Why I stole my best friend's body

Thirty years ago today, Gram Parsons, the king of country-rock, died of a drug overdose in the Mojave Desert. The extraordinary, drunken escapade that followed became a rock'n'roll myth. Now, Andrew Gumbel hears the true story from his former road manager
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Exactly 30 years ago, Phil Kaufman, aka The Mangler, did something that surpassed even his wild reputation as the craziest road manager in rock'n'roll. He stole a body. And not just any body. 19 September 1973 was the day that his friend Gram Parsons, the doomed angel of country rock, died of a drug overdose on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park, in the Mojave Desert, east of Los Angeles. Parsons had been celebrating the completion of his now much-acclaimed final album, Grievous Angel, and had loaded up so heavily on barbiturates that all efforts to revive him - including ice-cube suppositories administered by his panicked friends - proved futile.

Kaufman, who shared a house as well as a professional career with Parsons, was in LA when he received the bad news, and snapped immediately into action. First, there was the mess in room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn to clean up. (He took all the drugs belonging to Parsons and three friends, and buried them in the desert.) There was the district attorney's office to placate. And then there was a certain pact to be respected. Earlier that year, Kaufman and Parsons had sworn to each other (in a drunken moment at the overly lavish funeral of the Byrds guitarist Clarence White) that if one of them died, the other would take the body out to Joshua Tree, have a few beers, and burn it.

And so, Kaufman - who once shared a prison cell with Charles Manson; came close to breaking out of another jail in Sweden; learnt to keep countless drugged-up rock stars at arm's length from the law; and managed the singular feat of getting Keith Richards and the rest of the Stones to the recording-studio on time - embarked on the weirdest, most improbable adventure of his life. The body was not easily accessible, to put it mildly. After the autopsy, it was sent straight to Los Angeles airport, from where it was due to be transferred to Louisiana, at the request of Parsons' stepfather, Bob, who was hoping that by organising the funeral he could lay claim to a chunk of the musician's fortune. But Kaufman knew that Parsons had hated his stepdad (he called him a "pinky-ring alligator-shoe asshole"), and that - along with several bottles of beer and Jack Daniel's - gave him the motivation he needed to swing into action.

One of the women with Parsons when he died, Dale McElroy, was an eccentric heiress who happened to own a hearse that she used for camping trips. Kaufman and McElroy's boyfriend, Michael Martin, drove the hearse to the airport, found the hangar in which corpses were stored, and told the duty manager that they were there to transfer Parsons' coffin to a private plane leaving from an entirely different airport.

Even though they reeked of alcohol, the manager bought the story, and so did a policeman who drew up at exactly the wrong moment and blocked the hangar exit with his black-and-white patrol car. The obliging policeman not only moved his car; he also helped to move the coffin. And, astonishingly, he did not so much as blink when Martin drunkenly smashed the hearse into a wall on his way out.

Kaufman, who still loves to tell the story, and still peppers his account with ghoulish touches of black humour, insists that he and Martin weren't entirely wasted as they sped out into the desert night. "Functioning drunks", is how he describes their state, although he concedes that they did have three extra companions that night: Jack (Daniel's), José (Cuerva) and Mickey (Bigmouth). Stopping off at one point for food, they turned to the back seat and said: "Gram, you stay here." As the winding road meandered ever higher into the Joshua Tree park, they became so drunk that at a certain point they could no longer negotiate the curves. So they stopped, at random, at a formation known as Cap Rock.

They dropped the coffin with a thud on the hard ground, causing Martin to become seriously spooked. "There must be some union law that doesn't allow coffins to have oiled hinges," Kaufman chuckled, as he recounted how they prised open the creaky box, horror-movie style, and gazed down on Parsons' cold, naked body. Martin was beside himself. Trying to break the tension, Kaufman made a joke about the size of Parsons' penis. Then he reached down to touch the tape covering Parsons' autopsy scars ("Hey, Gram, I think you've got something on your chest!"), causing Martin to jump half out of his skin. Finally, he poured five gallons of high-test gasoline over his body, struck a match, and - boom! "When gasoline ignites, it's like a fireball," Kaufman recounted, like a little boy taking pride in a colossally cheeky prank. "Michael asked me, 'Was that the gas?' I replied, 'No, it's the alcohol in Gram.' "

They watched the ashes swirl up into the starry desert sky, but were physically incapable of burying the remains - "brass and bones", in Kaufman's phrase. So they gunned it back to LA, only to fall asleep by the side of the road. When they tried to set off again by the light of day, the hearse wouldn't start. Then, after a long ride at the back end of a tow truck, they started drinking again and got into a multi-car pile-up on the freeway. When the first highway patrolman on the scene opened the door to talk to them, empty beer bottles spilt out all over the asphalt, and he handcuffed them together while he checked on the other accident victims. Martin, who was stick-thin, wriggled out of his cuffs, and they sped off again before the patrolman could stop them.

Several misadventures later, the pair were hauled into court and fined for the theft of the coffin. (The corpse, meanwhile, was deemed to be of "no intrinsic value". Bob Parsons had what was left of it shipped out to Louisiana, as per the original plan, but lost his bid to lay claim to his stepson's estate.) The judge also imposed a year's probation, to which Kaufman replied: "Does that mean I can't steal a body for another year?" The remark almost earned him jail time for contempt.

In the intervening years, his exploit has entered the annals of legend, not least thanks to the publication of his rollicking autobiography, Road Mangler Deluxe, in 1993. The story has also helped to cement Parsons' reputation as a visionary whose influence encompassed everyone from the Stones - "Wild Horses" and "Country Honk" were both written at his suggestion - to Elvis Costello and the whole contemporary alt-country scene. Parsons may have sold few albums in his lifetime, but he is now generally credited with single-handedly inventing the country-rock genre. The likes of Beck, Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch and Ryan Adams owe much to him, which explains why they willingly participated in the well-received 1999 tribute album of Parsons covers, Return of the Grievous Angel.

Now, just in time for the 30th anniversary, the body-snatching escapade has been turned into a movie. Grand Theft Parsons, a low-budget collaboration between the British writer Jeremy Drysdale and the Irish director David Caffrey, will have its debut at the London film festival in November. It stars Johnny Knoxville from Jackass as Kaufman, and Kaufman himself plays a jokey cameo as a handcuffed man protesting his innocence. "The movie really drags until I make this dramatic appearance," Kaufman said, with a wink. "Unfortunately, I appear in the very last scene."

Kaufman and Parsons were an oddly matched couple - the one, a burly ex-GI with a track record of marijuana busts who would do almost anything for a couple of $100 bills; the other, the scion of a rich Southern family whose birthname was the improbably pompous Cecil Ingram Connors. When they first met, Kaufman all but turned his nose up at Parsons. Kaufman had been working for the Rolling Stones, and resented having to minister to this new friend of Keith Richards who played nothing but country records at a rented house in Topanga Canyon. "Here was this guy with crushed velour pants and redneck manners. I had no idea who he was," he said. "Then he asked to borrow 20 bucks to buy a six-pack. I was not too impressed with him."

Over time, however, the pair built up a fierce loyalty to one another. Kaufman helped Parsons to sober up to complete GP, his first solo album, persuading him to pour a bottle of Chivas Regal down the sink rather than down his gullet after he showed up, near-incoherent and unable to sing, for a crucial recording session. On more than one occasion, he cleaned up the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood after Parsons and his friends trashed the place. He also sweet-talked his way around a cop who stopped Parsons for jaywalking outside the Chateau Marmont, only to discover a large stash of drugs on him. Later, on the road, Kaufman bailed Parsons out of an Arkansas jail cell even as the cops maced Parsons in the face and whacked him with billy clubs for insubordination. ("It was a full Bubba police station," Kaufman recalled. "The necks don't get any redder.") By the time of Parsons' death, the two of them had become like brothers, according to Emmylou Harris, Parsons' singing partner and now main keeper of his musical flame.

Kaufman puts Parsons' self-destructiveness down to his family background (his father drank himself into an early grave), and to his misguided attempt to emulate his friend and heroin buddy, Keith Richards. "Gram thought he had Keith's metabolism. Keith could eat iron and piss rust. But he was deathly wrong - or gravely mistaken, if you prefer," he said, relishing the little joke. "Gram tried, and Gram died."

Though he's loath to admit it, Kaufman has mellowed a little since his moment of recklessness in 1973. He still rides a Harley-Davidson, and his body is covered with tattoos. But the handlebar moustache and expansive beer gut that once made him a casting director's dream - for years, he was signed up to the London talent agency The Uglies - are both gone.

At 68, he's a little more careful with himself and he has not touched a drop of alcohol in five years. At our meeting, over lunch near his elderly father's home in Woodland Hills, in the far north-western suburbs of Los Angeles, he stuck religiously to Diet Coke and water. He has also retired from his long career managing acts such as Emmylou Harris, Joe Cocker and Etta James. He is still in occasional touch with Charlie Manson, whom he knew in the early days before the horrific Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969, but would no longer claim to be a friend of his. The last time Manson phoned him, on a reverse-charge call, Kaufman irritated him no end by telling him, "Charlie, you're doing life, and I'm living it."

One could even accuse Kaufman of being downright settled these days. Recently, he hooked up with his high-school sweetheart after a hiatus of 45 years, and the two are now married. I asked Kaufman whether Carol Ann, his new bride, calls him Phil or Mangler. "Mostly," he said, looking only slightly appalled at himself, "she calls me 'honey'." You can't help feeling that, somewhere out there, Parsons is laughing his head off.