Gram Parsons was a singer, song writer, guitar player & pianist that had been a member of several bands including the International Submarine Band, The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. It wasn’t until after his death, however, that he was recognized as being one of the founders of country rock and alt-country.
Perhaps what he is best known for is his tragic death and the subsequent events regarding his body. Gram died at the young age of 26 of a drug overdose in Joshua Tree, California. His friends stole his corpse from the airport before it could be flown back to Louisiana where his stepfather had intentions of claiming the young singer’s fortunes.
Wanting to make well on the promise he made to Gram, Phil Kaufman, with the help of Michael Martin, managed to steal Gram’s corpse from the airport and drive it out into the desert. After heavy boozing, they threw several gallons of gasoline on the corpse, lit it on fire and hi-tailed it out of the desert to avoid police. The two managed to avert arrest for several weeks but turned themselves in to the authorities on what would have been Gram’s 27th birthday. Their punishment was basically a slap on the wrist due to the fact that it wasn’t illegal back then to steal a corpse. So, they each got fined $300 and had to pay $708 for damages to the coffin. The events leading up to and after Gram’s death have been considered a legendary chapter in Rock and Roll history.
Gram Parsons' Legendary Nudie Suit
The suit that Gram had designed for himself has been interpreted as a sort of eerie timeline leading up to his death. With the pills, marijuana leaves, poppy flowers and nudes symbolizing the downward spiral that caused his death, the cholo cross on the back and the flames running up the legs of his pants foreseeing his friends’ drunken act of attempting to cremate his body.
Parsons' suit was hand stitched and designed by Manuel Cuevas, Nudie Cohen's protégé, who has called the suit "a map for him to follow to his death." Manuel stated in an interview, several years after Gram’s death, “This boy was really telling me how he was going to die. I was just making the outfit according to all the ideas that we put together: the nude girls, the pills and the marijuana plants, and the California poppies. The fire up the pants. The cross in the back. Although I captured the idea—we developed it into a great form—it wasn’t until a few years after his death that I really started thinking about it.”
Since his death, there have been many tributes to the late singer in the form of albums, movies, concerts and plays. A more recent tribute to Gram Parsons was in the form of a theatrical concert that was written to show a more romantic portrayal of the artist when he was at the top of his game and the time leading up to his tragic demise.
The Theatrical Concert, Grievous Angel: The Legend of Gram Parsons
While working in New York at the Broad Street Studio, we were contacted by Michael Bate, a well known Canadian Businessman and Entrepreneur, to create a jacket for the theatrical concert he co-wrote, produced and directed; Grievous Angel: The Legend of Gram Parsons.
Bate had the chance opportunity to interview Gram Parsons only six months before the singer’s death. It is said to be the last recorded interview with Parsons and it's what inspired Bates' theatrical concert.
As the head of the art department at the Broad Street Studio, I was given the responsibility of being lead designer of the jacket. Since it was to be only the jacket and not the full Nudie Suit, I moved and redesigned a lot of the embroidery elements so they were arranged nicely on the jacket. I had a lot of hands on time with doing all the embroidery on the jacket, but the pants were created later which I didn't take part in embroidering, only illustrations.
I actually left the studio in April of 2009 and moved to Portland, Oregon. I had the privilege of getting to see the performance and meet Anders and Michael when the group stopped in Portland. Needless to say, seeing the suit created and assembled in the studio was nothing compared to seeing Anders wear it on stage.
The Rendition of Gram Parsons' Legendary Nudie Suit
Designing the Nudie Suit
I started out with various sketches of the jacket. This was the final approved illustration, but we ended up making a few more necessary changes to the jacket as it was worked on. As I stated earlier, the suit actually didn't start out as a suit, but rather only a jacket.
I was put in charge of coming up with illustrations and design layouts for the suit, and it was decided that with respect to the original designers of Gram Parsons’ legendary suit, Nudie Cohn and Manuel Cuevas, it didn’t seem right to create a total replica/knock-off of the original Nudie Suit. We wanted to create a recognizable image of the original, but not a total re-creation. There was a frequent exchange of ideas, concerns and sketches that in the end turned into the final masterpiece that was worn by Anders Drerup, the man who played Gram Parsons.
While ideas were being exchanged, we sent off a jacket to be fitted to Anders before we began production of the actual jacket.
Nudie Suit Embroidery and Rhinestones
We wanted to capture the recognizable image of the suit, but give it a unique look as well.
I added a Joshua Tree to the back in place of the cross because it would first off be too similar to the original if we put the cross on the back, and secondly because Gram’s body was burned in Joshua Tree California; the tree was rather symbolic in that way. Michael still wanted the cross included on the suit so it was placed on the shoulder instead, which I think is a better choice because it's seen more on the front.
I also added the Telecaster because it was one of the main instruments Gram played. We kept most of the other elements, but just placed them in different locations and changed the look. One important embellishment we had to include was the rhinestones. It wouldn't have been the same without them.
As silly as it sounds, I did actually keep track of how many rhinestones I put on. It came to a grand total of 570 assorted greens, red, orange, blue, yellow and clear.