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The Byrds speak on

Gram Parsons


Chris Hillman - Richie Unterberger ca 2000

In the Burritos, when Gram was a coherent guy, I mean when we first started working together, before I lost him, we had this wonderful vision. And of course, all those good songs, we were sharing the house together, and had both come off a couple of unpleasant relationships, and took solace in each other as friends. But we also wrote some great songs. And "Sin City," and things that the Byrds hadn't even gotten...it was like I was starting over. I was hungry again. And I don't think I could have gotten to that place, staying in the Byrds. Although in hindsight, I regret not working with Clarence a little more, 'cause he was an old friend from the bluegrass days. And I certainly would have made a lot more money (chuckles). That doesn't really count in the scope of things. So no, the Burritos had a whole other insight into the thing, which was really quite interesting at the time. A lot of it was Gram's vision, which is good. But he got me thinking a little harder on what I was doing. And it was really good.

That first album was great, the first year was great, and like I say, I lost him. Lost him to all the indulgent fantasies that he was going after, and that's where it ends. He had talent, not any more than anybody else, and he had a lot of charm. But he just taken by all of the trappings that didn't mean anything. The limousine, hanging out with Jagger, blah blah. There's where we lost him. Otherwise the guy'd be around, probably.

Roger McGuinn - Vincent Flanders 1969

Gram didn't quit, he was let go because he didn't want to go to South Africa with us (July 1968). He said he wouldn't play to segregated audiences. We went down there as a political thing -- to try to turn their heads around -- but he didn't want to participate in that, but it wasn't for political reasons. It was because he wanted to stay in London. He dug it there, dug Marianne Faithful and the Rolling Stones and he wanted to stay in that scene.

He refused to go to South Africa and his reasoning was sound from one point of view, but he didn't understand, or he was unwilling to comprehend my point of view. I'd known Miriam Makeba since I'd worked with the Mitchell Trio back in the early 1960's. Miriam was from there and she managed to escape with the help of Harry Belafonte or somebody. She told me what a horrible place it was. I knew all the political strife they were into and I wanted to go over and do what I could to help it out -- help the black people get liberated.

I know they're arming. I went over and told the white press over there that the blacks were getting armed. I personally knew people who were sending money over there to arm the blacks. I told them there was going to be a bloodbath unless they let up on their apartheid laws. Well, that's like going to Georgia and telling them to integrate. We got threatening letters, telegrams, phone calls in Durban.

Climatically, I enjoyed the country except I had the flu there. I got about a 103-104 degree fever. I had to work through it because we had this (pejorative term deleted) promoter from England who had hepatitis and went to South Africa to recuperate because it was summer down there when it was winter in England and vice-versa. It was winter down there and I caught the flu and they don't have heat in the hotel rooms so I would be sweating all night long and it would be 40 degrees in the room. I kept the flu about two weeks.

Chris Hillman - Musicangle 2004

CH: It was tough. I mean, Graham Parsons ended up working for us for a little while, and he did know country music. He was the only person I'd come across at that point that really understood who Buck Owens was, and he didn't know bluegrass that much, but he did know his country music. He really knew it well, and so that was a boost for us to do that. I wanted to do the thing, and he was certainly a good ally to have.

I knew he had done the Submarine Band. I'd heard that and I thought it was okay, just a little too polished for me. When he got in, I remember we were singing something together at a rehearsal and I went, Oh, this guy knows his stuff.

His early stuff is great. I mean there's a couple of vocals on record and they're unbeatable. Both Hot Burritos were just unbelievable, soulful vocals. A lot of the other things he did were so sloppy and out of tune. It was just another situation where he was undisciplined. Graham was seduced by all the trappings. He had so much talent and everything. He was a great songwriter, but just to discipline himself and really do it, it wasn't in him. He wanted all the other things that surrounded the music.

The initial thing was great. We were living together, writing together, a very prolific period. A very normal time for Graham, actually. He was living a very normal lifestyle at that point, and we were working all the time and playing some great clubs. We'd go out and watch Bonnie and Delaney in this little club; they were just starting out. Leon Russell, and all these people. It was a nice music scene going on in 1968 and 1969 in LA. It just derailed, and Graham got a little nuts and we lost the initial vision. I stuck with it as best I could. Desert Rose was when I really felt good, I was swimming upstream. Herb knows his stuff. I still work with Herb and all those guys. Desert Rose was the evolved Burrito Brothers.

Gene Clark - Dark Star 1977

It was shortly after Gram Parsons died, also, which was a heavy thing for me due to my companionship with him. It was heavy for all of us.

Chris Hillman - Gram Parsons Project

We had opened on one of their (The Rolling Stones) first tours in California when we were just starting. That would have been late '64, 65. I didn't really get to know them until later on - prior to Gram Parsons coming into The Byrds, they came to watch us play. But in '68, when Gram was in the band and we were in England, that's when we cemented the relationship, and took a nice trip to Stonehenge.

Gram became enamoured with them. What I recall, most vividly, is walking through Stonehenge, and Roger and I walking along, chuckling, because Gram was running after Mick and Keith, like a little boy running after his mentors. We were going, 'Uh-oh' [laughs].

I don't mean to dispel myth, but I have to give you my recollections. It had nothing to do with his songwriting prowess and talent, but he was enamoured with that rock stardom thing. And we had given him the opportunity of a lifetime: we had just hired this kid off the street to join The Byrds. We were splintered, there were just two of us out of the original five, and we were going, 'What are we doing here?'. We'd already been around our minor success, and had tasted that, so we were a bit like jaded old guys by then, even though we were in early twenties.

Mick and Keith were complete gentlemen, and they were very keen to take us on that trip in the middle of the night. It was quite a nice early morning adventure. Then we came back - and now I will dispel myth. Gram would not give us a definite answer on [touring] South Africa: he was hemming and hawing. Prior to the UK trip, he was going to go to South Africa. I thought he was going to go - but all of a sudden, three days before that he starts hinting: 'I can't go over there because of their apartheid laws, and I grew up in the South.' Well, the man grew up in opulence in the South with black servants, for god's sakes. That was garbage. What he really wanted to do was hang out with Mick and Keith. They were in his ear: 'Don't go to South Africa, Don't go to South Africa.'

McGuinn and I in hindsight were fools to do that tour, but we were professional. Both of us were probably the two most professional out of the original five guys. We felt, 'Well, we have a contract - we'd better go.' And we were assured, 'Oh, you'll play for black and white audiences', which was not true. And we shouldn't have gone.

The morning we were leaving, he announced he wasn't coming, which I felt was the height of... Let me put it this way - I should have known then, and it took me three more years to find out, that this man would run over me to get to the long-sought golden ring. I don't think Gram was the most loyal of people. What suited him was far more important than loyalty to friends or commitments. I did forgive him when we started the Flying Burrito Brothers, but within a year and half he was pulling the same kind of stunts.

By refusing to go, he had sealed his fate with The Byrds. But you must remember something: he was never a member of The Byrds; he was hired as a sideman. That's very important: when people say 'ex-Byrd', he wasn't a Byrd. The Byrds were the five original guys. He was hired as a sideman, as an accompanist, as an extra singer. He turned out to be a real good songwriter, and we featured him and let him do as much as we could. But by not going to South Africa, and fulfilling his commitments as a member or sideman of The Byrds, he was gone. That was it.

Well...he was an interesting guy. As much as I love the guy, and I only remember the good parts of him, you have to remember something: the rest of us in the music business struggled from poverty - be you a Beatle, a Rolling Stone or a Byrd - we didn't all just waltz into money. We were all starving to do this. He came from a very wealthy family. It was a different mindset: he didn't have to struggle; he wasn't hungry. So consequently, that camaraderie wasn't there.

I forgave him, and we started anew. I was so stifled, I felt asleep - I needed stimulation. Gram kind of came to me, hat in hand, and said, 'I'm sorry that I did that.' We made up, and we embarked on a brand new journey, which was quite fruitful and exciting from the get-go. The first album was probably the best record we ever did - and probably some of the best songs he ever wrote or co-wrote are on that record. He was ambitious, he was healthy, he was focused.

We were working in the daytime in normal daylight hours, without having to punish ourselves in any way. The songs were just coming out every day: in a matter of two or three weeks, we'd written all the songs for that first album. And I stand by them today: I think some of them are some of my best work, and his best work too.

 That ('Burrito Deluxe') wasn't quite as rewarding as that first record. You can file it under Second Album Syndrome, when you're scrambling: you're not on the journey any more, so to maintain your direction through a second album is tough - even if you're a big hit the first time, which we weren't. But there were moments: a song called Older Guys, which I thought was very funny - and Man In The Fog and High Fashion Queen were great songs.

By the time Burrito Deluxe came along, it was not on the best of terms, and at that point in time, he was completely taken with the hedonistic lifestyle, to be diplomatic [laughs]. He wasn't showing up for shows on time, he was showing up not in any shape to sing or play - and we eventually got rid of him."

Well, that was the great story: me having to find him. One day we had a show to do - out in god knows where; some suburb of LA, El Monte California. I couldn't find Gram, and I finally found out he was at a Rolling Stones ('Let It Bleed') session. I went in there, late afternoon, and he was over in the corner. I said, 'We have a show to do.' Mick Jagger actually came over and said, 'What are you doing? You have a show to do. Go with Hillman, get in the car - we have work to do here.' He was saying, 'Why are you hanging around here? Go and do your job - you have a responsibility.' Mick was being the consummate professional; a businessman. And I literally had to take him [Gram] - say 'Come on, we're going - we have a show to do', and put him in the car. I'm going, 'This is not working out.' A matter of a month later, he was out.

How was the show that night? It was OK, as I recall - but it was very spotty with him. He was very focused in The Byrds, and initially with the Burrito Brothers. Although the performances were sloppy, he was at least focused on what he had to do up there. But then drugs took over, and it was a spotty affair every time. We would start a song, and he would start singing another song in another key. Now that's awfully hard to do [laughs]. It's an impossible task. So we got the point where we had to let him go.

 (Keeping company with the Rolling Stones) Not really. I wasn't one to do all that. I liked them, but I didn't grovel and try to hang out. I was a shy guy. I kept different company.

The more that he was around them, all of a sudden, the Nudie, country-western image started to dissipate, and he started wearing feather boas onstage, and looking like a cross between a bad drag queen and some country guy. He was metamorphosising before my eyes [laughs]. He'd jump around the stage: he was trying to be Mick Jagger, doing country songs - which was an interesting concept, but it was comical.

It certainly didn't enhance the Burritos' reputation or gather new fans. Let's put it this way: as far as gathering mainstream support, no.

You've got to understand: he was a really sweet guy. I'm not trying to rag him. But he was totally like a kid in a candy store. Two years prior to all this happening, he was a kid in his first year of college, listening to Rolling Stones and Byrds albums. And all of a sudden, he's thrust into this arena. We'd all had our hit records and been a bit jaded by then, but he was ready to go.

"But here's the bottom line: he had some talent. And he would have turned into an incredible writer and singer and performer, with discipline and focus. He didn't have that; he threw it all out the window. That was upsetting to me, because he had such natural talent. He wrote about six or seven unbelievably great songs, and about fifteen pretty good ones. But he had the potential to be anything he wanted to be as a songwriter. He had the talent and the charisma - all of the things that were god-given to him. And unfortunately, he threw them away.

Well, that ('Wild Horses') was another little thing. You're talking to the caustic one here. I didn't like that song: I thought it was the most maudlin, depressing song I'd ever heard. I was going, 'Another ballad? Let's get some life back into this music. Let's get back into country shuffles, and country music - what we set out to do with this thing.' He brought Wild Horses in, and I didn't like it. I didn't like The Stones version: I didn't care for the song.

Yeah. That ('Honky Tonk Women' version by the Burritos) was silly too. The thing is, there is some credence to the fact that he did influence them, and he got them into listening to some country music, but were The Rolling Stones country music writers or singers? What they did, no-one else could do: good rock'n'roll. But Wild Horses was probably some kind of offshoot of Gram being around them.

That (Altamont) was another situation where I felt, 'I don't know why we're doing this - it doesn't seem right.' The day began badly. We got in a car accident on the way up: Sneeky Pete was driving the car and someone ran us off the road. And getting into the site was nigh-on impossible, it was so crowded. There was no organisation. And finally getting behind the stage.it was a nightmare. I must say, the Burrito Brothers did calm the crowd down. In the movie, you can see that. But I found it the most disturbing thing in the world.

I had played Monterey with The Byrds. That was the best pop festival ever, over Woodstock, The Isle Of Wight, any of them. And Altamont was the exact opposite. It was a dark day. The Hells Angels were like uncaged barbarians, attacking anything that walked. God knows what they'd ingested, but they were just frightening. I went to get onstage with my bass, and I was stopped by two Hells Angels. It was like dealing with two sociopaths. I had to talk to them like they were children: 'I'm going to play now, I have a show to do, I'm playing the bass, this is it that I'm holding, I have to go on the stage now.' They were like, [Grunts]. It was the monk at the monastery dealing with the Norsemen. Once we'd finished playing, I left immediately. Immediately.

That was the end of the hippie peace and love era. Did I feel it that on the day? Oh yeah. I said, 'This is it.' The sixties were wonderful from about 1963 until 1967. That to me was the sixties: innocence, creativeness. And then drugs came along and goofed everything up. People were dying, the music business became greedy, and we entered the '70s, which was a dead decade.

When he did come back [to LA, after his period in France and the UK], I did run into him. He looked clean, he looked sober - and that's when I said, 'There's a young lady up in Washington DC you need to go meet, named Emmylou Harris.' I begged him to call her. And he finally called her from my hotel room.

Well, death brings on icon status. That which is not accessible takes on mythical proportion. But like I said, and remember this: he had the potential to be a great songwriter. He wrote six great songs, and about fifteen good ones, which is good. Gene Clark wrote a lot of great songs, but he doesn't get any press at all, because he wasn't as mysterious.

Roger McGuinn - Fusion Magazine 1969

We hired a piano player and he turned out to be Parsons . . . a monster in sheep's clothing. And he exploded out of this sheep's clothing - God! It's George Jones! In a big sequin suit! And he's got his guitar and sidemen accompanying him. He took it right into the eye of the hurricane . . . and Raaaaaooow -came out the other side. It was Japanese.

Chris Hillman - Ben Tong Forres Gram Parsons Biography 1985

Gram was the first person I had come across since leaving country music and entering rock & roll that understood what country music was, understood how it felt to play it. And by that, I mean there is a certain way to play it, a certain lifestyle you have to feel and understand.

Chris Hillman - Jane Weber 2000

Unfortunately he got into an area that I couldn't agree with. What killed him was the drugs and alcohol and I didn't like that. We had to split up and break up the partnership because of that. I wish he had stopped and-who knows what couls have happened. But he was a very talented songwriter and he was a really good singer. He did his best on a few wonderful songs he did for the Flying Burrito Brothers and on a couple with Emmylou but Gram didn't have any discipline. He didn't approach the music very professionally and that's the best way I can say it.

Chris Hillman - John Einarson Hot Burrito 2008

Gram came down to a rehearsal studio in Hollywood and played with us. My cousin Kevin Kelley was on drums. Gram played keyboards, but he wasn't a very good keyboard player. He was just sort of plinking around as we went through some of the old stuff. He started singing a Buck Owens song. I think it might have been 'Under Your Spell Again', and I immediately started singing harmony with him on it. I thought 'Oh my god, he knows who Buck Owens is'. The other guys didn't know this stuff. That's where the relationship developed.

You can say that I was in awe of him but I don't think that's the perfect description. I respected him as a fellow traveller, and I respected his musical tastes, which were right in line with mine. And I loved his sense of humor, and to sit and converse with him. On an intellectual level, sense of humor, same musical tastes, yeah, I loved the guy. I was in awe of the total drive that he had when we first met.

We were lazy and letting him drive. We weren't hungry anymore. We were letting him drive the car. He'd shown up on time and was a good boy. He knew it was an opportunity for him. Initially Gram was great in The Byrds. He was hard working, very ambitious, and it gave Roger and I a real kick in the rear. He had the motivation and ambition we lacked by 1968. But gradually he started to take over in a sense. Roger was still holding the reins and I was just watching it all. But it was a great boost for me having someone in the band who understood the music I liked, someone more in tune with that situation. I did see an opportunity to do more country and I have to be honest, I did love working with him then. So Gram came along and kind of energized us.

That night we had to get rid of him. He showed up late and stoned out of his mind on something. We kick off an up-tempo song and Gram starts singing a ballad. It was like the Keystone Cops crashing into a wall. In the middle of the shuffle we had to suddenly stop and Michael (Clarke) slowed the time down on his cymbal to Gram's pace. That was it. There was steam coming out of my ears. Michael and I had both had it. He was as mad as I was - and Michael usually didn't care about anything. So afterward, backstage between sets in the dressing room I said to Gram, 'You're all done'. And Gram whines 'What are you talking about?' and Michael yells 'Hey Parsons, you're out of this fucking band. You're done. You're through'.

I got so mad at Gram I broke his guitar. He had that horrible Gibson Dove guitar that sounded bad and I just put my fist through it. And I looked right at him and said, 'Feel lucky that's not your head because that's what I want to do right now'.