Like many music fans, I’ve stayed in room 8 at Joshua Tree Inn, where country rock influencer and died-too-soon icon Gram Parsons took his last drug-fueled breath in September 1973.
It’s unsuitably small, with a queen bed at the center, a work table and a closet where Parsons hung his Nudie suit before kicking back with a nice shot of morphine to enhance his tequila binge on that fateful night.
Overall the place was unremarkable. In my own notes, looking back a few years, I wrote “not a big vibe in here at all.”
Significantly, it’s this room that launched two Brits on a milquetoast quest for the some rock ‘n’ roll soul, a sojourn that is quite misplaced.
Authors Joe Harland and Chris Price – the former, a sports fan and radio producer, the latter a Parsons fan and one-time director of music at MTV – deliver a disjointed travelogue in the ambitiously titled Live Fast, Die Young: Misadventures in Rock ‘n’ Roll America
The two neither live fast, and never even come close to dying young. And if Vail, Colorado and Dodge City, Kansas, are your idea of rock havens, this book is the place to be. Think about that – they could have hit Texas and dug into Buddy Holly.
Chris, the Parsons fan, claims at the start that the trip would “brush for the DNA of the American music aristocracy and dust for the vomit of a string of deceased rock and rollers.” Nothing close goes down. No one gets drunk or laid. There are no toxic powders, and the closest they come to a scrape with the law is at a traffic stop in Oklahoma.
I was looking for some kickass, tear-it-up. Starting with a love and appreciation of the sad but wild story of Parsons can do a good job of getting readers to the pages. They even evoke the legendary US comic Bill Hicks on several occasions, another live-fast-die-young guy. But alas, there’s no delivery.
The digressions that mark their journey – securing a convertible for the coast to coast drive, the overtold story of Michael Nesmith’s mother and her discovery of Liquid Paper and 2-½ pages on the merits of the Welsh alty band Manic Street Preachers and another 2-½ on the demerits of Christian radio– derail the tale.
Joe and Chris hit Graceland. They see Charlie Daniels at a county fair in Charleston. They make the connects to get a look around Cash Cabin Studio, Johnny Cash’s home studio. The tellings are for the most part a bit dry but they score big in the Cash studio.
Joe breaks away briefly and comes upon a framed sheet of paper, a note from Johnny to his son, John Carter Cash. “Written on it in a shaky hand were the chords for the first verse of ‘I Walk the Line’, and underneath the words: ‘I keep a close watch on this heart of mine/I keep my eyes wide open all the time/I keep the ends out for the tie that binds/Because you’re mine I walk the line’ – Happy 10th birthday John. Love from Dad.” It’s a nice piece of insightful observation.
If only the Parsons episodes were that touching. The authors make much of the fact that they meet Polly, Gram’s daughter, at the Inn, which is cool but lends little to the tale. They head over to Cap Rock in the Joshua Tree National Forest, where Parson’s body was burned by a well-meaning pal, Phil Kaufman (who the boys end up meeting in Nashville). At Cap Rock, they meet a garrulous rock climber, which is relayed in painful detail. I needed some morphine and tequila myself, after wading through this.
Joe and Chris are not without charm, and their story is best when they make it a ‘stranger in a strange land’ tale. When the two are revisiting the Jimmy Webb song “Wichita Lineman”, there’s a funny moment when they realize that there is more than one Wichita and it’s used both as the name of a town and at least two counties, in Oklahoma and Texas. “For all we know, he wrote it in High Wycombe and just liked the sound of the name,” Joe writes, referring to a London suburb.
Or Joe’s take on county fair food; “The search for novel ways to get fried dough into your face has become something of an art form in America.”
While those elements don’t make for a great book, they do compose a worthy article, which this well could have been. Or they could have stayed for two weeks in room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn, a place still frequented by desert denizens with more interesting stories to tell than most other Americans.