For years I’ve been wanting to go to Joshua Tree National Park: 1) because it’s an amazing place, and 2) to pay tribute to country rock legend Gram Parsons.
I can’t remember when I first learned about Gram, but I’m pretty sure it was through one of the many Keith Richards interviews/memoirs I’ve read over the years, seeing as Gram and Keef were BFFs. As a result, Gram was a big influence on the Rolling Stones’ country-flavored stuff in the early 70s (some of the best music of all time, IMO).
A little history: Gram Parsons started off playing folk and rock guitar, but his real bag was country. After dropping out of Harvard, he went to LA and joined the Byrds in 1968, sticking around just long enough to tour a bit and make Sweetheart of the Rodeo (I’m not huge on the Byrds, but that album is one of my favorites). Then he and Chris Hillman went on to form the Flying Burrito Brothers:
(Gram is the one in the hat and Nudie suit, hamming it up for the camera.)
After that, he spent some time hanging out with the Stones, living with Keith during the recording of Exile on Main Street, another one of my favorite albums of all time. It was around this time Gram heard Emmylou Harris perform in a club in DC, and invited her to sing on his first solo album, GP. He and Emmylou toured for a bit, but never really got much of a following. I’m devastated there are no good videos of them performing live, because their voices together were magical. Emmylou would go on to become a big star, but that’s getting ahead of the story a bit.
As any country rock outlaw would, Gram loved Joshua Tree (you can see the Burrito Bros. hanging out in the park in the video above). He went there alone, he went there with Keef, he went there whenever he could. In July 1973, when bandmate Clarence White was killed in an accident, Gram told his friend/manager Phil Kaufman that he wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered in Joshua Tree in the event of his death.
Unfortunately, Kaufman had to make good on that deal just a few months later. Gram overdosed at the Joshua Tree Inn on September 18, 1973. His body was taken to LAX to be flown back to New Orleans at his stepfather’s request, but in order to fulfill Gram’s wishes, Phil Kaufman and another buddy Michael Martin drunkenly stole the casket in a hearse and drove it out to Joshua Tree. They stopped at a rock formation off the main road, doused the casket in gasoline, threw in a match, then drove away.
How Kaufman and Martin were found by the police is a story in itself, but they were eventually arrested, released, and fined just a few hundred dollars for stealing the casket (not the body, because there weren’t any laws about that). The not-quite-cremated body of Gram Parsons was found by some campers and was eventually transported back to Louisiana, but fans have been going to Joshua Tree for decades to pay tribute at the place he loved most.
This past weekend, I finally made it to Joshua Tree. While driving to the park, we listened to GP as I told Alex the story of Gram’s death and botched cremation. I made us stop for a photo op outside the Joshua Tree Inn (the actual motel is fenced off, but guests can still stay in Room 8 where Gram died). I had vague understanding about a makeshift memorial in the park, but didn’t know where it was. A quick Google search before entering the park placed it at Cap Rock, the site where Kaufman and Martin unsuccessfully tried to cremate Gram’s body that night.
While I’m sure there are detailed instructions somewhere on how to find the memorial, all we had was the general location (Cap Rock wasn’t even on the park map we were given), so we hiked around a few different rock formations until Alex finally spotted it: an unassuming alcove in the shade of a big boulder, right next to the main road. On the underside of the boulder were some song lyrics written in charcoal, and on a nearby rock, someone had drawn a cross next to the initials GP. A handful of guitar picks and other trinkets were arranged on a little ledge above. It would be pretty easy to miss if we weren’t looking for it.
No one else was around, so we quietly snapped some pictures and went on our way. Park rangers periodically “clean up” the site, so I have no idea if this was a few days or months’ worth of tribute.
Somewhere in my classic rock adventures I’ve become particularly fond of 60s/70s country rock, no doubt thanks to Gram, Keef, and Nez (who I recently saw in concert! another post on that later, maybe). Songs about the desert and the highway—even if they’re about loneliness and heartbreak—always bring back happy memories of childhood road trips through the Southwest. So basically what I’m saying is, Gram’s music holds a special place in my heart, and even though his flame burned out too soon, it’s nice to know his spirit is very much alive in Joshua Tree.