Why has Gram Parsons' makeshift memorial in Joshua Tree National Park been removed, and why don't park service personnel acknowledge that it's been done?
As a member of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers and a solo artist, the Florida-born Parsons mixed rock and country music, setting the stage for the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt in the '70s and the alt.-country movement in the '80 and '90s (Wilco, the Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo, Ryan Adams, those guys). He distracted Keith Richards in France when the Rolling Stones were trying to finish "Exile On Main St." and helped launch the career of his talented backup singer, Emmylou Harris. His recording of one of his greatest songs, "Return of the Grievous Angel," is available here; hers is on a 1982 live album, "Last Date," that iTunes hasn't made available yet. You can hear and see her performing the song in July 2008 here.
After he died of a drug overdose in 1973 at the age of 26, an overzealous friend stole his body and set fire to it in Parsons' beloved Joshua Tree. Fans have been making the pilgrimage to Cap Rock every since, carving and painting crosses, poems, and other tributes. I visited in April and took the photos at right.
When I returned on Tuesday to what I was pretty sure was the spot, everything had been sandblasted away. While my photo below doesn't show it, the red cross and the legend "God Bless GP" are gone.
Thinking I just might have gone to the the wrong place, I dropped by park headquarters in Twentynine Palms to check. Two guys behind the counter, one a uniformed park ranger, insisted that the memorial was intact. The one in street clothes said he'd been there in the last two weeks and even drew me a map. Just to be sure, I returned this afternoon. I'd been right the first time. The crosses and inscriptions were gone.
The devotion of Parsons' fans notwithstanding, I can understand the feds being loath to appear to be celebrating drug overdoses and illegal cremations. Nor should people be permitted to deface publicly-owned natural wonders. As a nostalgic babyboomer, I could see making an exception in this case; I can also understand closing it down. What I can't understand is why my two friends at park HQ didn't just cop to it.
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