GP: The Grievous Angel

For years I’ve been wanting to go to Joshua Tree National Park: 1) because it’s an amazing place, and 2) to pay tribute to country rock legend Gram Parsons.

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I can’t remember when I first learned about Gram, but I’m pretty sure it was through one of the many Keith Richards interviews/memoirs I’ve read over the years, seeing as Gram and Keef were BFFs. As a result, Gram was a big influence on the Rolling Stones’ country-flavored stuff in the early 70s (some of the best music of all time, IMO).

A little history: Gram Parsons started off playing folk and rock guitar, but his real bag was country. After dropping out of Harvard, he went to LA and joined the Byrds in 1968, sticking around just long enough to tour a bit and make Sweetheart of the Rodeo (I’m not huge on the Byrds, but that album is one of my favorites). Then he and Chris Hillman went on to form the Flying Burrito Brothers:

(Gram is the one in the hat and Nudie suit, hamming it up for the camera.)

After that, he spent some time hanging out with the Stones, living with Keith during the recording of Exile on Main Street, another one of my favorite albums of all time. It was around this time Gram heard Emmylou Harris perform in a club in DC, and invited her to sing on his first solo album, GP. He and Emmylou toured for a bit, but never really got much of a following. I’m devastated there are no good videos of them performing live, because their voices together were magical. Emmylou would go on to become a big star, but that’s getting ahead of the story a bit.

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As any country rock outlaw would, Gram loved Joshua Tree (you can see the Burrito Bros. hanging out in the park in the video above). He went there alone, he went there with Keef, he went there whenever he could. In July 1973, when bandmate Clarence White was killed in an accident, Gram told his friend/manager Phil Kaufman that he wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered in Joshua Tree in the event of his death.

Unfortunately, Kaufman had to make good on that deal just a few months later. Gram overdosed at the Joshua Tree Inn on September 18, 1973. His body was taken to LAX to be flown back to New Orleans at his stepfather’s request, but in order to fulfill Gram’s wishes, Phil Kaufman and another buddy Michael Martin drunkenly stole the casket in a hearse and drove it out to Joshua Tree. They stopped at a rock formation off the main road, doused the casket in gasoline, threw in a match, then drove away.

How Kaufman and Martin were found by the police is a story in itself, but they were eventually arrested, released, and fined just a few hundred dollars for stealing the casket (not the body, because there weren’t any laws about that). The not-quite-cremated body of Gram Parsons was found by some campers and was eventually transported back to Louisiana, but fans have been going to Joshua Tree for decades to pay tribute at the place he loved most.


This past weekend, I finally made it to Joshua Tree. While driving to the park, we listened to GP as I told Alex the story of Gram’s death and botched cremation. I made us stop for a photo op outside the Joshua Tree Inn (the actual motel is fenced off, but guests can still stay in Room 8 where Gram died). I had vague understanding about a makeshift memorial in the park, but didn’t know where it was. A quick Google search before entering the park placed it at Cap Rock, the site where Kaufman and Martin unsuccessfully tried to cremate Gram’s body that night.

While I’m sure there are detailed instructions somewhere on how to find the memorial, all we had was the general location (Cap Rock wasn’t even on the park map we were given), so we hiked around a few different rock formations until Alex finally spotted it: an unassuming alcove in the shade of a big boulder, right next to the main road. On the underside of the boulder were some song lyrics written in charcoal, and on a nearby rock, someone had drawn a cross next to the initials GP. A handful of guitar picks and other trinkets were arranged on a little ledge above. It would be pretty easy to miss if we weren’t looking for it.

No one else was around, so we quietly snapped some pictures and went on our way. Park rangers periodically “clean up” the site, so I have no idea if this was a few days or months’ worth of tribute.

Somewhere in my classic rock adventures I’ve become particularly fond of 60s/70s country rock, no doubt thanks to Gram, Keef, and Nez (who I recently saw in concert! another post on that later, maybe). Songs about the desert and the highway—even if they’re about loneliness and heartbreak—always bring back happy memories of childhood road trips through the Southwest. So basically what I’m saying is, Gram’s music holds a special place in my heart, and even though his flame burned out too soon, it’s nice to know his spirit is very much alive in Joshua Tree.

Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl

So, I’ve been really into The Crown lately…probably because it’s a welcome distraction from the hot mess that is the United States right now. Also I like looking at fancy interiors and rooms with impossibly high ceilings.

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Previously, the only knowledge I had about the royal family was from many years of watching Beatles footage. There’s actually quite a bit of relevant material. First there was the Royal Variety show in 1963, where the Beatles played for the Queen Mother and John got cheeky:

Then there were multiple instances of the Beatles meeting Princess Margaret (“Priceless Margarine” in John’s words). Fun fact: she and Lord Snowdon both attended the premieres for A Hard Day’s Night and Help! (spoiler alert: the Princess doesn’t marry Peter Townsend).

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And of course the MBE debacle, in which the Queen made the boys members of the British Empire, fans stormed Buckingham Palace, a bunch of people got mad, and the Beatles just got super high and gave a somewhat incomprehensible interview about it:

Fast forward to the 90s and you have Paul and George Martin being knighted by the Queen herself. And, a gazillion years later, Ringo’s finally a knight too!

Anyway, it’s been fun learning more about the monarchy and all its drama by way of a Netflix original series. Compared to American scandal, it’s all very dignified drama. Also, I’ve learned that I kind of have a crush on King George VI and I’m cool with that.

To end, here’s an adorable picture of Paul and the Queen:

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(Bonus picture – I find this one even more adorbs.)

HSB 17 Highlights

Before I ramble about some of my favorite parts of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 17, I wanted to make sure I wrote down something that’s been on my mind:

Seeing as the worst mass shooting on American soil took place at an outdoor music festival just 5 days prior to HSB, I was more than a little paranoid about going to a large-scale, free concert in the park last weekend. I even packed a first aid kit in my bag and had a few fleeting concerns about how to use its contents without fainting, which is a bummer because no one should have to be fearful of going to a music show.

But thankfully, nothing awful happened, and in fact almost every artist I saw made some sort of comment about the feelings of peace/love/brotherhood/sisterhood floating around the festival throughout the weekend. Maybe it sounds a little silly, but there is something special about HSB that you don’t get at Outside Lands or any other festival. For one, it’s completely free and non-commercial—no corporate sponsorships, no “Heineken House”, no admission price. Attendees range from babies to baby boomers (and also lots of dogs), and everyone respects one another. There’s an immense amount of trust involved in letting 750,000 people walk into Golden Gate Park with unchecked coolers and backpacks, but if there’s any place you can pull it off, it’s here. So thanks, San Francisco, for once again proving that you’re a city of peace and love and (literal) harmony.

Now, with that out of the way, here are my highlights from the festival.

The War and Treaty

This Michigan-based couple were billed as a supporting act to Buddy Miller, but umm, they definitely stole the show. Their love for each other practically radiated off the stage during their set; it was wonderful. (Fun fact: Michael Trotter Jr. was a soldier in Iraq who wrote his first songs on a piano owned by Saddam Hussein.) They just released their first EP this summer, called Down to the River. Check ’em out playing the title track below (so much energy!!). I feel lucky to have seen them, and hope they come back to the Bay Area soon.

Dan Auerbach

I never really got into The Black Keys, but while listening to HSB playlists in the past month, it was Dan Auerbach’s stuff I kept coming back to. Also, I really like his music videos – they’re so fun (and a little bizarre). See: “Shine on Me” and “Stand By My Girl”, both of which have a bit of a George Harrison/”All Things Must Pass”-era vibe to me.

So seeing Auerbach on Saturday evening was definitely a highlight. We were right up front (my dad has a friend who makes a point to stake out front-row spots at the beginning of each day) and it was awesome. I had no idea who the guys in Auerbach’s band were—none of them looked younger than 65—but turns out they’re kind of a big deal: Gene Chrisman drummed on “Respect”, “Sweet Caroline”, and “Son of a Preacher Man”, Dave Roe was the longtime bassist for Johnny Cash, Bobby Wood and Russ Pahl have played with some of the biggest names in music. Cool!

Here’s the video for the opening song Auerbach played at HSB, a nostalgic mini-movie complete with a John Prine cameo:

The Secret Sisters

I got to the festival early on Sunday to catch The Secret Sisters, and they did not disappoint. If you like First Aid Kit (another sisterly duo, whose performance on Friday I sadly missed), I would definitely recommend checking them out! They performed a whole bunch of lovely original songs (like this one) but the video I chose below is an a cappella version of a 1920s song, because I just loved their rendition so much.

Lampedusa

Thank goodness I tagged along with my parents to this one, because I’ll probably never get to see Patty Griffin, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, and Lucinda Williams (and Bob Weir!) on the same stage together ever again. Lampedusa is a group of musicians currently touring to raise awareness of the worldwide refugee crisis. My heart melted as soon as they started singing (appropriately) “Refugee” and continued to melt all the way through “Love Hurts”, “I Know You Rider”, and “Pilgrim”. Not to mention the Blue Angels were flying over our heads throughout their set, which made for some sweet pictures. Can’t find any high quality videos from the show, but here’s one of “I Know You Rider” which is fun because you can see me and my parents over on the left side near the front (Dad’s in a green shirt and big hat, mom’s in a white shirt, and I’m in red).

Also, can I just say how amazing Emmylou Harris is? She was the first act I ever saw at HSB, and one of my favorite singers. She continues to play the festival every year, and her voice is just pure magic.

Other noteworthies

  • Although Alex and I were about a football field’s length away from the stage during Randy Newman’s set, it was still great fun. Obligatory “You’ve Got A Friend” video (“That guy looks like Tom Hanks…”).
  • Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile were good from what I heard, but by that point it was so packed at the Swan Stage that I couldn’t really get a solid look/hear. Ah well, maybe next time.
  • Same as above for John Prine; I really would’ve enjoyed being up close for his set, but the crowd was too much so unfortunately I just heard a few songs.

In previous years, I found HSB to be a bit overwhelming, but this year was so enjoyable that I’m really looking forward to the next one. Also, kudos to my parents for hanging out at the festival all weekend; if they can do it, I guess I can too. :p

What story are we watching, Charlie?

HOO BOY.

You know that feeling after waking up from a strange dream…those few seconds of disoriented, uneasy confusion? Having to parse reality from your mind’s own creations? The finale of Twin Peaks: The Return has managed to pinpoint that feeling and make it last indefinitely.

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Man…David Lynch and Mark Frost really made me think we were getting a neatly packaged resolution with Parts 16 and 17, then just shattered everything to pieces with Part 18. I still have no idea what to think, and my new favorite pastime is reading all the speculation in the Twin Peaks subreddit. (I think it’s safe to say that there’s enough material to fuel discussions for at least the next 25 years.)

Since I don’t ever post on Reddit except when one of my favorite people is doing an AMA, I’m going to dump all my thoughts/half-baked theories here instead (it’s about time I got use out of this blog).

BEWARE! Lots of spoilers and rambling ahead.

Continue reading What story are we watching, Charlie?

Monday Night Feels: The Who Edition

Oh hi. It's been a minute, hasn't it?

Sorry for the lack of posts on here. I'm happy to say it's because I've been doing a lot of writing elsewhere, although I certainly don't want this blog to die. Where else can I blab about my favorite classic rock bands, silent movies, and TV shows?

Speaking of which, I have some thoughts about The Who that I want to share.

Continue reading Monday Night Feels: The Who Edition

Those good good Beatles harmonies

Last week, after a particularly long bus ride in which I listened to “Yes It Is” (a severely underrated song, IMO) no less than five times in a row, I was inspired to compile the perfect playlist of Beatles harmonies. Or at least, perfect to me.

This is by no means comprehensive…just a few of my favorites, arranged (mostly) chronologically because I always think it’s so interesting to hear how the Beatles’ songwriting/recording techniques evolved over time. It’s like you can hear them getting more comfortable singing together with each song, until finally you get to “Because” which 100% always blows me away with those goosebump-inducing vocals.

(If you don’t have Spotify, I’m sorry. It’s impossible to make a Beatles playlist on YouTube.)

I had to include “The End,” because 1) the other Abbey Road songs kinda leave you hanging, and 2) they do sneak some great harmonies in there.

Also, yesterday was George’s birthday! Happy birthday, dear George.

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February music roundup

All of these artist discoveries have been thanks to my latest A Song A Day curator (Janet Choi, YOU DA BEST). I’ve enjoyed listening to this music so much that I had to share some of it here.

Kaia Kater. Beautiful lyrics and Americana sound (even though she’s Canadian)! Love love love.

Jacob Collier. Holy smokes, this kid! Apparently he writes/arranges, records, produces, and performs everything himself. The song that got me hooked was his cover of “In My Room” but honestly, everything he does is pretty phenomenal.

The Lemon Twigs. I listened to their album Do Hollywood and concluded that they’re trying to be the Beatles, Queen, and The Who all at once, and it is great. Also, they’re only 17 and 19 years old!

MAGIK*MAGIK. Beautiful new music straight from San Francisco (well in this case, the Fox Theater in Oakland).