This weekend, we slept in a desert death room. Let me explain.
If you don’t recognize the name Gram Parsons, he was known for his work in two bands, the Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, both in the late sixties. In the early seventies he recorded two solo albums, known for their duets with Emmylou Harris. Parsons is credited with creating country-rock, and Rolling Stone magazine ranked him #87 on their list of the 100 Most Influential Artists of All Time. Like his more famous predecessors, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, all who went out earlier in the seventies, Parsons also abused drugs and alcohol.
Flash forward thirty-some years. Ann and I were invited to the wedding of two friends, Bill and Monica, up in the picturesque desert of Joshua Tree, California. The national park there draws many. We were told the Joshua Tree Inn was a great place, and when Ann placed the reservation, she was told that Room 8 was available. “What’s special about Room 8?” she asked.
“That’s where Gram Parsons died.” The name didn’t seem familiar, but she soon learned who he was. We needed a room, and she wasn’t worried about any ghost. She booked it. I would have done the same. I’ve learned from my Uncle Roy, who owns a big hotel in West Lafayette, Indiana, that the craziest things happen in the rooms, and every room in every motel has a history.
Most hotels play down any deaths so as not to scare people away. Room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn, however, attracts people—not the same kind or number who are enamored of Elvis, but still there are people who see Parsons as a hero.
When we arrived, we discovered the little motel of a dozen rooms had personality. The office was like a living room and featured many posters and photographs from the seventies. The guest rooms were in the back and built around a lightly graveled courtyard, raked precisely like a Zen garden.
Room 8 wasn’t particularly large--a clean room that held a California King, a stuffed chair and a little desk. The walls were made of long bricks painted yellow. Utilitarian.
It did not look like a grand room to die in, and it probably looks better now than it did on September 19, 1973. Today there are posters featuring Parsons, a CD labeled “Gram Parsons, Room 8,” and a diary for travelers wishing to jot down their thoughts.
There’s also a thick three-ring binder filled with articles about Parsons’ death from various magazines in 1973 and afterwards.
Parsons was born Cecil Ingram Connor and in line for a large family fortune, thanks to his grandfather’s citrus business in Florida. Young Cecil’s father committed suicide when Cecil was twelve. A year later, his mother married Bob Parsons, who adopted Cecil and his sister, and they lived in Florida. The kids took on the last name of Parsons, and Cecil was called Gram after that.
His mother, an alcoholic, died from alcohol poisoning on the day Gram graduated high school. He attended Harvard for a semester before dropping out, having a large trust fund to live on. After Harvard, he met Chris Hillman of the Byrds and joined that group for a short time. He and Hillman later created the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Parsons, though, seemed to be following his mother’s footsteps. While many of his fellow musicians recognized and admired his talent, including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, Parsons drank heavily and could become belligerent. He left the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers with little notice, leaving his band members in the lurch. He became addicted to heroin and broke the habit in 1972. He kept drinking more than ever, though, and some of his friends would just leave him alone.
According to Emmylou Harris, however, Parsons started cleaning up. She said, “He had stopped drinking. That might have been what killed him: that he started to get straight and then he went back to it.”
On Monday, September 17, 1973, Gram Parsons went up to Joshua Tree National Monument, a place he loved and where he once took psychedelics and looked for UFOs. He traveled there with his friend Michael Martin, Martin's girlfriend Dale McElroy, and an old friend from his high school days in Florida named Margaret Fisher. The next day, Parsons drank a lot of Jack Daniels and then topped it off with some morphine. His girlfriend, Fisher, found him passed out and blue on the floor of Room 1. She freaked out and gave him an ice cube suppository, which was supposed to help in overdose cases.
It worked, and Parsons was soon walking around—and he was very tired. Fisher asked McElroy to stay in Parsons’ room, Room 8, while he slept and while Fisher went to get some dinner. At some point, Parsons’ breathing became labored. There were no phones in the room, and McElroy feared he’d die if she left, so she tried to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Fisher returned and then dashed for help.
An ambulance arrived but he already seemed gone. He was taken to a nearby hospital but could not be revived. He was declared dead at 12:30 a.m. September 19, 1973. He was only twenty-six.
A few days later, his friend Phil Kaufman managed to steal Parsons’ body from LAX airport, return to Joshua Tree National Monument, and set Parsons’ body ablaze to fulfill a promise that Parsons would be cremated, which Parsons’ stepfather was not going to do.
Did I feel a creative spirit in Room 8? No, I felt sad for a young man who had so much talent unfulfilled. Look at how much he lost. He missed becoming a truer legend, missed fatherhood, missed more romance, missed more songwriting, missed more heartbreak, surely, but missed living as it could be. Too many of the articles described how in recording sessions and in performance, Parsons was not fully present as he could be when sober. Hillman often felt like a babysitter to Parsons.
I’m not sure what demons drove Parsons or whether he simply had things too easy early on. Perhaps he inherited an addictive personality and did not recognize it, and his last thoughts were too muted to see any mistakes.
As I read some of the room’s diary, I was touched that music lovers remain attracted to what they see as a positive spirit and talent. They also wrote about the lives they are living and the lovers that they are with—and the hopes and dreams they have. Very moving. I’m always impressed that people find spirit in music, photography, acting, writing and all the arts. It staples me to the earth.
Joshua Tree is far too hot and dry for my usual tastes, yet the amazing granite hills and the rolling high-desert landscapes carry a special life force. So did seeing our friends Monica and Bill marry each other as people clapped and cheered and the sun set on an orange horizon.
This is the kind of thing Gram passed up. He would have been 63 this year. Staying around as best you can is what it’s all about.
For more information on Gram Parsons' life and death, go to this article here: http://ebni.com/byrds/memgrp6.html. The article's specifics are sometimes different from other articles, but this one covers the most.
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