Monday, August 10, 2009

Brush With Greatness: Phil Kaufman

I didn't actually meet Phil Kaufman, but we exchanged a couple of emails trying to arrange a meeting while on my way to Nashville. I'd heard a rumor that he occaisonally tends bar there, and thought it would be a good opportunity to pick up a copy of his book, get it inscribed and have my photo taken with him.

It's not every day you get to meet someone who served time in Terminal Island with Charles Manson in the early sixties, stole the corpse of a Rock icon, and Rolled with the Stones.

I didn't get to meet him as he had to accompany Nanci Griffith to a show in Texas the weekend I was there. Maybe next time.

Phil "Mangler" Kaufman, the man who and stole and cremated the body of country-rock icon Gram Parsons, and who has been described as the entertainment industry's"executive nanny" by Mick Jagger, tells it all. The Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, Joe Cocker, Etta James, Emmylou Harris, Elizabeth Ashley, Rosanne Cash, the Byrds, the Everly Brothers.

(Before his death Parsons had said that he wanted to be cremated at Joshua Tree and have his ashes spread over Cap Rock, a prominent natural feature there. But after his death his stepfather arranged to have the body shipped home for a private funeral, to which none of his low-life music buddies were invited. Said buddies would have none of it. Fortified by beer and vodka, they decided to steal Parsons's body and conduct their own last rites.

Having ferreted out the shipping arrangements, Phil Kaufman (Parsons's road manager) and another man drove out to the airport in a borrowed hearse, fed the poor schmuck in charge of the body a load of baloney about a last-minute change of plans, signed the release "Jeremy Nobody," and made off with Parsons's remains. They bought five gallons of gas, drove 150 miles to Joshua Tree, and dragged the coffin as close to Cap Rock as they could by moonlight. Kaufman pried open the lid to reveal Parsons's naked cadaver, poured in the gas, and tossed in a match. A massive fireball erupted. The authorities gave chase but, as one account puts it, "were encumbered by sobriety," and the desperadoes escaped.

The men were tracked down a few days later, but there was no law against stealing a body, so they were charged with stealing the coffin or, as one cop put it, "Gram Theft Parsons." (Cops are such a riot.) Convicted, they were ordered to pay $750, the cost of the coffin. What was left of Parsons was buried in New Orleans.)

The movie "Grand Theft Parsons" is a fictionalized version of the Gram Parsons body-burning episode described in "Road Mangler Deluxe." Here is what the two principal actors have to say about the book:

"Phil Kaufman is an amazing character. I mean, just the basic [Gram Parsons] story is amazing. . . . I read Phil Kaufman's book called "Road Mangler Deluxe" and he's lived five lifetimes--his whole life should be a movie made out of it, much less these two days."
Johnny Knoxville
(plays Phil Kaufman in "Grand Theft Parsons")

"His book is pretty phenomenal. . . It's so great. It's like a fly on the wall of his thoughts and all of the escapades he got himself into."
Christina Applegate
(plays the fictitious Barbara Mansfield in"Grand Theft Parsons")

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