If you told me tomorrow that I was destined to spend the rest of my days in only one place, by god make that place Joshua Tree, California.
That’s right folks, I am a desert rat.
The heat, the dust, the trees, the horizons, and the barbecues – all in the middle of absolutelyfuckingnowhere – offer an undeniable sense of serenity. It’s no wonder that so many before me have succumbed to the desolate charms of Joshua Tree. The Eagles shot their 1972 debut album cover photos there (supposedly while all on Peyote), U2 called their 5th studio album The Joshua Tree and used the image of the twisted, barren tree on the cover, and The Rolling Stones, Emmylou Harris, Robert Plant, and Donovan (who still likes to stay in room #11) would often jam and unwind at the now infamous Joshua Tree Inn & Motel – along with their friend, musical genius Gram Parsons.
Gram Parsons, for those of you who aren’t aware, was an American musician who spent his life devoted to making Cosmic American Music (a term he coined himself). It’s a mixture of country, blues, soul, folk, and rock. The pioneering equivalent of today’s Americana or Alt-Country. Gram had his famous musical debut as a member of The Byrds, after which he formed The Flying Burrito Brothers with fellow Byrd Chris Hillman, and finally to his solo career and working with protege Emmylou Harris.
Yet however deeply immersed in Southern California’s late 60’s / early 70’s music scene he was; Gram was never really known in his lifetime. His albums never charted and he lived primarily on inherited family money. Article after article I have read on the subject say that although highly talented and forward-thinking, Gram was also extremely humble, participating in the scene primarily for his love of music. And it wasn’t until after his posthumous album Grievous Angel was released in 1974 that Gram began to get the recognition he deserved.
Even without commercial success, Gram had an enormous impact on the world of Rock n’ Roll. In his mid-twenties, he and Keith Richards became very close, and it has been said that Gram helped inspire The Rolling Stone’s more country-alt sound – birthing songs such as Honky Tonk Woman, and Sweet Virginia. Gram’s rendition of Wild Horses is iconic; both for its sound and for the fact that the Rolling Stones rarely let anyone in the scene cover their work at the time. Additionally, Gram helped bring a young Emmylou Harris to recognition – having taken her on as a singer in his solo band after watching her perform in a club.
Artists such as the Eagles, The Lemonheads, and Tom Petty, have listed Gram as a major influence on their music.
Joshua Tree Inn & Motel, a colorful, hacienda-style building built in 1950, is a spot Gram would often visit as a refuge from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. I have, perhaps too intensely, romanticized the idea of Gram, Keith, and crew spending time there. They would be enjoying a beautiful sunset obstructed only by a landscape littered with gorgeous Joshua Trees while strumming guitars.
And yet, the pristine image in my mind distorts easily with the reality of drug addiction. While Keith’s favorite recreational activity at the time is well known and documented, the desire to ingest anything and everything extended to Gram as well. In fact, he had been in the throws of a drug addiction for much of his adult life, even having been offered help to overcome it by the likes of famed junky William S Burroughs.
No disrespect intended, but when Burroughs offers you help, you know you need it.
It was unfortunately during one of these beloved Joshua excursions that Gram would meet his untimely fate. Prior to going on tour in October 1973, Gram, girlfriend Margaret Fisher, personal assistant Michael Martin, and Dale McElroy, Martin’s girlfriend, made the trek out to Joshua Tree Inn & Motel to relax and unwind. On September 18th, Gram Parsons was found unresponsive in Room #8, and was pronounced dead at 12:15 AM.
The cause of death was determined to be a mixture of alcohol and morphine.
In the 2004 documentary on Gram’s life, Fallen Angel, Keith Richards states that Gram knew the dangers of mixing alcohol and opiates, and thus should have known better. Even still, what followed Gram’s tragic passing is what legends are made of.
Grand Theft Parsons
*All the below is summarized from Phil Kaufman’s biography ‘Road Mangler Deluxe’. Watch some of his interviews and decide for yourself how much of this story has been embellished.
According to Phil:
When the news of Gram’s passing reached his step-father, Bob Parsons, Bob organized to have the body shipped to him in Louisiana in order to gain access to Gram’s estate. Gram’s body was was then taken to Los Angeles Airport to await being claimed by his stepfather.
Meanwhile, another scheme was brewing. Gram and iconic Rolling Stones road Manager Phil Kaufman had once made a pact at a funeral that when the first of the two died, the other would take his friend’s body out into the desert at Joshua Tree and light it on fire. Phil was set on making sure this wish was fulfilled.
Absolutely drunk on beer and Jack Daniels and using Dale McElroy’s plateless, broken-windowed, personal hearse, Phil, along with Michael Martin, drove out to LAX to steal Gram’s body. Feeling they looked too funny wearing suits during the heist, they donned their tour outfits – cowboy hats, boots, and jackets with “Sin City” embroidered on the backs.
When they got to the airport, coincidentally the same time as Parson’s casket arrived, Kaufman somehow persuaded an airline employee that the Parsons family had changed their plans and wanted to ship Gram’s body on a private flight. While the airline employee and Kaufman were in the office filling out the necessary paperwork, a policeman drove up and blocked the hangar door. Phil sauntered out of the office, waving the paperwork in the policeman’s face and said “Hey, can you move that car?” The officer obliged and politely helped the men load the casket into the liquor-filled hearse.
The two body-snatchers then got into the hearse with Martin driving, and on their way out of the hangar, drunkenly ran the car into a wall. Phil recalls the policeman saying, “I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes now.” But he let them leave.
They set off for Joshua Tree National Park, stopping once on the way to stock up with high test gasoline. They drove until they were too drunk to drive any further – near Cap Rock – and subsequently unloaded Parsons’ body out of the hearse. Before they could perform the ceremony, they saw police lights in the distance and assumed that the police had caught on to the ruse. Kaufman quickly doused Parson’s body with the gasoline and lit a match. A giant fireball ensued. Kaufman and Martin turned tail and sped back to LA.
From the police perspective, they attempted to catch the troublemakers, but “were encumbered by sobriety”. Whatever the shit that means.
A few weeks after the incident, knowing the police were out looking for him, Kaufman turned himself in. However, because the body had no intrinsic value, he was merely fined $708 in damages for stealing the coffin, and a $300 fine for each of the bodysnatchers.
In true Kaufman style, he threw himself a party to raise the fine money, called “Kaufman’s Koffin Kaper Koncert”.
Now, as sensational as that is, it is also an extremely fucked up thing to do. Besides the obvious body-snatching morality question, here are a few other points to factor in.
- The family denies that Bob Parsons was out to make money off of Gram. At the time of Gram’s death, Bob was very ill in the hospital and yet was so devastated by the death he was willing to pick the body up himself. His sister insists that they were trying to bring him to Louisiana as that is where he called home.
- After he lit the body on fire, Phil fled the scene. Now, believe it or not, but it is not that easy to cremate a body. Phil literally left his friend’s half-charred remains on the side of a road.
- The rest of Gram’s family and friend’s were devastated by the body-snatching incident, Their grieving processes and memories of Gram were forever altered by a raging tour manager.
- Phil maintains to this day that he was carrying out the last wishes of his friend. He said / she said. Rock n’ roll.
For years, pilgrimages were made to Cap Rock, the slab of stone that Parson’s body was cremated on, by fans of all ages. However, after a chat with the housekeeper, I learned that just recently a piece of this rock was removed from its original location and relocated to the courtyard of Joshua Tree Inn, right outside the room in which Gram passed away.
Along with the stone, the monument includes a giant guitar covered with messages and offerings from fans, and sage burns nearby in plumes. For the real hardcore fans out there, Room #8 is still available to rent and includes the same mirror that was hanging on the wall when Gram died. And because I wasn’t actually a guest at Joshua Tree Inn (I just decided to stop in for a short visit), I never got inside the room – plus it was occupied – but I hear that its walls are covered with messages to Gram.
At Joshua Tree Inn & Motel, I simply wanted to be in the same space where so many incredible musicians felt inspired. I wanted to fill my lungs with the air that they used to create music that means so much to me. I wanted to feel the same dirt beneath my feet that they felt. It’s an addiction I have – I must get as close to the music as possible, and sometimes that means more than just listening.
Breathing. Seeing. Experiencing.
I can’t say I would ever be inclined to sleep in the same room that an icon has died in. For me, it would be too eerie. Too human. Knowing that I would wake the next day when it wasn’t the same for them. Plus, I never met Gram. I don’t know what he was really like and although I can fantasize to my hearts content, at the end of the day he was a person, and incredibly wounded person at that. Not just that, but things may have been different had he died of natural causes at a ripe old age; an overdose at 26 is tragic and traumatic.
It could be a different case for someone else, but in my travels, regardless of whether I knew the person or not, I made a point to never cross the “disrespectful” line.
And yet, if I was in Gram’s position, maybe I would be incredibly honored to have fans specifically scope out the room where I took my final breath.
What do you think? Would you ever stay in a room knowing someone you idolize died there?