I was gushing to Jonathan about all this great music that Dave Bone was turning me on to that I'd never heard before: guys like Merle Haggard, Lefty Frizzell, Buck Owens and George Jones. My favorite, I said, was the Flying Burrito Brothers, a band led by this amazing writer named Gram Parsons. I was surprised when Jonathan said "yeah, he was great-you know I knew Gram. We hung out when I was in California". He went on to explain how they'd met through Phil Kaufmann, Jojo's road manager during his Beserkley Records period. Kaufmann, who had worked for the Rolling Stones, was handling just two clients at that time: Jonathan and Gram (after Parsons's death it was Kaufmann, aided by one of the Byrds roadies, who honored a pact by "kidnapping" his body and cremating it in the desert). Kauffman, according to Jonathan, "ran an Executive Nanny Service- that's what he called it...he'd worked for guys like the Stones 'cuz at the time he was the only guy who get Keith and Mick into the van...y'know, 'come on Keith, come on Mick, time to get in the van and go now', right?". When Jonathan talks about Phil, who now resides in Nashville, it is with undisguised admiration, and not a little friendly irony: "Phil has occassional health problems because he is the kind of larger-than-life rock personality...stuff like gout." When I reply "oh, yeah, those sort of weird obsolete illnesses you read about in Dickens, huh?", Jonathan adds "...right, see guys like that get biblical diseases- rivers of blood, frogs falling out of the sky- you can't go into the hospital for this stuff, what do you do to get treated for, like, Mt. Sinai falling on you, or a plague of raining frogs? He's been out there doing this rock and roll Pirate stuff for all these years...so, there's also Pirate diseases, too, for these legendary rock guys... Long John Silver disease, Parrot-on-the-Shoulder disease...". Ouch! I've had a parrot removed and it's a very painful procedure, let me tell you!
Once Phil Kauffman had introduced the two future legends, Gram and Jojo had hit it off right away. Gram had seemed to be lonely in that way celebrities can often be- surrounded by new "friends, basking in the limelight, their success only places their personal isolation in more stark relief. Short term relief found in drugs, booze and the zipless fuck only make the long term crisis more acute.Parsons was being lionized at the time as one of the originators of country rock, a "new" genre being explored by acts such as the Band, the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt. Although Gram had attended Harvard and spent considerable time in the music industry he remained in many ways a simple, sincere country boy. The fast life of LA, with its' wild parties, free flowing booze and easy availability of drugs for an up-and-coming young star was taking its toll on Parsons- a toll reflected in songs like "Sin City". It's easy to see how Jonathan, drug free and without pretense or rock star artifice, would be attractive to Gram. If it seemed to Jonathan that Gram was drowning, it may have seemed to Gram that Jonathan was a piece of solid ground amidst the human flotsam and jetsam of the LA music industry. After expressing mutual admiration for one another's work, they discussed the possibility of Gram playing on Jonathan's upcoming record! The idea of what the first Modern Lovers album would sound like with John Felice playing on it is interesting; the idea of what it would have sounded like with Gram Parsons playing on it is beyond intriguing, a musical tease of parallel dimension proportion. In my own musical career I tried to create - and fell far short of - a sound that matches the one I hear in my head when I think about this "what if". Anything I could imagine is a far cry no doubt from what could have been had Gram lived. On their last meeting Jonathan and Gram played miniature golf together. On the impossibly green carpets of synthetic grass, amidst miniature cement windmills, they once again discussed Gram playing on the upcoming record. Jonathan was encouraged to see that Gram seemed to have turned a corner and gained the resolve to kick drugs and booze, to clean up his act and "live right". The next day- September 17, 1973, Gram was found unconscious in room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn by a traveling companion- a gal from Boston who'd known Gram from his International Submarine Band days at Harvard. He was taken to the hospital but never recovered.
Although Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers were managed by Eddie Tickner and Phil Kaufman in the early '70s, their sound couldn't have been farther away from that of Gram Parsons, or anyone else in the Byrds/Burritos axis. The Modern Lovers took the noisy drone of the Velvet Underground and turbo-charged it with the churning organ of future Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison. To hear what they might have sounded like at the wake for Gram Parsons, check out the only official document of that era, the live Precise Modern Lovers Order From
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