Arts & Life

Partying with the ghost of Gram Parsons

As Coachella party goers are shaking off hangovers and drug stupors under the relentless desert sun, across the San Bernadino mountains sits a desert oasis where for decades musicians and freaks of all flavours have found spiritual respite. With a modest music festival of its own, held each May, the town of Joshua Tree is a desert town, population 7,454, which has long drawn the weird to haunt its dusty streets.

Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age drew inspiration from their hometown Coachella Valley desert and the Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree deserts down the road. Famously, the smarmy fucks in U2 drew “inspiration” from the area for their multi-platinum selling The Joshua Tree LP. But perhaps the most infamous was Gram Parsons, who found his “spiritual home” in the Joshua Tree wilderness. The town would also be the setting for his last days, and his infamous and macabre cremation at the hands of buddy and drug-fetcher Phil “The Mangler” Kaufman, who stole Parsons’ body from LAX and set it on fire with a jerry can of gasoline in the desert beneath Cap rock.

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On a visit to Joshua Tree in 1968, Parsons discovered the welcoming walls of the Joshua Tree Inn, a classic American motor hotel on Highway 62 on the outskirts of town. Parsons quickly took to the place himself, sometimes renting out all the dozen odd rooms to throw wild parties in the courtyard and pool, nicely blockaded from highway view by a low wall and open at the back to the desert wilderness. Leon Russell, Joe Cocker, Keith Richards were among rockers who visited along with Parsons. But on a bender of a visit in September 1973, Parsons succumbed to an overdose in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn, a suite which is now available for rent to the die hard fan or the spiritually inquisitive as the “Gram Parsons Suite” for a tidy $109.

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As a member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito, Parsons was largely responsible for the merging of classic country music with the exploratory sounds of the hippie 60s, popularizing – along with Dylan – the “country rock” genre. Without Parsons’ influence, the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead and, more importantly, the Rolling Stone’s Exile on Main Street would never have existed.

“Gram and I shared this instinctive love for the real South,” Keith Richards has said.

In Richards’ own autobiography, he details the deep musical – and junkie – bond that the two men shared, jamming on old George Jones or Robert Johnson tunes between fits of going cold turkey or nodding off to the best heroin the French Riviera had to offer. It was Parsons’ who showed Keith Richards the country backroads of American music beyond the Delta blues and rock and roll of Elvis Presley.

Parsons’ two solo albums are the pinnacle of his search for that “cosmic American” music he’d only been scratching the surface with before, twisting up Nashville and Bakersfield country music, gospel, blues, honky tonk, with a little dash of rock n roll into two powerful doses pure gold. GP and Grievous Angel would go on to lay the blueprint for both the Americana explosion that continues apace today, and the broadening of the boundaries within “traditional” country music that allowed the Outlaw Country of Willie, Waylon, and others to thrive on their own terms in the 1970s, and beyond. It also launched the career of Emmylou Harris, who accompanied Gram on both recordings.

I’d stopped, briefly, by the Inn last year on a visit to Cap Rock and the other easily accessible trails in Joshua Tree National Monument. But afterwards, I’d spoken with Canadian roots rocker Dustin Bentall outside a Winnipeg honky tonk about Parsons and Joshua Tree, and he convinced me that spending a night in Room 8 was a trip in and of itself.

“When I first checked out Parsons,” Bentall told me over the phone, in April. “I completely went down that rabbit hole of psychedelic country and cosmic American music.”

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A few years after catching the Parsons’ bug, when Bentall’s own career in cosmic Canadian country music was starting to gain traction, he checked into Room 8 for himself.

“We went out and stayed there, and it was a crazy experience,” recalled Bentall.
It was like mecca, like a pilgrimage to this place that Gram was so inspired by. Staying in that room was so bizarre, it felt like you couldn’t really sleep all night. It felt like there were all these spirits going in and out. It was like a ghost party, all night long. It was so bizarre. You’d be hearing things, waking up thinking the door had opened and closed. It was just the most bizarre night ever.”

I checked into Room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn on April 16, after driving through the desert from Las Vegas. A young family on their way to Coachella and a hipster couple lounged by the pool, reading The Art of War aloud to each other. Otherwise, the Inn seemed deserted. The courtyard itself is well maintained, with a zen sand garden vibe going on and nesting desert doves up in the rafters. Outside Room 8 stands a large, guitar shaped shrine to the Grievous Angel, festooned with Mardi Gras beads, candles, empty bottles of Jack Daniels, dead flowers, a bottle neck slide, and an offering cup full of guitar picks.

The room itself is decorated in much the same fashion it was in 1970, with modern amenities of a fridge, small flatscreen television, and CD player added, along with photos of Parsons adorning the walls. The bathroom, where a frantic Dale McElroy and a wasted Margaret Fisher tried to revive Parsons the night of September 18, 1973, by running a cold shower over his shallow breathing body and shoving ice cubes up his asshole. The “street cure” worked, briefly, but when Fisher went out to find a coffee for Parsons, he succumbed to the double dose of morphine and heroin.

What once was the front door to the room, where the ambulance would have arrived after McElroy finally gave up and called 911 to fetch the lifeless Parsons, now backs onto a nice “private courtyard.” Complete with a young palo verde tree and worn but comfortable reclining deck chairs, the small space is perfect for enjoying a late night cerveca or a morning belt of bourbon.

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Inside, the same little bedside desk, worn chair, and bed frame take up the bulk of the room itself, while a ceiling fan spins lazily above. On the desk, beside a stack of CDs left by death tripping fans cum musicians such as myself, sits a binder full of press-clippings about Parsons, the Inn, and the legend of the Grievous Angel. There also sits a “guest book” of sorts, where guests are invited to “share your thoughts with Gram.” The book, which only dated back to January 2013, was nearly full of messages from visitors hailing from Toronto to Seattle, Germany to Japan, and all points in between.

“I will always be grateful & I will never stop thinking about your spirit, your beauty, & of course your music.” – Annamarie, 4/29

“Gram, I owe you everything. You are the reason I found Joshua Tree.” – Kate Kowachan

“As a spirit medium, I notice your spirit has settled, and the restlessness subsided. You are now resting in peace. I feel your most active in the afternoon.” – Clare, Guelph, ON

Most of the messages included “thank you,” and variations on the theme that Parsons’ “music lives on” at the fortieth anniversary of his death. There were also a number of crude (or divinely inspired?) illustrations of Parsons, the desert, pills and marijuana leaves.

I’d asked Dustin Bentall why he’d chosen to stay at the Inn, and particularly Room 8

“I’d always wanted to go to Joshua Tree,” Bentall answered. “Maybe we can stay at the Joshua Tree Inn, maybe it’s still around? We looked it up online, and sure enough you can book yourself into the room that Gram spent his last part of his life in. So we thought, well I guess if you can, you might as well?”

Indeed. But our own stay in Room 8 failed to yield any spiritual awakenings or connections with the ghost of Gram Parsons. But it was interesting, and a little creepy, to spend the night in such a storied place. In much the same way Graceland, Viretta Park in Seattle, Hank Williams’ grave in Montgomery, or any number of memorials to dead artists, Room 8 serves as a place for fans to make a connection to a person who, in their eyes, has achieved some mythical stature. Dropping a flower or a pick at the memorial is free, of course. But if you’ve got the money to get weird in a dead man’s bed for the night… well, why not?


Sheldon Birnie is an editor at large for The Albatross and the editor of Stylus Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @badguybirnie