A Desert Soundtrack

From the rat pack to modern-day indie rockers and many artists in between, musicians have been finding creative inspiration in the magical settings of the Coachella Valley since the 1950s

Mike Mettler Arts & Entertainment 0 Comments

“Live Young.” So went the title of the song that star and heartthrob Troy Donahue sang over the opening credits of Palm Springs Weekend (1963), a coming-of-age movie that let the world know the area had quite a few things to offer to the eyes and ears of the ever-expanding, ever-restless youth culture. Popular music of any given era thrives on capturing the feeling of eternal youth in the throes of a perpetual heyday, and as the 1960s unfolded, Palm Springs proved it was home to a burgeoning music scene, equal parts cool and sophisticated, and it’s one that continues to flourish. Here, we recount how the soundtrack to the Coachella Valley has evolved with the times, more often than not ahead of every curve.

The Original Hipsters

If Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and the rest of the swingin’ Rat Pack had a mantra when it came to being in Palm Springs, it was probably “Just relax, baby.” Sure, the boys could say “viva” to Las Vegas whenever they were in high-roller and high-vocal mode, but the gang had a decidedly different M.O. whenever they put their roots down here: They wanted to kick back and eat, drink, and be merry to the music that kept their respective Hollywood toes a-tapping. In the early 1960s, that often meant settling in at the Riviera Palm Springs resort and grooving along to big-band acts like Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Desi Arnaz, and their orchestral collectives.

Even more Rat Pack–approved class could be found at the Purple Room at Club Trinidad, where Sinatra was known to get up and sing on occasion. “That was more of a fun audience-participation kind of thing, but mostly this was a place for them to hang out in,” says Tony Marchese, co-owner and general manager of the revamped Purple Room. “It was their space — a place where people left them alone and they did what they wanted to do. That’s the feel we went for.”

The décor of the Purple Room is faithful to the original smaller room, and the Rat Pack is represented by wallpaper showcasing life-size photographs. “It makes the room feel like it’s kind of alive,” Marchese says. “It’s new, but it’s old. It’s funny — the older clientele comes in and they’ll say, ‘We came here when we were in our 20s! Wow, this is a great addition!’ It’s got a good vibe.”

The club’s nightly music deftly bridges the gap between then and now, best personified by the Gand Band, dubbed The Desert Hipsters, who perform there every Friday and Saturday. Explains guitarist Gary Gand, “We always liked to get dressed up in vintage clothing, and the music we play is of the time — jet-setter jazz like you’d see in a French go-go movie of the ’60s, plus soul music, R&B, and some good old rock ’n’ roll.” Adds wife and band Hammond B-3 organist Joan Gand, “We introduce the night by saying, ‘We’re your ’60s entertainment for the evening in a ’60s venue.’ And the people just love it. We’ve reimagined it as being the place where Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack would come and hang out and see the bands that would play there. And it’s fun to see the people dancing along and grooving, no matter what their age is. They all seem to love it.” The Purple Room reigns again, baby.

Riders on the Storm

As the buttoned-down ’60s culture gave way to free thinking and free love, many forward-looking pop musicians came to the desert to commune, get closer to nature, and hopefully have the valley’s inherent visual beauty serve as their muse.

“There’s something primeval about it,” says Robby Krieger, guitarist for The Doors. “It’s kind of like a Salvador Dali painting. It’s cool to go out there and get away from city life.” Though Los Angeles–born and bred, Krieger often visited his grandparents in Arizona as a lad. “I always liked the desert feel,” he says.

Krieger first visited Joshua Tree with Doors drummer John Densmore and later returned there with singer-poet-lyricist Jim Morrison. In the 2010 documentary When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors, scenes culled from the 50-minute 1969 film HWY: An American Pastoral show Morrison driving through the desert in a Shelby GT500. At one point, the bearded poet opens up a map that highlights Joshua Tree National Park; another scene shows Morrison emerging from the falls at Cottonwood Spring. (HWY, shot by main Doors photographer Paul Ferrara and Frank Lisciandro, has yet to see a commercial release.)

“There were a number of memorable experiences, but I can’t remember the details,” Krieger says, chuckling about his times in the desert with Morrison. “I want to say one of our songs was written out there, but no. I think you go there, trip, and it changes your mindset. And then you come back and write something.” In other words, the desert served as inspiration for a number of moonlight-driven Doors tunes that followed.

Maverick Wind

More people know about Americana songwriting icon Gram Parsons now than they did when he was alive. (“Hot Burrito #1,” anyone?) And that’s only partially due to his notorious overdose and death at the Joshua Tree Inn, and then having his body stolen from the Los Angeles International Airport and subsequently whisked back to Joshua Tree National Park to become part of a funeral pyre set off by his road manager, Phil Kaufman, in 1973. But it’s Parsons’ sweet, melancholy, melodic gifts that keep his music vital and influential to the roots-music proprietors of the world.

“A lot of mavericks and madcap people who thought outside of the box tended to go out there,” says Holly George-Warren, one of Parsons’ chief biographers, who also spent a good bit of time in the valley herself to research her biography of another famed local resident, Gene Autry (Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry). “And Gram found that the area had a special peacefulness that fueled his creativity.”

Parsons is quoted by author Ben Fong-Torres in the prologue to his definitive Parsons biography, Hickory Wind, as saying: “I spend a lot of my time up at Joshua Tree in the desert, just looking at the San Andreas Fault. And I say to myself, ‘I wish I was a bird drifting up above it.’” Parsons found direct lyrical and musical inspiration in the desert, and perhaps the best example of how he merged his love of the valley vibe with his music is “Return of the Grievous Angel,” the lead track from his solo album released posthumously in early 1974, Grievous Angel.

“To me, that song is like a mini Western movie — the prodigal son has traveled around, and now he’s coming back home,” says George-Warren.

“I went out west to grow up with the country,” Parsons sings in “Return,” followed by a masterful twanging solo from James Burton, who played guitar for years in a band that backed another Palm Springs favorite son, Elvis Presley. “Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down / And they all led me straight back home to you,” Parsons concludes, buttressed by Emmylou Harris’ perfect counter harmony vocal.

Ultimately, Parsons tragically became intertwined with his favorite place on the planet, a locale that artists like singer-songwriter Victoria Williams and Concrete Blonde singer-bassist Johnette Napolitano have also called home. “It really looks like the most complete opposite landscape you can imagine from the Okefenokee Swamp area in Georgia where Gram was from,” George-Warren says. “And Joshua Tree has some of the most bizarre terrain on the planet — crazy rock formations, all that sand, and the crazy shapes the cacti make. Gram was such a troubled guy who had a lot of pain and demons in his life, so if he was gonna go out so young like that, at least he went out in a place he really loved.” Besides, Parsons didn’t call what he did “Cosmic American Music” for nothing.

Desert Rock ’n’ Roll

The ’90s saw the rise of generator parties and the formation of the desert rock scene. Pre-cellphone days, these jams were usually sparked by word of mouth and set in locales like Sky Valley and Indio Hills. Bands like Kyuss, Fu Manchu, Earthlings, and Yawning Man came together to explore the outer limits of psychedelia all night long — or at least until the power ran out.

Soon enough, the generator gangs began cutting a series of free-form albums at Rancho de la Luna recording studio in Joshua Tree under the ongoing umbrella title The Desert Sessions. (Ten volumes have been released to date, the last having appeared in 2003.) Sessions mastermind and Kyuss frontman Josh Homme (now the majordomo of Queens of the Stone Age) was already working on his master sonic plan when he attempted to describe in 1994 how playing in the Palm Desert Scene was shaping his aural experimentation: “Our music sometimes catches me off guard,” Homme said in a magazine interview. Added his then-producer Chris Goss (who also serves as bandleader of the 29 Palms–based desert scenesters Masters of Reality) about harnessing the sound: “I like to hear the wood of the guitar resonate. It’s practically a rumble. The string just lays there, and then I’ll get this unexpected burst of feedback and treble.” One could call it heavy panoramic blues, and bands like War Drum, Waxy, and Dahga Bloom carry forth the desert torch today.

The influence of desert rock has long since spread across the globe — and most decidedly across the pond. “On the Desert Sessions records, they all seem pretty free,” says Joel Magill, bassist for Canterbury, England’s acclaimed prog-psychedelic quartet Syd Arthur, which was invited to play Coachella for the very first time this year.

“The whole concept of those albums is that the collective, however wide they were reaching, all vibed and jammed together,” Magill says. “They were super creative, and it all sounded so relaxed.”

Magill thinks one of the major creative keys was location. “It’s the lure of the desert. It’s kind of isolated but not — kind of like being in a place where you can just concentrate on being creative,” he says. “That kind of thing is what we really dug over here.”

The bassist sees playing Coachella as the fulfillment of a desert-fueled dream. “When my brother Liam [Syd Arthur lead vocalist and guitarist] and I were growing up, we were just huge into Queens of the Stone Age and the Desert Sessions scene. When we were 17, we often said, ‘Oh, if we could ever be part of the Desert Sessions and meet Josh Homme or any of those guys, we’d be very happy.’ So we’re really pumped that they’ll be there this year.” Perhaps it’ll be the beginning of a new Desert Age.

Pappy Days Are Here Again

“Yeah, we’re going to the roadhouse / Gonna have a real good time.” If Jim Morrison of The Doors were projecting into the future when he sang those lines in Roadhouse Blues, then he might have been thinking about Pappy & Harriet’s, aka the Pioneertown Palace, which has become a must-play destination for musicians far and wide. In 2003, New Yorkers Robyn Celia and Linda Krantz bought the venerable restaurant-bar roadhouse, a local institution since 1972, and transformed it into a performance haven. “I wasn’t going to move my entire life across the country to hear the same exact band do the same exact set every night, you know what I mean?” says Celia. Name acts both new and old — from Lucinda Williams to Vampire Weekend to Ry Cooder to Cold War Kids — have all counted the close quarters of the P&H stage (the inside holds 220; the outdoor stage area fits 1,100) as a very necessary stop on their live agenda. “I love how we get the big performers wanting to come here to do a smaller show,” she adds.

Artists clearly respond to the personal, indie feel of the room. “It’s different and more intimate than playing at clubs that feel like black boxes,” says Celia, who counts a Rufus and Martha Wainwright gig among her favorite P&H performances and lists PJ Harvey and Dolly Parton as her wish list bookings. “To see Pappy & Harriet’s get turned into a listening room is just incredible. And that’s the thing — it’s only a listening room if people are there to listen.”

A certain Canadian chanteuse got the crowd to do just that during one particularly riveting open-mic Monday night. “I remember somebody was like, ‘The girl from Feist is here!’ and I said, ‘No, that is Feist,’ recalls Celia. “It was like that scene in Airplane!, where the flight attendant was singing to the sick passenger, and everyone on the plane got quiet and leaned in to see what was going on. This night was just like that. Feist opened her mouth to sing, and the whole place got totally quiet.”

Even superstars fall under the P&H spell. “The big thing was when Robert Plant showed up,” says Celia. “He was there to see Wanda Jackson. Then he saw Victoria Williams, who plays with the Sunday Band, and he asked me, ‘Do you mind if I come up and sing tomorrow night?’ Umm, no, not at all! He played a full nine-song set — and he was just as nervous as anyone else to get up there.”

The unique interactivity at Pappy & Harriet’s is something that makes both patrons and artists repeat visitors. “Everyone will drive out to the desert because you’ll most likely be able to buy a drink for the artist you just saw play,” says Celia. “The performers are happy to be here. Once they’re into it, they’re into it. They get it. And then they want to keep coming back.” As Morrison would say, “Let it roll, baby, roll, all night long.”

Music scenes may come and music scenes may go, but the ongoing Coachella Valley soundtrack continues to shake, rattle, and grow. And though it was penned more than 50 years ago, the directive laid down in the “Live Young” theme song for Palm Springs Weekend holds true even now: “Go to Palm Springs and you’ll find out what you’ve been missing.” Just open your ears, baby. The permanent waves of those perpetually cool desert sounds are all there waiting for you to tune in and turn on.

Leave a Reply