Like many a pilgrim before us, we finally made it to the Joshua Tree Inn, where we spent the night in the very room where the life of cosmic country rock pioneer Gram Parsons ended when he was just 26.
The original plan was to stay at the kitschy motel in Pioneertown where the Western movie stars used to stay in the 1940s while filming B pictures out there in the desert – but that place recently closed down. That almost derailed our plan to drive all the way out to the Mojave to see an L.A. roots rock band with the genius to call itself Dawes, which was playing at the Pioneertown roadhouse Pappy & Harriets, a magnet for the crazy little music scene out there.
But when I called the Joshua Tree Inn and they offered me Room 8, I sensed that it was meant to be. Both Billy and I have been Gram fans forever, and we even met at The Palomino, which used to hold an annual tribute on Gram’s birthday. I’m pleased to report that things couldn’t be any nicer out there at the Joshua Tree Inn for Gram. There’s a very cool, respectful vibe, and you can definitely feel his spirit everywhere. Photos, posters, mementos and a music player with a stack of his CDs are set out in the room, and there’s a red leather-bound, heart-stamped guest book where people leave their sentiments, drawings, and ghost stories. There’s even a shrine in the sand outside the motel room door, with a message that reads “Gram – Safe At Home” (after the title of his first album with the Int’l Submarine Band) surrounded by candles, feathers, Indian amulets, glass beads, tiny tequila bottles, sunglasses and guitar picks. People say the room is haunted, and that the big round mirror opposite the bed moves for no reason – I didn’t see that, but the ceiling fan did come on by itself in the middle of the night for a while.
One person who had recently stayed in the room and signed the book was guitarist Jock Bartley, who played with Gram’s band for a couple of months in 1973 right at the end. He wrote that he was with Phil Kaufman in L.A. when they got the terrible news that Gram wasn’t coming back from the desert. There was a home-burned “Live in 1973” CD in the stack; we put it on, and when Gram’s band The Fallen Angels was introduced, Jock was mentioned as the guitar player. Emmylou was singing with the band that night, too.
Remember “Boulder to Birmingham,” Emmylou’s tribute song after Gram’s death? I thought of it when were out in Joshua Tree National Park, watching the sun go down from Keys View peak on the first “long day” of 2010. An icy cold wind kicked up as the sun dropped, but Billy and I found shelter huddled against a low wall, and watched the deepening colors. It was gorgeous.
“The last time I felt like this/I was in the wilderness/and the canyon was on fire”
Somewhere around there, Gram’s body was cremated, but we didn’t seek out the spot. Driving back in the inky blackness, what track popped on in Billy’s CD player but “In My Hour of Darkness,” which I quote lyrics from at the top of this blog entry. The music sounded blazingly clear and alive in the dry desert air. It was the tribute album, but I swear I heard Gram drop in to sing a verse.
As for Pappy & Harriet’s, it reminded me strongly of a typical Austin music hang, or a roadhouse in Alabama where I went to college. Instead of gravel, the parking lot is made of desert sand, and there are Joshua trees growing right outside the door. Inside, it’s a rambling, rustic place, with the stage on one side, a room full of pool tables on the other, and a bar and kitchen in the middle. The food is supposedly great, but the kitchen was closed so we had to make do with chips and salsa. The drinks are priced like in Texas – $2 each for cold draft beers, and the cover was $10 for three bands. Dawes was loud and good, with a fun crowd of fans who’d mostly driven out from L.A. to see them, even though they had just played the Troubadour last week. They told me they’re named after their grandfather, whose name was Dawes Goldsmith (two of the guys are brothers named Goldsmith), and they signed my CD “To the real Dawes.”
That and the T-shirt were worth the trip. Out back of P&H’s, I saw two big patios with picnic tables. where you can also hear the music. That’s clearly where the scene is in the summer time, and I hope to find out on another occasion after the mercury rises.
Meanwhile, here are more of the pictures that Billy took. What an eye, what an eye! Please leave a comment if you have anything to add.