When country rocker Gram Parsons died of a drug overdose in 1973, friends snatched his body from Los Angeles and burned it in a place he loved: Joshua Tree National Park, Calif. Later, fans illegally placed a marker in his honor in the park. Now, some say it’s time for the National Park Service to officially recognize the counterculture musician as a part of park history. Supporters argue that the park recognizes 19th-century rustlers, miners, and ranchers who left their mark.
“Are they any more worthy of interpretation than an influential rock musician who lived way too fast and died young?” Joe Zarki, chief of park interpretation at Joshua Tree, asked last fall in an E-mail to colleagues around the country. “When and how do we incorporate stories of popular culture with all its excess and hedonism into our interpretive efforts?” Zarki wrote. “If Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton get recognition at New Orleans Jazz National Historic Site, why not Gram Parsons at Joshua Tree?”
Parsons has been cited as an influence on the Eagles and the Rolling Stones, as well as the modern alternative country music movement. After he died at 26 of a drug overdose in a motel a mile from the park, his road manager and a friend stole the casket and burned it in the park, as Parsons had wanted.
Bob Van Belle, National Park Service coordinator for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, recalled hearing the story around campfires in Joshua Tree as a young rock climber in 1974. “It is one of the most deeply embedded pieces of Joshua Tree folklore,” Van Belle said. “There is not a climber in the country who does not know the story.”
Fans continue to make pilgrimages to his makeshift shrine, a concrete slab painted with the title of his “Safe at Home” album on Cap Rock in the remote desert park 120 miles east of Los Angeles. They have scrawled on the surrounding, ancient sandstone rocks. Recently, the memorial bore a seashell necklace, a bottle of beer, and a message: “God’s own singer.”
But the memorial doesn’t appear on the official park map. Rangers have the option of telling the story in educational programs but the visitors’ center and park brochures are silent on the subject. In his E-mail, Zarki asked the question: “Does Gram Parsons qualify as a historical figure for the park?” For now, the answer is no.
Clifford Tobias, a park history program leader in Philadelphia, said it would take time and money to formally recognize the site, including research and exhibit materials.
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