Maps and Legends of Joshua Tree
(Editor’s note: Former Jayhawks co-leader Mark Olson and his wife, singer-songwriter Victoria Williams, moved a few years ago to Joshua Tree, California, where Gram Parsons died in September 1973 (his casket was set afire there a few days later, after being heisted by friends on the way to burial in Louisiana). We asked Olson if he’d like to write a few words about the desert town and Parsons’ connection to it; he submitted the following ruminations and sketches.)
We’re gonna drive a ways past the site of the old rugged cross. Down where the willows play havoc in the wash. Rolling out of a Yucca Valley swap-meet parking lot. Look up there, in the mountains — that’s where Gram Parsons died.
The highway is good-looking after a single rainfall in a season. Homely little yellow flowers are draped close to the roadside. Now we come up over the crestline. There was a hand-painted sign with a rainbow on it saying, “Welcome to the Village of Joshua Tree.” That’s gone now. There’s a cemetery with green grass. Over to the right is the Joshua Tree Inn, where they found him. They know about Gram there, with pictures of him and a well-kept book to document messages his fans write in. If you look like a musician, they will take you back to his old room.
The Post Office on the left is the only one that has a picture of Gram in it every year around the time of the Gram Fest. There’s Jeremy’s Cafe, that’s the place where Emmylou Harris’ daughter Meghann recently sat in with the musicians from Dig Your Own Cactus. Alta, the Queen of Joshua Tree, had a thrift shop up ahead. There you could find people hanging out and talking about music and the things that are important. The Morongo Basin Mental Health Building, which was nearby, just closed down.
Gram, he was getting at the biblical end of things. He knew the metaphors for salvation, truth and deception. He had a traditionalist’s streak that was absolutely rock steady. They did a record cover next to one of these abandoned shacks, the whole band in their outfits. I followed all of his influences back and found the records of the people he had listened to. Gram and Emmylou singing together — it’s really upstanding stuff. It had that heartbreak, there-pushing-you-out-of-town feel. It had a lasting emotional effect upon me.
Strange abstract geography surrounds us. What cataclysmic force brought this moonscape together? You know where it is, Cap Rock? Well, here it is on a road map for you. I wouldn’t want to be sick in these mountains — that must have been a lonely feeling, to be that far gone and then pass on.
This might be it. Is there a split in the road? Yep, that’s the rock — it’s back in there, I know where it is now. That’s where Gram Parsons was brought, right there. There is thunder in the sky, there is thunder in the sky as I am walking up to the site…there is writing on the rocks. Let’s just walk on.
There is an Incredible Boulder sitting right on top of him. Just a real big Rock. Nobody else has a Rock that big on top of them. He must have been up to something. Traditional values, now that’s what the music was about. And I think he understood the good of it. There’s a big Boulder up here, folks.