Grand Theft Parsons : Phil Kaufman
The heist of the century . . .

Jump to page:  

On July 14th 1973, having just played a gig in Lancaster, California, guitarist Clarence White was helping to load equipment onto a van. Out of nowhere, a drunk driver ploughed into him, right in front of his two brothers. He was killed instantly. His funeral was held a week later, and amongst the guests were country-rock star Gram Parsons and his road manager Phil Kaufman.

Ingram Cecil Connor III was born on November 5th 1946. After the suicide of his father, his mother married Bob Parsons and, after being adopted by his new father, Ingram Cecil Connor III became Gram Parsons. Gram became interested in music quite early on, taking piano lessons and spending most of his spare time listening to country music and early rock and roll, especially Elvis Presley.
    In 1960, Gram joined his first band - The Pacers - as lead singer, and from The Pacers, went on to join a succession of other bands including The Legends, The Flying Burrito Brothers and The International Submarine Band. He also involved himself with several side projects, and managed to fit in the occasional solo gig along the way.

In 1968, after David Crosby and Michael Clarke had both been fired, The Byrds were down to two members: Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn. They drafted in Hillman's cousin to play drums, but soon realised that they needed a fourth member to make the band work. Their manager at the time, Larry Spector, also happened to be Gram Parsons' manager, and Hillman invited Parsons to try out for the band. Though initially taken on as keyboard player, the passion for country music that Hillman and Parsons shared proved to have a profound effect on the direction of The Byrds, with Parsons eventually becoming lead singer. However, his time with the band was turbulent to say the least, and their relationship was short lived. On the eve of a tour of South Africa, having spoken previously to Keith Richards about apartheid, Gram pulled out of the tour, citing South Africa's racial policies as the reason for his decision. The rest of the band, finding it more likely that Gram was more concerned with hanging out with the Rolling Stones than the plight of South Africa, sacked him on the spot.
    After forming other versions of The Flying Burrito Brothers - from which, incidentally, The Eagles evolved - Gram famously went on to work with country singer Emmylou Harris, as well as recording two solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel. Though never hugely successful in a commercial sense, Parsons became a huge influence on many other artists, including the Rolling Stones, through whom he came to meet Phil Kaufman.

Having had more than a few drinks, Parsons and Kaufman sat reflecting on the funeral they'd just attended. They agreed that it wasn't at all what their friend would have wanted, and realised that they still had time to decide exactly how they wanted their own send offs to be. They made a pact there and then that, whoever died first, the other would drive their body out to their favourite part of the desert in Joshua Tree, California, and 'set their spirit free' - cremate the body there in the desert.
    Less than two months after the funeral, Gram Parsons died from an overdose at The Joshua Tree Inn. Kaufman wasn't nearby on the night of his death and, before he could do anything about it, proceedings had begun to fly Gram's body out of California to Louisiana. The body had become a pawn in a battle for the inheritance that had been left - if his body was buried in Louisiana, Parsons' considerable estate would then be under the control of his step-father, which Parsons' wife was determined not to let happen. Coupled with the pact that he had made just months previous, this made Kaufman all the more determined to take control of the situation. He called in favours, recruited a helper, acquired a hearse, and made his way to LAX airport where he managed to convince them to release the body to him. With the police now in hot pursuit, he set off on his way across California to Joshua Tree where he had vowed to give his friend the send off he wanted.
    Kaufman and his accomplice were finally caught, having successfully completed their mission of cremating Gram Parsons in the Joshua Tree desert, and appeared in court on 5th November 1973, what would have been Gram's 27th birthday. They pleaded guilty to theft and were fined $300 each, as well as $749.99 to cover the cost of the coffin, but because California law stated that the body itself had no actual value, no charges were brought for the body-snatching. Kaufman raised the money to pay the fines by throwing an elaborate party/wake - 'Kaufman's Koffin Kaper Koncert' - at which he served bottles of beer with homemade labels that read 'Gram Pilsner: A stiff drink for what ales you'.

In Kaufman's autobiography Road Mangler Deluxe, Emmylou Harris is quoted as saying: "Phil cared about Gram. He might make light about stealing the body, but he took a big chance. Although he might be the last one to admit it, he did it out of friendship because he felt a commitment to Gram. It was his way of grieving."
The chirpy American sat chatting to me doesn't come across as the archetypal body-snatcher, but then its hard to know just how the archetypal body-snatcher actually comes across. Having spent over thirty years on the road with the likes of Frank Zappa, Joe Cocker, Vince Gill and Bobby 'Boris' Pickett (of Monster Mash fame), Kaufman is enjoying retirement with his wife Carol. Bursting with one-liners and hearty laughs, he is happy to reminisce on the story he'll have told many times before, which has recently been made into a film - Grand Theft Parsons - starring Johnny Knoxville as the man himself, Phil Kaufman.

counterculture: It's an amazing story, and you must have been approached many times by people wanting to make your story into a film. How did it finally come about?

Phil Kaufman: I was approached many times, but mostly it was people who just wanted to do some kind of exploitation, you know, 'rock star buddy burnt by voodoo guy', some bullshit like that, and for many years I declined because they weren't serious. Then Jeremy Drysdale (the film's writer) came to my house in Nashville, Tennessee, and we sat down to talk and I could see that he was serious. In the end, it took two Irishmen (director David Caffrey and producer Frank Mannion) and a Brit (Drysdale) to get an American movie made.

cc: Apparently, Jeremy Drysdale couldn't believe that it hadn't already been done . . .

PK: That's right. It's just that I had turned down so many approaches; I was just waiting for the right person to come along. The only bad news is that I had always hoped to play myself in the film, but as time went by I realised that the part would have to go to someone younger.

cc: But you have got a small cameo . . .

PK: There are no small parts, there are only small actors! Ha ha. Yeah, there's a scene near the end where the two main characters pass me and kind of do a double take.

cc: It's been 30 years since it actually happened, and I'm sure you've been made to retell the story many times. How did it feel actually seeing it relived, and in the original locations at that?

PK: Well, you know, I was concerned about who was going to play me, and how well it would be done, and how close to the facts it was going to be, but I was really impressed and very happy with the way it came out. They duplicated my home at the time, where Gram lived with me, and aside from the main story they also used a few smaller incidents that actually happened. We actually did drive into the hangar door leaving the airport with the body, I actually did trick the policeman into helping us load the coffin onto the hearse - as I've said in the past, bullshit beats bullets sometimes - and Mike did actually manage to slip out of the handcuffs after we'd been handcuffed together. And, of course, we did actually steal the body, and we did actually drive it out to Joshua Tree and burn it.
    There were a few scenes made up to help the story flow, but I wanted there to be enough factuality in the film to keep it true to life. My wife Carol and I made a point of staying out of the way, and we only went to the set towards the end of the shoot because I didn't want to interfere, but I did have a few concerns. When I watched the interplay between the characters I felt much better. When I saw a rough cut I liked it, and I when I finally saw the finished product I was really happy with it. Considering the amount of money they had to tell the story, I think they did it really well. The crew were exceptional, and the actors were top actors. I mean, the guy who plays Gram's dad (Robert Forster) is an Academy Award nominee, and these guys are getting paid virtually nothing compared to what they can usually command, you know?

cc: Johnny Knoxville plays you in the film. Did you approve?

PK: At first they approached Hugh Jackman to do it, and that would have cost a lot of money. I wasn't that impressed with him trying to play me, because he would have to be an actor trying to be me, whereas Johnny Knoxville just fit hand in glove. We met up, we hit it off straight away, we became buddies, and I could see him watching me and he knew what to do. In fact, the jacket he wore in the film was the actual jacket I wore when I stole the body. I had taken it along to a meeting with Johnny so that the wardrobe department could make an exact duplicate for him to wear, because I didn't want to let the original out of my hands, but he so impressed me that at the end of the meeting I asked if he would like to wear the original jacket. He was really grateful, and that's the jacket you see him wearing in the film. I think he did a really great job, because as you talk to me you'll see that I'm kind of a smartass, that's how I am. I'm from an old showbiz vaudeville family and we all had the gift of the gab, and he had that too. He had that feel, you know, he feels comfortable talking to people and comfortable playing someone else, and when I saw the finished film I was really impressed. Not only was he comfortable playing me, but I was comfortable watching him be me, which is a really good sign.

cc: How did you first meet Gram Parsons, and eventually become his road manager?

PK: I was working for the Rolling Stones on their album Beggars Banquet - Mick Jagger was mixing the album with his producer in LA, and I was basically looking after him, acting as his 'executive nanny'. Actually, he's the one that gave me that name - somebody asked him who I was and why I was always around, and Mick replied "That's my executive nanny," so the name kind of stuck. In the middle of the mixing, Mick had to go off and do something else, so Keith flew in with Anita Pallenberg and Gram Parsons from the south of France where Gram had been teaching Keith about country music, which he did really well. A short while after, Mick asked me to look after Brian Jones on their tour, but I was on parole, having been in prison for possession of marijuana, so I couldn't leave the country. Gram phoned me and asked if I'd be his road manager, and I asked him what a road manager actually does. He said I'd be doing what I'd done for the Stones; basically looking after people, except I'd be doing it on the road. I accepted, and that was it; that was the start of our relationship.

cc: How did the infamous pact that you made with Gram actually come about?

PK: Well, it was kind of more Gram's idea than mine. We were at the funeral of a friend of ours, Clarence White, and it was this huge Catholic funeral. We both agreed that, if he'd had the choice, Clarence wouldn't have chosen that kind of funeral, and we realised that we still did have a choice. So we made this pact, albeit after a few sherbets: "If I die first, I want you to take me out to the desert and burn my body! Is it a deal?" "You got it! You do it for me, I'll do it for you!" And that was it. We shook hands on it and that was it, it was a deal. Then, unfortunately, Gram died a couple of months later, and I felt honour bound to see the deal through.

cc: Did it get mentioned between the initial making of the pact and Gram's death?

PK: Each time we went out to the desert, there'd be some reference - it'd be like, "Don't forget, if anything happens to me . . ." "Okay buddy!"

cc: You used a hearse when you stole the body from the airport and drove it to the desert. How did you go about getting it?

PK: Well, a friend of mine owned a hearse and she was actually with Gram when he died. Her boyfriend Michael, who I knew well, actually came with me and helped me out. We couldn't track him down when we were making the film so, for legal reasons, we couldn't base the character directly on him. The character is very much like him though, and I just love the interplay between the two main characters in the film because that was very much how it was between me and Michael. He was this hippy dippy guy, always stoned - he was once a street junkie in Bombay, and you can't get much lower than that, you know? But he was a good man, and he had a good heart. Once Michael Shannon, who plays Larry in the film - we couldn't even call the character Michael for fear of legal problems - but once we had him in place, I think it worked really well.

cc: When you were actually driving Gram's body to Joshua Tree, did you have any doubts as to whether you were doing the right thing?

PK: Not at all. As a matter of fact, my girlfriend at the time was standing by with the number of a bail bondsman and a lawyer, and . . . you know those old World War II movies where the guy's behind enemy lines, and the French Resistance are going to execute him unless the BBC gives the signal, remember those? Well we had one of those signals. I'd say, "The icing is on the cake," and that told my girlfriend that we'd pulled it off and were on our way, and she'd respond with, "The preacher is in the pulpit." It was all very dramatic.

cc: Is it still your wish to be cremated in the Joshua Tree desert?

PK: You know, that doesn't really matter anymore. That was a thing between me and Gram. Someone asked me once if I thought Gram would have fulfilled his end of the bargain if I'd been the first to die, and I replied that I think he would have, but he'd have hired someone else to do it for him. He'd be like, "Oh, by the way, Phil Kaufman died. Could you go pick him up?"

Go to top of pageJump to page:  
Latest articles

Alone in the dark: Buffy The Vampire Slayer bows out in style with the Season Seven DVD Collection.

Johnny Knoxville plays him in the movie Grand Theft Parsons, but counterculture speaks to the man himself: Phil Kaufman interviewed.