Gram Parsons and Joshua Tree

When I was 34 years old I went to a book sellers conference in Las Vegas. My friend and I flew into Los Angeles and rented a car and drove across the desert to Las Vegas. This was about 1992, I could look it up because I remember distinctly the song Achey Breaky Heart was on every radio station all day throughout the road trip. I had never been through the desert before and it amazed me. As we came up toward Palm Springs I saw a sign pointing to Joshua Tree National Monument. I knew I knew something about the place but couldn't completely put my finger on it, then, as we were about to pass the turn off I yelled "Turn here!" I had just remembered it was the place Gram Parsons was supposed to have been spiritually tied to and where his friends, after they stole his body, cremated him.

You couldn't look things up on your phone back then, we didn't know where we were going but we just took off up the road and ended up in the high desert; a magical place of extreme heat and amazing tiny plant life and tiny skittering lizards. I had no idea where Gram Parsons was supposed to have been cremated then so we just drove away until we saw a sign for the town of Twenty Nine Palms. For some reason (wrongly) we thought that might be the place. My friend and I came upon an incredible natural oasis right on the edge of the the park with a motel on it. It was so beautiful we tried to get a room for the night (booksellers convention be damned). The place was full and probably way out of our price range. As we were walking back to our car the owner came out from behind the bar and said "If you want, you can sleep above the garage" there's a couple of beds up there. So we did. At night the birds from the desert swooped in and landed around this Oasis (It turns out it's the only privately owned Oasis out there). It was magical and you could literally feel the power of this oasis for the birds and the plant life and the earth. Had a crazy night there. The next day we hiked all over Joshua Tree and I've never forgotten it. We never found Gram's cremation site but did experience the power he must have felt from this high desert.

So last week I went to Palm Springs for a holiday. Great place beautiful 1950's vibe and everyone of our motel rooms had vinyl and a turntable in it. This time I knew where Grams memorial was (at the Joshua Tree Inn) and was determined to go there.

The day we went it was raining. It rains a maximum of ten days a year up there and somehow we caught one of them. The drive in the rain made it even more beautiful and it was only about 15 degrees as we headed up into the mountains toward the high desert, steam coming off the massive stones on either side of the highway.

The Joshua Tree Inn is quite close to the edge of Joshua Tree National Monument. Just a nondescript little hotel that looks like it's been there forever. It would be easy to miss if you weren't really looking for it. It still functions as a motel but there's no flash and nothing that says anything about Gram Parsons. It's just a run of the mill, slightly run down place.The motel was full and we peeked into the courtyard, not wanting to disturb anyone (It was about 8:30 in the morning) I asked a maid where the memorial was.

There is a rough black sculpture of an acoustic guitar on it's end standing about 5 feet tall about half way down the courtyard. Carved into the neck are the words "Safe At Home".On a little cement stoop in front of it there was a candle burning and it was cluttered with things people had left in respect. Some Mexican looking religious nic-nacs, guitar picks and strings, a cowboy boot, weather and rain streaked handwritten notes, a bowl filled with about 50 hash pipes, empty bottles. No one was up around there yet and we took pictures of each other behind the memorial and some of the grounds in the rain.

I remember being really excited 25 years ago looking for it. Last week, standing there in the rain, I just felt spooked and desolate having found it. Gram Parsons was not yet 30 when he died of a heroin overdose in that very motel 43 years ago. Out in that beautiful desert 43 years later there is still so much to see.

Songs

I've been working on 12 songs for the new Mr. Superlove album this last couple of weeks and they have made me think a lot about songwriting and songs in general. All of the twelve songs that I've been working on were written by other people. Most of the writers I haven't heard of nor have I heard any of their other songs.

To interpret someone else's song demands that you find some way inside of it and imagine what it possibly meant to the writer and what it now means to you. It's one thing if you know something about the writer or if you're familiar with their other works  but to come at it cold; basically circling around this one individual song hanging in space alone is something else again.

It's just this one pure expression of an emotion and it's not always easy to define it or make it your own. Mainly I think of these songs as having something to do with loss. Loss of love, loss of expectation, loss of innocence. Then I started to think that maybe all the songs I love in the world are about loss. Even the happy ones. Loss isn't always a bad thing, you can lose things that are holding you back. You can gain insight through loss but what is it about loss that makes a person want to sing about it? Why are so many songs about loss?

First of all I think it's one of those things that we all experience and in the very end what we will all succumb to so it's a universal experience. Secondly we are inevitably alone in our loss. Nobody else experiences it exactly the same way we do. Maybe the only thing is to sing about it to comfort ourselves. Like having your own personal radio on low in the darkest of night to help you to sleep and get you to the light.

To experience someones raw emotional loss through song is enlightening. You realize that there are things that we all have in common. These songs I've been working on were written by people from tremendously diverse places and stations in life but they all touch some chord inside me which make me spiritually larger and more in tune with my fellow man.

I wouldn't have missed this project for the world. Songs are even more important to me now having learned these twelve (and songs have been consistently, throughout my life, the most important things) than they have ever been.

Bread

I've been making a lot of bread lately. I've been doing that off and on for awhile but recently I've been doing it hardcore. The great thing about it is there are usually all these steps you have to do but they're not that difficult. You just have to be around the kitchen most of the day.

When I was in Tofino recently for some reason out of the blue a magazine "Cooks Illustrated All Time Best Bread Recipes" caught my eye so I bought it and toted it back to Calgary and decided I would bake my way through it. So far I've made: Multigrain Sandwich bread- twice, this one's cool because you use 7 grain cereal, No-Knead bread 3X, I've made this lots but this recipe is outstanding, oddly it involves 15 seconds of kneading on the second day, Sourdough-I've never done before but I finally took the step and got my hands on some old starter. I've been feeding it daily, it's like owning a pet-I think I should name it. Once again this is a two day project but so worth it.

I decided to try something finnicky so I made Italian Breadsticks about a foot long, the outside crust lightly sprinkled in coarse salt. They last forever if you don't eat them all on the first day.

Thin crust pizza-I swear by this, I make it at least once a week, it takes overnight rising so you have to start the day before or leave it in the fridge for a few days. This stuff is as close as I've come to a real thin crust pizza at home. WAY,WAY better than takeout.

Brown Irish Soda bread is spectacular, I like it for breakfast and the Olive Rosemary Italian bread is great AND you can make it in one day.

Most everything I've made so far is basically a two day project but when I'm going to be home in the day I love it. 20 minute bursts of kneading and shaping every 2 or 3 hours is great.

My latest project was flour tortillas. I love Mexican food and have been making my own corn tortillas for years (Only just now reaching perfection) but Flour tortillas are another story. First time out-fantastic! The secret ingredient being vegetable shortening. Man they were something.

So that's what I've been doing on the baking end of things recently. I find I really like to make breads when I'm completely alone, it's like songwriting, I don't even want anybody else in the next room, I don't even want anyone else in the house..I crank the tunes(Classical seems to be my baking companion at the moment. Ravel solo piano to be exact) and dig the textures, the smells the look of the loaves as they take shape.

I guess all I'm saying is...Baking is good for my soul.

First Sentences

Someone once said that the first sentence in a novel should tell you everything you need to know about what you are about to read.

If that's true you should be able to decide after the first sentence if you want to read the book or cast it aside.

 

"All of this happened while I was walking around starving in Christiania-that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him...."  from Hunger by Knut Hamsun

This sentence reaches across a century and then some and grabs me by the throat and makes me want to dive in. This is probably the fourth time I've read this novel. It hits me every time with it's promise of a world that needs to be read. Hunger, in my opinion, one of the worlds great novels. Gets better every time.

 

Sturgill Simpson

I just thought I'd mention that the country record I have liked the best in the last month is "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music" by Sturgill Simpson. Check him out. Don't let song titles like "Turtles All the Way Down" throw you, he's kind of a cross between Waylon Jennings, Randy Travis and Timothy Leary. Very very cool!

Records

I am crazy over vinyl. I pretty much buy an album a week now and I still have all the records I've ever purchased. Moving is no fun for me. The thing about records as opposed to downloads is that they have a physical presence which demands focus. I love turning the thing over. They also make cleaning the house more fun. I'm especially crazy over Soul, R&B and Jazz at the moment.

This week it's Al Green, Betty Lavette, Tina Turner, Coltrane, Otis Redding, Roy Orbison and Chet Baker.

Gotta go now and hit some record stores, what's really cool is that now in Calgary there are lots of them.

On another note I just heard myself on CKUA.

Books

I've been reading a lot lately. I used to read a ton, like a book every couple of days. I fell out of it for awhile. I continued to read, just not at the same frenzied pace. The past six months or so I've been really enjoying it again. When I say I'm reading books I mean in paper form. I find reading (especially fiction) on a screen too distracting and weird. It doesn't do what a book does. Whatever it is a book does, the screen just doesn't do it.

I started re reading some of my old favourites as well as digging in to some contemporary stuff.

Here's some I really loved recently: Crime and Punishment, Catcher In The Rye, Tropic of Cancer, Madame Bovary, The Sound and The Fury, Just started (and am almost finished because it's so great) The Sun Also Rises.

On a more modern note I loved the new Richard Ford "Let Me Be Frank With You", "Goldfinch" was spectacular, Everything and I mean everything by Henning Mankell, not just the Walander books. A real standout for me was the first novel by the American Poet Ben Lerner "Leaving The Atochka Station". I liked all the crime novels in the Dept. Q series by Jussi Adler Olsen. Didn't much care for the Steve Earle novel.

Nonfiction I liked "Wild" and for a hilarious read the autobiography by American Songwriter Todd Snider.

Just some stuff I liked.

 

Playing

Feeling very lucky to be gigging so much these days. All the great rooms that allow me to play all the time: The Ironwood, Mikey's, Wine Oh's, Blues Can, Schooners. All the great people who consistently come out to see the shows and new people all the time that make it very easy to get up in the morning. Life is filled with music for me these days. Working on new tunes, working on the show for Mr. Superlove, I couldn't be happier. Looking forward to a show in Leduc next week and a Man of Constant Sorrow gig on the weekend. Just feeling blessed is all.

I was reading an article in Time Magazine

This article in Time was about the paperless classroom and how it was no longer necessary to teach handwriting. "We don't care about handwriting" was what the teacher said.

Well maybe he doesn't care but I bet he's never been in a Mexican prison with nothing but a lump of charcoal and some toilet paper to smuggle out to his friends to get money, and I mean quick, before something everyone will regret happens and there's no turning back. If you can't write in that situation what are you supposed to do. Ask buddy the guard for an IPad? I mean, really, this teacher is obviously living a sheltered life.

What if youv'e been beaten and thrown in the trunk of a car for outstanding pharmaceutical debts and you don't know how to scrawl the license plate number and make of the car in blood on the pavement? The consequences could be horrific.

I think something has to change here. WAKE UP AMERICAN EDUCATORS1

Testing, testing 1,2,3.....

Never having blogged before, here I am. I don't really know what I'll use this for but I can imagine it will be a magnificent tool to help me avoid writing songs or various other work related things. For instance, if I'm feeling greatly inspired, instead of pulling out the guitar and a pencil and spending an hour crafting a song I can just come here and unproductively while away the time until inspiration passes. I can only hope it will be there for me when the need to vacuum or clean the bathroom arises. I can see already that I will come up with hundreds if not thousands of reasons to spend blissfully squandered time in this space. As a matter of fact, now that I'm doing it I can see that it's an absolute Godsend..... Somebody get off their butt and turn over that John Hartford record I'm busy over here!