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America's musical monuments

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Gonna do some climbing?” said the rock climber in the desert when I asked for directions. We were standing in the midday sun at the Joshua Tree National Monument in Southern California — 558,000 acres of the desolate, starkly beautiful Mojave Desert, spotted with cacti and massive rock formations.

Well, not quite, I replied. I was looking for the rock where country-rock pioneer and ex-Byrd Gram Parsons — a hard-living, tragic figure who died at the age of 26 and left an influential legacy that included working on the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album and introducing Emmylou Harris to a large audience — was cremated in 1973. The spot is considered holy ground by his cult.

The climber’s smile froze. ”Oh good,” he said. His expression said it all: Fine — just stay away from me, you goat-sacrificing disciple of Satan.

Perhaps he had a right to be wary. After all, it isn’t everyone who goes in search of monuments, museums, and burial grounds that celebrate the twisted saga of rock & roll. For one thing, it isn’t easy. As true fans know, the best rock monuments aren’t the authorized shrines like Graceland, Sun Studio in Memphis, or the plaque in Bethel, N.Y., that commemorates the Woodstock festival. Rather, the ones to ferret out are the Jimi Hendrix memorial heated rock in Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, the Los Angeles hotels where Sam Cooke and Janis Joplin died, or the side-by-side graves of Duane Allman and Allman Brothers Band bassist Berry Oakley at Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Ga.

And then there is Joshua Tree, some three hours east of Los Angeles and the first stop of my Summer ’91 Rock Shrines U.S. Tour. The climber pointed me in the direction of the 175-foot-high granite formation called Cap Rock. At first it seemed like just a big boulder. But after I followed a haphazard path around the back, there it was: the shady grotto where Parsons’ road manager, Phil Kaufman, and his valet, Michael Martin, burned the singer’s body after stealing the corpse from Los Angeles International Airport (it was on its way to Parsons’ family in New Orleans) and driving to the spot where, Kaufman maintained, Parsons had wanted to be cremated. (Kaufman and Martin pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft and were fined $300 each; they also had to pay $750 for the coffin.)

Lying in the dirt, near some beer-bottle caps, was a fan’s handmade tribute — a concrete slab with ”Gram Safe at Home” spray-painted on it. There was also a small indentation in the grotto sand; 18 years later, fans still scoop up handfuls of dirt hoping for a human trail mix of pine coffin and Parsons ashes. I reached the conclusion, as I have many times in the past, that rock fans are simply not normal people.

Los Angeles gives good rock death. The city and its suburbs are filled with memorable mortality sites and rock-star cemeteries (for a complete guide, pick up Art Fein’s recently published The L.A. Musical History Tour). But many of them are closed to the public. Not so the Pierce Brothers cemetery, just off Wilshire Boulevard, sandwiched between a parking garage and a bank, and semi-famous as the final resting place of Roy Orbison.

It took some time to find his grave, though, because Orbison’s family didn’t buy a headstone. Instead, you have to look for the clump of earth just above the gravestone for ”Grandma Mother Monroe.” On this day, the clump was decorated with two potted plants and a basket holding petunias and marigolds. The reason for the low profile, according to funeral counselor Steve Cross, is that the Orbison family does not want to call attention to the grave. (They may have a point. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s family likes to dissuade fans from visiting the Dallas cemetery where the blues guitarist is interred, especially because a marker that identified the grave site has already been stolen. ”The fans mean well,” says Vaughan family spokesman Charles Comer, ”but they can get obsessive.”)

I was expecting to see bereaved fans drinking beer or singing ”Oh, Pretty Woman” out of tune. Instead, the cemetery was empty save for a destitute-looking woman, her belongings in a bag, who kept staring at me. Then again, Orbison never was the rowdy rock & roll type.

In New York City, punk worshipers still drop by the creepy Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street, where Sex Pistol Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, to death in 1978. The management isn’t keen on giving out the room number or offering tours. A much more accessible shrine — and, in its own way, a much eerier one — is the Dakota apartment building at 72nd Street and Central Park West. Its somber, castle-like courtyard — where John Lennon was assassinated in 1980 by Mark David Chapman — is as gloomy and melancholy as a graveyard.

Almost directly across the street, a few feet inside Central Park, is Strawberry Fields, a quaint three-acre assemblage of benches, lawns, and rocks created in Lennon’s memory. The centerpiece of the pathway is a large, circular tile mosaic with the word “Imagine.”

No disrespect to Lennon, but Strawberry Fields was rather boring. There are rarely any obsessed fans to be seen. “This area is reserved for quiet recreation,” read the sign at the entrance. “Please no sports, dogs, biking, or skates on lawn.” Nearby was a more forceful sign: “Caution — rat poison has been placed in this area.” So, to offset tedium, I quietly recreated while pondering the concept of rats swarming around me, heading for their own final rest.

It is a site of staggering cultural importance, but it is not easy to find. First you have to fly to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Then you drive two-plus hours down deserted tree-lined highways and onto the main street of Springhill (population 4,782). There, nestled between two pizza parlors in this former mining town, lies the Anne Murray Centre.

With its red-brick facade and white roof, the Centre resembles a small-town library. Its brochures call it “a fitting tribute to the world-class achievements of this singing superstar,” who now resides near Toronto and is known for such country-pop standards as “Snowbird,” “Danny’s Song,” and “You Needed Me.” Actually, it’s more than that. The $1.6 million Centre, which opened in 1989, was intended to promote tourism in this struggling area; indeed, most of its funding came from both the province and the Canadian federal government.

The tour began in the lobby, where I was greeted by a large map of the Murray family tree (it traces her lineage back to the 17th century), after which I began winding my way through the small carpeted corridors of the main exhibit area. The first display was a baby picture and, encased in glass, a lock of Murray’s baby hair. I kept walking and saw the outfit that newborn Anne wore home from the hospital, her report cards, prom dress, and first stereo system. Nearby was the gown she wore in the 1971 Rose Bowl Parade. Monitors showed ’70s TV clips of Murray cavorting with Dinah Shore, Mike Douglas, and Perry Como. I kept going, and there were Murray’s stage outfits, wedding photos, album covers, and a wall of congratulatory letters to the ) Centre from, among others, Neil Diamond, k.d. lang, Pat Sajak, and George Bush (“Your music is that little good news we sure could use”).

The tour ended at a small theater called “A Moment with Anne,” which played her recent music videos. I exited into the gift shop, which sells Anne Murray Centre CDs, T-shirts, sewing kits, ceramic bells, lint removers, and pencil boxes.

“Someone wrote the nastiest article about us,” said the Centre’s perky executive director, Shelagh Rayworth, sitting in her office beneath a large color portrait of Murray. “She wrote, ‘How can they build a shrine to St. Anne in a town that’s so bad off?'” Rayworth looked hurt. “But it’s not a shrine. From an economic point of view, it’s a wonderful way for Anne to give something back to the community she grew up in.”

The obvious question came up: Doesn’t the concept of an Anne Murray Centre seem a little, well, unusual? “For the Canadian entertainment world, Anne is the ultimate success story,” Rayworth said. “So why should anybody be surprised that this is here?”

Everyone at the Centre seemed so sincere that it was hard to argue. And maybe they were right: On the way back to the hotel I drank tomato juice, ate Doritos, and merrily listened to the Anne Murray’s Greatest Hits tape I had bought in the gift shop, as the sun shone and the car rolled through Nova Scotia hills lush with maple trees. I almost returned to the Centre for an Anne Murray lint remover to get rid of any stray Gram Parsons dirt from my jacket. But I didn’t want to seem obsessive.

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