Thursday, November 08, 2012

Joshua Tree. 

The words have a strange power of their own. Is there any other tree whose name carries an almost mythic quality? Not even fucking close. For many people, their first thought upon hearing the name is of what is widely believed to be U2's finest album. Fair enough, I guess. (I'd nominate Achtung, Baby ...) Yet others picture the image of the tree itself. Its survival in a largely plant hostile environment, its extreme age and its almost unearthly beauty.

The drive from Crestline to Joshua Tree doesn't take long and we arrive in the late afternoon. The landscape is flat and dusty, broken up by short shrubs and the truly weird, almost Seussian desert spruce. We check into the Joshua Tree Inn not long before sunset. We have reserved two rooms, the Gram Parsons suite and the Emmylou Harris suite. Our friendly young desk clerk is a small fellow, with long dreads, giving him the look of Faith No More's drummer, Mike "Puffy" Bordin. I tell him that several years ago, I purchased their Flying Burrito Brothers shirt online.  "Wow, we don't sell those any more. You've kinda got yourself a collector's item."


He takes us to our rooms via the restaurant (closed), and offers us a mug of his homemade chai. It's damned good.  SB is in room 7 (Harris) and I am in room 8. (deep breath as the door opens). The room where Gram Parsons spent his final days. The room, let's face it, where he died. Gram has exerted a strong influence in both my writing and listening. His Cosmic American Music, a blend of traditional country, folk, R'n'B and British Invasion was utterly unique for its time. His one album with The Byrds, 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo' a true classic, containing what many believe to be his signature song, Hickory Wind. Years later, wretched bands like The Eagles would reap millions by their pale imitation of Parsons' truly great vision. His two stellar solo albums, post-Burritos, introduced the world to Emmylou Harris and their duets were heartbreak and love personified. In mid-September, 1973, Parsons checked into his traditional room at the inn, and days later died from an overdose of morphine and alcohol. He was 26.

Since then, his room has been visited by fans from every corner of the world, as the guest book in his room will attest. We music fans do love our tragic heroes. The room isn't terribly large, but, there is a beautiful double bed in the centre and the walls are decorated by original works of art. Some of which were created by Parsons' friend and musical ally, Ian Dunlop. There is a small courtyard out back, with two comfortable lounge chairs and a tiny alcove with a fridge, where I place my beer. Oh, I almost forgot...the door which leads to the courtyard is actually gold-plated. Clearly an homage to the Burritos' classic song, Sin City.

There is a large pile of CD's in the room which have been left by musicians from all over the world as a tribute to the fallen Grievous Angel. I decide not to listen to any of them because, frankly, I just don't care about them. SB and I arranged this one night sojourn months ahead of my trip and I don't want to share it with anyone else. Fucking hippies.

The sun has set and the temperature drops pretty quickly. SB and I are hanging out in her room and out come the guitars again. I promised myself that I wouldn't play any of Parsons' songs while I was here. (later on I cave and play a thoroughly pedestrian version of Hickory Wind...) We pass the guitar back and forth, much like the previous night in the cabin. SB plays a haunting version of Elvis Costello's Night Rally and I play almost every sad song I know. And I know a metric fuck-tonne of them. I'm not sure why, but, something about the desert air allows me to hit higher notes than usual. This seems counter-intuitive, but, it's pleasant nonetheless. Around 11 pm a swim in the pool is suggested. I haven't brought anything remotely swim-worthy. Skinny dipping seems to be the logical option....until we get to the pool. Fucking freezing. We return to the room and continue our little performance, well lubricated by quality weed and Mexican beer.

Closing in on 1 am, we both become fairly hungry. Somehow, the idea of eating hadn't really occurred to either of us. SB has brought, fortunately. bread, Swiss cheese and pistachio nuts. Obviously, put 'em all together. It's a damned fine sandwich. I mean, really good. Subtle and tasty and not too filling. I'm of the opinion, and I'm not alone in it, that cheese improves fucking nearly anything. For instance, I like cheese and peanut butter on a hamburger, so this sandwich seems like a natural progression from that.

We spend a little time in the courtyard attached to my room, but, the bulk of the evening is spent in SB's suite and yard. She has brought Cooper to the motel, which is technically frowned upon...but he behaves very well and it's unlikely anyone would be aware of his presence. The last few songs of the night are played and I return to my room. Laying on the bed, I stare up at the exposed ceiling beams and contemplate that this was, in all likelihood, Gram's last view of the world. Eerie and just a little sobering. Sad, really. I drift into a deep sleep and if there were any dreams of relevance, I don't recall any of 'em.

I wake at 10 the next morning. Our check out time is 11. SB has already been up for a while and has taken the trouble to brew me some tea in the breakfast room. I take a good, hot shower and prepare myself for the day's drive to our next destination: a cabin in the town of  29 Palms, another high desert community.

Directly in front of my door is a memorial sculpture to GP. A large, bronze replica of an acoustic guitar and an altar upon which many people have placed small offerings....coins, guitar picks, a shoe....SB and I take pictures of each other and then prepare to leave.

The next few days will see me meeting some more of SB's friends as we prepare to celebrate her 40th birthday, nominally the reason for my vacation.

It's the fourth day of my time in California and I've already covered more geography than I would in three months back home on PEI. How fucking awesome is my life?

Yes. It's a rhetorical question.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Over the Hills and Seriously Far Away.


That word will hardly leave my mind as we drive up, up, up and up this fucking mountain. The birds are wearing oxygen tanks. (Little ones, obviously.). A narrow road that climbs through this landscape like the trail of a drunken sidewinder.  San Bernadino State Park is beautiful. As far as I can tell.  The road is never straight for more than a few yards and on either side it drops, practically straight fucking down to the more reasonable sea-level freeway. At points it feels as if all that's keeping us on the damned road is the change in my left pocket..

SB is taking me to her cabin on the mountain. She shares it with another woman who,  rather splendidly, is almost never there. The roommate spends most of her time with her new beau. He shares a first name and a birthday with SB. More on those two, later.

Put yourself in my shoes for a moment (they're big, there's plenty of room...).  I live on a small, flat island. A three minute walk from my front door means that I am looking at the Atlantic ocean. Now, I'm nearing the 6,000' elevation mark. What the actual fuck?  Looking back down towards the freeway that brought us here, I am somewhat reminded of a giant guitar neck illuminated by the red and white strings of the cars' front and rear lights.

We pull into a small town and drive to a liquor store called the Four Brothers. I walk inside, grab 12 bottles of Modello, a very fine Mexican beer and two packs of Winston cigarettes. The man behind the counter is about to put the twelve bottles into a plastic bag. "No, thanks. I'm not going very far. " "You have to, it's state law. " "Oh, I see. Um...could I have that in a plastic bag, please?". "Sure thing. "  "Gee, thanks. "

More narrow roads, more blind corners and more up....the sun is sinking and I can see a small amount of fog on the road. SB corrects me. Those are clouds. We're that fucking high up.

We take a series of arterial roads to the cabin. It's pretty dark and the evening has turned cool. Beer on porch, luggage by my bed, joint rolled, I light a cigarette and take it all in...the air tastes different up here. Away from the carbon monoxide and diesel smoke that blanket the greater Los Angeles area, I can taste trees and local flora. It's a sweet, brown flavour.

We break out the acoustic guitars and proceed to play. SB favours some Elvis Costello and Gillian Welch covers. I run through a series of songs that stitch together like someone frantically tuning a radio, looking for a song. Beatles, Jon Brion, Echo & the Bunnymen, Psychedelic Furs, Billie Holiday and many others that have no connective through line. It's been a long time since I just sat and played music with or near anyone else and apparently these songs are well nigh desperate to get out of my head, lest I forget them.

The cabin interior has a warm cedar glow. There is a fireplace but I am informed that it is in poor condition and would not be suited to the kind of fire that it seems to demand on a night like this. I drink more beer, smoke more pot, play more songs (some of which I don't think I've played in many, many years) and begin to understand why such a remote location appeals to some. It's the quiet. The kind of quiet that makes the universe seem intimate and yet aloof. The stars overhead hang in milky, wide clusters. It occurs to me that I'm seeing a chunk of the galaxy that I've never seen before.

We are joined later by SB's friend BP. An amiable dude whose parents live just across the way. He drinks Coors beer, which out of politeness I decide not to mock. (It tastes like poison-lite and the company's politics are shameful). He seems impressed by some of my clumsy jazz chords and requests that I write some down for him to learn. He tells me of a recording project featuring Angeleno bands covering songs from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. He is wondering how to approach the song his group is covering, the opening number, 'Science Fiction'. I offer the opinion that if other bands are taking wild liberties with their covers, the most radical way to approach his song would be a straight up cover. No fancy time changes, analog synths or lo-fi production. Stand above the rest by not trying so damn hard to be different. The concept seems to elude him and I don't press it any further.

The evening winds down, I finish my beer and prepare for bed. Tomorrow we are heading out to the high desert. This has been planned for several months and incorporates both SB's birthday party and my chance to commune with the ghost (conceptually, at least) of one of my musical idols.

Two days and I've barely stood still.

Fucking awesome. 

Next: Surprise sandwiches, more late night songs and a gold plated door.