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A tale of the rock and the rocker

WILD WEST CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS

Thirty years after his legendary incineration in the desert night, a Flying Burrito Brother still stokes debate.

September 16, 2003|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS

Joshua Tree National Park — Sit me down in a SHADY SPOT OUT HERE, lay out the tale of how these strange stacks of granite and gneiss took shape more than a billion years ago, and I will pay attention. It's interesting, in a Precambrian sort of way.

To really get my attention, however, just walk me around to the backside of that same formation and point out the rock niche that someone has splattered with purple, orange and yellow graffiti. Then tell me the tale of Gram Parsons, the rock star and drug casualty whose stolen corpse was set afire here 30 years ago this week. Now, I'm all ears; in fact, I can practically hear one of his low guitar notes, the electric buzz mimicking the horn of the big rig while he sings the lament of a cross-country trucker.

This is what brought me to Cap Rock the other day: the tale of the rock versus the tale of the shrine.

The rock stands near the middle of Joshua Tree National Park, a pebble's toss from the main road, the outlaw shrine around back unmentioned by any of the National Park Service's signs or literature. While storm clouds massed and crept across the sky, I crouched in the shade with Joe Zarki, the park's chief of interpretation.

"The parks," he said, "have never figured out what role popular culture has in their stories." And at Joshua Tree, "we say almost nothing about anything that happened after 1936. It's as if it doesn't exist. How real is that? At what point does it become OK to talk about what happened after the creation of the park?"

It was in 1936 that Congress set aside Joshua Tree as a national monument, in large part because of its geology and vegetation. Since long before the territory was promoted to national park status in 1994, Joshua Tree's exhibits, publications and rangers have given second billing to the Native Americans, ranchers and miners who have played various roles here over the decades.

There's no way to guess how many visitors would sign up for a ranger talk on Parsons, or how many would steal a roadside marker bearing his name. Zarki is fairly sure, however, that a ranger talk or a marker would give rangers a shot at an elusive audience: the thousands of young, authority-scorning rock climbers who swarm the park each spring and fall.

Certainly, there would be plenty to say. Parsons, a Southern-bred Harvard dropout, emerged in the late 1960s as an influential singer, composer and guitarist, a member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, a frequent collaborator with guitarist Chris Hillman, mentor to singer Emmylou Harris. Yoking together country and hard-rock genres, he sang of wide-open spaces full of natural wonders and human folly, then occasionally drove out to those wide-open spaces and took drugs in them.

On Sept. 19, 1973, all of 26 years old, Parsons died of an overdose at the Joshua Tree Inn, which led to the portion of his story that's hardest to imagine on a government plaque.

Some of his friends remembered that at somebody's funeral, Parsons had said that he wanted his body burned at Joshua Tree. So they fibbed to authorities, got hold of the coffin and body, brought them to Cap Rock, doused them with gasoline and lighted up the desert night. (Parsons' road manager was later fined for his role in the cremation.)

None of these actions, of course, had any meaningful effect on the plant or animal life of the park. But the death-and-cremation dominates park folklore. And other musicians and listeners celebrate Parsons' memory at the annual Gram Fest in the town of Joshua Tree. (This year's is set for Sept. 27.)

Seeing all these signs of interest, Zarki three years ago raised the idea in an electronic mailing to colleagues nationwide.

Scores of responses flew back, and although most of them favored some kind of mention, their disparity underlined the trouble it could bring.

One park service veteran called the whole cremation saga "a historic abuse of park land [not to mention Mr. Parsons]." Several colleagues pointed out that Joshua Tree isn't the only park where questions of recent history nag. At Death Valley National Park, for example, there's no notice to tell visitors that Charles Manson was arrested there in 1969. And until the unveiling of an engraved message last month, there was no mention of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Yet another respondent asked: "Would the same folks who spray paint the nearby rock have respect for [a road sign] and not deface it?"

Zarki backed off. "My sense," he said the other day, "is a little more time needs to pass before people get comfortable with a story like this."

After we spoke, I hiked around the old Barker Dam at Joshua Tree, watching the sky go gray and then crackle with lightning, marveling that such a timid agency can manage such dramatic landscapes. But then, with the first drops of the storm falling, I climbed back in the car, turned on the radio, and realized that the joke was on Zarki and me.

While we were out in the desert and Zarki was so carefully choosing his words, his superiors in Washington were handing over some of their most coveted turf -- the National Mall -- to the National Football League and Pepsi, which had a new season and a new beverage to promote. Although the mall has long been used as a gathering place for various events, this free rental allowed a commercial undertaking on an unprecedented scale, complete with nationwide television coverage, displays from sponsors and a free concert full of big-name attractions.

In short, our National Park Service has room for Britney Spears and Pepsi live, but none for Gram Parsons dead. And suddenly, I'm thinking that sometimes, our culture is safer in the hands of the outlaws.

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