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Missing Parsons Bureau : Newport Beach Admen Breathe Some Life Into One of Their Dead Rock Heroes by Hiding His Name in Plain Sight

April 21, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWPORT BEACH — Remember "The Hidden Persuaders" and the other paranoia-inducing books that claimed to expose a world of subliminal messages in advertising? Powerful images and words of sex and death were supposedly airbrushed into every ice cube and shadow in product ads, secretly coercing you into buying, buying, buying.

If you someday find yourself inexplicably humming songs with such titles as "Hot Burrito No. 1" and "Hickory Wind" while buying an album called "The Gilded Palace of Sin," blame advertising art directors Bruce Mayo and Jon Gothold.

For the past couple of years, the two award-winning Orange County admen have been dropping the name of country rock pioneer Gram Parsons, creator of the above works, into their ads whenever possible.

While far from being a household name, Parsons had a massive effect on the music world. In recording the "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" album during his brief tenure with the Byrds in 1968, he initiated the country-rock movement that spawned such bands as the Eagles and anticipated the rocked-up sound of contemporary country music.

He continued to define that sound with the Flying Burrito Brothers (with Chris Hillman, later of the Desert Rose Band) and two solo albums that also marked the debut of singer Emmylou Harris. His work went on to influence everyone from Rodney Crowell to Elvis Costello, but Parsons himself checked out in September, 1973, suffering a drug overdose at his beloved Joshua Tree State Park. His death sparked more press attention than his life had, when his friend and road manager Phil Kaufman fulfilled a promise to the singer by stealing his body and cremating it at Joshua Tree.

For a guy whose ashes settled into the sand 20 years ago, Parsons has been turning up in some curious places of late.

There's the cellular phone ad with the grim newspaper headlines about carjackings and traffic snarls, with one of the made-up articles quoting "Police spokesman Gram Parsons" (the piece also bore the byline of Nick Drake, actually a dead British cult folk singer).

There are ads for a chain of print shops, displaying stacks of neat forms for G. Parsons Inc. and stationary reading "From the desk of Gram Parsons." Then there's the public service ad warning against sources of burns in the home, displaying a "Gramma Parsons" microwave dinner.

"Sometimes, we might need a something with a name on it, so why not his?" says Mayo. "To most people, it won't mean diddly. Jon and I do it for the 10 people who might notice, and to amuse each other."

*

The first things one notices when entering the modern Newport Beach offices of the Lawrence & Mayo advertising agency are all the awards on the walls. The second thing is a life-sized cardboard stand-up of Barbara Bush, altered to hold a sign reading "Will work for food."

Creative Director Mayo started the firm a year and half ago with Lynda Lawrence. The fledgling, six-member team has just walked away with 21 Orange County Ad Club awards, bested by only two of the 177 other entrants. One of those two was the relatively giant dGWB agency, where Mayo's friend Gothold is senior art director.

If management types are defined by their cars, consider that Gothold drives a '68 Mustang, while Mayo's two vehicles are a '67 VW van with a busted water bed and a weathered gray Ford LTD nicknamed the Narc-mobile.

The two rarely use their own names when calling each other, instead giving receptionists the names of a succession of dead musicians.

"We especially like dead, blind black people, but we like anybody who's dead and not known very well," Mayo said.

Gothold continued, "The receptionists never know who we are, so one of us will just call up and say, 'Hi, this is Jesse Ed Davis,' and the other knows to pick up the line right away."

"Mr. Mayo, Nick Drake's on line three!" Mayo intoned.

"Edward Cochran, please," parried Gothold.

"Samuel Cooke calling," Mayo said. "We have an ever-growing list of names, unfortunately."

The pair met 12 years ago at a different agency.

Gothold recalled: "I'd been working there for a couple of years before Bruce came in. I was told I was going to be sharing an office with him, and I'd heard he was a devout Christian guy. I thought, 'Oh man!' because I was used to playing my records as loud as I liked, and thought 'I'm sure going to enjoy having this real conservative here.' Then we just hit it off instantly."

*

Though he does indeed take his Christianity seriously, there aren't too many other things Mayo is particularly solemn about. The stereo stayed cranked, and they discovered that each was a huge fan of Parsons' music.

Mayo, 40, first heard of Parsons in 1968 while growing up in La Mirada.

"My brother bought 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo' when it first came out, and said, 'Ugh. Here, you want this?' And it just knocked me out. I'd never liked country music before that," he said.

Whittier-spawned Gothold, 37, went crackers for Gram a few years later when he and some friends got drunk and decided to buy a pile of country albums.

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