Gram Parsons’ Joshua Tree legacy endures 50 years after he died
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Mountain climbing a social path behind Joshua Tree Nationwide Park’s famed Cap Rock, I got here throughout a peculiar sight that, if what you’re searching for, really isn’t so uncommon in any respect: a crude cross made from darkish stones under a scribble of orange graffiti.
It was a makeshift memorial to Gram Parsons, the Nineteen Seventies rock star who had a deep connection to the park in life — and in demise. A lot in order that followers, nicknamed “Grampires” by some park workers, nonetheless hang-out this dusty patch of Mojave Desert a long time after the 26-year-old’s demise at a close-by motel — and impromptu funeral pyre on park grounds.
Parsons’ followers typically depart guitar picks, handwritten letters, empty whiskey bottles and, a minimum of one time, a life-size papier-mâché statue of the singer. Sadly, some additionally spray-paint the rocks, which is harder to clear away. “Gram liked the park a lot,” mentioned George Land, a former public data officer for the nationwide park. “I can’t think about he’d be comfortable about somebody desecrating it like that.”
Park officers have lengthy debated methods to acknowledge Parsons’ story. For many years, it was seen as a humiliation to be ignored, however that stance has softened over time. Upon the fiftieth anniversary of Parsons’ demise on Sept. 19, 1973, each park officers and the encompassing city are bracing for an inflow of followers. Park officers are also busy imagining a brand new technique to honor Parsons and Joshua Tree’s far-reaching musical roots.
Return of the Grievous Angel
Parsons was thought-about to be the daddy of the country-rock motion — he referred to as it “cosmic American music.” He was a member of the Byrds for 4 tumultuous months after which co-founded the Flying Burrito Brothers with fellow Byrd Chris Hillman earlier than embarking on an all-too-brief solo profession.
“Along with his voice and beauty, Gram may stand onstage and make all the ladies cry,” mentioned Land. “His songs may tug at your emotional heartstrings.”
Parsons was friends with the Rolling Stones, introducing the band to each Joshua Tree and the music of nation king George Jones. (Relying on whom you speak to, Parsons both impressed or really wrote the Stones’ traditional “Wild Horses.”) The First Assist Package music “Emmylou” was impressed by Parsons and duet associate Emmylou Harris; the music’s lush music video was filmed in Joshua Tree.
Joshua Tree has lengthy held an attract for guests, together with well-known musicians. Queens of the Stone Age vocalist Josh Homme was born close to right here, whereas ’60s rocker Donovan liked the realm a lot that he moved right here within the Nineteen Seventies. John Lennon visited, as did the Doorways’ Jim Morrison. The Eagles’ first album cowl was shot within the park. (Satirically, the quilt of U2’s traditional “The Joshua Tree” album was shot lots of of miles away, closer to Death Valley National Park.)
“The rock scene of the Sixties and ’70s particularly appeared to intertwine with Joshua Tree,” mentioned park ranger Jeffrey Tedtaotao, himself a drummer. “It’s straightforward to get impressed out right here, to attract on the stillness and quiet, the bushes and the rocks.”
Parsons liked visiting Joshua Tree whereas he constructed his profession in Los Angeles. On the time, it was a nationwide monument (it turned a nationwide park in 1994), and a reasonably sleepy one at that.
In all places I am going within the park, I can’t assist however think about Parsons snoozing atop a boulder or leaning in opposition to one of many unusual, spindly yuccas that give the park its identify, scribbling lyrics in his pocket book.
In September 1973, needing to blow off steam after recording his second solo album, “Grievous Angel,” Parsons, his girlfriend and two others made a beeline for Joshua Tree. After day-drinking at a bar on the town, Parsons and his get together retired to the Joshua Tree Inn, a small, Spanish-style motel the place he was a welcome common and buddy of the homeowners and workers.
“Donovan instructed us years later that each one the musicians that may keep right here when visiting Joshua Tree, they’d all hang around exterior their rooms or by the pool and simply play,” mentioned Dee Dee Cornett, the inn’s present common supervisor.
In rock circles of the time, Parsons was nearly as well-known for his drug consumption as his music. He was infamous for cocaine binges that led to missed live shows and fractured relationships, Ben Fong-Torres writes in his biography of the musician, “Hickory Wind.” (Keith Richards even prompt he was going too hard.)
Whereas partying along with his buddies that night time on the motel, it’s believed that Parsons overdosed on a mix of alcohol and morphine. After he was briefly resuscitated, he was dropped at his room — No. 8 — the place his respiratory would as soon as once more gradual, then cease eternally.
We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes
What entwines Parsons and Joshua Tree will not be solely his demise there but in addition what adopted. His estranged stepfather organized for Parsons’ physique to be flown to Louisiana for burial. However in accordance with buddy and tour supervisor Phil Kaufman, Parsons needed to be laid to relaxation in Joshua Tree, and it was as much as Kaufman to make good on his buddy’s final request.
So in a weird scene that appears straight out of a film — later emulated within the 2003 indie movie “Grand Theft Parsons” starring Johnny Knoxville, Michael Shannon and Christina Applegate — Kaufman and a buddy borrowed a hearse, drove to LAX and satisfied the airline workers that burial plans had modified and that they had been there to take the physique. From there, they drove to Cap Rock in Joshua Tree, the place Kaufman doused the coffin with 5 gallons of high-test gasoline and lit a match.
“We drove into Joshua Tree and saved driving and driving till lastly I mentioned, ‘That is so far as I can go. We’re drunk. We’re going to must get out of right here,’” Kaufman wrote in his autobiography, “Road Mangler Deluxe.” “Afterward, individuals mentioned Cap Rock was Gram’s favourite place and Gram needed to be buried there. [We only stopped there because] we had been too drunk to go any additional and it was a big sufficient place that we may flip round and make our escape.”
A horrified upkeep crew discovered the still-smoldering physique the subsequent morning, solely partially consumed by the flames. (Kaufman had seen a pair of headlights within the distance and, satisfied it was the cops, lit out earlier than the improvised cremation was completed.) Kaufman and confederate Michael Martin had been finally arrested, however as a result of there was no regulation on the time in opposition to stealing a corpse, they had been convicted solely of stealing the coffin and fined $300 every. (In addition they needed to pay $708 for the destroyed casket.) Many years later, it stays some of the weird tales in rock ’n’ roll historical past. (Parsons’ stays had been finally buried in Louisiana.)
The precise cremation spot isn’t publicized by the park, but it surely’s not tough to seek out. Based on Kaufman and several other rangers, the physique was cremated on a median bordering the Cap Rock car parking zone. It is smart, given how drunk Kaufman and Martin had been that night time; they in all probability couldn’t haul the heavy coffin to the bottom of Cap Rock, the place followers incessantly erect these makeshift memorials.
Spokesperson Jennie Albrinck mentioned Nationwide Park Service officers are discussing a music-related exhibit at Cap Rock that may highlight Native American hen singers, Parsons and rising artists acting at music festivals similar to Coachella and Stagecoach at this time. It’s hoped that Parsons’ followers will depart their mementos there fairly than deface historical geological treasures and cultural landmarks. Higher but, park officers need to create a method for individuals to share their experiences on social media.
“Individuals with an emotional attachment to a spot or particular person typically really feel the necessity to depart one thing of themselves behind,” Albrinck mentioned. “Hopefully, we are able to discover different methods for individuals to specific themselves as an alternative of … taking away from the wonder that impressed Parsons and different musicians.”
Hearts on Hearth
Whereas neighboring Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley have exploded in development during the last decade or so, the city of Joshua Tree feels in some ways remarkably just like the way it did in Parsons’ day (even when many residents bemoan Joshua Tree seemingly transforming into a collection of Airbnbs fairly than an precise group). Guests will discover a handful of gasoline stations and comfort shops, in addition to a bar or two. Against this, the nationwide park has seen a number of adjustments, going from a cathedral of pure solitude to the 10th most-visited within the U.S.
The Joshua Tree Inn has modified homeowners a number of instances since Parsons’ demise, and it even was a gaggle residence for at-risk youth for a number of years earlier than Margo Paolucci purchased it in 2002. Since then, the motel has gone from wanting nothing to do with Parsons’ demise to leaning closely into it; the inn has change into an enormous shrine to the singer. Musicians together with Grace Potter, Kacey Musgraves and Robert Plant have all stopped by through the years to pay their respects, in accordance with motel supervisor Cornett. Previous live performance posters and hand-drawn artwork of Parsons cowl practically each wall.
For devoted followers, Room 8 is a web site akin to Jesus’ alleged crucifixion web site on Golgotha. For $198 an evening — with a two-night minimal — you possibly can keep inside these off-white cinder-block partitions, but it surely’s typically booked properly upfront.
“We felt a presence there, like he was within the room with us,” mentioned Beth Stallings Odom, who traveled from Georgia along with her husband, Gary, simply to go to Parsons’ Joshua Tree. She’s not the one one; many friends write within the room diary that they really feel an identical, eerie vibe. Even the hosts of the “Ghost Adventures” TV present got here out to scrutinize the spectral hypothesis.
I didn’t sense Parsons’ ghost as I entered the room for my very own keep. The room has had quite a lot of face-lifts since Parsons’ demise; the one authentic piece of furnishings is a round, gold-framed mirror hung reverse the mattress.
I imagined Parsons checking his reflection earlier than heading out the night time of his demise. My very own is sort of a bit completely different from that of Parsons — older, rounder and greater than a bit hairier — and it bought me serious about the probabilities had he lived. Would he have discovered the success so a lot of his followers and contemporaries predicted, maybe changing into an elder statesman of at this time’s Americana music scene like his former bandmates Harris and Hillman? Or would he have slowly light out just like the closing notes of “The New Tender Shoe,” consigned to an extended lifetime of obscurity? We’ll by no means know.
The inn has a few acoustic guitars that friends can take again to their rooms to play, but when the mediums are proper and Parsons’ ghost nonetheless inhabits No. 8, I didn’t need to additional punish him with my brutal tackle “Brass Buttons.”
I’d prefer to suppose that if Parsons’ spirit stays earthbound, he wouldn’t be trapped in a motel; as an alternative, he’d be within the park, surrounded by the panorama he liked a lot.
Tenting just some miles from Cap Rock, I sat by a roaring hearth — no 5 gallons of high-test gasoline wanted — a kaleidoscope of purples fading to black within the sky. Serenaded by lovelorn crickets and an occasional hen name, I strained my ears. For a short second, I imagined a faint echo of “In My Hour of Darkness” whispered in a well-recognized Georgia baritone among the many bushes.