart. But there's some great stuff on the record.

PSF: Did you see the band he had with Emmylou?

I never saw them live. But I sure love some of the stuff they did. "Love Hurts." "We'll Sweep Out the Ashes." That's a classic, classic record.

PSF: What do you think changed in Gram's work when he did those two solo records?

I think maybe he was coming into his own as a writer a bit more. They're terrific albums. He was certainly trying to use the best, finest musicians like James Burton.

PSF: Were you surprised when you heard about Gram's death?

I was devastated. It seemed so wrong. It took me a long time to listen to that Sundazed collection (of early Gram demos). It just killed me. In those notes I wrote, I would see Gram in a dream. I'd say 'I heard you died.' It's very strange.

When my Stones book came out (The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, 1984), it died an almost instant death. Now there's this whole new generation that's come up and I hear from them from time to time. It's such a great satisfaction to know that there are young people around now who get it the way that people didn't get it during the Reagan-Thatcher era.

PSF: What do you think Gram's legacy is?

I think his contribution is his great songs and his beautiful voice and just his spirit. I mean, what's anybody's contribution? It's just the spirit that you capture and that you pass on. People are going to be listening to Gram Parsons as long as they're listening to Jimmie Rodgers or Hank Williams or any of the great American artists. He's up there in the pantheon and that's where he's going to stay.

PSF: Why do you think people are still fascinated by his life?

Some of the fascination... the reason for that eludes me and I think it's kind of sick. There are people that never knew Gram who are COMPLETELY obsessed by him. I think they need to get a life. That's different from appreciating him as an artist. I never met Jimmie Rodgers but I sure love his records and his music. I never knew Charlie Parker but I recognize genius when I hear it. These are great spirits and their spirits don't leave. That's the nice thing about it. They're here and we can draw on that strength. And there are a lot of people like the Black Crowes and Wilco and Son Volt... There's a lot of people who are drawing on Gram's strength. It's a great thing.

PSF: Do you think his legend has overshadowed his work?

Not really because only certain people are susceptible to that sort of thing. It's interesting... Kinky Friedman went on a Scandinavian tour in the last two or three years. He came back and said that the kids in Norway and Sweden, the two artists they wanted to know more about were Townes Van Zandt and Gram.

It has something to do with the romantic hero with a short life, leaving a beautiful corpse and a beautiful memory. But people wouldn't care if it weren't for the quality of the music. That's true of Townes and Gram both. They were great, great musicians. I think their music is strong enough to stand the test of time.

PSF: What do you think Gram is going to be remembered as?

I think he is remembered as a great voice and a great writer. When he was alive, people didn't recognize how great he was as a producer. He kept putting bands together and records that were more than the sum of their parts. I think people have come to recognize that about him. Basically, it's just Gram as a person and his personality still can be apprehended through the work that he left. I listened to that first Burrito Brothers record (now) and I enjoy it just as much. Some of the people like Gram may be gone now but I have these records of them. That's why they call them records! (laughs)

I think it was not meant to be that Gram died. I think it was just a terrible mistake. We're just lucky that he left the beautiful music he left.

PSF: Could you talk about the book you're working on about him?

I'm really looking forward to see what I do because I haven't been able to get much work out of myself lately. But I am working on it. I was over in Waycross talking to some of our friends a couple of days ago. It's a pleasure doing it because damn near everybody who knew Gram, loved him and recognized what a talented, polite, sensitive, gentle person he was. It's an amazing story. His father's death, his mother's death, the whole background of wealth that was beyond anything that most of us had any idea about. There's still some people around who can talk about that. I don't want to talk about it too much because there's other people writing books about Gram and I just wonder why.

I'm baffled by the people from Berkeley or Boston or God knows where who get obsessed with these Southern heroes they never knew, never saw in life and go off and write these monuments to incomprehension about him.

PSF: So your work is going to be different from the other books on Gram because you're from the same area?

I never really read any books about Gram. I did get Sid Griffin's book and there's some good stuff in there and interviews. I was really shocked when I finally came to read Ben Fong-Torres' book by how much of it I had written. I was even more shocked by the stuff that he put in there that he got from people that never knew Gram and simply repeated rumors that were so absurd that I can't even... I probably am not going to be able to bring myself to refer to them. Like they were having orgies in Cherokee Heights. I mean, come now. Look, Waycross in the 1950's, it's beyond ridiculous.

I have been around the block a time or two and I know that people would rather tell an interesting fantasy than a more humble and plebian truth. That's where a lot of this stuff comes from. Some of Gram's background... My God, his father spread out newspapers on the floor and blew his head off. Even though they put in the Waycross Journal Herald that it was an accidental death, EVERYBODY knows that ain't so.

This woman sent me this film script based on Gram's life. God, I could only tell her that this is the biggest pile of nonsense. She was horribly offended and I didn't mean to hurt her feelings. There's just been so much... nonsense written about Gram. The truth is sufficiently interesting. We don't need to inflate it.

But Gram was a very fascinating personality and he certainly suffered from that Hank Williams syndrome that he drank too much for his own good. He did more drugs than were good for him. It finally killed him. All this... darkness and this sinister quality, that was not Gram. Gram was the sweetest person you would ever meet. He was a very tender loving person who had been hurt terribly and yet he was not imposing his pain on anybody. He was a great, great gentleman and a joy to be around.

You know, I was asked to write this book. It was not my idea. I accepted the assignment because I really think he deserves to have somebody who really knew him and who cared about him and loved him tell his story. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. (laughs)

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