Oh, and as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in hell
Could break that Satan’s spell
And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died
Don McLean, American Pie
Once ensconced in the hills above
Parsons’ time with the Byrds was rather
four to five months, after which he was replaced by virtuoso guitarist
White, who had been part of the
Soon after leaving the Byrds, Parsons ran
Richie Furay, who was casting about for a new band after the breakup of
Also in 1969, late in the year, 23-year-old
hooked up with 16-year-old Gretchen Burrell. His new love interest was
daughter of high-profile news anchor Larry Burrell, who was very
At the tail end of 1969, Parsons and his
Burrito Brothers had the dubious distinction of playing as one of the
acts at the Rolling Stones’ infamous free show at
Parsons had first met up with the Stones when
In late summer of 1969, following the
murder of Brian Jones in July, the Stones were back in LA to complete
It Bleed album and prepare for yet another tour. According to Ben
Fong-Torres, writing in Hickory Wind, “Mick and Keith stayed at
Stills’s [sic] house near
The Angels had, of course, been hired by the Stones to ostensibly provide security. That decision is almost universally cast as an innocent mistake on the part of the band, though such a claim is difficult to believe. It was certainly no secret that the reactionary motorcycle clubs, formed by former military men, were openly hostile to hippies and anti-war activists; as early as 1965, they had brutally attacked peaceful anti-war demonstrators while police, who had courteously allowed the Angels to pass through their line, looked on. It was also known that the Angels were heavily involved in trafficking meth, a drug that was widely blamed for the ugliness that had descended over the Haight.
Perhaps less well known was that more than a
those biker gangs had uncomfortably close ties to Charlie Manson,
club known as the Straight Satans, one of whose members, Danny DeCarlo,
over the Family’s arsenal of weapons. At least one of the performers
The death that the concert at Altamont will always be remembered for, of course, is that of Meredith Hunter, the young man who was stabbed to death by members of the Hell’s Angels right in front of the stage while the band (in this case, the Rolling Stones) played on. The song they were playing, contrary to most accounts of the incident, was Sympathy for the Devil, as was initially reported in Rolling Stone magazine based on the accounts of several reporters on the scene and a review of the unedited film stock.
Most accounts claim that Hunter was killed
band performed Under My Thumb. All such claims are based on the
mainstream snuff film Gimme Shelter, in which the killing was
deliberately presented out of sequence. In the absence of any
filmic versions of Hunter’s death, the Maysles brothers’ film became
default official orthodoxy. Of course, someone went to great lengths to
that there would be only one available version of events; as Rolling
also reported, shortly after the concert, “One weird
Contrary to the impression created by Gimme
Shelter, Hunter was killed not long into the Stones’ set. But as
editor, Charlotte Zwerin, explained to Salon some thirty years
the climax of the movie always has to come at the end: “We’re talking
structure of a film. And what kind of concert film are you going to be
have after somebody has been murdered in front of the stage? Hanging
another hour would have been really wrong in terms of the film.” What
wrong, apparently, was deliberately altering the sequence of events in
ostensibly a documentary film.
One of the young cameramen working for the
brothers that day, curiously enough, was a guy by the name of George
is unclear whether it was Lucas who captured the conveniently
footage of the murder.) Not long after, Lucas began a meteoric rise to
top of the
Many of the accounts of the tragedy at
The Angel who was charged with the murder and
ultimately acquitted, Alan David Passaro, was found floating facedown
reservoir in March of 1985 with $10,000 in his pocket. Despite a
belief to the contrary, Passaro’s acquittal was not based on the jury
been convinced that Hunter had drawn a gun, but rather on the fact that
knife wounds that killed Hunter were apparently upstrokes, which meant
they were not the wounds inflicted on-camera by Passaro. He and/or
continued to stab Hunter after he was down, and it was those wounds,
cameras didn’t clearly record, that killed him.
About one year after
I, of course, would never make such a wild
As was the custom with big events in the mid to
late-1960s, particularly in the northern
The 1960s were, you see – and you can look this up if you don’t believe me – the era of brotherly love. So if someone happened to have, say, a cache of acid with a street value of $20,000-$30,000 (a considerable amount of money in the 1960s), he was naturally expected to hand it out for free to thousands of random strangers. Of course, probably the only person who routinely had such vast stockpiles of LSD was the premier acid chemist of the hippie era, Augustus Owsley Stanley.
No one – not Ken Kesey, not Richard
“Babawhateverthefuckhecalledhimself” Alpert, not even Timothy Leary –
to ‘turn on’ the youth of the 1960s than Owsley. Leary and his cohorts
captured the national media spotlight and created public awareness, but
Owsley who flooded the streets of
To be sure, Owsley is revered by many as
something of an
icon of the 1960s counterculture – a man motivated by nothing more than
desire to ‘turn on’ the world. But then again, the trio listed in the
paragraph are revered by many as well, so you’ll excuse me if I’m a bit
hesitant to embrace Owsley as some sort of anti-hero – especially given
rather provocative background and family history.
Augustus Owsley Stanley
Owsley apparently resumed his education
his curious confinement, but he had reportedly dropped out of school by
of eighteen. Nevertheless, he apparently had no trouble at all gaining
acceptance to the University of Virginia, which he attended for a time
enlisting in the U.S. Air Force in 1956, at the age of twenty-one.
military service, Owsley was an electronics specialist, working in
intelligence and radar.
After his stint in the Air Force, Owsley set
Owsley soon began cooking up both Methedrine
in a makeshift bathroom lab near the campus of the university. On
Also in February of 1965, Owsley and his
sidekicks, the Grateful Dead, moved down to the
Owsley had been with the Dead from the band’s earliest days, as both a financial backer and as their sound engineer. He is credited with numerous electronic innovations that changed the way that live rock music was presented to the masses – and likely not in a good way, given that his work as a sound technician undoubtedly drew heavily upon his military training.
In 1967, Owsley unleashed on the Haight a particularly nasty hallucinogen known as STP. Developed by the friendly folks at Dow Chemical, STP had been tested extensively at the Edgewood Arsenal as a possible biowarfare agent before being distributed to hippies as a recreational drug. Owsley reportedly obtained the recipe from Alexander Shulgin, a former Harvard man who developed a keen interest in psychopharmacology while serving in the U.S. Navy. Shulgin worked for many years as a senior research chemist at Dow, and later worked very closely with the DEA.
In 1970, Owsley began serving time after a conviction on drug charges. That time was served, appropriately enough, at Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution, the very same prison that had, just a few years earlier, housed both Charlie Manson and Phil Kaufman. A few years later, it would also be home to both Timothy Leary and his alleged (but not actual) nemesis, G. Gordon Liddy. After his release, Owsley continued to work as a sound technician, eventually graduating to a new medium: television.
After that rather
lengthy digression, we return now to our regularly scheduled program:
Parsons saga. Along with Mick and the boys, Gram made a hasty exit from
Gram became a
regular visitor to Melcher’s
In late October of 1970, Gram went to A&M and signed out the master tapes of ten songs that he had recorded with Melcher; those tapes were never seen or heard again, as seems to happen from time-to-time with recordings made with Melcher. During roughly that same period of time, Parsons was busted with a briefcase full of prescription drugs. As would be expected, however, the charges were quietly dropped and Gram walked away unscathed.
There are many who claim, by the way, that the musicians under examination in this series were relentlessly persecuted by agents of the state, ostensibly to silence their voices of protest. But if that is true, then why is it that on more than one occasion when the state seems to have had solid evidence of crimes that could bring prison time, no action was taken? Our old friend David Crosby, for example, has candidly acknowledged that “the DEA could have popped me for interstate transport of dope or dealing lots of times and never did …” And John Phillips, busted for wholesale trafficking of pharmaceuticals, was, by his own account, “looking at forty-five years and got thirty days.” He began serving his sentence on April 20, appropriately enough, and served just twenty-four days – in a minimum security prison that offered “residents” such activities as “basketball, aerobics, softball, tennis, archery, and golf,” and that featured a “delicious kosher kitchen, an elaborate salad bar, and a tasty brunch on Sundays.”
Sorry, but we seem to have drifted off course once again. I’ll try to stay focused on the Gram Parsons story for the rest of this post.
In 1971, Gram married Gretchen Burrell. The
affair was held, curiously enough, at the
That same year, Gram spent some time in
In 1973, with his first solo album, entitled
due for release, “Gram
and Gretchen finally moved out of the Chateau Marmont and found a cozy
As July of 1973 rolled around, a series of
befell Parsons and the people around him. In July of the previous year,
friend Brandon DeWilde – who had introduced Gram to Peter Fonda, Dennis
Bruce Dern and Jack Nicholson, resulting in Gram’s involvement in The
– had been killed in a traffic accident. A year later, on
Other sources, for the record, have placed
Gram wouldn’t live in the Burrell estate long
Parsons had been a regular visitor to Joshua Tree National Park, where one of his favorite pastimes was said to be ingesting hallucinogenic drugs and then searching for UFOs. Sometimes he would take friends, such as Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, along with him to help with the search. I’m no expert, to be sure, but it seems to me that if your goal is to succeed in spotting UFOs, then the dropping-acid strategy is probably a pretty good approach. But again, that’s not really my area of expertise.
In September of 1973, Gram was accompanied to Joshua Tree by his personal assistant, Michael Martin, Martin’s girlfriend, Dale McElroy, and Parson’s former high school sweetheart, Margaret Fisher. As the story goes, the group soon ran out of pot and quickly dispatched Martin back to LA to pick up a fresh supply. He was, therefore, officially not there at the time of Gram’s death, though why he hadn’t returned has never been explained, especially given that his job was, specifically, to keep an eye on Gram and monitor his drug intake.
How Gram Parsons died is anyone’s guess. There are as many versions of the event as there were witnesses to it. Actually, that’s not quite true – there are more versions than there were witnesses, because some of those witnesses have told more than one story. Officially, Parsons died of an overdose, but forensic testing revealed no morphine or barbiturates in his blood. Morphine showed up in his liver and urine, but as experts have noted, those toxicology results indicate chronic, but not recent, use.
Police seem to have had little interest in getting at the truth and made no apparent effort to reconcile the various conflicting accounts. Details of the incident – such as how long Gram had been left alone, whether he was still alive when discovered, who made that discovery, etc. – were wildly inconsistent in the accounts of Fisher, McElroy, and Frank and Alan Barbary (the Inn’s owner and his son, who were also witnesses, and whose accounts conflicted both with each other and with the girls’ accounts).
At the hospital, police spoke briefly with
girls and then released them. Within two hours, Phil Kaufman was on the
to pick up Fisher and McElroy. Bypassing the police and the hospital,
went directly to the
On the autumnal equinox of 1973, Kaufman and Martin, driving a dilapidated hearse provided by McElroy, arrived at LAX to claim the body of Gram Parsons. Apparently no one, including the police officer who was nearby, found it at all unusual that two drunken, disheveled men in an obviously out-of-service hearse (it had no license plates and several broken windows) had arrived without any paperwork to claim the body of a deceased celebrity. In fact, according to Kaufman’s dubious account, the cop even helped the pair load the casket into the hearse – and then looked the other way when Martin slammed the hearse into a wall on the way out of the hangar.
Kaufman and Martin then drove the body back out to Joshua Tree, doused it with gasoline and set it ablaze. Local police initially speculated that the cremation was “ritualistic,” which indeed it was, but such reports were, and continue to be, scoffed at.
On September 26, LAPD detectives, led by
Larry Burrell, came knocking on Kaufman’s door with warrants to serve.
Bizarrely enough, director Arthur Penn was there with a full crew
scenes for the film Night Moves with star Gene Hackman (because
you’re a friend of Charlie Manson’s, it would appear, everyone in
In January 1974, four months after his death, Grievous Angel was released to critical acclaim and public indifference. Later that year, Gram’s adoptive father, Bob Parsons, died as well, reportedly of alcohol-related illness. He had apparently been making moves aimed at gaining control of the deceased musician’s estate. In keeping with family tradition, Bob failed to make it to the age of fifty (Gram’s real dad, Coon Dog, had died at forty-one, his mother at forty-two, and Gram at just twenty-six).
By sheer coincidence, no doubt, the deaths of
and Bob Parsons were followed by the bankruptcy of much of the Snively
business, which also occurred in 1974. Around that same time, Little
birth to daughter Flora. Sixteen years later, both were killed in a