September 19

This Day in History

Automotive

Sep 19, 1973:

Death of country-rock pioneer leads inspires car crime

On September 19, 1973, 26-year-old musician Gram Parsons dies of "multiple drug use" (morphine and tequila) in a California motel room. His death inspired one of the more bizarre automobile-related crimes on record: Two of his friends stashed his body in a borrowed hearse and drove it into the middle of the Joshua Tree National Park, where they doused it with gasoline and set it on fire.

Parsons' music helped define the country-rock sound, and his records have influenced everyone from the Rolling Stones to Wilco. But like many musicians of his generation, Parsons struggled with drugs and alcohol. His childhood was unhappy: His father committed suicide when he was 12, and his mother died of alcohol poisoning on the day he graduated from high school. He dropped out of Harvard and moved to California, where he played with bands like the Byrds (on their seminal album Sweetheart of the Rodeo) and the Flying Burrito Brothers and released two celebrated solo albums with the then-unknown Emmylou Harris singing backup.

At a friend's funeral a few months before he died, Parsons made a drunken pact with his road manager Phil Kaufman: If anything should happen to one of them, the other would take his body to Joshua Tree and cremate it. And so, after Parsons' overdose, Kaufman and a roadie named Michael Martin met his coffin at the Los Angeles airport (for complicated reasons involving a disputed inheritance, his stepfather had arranged for it to be flown to Louisiana for a private funeral) in a borrowed hearse with broken windows and no license plates. (The hearse belonged to Martin's girlfriend, who used it to carry tents and other gear on camping trips.) They convinced the airport staff that the Parsons family had changed its mind about the flight, loaded the coffin into the car, and drove 200 miles to the Mojave Desert, stopping along the way to fill a five-gallon tin can with gasoline. They drove into Joshua Tree and dragged the coffin to the foot of the majestic Cap Rock, where they doused it with the gas and tossed on a match.

Kaufman and Martin were arrested, but since stealing bodies was not actually a crime in California, they were fined $300 each, plus $750 for the ruined coffin. (They raised the money by holding a "Kaper Koncert" starring Bobby Pickett & the Cryptkeepers, who played their hit "Monster Mash" over and over.) Parsons' remains are buried in New Orleans.

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