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A nice place to die

Thirty years later, Gram Parsons' legacy lives on -- in Joshua Tree, Waycross and beyond


"Time can pass and time can heal, But it don't ever pass the way I feel, You went away a long time ago, And why you left I never knew"

-- Gram Parsons, "Still Feeling Blue"

Traffic roars past the Joshua Tree Inn on California's busy Twentynine Palms Highway, leaving only moments of the quiet and serenity that guests experienced at the same spot 30 years ago. On Sept. 19, 1973, the life of country-rock innovator Gram Parsons -- which began 27 years earlier in Waycross, Ga. -- came to an end in Room 8. The Inn, like the nearby Mojave Desert, provided an oasis for Parsons. It was a place of wonder where the legendary singer/songwriter liked to go to explore the nether regions of his fertile mind, as well as the dangerously beautiful terrain of the Joshua Tree National Monument.

The Joshua Tree Inn has become the destination of diehard Parsons fans, many who make the pilgrimage just to sleep in Room 8 and commune with the spirit of the man who inspires them. Says Inn manager, C.J. Stolman, "We get anywhere from 15-20 calls a week asking for information about staying in Room 8. A lot of people just want to come by and look at the room, and spend a few minutes in there. We don't mind if it isn't occupied. They love it, and many people say they can feel his energy."

The lobby contains scrapbooks, framed mementos and a few Gram Parsons T-shirts on sale, and the room has a guest book containing messages from people, some of whom traveled halfway around the world to sleep in this personal sanctuary. "We get lots of Europeans who come here just to stay at Joshua Tree Inn," Stolman says. He admits, "Not everyone is impressed with it, as we get a few, you know, grumps."

In the years before his death, Parsons and his friends used the Inn as home base for trips wandering through the vast Joshua Tree forests, climbing the unique rock formations, getting high on life and various other chemical accoutrements. At night, the California sky comes alive with the stars of the Milky Way, the moon providing just enough light to see the way back home.

He loved the place so much that one day, while attending a funeral, Parsons made a pact with one of his closest friends, Phil "Road Mangler" Kaufman. Whichever one died first, the other would make sure he was cremated and had his ashes spread in the desert.

Parsons had just ended a tour with his band, the Fallen Angels. He had completed the recording of his posthumously released classic, Grievous Angel, in just two weeks in early September 1973. When he finished, Parsons and a trio of friends left L.A. for the desert. Following a day and night of hard partying with marijuana, liquor and morphine, Parsons was found unresponsive in Room 8. A local hospital later declared him dead from an accidental overdose.

Keeping his promise, Kaufman and a crony stole Parsons' body from a local airport, took it to the Cap Rock formation in Joshua Tree National Monument, and torched it. It wasn't a smooth heist, as Kaufman recalls. "Things didn't go quite like we planned it, it was sort of like an episode of 'Laurel and Hardy steal the stiff.'" They got caught and arrested. Parsons' partially burned remains were transported to family members and interred in a New Orleans cemetery.

Grand Theft Parsons, an independent film telling the story of Kaufman's adventures in the desert with Parson's body, is being released this year. The film stars Johnny Knoxville (of MTV's "Jackass") as Kaufman. Kaufman himself served as associate producer and a consultant on the film, and also has a cameo. "When I met Knoxville," he says, "I was so impressed I let him use the actual Levi jacket I wore when we stole the body."

So who was this handsome young Georgia boy who wanted to blend the sweet sounds of country and the rich emotion of soul and gospel with the devilish noise of rock 'n' roll? How was his destiny shaped by his gothic Southern roots, coming from a family where alcoholism, suicide and the stigma of old money set the conditions for eccentricity?

"Gram wasn't a professional Southerner," says author Stanley Booth, who also grew up in Waycross. "I think if he had grown up in California or England, he would have been much the same. However, his growing up in the South made him, I believe, a much deeper and more compassionate person. He was a Waycross resident whose vision of others was not ruled by race, very nearly one of a kind. Gram grew up in a segregated environment without being himself a racist. This to me is something of a miracle."

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