I was sitting in the car this morning, looking out at the storm as it came in from the sea. The ocean against the sky gave the impression of ink spilled across a charcoal-smudged page, and the rain blurred the horizon, making everything vague and indistinct.
Then Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris came on the radio singing “Love Hurts” from the 1973 album, Grievous Angel.
But as I sat there listening to Gram and Emmylou, I found that my cynical mood lost its grip on me just a little. I listened to the two of them sing and I was touched.
It's hard to deny the fact that the Nazareth version of the song was heavily-influenced by Gram and Emmylou's duet, which was released on Grievous Angel years earlier. And when I learned the story behind Emmylou and Gram’s rendition, I definitely felt like I might have to reconsider my devotion to Nazareth’s cover. Because a good story goes a long way with me.
And The Ballad of Gram and Emmylou is a doozie.
After all, their collaboration, while it ended tragically, resulted in an expression of creative artistic genius which transformed Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons into folk music legends.
Here's how the story goes:
There were three other people in the bar.
Gram’s wife, Gretchen, was with him that night, and was crazy-jealous of her husband’s intense and sudden infatuation with this new singer. Nonetheless, despite Gretchen’s protests, Gram signed Emmylou up with his band, The Fallen Angels, and off they went on tour.
But by the end of the tour, Gretchen’s jealousy of Emmylou had become a problem. Despite constant reassurances from Gram, Emmylou, and everyone else on the tour that the relationship was strictly platonic, Gretchen fought constantly with Gram over the “intensity” of his friendship with Emmylou. Gram’s road manager and close friend, Phil Kaufman - who Gretchen also disliked - finally had enough of all of the fighting and sent Gretchen home from the tour early.
(Um, Phil? Newsflash: That's not gonna help.)
“It was a relationship consummated by music. It wasn’t a physical consummation.” He goes on to speculate that if Gram hadn’t already been married, “something would have happened between them. If Gram had been with Emmylou, it would have saved his life. She didn’t have any of those bad habits. She might have leveled him off. They might be still married today, and have lived happily ever after.”
But Gram did not live happily ever after. He died of a drug overdose on September 19, 1973 at the Joshua Tree Inn, a motel that is adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park. Gram used to go to Joshua Tree, load up on drugs (coke, heroin, morphine, pot, peyote, alcohol, LSD, and probably lighter fluid), then wander around the desert looking for enlightenment and / or UFO’s. Keith Richards once said that Gram knew more about narcotics and country music than anyone he had ever met, and that Gram “could get better coke than the mafia.”
You heard me. Keith Richards said that.
Gram was twenty-six years old when he died.
It gets worse. Or better, depending on your perspective.
Gram’s estranged stepfather, who Gram hated, immediately concocted a plan to have Gram’s body shipped to New Orleans and interred in a family plot there - this so the stepfather could make a better claim to Gram’s estate. By the time of his death, Gram had separated from Gretchen, but they had not yet divorced. Gretchen supported the stepfather’s plans, and arrangements were made to fly Gram’s body to Louisiana.
Two months before his own death, Gram had attended the funeral of friend and fellow musician, Clarence White. At the funeral, Gram had been so distressed by the traditional Catholic ceremony that he refused to enter the church. Standing outside waiting for the procession to move to the graveyard, Gram tearfully made his friend, Phil Kaufman, swear an oath:
"Phil, if this happens to me, I don't want them doing this to me. You can take me out to the desert and burn me. I want to go out in a cloud of smoke."
So when it became clear that Gram’s final wishes would not be honored by his family, his friends did the only reasonable thing.
Phil Kaufman and one of Gram’s old roadies loaded up a borrowed hearse with Jack Daniels and kerosene, drove to LAX, intercepted and stole Gram’s corpse from the loading dock at Continental Airlines, drove the corpse out to Joshua Tree, got good and wasted, then lit Gram’s kerosene-soaked body on fire at the base of Cap Rock.
(Friends of Jen: You’re officially on notice. If I don’t get a Viking funeral like Gram’s, seriously, I will haunt you and your kin till none carrying your name linger any longer upon the face of this earth. Just sayin.)
But the story goes downhill from there. The charred 35 pounds that remained of Gram's body was claimed by his stepfather, who then had Gram interred in a New Orleans churchyard next to the airport, right alongside the freeway.
Poor Gram. And poor Emmylou. And poor Gretchen, while we're at it.
Gretchen never got over her suspicions concerning Gram and Emmylou. She vetoed Gram’s express wish to put Emmylou’s name and image next to his on the cover of Grievous Angel (the posthumously-released album in which “Love Hurts” appears), and she sent word to Emmylou that she would not be welcome at Gram’s memorial service in New Orleans. Oh, and she barred Emmylou from the church where Gram’s ashes were interred.
“I didn’t have any chance to grieve in the traditional way… I was left running away from my grief. I just got in my little car and drove all over America for months, looking for people who knew Gram who could comfort me, looking for any piece of that time I could hold onto… How could I not have seen it coming? He was so young, and such a strong presence, I couldn’t imagine he wasn’t gonna be there always.”
Whoa. Now that's a love story.
For today, for the storm, for sadness…
For the Ballad of Gram and Emmylou…
Love is like a cloud. Holds a lot of rain.