by Chris Epting
He goes in search of rock star rooms with a grisly past, or “places to check out”—permanently.
When booking a hotel room, what drives your decision? Price? Location? Size? Amenities? I’m drawn to rooms based less on the usual factors. For me, the most seductive quality in a room is if something notable happened there. Maybe it’s a space where an artist worked (the La Quinta bungalow where Frank Capra wrote his classic scripts). Or where an artist simply crashed (Jim Morrison’s tiny space at the Alta Cienega Motel). Maybe it’s where John and Yoko staged their “Bed In for Peace” in Montreal, or a Palm Springs suite where a frisky Marilyn Monroe lured the occasional lucky gentleman caller. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because I always get the sense that something from the past actions remain in these rooms—a mood, an echo, or just some fleeting phantom sensation.
Sometimes an establishment will promote a room’s notoriety, other times they’ll deny a room’s history altogether (going as far to even change room numbers as a means of discouraging the curious). Either way, if weaving some offbeat history into a trip is in your blood, there are some rooms waiting for you. In most cases, they’re tucked away in odd little corners, away from tourists and traffic. What they might lack in glamour they make up for with something else—an event, some random, bizarre brush with history that forever hangs in the air.
If you’re a rock and roll fan, most times these compartments take on a darker edge. Death, after all, is forever intertwined with music and hotels. When I listen to the music of some of rock’s fallen angels I get lost in trying to decipher what brought them to the last stop––and then I want to go stay in there. It’s one part tribute, but another part adventure. What’s it like where these young, talented, tortured souls expired? Is there anything to learn after spending the night where they bid farewell? Or is it just a way to feel closer to the legend, and supercharge the music I still wake up listening to? I don’t know. All I’m sure of is that you will never forget the nights you spend in these rooms.
Today, it’s the Highland Gardens Hotel. Opened in the mid-1950s as the Landmark Hotel, it was designed as a place primarily for entertainers. It’s a modest, low-key, rooms-built-around-the-pool sort of hangout where you can still find the occasional celebrity.
In October 1970, Janis Joplin was in Los Angeles laying down tracks for what would be her final album, Pearl. She left the studio on October 3rd (after laying down the vocal for “Me and Bobby McGee,” which would become her first number one record) and headed over to Barney’s Beanery, a roadhouse-watering hole that hasn’t changed much since then. With band member Ken Pearson, Janis knocked back a few screwdrivers before driving to the Landmark, where she was staying.
Once she got back inside room 105, she shot up her last batch of heroin before wandering into the hotel lobby to get some cigarette change. Janis chatted for a few moments with the clerk who was on duty that night (he didn’t know who she was) and then returned to the room. Soon after, she collapsed near the bed from a heroin overdose, ending up wedged against a table with a smoke in her hand. When she failed to show up at the next day’s recording session, a band member (John Cook) broke down her door and found the twenty-seven-year-old Joplin dead.
Room 105 has had some work done since 1970, but the layout in the modest room is essentially the same. I settled in one night with my wife, we sipped some good port, and laid back to listen to copy of Pearl. The pain and ecstasy of Joplin’s cries in the night are still stunning. It’s raw, intense music, recorded hours before she died here in this very room. As it fills the room, you wonder what Joplin’s last thoughts might have been. Did she have any awareness that this was the end? Was it fast? Did she suffer? I’ve brought with me some old interviews with Joplin. Reading them in bed, she almost comes to life in the room. Do I hear a distant drawl?
“Being an intellectual creates a lot of questions and no answers. You can fill your life up with ideas and still go home lonely. All you really have that really matters are feelings. That’s what music is to me.”
“On stage, I make love to 25,000 different people, then I go home alone.”
On the stereo she sings “Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waiting for a train…feeling nearly as faded as my jeans…” Some say Janis still wanders around but for us it was quiet—even peaceful. We left with deeper appreciation for the whiskey-throated gal from Port Arthur, Texas. Though a chill did run through me as I cleaned our glasses out in the same sink that Janis used. Hey, what was that?
On a dark desert highway is perhaps my favorite little Hotel California. It’s the Joshua Tree Inn located just a few miles from the haunting, beautiful Joshua Tree National Park, where twisting, knotty Joshua Trees dramatically reach up toward the heavens in a permanent, natural pose. U2 found something special out here, but years before, so did Gram Parsons. The influential Byrd, Flying Burrito Brother, and “Grievous Angel” used to escape here with his musical soul mate Keith Richards in the late 1960s. They’d stay in this circa 1950 inn, which features a horseshoe of twelve rooms facing a desert courtyard and huge swimming pool. They’d also climb the nearby craggy rocks at Joshua Tree, getting hypnotized by the black, star-splashed skies while dropping acid and keeping their eyes peeled for UFOs.
In 1973, Gram Parsons died in room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn after consuming a lethal mix of tequila and morphine. It was a chaotic scene that ended with a pair of groupies trying to save him, but failing. The room is small, and only the mirror on the wall was there the night the deal went down, facing the bed as it did that night. Just before we stayed here, a film crew had become so freaked out, they up and left. Why? Because they say Parsons never really left the room. Reading the bedside journal where travelers record their thoughts, it’s clear the soft-spoken musician touched many. As I leafed through the pages, the bedside light started to flicker. I checked the wires and bulb. Nothing was loose. Then it went off. And on. And off again. All by itself.
I settled into bed to read a book called Road Mangler Deluxe by Phil Kaufman, Parsons’ manager back then. Have you ever read a detailed account of an event while sitting at the exact site where the event took place? It is so appealing to me, even when the event is this horrific. The room just comes to life. On the stereo, the haunting strains of Parsons’ tunes including “Hearts on Fire,” “Brass Buttons,” “Return of the Grievous Angel” and “Love Hurts” filled the room. Parsons’ songs feature mournful, ethereal melodies, and they completely fit the mood within room 8. And then the reading lamp went off again, though this time, it wouldn’t come back on.
I rigged a different light so that I could finish reading the account of Parsons’ death. Days after the death, Kaufman hijacked Gram’s body and drove it to the nearby park where he set it afire, completing a pact the two men had (whoever died first, the other was to sacrifice, by fire, the other’s body at a sacred site called Cap Rock). Reading this insane (though entertaining) account of Gram Parsons in Joshua Tree, I was distracted by something. A shadow slowly passed over the wall to my left. My wife was asleep, and there was no other movement in the room. I looked outside. Nothing. I am a bit of a cynic on these things, but the shadow is something I will never forget. It traveled the wall into the bathroom and disappeared near the shower. That’s where the film crew say a shadow was as well, the one that made them leave. I didn’t sleep much that night, and the next day we hiked up to where Gram’s body was cremated, by Cap Rock. Nearby is a shrine, maintained by the faithful. The marker reads “Gram, Safe at Home.”
Thunders checked into room 37 in the late hours of the 23rd of April, and the following morning he was dead. Apparently, he had scored heroin upon arriving and dealt himself a lethal shot and died overnight. I remain a huge New York Dolls fan, I liked the Heartbreakers as well, and had the chance to see Thunders play many times (he actually fell over my shoulder one night in Boston back in the early 1980s and I carried him to a waiting taxi in front of the old club called Storyville).
Walking through the French Quarter on a muggy spring afternoon, sixteen years to the day Thunders checked out, I felt sad. Johnny Thunders was a New York City wise guy who coulda been a contender. Jimmy Page knew it. Keith Richards knew it. Thousand of wannabe guitar heroes knew it. Instead, Thunders remained an underground legend for most of his life and one of rock and roll’s most influential guitar players. When I checked into the tiny room, I felt sick to my stomach. The thought of how they found Johnny, fetal-positioned on the floor next to the bed, was depressing. But I had to be here. Listening to “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” I read Nina Antonia’s excellent book, Johnny Thunders…In Cold Blood. When I got to the part about his death, the window actually rattled a bit. It was 3 A.M. and I was thoroughly absorbed in the book. I actually said aloud, “That you, man?” And it rattled back.
Who knows? Maybe musical spirits are waiting for you to visit, to include them on your vacation itineraries. Maybe they still need an audience. Either way, there are rooms that act as shrines to some tragic, talented figures that left the stage too soon. They feel different than other rooms, because they are different. They hold history. And they hold magic.
Chris Epting is the writer/photographer of fifteen books, the most recent being Led Zeppelin Crashed Here: The Rock and Roll Landmarks of North America. Others include James Dean Died Here; Elvis Presley Passed Here; Roadside Baseball; and The Ruby Slippers, Madonna’s Bra, and Einstein’s Brain. He is a frequent featured guest on numerous radio and television programs in the U.S. and abroad. He has contributed articles for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, Westways, Travel + Leisure, and Preservation magazine. Chris lives in Huntington Beach, California with his wife and their two children. “Let’s Spend the Night Together” won the Gold Award for Destination Story in the Third Annual Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.