Sunday, October 4, 2009
Joshua Judges Parsons
I knew country-rock legend Gram Parsons slightly... interviewed him and fellow Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman at great length (that five-part interview starts here), had him over to dinner, hung out with him at a couple of major rock festivals, and watched him get druggier as the months passed. He was a nice guy--a Southern boy charmer, really--but a main chancer too. (Hillman scorches that side of Gram to this day.)
Yet the Parsons hagiographic cult rolls on--tribute festivals in several locales every year, petitions to induct him into the Country Music Hall of Fame, even an effort to get his face put on a stamp, plus more and more books about him, including one co-written by his troubled grown daughter. Gram's cracked singing voice and his "Cosmic American Music" (he disliked the "country-rock" pigeonhole and wanted soul to be included) are solidly fixed in the firmament.
As someone once said, It's a funny old world.
I've been thinking about Gram again for a couple of reasons. A short piece I wrote some years ago about him and Jim Morrison at the Seattle Pop Festival has just been reprinted in Shake, a music magazine out of Nashville. And the rafting trip my wife and I recently took down the Grand Canyon inadvertently resurrected the whole bizarre "Joshua tree" tale associated with Parsons.
Seems that the early Mormon pioneers of Utah and the barren strip of Arizona north of the Canyon were the first white people to think much about the tall, multi-branched yucca plant that they soon named after the biblical Joshua, his arms outstretched in prayer. That naming story was emphasized by the bus driver who hauled us rafters back from Lake Mead, as we rode through a Joshua tree "forest" lining the two-lane highway heading for Hoover Dam. And (per that driver) did we know that the trees grow at only certain altitudes, at the approximate rate of a foot every hundred years? And if one gets uprooted, it has to be replanted exactly as originally oriented; otherwise, it dies...
Registering all this, it became impossible not to think of that other Joshua tree forest (actually a national park) some ways out of Palm Springs, California... where various L.A. rockers like to hang out and get high and search the skies for UFOs, and where in 1973 ol' still-not-straight Gram somehow got to partying too hard (alcohol, morphine and more) and wound up dead in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn. So far, so bad.
But of course the rest of that tale is the real kicker: his friend and road manager Phil Kaufman and another cohort proceeded to steal Gram's corpse from the L.A. airport, where it was about to be shipped to Louisiana for burial. Driving a beat-up hearse, the two guys hauled the casketed remains back to a favorite huge rock at Joshua Tree monument for a Viking-style funeral pyre. The daring duo poured gasoline, struck a match... and then the police came speeding to the scene. Kaufman's inflammatory action earned him a ludicrously small fine, but a wild man rep and "Road Mangler" title (that's how his business card read), employed thus for years after by the young Emmylou Harris, back then just emerging as Gram's sweet-voiced, country-duets discovery.
As the tale of Parson's death and quasi-resurrection entered rock 'n' roll lore, Joshua Tree (the Mojave Desert locale and Inn) became a kind of pilgrims' shrine--most recently complete with an annual Gram festival, plus young alt.country and country-rock fans making the trek repeatedly in the same way that folks still travel to visit Jim Morrison's headstone in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
So when the then little-known Irish band U2 released its great "American" album in 1987, it was pretty much impossible to believe that The Joshua Tree had nothing to do with Parsons, even though the band never openly acknowledged any relationship. Certainly the boys had their own rockin'-for-Christ axes to sharpen, but who wouldn't assume some sort of Gram-"tribute" connection, given the specifically American-sounding tracks of country/blues/gospel rock 'n' roll (the U2 version of Cosmic Soul) driven by Bono's stream-of-consciousness meanderings and the steely, surging guitars of The Edge?
With Gram Parsons' unacknowledged ghost looking over their shoulders, and out-there producers Daniel Lanois and Eno working the pots, the lads had gotten things perfectly right--and the album soared like a bottlerocket shot off in the desert, eventually winning two Grammies and selling over 25 million copies, in a world suddenly clamoring for more of U2.
But though their many albums since have been praiseworthy and sometimes edgily experimental, none has equaled that Joshua Tree masterpiece. Maybe confirmed-believer Bono not only channeled Parsons during those sessions but also briefly forged some sort of mystical link all the way back to the worshipful LDS pioneers. (One can imagine Bono on his knees in the sand praying like Joshua, but Parsons? Not very likely.)
Well, fanciful or not, the Joshua tree connection has continued to be a touchstone in rock. Emmylou Harris shaped her own brilliant country career, regularly citing and reciting Gram, but she also went on to issue a stunning, somewhat avant garde album in 1995 produced by the ever-inventive Lanois, titled The Wrecking Ball and sounding way beyond country, that some listeners have nicknamed "The Joshua Tree 2." And then, late last year, Yank-in-England rocker Chrissie Hynd cut a new CD touting her Americana roots, which she proudly says resulted from a pilgrimage to Parsons' desert sites and the epiphany she experienced.
So the burgeoning hommage a Gram proceeds apace. But there's more to the story: environmental problems are building out there in the desert, and many Joshua trees are dying. Other than naturalists and park rangers, few people realize any of this.
You might say that unless major controls are imposed on human encroachment and deleterious climate change, the Mojave's Joshua trees ultimately don't have a prayer. It may well be that Parsons' fans and gawking tourists--forgive the obvious image--still can't see the forest for the trees.