There was an old man, kind and wise with age
And he read me just like a book and he never missed a page
And I loved him like my father and I loved him like my friend
And, I knew his time would shortly come but I did not know just when…
–Gram Parsons “In My Hour of Darkness”
We were driving a little slower than anyone else on that clear cool Friday afternoon. It wasn’t because we were pulling the r-Pod, although that didn’t help matter very much…no, we had a destination. I wanted to see where a man died and I didn’t want to miss a turn.
But, we did just that, in a manner.
“There it is,” said Mariam. “The Joshua Tree Inn.”
It took me another ten minutes to find a way to make a u-turn and pull into the crescent-shaped drive way. The Inn stood close by Highway 62. We were on our way to the next stop in our journey, Twentynine Palms, California.
But, first I wanted to see where a man died.
The front door was locked. I peered into the window. No one was behind the desk. To my left, I saw an open gate. I boldly walked into the courtyard expecting to be stopped by a clerk or manager.
“Are you staying here?”
I was waiting for that question, but it never came. There wasn’t anyone around. I opened a door that had a sign stating that it should be kept locked at all times. Inside was a charming sitting room. Comfy chairs and a few tables. In the courtyard, cacti grew. A fire pit had a ring of chairs…waiting for a night-time fire and stories and legends and ghosts.
Yes, this Inn is reputed to be haunted. I wouldn’t be staying the night so I wouldn’t know who or what spirit resides here. I spotted room # 1. I continued along the tiled walkway, reading the numbers as I went.
I stopped in front of Room # 8. This was the place. This was the room where the legendary Gram Parsons put enough morphine and alcohol into his system to kill three men.
Keith Richards commented that Gram knew very well the dangers of mixing opiates and alcohol (Keith should know, they both hung out and got high in the late ’60’s). Friends said he simply miscalculated the dosage and failed to realize the potency of the mix.
He also failed to wake up. He died at the Hi-Desert Medical Center just after midnight, on September 19, 1973.
I mentioned that he was “legendary”, but he never achieved the fame and success of those he worked alongside. He was one of the Byrds (not officially, however) and he hung out with the Rolling Stones when they were recording “Exile on Main Street” in the south of France. He co-founded the Flying Burrito Brothers (with Chris Hillman). He toured with Emmylou Harris (who continues to sing his songs when she tours).
He was “legendary” in the sense that he put country music into an entirely new realm. His recording output was “minimal” according to most sources.
But, his spirit lives on in contemporary music. Films have been made about him. Books have been written. Tributes are made.
He didn’t live long enough to see his career flourish…he seemed to be on the verge of some success when he and some friends headed to the Joshua Tree Inn that day in September of 1973. He loved this desert and wanted to retreat here before starting a tour. He was only 26 years old, missing his place in the “27 Club” by a year.
Gram Parsons had long declared his desire to be cremated at his death. He had his wish…as a result of a bizarre and controversial effort on the part of his friends. I won’t go into details except to say that his body was stolen from LAX before the remains could be flown back to New Orleans. He was taken to a place in what is now Joshua Tree National Park, placed on a small hill, and his casket filled with three gallons of gasoline.
With the strike of a match his dream came true…so did the police. You’ll have to check Wikipedia for the grisly details of the outcome of that well-meaning adventure.
I stood in the courtyard of the Joshua Tree Inn and looked at his memorial. I thought of the early days of Jim Morrison’s grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris…before they gated it off from fans.
Here, items were left in bowls and jars. I saw two violin bows. I put a shiny penny into one of the dishes that was filled with coins. A large slab in the shape of a guitar stood before Room #8 like a tombstone. Four clay figures that stood about a foot tall, were placed across the courtyard. In the scrubs behind the figures was a white stone that read: All Things Are Possible Through God.
I thought about what little I knew of this man’s life. The suicide of his father when Gram was twelve years old. His little sister drinking herself to death.
I thought of his substance abuse…his doomed attempts to keep his demons at bay.
I said a quiet little “thank you” to Gram Parsons for the songs he left us. I am grateful to my son-in-law, Bob Goldstein, who brought Parsons back into my life with the comment: “Oh, you would loves Gram Parsons if you like Townes Van Zandt”. I’ve purchased “Grievous Angel” on iTunes and I intend to listen to his words tonight…under a nearly full moon and in the chilly desert air.
The air of night…about fourteen miles from the Joshua Tree Inn, where Gram Parsons took his final breath before vanishing into the desert he loved.
[Parsons in 1972. He had a year to live. Source: Wikipedia]
Her comb still lies beside my bed
And the sun comes up without her
It just doesn’t know she’s gone
Oh, but I remember everything she said.
–Gram Parsons “Brass Buttons”