You can’t go very far in Memphis without encountering some reminder of Elvis Presley. The Tennessee city was his in so many ways. He went to school there, recorded his world-changing Sun recordings there, lived there throughout his adult life and continues to exert a powerful influence over it more than 40 years after his death. While he spent a lot of time away – in Germany for his late 1950s Army service, in California for much of the 1960s making a string of largely forgettable but hugely popular and profitable films, and touring throughout the United States (but nowhere else) – Elvis, the King of Rock’n’Roll, was Memphis. His home, Graceland, remains the city’s most popular tourist attraction, attracting more than 600,000 visitors a year.
The man who many claim invented rock’n’roll (and certainly presided over the social revolution that rock’n’roll ushered in) may have been Memphis but Memphis, paradoxically, was also far more than Elvis.
The list of singers and musicians who were born in or near or eventually called Memphis home, even if they were later more widely associated with other cities, is astoundingly long. W.C. Handy, regarded as the Father of the Blues, was born in nearby Florence, Alabama (close to what is erroneously known to music fans as the Muscle Shoals area), and played the bars and clubs of Beale Street in the early years of the 20th century; later, such local exponents of the blues, rhythm and blues and soul included William Bell, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, B.B. King, Little Jimmy King, Memphis Slim, Little Milton, Charlie Musselwhite, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Junior Wells, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones, Arthur Lee, and Maurice White. And just to ensure that Memphis isn’t entirely mired in nostalgia, there’s Justin Timberlake.
Is there something in the water (aside from the Mississippi that laps its muddy shores) that brought so much talent to gather in one place? Nobody knows although there are certainly numerous theories. One thing is certain: over several decades, Memphis was the place where a perfect creative storm played out in recording studios and live music venues, the reverberations of which encircled the world.
There aren’t too many people with greater insight into Memphis’ musical legacy than Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell. He grew up in Royal Studios, which his father, Willie Mitchell, operated as well as serving as Vice President of Hi Records; at the height of its R&B fame in late 1960s and 70s, Hi was best known as the home of Al Green (who had sales in excess of 20 million copies).
He was his father’s son; he combined his inherited talents with a fascination for testing boundaries. Long years of watching and listening, instructed by Willie and everybody who passed through the studio, paid off spectacularly. His first paid session was at the age of 16 as a keyboard player on Al Green’s recording of “As Long As We’re Together”; providentially, it won a Grammy.
Boo started managing Royal Studios in 2000 and became Chief Engineer in 2004. Now considered one of the oldest continually operating music studios in the world, Royal recorded the likes of Green, Anne Peebles, Ike and Tina Turner and Bobby Blue Bland during its R&B and soul heyday, then attracted artists such as Rod Stewart, Boz Scaggs, Tom Jones, Robert Cray, John Mayer, Snoop Dog and Keb Mo.
Much of Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special album was recorded at Royal (earning Boo a Grammy for his engineering duties), especially the Bruno Mars’ single, Uptown Funk. It was the first #1 out of Royal since Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and the first #1 out of Memphis since Disco Duck. And the first ever Record Of The Year Grammy out of Memphis.
Boo carefully considers the factors that brought Memphis to its creative convergence.
“Memphis has a very interesting history,” he says carefully. “It’s always been different, non-conformist. What makes us unique is that we don’t really care what other people think or what the trends are. Historically, we’ve always danced to the beat of our own drum. There’s something about the city, an energy here that inspires creativity and individuality. It comes out in the music.
“Memphis is one of those places you have to visit to understand. You can read about it, you can talk about it, but you won’t really get it until you come here. We still have a realness and a grittiness. I think that’s what draws people here to make records.”
What Boo Mitchell (and his brother, Archie, who is also involved with Royal) experienced growing up and how it influenced their eventual career path, is something of a microcosm of what Memphis is all about. There is a tradition of creativity and musical appreciation, and a reverence for that tradition, that passes down through the generations.
Royal was one of the success stories of Memphis and that goes just as much for Stax. Founded in 1957 under the name of Satellite Records, the company took over an old movie theatre in South Memphis in 1960; one of its early recordings, “Cause I Love You”, by Rufus Thomas and his daughter, Carla, became a hit. Soon afterwards, Satellite became Stax.
With distribution through Atlantic Records, Stax (along with sister label, Volt, and subsidiaries Enterprise, Hip, Chalice and Gospel Truth) showcased Memphis soul and R&B to the world. Although Stax’s prime barely lasted two decades, it recorded and released a massive amount of product with such lasting names as Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, the Mar-Keys, the Bar-Kays, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Issac Hayes, Sam & Dave, and William Bell.
Although the movie theatre that became Stax recording studio and corporate headquarters was demolished in 1989, following the collapse of the company, within a decade it was recreated as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which opened in 2003. It profiles Stax artists as well as other giants of soul, R&B and blues.
The Stax Museum isn’t the only celebration of the city’s musical heritage; the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, and the Blues Hall of Fame are all worthy of visits. But there’s really only own ground zero when it comes to discussing the music that changed the world and the role that Memphis played in this.
And that’s Sun Studios, just east of the downtown area. It’s small and usually crowded and often chaotic but its importance to modern music is in inverse proportion to its size. And the story of Sun Studios, and its most famous recording artist, reveals a lot of about Memphis as a society and why rock’n’roll became such a seismic revolution.
This story goes back to 1950 when a radio station recording engineer by the name of Sam Phillips established the Memphis Recording Service. Phillips, like W.C. Handy, was born in Florence, Alabama, and was a sound engineer for a Memphis radio station when he decided his future lay in uncovering and recording new talent.
In the midst of the segregated South, long before the civil rights movement began to change the lives of the black community, early gains were made via the music industry. Sam Phillips started recording African-American artists such as Howling Wolf, Little Milton and Rufus Thomas, but his agenda was as simple as it was initially elusive – to find a white artist who could reinterpret black music for a whole new audience.
In August 1953, a quietly spoken and painfully shy 18-year-old high school student by the name of Elvis Presley came to the studio to record a two-sided acetate as a tribute to his mother (paying $US3.98 plus tax for the privilege). With a high keening voice, faltering with nervousness, and hindered by a taste for simpering ballads, Phillips was nonetheless intrigued by the boy’s potential and made a mental note to get him back at a later date to further explore his potential.
That took quite some time; Phillips called him back in June 1954 to try him out on a song he thought had a chance in the charts. The recording session didn’t yield the results he wanted; over the next few hours, he had Elvis sing just about anything he could recall but nothing special evolved.
Still, there was something there. Phillips just didn’t know what. On 4 July, he called in a second opinion from musician Scotty Moore, who was less than impressed but Phillips forged ahead anyway. On the evening of 5 July 1954, Phillips gathered Elvis, Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on stand-up bass and had them run through an almost endless series of songs in the Sun studios.
Hour after hour, little transpired except frustration. Late that night (or in the early hours following midnight, depending on who later told the story), Elvis dropped the ballads he’d been addicted to and started fooling around with a song that had been a hit for an African-American blues artist, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup almost a decade before.
With Crudup, “That’s All Night (Mama)” was straight-up Delta blues; Elvis, not likely almost hallucinating with fatigue, mixed in rockabilly and his own interpretation of black rhythm and blues. Phillips froze at the console; he alone realised that the genie had wrestled its way out of the bottle.
Rock’n’roll was born. Elvis’ world was changed forever, just as music (and the world in which it existed) forever changed. Until that time, black music was as segregated from white music (and its respective audiences) as society was in general. The barriers came crashing down; and while the changes weren’t as rapid as is generally believed in hindsight, the changes did occur.
Elvis led the revolution for just a few short years. He set the world on fire with his performing style (honed through a stage fright that manifested in his trademark leg shaking although it was mis-interpreted as sexualised gyrations by critics of the older generation) but his influence lasted just five Sun Records singles over the next 15 months before RCA takes over Elvis’ recording contract and four years of live performances. A new manager, Colonel Tom Parker, took over his career in March 1956. Elvis was conscripted into the Army in March 1958. He returned from service in Germany two years later and effectively spent the next 13 years making 31 largely forgettable movies.
That he rebuilt his career as a performer in the late 1960s says much of his innate talent and the dedication of his fans. And even after his death, at the of 42, in 1977, those fans – and new generations to come – kept his celebrity alive.
Graceland is one of the best-known tourist attractions in the United States. In early 2017, a $US45 million state-of-the-art entertainment and museum complex, Elvis Presley’s Memphis, opened. It showcases a staggering range of archival Elvis material, from cars and motorcycles to stage costumes, and includes restaurants, numerous merchandise stores and a theatre continuously screening Elvis movies and concert footage.
To tour Graceland is to appreciate just how global the Elvis phenomenon is. Visitors from every country in the world came to Memphis to get their Elvis fix. And they find it in just about every corner of the city.
At the Peabody Hotel, the grand dame of Memphis hotels, Hal Lansky is another who enjoys taking the time to enthuse to visitors his own special music stories. Hal’s father, Bernard, and his uncle, Guy, founded the Lansky Bros. menswear store on Beale Street in 1946. At that time Beale Street was the centre of black culture with cafes, restaurants, juke joints, pawn stores, clubs, pool halls and theatres. Gospel, blues and jazz music played continuously.
Lansky Bros. specialised in stylish men’s clothing, attracting a core clientele who appreciated the high-quality fabrics and rainbow-hued colours. In the early 1950s, Bernard noticed a young man gazing longingly at the front window displays and drew him inside.
He introduced himself as Elvis Presley and stated his intention of being a singer. He wanted to dress as well as other Lansky clients but didn’t have the money. Bernard, sensing someone who could well change the world, staked him for his first outfits. In return, Elvis, wherever he performed and whenever he was asked (or even if he wasn’t) credited Lanskys with his wardrobe. Elvis never forgot the generosity of Lansky Bros. He’d often buy the shop out, dropping in for midnight shopping sessions, or influencing other performers to try them. Over time, Lanskys also outfitted B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Rufus Thomas and James Brown.
When Hal was a child, Elvis would come into the store. On Saturday mornings, he’d go horse riding at Graceland. He’s often accompanying his father when dropping in outfits to Graceland; Elvis would even open the front door and spend time chatting at Hal.
“I’m proud that we’re helping to keep Elvis’ legacy alive,” Hal says. “He was our goodwill ambassador. He never forgot what my father did for him.”
In one of the four Lansky Bros. stores at the Peabody hangs a pink leather fur-trimmed coat that Elvis dropped in for repairs (he’d ripped the back vent as he was getting out of a car) just before his death and never picked up. And Elvis was buried in a white suit, light blue shirt and white tie – all from Lansky Bros.
In 2014, Lansky Bros. returned to the original building founded by Bernard and Guy; it shares space with the Hard Rock Café. It’s from outside this building that I climb into a 1955 Plymouth Belvedere being driven by local singer/songwriter Eva Brewer of the Rockabilly Rides tour company for a 90 minute Red Hot & Blue tour, taking in Elvis sites throughout Memphis.
Included is Humes High School, which Elvis attended, the Overton Park Shell, the outdoor performance space where Elvis gave his first public performance on 30 July 1954, the Lauderdale Courts, the public housing development where Elvis lived with his parents at the time he recorded with Sun Records, and even the dealership where Elvis purchased his Cadillacs (for himself occasionally but more often for family, friends and even complete strangers; its estimated, for example, that Elvis gave away more than 275 luxury cars, worth well over $US3 million).
(In a typical Memphisian stroke of serendipity, one of the principals of Rockabilly Rides, Brad Birkedahl, played Scotty Moore in the Oscar-winning Johnny Cash biopic, Walk The Line.)
However long a visitor spends in Memphis, eventually it all gets back to Elvis.
Many thanks to Memphis Tourism for their assistance in experiencing Memphis and compiling this article.
Further suggested reading:
Connolly, Ray: Being Elvis: A Lonely Life (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016)
Cantor, Louis: Dewey And Elvis: The Life And Times Of A Rock’n’Roll Deejay (University Of Illinois Press, 2005)
Dundy, Elaine: Elvis & Gladys (University of Mississippi Press, 2004)
Guralnick, Peter: Last Train To Memphis” The Rise Of Elvis Presley (Little Brown & Company, 1994)
Guralnick, Peter: Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown & Company, 1999)
Guralnick, Peter: Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock’n’Roll (Little, Brown & Company, 2015)
Williamson, Joel: Elvis Presley: A Southern Life (Oxford University Press, 2015).
Lansky Brothers: Clothier To The King (Beckon Books, 2010)
For such a long time, I had a glass heart. I have no idea how I acquired it or when. Most likely, I was suckered, as is my way occasionally when travelling, into donating to some worthy cause. The glass heart would have been my reward.
It was slipped absent-mindedly into an outside pocket of my camera bag, where I’d rediscover it from time to time while rummaging for keys or spare change. Small, about two centimetres across by a centimetre thick, its iridescent surface reflecting light through a thousand rainbow shades. It made me smile.
It came to mind only once, in the middle of the Mojave Desert, in the tiny sun-seared town of Joshua Tree, California. In the courtyard of the relatively nondescript Joshua Tree Inn, an establishment with a name as utilitarian as its unadorned appearance, the one notable feature of which is an outsize statue of a guitar that stands in the dusty courtyard like one of Kubrick’s monoliths.
Around the concrete base is a scattering of tributes: candles, dice, cigarette lighters, violin bows, marbles, a white angel with wings spread wide, a CD, a tiny Day of the Dead figure, empty liquor bottles, coins, badges, a candlestick shaped like a palm tree, dead flowers, a plaque showing a skeleton under the word Grievous. The flotsam and jetsam of everyday life refashioned as pop cultural fetishes.
Etched into the guitar is the legend: Gram Parsons. Safe At Home. 11/5/46 – 9/19/73.
Turn around and there’s Room 8. It’s where Gram Parsons, widely credited as the father of country rock, died. Young, vital, brimming with promise, though underappreciated in his time. A few months short of his 27th birthday.
I want to see inside Room 8. The Inn is booked out; I’ve checked. But, on this weekday early afternoon, under a fading blue canopy of lung-searing heat, it’s deathly still. There’s nobody around the swimming pool or in the shade of the verandahs. The housekeepers have packed up and disappeared, the reception desk unattended.
The tortured artist, dead before his time, is an overly-familiar trope. It gets all the publicity, the gritty biopics, the ironic hipster t-shirts. If all the people who now profess their eternal admiration had been around back then to buy his albums, Gram Parsons may still be alive. Making his music, older than the heroes he worshipped when he was too young to be taken seriously by them.
Gram Parsons’ story is anchored firmly in the southern Gothic tradition that has become as much a cliché as that of the haunted artist too pure for this world. Except that his story was agonisingly real. It didn’t need the embellishment or romantic exaggeration of modern popular culture.
Gram Parsons was born Ingram Cecil Connor III in Winter Haven, Florida, on 5 November 1946. His mother, Avis, was the daughter of John A. Snively, a pioneer of the Florida citrus industry; his father, Cecil Connor, known in those parts as Coon Dog, cut a dashing figure as an ex-Army pilot. Coon Dog had been stationed in Hawaii when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Later, he flew combat missions in New Guinea and was hospitalised in Australia after contracting malaria.
The Snively family was Florida royalty, immensely wealthy from catering to a nation’s desire for breakfast refreshment. Winter Haven was their fiefdom. The head of the family may have been cool to his daughter’s choice in men but he brought Coon Dog into the family business, putting him in charge of a packaging operation in Waycross, Georgia, where Gram was born and raised.
Both parents liked their cocktails a little too much; Avis was what was considered “highly strung” and had a dependence on prescription medicine. Due to his war service, Coon Dog exhibited symptoms that would later be known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Family life wasn’t comfortable for a boy as finely tuned as Gram and he took to music as an escape. He loved playing records and holding parties. He picked out tunes he only just heard on the family piano and was soon writing his own songs. His interest turned to something far deeper, like it did for many of his generation, when he saw Elvis perform at the Waycross City Auditorium. in February 1956,
Two years later, when Gram was 12, the careful balance of his world began to falter. Coon Dog committed suicide. Avis, Gram and his sister, known as Little Avis, returned to the safe haven of the Snively family’s Magnolia Mansion on the shores of Lake Eloise.
Gram felt the loss of his father keenly. To dull the pain, he retreated further into music and his mother’s limitless supply of prescription drugs.
Avis eventually married a charismatic salesman, Robert Ellis Parsons, who adopted Gram and supported his musical endeavours, to the extent of opening a local music venue. Derry Down, as it was called, became part of a network of Florida youth club venues that nurtured such emerging musical talent as the Allman Brothers, Tom Petty, Stephen Stills, David Crosby and Joni Mitchell.
And a young musician with a burgeoning reputation by the name of Gram Parsons. The bands he became involved with reflected the musical styles of the time, first rock’n’roll, then folk. His musicianship and stage presence developed well with time although it was his plaintive presence, the inner sadness that dwelt behind his steady, intelligent gaze, that resonated most deeply in audiences, especially amongst young women.
The death of his mother in 1964, after a long agonising decline hastened by alcohol, shattered Gram anew. But if it did one thing, it propelled him out of Florida towards his musical future. In 1965, he enrolled at Harvard but lasted less than a semester. Studying wasn’t really high on the Gram Parsons curriculum. Girls and drugs, not necessarily in that order, consumed his time.
He put together the first incarnation of the International Submarine Band. After Harvard, they moved to New York City but west was where everybody with any musical ambition was heading, to the sunshine and agreeably hedonistic lifestyle of Los Angeles.
The International Submarine Band set up in Laurel Canyon and, by 1967, had a deal with LHI Records, fronted by singer/songwriter/producer Lee Hazlewood. One of the stranger characters of the 1960s West Coast music scene (admittedly, a pretty crowded field), Hazlewood is generally best known as partner, musical and otherwise, to Nancy Sinatra. The International Submarine Band joined LHI in a roster that, in many ways, defied description, artistic endeavour and sound business sense.
Meanwhile, Gram and Los Angeles in the late 1960s became a potent combination. Lanky and boyish, he was quietly spoken with an endearing Southern drawl and impeccable manners, an agreeable combination of attributes that turned heads. Pamela des Barres, whose experience of such things was as vast and all-encompassing as the desert sky, famously described Gram as “totally countrified in a slinky bedroom-eyed way”.
That he had an affinity for girls, drugs, booze and music just made him one of many in the landscape. That he enjoyed a certain level of wealth (by the late 60s, the proceeds from a trust fund established by his grandfather was paying off to the tune of about $US100,000 a year), set him a little further apart and ensured he could indulge his interests in high style; it was a fact of life in southern California, however, that wealthy young gods were still ruling the landscape then as now.
His distinctions were in an increasing dedication to the more traditional elements of country music (unusual amongst his contemporaries who were all seeking, in their own ways, the alchemic formula to successfully fuse folk, pop and rock into chart gold) and his song writing.
The latter was on display during his ISB days; the first International Submarine Band single cut for LHI was pure Gram – “Luxury Liner” and “Blue Eyes”, with the resulting album including two more Gram compositions, “Do You Know How It Feels To Be Lonesome” and “Strong Boy”.
By the time ISB’s album was released, in March 1968 after a considerable delay, the band had split and Gram had moved on to another project.
The Byrds had gained attention with a line-up of Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby and Chris Hillman, cruisng through a folk repertoire with dreamily tight harmonies that, as the 1960s progressed, merged into psychedelic rock.
Members came and went; by late 1967, Crosby and Clark had gone and The Byrds were looking for new blood. Early the following year, by the time their fifth album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, was released, Gram had been accepted into the fold. With the support of Hillman (and opposition from McGuinn), Gram steered The Byrds towards a more country sound.
They immediately launched into a new album, recording in Nashville and Los Angeles a mix of country standards, Bob Dylan compositions and three of Gram’s own songs, including the now-classic “Hickory Wind”.
It was in Nashville in March 1968 that The Byrds played the Grand Ole Opry, the spiritual stronghold of the highly-conservative country music establishment. Gram’s youthful exuberance for country music (and his fellow band members’ self-regard as contemporary music royalty) left them in little doubt of a warm, even rapturous, welcome.
It didn’t quite work out that way. The audience seemed stunned by the long-haired hippies in their midst (though long-hair was always going to be a relative term when set against conservative Nashville; photographs of the group on stage at the Opry reveal what we would now call “preppy” attire and their hair, barely over the ears, looks no more menacing than the Beatles’ mop tops).
The Opry’s executive elite couldn’t have been less hospitable if The Byrds had harmonised the Communist Manifesto. It wasn’t helped by Gram’s last-minute decision to substitute Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” (some reports state it was to be Haggard’s “Life In Prison”) as the announced final song in their set for his own “Hickory Wind”, even if he did dedicate it to his elderly grandmother.
Gram suffered a double disappointment on the release of The Byrds’ latest album, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, in August 1968. Lee Hazlewood and LHI considered they still had Gram under contract and most of his vocals were redubbed, much to McGuinn’s delight. And, despite his unswerving dedication to country music, Sweetheart was the worst performing Byrds album to date, nudging only as high as #77 on the Billboard charts (in comparison, the previous album reached #47, still a disaster for a band of their stature but at least, though barely, in the top half of the charts).
All the public needed, as Gram so consistently expounded, was country music played by a new generation of long-haired rock musicians. Regrettably, the public never received that memo. Fusing folk, pop and rock and any number of barely-like-minded influences was becoming quite the musical fashion but too many young people saw straight-out country music as something their parents, small-town cousins and six-fingered distant relations looked to for life lessons. It just wasn’t cool.
Gram pressed on regardless, devising new ways to describe his music, desperately trying to intellectualise it and sneak it in through the back door of hipsterdom. Cosmic American Music was his favoured term; he even started calling it roots music, decades before the term gained widespread acceptance.
He was bummed by Sweetheart’s frosty reception but he’d moved on from The Byrds by then anyway; leaving by summer 1968, ostensibly because he objected to a proposed tour of apartheid-era South Africa, although it was more likely that continued friction with McGuinn played a more central role.
In record time (excuse the pun), he founded another band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, to do his philosophical bidding. Joining him was Chris Hillman, who’d also fled The Byrds around this time. They signed to A&M Records and launched into their first album.
Musically as well as philosophically, The Burritos were closer to Gram’s concept of long-hairs playing country music; Gram also took control of their stage image by steering them to a Ukranian-born tailor working out of North Hollywood. Nuta Kotlyarenko, better known as Nudie Cohan, created fantasias of elaborate Western styling that became popular amongst such country performers as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Hank Williams, and then spread to others in the music industry including Elvis and John Lennon.
The Burritos pretty much blew their A&M advance on the outfits but they sure looked sharp in the publicity photos. Nudie was renowned for personally styling the suits to its clients’ tastes and Gram’s own choices were those that defined his life: marijuana leaves, poppies, pills, naked women and a cross.
The Burritos and their Nudie suits were emblazoned across their first album. The Gilded Palace Of Sin, released in February 1969; musically, it typified Gram’s dedication towards fusing traditional country with folk, rock, pop, even soul (in the latter instance, “Dark End Of The Street”, best known as a 1966 hit for James Carr). As satisfying as the album was, and it did garner considerable critical attention, the public remained underwhelmed and ignored it.
Sin stalled at #164 on the Billboard Top 200. The band’s follow-up, Burrito Deluxe, released in May 1970, didn’t even make the Top 200. Shortly after that, Gram was fired from his own band, the victim of his own overindulgence in drugs and alcohol although the rest of the band were no less guilty of such transgressions.
While renowned for their studio work, in concert they were hit-and-miss, preferring to get shit-faced and play poker instead of taking the stage. The situation wasn’t helped by such unfortunate decisions as turning down Woodstock but playing Altamont.
Gram’s drug and alcohol dependence showed no signs of mellowing; it seemed the more the record-buying public rejected his heart-felt musical intentions, the more he sought escape by chemical means. The situation wasn’t helped by an important friendship forged in the late 1960s, one of two that would define as much as emphasis his musical journey.
On 7 July 1968, The Byrds played the Royal Albert Hall in London; amongst the glitterati trawling backstage was Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. The two immediately hit it off; while autobiographies and memoirs are the most infuriatingly inexact of sources, Richards’ own Life (2010) pays considerable tribute to Gram Parsons’ influence, musical as well as personal, both on Richards and the Rolling Stones.
“When I fell in with Gram Parsons in the summer of 1968, I struck a seam of music that I’m still developing, which widened the range of everything I was playing and writing. It also began an instant friendship that already seemed ancient the first time we sat down and talked. It was like a reunion with a long-lost brother for me,” writes Richards. “Gram was very, very special and I still miss him.”
The first question Gram asked Richards was whether he had any drugs. It was shared interests – drugs as much as music – that underpinned their friendship. Following the English concerts, The Byrds were scheduled to play South Africa but Richards and the other Stones enlightened Gram on the issue of apartheid; the result was that Gram left the tour, and the Byrds, there and then. The next few months, he spent in England with Richards.
Just as the Stones, like many English musicians in the early 1960s, had adopted the blues, so Keith Richards, by the decade’s end, immersed himself in country music, tutored all the while by an enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable Gram. They spent long periods jamming, writing songs, experimenting with styles, building influences one atop the other like building blocks, continuing to refine the things that worked, tossing aside those that didn’t.
The late 1960s, into the early to mid-70s, was a period of musical transition for the Stones. Mick Taylor was brought in to replace Brian Jones and the band’s direction changed remarkably. Jagger was in favour of emphasising a harder sound, one that would eventually emerge as stadium rock; Richards, fired up by Gram’s intensive tutoring, was determined towards Americana, roots music and country.
Gram was never too far away from Richards for the next few Rolling Stones albums, from Let It Bleed (1969) through to Exile On Main Street (1972), and his influence as much as his direct involvement is the subject of considerable speculation by music historians. Listen to “Country Honk”, the hillbilly-ish version of “Honky Tonk Women” that appears on Let It Bleed and try if you can to ignore the spirit of Gram Parsons that haunts it; doubly haunted, perhaps, as it’s this track that was the last Stones session Brian Jones played on before his death.
On Sticky Fingers (1971), Gram’s influence is apparent on “Dead Flowers” although it’s “Wild Horses” that gets all the attention. Despite the Jagger/Richards song writing credit, there’s long been a conspiracy theory that Gram co-wrote it (most likely untrue; the song is far too straight-forward, lacking his Southern Gothic complexities). That’s not to say, however, that Gram didn’t contribute much to how the song sounded.
“Wild Horses” was recorded at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, over a two-day period in early December 1969. It was one of three tracks (also including “Brown Sugar”) recorded at the session and the first tracks that would form Sticky Fingers. Gram was not in the studio for it.
The Stones were at the end of a US tour that had started on 7 November; they’d been developing new material and were eager to record it while it was still fresh. After a concert in West Palm Beach, Florida, they had a few days before the final date. As a strange quirk of their visas, they could play concerts but couldn’t record so a quiet, out-of-the-way location in northern Alabama was hastily arranged. That Muscle Shoals was already legendary for recording such R&B giants as Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett worked on one level; on another, a bunch of white English boys went noted but barely recognised.
A few days later, the Stones travelled to California for the final date on the tour, meeting up with Gram and the Burritos who were also appearing at the free concert, along with Santana, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
The date was 6 December 1969. The location was the Altamont Speedway. And the rest, as they say in the music industry, generally in a most ominous tone, is history.
Something that did come out of this is that Keith Richards gave Gram a demo tape of “Wild Horses” along with permission to release his own version before the Stones. It appeared on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Burrito Deluxe, released in April 1970, a full year before the Stones version appeared on Sticky Fingers.
Mick Jagger has been quite open about the influence Gram had on the country feel of such Sticky Fingers tracks as “Wild Horses” and “Dead Flowers”, as well as a few from Exile On Main Street. The version of “Wild Horses” released on Sticky Fingers (there were two takes recorded at Muscle Shoals; the second could well be the acoustic version available on the 2015 Deluxe edition re-release of Sticky Fingers) is quite a restrained country ballad, displaying little in the way of Cosmic American Music, but somewhere, forgotten, in an archives may be a version of even more interest to Gram Parson aficionados.
There is mention, amongst the multitude of GP biographies and associated material, that Gram was asked to suggest a pedal steel player to add to “Wild Horses”. His choice was Peter Kleinow, otherwise known as Sneaky Pete, who he held in high regard and worked closely with in both the Byrds and the Burritos.
As an aside, Sneaky Pete has another of the quirkier stories in American music. An accomplished pedal steel player and champion of the Fender 400, Pete had a secondary career as a Hollywood visual effects and stop motion animator, working on such film and television shows as Gumby, Land Of The Lost, The Empire Strikes Back, and Terminators I and II.
Meanwhile, Gram’s departure from the Burritos in mid-1970 left him rudderless and his periodic episodes of depression deepened, a situation not helped by drugs and alcohol. His relationship with Keith Richards tided him over and he was on hand during the latter stages of recording Sticky Fingers, much of which was put down at Jagger’s UK estate, Stargrove, in rural Hampshire.
It was, however, during the recording of the next Stones album, Exile On Main Street, that things came to a head. Gram and Keith Richards were drinkin’ and druggin’ and jammin’ for what seemed like weeks on end, often to the exclusion of everything else. That the druggin’ included heroin and often left Richards disinclined, if not even physically unable, to contribute to the new album strained relations with Jagger and other members of the band and surrounding entourage.
While some of the leftover tracks from Sticky Fingers made their way onto the next album, new tracks were recorded at Nellcôte, an estate Richards rented in Villefranche-sur-Mer near Nice on the French Riviera (the Stones had fled the UK as tax exiles). Gram arrived at Nellcôte in June 1971, one of a flood of visitors that included such figures as William S. Burroughs. Both Gram and Richards were into heroin heavily during this time. The album languished. Eventually, the chaos had to be managed and Gram was kicked out in July 1971.
It was inevitable that Gram’s next move, if his attention could be wrested from other matters, would be a solo album. And, despite the lack of financial success accorded his work with both The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, record companies continued to display interest.
The first was A&M, where he was teamed with yet another of the more interesting characters populating the LA music scene. The son of actress Doris Day, Terry Melcher had already produced such acts as The Byrds and The Beach Boys but is most infamously remembered for an act he didn’t produce – Charles Manson.
Beach Boy Dennis Wilson had befriended Manson who, amongst other interests, was an aspiring songwriter and introduced him to Melcher to further his musical career. Although Manson was under the impression that Melcher would be producing an album for him, the project never eventuated.
At this time, Melcher and his then-girlfriend, actress Candice Bergen, were living in the hills above Los Angeles, at 10050 Cielo Drive in the midst of Benedict Canyon. Manson had visited Melcher at this address several times but the producer moved out early in 1969. In August, Manson sent his followers to the house, which had since been rented to film director Roman Polanski, telegraphing a not-so-subtle message. While Polanski wasn’t at home, his wife, actress Sharon Tate, and several friends were. The rest, as the ominous saying once again goes, is history.
The A&M solo album didn’t get off the ground with Melcher having a hard time swaying Gram’s interest. But another attempt was already in the pipeline, and it would lead to the second friendship and musical partnership that defined Gram’s career.
In 1971, Chris Hillman of the Burritos suggested he catch the performance of a young folk singer at a Washington club. Emmylou Harris had already recorded her first album, Gliding Bird, but the record company disintegrated soon after and it had attracted little attention.
It would seem that Gram and Emmylou, at least musically, had little in common but each could see opportunities in the other. Emmylou was anchored firmly in folk but her career to date had been going nowhere fast and she needed the work that Gram offered; Gram saw the need for a female singer and trusted Chris Hillman’s initial judgement. When he heard Emmylou and conjured the possibilities of what could be, he realised that this was something, at least musically, he never knew he needed.
Together, their voices melded into the most divine harmonies. But it didn’t happen instantly. It was the result of dedication and hard work. The mechanics of generating those harmonies is visible in a studio out-take on the 1995 release, Cosmic American Music, rehearsing “We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning” (a track on Gram’s first solo album, GP), repeatedly exploring the same line, addressing it in different ways before reaching an arrangement they were both comfortable with.
Gram and Emmylou gradually built up their harmonies, honed in their live performances, and if his initial intention was for just a female voice, he soon found he’d ended up with something more vitally important.
Thus, when Gram relaunched his attempt on a solo album, this time under the aegis of Reprise Records, this emotionally powerful duet partnership was put down for posterity.
Recording for what would become the first of only two Gram Parsons solo albums, simply titled GP, began in September 1972. His backing musicians, including James Burton and Glen D. Hardin, previously recorded with Elvis Presley in the TCB Band. One of Gram’s heroes, Merle Haggard, was to have produced the album but dropped out at the last moment.
Gram did not weather the recording sessions well. He was close to breaking point, binging on alcohol and drugs, including cocaine. His fast lifestyle was evident to his increasingly concerned friends; photographs of the period show him bloated and unwell. Yet the resulting album was nothing short of magical. This was especially so on the tracks he shared with Emmylou; she added something emotionally invaluable to the mix, shades he’d never been able to achieve in his previous recordings.
Yet, once again, despite raves from such publications as Rolling Stone, GP (released January 1973) didn’t get close to entering the Billboard Top 200.
Gram and Emmylou toured through the spring of 1973 but he was spending increasing time out of LA, in the high country of the Mojave Desert. He first come to this area in the late 1960s, returning more frequently to the small town of Joshua Tree. His preferred accommodation was the Joshua Tree Inn, where he could walk, stumble or sometimes even crawl to such bars as the Hi Lo Lounge.
If he wasn’t bar-hopping, he’d retire to his favourite Room 8 with a range of friends including Keith Richards, girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, and Gram’s road manager/protector/confidante, Phil Kaufman.
The desert was Gram’s own haven. It didn’t temper his dependence on drugs or alcohol but it was a spiritual safe zone from the disappointments of work and personal concerns. Occasionally, he attained moments of clarity when he’d recognised the self-destructive nature of his existence and his own mortality.
During one such moment, Gram instructed Phil Kaufman that, upon his death, he wanted to be cremated in the Joshua Tree National Park and his ashes scattered on a local landmark, Cap Rock. It would prove to be a prophetic request.
However disheartened he was by his continued failures to break his music to the wider world, Gram pushed ahead with a second solo album. He gathered the band, including James Burton and Glen D. Hardin, along with Emmylou Harris, and entered the studios in summer 1973 with a batch of songs. Included were several of his own, including “Brass Buttons”, a scarring song about his mother that he’d written while at Harvard, and “Hickory Wind”, already recorded during his time with The Byrds. Other songs, such as “Love Hurts”, showcased Gram and Emmylou’s extraordinary gift of harmony.
The album would be called Grievous Angel. During recording, Linda Ronstadt would visit the studio and add harmonies to the track “In My Hour Of Darkness”. While Gram and Ronstadt (who had also become close to Emmylou) were friends, her involvement, however limited, carried a certain bitter synchronicity.
After three albums in the late 1960s as part of the Stone Poneys, Linda Ronstadt embarked on a series of solo albums. The musicians involved in her third, self-titled, album, released in 1972, included Bernie Leedon, who had been a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers during the Burritos Deluxe days, and Randy Meisner, both of whom toured with Ronstadt to support her previous Silk Purse (1970) album.
Also joining Leedon and Meisner were Don Henley and Glenn Frey; in the small-town world of the Los Angeles music scene of the period, Gram knew everybody and everybody knew Gram but he knew Frey particularly well as the musician was often to be seen at Burritos’ gigs, avidly studying Gram’s stagecraft.
The four approached Ronstadt after the album’s completion. They recognised a chemistry they wanted to explore and, as a courtesy, declared their intention of forming a band. Not yet settled on a name, they signed to Asylum Records in September 1971 and started playing live gigs.
Eventually, and different people have varying perceptions of the reasons, they settled on the name Eagles. Marked by tight harmonies and a soft country-rock styling that would typify that originating on the West Coast, their self-titled debut album was released in June 1972.
It yielded three singles; “Witchy Woman”, reached #9 on the Billboard charts, the lowest, “Peaceful Easy Feeling”, scrapped into #22. The album itself just missed out on the Top 20. This was far from a failure; the market was proving receptive to the Eagles’ brand of countrified rock. By their fourth album, One Of These Nights (1975), they reached the top of the Billboard album charts, and the next, 1976’s Hotel California, went to #1 around the world.
Gram’s vision of country music being played by a new breed of young musicians was gaining popularity. It just wasn’t popular if he recorded it. Technically, the West Coast aesthetic was hardly country rock, barely country and much more pop than rock. Easy listening as we’d know it now. However, it was a close second to Gram’s ideals and the distinction was not lost on him
Meanwhile, Gram completed his second solo album and, in mid-September 1973, set out for the sanctuary of the high desert country and the Joshua Tree Inn. So much has been written about the circumstances of Gram’s death by overdose (including the ignominious role that the third-party posterior positioning of ice cubes played in temporarily reviving him) and the subsequent hijacking of his body by Phil Kaufman and friends to carry out his last wishes at Cap Rock, that to go over them here would be redundant.
Sufficient to say, Gram Parsons died in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn on 19 September 1973. Drug toxicity, as the coroner later declared. He was two months shy of his 27th birthday.
Even in death, however, Gram couldn’t get the recognition he deserved. The following day, singer-songwriter Jim Croce (whose biggest hit – indeed only hit outside the US – was a novelty song, “Bad Bad Leroy Brown”) was killed in a plane crash. Any publicity attending Gram’s demise was quickly swamped.
Even worse, there was barely enough curiosity generated by Gram’s death to suck Grievous Angel to #195 on the Billboard Top 100 album chart when it was released in January 1974.
Life, and the music industry, went on without him, much as it had done when he was alive. Emmylou Harris, who had become extremely close to Gram during their professional partnership, was – due largely to Linda Ronstadt’s influence – signed to Reprise. The Pieces Of The Sky album was released in 1975 and eventually reached #7 on the Billboard album chart.
Although she would record a number of Gram’s songs, and become a continuing, enthusiastic champion of his music, in the early years, and well into the 1980s, Emmylou avoided talking about him. It was just too painful a loss.
Gradually, though, the accolades rightfully due Gram Parsons and his pioneering work began to attract increasing attention. In time, rightly or wrongly, he’s been elevated to a “founding father” position, publicly revered by successive generations of musicians, with all the attendant grovelling. His Nudie suit can be found in Nashville’s Country Music Hall Of Fame (established by the same CMA establishment that gave him and the other Burritos such a hard time at the Grand Ole Opry). There’s any number of Gram-inspired festivals and tribute albums and, not surprisingly, hipster t-shirts. And Cap Rock in the Joshua Tree National Park, where Phil Kaufman farewelled Gram in a suitably incendiary manner, continues to draw devotees from around the world.
The graffiti they leave behind draws largely upon his music. One particularly popular couplet paraphrases “Brass Buttons”, Gram’s song about his mother and which applies equally well to his own life and death.
“The sun comes up without you, it doesn’t know you’re gone”, it says.
Gram’s legacy is embodied in the unswerving, inextinguishable courage of his convictions. Not so much that he could revive country music, because it was doing very well without him, but that he could make it relevant for his own and future generations. And although he didn’t do that in his own short lifetime (and just eight albums), he did ultimately achieve that aim.
If Gram had lived, if he’d been able to subdue his demons, lock them away where they could do the least amount of harm, he’d most likely have side-stepped country rock, for his chosen interpretation was too pure. In truth, he was an early adopter, a strong influence on many who followed, but he didn’t invent country rock any more than he did orange juice or tortured southern Gothic sensibilities.
Gram, if he had lived, would have taken his rightful place as the grand old man of alt country or Americana.
Those who flock to the courtyard of the Joshua Tree Inn know his music, and some may even appreciate the legend behind the man. The trinkets they leave behind hold a totemic significance for each of them.
I thought about that as I stood in the blast furnace afternoon. I’d played Gram on the car stereo in the days before and on the drive up from Palm Springs. Everything I had, which was pretty much everything, and I was on the second run through Grievous Angel as I pulled into the motel’s parking lot.
It was eerie out there, with not a living being in sight, no noise, no breeze, nothing but the insistent heat. I spent a while photographing the shrine then slung my camera across my shoulder and headed back to the car. As I packed my camera bag away, I stopped.
There was something I had to do. I unzippered the tiny front pocket and dug out the glass heart.
It had travelled the world a few times over, most of the continents, and rarely gained a second thought. But it felt right, this glass heart of a thousand rainbow hues, to leave it here. Under the bright desert sun that had doubtless hammered so many of Gram’s hangovers. Another tribute, from a disciple to the master, a spiritual offering, a thanks-for-the-music from one side of the Vale to the other.
And as I pulled away towards Yucca Valley and the turn-off that would take me to Barstow and, eventually, Las Vegas, I turned “Brass Buttons” up high.
“Lovely scenery, quiet, pure air, clear sea water, and heavenly sunsets,” reckoned Robert Louis Stevenson when he holidayed at the Diamond Head end of Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach in 1893. You can still sense the beauty that he celebrated, albeit in clichés, even if a large hotel now squats where the Scottish author once mused. The waves still roll out of an ocean that’s as blue as a postcard’s promise but now there is a Legoland of some 35,000 hotel rooms looming before it.
Take a walk with history for a couple of kilometres along the Waikiki shore and its smaller beaches and coves reveal a deeper self. I start with the folksy-corny and much photographed Hula Show at the Waikiki Shell. Since 1937, this free performance has packed ’em in with hula dancers swaying demurely (no lusty Tahitian-style groin-grinding here, please) to the strains of the matronly Royal Hawaiian Girls Glee Club. A century ago, manic repressive Christian missionaries almost succeeded in stamping out Hawaii’s supposedly obscene “hoola”. Today, the show’s finale, in which the lumbering Moms and Pops of Middle America – dressed in flowered mu-mus, socks and sandals – attempt the hula, suggests that the missionaries had at least an aesthetic point.
Waikiki means “spouting water.” In pre-colonial times, when lush with fishponds and food gardens, it was a haven for both royalty and commoners. With the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 by US business interests, the area degenerated until it was, according to one citizen, “most unsanitary and unsightly.” The mess of mosquito-riddled swamps was drained by the construction of Ala Wai Canal in 1922 and the rest, as they say, is real estate history.
Sugar-plumed swells roll shoreward all day. Long before haoles (Caucasians) came, Waikiki was a surfing mecca. Today, the break is a mosh-pit of kayaks, canoes, tandem malibus and a bulbous yellow catamaran. It’s hard to believe that surfing — he’enalu — nearly died out here by 1900 (thanks to the censorious missionaries) before it was revived by Honolulu locals, including Duke Paoa Kahanamoku (1890-1968), who spread surfboard riding around the world, including to Australia.
At a stretch of Waikiki known as Kuhio Park Beach, I watch the Duke’s descendants, Hawaiians of all ages and races, flinging themselves shoreward on body boards. Not far away stands a large bronze statue of the great waterman. When it was erected there were dark murmurings about why he had been stood — wrongly, in local opinion — with his back to the sea? The answer was simple, symbolic — photo-opportunism. The Duke was made to face inland so that Gidgets from Ginza and sand-challenged flatlanders from everywhere might frame themselves before him in an instant of surreal authenticity, with his once-regal beach as their backdrop. The Japanese love of Waikiki contributes greatly to its prosperity and the proliferation of surfers from Nippon, many with bleached blond hair, means that Honolulu Lulu, Queen of the Surfer Girls, today looks more like office lady, Yokohama Yoko.
With the presence of millions of domestic and international visitors each year Waikiki today is like a Surfers Paradise squared, a Cancun cubed. Its tsunami wall of accommodation glares back at the Pacific, an empire of balconies where everyone is Sun King, or Queen, for a day. New arrivals, fluorescent with first-day sunburn, weave amid a group of women struggling across the circus sands in high heels. A bikini-clad girl gets swamped in the shorebreak while nattering on her phone. Massive Hawaiian beach boys on equally massive boards dance like ninjas across lines of bluebird surf. Inescapable are the voluble, exclamatory haoles, often from inland mainland USA. “Are we on the island of Waikiki?” yells a conference escapee from Utah. A teenage Beavis emerges from his first dip in an ocean, hollering to his friends, “I got sand in my pockets! Hey, I got sand in muh butt-crack!”
I stroll north towards lunchtime, which presents me with the choice of the four essential local food groups — chilli dog, shave ice, burger or spam sushi. I settle for a sandwich. (And why not? The early British colonial name for Hawaii was the Sandwich Isles.) Munching, I fall into step with a surfer, Rocky who’s striding towards the reef break at Ala Moana. He’s a local, one of Waikiki’s 30,000 permanent residents. Like many people on Oahu Island, Rocky is a bitsa, “hapa” (half) this and that. As he says, “Hapa-Hawaiian, hapa-haole Portuguese, hapa-Chinese – you know, da kine, all-Hawaiian.”
There’s no mistaking the cochineal-pink confection I’m soon standing before, Waikiki’s most famous pile, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, a Moorish-Deco seraglio of colonnades and archways. A royal coconut grove of nearly 10,000 trees once stood here, along with the summer home of Queen Kaahumanu, a powerful, 19th century Hawaiian regent. The 384-room Royal Hawaiian that sprouted in their place in 1927 was touted as the “finest resort hostelry in America”. Nearby, in the courtyard of the nearby Sheraton Moana Surfrider – known as the “First Lady” of Waikiki’s hotels – I relax under a huge banyan tree that is some 130 years old, with its branches spreading 50 metres.
In some places, Waikiki’s shore at high tide is no more than a few metres wide. With the sands regularly washing away, urban myths flourish about the source of their replenishment – everywhere from Florida to Port Kembla. The actual source is the nearby island of Molokai.
For early Hawaiians, the next section of Waikiki that I reach, now called Gray’s Beach, was a place of healing, of strong mana where the sick and injured came to be treated by kahuna physicians. Their beach is now much diminished in sand and probably mana, too, but soon it widens again at Fort DeRussy Beach, which is home to, of all things, a US Army Museum. This huge, anomalous structure was once a gun battery that the army tried to demolish in 1969 but the task proved almost impossible and so the building was turned into a museum.
Toe rings, tattoos, $29.99 aloha shirts, hula dolls and newbies surfing in sandshoes. Tourist culture reaches both its apogee and nadir in Waikiki. Alongside the tour groups is another set, the involuntarily transient, aka the homeless. Beached here in alleged “paradise”, they sleep beneath the trees of Fort DeRussy Park. Just behind them is a hotel, the aptly named Hale Koa (“the house of the warrior”) for US services personnel. Beefy military police attempt to blend in by patrolling the shore while jammed into a golf cart.
By Paoa Park at the northeastern end of Waikiki, I’ve walked sufficient history. The Hilton Hawaiian Village now sprawls where Duke Kahanamoku’s family once lived and the legendary waterman learned to swim in the old-fashioned way, by being thrown in to sink or conquer the world. Out on the reef, his heirs, Rocky and his pals are pulling into the snappy, left-hand barrels of Ala Moana reef.
Sunset is coming. Soon the balconies of those 30-storey hotels will erupt in a flashbulb fire fight of cameras straining to catch infinity in a 35mm frame. I find a bar-with-a-view, the Duke’s Canoe Club, and ponder why — amid the relentless spam of tourist culture — do rubbernecks like myself still make the trek to Waikiki? Then again, to sit below this lavish, cocktail syrup sunset in a place where the Duke once rode giant, bluebird waves and kahunas strode the earth, and still be asking “Why?” seems like missing the obvious.
All photos and text are world copyright John Borthwick and may not be reproduced, copied or retransmitted by any means.
It’s where it all began. UFOs, little green men, Mulder, Scully, the whole shebang. Most likely, it was also the beginning of conspiracy theories, the wide-spread public belief in government cover-ups and the modern day malaise of never believing anything we’re told, especially by authority figures. Roswell, New Mexico, has a lot to answer for.
It was part of a rambling road trip through the south-western United States; that morning, I’d left Las Vegas (the quaint and historic New Mexico town rather than its better-known neon-and-nihilism namesake) and had stopped off in Fort Sumner to visit the grave of Billy The Kid (which, despite all the odds, was actually there that day). The next stage of the trip was on to Roswell before heading to El Paso, Texas, to spend Thanksgiving.
It was late November and the expansive canopy sky was clear and blue yet with little warmth from the sun. The nights were freezing. On the northern edge of Roswell, I passed by the site where the “reputed” crash of a UFO and the recovery of the bodies of its alien inhabitants by the US military had occurred back in 1947. The black helicopters that seemed to track my progress were mere co-incidences at this time, as well the bulky dark SUVs that occasionally appeared in my rear vision mirror.
I reached the city limits of Roswell and that’s when things really started getting weird. If there had never been an “alleged” UFO crash, there would be no tourism industry to speak of and no other reason to visit this mildly pleasant but barely rememberable spot on the map. Roswell, to its credit, has taken the ball and run with it. Far out of the stadium, showing no signs of ever wanting to stop.
UFOs and aliens are everywhere, not merely inside the damaged craniums of the tinfoil-hat brigade. The Walmart has plenty, the many fast food franchises, including Arby’s, Denny’s KFC and Chilli’s have even more. The galaxies of gift shops hold nebula of T-shirts, shot glasses, ashtrays, beer coasters and snow globes. Everything you need to fit out an intergalactic space-age bachelor pad or the rumpus room of the Millennium Falcon.
The official City of Roswell website buzzes with spaceships and alien life forms, only a few of which are elected officials. Each July, there’s a UFO Festival that includes an Alien Battle Of The Bands and an Alien Wine Festival, although it should be noted that consuming alcohol while travelling at warp speed is not recommended. Long-suppressed reports of the 1947 UFO crash state that numerous empty beer bottles along with Doritos packets were found in the spaceship.
Ground zero for tourists to Roswell is the International UFO Museum and Research Center on Main Street. Dioramas and displays carefully explain the area’s history and little green men abound. Comfortingly, many look exactly as we would expect, cute creatures with big heads and certainly not the type to burst through the chests of unsuspecting humans or inhabit the bodies of loved ones when your back is turned.
In the gift store, I uncovered another disturbing link between Roswell and world history, a slim volume written by Donald R. Burleson titled UFOs and the Murder of Marilyn Monroe (Black Mesa Press, 2003). Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, I made the purchase in cash, in small unmarked bills, and smuggled it back to the Hampton Inn and Suites.
On check-in, I’d asked the receptionist whether she’d seen anything other-worldly lately. It seemed to strike a nerve. She looked evasive, as if she knew everything she said was being recorded and beamed straight back to Area 51. Then she nodded and grimaced wearily. “Just my ex-boyfriend,” she muttered in a low voice.
I read Burleson’s book from cover to cover that night. His central theory was that John F. Kennedy had told Marilyn Monroe all about Roswell, crashed UFOs, alien autopsies and the subsequent political cover-up. She was murdered days before holding a press conference during which she intended telling the world of her discoveries.
Interestingly, Burleson had also published studies of H.P. Lovecraft which opens the possibility that Marilyn Monroe was killed not by the Mafia or the CIA but by Cthulhu itself.
I fell into a deep and undisturbed sleep while a harsh wind whipped the grassy plains outside. In the morning, I had no recollection of the previous few hours. I knew I had to get out of town. There was barely enough time for the free breakfast buffet although it was fair to say the blueberry muffins were out of this world.
The black helicopters followed me all the way to the city limits, then turned west. The spy satellites, I’m sure, are tracking me still.
Back before design hotels perverted the concept of hospitality into look-at-me-ain’t-I-cool egotism, there were novelty hotels. You could place the tiki craze, with its flamboyant, rose-coloured hankering for the South Pacific, that caught on in the United States in the interwar years, firmly in this category. But there were other, often crazier examples that enlivened the novelty hotel market.
Very few remain, the victim of changing fashions and the newer-is-better mindset of modern times. It’s turned full circle with the retro craze, of course, but too little and too late to save some of the genuinely unique examples of long ago.
When I was plotting the course of a road trip through the US south-west some time back, the Wigwam Hotel in Holbrook, Arizona, was first on the list. It was part of the revered Route 66 of popular culture, the early 20th century highway that cut across the United States from Chicago to Los Angeles and provided an escape for the Dust Bowl refugees (sketched out by of Steinbeck and his ilk) towards a brighter future.
When Route 66 was dismantled and replaced by the soulless Interstates, the Mother Road faded into obscurity. These days, Holbrook is just off the I-40, a roundabout way east from Los Angles and just beyond Winslow, which has as about its only claim to fame being featured in an Eagles song, Take It Easy.
My first mistake was travelling in November. With winter approaching, the days were clear and sunny but with little warmth in the sun. At night, the temperature plummeted. I arrived in Holbrook after dark and checked in just before the motel’s office closed up tight like the town itself.
The Wigwam Hotel looks exactly like the old postcards. A circle of tall teepees made of concrete with a smattering of old long-abandoned cars that lends it a certain Twilight Zone je nes sa qua. Inside, the teepees were disarmingly spacious but the small heater had a hard time minimising the deepening chill.
The long drive had exhausted me and I soon fell into a deep sleep. Early in the morning, however, the bone-numbing cold etched its way into my dreams and eventually brought me awake. I put another blanket on the bed, then covered that with the contents of my suitcase. As snug as I could possibly be without crawling into the suitcase and zipping it up over me, I drifted back into a fitful sleep.
Not too long afterwards, the long agonized low notes of a freight train’s horn felt like it was sounding just outside the teepee. When I investigated, I found it was. The rear boundary of the Wigwam Motel is right next to the train tracks. If I was a trainspotter, I’d be in heaven. I wasn’t.
It was to be a valuable lesson in nostalgia. The Wigwam Hotel, just one of three surviving teepee motels left in the US and still operated by relatives of the original owner, is a must-stay. But, in winter, when it’s cocooning you need to endure long road trips, aim for an Embassy Suites or better and drop by the Wigwam for souvenirs and photos.
Without a lot of hair to wear flowers in all these years on from the Summer of Love, I went to San Francisco ready to acknowledge if not actually obey. Scott McKenzie’s old hit stayed in my head for days, though it had to compete with a score of other songs celebrating the city by the Bay. In a corner room of the venerable Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill, as the sun set on an eventful day poking around Berkeley, Haight-Ashbury, the Fillmore District, the Presidio, Pacific Heights, Chinatown and bits of the Tenderloin, I took a line of sight down the tram line to Union Square on one side of me and down and away toward Fisherman’s Wharf on the other, all the time being gently visited by Eric Burdon’s words: Old child, young child feel alright / on a warm San Franciscan night.
The previous week, I’d bounced about Las Vegas to Elvis’ Viva Las Vegas and around the South Side of Chicago to any number of blues standards but that which drove me up and down the streets and around the watery environs of San Francisco – perhaps the most engaging of all American cities – were the songs that had been planted in my (then hirsute) cranium when it was a byword for the stretching of all known envelopes.
Venturing back after a long absence and fearing that its brashness might have been diluted, I had hit the streets running (and walking and perambulating), seeking out the cultural touchstones that have been making visitors feel alright since the Animals leader had made the city his home toward the end of the sixties. They were in place largely as I’d left them along with the array of charismatic characters and assertive attitudes that render the Northern California metropolis quite irresistible.
As with New York, there are songs that celebrate the city from the canons of all known music forms, and have been almost since it began life in 1776 when the great Franciscan missionary to California, Fray Junipero Serra, built the Mission Dolores, dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, on a site just a little south of the present City Hall. From the time in July 1846, when Capt. John B. Montgomery of the U.S.S. Portsmouth took possession of the tiny hamlet of trappers and whalers in the name of the people of the United States, it has been an integral part of the history of America’s western seaboard and a muse and lure for the creatively inclined.
Now pretty much every American city or state has an official song, often cemented on statute books by legislature confirmation. Georgia’s, not surprisingly is Hoagy Carmichael’s Georgia by Ray Charles. But the Bay City has two, crooner Tony Bennett’s signature tune I Left My Heart In San Francisco coming first to mind. However, in 1984, the city adopted a second . This induction harkened back to the 1936 MGM disaster musical, San Francisco. Clark Gable, as Blackie Norton, “made with the sweet talk” to Jeanette MacDonald, as Mary Blake, in the Barbary Coast’s mythical Paradise Saloon.
During the movie’s 1936 premiere, some of the survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire became ill during the extraordinary earthquake sequence and left the theatre. Folks are made of sterner stuff these days and the film is shown without incident each April 18th at the Castro Theatre to mark the disaster – the earthquake that is, not the disorientated cinema patrons. And, when a plucky Jeanette stands amongst the rubble and intones San Francisco open your golden gates!, all present lustily sing along. (As they did at Judy Garland concerts when she so memorably rendered it around the end of the fifties).
Like nearby Seattle, San Francisco has a wild, rambunctious past linked to the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s and perhaps that accounts for its unshakeable sense of self-identity. No American city looks like it and certainly none feels like it. It has the sort of physical appeal that travel guides like to call quaint. To quote one published decades past by Frommers: “Luxurious mansions jostling little pastel-coloured cottages on steep hillsides, old cable cars struggling up or hurtling down the precipitous streets, the cutting edge of the Transamerica Pyramid towering over the exotic pagodas of Chinatown, one of the largest Far Eastern communities outside of Asia, the huge flamboyant silhouette of the Golden Gate Bridge framed against the Pacific, the splendid backdrop of San Francisco Bay with the dark island of Alcatraz anchored amid its icy blue waves, especially at sunset – all the details of an amazing urban composition.”
This urban composition is imprinted upon us whether we realise it not – making a visit, first or repeat, an exercise in overt and subliminal recognition. It has been the setting for more memorable movies than can be recounted, including Dark Passage and Pacific Heights on Pacific Heights, The Graduate in Berkeley, Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai by Sausalito’s docks, various Indiana Jones scenes around Marin County, the car chase classic Bullitt up and down those hills (where residents still put bricks behind their rear wheels when parking near vertically), Hitchcock’s Vertigo all over the place, the cop classic Dirty Harry, Mrs Doubtfire, and The Birdman of Alcatraz, which immortalised the formidable prison on the island in the bay. That prison and that island was taken over by Native Americans in 1969 in one of the most successful protest actions of the 20th century.
San Francisco knew all about protest in sixties – it was its stock in trade. The campus of the University of California, Berkeley, rivalled the Sorbonne in Paris as the ultimate hotbed of discontent and crucible of revolution. Today, it looks rather less of a threat to the established order; its students plainly more interested in acquiring knowledge that will lead to six figure salaries than perpetuating the Free Speech movement or reviving the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Of course, the allure wasn’t all based in protest and the search for a new way. After WWII, it was one of the cities that absorbed a population movement from the south. San Francisco was a long way from the Delta, and it didn’t boast the studios and record companies of Chicago, New York or Detroit, or even Los Angeles, but it had a free and easy tone to it that connected with a lot of black bluesmen. And it was a long way from home, which had its own allure.
John Lee Hooker dropped by around 1962 and, though the song that came from his visit was titled ‘Frisco Blues, the sentiment was anything but a lament – more a paean of praise. Later the masterful Otis Redding told us how he left his home in Georgia headed for the Frisco Bay in (Sittin’ On The) Dock Of The Bay.
By the time Otis Redding had headed for the Frisco Bay, it was the end point of the western world’s most heavily trodden pilgrimage trail, particularly for the young. As London had been since the explosion of the Beatles and their fellow beat merchants in 1963, San Francisco was the hippest, hottest most evocative city in the world and the people that mattered were flooding in – to look, to live, to luxuriate in its atmosphere. Swinging London and grooving San Francisco. The very names were enough to send shivers through the culturally deprived residents of the remainder of the world’s burgs.
It was a city open to all manner of styles and influences while being beholden to none in particular. That is probably why four kids from the Bay Area were able to call themselves Creedence Clearwater Revival and convince the world that they were bona fide sons of the south. It was very likely why it was able to make available a relatively blank canvas to the sudden surge of psychedelic acts, some of whom – like Janis Joplin – came from as far afield as Texas.
The freaks of San Francisco were on their own plane of consciousness at the Matrix Club, Avalon Ballroom, Fillmore Auditorium or Family Dogg, listening to the birth of free-form FM radio and experiencing the unbelievable light shows that accompanied performances by the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, It’s A Beautiful Day, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Country Joe & the Fish, Moby Grape and so many others. San Francisco became a magnet for those who sought a truly alternative lifestyle and, for a relatively short time, before buses began ferrying in gawking tourists to the Haight-Ashbury area, it really was a brave new world.
All those hippies, heads and wanderers – the tens of thousands of actually middle-class youths who settled – had to take up residence somewhere and, with the Victorian houses around Haight-Ashbury taken up by bands and Berkeley by militant students, Sausalito, under the Golden Gate Bridge, housed a thriving community. Then, in the early seventies, gay men began purchasing cheap houses in Eureka Valley, giving birth to The Castro district (bordered by the Mission District, Twin Peaks, Duboce Triangle and Dolores Heights), which is now a thriving centre of restaurants, nightlife, specialty shopping and accommodation, with a village atmosphere. Nearby Mount Davidson, is the highest in the city, at 938 feet. As with the Sutro Tower reached from Twin Peaks Boulevard, the sweeping views of the Bay, when not blanketed by fog, are quite spectacular.
But then so much of this city is – even its tattered cosmic grandeur. A stroll down Haight Street revealed more tattoo parlous and lingerie salons than head shops but there was an engaging piece of street theatre by a man behind the frame of a television set and there were two girls who beguilingly parted me from a few dollars by way of an acrobatic live rat. At the end, by the Golden Gate Park, where tear gas once broke up riots and more than a few rampant young protesters procreated productively beneath the bushes, there is a vast and cavernous Amoeba Records store that is worth a day of your stay.
Not that one needs to go looking for music; it is with you every moment you’re in the city by the bay. The songs keep coming at you – whatever your taste or your generation – a constant celebration in song. Let’s Go To San Francisco by the Flower Pot Men, We Built This City by Starship, Lights by Journey, San Francisco (You’ve Got Me) by the Village People, San Francisco Days by Chris Isaak, San Francisco by Vanessa Carlton and San Francisco Bay Blues by … well, just about everybody (Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton included). More than your head may be able to handle.
NOTE: These days, the location of the Casino house is all over the Internet. When I first started looking, it was another matter entirely. This piece originally appeared on http://www.davidlatta.org back in May 2011; it’s now been amended and expanded.
Sometimes it pays to ask and, if you don’t get the answer you want, keep asking. Persistence pays off eventually. It just takes a little time.
I’m a big fan of Las Vegas, that glittering, gaudy and spiritually gluttonous mirage in the Nevada desert. I especially love its history, the tangled path by which it travelled from being an illicit getaway in the middle of a sun-parched nowhere to one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.
There’s something for everybody in Vegas: flashy ultra-luxurious resorts stand side-by-side with giant grandly tacky homages to ancient Egypt, King Arthur’s Court, classical Rome and the canals of Venice.
Unlike Los Angeles, where there’s more aspiring actors per square metre than anywhere else in the world, in Vegas everybody unashamedly wants to be rich and they have just about every way imaginable of making that happen. Most, of course, don’t and more shattered dreams lay congealing in the city’s neon glow than in a Nathanael West novel.
The archetypal Las Vegas movie is Casino, Martin Scorsese’s ultra-violent 1995 depiction of old-time Vegas starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone. The idea being that fiction sometimes has nothing on real life, Casino is based on the story of Frank Rosenthal, the professional gambler who institutionalised sports betting in 1970s Vegas and ran a few casinos for the Mob while he was at it. Robert De Niro plays Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a thinly-veiled Rosenthal.
I’d been trying for some time to locate the house on the edge of the golf course in which De Niro and Stone (as his wife, Ginger, based on Rosenthal’s wife, Geri McGee) lived. I’d initially contacted local journalists who specialised in Vegas history and ended up corresponding with author and Vegas buff, Steve Fischer, whose excellent book, When The Mob Ran Vegas: Stories of Money, Mayhem and Murder (Berkline Press, 2005) is required reading on the city’s lawless adolescence. Get it at Amazon. There’s also an audio version on iTunes.
I’d initially contacted Steve about an Australian showgirl, Felicia Atkins, the star of the Folies Bergere show at the Tropicana, Bugsy Siegel’s old casino, in the 1950s and 60s. Felicia was Vegas royalty, centerfold of Playboy’s April 1958 edition and appeared with Jerry Lewis in The Errand Boy (1961) before retiring and moving back to Australia where her trail went cold. Other former showgirls who’d worked with Felicia reported that she’d returned to Vegas a few times for Folies Bergere reunions but none had contact addresses; seems she didn’t stay in contact with too many of her associates.
Then, purely by luck, I found her though it was very much a good news / bad news scenario. Yes, she was still alive, living in an aged care facility north of Newcastle, New South Wales. No, she was far removed from any attempt to recall her glory days as she was deep in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s Disease and her memories had long since evaporated.
A staff member at the home recalled that, in the early days of her arrival, she’d shared her stories about being a Vegas showgirl but not too many people took her seriously. Felicia did, however, love teaching others to dance. The cruel reality that is Alzheimer’s has robbed us of first-hand recollections of those heady days.
Anyway, back to the Casino house. Steve Fischer thought it was located on the 17th hole of the Desert Inn Golf Course and had been demolished to make way for Steve Wynn’s $US2.7 billion Wynn Las Vegas development. In trying to verify that, a very helpful soul at the Nevada Film Office confided that the house was still very much in existence, a little further east on the edge of the Las Vegas National Golf Course.
The National started life in 1961 as the golf course for the Stardust Casino, in 1969 was renamed the Sahara-Nevada Country Club, changed its name to the Las Vegas Hilton Country Club in 1994 and four years later acquired its current designation . These days, the National’s website mentions the Casino house but, when I was looking, it took a fair bit of detective work. So, armed with the film office’s clues, I started driving around the housing development hugging the golf course.
Happily, I found the house quite easily and it looks almost exactly as it did when Scorsese filmed there. If anybody is interested in paying a visit, the address is 3515 Cochise Lane.
I’m sure the owners are pretty weary of tourists snapping their property and I’d advise against knocking on their door and requesting a guided tour of the walk-in wardrobe. But they live in a little piece of movie history and, hopefully, they’re understanding about it.
Since then, I’ve learnt that the Casino house is a cherry on a far larger slice of old-time Vegas history. The golf course and the huge surrounding residential area was built at the same time and named Paradise Palms. The task of creating a homogenous design character to the development was given to the architectural firm of Dan Palmer and William Krisel, which already had mileage in that other time-capsule of mid-century modern architecture, Palm Springs.
(As an aside, it’s worth noting that one of Krisel’s Palm Springs designs is perhaps the most famous of all the city’s mid-mod houses, the one where Elvis and Priscilla Presley stayed on their honeymoon. It features on every Palm Springs bus tour.)
It was a planned community in that buyers had to choose between certain Palmer & Krisel designs, although numerous variations (in such areas as roof line, decorative finishes, allowing the homes to be rotated on their sites, even having Hawaiian influences as options on some models), allowed individual expression.
Entertainers, casino executives and, inevitably, more than a few “made men”, the people who fed the furnace of 1960s Las Vegas, called Paradise Palms home. Some of the casinos also kept homes there for visiting entertainers. Amongst the Palm’s more famous residents over the years were Bobby Darin, Phyllis Diller, Debbie Reynolds, Dionne Warwick, Juliet Prowse, Max Baer Jr (Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies) and lounge music maestro Esquivel.
Drive the streets of Paradise Palms and you’ll find a haven of low, long mid-mod homes. There was a time, when the mobsters’ reign ended and Vegas went legit (or gave every appearance of such), morphed into Disneyland and went all out to attract families, that Paradise Palms went into decline. Without regular maintenance, the built environment doesn’t survive long in the harsh desert conditions and these beautiful homes cracked, split, warped, leaked, fell apart.
The erosion would have continued had mid-century aesthetics not become so fashionable in recent times. Now, bit by bit, the tide has turned. New residents with a respect for the past have moved in and restored these wonderful homes back to their former glory.
Paradise Palms has its own website – http://www.paradisepalmslasvegas.com – and Facebook page, while a host of other retro-obsessed sites breathlessly report on PP’s latest developments. The like-minded new arrivals socialize together and spread the gospel: remember, respect, retain.
When, like Felicia Atkins, the real thing is way beyond our reach, it’s still possible to visit a time when style was supreme. The residents of Paradise Palms have it better than most. They can live their dreams in ways most of us can only imagine.
For further retro and old-time Las Vegas info, go to: