Musings On Music

Archive for September, 2012

Reflections On Gram Parsons

Prologue

So, I had been in need of a solo roadtrip, a rock’n'roll roadtrip…some kind of pilgrimage…well one week in August 2006 I was driving past Joshua Tree National Park and realized…hey that’s where Gram Parsons died nearly 33 years ago…I happened to have the Reprise Sessions with me and discovered it was on the 18th/19th, and it clicked…I had Mondays off and I needed to take a holiday next week, so that Tuesday became it.

I had really gotten into Gram Parsons that summer, really into the whole “Cosmic American Music” that he produced, the country rock that he invented, the legacy he left behind with his solo albums, his work with the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Byrds, and the International Submarine Band, even his hanging around the Rolling Stones (debate what you will about his influence)…which is really what started this, it’s just an extension of my Stones obsession to some degree. Well, that and his music is just completely amazing, some of the most beautiful stuff I’ve ever heard. I also realized I never would have been able to thoroughly dig into his music if I hadn’t completely immersed myself in Ryan Adams’ Jacksonville City Nights.

I figured I would just drive out to the park, visit the Cap Rock where he and Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg would hang out and sing songs wasted…there’s a plaque there and a bit of monument…then I wondered about the hotel he actually died in…turns out they are totally into the Gram Parsons history of their little lodge…he died in room 8, overdosed on morphine and tequila. I made the reservations he day I returned, I would be sitting in the room in which he crossed over 33 years later to the moment (technically he was declared dead at a nearby hospital on 9/19/73 at 12:30 in the morning, but he had stopped breathing by 10:30 on the 18th)…I would take pen, paper, tequila, maybe some whiskey, a couple packs of smokes, a camera and a digital voice recorder for thoughts, poems, etc. and…his entire catalog of music of course.

Tuesday morning, I planned to head out to the Cap Rock and pay my respects at the monument. It seemed all somehow fitting to end that summer that way, it had definitely been a great one that had completely expanded my musical horizons.
The room had been kept nearly the same and most of the furniture, etc. are still intact. I was oddly psyched to stare into the last mirror he ever looked in which still hangs on the wall. This was one of the weirdest things I’ve done, I must admit–I couldn’t hardly wait.

 The Great Gram Parsons Pilgrimage

On September 18th of 2006 I went in search of a ghost, in fact I drove 366 miles across the Sonoran and Mojave deserts to seek out the Fallen Angel, the Grievous Angel, the soul called Gram Parsons that lost his life 33 years ago that evening, in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn, only 16 miles from where his body was haphazardly cremated at Cap Rock in ritual only by a friend trying to make good on a promise, only three days later. During the five hour trip, I listened to the music of this man, this artist, this beautiful maniac who only lived 26 years and, in his own way, changed the world of music, if not the world itself and silently sits from the grave, smiling, rarely taking any of the credit.

I listened to his catalog in chronological order, starting with his earliest recordings in the Shilos and solo, barren with only voice and guitar starting with an early rendition of his later masterpiece, “Brass Buttons”, or covering “Codine”, followed by the International Submarine Bands “Safe At Home” album—considered by many to be the first country rock album (which is odd because I thought that was Elvis Presley’s debut album), followed by both discs of the legacy edition of the Byrds “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” with tons of Gram material, then through the entire Flying Burrito Brothers catalog. It was the latter groups work that really stuck to me this time, perhaps because I had watched some performances of the Burritos since hearing this previously, but suddenly it hit me that this was truly the pinnacle of rock meeting country music…those first two Burrito albums are amazing.

I was panicking because everything said “get there by 8pm”, office closes at 8, etc…well, I was cutting it close and so I stopped at a gas station at the exit before the one to Joshua Tree and called the Inn…told them I would be a bit late and he told me not to worry, he’d stick around…I shouldn’t rush, etc. I was reassured that all was well and that I wouldn’t lose the room. I panicked again on the way into Joshua Tree that it would be in the middle of nowhere and so I whipped a 180 at the first liquor store and paid way too much for a bottle of tequila, some margarita mix and a couple of limes….ten miles down the road there was a grocery store and a small town that would have done and I would have paid a lot less, but I was on a mission.

Finally, nearly 30 miles after getting off the highway I, I …I drove right past it. Saw this immediately and turned right around in the middle of the road and pulled hastily into the dirt lot in front of a dimly lit motor inn with a neon OPEN sign still on….the front door was locked…the side door was locked and then I found the back door wide open…I breathed my last sigh of relief for the evening and walked in, heart finally starting to slow down, my soul relaxing just a touch…the songs of Gram literally ringing in my head, I had made it, alive and in one piece…this was actually happening.

Evo, the owner met me with a big smile and I checked in, properly and paid and then he said, “You know tonight’s a special night.” I smiled and said, “Yeah, I know, I’m kind of surprised I could get the reservation.” He gave me the key and there it was room eight…wow…he showed me where it was but stepped away (later he told me, he lets everyone walk in alone to experience whatever they might on their own)…so I made my way to room 8, put the key in the lock and held my breath, I opened the door and the first thing I saw was the mirror shaking on the wall…turned on the light and was greeted by such a warm and peaceful feeling it was a bit overwhelming. Perhaps it was finally getting over the rush of the road, perhaps it was the relief in arriving at my destination…but in all seriousness, the atmosphere of the room just seemed to hug me when I walked in, I felt immediately at ease and was brought to a smile.

Me In Gram Parsons Mirror

I unpacked everything, then noticed a stereo in the corner, a burned cd with a picture of Gram on the case and on the disc it said “Gram Parsons Room 8″…on the table next to it was a leather bound diary of visitors from the last couple years…I was going to set up the stereo, but the AC adapter was missing, I went and got Evo and he was baffled, so we looked and then he went to get one for me and handed me a laminated obituary from Rolling Stone in the issue that came out the week Gram died….I asked about food and he gave me a bunch of locations but cautioned they all closed at nine…well, I was on a tight budget so I went to the supermarket back up the road and got some ice and two hoagies, figuring that and a soda would tide me over….I returned to the room and ate my hoagie, read the article and Evo came in with the AC adapter…he saw, I think, all of the Gram Parsons albums scattered across the bed and realized that I was very into this…he left for a while and after I finished my sub, I set up some candles I brought with me in the room, put on the GP album and opened the door, took a big swig of tequila and cheered to Gram, mixed a margarita and lit a smoke outside, then I noticed that the SAFE AT HOME plaque was right in front of my freaking room…with a light over it, candles, I grabbed some candles I brought and lit some of the incense there…after finishing my smoke, I went back inside had some more tequila and took some pictures. I went back out shortly and noticed that there were more candles, and mine had gone out…I rearranged them and Evo appeared once more…

He had lit the other candles and now there was a picture of Gram there as well, I lit the candles at the table outside the room that were there when I arrived and Evo…said, “you know there’s only three of us here tonight that know about Gram.” I said “Really?” He said “Yeah, have you met Anders from Sweden? A really nice guy, just stopped in today, wanted room 8, but you had it so he’s right down the way.” “Does he want to see the room or want a margarita?” “Hang on, I’ll go ask him.” And so that’s how a three man party to celebrate the life and music of Gram Parson’s began…

Evo turned to me in the room and said, “you know it was actually tonight…everyone thinks it’s the 19th, because he died just after midnight, but…” and I finiished, “Yeah, he was dead by about 10:30, 33 years ago tonight” We listened for a moment as the spirit and music of Gram filled the room…”I’ve got a candle, a woman named Peggy gave me a few years ago and I’ve never burned it, but I think tonight is the right night to finally light it, I’ll go get it” He went and got the candle, it was beautiful and blue with a picture of Gram on it in his nudie suit with rhinestones glued on it, we lit it and smiled.” It was around 9:30…”We’re getting close,” Evo said. “Let me go get Anders, he’s right over there.” “Yeah, tell him to come on in, we’ll have a celebration, I’ve got margaritas flowing.” “I’m gonna grab a beer,” he said.

In time, Evo returned with Anders, from Sweden and had a beer in hand, I had the door open and GP was still playing…I invited him in and Anders was just in awe and instantly felt the warmth and wonder of the room, he couldn’t believe it…he texted a friend in his band back in Sweden and grinned sitting in the chair by the bed, I made him a margarita and we toasted to Gram…Evo even called Peggy to let her know that it was getting close to the time, she was asleep, but after Evo explained, whoever answered the phone went to wake her up and we all ended up talking to her and thanking her for the wonderful candle that she made years ago that seemed just perfect for this moment…

We sat outside and soon it was time to change the album, which we obviously went to his second and last, Grievous Angel, we sat outside and stared at the shrine, I smoked and we took pictures of each other, at about 10:15 we went back into the room and talked about how amazing it was that this one person who lived for only 26 years could touch so many lives, in very positive ways, how much he influenced all those he met, how he touched even more people in death than he had in life and how sad it was that that was so often the case with artists, never being appreciated while they were alive. We talked about Nick Drake and Tim Buckley, we talked of Brian Jones and so many tragedies of youth…and then at 10:20…out of nowhere a white cat ran into the room, it’s right eye was blue and it’s left eye was yellow, it jumped on the bed and ran a bit about…Anders and I looked at each other stunned….Evo was out answering a phone call at the time, but by 10:30 we were all inside the room…and toasted to Gram once more…we took pictures of each other, and of the mirror…we listened to his songs and we felt his presence in a VERY strong way, it was Evo that said it, “I think Gram is very pleased with us tonight…” and I said, “Yeah, but I bought the wrong brand of tequila, apparently he liked Sauza…” “I don’t think it matters,” Evo said, he was on the phone with his wife, “My wife says Gram doesn’t care either.” We laughed and smiled at this. We drank some more and talked about Gram, standing over the shrine, sitting outside, just soaking it all up–now some might call this a bit weird, a bit macabre and even a bit disrespectful to be doing this, but really, it’s just a wake that was 33 years late…and there was nothing in the spirit of that night or from the spirits of that night that suggested what we were doing anything but celebrate the life and music of a great artist…

Evo asked about the cat and we both mentioned we had seen it, it’s name was Sky and it just started showing it up a few years ago and only hangs out in room 8…we were stunned and sure that if it wasn’t the reincarnation of Gram, it sure was his little totem, there was something sweet and sad in that cat, just like Gram…Evo also talked about all the bands and artists that had hung out at the Joshua Tree Inn over the years….Gram, the Stones, the Eagles wrote a lot of the best songs there, Donovan still visits their frequently and how they all hung out at the pool…I also told Anders and Evo, the circumstances that had led to this trip and the strange series of synchronicities that had brought it about and that on top of all of that, the woman I had spent the last half of a decade with had just left me and moved out while I was at work…they were stunned by my story and thought that it was in fact quite important I was there that evening. Grievous Angel was about to end and we decided on more drinks and some time to sit by the pool and stare at the sky…( On a funny side note…when I mentioned to Evo…about how I posted my thing about coming out on the Parsons pilgrimage to the a message board, and how someone else had posted it on gramparsons.com, he said “Oh, are you Lazy Dazed Angel?…I read that!”—too weird.)

I popped in the Live 1973 album, turned the volume up, mixed some more drinks and we headed to the pool…the sky was stunning….it was the first time in a couple years that I could see the milky way and was amazed and dazed by just how many stars were in the sky, so many that the constellations were no longer apparent, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the sky as clear and deep and beautiful and dark and on fire as it was that night–we were lucky the moon was getting close to New and we wouldn’t see it until early morning, in fact WE wouldn’t see it all….we sat down and Evo went to grab another beer then we agreed that the lights around the motel were a bit much, so Evo was kind enough to turn them off and in one case he got on a step ladder I think and just took a flood light down. We all sat back in front of our field of stars stunned with the idea of all the amazing artists who had sat right there, swam in the pool and wrote songs…songs we all knew…right there…this is where Keith Richards came to chill out with Gram during the mixing of Beggars Banquet, this is where the Eagles wrote numerous hits and KNEW they were writing hits, where Donovan wrote his minstrel songs and stared at the same sky we saw that night…there was something magic, incense and candlelight behind us, the distant sounds of Gram and Emmylou calling out from the open door at room 8 and we sat there loving it all, knowing damn well that Gram was pleased, that Gram was with us and that everything was alright if even just for a night…we talked and talked and watched the Pleidaes rise above the mountains that formed a dark horizon in the distance, we talked about how Gram would come out here to look for UFOs and it was about then that Anders saw a shooting star…we all agreed that was cool…then I saw one, then we all saw one…an Owl flew by and Bat did as well…everything was magic.

I offered to make Anders another drink, but he was ready to retire, it was well after midnight and 33 years ago, Gram had been officially pronounced dead at the hospital miles away…I returned to the pool and drank another margarita and hung out with Evo, as we talked about every Cosmic American thing we could think of and it was during that time the meteor shower really kicked up…an amazing stream of shooting stars beneath the moonless night sky on a backdrop of the pure milky way was something breathtaking as the sound of Gram played from the open door of  room 8…we felt blessed for being there and sat there stunned for some time, as the universe seem to put on a special show just for us and really for Gram…soon, though it had gotten too late for both of us, Evo turned in and I added candles to the shrine, said my good night to the night sky and poured one more margarita, smoked a cigarette and felt like Gram was sitting next to me, soaking it all in…I finally decided to retire…though that’s unclear, since I had a nearly full drink…I put on the Sleepless Nights compilation and laid on the bed, stared at the ceiling and suddenly heard a beautiful, “meeeeowww” and Sky pounced on my chest and simply laid down on me, licked my face and that’s the last I remember of the evening, except occasionally waking to find this strange white cat snuggled next to me…I felt safe at home.

 

The next morning I first woke at 9:30…still fully clothed from the night before and realized that breakfast had just ended…I stared at the clock, saw the nearly full margarita next to the bed and the cat snuggled on my shoulder…I got up, slammed the margarita down and went back to bed until 11…the night before I had asked about check out time and Evo said it was 11, but that he wasn’t real strict about it and that I should really try a swim in the pool and generally I got the idea I could hang out a bit and get over the night before at my own leisure…which I did…I laid in the bed and stared at the ceiling, for nearly half an hour, dazzled by all that had occurred the night before, how present the spirit of Gram had been and I looked over to see the Gram Forever candle still burning, which pleased me greatly…I finally got up, went outside and had a smoke, Sky was still sleeping and I went to take a look at the shrine, candles burned, incense faded, it looked downright gothic…I finished my smoke and went back to the room…decided that I had to have a swim, but noticed there was still a shot of tequila in the bottle…I went outside with it, poured it around the shrine and wrote “33y” on the label…the pen died so that’s all I could get…then I went for a swim…the temperature of the pool almost stopped my heart immediately…needless to say, my swim was short and sweet, but nice nonetheless, I dried in the sun on a lounge chair and decided that I should probably take some steps toward checking out and heading on to Cap Rock at Joshua Tree National Monument.

I showered, ate the other hoagie I had on hand, slammed a cola and played the cd that was in the room when I got there…after showering and packing, I loaded the car and went back to the room, wrote a couple pages in the guest diary and finally decided it was time to leave, Sky wanted out finally as well…I went to the office but there was no one there, I eventually found the housekeeper and she said I could give her the key, I told her the Gram Candle and the Rolling Stone article were still in there and that those were Evo’s…she understood and then I asked if she could take a couple pictures of me outside the door…finally the candles outside had gone out…I gave her the key and headed on my way…

I got to the park entrance and paid my $15, then asked the very cleanut park ranger…”Hey could you tell me where Cap Rock is?”  “Uh, Cap Rock, huh? You’re here for the Gram Parson thing aren’t you”…I laughed…”Yeah, I am.” he shook his head “It’s 10.6 miles straight ahead”…First of all Joshua Tree is amazing with it’s peculiar forest of cactus trees and it’s monstrous granite outcroppings that burst out of the ground…it stuns all who travel through it and enjoy its wonder…the wind as it whips across the high country is amazing, warm and wonderful, soothing to the soul in search of a certain sense of isolation. Sure, enough in 10.6 miles I got to the familiar formation of Cap Rock, parked my car and hike around it until at last coming to the site of Gram Parsons cremation…a large cross made of stones was laid out on the ground and the rocks were covered with messages, names, lyrics and tributes to the Grievous Angel, guitar picks were everywhere, as well as a beer and a votive candle…the underside of the rock seems to still be a bit scorched and it’s color doesn’t match anything else in the Cap Rock formation…even the sand and gravel below was blackened, but I’m sure that was more from years of fires to honor Phil Kaufman’s bizarre ritual, in tribute of his friend.  I sat there for a while and lost track of space and time, a guy and his daughter showed up and hung out for a while, they took some pictures of me by the area and then left, I must have spent about another hour, just sitting in the sand, listening to the wind and silence and feeling the spirit of Gram in all of it….soon though, the sun told me it was time to go, I paid my tribute, said an old Indian prayer and left the park, satisfied.

I returned to the Joshua Tree Inn to thank Evo for everything and mentioned the people at the rock…no sooner did I mention them than they appeared…they were staying in Room 8 that night!  The dad asked me if I wanted to have a look at room 8 and I laughed, “No, thanks, I stayed there last night.” He laughed back, understanding the irony of our twin meetings.  I smiled, thanked Evo again and he in turn thanked me, he said, “It was an amazing experience, I think you were definitely the right person to have been here last night. I think Gram was very happy with it all.”  That made me feel great as I headed on my way home and I felt as though I had experienced something beyond my comprehension, Evo and Anders did as well…it was an amazing time and on the way home I listened to the Stones and yeah, some more Gram…and I felt like a little bit of that spirit rode beside me all the way…amazing times, amazing days. 

If anyone had any doubt, I can assure them that Gram Parsons is Safe At Home and Rests In Peace in Joshua Tree, California.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a strong singular spiritual presence in my life and that spirit was very pleased…I felt sad having to leave so soon, but Gram’s music has really become a part of my soul and in point of fact, a part of Gram’s spirit seems to be with me somehow… All of a sudden I can think of any song of his and just sing it, any lyric and I can place it…I think of his smile and it hugs my soul, it’s like he’s one of my angels and that’s how it was supposed to be from the start I had to find him and he had to meet me…just that I had to get to Joshua Tree, and the cosmos arranged that nicely for the both of us… And with all that’s happened to me recently, it makes more sense than it would first seem.

 Really, though, what a weird and wild rock’n’roll legend to track down…a year ago, if you had told me I’d do what I just did, and chase the ghost of Gram Parsons across the desert, I would have stared bewildered by what the hell you were talking about, and when you told me, I’d have probably laughed at you a bit…

 

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