In the desert colors fade, grow tired and old, and morph into unexpected patterns; almost overnight. The aquamarine door of our hotel room was at one time exactly the same as all the others that lined the outfacing corridor. Now, after years of sun bleaching heat, every one was unique; like a weather-beaten fingerprint calloused and scuffed. Every room that lay behind each door had a story all its own but none more-so than the room with which we shared a wall.
Immediately outside our neighboring room the scene is akin to the resting place in Paris of Jim Morrison. Candles and driftwood lay atop a wax encrusted concrete slab, which has a story all its own; I will get to that later. An ash tray with freshly smoked butts, old cowboy boots, and pine-cones lay in the center. Two black concrete pews occupy the flank positions allowing seated homage to be paid to the eight foot black guitar statue over-shadowing everything.
The door to Room 8 acts as a sentry to a rock and roll shrine, of sorts, soaked in legend, myth, and fact. A twisting saga of 70’s sex, music, drugs, and the search by one man to recapture solace from a land known as Joshua Tree.
On this trip Gram Parsons reserved two rooms at the Joshua Tree Inn.
He had been hanging out at the Joshua Tree National Monument on a regular basis for years; with bandmates, friends, and later Keith Richards, to get high, drink, watch the sky for UFOs, and commune with the cactus.
This time with Parsons were his “valet”, Michael Martin, Martin’s girlfriend Dale McElroy, and an old friend from Florida, Margaret Fisher. The events of what happened have been recounted many times and in many versions but it is the Dale McElroy account that is recognized to be the most reliable.
The foursome arrived Monday, September 17, 1973. That day they indulged heavily. So much so that Martin had to return to Los Angeles to replenish their supply of marijuana. Meanwhile, Parsons, McElroy, and Fisher, went for lunch at the airport, throughout which he drank Jack Daniels non-stop.
When they returned from lunch, McElroy excused herself. She couldn’t drink because she was recovering from hepatitis and wasn’t having any fun watching Parsons do what she couldn’t.
Parsons scored heroin in town and topped it off with morphine acquired from a drug connection who was staying at the Inn. Several hours later, a wasted Fisher showed up at McElroy’s door in a frantic state. Parsons had overdosed, she said. They grabbed some ice and went to Room 1, where he was passed out on the floor; blue. Fisher revived him with an ice-cube suppository; an old street remedy for overdoses. When McElroy left the two alone again, he was walking around the room, seemingly recovered.
After another hour or so Fisher returned to McElroy’s room and asked her to sit with the sleeping Parsons while she went out to get some dinner. McElroy grabbed a book and went to Parsons’s room; Room 8.
After a few minutes, she realized that his breathing had gone from normal to labored. McElroy had no experience with drug overdoses and no training in CPR. Believing that there were no other people in the hotel, she never called out for help. Instead she tried to get him breathing by pumping his chest and giving him mouth-to-mouth.
“I tried to figure out whether to stay and keep him breathing or leave and get some help…I figured if I left, he might die”
After about a half hour of futile pumping and pushing, McElroy realized that Parsons was probably beyond help. At this point Margaret Fisher returned, then left to call an ambulance. The rescue crew arrived quickly and got Parsons to the nearby Hi-Desert Memorial Hospital in Yucca Valley by 12:15 AM. The doctors found no pulse. After trying unsuccessfully to restart his heart he was declared dead at 12:30 AM, Wednesday, September 19, 1973.
The press were told that Parsons had died of natural causes, but after performing an autopsy, the coroner listed the cause of death as “drug toxicity, days, due to multiple drug use, weeks.”
Police attempted to question Fisher and McElroy at the hospital however McElroy called Phil Kaufman, a close friend of Parsons, who persuaded the sheriff that he could answer all their questions as soon as he arrived from Los Angeles. The sheriff then permitted Fisher and McElroy to stay at the Joshua Tree Inn until Kaufman arrived.
Upon his arrival the women handed over all Parsons’s drugs, which they had gathered up before the ambulance and police arrived. Kaufman took the drugs and hid them in the desert, then called the police station. He promised the police he would bring McElroy and Fisher in for questioning, then piled them in his car and drove them straight back to LA where they hid out for several days.
The Joshua Tree police never again sought out the two women.
When the news of his stepson’s death reached Bob Parsons, he immediately realized that his own interests would be best served by having the body buried in Louisiana, where the senior Parsons lived. Parsons knew that under Louisiana’s Napoleonic code, his adopted son’s estate would pass in its entirety to the nearest living male, Bob Parsons, notwithstanding any will provisions to the contrary.
The code would only apply if Bob Parsons could prove that Gram Parsons had been a resident of Louisiana. Burying him in New Orleans would bolster the tenuous arguments for Louisiana residency. Bob Parsons booked a flight to LA to claim the body. At stake was his stepson’s dwindling but still substantial fortune.
When Phil Kaufman learned of the plan to bury his friend in New Orleans, he became distraught. He knew that Parsons had no connection to the city or his stepfather and certainly wouldn’t have wanted any of his estate to pass to him. He knew that Parsons had not wanted a long, depressing, religious service with family and friends. Most of all he knew he had made a pact with Parsons;
Whoever dies first, “the survivor would take the other guy’s body out to Joshua Tree, have a few drinks and burn it”
After a day of vodka-enhanced self-recriminations, Kaufman decided he had to try to make good on his promise. Thus began one of the most unforgettable episodes of “social engineering.”
What follows is Kaufman’s tale.
Kaufman called the funeral parlor in the town of Joshua Tree and learned that the body would be driven to LAX; then flown on Continental to New Orleans. He called the airline’s mortuary service and found out that the body would arrive that evening. Kaufman recruited Michael Martin, who knew of the pact, and commandeered a hearse of Dale McElroy’s, which she and Martin used for camping trips. It had no license plates and several broken windows, but it would do.
They loaded up the hearse with beer and Jack Daniels and headed for LAX.
Kaufman and Martin arrived at the loading dock just as a flatbed truck rolled up with the Parsons casket. A drunken Kaufman somehow persuaded an airline employee that the Parsons family had changed its plans and wanted to ship the body privately on a chartered flight.
While Kaufman was in the hangar office, signing the paperwork with a phony name, a policeman pulled up, blocking the hangar door. Kaufman was sure his operation would be shut down, but the officer didn’t do anything; he just sat there. So Kaufman walked out to him, waved his copies of the paperwork, and said, “Hey, can you move that car?” The officer apologized, moved the car, and then, remarkably, helped Kaufman load the casket onto a gurney and into the back of the unlicensed, liquor-filled hearse.
Martin, also liquor-filled, got in the hearse and headed out of the hangar, only to run into the wall on his way out. The officer observed all this, and commented ruefully, “I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes now.” Then he left, and the two drunk body snatchers departed the airport with the body of their friend. They stopped at a gas station and filled a gas can with high-test (“I didn’t want him to ping,” Kaufman says.) Then headed toward Joshua Tree.
They reached the national park and drove until they were too drunk to drive any farther. There, near Cap Rock, a landmark geological formation, they unloaded their friend’s coffin. Then Kaufman saw car lights in the distance and concluded the police were coming. He quickly doused his friend with fuel and lit him. The two watched as a giant fireball rose from the coffin, distributing his ashes into the desert night.
They abandoned the charred remains and immediately headed for LA.
The journey, like everything else that week, was filled with close calls. They were nearly home when they got into a multi-car pile-up on a LA freeway, rear-ending another car. A highway patrolman approached and opened the door of the hearse. When beer bottles fell out, he handcuffed Kaufman and Martin together and told them to stay put. Then he left to attend to other drivers. Before he could return and take their licenses, the very thin Martin had slipped his hand from the cuff. Kaufman started up the hearse and fled the scene. When they got back to Kaufman’s house, they sawed off the other cuff, stashed the hearse, and went into hiding.
The morning after their return, the papers were filled with the story of the rock star’s hijacked and burnt corpse, playing up baseless speculation by local police that the amateur cremation may have been “ritualistic”.
Kaufman knew the police were looking for him so after a few weeks, he and Martin turned themselves in. They appeared in West L.A. Municipal Court on Parsons’s 27th birthday, November 5, 1973.
As there was no law against taking a dead body the two were charged with misdemeanor theft for stealing the coffin; ordered to pay $708 in damages for the coffin, plus a $300 fine.
The aftermath of the court’s sentence was as unlikely as the events leading up to it.
Kaufman threw himself a party to raise the fine money; Kaufman’s Koffin Kaper Koncert. They pasted beer bottles with homemade labels featuring a bad likeness of Parsons, “Gram Pilsner: A stiff drink for what ales you.” Dr. Demento served as deejay, and live music was provided by the Crypt Kickers of “Monster Mash” fame. Despite the gruesome streak running through the party, it was a memorable wake for their friend.
Gram Parsons left more than his share of loose ends.
Bob Parsons had the charred remains of his stepson shipped to New Orleans, where, after a small service with family only, he was buried in The Garden of Memories, an unimpressive cemetery on a highway near the airport. A bronze plaque marks the gravesite; it reads “God’s Own Singer.” Although Bob Parsons succeeded in getting the body to Louisiana, his scheme to seize control of the fortune was nevertheless thwarted by a Florida court. A year later, Bob Parsons died of an alcohol-related illness.
When Gram Parsons had left for Joshua Tree, he believed he had initiated divorce proceedings against his wife Gretchen. As it turned out, this was not the case. Kaufman had the papers to serve on her but hadn’t yet done so by the time Parsons died.
The site of Parsons’ cremation was marked by a small concrete slab. The slab has since been removed by the U.S. National Park Service, and relocated to the Joshua Tree Inn.
Since his death, Gram Parsons has been recognized as an extremely influential artist, credited with helping to found both country rock and alt-country. His posthumous honors include the Americana Music Association “President’s Award” for 2003, and a ranking at No. 87 on Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.”
We were in the room next door.