Pamela Des Barres Remembers: Gram Parsons and “Wild Horses”
August 11 2017 by Pamela Des Barres
Most people think of the Rolling Stones (of course) when the divine tune, “Wild Horses,” starts playing on the radio, through their headphones or swirling inside their heads. Written by Mick Jagger and his crusty cohort Keith Richards, the song was first given to my beloved pal Gram Parsons for his band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, to record for their 1970 Burrito Deluxe album.
It was the glorious year 1969, and I was cavorting with my all-girl group, the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously) with Frank Zappa at the helm, frolicking around Laurel Canyon like I owned it. I was flying high, indeed, and madly in love with Gram’s sidekick, Chris Hillman, who had left his seminal SoCal band, the Byrds, snagged by Gram to start the first “alternative” (before the term existed) country rock band. Gram threw in a little R&B as well, and preferred to call this musical stew “Cosmic American Music.”
Gram had already turned me onto his country heroes — Buck Owens, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and the fellow he called “The King of Broken Hearts,” George Jones — and my musical taste expanded as wide as the Bakersfield skies.
I was with Miss Mercy, the gypsy of our group, at the premiere of the Beatles’ movie, Yellow Submarine, when we first spotted this lanky tousled beauty wearing a red Nudie suit covered in spangled submarines — so of course we sashayed over and introduced ourselves. That spectacular moment led to a lifelong (his, sadly) friendship, a seemingly oddball connection between a couple of madcap Hollywood freaks and a genteel, soft-spoken Southern boy with great big ideas.
Gram had recently returned from a long visit with the Stones in the south of France, “Wild Horses” in tow, anxious to get into the studio. Some say that Mick had actually asked him to leave the premises because he was taking up so much of Keith’s valuable time. (And they were getting so out-of-control stoned together.) Others also say that Gram added the obviously countrified element to songs such as “Send Me Dead Flowers” and “Country Honk.” SOME even say that Gram actually helped write “Wild Horses.” Most of it, perhaps? Mick’s brother told Uncut mag back in ’13 that it was definitely a Parsons composition.
Either way, when Chris and Gram invited Miss Mercy and me to A&M studios to the recording session for this glorious composition, Gram proudly insisted that Mick and Keith had given it to him for the Burritos to cover. He reveled in his association with the Stones, and from what I could tell, he and Keith were equally enthralled with each other, and in the throes of a bromance (before the term existed) — often trading clothes, looking more and more like each other each time I saw them together. Gram took to wearing Kohly eye makeup, much to Hillman’s chagrin. But I digress.
I’ve been privy to many a recording session, but being one of the only two visitors at the Burritos’ “Wild Horses” session, along with Mercy, was the most spellbinding, tear-inducing, overwhelming, memorable nights of my most fantabulous life. One of those pinch-yourself experiences that gleam and glimmer within for all time.
Although Gram was a beautiful piano player, he had invited Leon Russell to play the elegant sparse keyboard parts so he could focus on singing his soul out. Gram felt and expressed lyrics like no singer I’ve seen before or since. I wish I knew who he imagined in his heart’s eye as the pent-up sorrow poured out like ethereal, ragged longing — while I sat on the cracked leather couch, watching and listening in solemn, breathless awe…
“I know I’ve dreamed you a sin and a lie/I have my freedom but I don’t have much time…”
Gram didn’t have much time, gone like a lightning flash a little more than three years later in his beloved Joshua Tree desert.
I am often asked what my favorite live band was, and people expect the answer to be Led Zeppelin, Hendrix or the Stones. Yes, it was thrilling to be in the presence of such greatness, but my answer is always the Flying Burrito Brothers — because of Gram’s exposed beating heart that poured freely down his face as tears, I could feel my own heart beating in time with the universe.
Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.