LA’s Downtown Wunderkammer: Christian Charity, Commercial Oblation and the Enduring Wonder of Clifton’s Cafeteria.


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The story is the thing.

No surprise there. I’ll always say that.

But, sometimes, the story behind the story is even more interesting.

Ipso facto, the story behind the story becomes the thing. If you catch my drift.

By way of illustration, take Clifton’s in downtown Los Angeles. It’s an old-time cafeteria, a place of much wonder, even magic. Clifton’s opened in 1935 and it’s continued almost uninterrupted ever since, except for a few years earlier this decade at which time it was lovingly restored, refurbished and reborn into something even more wondrous.

In its time, spanning world wars and social upheavals of so many kinds, Clifton’s served up countless millions, maybe even billions, of meals to customers who were happy to dip into their wallets and pocket books for the privilege as well as those for whom a hot, nourishing meal was simply beyond their financial means.

Due to the humanitarian principles of Clifton’s owner, there was a company policy that  nobody should go hungry. And that was part of the wonder, though it wasn’t widely publicised or recognised, and especially notable as the restaurant was opened in the very midst of the Depression.

What is remembered about Clifton’s, by generations of Angelinos and visitors alike, is that visit was such a special occasion.

Because they never felt like they were just sitting in an anonymous restaurant, eating an ordinary meal. With murals and props equal to any of the Hollywood dream factories, patrons found themselves dining indoors in the Great Outdoors, in a setting reminiscent of the forests of northern California, surrounded by majestic towering redwoods and woodland creatures.

The tranquillity of nature enveloped patrons while, outside, the city throbbed. They may have just stepped off a streetcar, dodging the hectic crush of traffic, or be relaxing after a busy morning shopping at Bullock’s department store or getting ready to catch the latest Tyrone Power swashbuckler in the French Baroque splendour of the Los Angeles Theatre, or enjoying downtime from the office routine by casting a critical eye over the front page of the Examiner as it dissected the latest challenges for President Roosevelt.

 

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Inside, with a tray of comfort food, whether it be pot roast or corned beef and cabbage, maybe followed by Jello, customers were transported to a tranquil sanctuary of their own imagination. Sure, Clifton’s was a theme restaurant, one of the earliest in a city that has always held an enduring as well as endearing fascination for the genre, and gimmickry is what this branch of the hospitality industry is all about.

But Clifton’s was special, to people both famous and not-so. Walt Disney was a regular, often with his daughter, and it’s said that Clifton’s influenced the creation of Disneyland; other frequent diners over the years include Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, and David Lynch. Maybe it’s not too much of a reach to suggest that imaginations such as these were entranced by the juxtaposition of Jello and a faux redwood forest (certainly there’s a thematic similarity between Clifton’s and the north-western setting of Twin Peaks).

The Clifton’s on Broadway that exists today, and others in the chain that at one time existed throughout Los Angeles, was the creation of Clifford Clinton. His father, Edmond Jackson Clinton, was a restauranteur in San Francisco; although they were Quakers, the entire Clinton family – E.J., his wife, Gertrude, Clifford and his siblings – travelled overseas as a Salvation Army missionary.

In 1905, when Clifford was just a young boy, he accompanied the family to China; the incredible hardship and poverty he witnessed stayed with him his entire life. The San Francisco earthquake of the following year devastated his father’s businesses and the family returned to the States although, as soon as possible, they returned to China to continue helping the poor.

He worked long hours, up to ten hours a day, in his father’s restaurants, gaining invaluable experience, while still at school. In 1911, E.J. Clinton opened a relatively new kind of restaurant, called a cafeteria, where the diners served themselves. The Quaker Cafeteria, as it was called, was the first of its type in San Francisco.

He served in Europe in the later stages of World War I, returned home, married and had children, working in his father’s restaurants.

Eventually, as a married man with a young family, he felt it was time to start his own business. He moved to Los Angeles and, in 1931, opened a cafeteria on South Olive Street in the downtown area. After searching for the right name, he settled on Clifton’s, a contraction of Clifford and Clinton.

As much as the restaurant trade coursed through his veins so, too, did his ingrained Christian values; his business plan formalised the Golden Rule, the ethic of reciprocity – treating others as you would wish to be treated yourself.

From opening day at the Olive Street Clifton’s, two policies went instituted  – “Pay What You Wish and Dine Free Unless Delighted” and “No Guest Need Go Hungry For Lack Of Lunch”.

For all his good intentions, however, his timing could not have been worse. It was the midst of the Depression and so many of the hungry and impoverished flooded through the doors that the fledgling company seemed likely to be swamped; ten thousand people were served free meals in the first three months of operations.

 

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Clifford addressed the problem not by limiting the Golden Rule at Clifton’s but by opening another cafeteria, The Penny, nearby on Third and Hill streets, in 1932. There, nutritious servings cost just one cent each; a full meal could be had for four cents. Within weeks of opening, the Penny was serving 4,000 meals a day. The restaurant was so well run, it survived the Depression; by the time it closed, it had served some two million meals.

And it wasn’t just the customers who were well looked after; employee benefits were far ahead of their time, including a medical plan that paid for hospital stays. It’s fair to say Clifford was the very model of the perfect employer, especially as he wasn’t afraid of hard work and could often be found during busy periods bussing the tables.

In 1935, he opened a new Clifton’s at 649 South Broadway, just near 7th Street, in the very heart of Downtown’s theatre district. It was there that Clifford set out to create a point of difference with his new endeavour, something that would attract attention and make it stand out from the competition.

For five months, while the new cafeteria operated night and day, workers transformed it into something otherworldly.

As an inspiration, Clifford recalled visits as a youngster to the Brookdale Lodge, a famous landmark set amidst the redwood forests of northern California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. He had always remembered the Lodge’s dining room which had a real creek, with live trout, winding through it.

It was his intention to recreate a tranquil forest setting amidst the chaotic bustle of Downtown. Murals of redwood forests were painted on the walls, columns were masked in tree bark, a fully operating creek and waterfall, though without the trout, brought the sounds of nature into the dining hall. Backlit mountain scenes, and taxidermied forest animals added to the ambience.

When the renovations were complete, the new cafeteria was renamed Clifton’s Brookdale. It was an instant hit.

Theme restaurants were relatively new; the first appearing in Paris in 1885. This was a café decorated as a prison with waiters serving as the convicts. Another, also in Paris, with a medieval theme, had its wait staff dressed as nun and monks.

The first American theme restaurant appears to be the Pirate’s Den in New York City. It was opened by restauranteur Don Dickerman in 1917 and became wildly popular. A Los Angeles branch, bankrolled by entertainers Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, opened in 1940.

Certainly the most enduring theme, and one that is again increasing in popularity, is the Tiki bar. The best-known chains were Don The Beachcomber, famed for inventing the Zombie cocktail (its LA bar opened in 1933), and Trader Vic’s, which lays claim to the Mai Tai (the first opened in Oakland, California, in 1936).

 

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While Clifford’s business went from strength to strength, his sense of social justice occasionally led him along strange paths.

It happened by accident but, by the mid-1930s, Clifford’s business precision, combined with his commitment to humanitarian endeavours, drew him into the role of political reformer, fighting corruption and government waste. This occurred quite innocently as a result of reviewing a nearby hospital’s food delivery services; his unsparing findings highlighted vast inefficiencies, wastage and supplier contracts tied to supporters of local politicians.

Ultimately, much of the corruption was traced to Frank L. Shaw, a businessman who had entered city council in 1925, and in 1933 became Mayor of Los Angeles.

Although there were some agreeable aspects of Shaw’s administration (LAX and Union Station were both commenced during his time), a lot of people, including the city’s more notorious organised crime figures, depended on the status quo being maintained and didn’t appreciate efforts to interfere.

Political opponents co-opted Clifford’s assistance on a Grand Jury investigation; Shaw, feeling cornered, pushed back.

The city’s Health Department started leaning on the Clifton’s restaurants with trumped-up violations. The Los Angeles Police Department also targeted him; in 1937, a bomb blast demolished part of Clifford’s house. Luckily, nobody was hurt. When a car bomb seriously injured a private detective working for the Grand Jury and evidence led back to an LAPD captain of detectives, the tide turned and a special recall election was held for Mayor in 1938. Support for Shaw evaporated and he lost office.

Once his career as a political reformer came to an end, leaving only his restaurants to occupy his attention, he managed to squeeze in a holiday in Hawaii. But Clifford even managed to turn this to his advantage.

Cognisant of how well his Brookdale restaurant was performing, and aware that the original South Olive Street property was in need of attention, once faced with the exotic South Sea charms of the Hawaiian Islands, he determined he’d found just the right decorating idea.

Returning home to Los Angeles, the renovations commenced – while the cafeteria remained open. In total, some $US100,000 was spent. Clifton’s Pacific Seas, as it was named, debuted in 1938. It was a riot of flamingo red neon, jungle murals, live ferns, eight-metre-tall rubber palms trees, waterfalls, aquariums, a volcano and a rain hut where a tropical storm played out every 20 minutes.

Its critics called it vulgar and tatsteless. The general public couldn’t have agreed, or cared, less. Clifton’s South Seas was an enormous success. At the peak of operations, it served 12,000 meals a day.

And its peak lasted for quite some time, although not quite as long as Clifton’s Brookdale. The South Seas closed down in 1960 and, echoing Joni Mitchell, the building was demolished to become a parking lot.

Don’t it always seem to go /

That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone

Indeed. Vale Clifton’s South Seas.

 

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And the other Clifton’s branches throughout Los Angeles, all of which had varying degrees of success and longevity. In the 1950s and 60s, such outposts as Lakewood, West Covina and Century City all boasted outposts of the Clifton’s empire. None exist today.

The thing that worked in the Brookdale’s favour was that it was Downtown. Once the throbbing heart of LA’s retail and entertainment, by the 1960s its importance had declined at the same time the suburbanisation and decentralisation of the city headed in the other direction.

In such a sprawling city, Downtown quietly slipped into a kind of hibernation. The land wasn’t considered important enough, economically or socially, to redevelop. The grand old department stores, the Art Deco office buildings, the multitude of opulent movie palaces were repurposed for other uses.

Nobody went Downtown anymore, unless it was really necessary. Clifton’s Brookdale puttered along, a lovely baked anachronism with a side of Mac and Cheese. Progress would eventually have had its way with it; like so much of old-time LA, the Brown Derby (both of them), Bullocks Wilshire, the Mocambo, the Coconut Grove (indeed, the entire Ambassador Hotel), Clifton’s would have been sucked stealthily below the surface by time.

First you lose your relevance. Then, years down the track, you lose your life.

But something wondrous happened. Followed by something entirely unexpected.

Firstly, Downtown began to awaken. Developers moved in to refurbish the historic office buildings as condos and loft apartments. Now in many other places, the appearance of developers would not bode well, but the heritage protections put in place, along with a market eager to live in a revived CBD, proved a fortuitous convergence.

Secondly, the family of Clifford Clinton, who had been managing Clifton’s since his death in 1969, sold the restaurant to Andrew Meieran in 2010. Meieran is an interesting hypen, a developer-filmmaker (one of his intended projects is a bio-pic of Twlight Zone creator, Rod Serling).

On the developer side, he is best-known as the man who transformed a former Downtown power station into the ultra-hip Edison Bar. Meieran paid $US3.6 million for Clifton’s; he then spent four years and upwards of $US10 million to not only restore the entire place back to what it was but to also make it better.

Nobody knew what to expect when the hoardings came down but on the grand day of re-opening, when June Lockhart (Dr Maureen Robinson of television’s Lost In Space) cut the ribbon, the curious flooded in. It’s pretty safe to say they were enthralled by the changes.

While adhering to the original design concepts, Meieran added some audaciously original touches of his own. In the rear dining area, a central atrium has been cut through the above floors and a giant faux redwood, reaching up twelve metres, was created. On the bottom floor of the redwood, which has a fireplace built into it, is the Monarch Bar; on the floor above, is the Gothic Bar.

Meieran’s creation of hip bars is a canny commercial decision, extending Clifton’s dining hours and clientele beyond the traditional. As Downtown becomes more populated, the reborn Clifton’s, now a destination dining and drinking establishment, will become an integral part of the local community.

There’s another bar tucked away within Clifton’s, this one a little more difficult to find though certainly worth the effort. Behind a mirrored door on an upper floor, and up a few flights of stairs, is the Pacific Seas, a respectful nod to the old South Seas, and already celebrated as LA’s newest Tiki Bar. Its centrepiece is a full-size 1930s mahogany Chris-Craft speedboat.

During the day, the new revived Clifton’s does great business, drawing in the faithful as well as visitors (invariably curious tourists) who stumble a few steps inside the door before having their WTF moments. At night, it’s a whole new ballgame. Cashed-up millennials with a penchant for the offbeat, clubbers, artists, actors and the wealth of creatives who make Los Angeles their own.

While it may be a romantic notion, I like to think it’s a whole new breed of Bradburys and Bukowskis, Lynchs and Disneys, people whose imaginations power their futures and who are drawn to Clifton’s because it’s a place that, externally, complements their own internal dialogue. And makes the wondrous just that little easier to manifest. Because the story is the thing.

For further information, consult Clifton’s & Clifford Clinton: A Cafeteria and a Crusader (Angel City Press, 2015), written by Clifford’s grandson, Edmund J. Clinton III. I’ve drawn heavily from this biography to populate this post.

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The Sun Comes Up Without You, It Doesn’t Know You’re Gone: Gram Parsons Is Forever In Residence At The Joshua Tree Inn.


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For such a long time, I had a glass heart. I have no idea how I acquired it or when. Most likely, I was suckered, as is my way occasionally when travelling, into donating to some worthy cause. The glass heart would have been my reward.

It was slipped absent-mindedly into an outside pocket of my camera bag, where I’d rediscover it from time to time while rummaging for keys or spare change. Small, about two centimetres across by a centimetre thick, its iridescent surface reflecting light through a thousand rainbow shades. It made me smile.

It came to mind only once, in the middle of the Mojave Desert, in the tiny sun-seared town of Joshua Tree, California. In the courtyard of the relatively nondescript Joshua Tree Inn, an establishment with a name as utilitarian as its unadorned appearance, the one notable feature of which is an outsize statue of a guitar that stands in the dusty courtyard like one of Kubrick’s monoliths.

Around the concrete base is a scattering of tributes: candles, dice, cigarette lighters, violin bows, marbles, a white angel with wings spread wide, a CD, a tiny Day of the Dead figure, empty liquor bottles, coins, badges, a candlestick shaped like a palm tree, dead flowers, a plaque showing a skeleton under the word Grievous. The flotsam and jetsam of everyday life refashioned as pop cultural fetishes.

Etched into the guitar is the legend: Gram Parsons. Safe At Home. 11/5/46 – 9/19/73.

Turn around and there’s Room 8. It’s where Gram Parsons, widely credited as the father of country rock, died. Young, vital, brimming with promise, though underappreciated in his time. A few months short of his 27th birthday.

I want to see inside Room 8. The Inn is booked out; I’ve checked. But, on this weekday early afternoon, under a fading blue canopy of lung-searing heat, it’s deathly still. There’s nobody around the swimming pool or in the shade of the verandahs. The housekeepers have packed up and disappeared, the reception desk unattended.

The tortured artist, dead before his time, is an overly-familiar trope. It gets all the publicity, the gritty biopics, the ironic hipster t-shirts. If all the people who now profess their eternal admiration had been around back then to buy his albums, Gram Parsons may still be alive. Making his music, older than the heroes he worshipped when he was too young to be taken seriously by them.

Gram Parsons’ story is anchored firmly in the southern Gothic tradition that has become as much a cliché as that of the haunted artist too pure for this world. Except that his story was agonisingly real. It didn’t need the embellishment or romantic exaggeration of modern popular culture.

Gram Parsons was born Ingram Cecil Connor III in Winter Haven, Florida, on 5 November 1946. His mother, Avis, was the daughter of John A. Snively, a pioneer of the Florida citrus industry; his father, Cecil Connor, known in those parts as Coon Dog, cut a dashing figure as an ex-Army pilot. Coon Dog had been stationed in Hawaii when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Later, he flew combat missions in New Guinea and was hospitalised in Australia after contracting malaria.

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The Snively family was Florida royalty, immensely wealthy from catering to a nation’s desire for breakfast refreshment. Winter Haven was their fiefdom. The head of the family may have been cool to his daughter’s choice in men but he brought Coon Dog into the family business, putting him in charge of a packaging operation in Waycross, Georgia, where Gram was born and raised.

Both parents liked their cocktails a little too much; Avis was what was considered “highly strung” and had a dependence on prescription medicine. Due to his war service, Coon Dog exhibited symptoms that would later be known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Family life wasn’t comfortable for a boy as finely tuned as Gram and he took to music as an escape. He loved playing records and holding parties. He picked out tunes he only just heard on the family piano and was soon writing his own songs. His interest turned to something far deeper, like it did for many of his generation, when he saw Elvis perform at the Waycross City Auditorium. in February 1956,

Two years later, when Gram was 12, the careful balance of his world began to falter. Coon Dog committed suicide. Avis, Gram and his sister, known as Little Avis, returned to the safe haven of the Snively family’s Magnolia Mansion on the shores of Lake Eloise.

Gram felt the loss of his father keenly. To dull the pain, he retreated further into music and his mother’s limitless supply of prescription drugs.

Avis eventually married a charismatic salesman, Robert Ellis Parsons, who adopted Gram and supported his musical endeavours, to the extent of opening a local music venue. Derry Down, as it was called, became part of a network of Florida youth club venues that nurtured such emerging musical talent as the Allman Brothers, Tom Petty, Stephen Stills, David Crosby and Joni Mitchell.

And a young musician with a burgeoning reputation by the name of Gram Parsons. The bands he became involved with reflected the musical styles of the time, first rock’n’roll, then folk. His musicianship and stage presence developed well with time although it was his plaintive presence, the inner sadness that dwelt behind his steady, intelligent gaze, that resonated most deeply in audiences, especially amongst young women.

The death of his mother in 1964, after a long agonising decline hastened by alcohol, shattered Gram anew. But if it did one thing, it propelled him out of Florida towards his musical future. In 1965, he enrolled at Harvard but lasted less than a semester. Studying wasn’t really high on the Gram Parsons curriculum. Girls and drugs, not necessarily in that order, consumed his time.

He put together the first incarnation of the International Submarine Band. After Harvard, they moved to New York City but west was where everybody with any musical ambition was heading, to the sunshine and agreeably hedonistic lifestyle of Los Angeles.

The International Submarine Band set up in Laurel Canyon and, by 1967, had a deal with LHI Records, fronted by singer/songwriter/producer Lee Hazlewood. One of the stranger characters of the 1960s West Coast music scene (admittedly, a pretty crowded field), Hazlewood is generally best known as partner, musical and otherwise, to Nancy Sinatra. The International Submarine Band joined LHI in a roster that, in many ways, defied description, artistic endeavour and sound business sense.

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Meanwhile, Gram and Los Angeles in the late 1960s became a potent combination. Lanky and boyish, he was quietly spoken with an endearing Southern drawl and impeccable manners, an agreeable combination of attributes that turned heads. Pamela des Barres, whose experience of such things was as vast and all-encompassing as the desert sky, famously described Gram as “totally countrified in a slinky bedroom-eyed way”.

That he had an affinity for girls, drugs, booze and music just made him one of many in the landscape. That he enjoyed a certain level of wealth (by the late 60s, the proceeds from a trust fund established by his grandfather was paying off to the tune of about $US100,000 a year), set him a little further apart and ensured he could indulge his interests in high style; it was a fact of life in southern California, however, that wealthy young gods were still ruling the landscape then as now.

His distinctions were in an increasing dedication to the more traditional elements of country music (unusual amongst his contemporaries who were all seeking, in their own ways, the alchemic formula to successfully fuse folk, pop and rock into chart gold) and his song writing.

The latter was on display during his ISB days; the first International Submarine Band single cut for LHI was pure Gram – “Luxury Liner” and “Blue Eyes”, with the resulting album including two more Gram compositions, “Do You Know How It Feels To Be Lonesome” and “Strong Boy”.

By the time ISB’s album was released, in March 1968 after a considerable delay, the band had split and Gram had moved on to another project.

The Byrds had gained attention with a line-up of Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby and Chris Hillman, cruisng through a folk repertoire with dreamily tight harmonies that, as the 1960s progressed, merged into psychedelic rock.

Members came and went; by late 1967, Crosby and Clark had gone and The Byrds were looking for new blood. Early the following year, by the time their fifth album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, was released, Gram had been accepted into the fold. With the support of Hillman (and opposition from McGuinn), Gram steered The Byrds towards a more country sound.

They immediately launched into a new album, recording in Nashville and Los Angeles a mix of country standards, Bob Dylan compositions and three of Gram’s own songs, including the now-classic “Hickory Wind”.

It was in Nashville in March 1968 that The Byrds played the Grand Ole Opry, the spiritual stronghold of the highly-conservative country music establishment. Gram’s youthful exuberance for country music (and his fellow band members’ self-regard as contemporary music royalty) left them in little doubt of a warm, even rapturous, welcome.

It didn’t quite work out that way. The audience seemed stunned by the long-haired hippies in their midst (though long-hair was always going to be a relative term when set against conservative Nashville; photographs of the group on stage at the Opry reveal what we would now call “preppy” attire and their hair, barely over the ears, looks no more menacing than the Beatles’ mop tops).

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The Opry’s executive elite couldn’t have been less hospitable if The Byrds had harmonised the Communist Manifesto. It wasn’t helped by Gram’s last-minute decision to substitute Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” (some reports state it was to be Haggard’s “Life In Prison”) as the announced final song in their set for his own “Hickory Wind”, even if he did dedicate it to his elderly grandmother.

Gram suffered a double disappointment on the release of The Byrds’ latest album, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, in August 1968. Lee Hazlewood and LHI considered they still had Gram under contract and most of his vocals were redubbed, much to McGuinn’s delight. And, despite his unswerving dedication to country music, Sweetheart was the worst performing Byrds album to date, nudging only as high as #77 on the Billboard charts (in comparison, the previous album reached #47, still a disaster for a band of their stature but at least, though barely, in the top half of the charts).

All the public needed, as Gram so consistently expounded, was country music played by a new generation of long-haired rock musicians. Regrettably, the public never received that memo. Fusing folk, pop and rock and any number of barely-like-minded influences was becoming quite the musical fashion but too many young people saw straight-out country music as something their parents, small-town cousins and six-fingered distant relations looked to for life lessons. It just wasn’t cool.

Gram pressed on regardless, devising new ways to describe his music, desperately trying to intellectualise it and sneak it in through the back door of hipsterdom. Cosmic American Music was his favoured term; he even started calling it roots music, decades before the term gained widespread acceptance.

He was bummed by Sweetheart’s frosty reception but he’d moved on from The Byrds by then anyway; leaving by summer 1968, ostensibly because he objected to a proposed tour of apartheid-era South Africa, although it was more likely that continued friction with McGuinn played a more central role.

In record time (excuse the pun), he founded another band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, to do his philosophical bidding. Joining him was Chris Hillman, who’d also fled The Byrds around this time. They signed to A&M Records and launched into their first album.

Musically as well as philosophically, The Burritos were closer to Gram’s concept of long-hairs playing country music; Gram also took control of their stage image by steering them to a Ukranian-born tailor working out of North Hollywood. Nuta Kotlyarenko, better known as Nudie Cohan, created fantasias of elaborate Western styling that became popular amongst such country performers as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Hank Williams, and then spread to others in the music industry including Elvis and John Lennon.

The Burritos pretty much blew their A&M advance on the outfits but they sure looked sharp in the publicity photos. Nudie was renowned for personally styling the suits to its clients’ tastes and Gram’s own choices were those that defined his life: marijuana leaves, poppies, pills, naked women and a cross.

The Burritos and their Nudie suits were emblazoned across their first album. The Gilded Palace Of Sin, released in February 1969; musically, it typified Gram’s dedication towards fusing traditional country with folk, rock, pop, even soul (in the latter instance, “Dark End Of The Street”, best known as a 1966 hit for James Carr). As satisfying as the album was, and it did garner considerable critical attention, the public remained underwhelmed and ignored it.

Sin stalled at #164 on the Billboard Top 200. The band’s follow-up, Burrito Deluxe, released in May 1970, didn’t even make the Top 200. Shortly after that, Gram was fired from his own band, the victim of his own overindulgence in drugs and alcohol although the rest of the band were no less guilty of such transgressions.

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Gram with Nudie Cohan

 

While renowned for their studio work, in concert they were hit-and-miss, preferring to get shit-faced and play poker instead of taking the stage. The situation wasn’t helped by such unfortunate decisions as turning down Woodstock but playing Altamont.

Gram’s drug and alcohol dependence showed no signs of mellowing; it seemed the more the record-buying public rejected his heart-felt musical intentions, the more he sought escape by chemical means. The situation wasn’t helped by an important friendship forged in the late 1960s, one of two that would define as much as emphasis his musical journey.

On 7 July 1968, The Byrds played the Royal Albert Hall in London; amongst the glitterati trawling backstage was Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. The two immediately hit it off; while autobiographies and memoirs are the most infuriatingly inexact of sources, Richards’ own Life (2010) pays considerable tribute to Gram Parsons’ influence, musical as well as personal, both on Richards and the Rolling Stones.

“When I fell in with Gram Parsons in the summer of 1968, I struck a seam of music that I’m still developing, which widened the range of everything I was playing and writing. It also began an instant friendship that already seemed ancient the first time we sat down and talked. It was like a reunion with a long-lost brother for me,” writes Richards. “Gram was very, very special and I still miss him.”

The first question Gram asked Richards was whether he had any drugs. It was shared interests – drugs as much as music – that underpinned their friendship. Following the English concerts, The Byrds were scheduled to play South Africa but Richards and the other Stones enlightened Gram on the issue of apartheid; the result was that Gram left the tour, and the Byrds, there and then. The next few months, he spent in England with Richards.

Just as the Stones, like many English musicians in the early 1960s, had adopted the blues, so Keith Richards, by the decade’s end, immersed himself in country music, tutored all the while by an enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable Gram. They spent long periods jamming, writing songs, experimenting with styles, building influences one atop the other like building blocks, continuing to refine the things that worked, tossing aside those that didn’t.

The late 1960s, into the early to mid-70s, was a period of musical transition for the Stones. Mick Taylor was brought in to replace Brian Jones and the band’s direction changed remarkably. Jagger was in favour of emphasising a harder sound, one that would eventually emerge as stadium rock; Richards, fired up by Gram’s intensive tutoring, was determined towards Americana, roots music and country.

Gram was never too far away from Richards for the next few Rolling Stones albums, from Let It Bleed (1969) through to Exile On Main Street (1972), and his influence as much as his direct involvement is the subject of considerable speculation by music historians. Listen to “Country Honk”, the hillbilly-ish version of “Honky Tonk Women” that appears on Let It Bleed and try if you can to ignore the spirit of Gram Parsons that haunts it; doubly haunted, perhaps, as it’s this track that was the last Stones session Brian Jones played on before his death.

On Sticky Fingers (1971), Gram’s influence is apparent on “Dead Flowers” although it’s “Wild Horses” that gets all the attention. Despite the Jagger/Richards song writing credit, there’s long been a conspiracy theory that Gram co-wrote it (most likely untrue; the song is far too straight-forward, lacking his Southern Gothic complexities). That’s not to say, however, that Gram didn’t contribute much to how the song sounded.

“Wild Horses” was recorded at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, over a two-day period in early December 1969. It was one of three tracks (also including “Brown Sugar”) recorded at the session and the first tracks that would form Sticky Fingers. Gram was not in the studio for it.

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Gram with Keith Richards (left)

The Stones were at the end of a US tour that had started on 7 November; they’d been developing new material and were eager to record it while it was still fresh. After a concert in West Palm Beach, Florida, they had a few days before the final date. As a strange quirk of their visas, they could play concerts but couldn’t record so a quiet, out-of-the-way location in northern Alabama was hastily arranged. That Muscle Shoals was already legendary for recording such R&B giants as Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett worked on one level; on another, a bunch of white English boys went noted but barely recognised.

A few days later, the Stones travelled to California for the final date on the tour, meeting up with Gram and the Burritos who were also appearing at the free concert, along with Santana, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

The date was 6 December 1969. The location was the Altamont Speedway. And the rest, as they say in the music industry, generally in a most ominous tone, is history.

Something that did come out of this is that Keith Richards gave Gram a demo tape of “Wild Horses” along with permission to release his own version before the Stones. It appeared on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Burrito Deluxe, released in April 1970, a full year before the Stones version appeared on Sticky Fingers.

Mick Jagger has been quite open about the influence Gram had on the country feel of such Sticky Fingers tracks as “Wild Horses” and “Dead Flowers”, as well as a few from Exile On Main Street. The version of “Wild Horses” released on Sticky Fingers (there were two takes recorded at Muscle Shoals; the second could well be the acoustic version available on the 2015 Deluxe edition re-release of Sticky Fingers) is quite a restrained country ballad, displaying little in the way of Cosmic American Music, but somewhere, forgotten, in an archives may be a version of even more interest to Gram Parson aficionados.

There is mention, amongst the multitude of GP biographies and associated material, that Gram was asked to suggest a pedal steel player to add to “Wild Horses”. His choice was Peter Kleinow, otherwise known as Sneaky Pete, who he held in high regard and worked closely with in both the Byrds and the Burritos.

As an aside, Sneaky Pete has another of the quirkier stories in American music. An accomplished pedal steel player and champion of the Fender 400, Pete had a secondary career as a Hollywood visual effects and stop motion animator, working on such film and television shows as Gumby, Land Of The Lost, The Empire Strikes Back, and Terminators I and II.

Meanwhile, Gram’s departure from the Burritos in mid-1970 left him rudderless and his periodic episodes of depression deepened, a situation not helped by drugs and alcohol. His relationship with Keith Richards tided him over and he was on hand during the latter stages of recording Sticky Fingers, much of which was put down at Jagger’s UK estate, Stargrove, in rural Hampshire.

It was, however, during the recording of the next Stones album, Exile On Main Street, that things came to a head. Gram and Keith Richards were drinkin’ and druggin’ and jammin’ for what seemed like weeks on end, often to the exclusion of everything else. That the druggin’ included heroin and often left Richards disinclined, if not even physically unable, to contribute to the new album strained relations with Jagger and other members of the band and surrounding entourage.

While some of the leftover tracks from Sticky Fingers made their way onto the next album, new tracks were recorded at Nellcôte, an estate Richards rented in Villefranche-sur-Mer near Nice on the French Riviera (the Stones had fled the UK as tax exiles). Gram arrived at Nellcôte in June 1971, one of a flood of visitors that included such figures as William S. Burroughs. Both Gram and Richards were into heroin heavily during this time. The album languished. Eventually, the chaos had to be managed and Gram was kicked out in July 1971.

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It was inevitable that Gram’s next move, if his attention could be wrested from other matters, would be a solo album. And, despite the lack of financial success accorded his work with both The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, record companies continued to display interest.

The first was A&M, where he was teamed with yet another of the more interesting characters populating the LA music scene. The son of actress Doris Day, Terry Melcher had already produced such acts as The Byrds and The Beach Boys but is most infamously remembered for an act he didn’t produce – Charles Manson.

Beach Boy Dennis Wilson had befriended Manson who, amongst other interests, was an aspiring songwriter and introduced him to Melcher to further his musical career. Although Manson was under the impression that Melcher would be producing an album for him, the project never eventuated.

At this time, Melcher and his then-girlfriend, actress Candice Bergen, were living in the hills above Los Angeles, at 10050 Cielo Drive in the midst of Benedict Canyon. Manson had visited Melcher at this address several times but the producer moved out early in 1969. In August, Manson sent his followers to the house, which had since been rented to film director Roman Polanski, telegraphing a not-so-subtle message. While Polanski wasn’t at home, his wife, actress Sharon Tate, and several friends were. The rest, as the ominous saying once again goes, is history.

The A&M solo album didn’t get off the ground with Melcher having a hard time swaying Gram’s interest. But another attempt was already in the pipeline, and it would lead to the second friendship and musical partnership that defined Gram’s career.

In 1971, Chris Hillman of the Burritos suggested he catch the performance of a young folk singer at a Washington club. Emmylou Harris had already recorded her first album, Gliding Bird, but the record company disintegrated soon after and it had attracted little attention.

It would seem that Gram and Emmylou, at least musically, had little in common but each could see opportunities in the other. Emmylou was anchored firmly in folk but her career to date had been going nowhere fast and she needed the work that Gram offered; Gram saw the need for a female singer and trusted Chris Hillman’s initial judgement. When he heard Emmylou and conjured the possibilities of what could be, he realised that this was something, at least musically, he never knew he needed.

Together, their voices melded into the most divine harmonies. But it didn’t happen instantly. It was the result of dedication and hard work. The mechanics of generating those harmonies is visible in a studio out-take on the 1995 release, Cosmic American Music, rehearsing “We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning” (a track on Gram’s first solo album, GP), repeatedly exploring the same line, addressing it in different ways before reaching an arrangement they were both comfortable with.

Gram and Emmylou gradually built up their harmonies, honed in their live performances, and if his initial intention was for just a female voice, he soon found he’d ended up with something more vitally important.

Thus, when Gram relaunched his attempt on a solo album, this time under the aegis of Reprise Records, this emotionally powerful duet partnership was put down for posterity.

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Recording for what would become the first of only two Gram Parsons solo albums, simply titled GP, began in September 1972. His backing musicians, including James Burton and Glen D. Hardin, previously recorded with Elvis Presley in the TCB Band. One of Gram’s heroes, Merle Haggard, was to have produced the album but dropped out at the last moment.

Gram did not weather the recording sessions well. He was close to breaking point, binging on alcohol and drugs, including cocaine. His fast lifestyle was evident to his increasingly concerned friends; photographs of the period show him bloated and unwell. Yet the resulting album was nothing short of magical. This was especially so on the tracks he shared with Emmylou; she added something emotionally invaluable to the mix, shades he’d never been able to achieve in his previous recordings.

Yet, once again, despite raves from such publications as Rolling Stone, GP (released January 1973) didn’t get close to entering the Billboard Top 200.

Gram and Emmylou toured through the spring of 1973 but he was spending increasing time out of LA, in the high country of the Mojave Desert. He first come to this area in the late 1960s, returning more frequently to the small town of Joshua Tree. His preferred accommodation was the Joshua Tree Inn, where he could walk, stumble or sometimes even crawl to such bars as the Hi Lo Lounge.

If he wasn’t bar-hopping, he’d retire to his favourite Room 8 with a range of friends including Keith Richards, girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, and Gram’s road manager/protector/confidante, Phil Kaufman.

The desert was Gram’s own haven. It didn’t temper his dependence on drugs or alcohol but it was a spiritual safe zone from the disappointments of work and personal concerns. Occasionally, he attained moments of clarity when he’d recognised the self-destructive nature of his existence and his own mortality.

During one such moment, Gram instructed Phil Kaufman that, upon his death, he wanted to be cremated in the Joshua Tree National Park and his ashes scattered on a local landmark, Cap Rock. It would prove to be a prophetic request.

However disheartened he was by his continued failures to break his music to the wider world, Gram pushed ahead with a second solo album. He gathered the band, including James Burton and Glen D. Hardin, along with Emmylou Harris, and entered the studios in summer 1973 with a batch of songs. Included were several of his own, including “Brass Buttons”, a scarring song about his mother that he’d written while at Harvard, and “Hickory Wind”, already recorded during his time with The Byrds. Other songs, such as “Love Hurts”, showcased Gram and Emmylou’s extraordinary gift of harmony.

The album would be called Grievous Angel. During recording, Linda Ronstadt would visit the studio and add harmonies to the track “In My Hour Of Darkness”. While Gram and Ronstadt (who had also become close to Emmylou) were friends, her involvement, however limited, carried a certain bitter synchronicity.

After three albums in the late 1960s as part of the Stone Poneys, Linda Ronstadt embarked on a series of solo albums. The musicians involved in her third, self-titled, album, released in 1972, included Bernie Leedon, who had been a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers during the Burritos Deluxe days, and Randy Meisner, both of whom toured with Ronstadt to support her previous Silk Purse (1970) album.

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Also joining Leedon and Meisner were Don Henley and Glenn Frey; in the small-town world of the Los Angeles music scene of the period, Gram knew everybody and everybody knew Gram but he knew Frey particularly well as the musician was often to be seen at Burritos’ gigs, avidly studying Gram’s stagecraft.

The four approached Ronstadt after the album’s completion. They recognised a chemistry they wanted to explore and, as a courtesy, declared their intention of forming a band. Not yet settled on a name, they signed to Asylum Records in September 1971 and started playing live gigs.

Eventually, and different people have varying perceptions of the reasons, they settled on the name Eagles. Marked by tight harmonies and a soft country-rock styling that would typify that originating on the West Coast, their self-titled debut album was released in June 1972.

It yielded three singles; “Witchy Woman”, reached #9 on the Billboard charts, the lowest, “Peaceful Easy Feeling”, scrapped into #22. The album itself just missed out on the Top 20. This was far from a failure; the market was proving receptive to the Eagles’ brand of countrified rock. By their fourth album, One Of These Nights (1975), they reached the top of the Billboard album charts, and the next, 1976’s Hotel California, went to #1 around the world.

Gram’s vision of country music being played by a new breed of young musicians was gaining popularity. It just wasn’t popular if he recorded it. Technically, the West Coast aesthetic was hardly country rock, barely country and much more pop than rock. Easy listening as we’d know it now. However, it was a close second to Gram’s ideals and the distinction was not lost on him

Meanwhile, Gram completed his second solo album and, in mid-September 1973, set out for the sanctuary of the high desert country and the Joshua Tree Inn. So much has been written about the circumstances of Gram’s death by overdose (including the ignominious role that the third-party posterior positioning of ice cubes played in temporarily reviving him) and the subsequent hijacking of his body by Phil Kaufman and friends to carry out his last wishes at Cap Rock, that to go over them here would be redundant.

Sufficient to say, Gram Parsons died in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn on 19 September 1973. Drug toxicity, as the coroner later declared. He was two months shy of his 27th birthday.

Even in death, however, Gram couldn’t get the recognition he deserved. The following day, singer-songwriter Jim Croce (whose biggest hit – indeed only hit outside the US – was a novelty song, “Bad Bad Leroy Brown”) was killed in a plane crash. Any publicity attending Gram’s demise was quickly swamped.

Even worse, there was barely enough curiosity generated by Gram’s death to suck Grievous Angel to #195 on the Billboard Top 100 album chart when it was released in January 1974.

Life, and the music industry, went on without him, much as it had done when he was alive. Emmylou Harris, who had become extremely close to Gram during their professional partnership, was – due largely to Linda Ronstadt’s influence – signed to Reprise. The Pieces Of The Sky album was released in 1975 and eventually reached #7 on the Billboard album chart.

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Although she would record a number of Gram’s songs, and become a continuing, enthusiastic champion of his music, in the early years, and well into the 1980s, Emmylou avoided talking about him. It was just too painful a loss.

Gradually, though, the accolades rightfully due Gram Parsons and his pioneering work began to attract increasing attention. In time, rightly or wrongly, he’s been elevated to a “founding father” position, publicly revered by successive generations of musicians, with all the attendant grovelling. His Nudie suit can be found in Nashville’s Country Music Hall Of Fame (established by the same CMA establishment that gave him and the other Burritos such a hard time at the Grand Ole Opry). There’s any number of Gram-inspired festivals and tribute albums and, not surprisingly, hipster t-shirts. And Cap Rock in the Joshua Tree National Park, where Phil Kaufman farewelled Gram in a suitably incendiary manner, continues to draw devotees from around the world.

The graffiti they leave behind draws largely upon his music. One particularly popular couplet paraphrases “Brass Buttons”, Gram’s song about his mother and which applies equally well to his own life and death.

The sun comes up without you, it doesn’t know you’re gone”, it says.

Gram’s legacy is embodied in the unswerving, inextinguishable courage of his convictions. Not so much that he could revive country music, because it was doing very well without him, but that he could make it relevant for his own and future generations. And although he didn’t do that in his own short lifetime (and just eight albums), he did ultimately achieve that aim.

If Gram had lived, if he’d been able to subdue his demons, lock them away where they could do the least amount of harm, he’d most likely have side-stepped country rock, for his chosen interpretation was too pure. In truth, he was an early adopter, a strong influence on many who followed, but he didn’t invent country rock any more than he did orange juice or tortured southern Gothic sensibilities.

Gram, if he had lived, would have taken his rightful place as the grand old man of alt country or Americana.

Those who flock to the courtyard of the Joshua Tree Inn know his music, and some may even appreciate the legend behind the man. The trinkets they leave behind hold a totemic significance for each of them.

I thought about that as I stood in the blast furnace afternoon. I’d played Gram on the car stereo in the days before and on the drive up from Palm Springs. Everything I had, which was pretty much everything, and I was on the second run through Grievous Angel as I pulled into the motel’s parking lot.

It was eerie out there, with not a living being in sight, no noise, no breeze, nothing but the insistent heat. I spent a while photographing the shrine then slung my camera across my shoulder and headed back to the car. As I packed my camera bag away, I stopped.

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There was something I had to do. I unzippered the tiny front pocket and dug out the glass heart.

It had travelled the world a few times over, most of the continents, and rarely gained a second thought. But it felt right, this glass heart of a thousand rainbow hues, to leave it here. Under the bright desert sun that had doubtless hammered so many of Gram’s hangovers. Another tribute, from a disciple to the master, a spiritual offering, a thanks-for-the-music from one side of the Vale to the other.

And as I pulled away towards Yucca Valley and the turn-off that would take me to Barstow and, eventually, Las Vegas, I turned “Brass Buttons” up high.

And the sun comes up without her

It doesn’t know she’s gone

Ooh, but I remember everything she said

 

Words and photos 2,3,4,7,8,10 & 11 © David Latta 2016