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Name-Droppers : If You Can't Remember Gram Parsons, Don't Blame These Guys

L.A. STORIES. A slice of life in Southern California

April 27, 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 award-winning 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 a household name, Parsons had a massive effect on the music world. In recording the "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" album during his brief 1968 tenure with the Byrds, 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 and two solo albums that also marked the debut of singer Emmylou Harris. His work influenced performers from Rodney Crowell to Elvis Costello, but Parsons checked out in September, 1973, from a drug overdose at his beloved Joshua Tree State Park. His death sparked more press attention than his life, when friend and road manager Phil Kaufman fulfilled a promise to Parsons 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 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 business a year and half ago with Lynda Lawrence. The fledgling firm recently 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.

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

"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," explains Gothold.

"Mr. Mayo, Nick Drake's on Line 3!" Mayo intones.

The pair met 12 years ago at a different agency.

"I'd been working there for a couple of years before Bruce came in," Gothold recalls. "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 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 says.

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.

Both were drawn to art as children.

"I wanted to be a cartoonist," Gothold says. "My aspiration was to work for Mad magazine. In college, I did political cartoons for the paper. It wasn't until I had to take an ad art class in college that I realized what an art director was, that you could have fun and make money at it. It never dawned on me before that it was people who were coming up with these things."

Though both have families and seem to get the job done for their clients, they still like to regard their work as play time.

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