“By that, I mean, ‘Get me a lead singer. He’s got sort of an androgynous blonde hair, very pretty. We need a guitar player, sort of hatchet-faced, wears a hat, plays very fast, very dramatic. He must be very dramatic. Get me a pound of bass player, pound of drummer … they’re making little cardboard cutouts. They hire a producer, they hire writers … And in the current stuff now, they don’t even bother getting people to play. Don’t bother with that guitar player, bass player, drummer – nonsense … The people in those bands can’t write, play, or sing.”
-David Crosby, describing the synthetic, manufactured nature of today’s rock bands
“David was obnoxious, loud, demanding, thoughtless, full of himself – of the four of them [David Crosby, Steven Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young], the least talented.”
First of all, before getting back into the Laurel Canyon scene, I need to say that some of you people really need to mellow out on the visits to my website. Seriously. This isn’t a crack-house, for fuck’s sake, so just chill out a little bit. I mean, I’ve grown accustomed to the fact that you feel free to drop in unannounced at all hours of the day and night, but maybe, just maybe, you could consider doing it a bit less frequently. Is that so much to ask?
Don’t get me wrong here – I’m flattered by the attention. I really am. The problem though is that you have overloaded my now-overworked website, causing it to spontaneously disappear on, of all days, the morning of September 11, 2008. And to add insult to injury, the generic, no-frills page that popped up instead, proclaiming that my site was under house arrest for the crime of exceeding its bandwidth allocation, was arguably more attractive than my actual homepage.
Luckily, this problem was quickly brought to my attention by a few alert readers and I was able to liberate my site by digging deeply into my pockets to come up with the bail money that the jailers were demanding (I think they referred to it as “adding resources” to my site, but I wasn’t really fooled by that. And I didn’t, by the way, really dig that deeply into my pockets. But that’s not the point. No, the point is that my site is – and I’m sure that there are many of you who do not know this – primitive by design. It is my belief that the ‘retro website’ look will soon be all the rage, and I want to be at the forefront of that movement. Everything old will someday become new again, and the ‘net has been around for long enough now, given our collectively short attention span, that a return to basics – to those first tentative baby-steps some of us took in creating one of those newfangled things called ‘websites’ – is all but guaranteed. My site, needless to say, will become the template that will be followed by everyone who wants to run with the in-crowd. I will, of course, be regarded as something of a visionary. Unfortunately though, I will ultimately be revealed as a fraud when, a few years down the road, legions of fans suddenly realize that, long after the fad has passed, my site is still retro. Self-righteous critics will denounce me as a poser, a charlatan – they may even invoke that most demeaning of future slurs and label me a ‘Palin.’ But before that happens, the brief time during which I shall have basked in the limelight will have made it all worthwhile. Of course, none of that has much to do with purchasing additional bandwidth for my site, so I guess it does come down to the money issue after all. Because if your behavior continues, I fear that the situation could soon spiral completely out of control, forcing me to come to you, like every other asswipe on the Internet, with hat in hand. Before long, I could be spending all of my time organizing annual fundraising drives, with the word ‘annual’ defined here, as it appears to be elsewhere, as ‘every twelve days.’ And no one really wants to see that happen. And yes, by the way, I do realize that I am likely contributing to the problem by including lots of large color photos in the posts, which presumably hog up lots of bandwidth [that’s techno-speak that I am throwing in here to make me sound really smart, when the reality is that any attempt that I might make to define the word ‘bandwidth’ would sound a lot like the governor of Alaska attempting to explain the strategic significance of that frozen state: “You may not know this, but I have been told by a real scientist – I think he was an archacologist – that at one time there was a land bridge between Alaska and Russia that some cavemen or dinosaurs or something came across. Supposedly that was way back in olden times, like even before John McCain was born. But as everyone who goes to my church knows, ‘olden times’ wasn’t really that long ago, since the Earth is only about 438 years old. That’s why Todd and I believe that that bridge is still up there somewhere, and if the Russians find it before we do, then we could be in some serious gosh darn trouble. That’s why I wanted all that earmark money for the ‘Bridge to Nowhere,’ because that was really a secret codename for ‘the bridge to Russia.’ Once it is found and fully restored, my husband Todd is going to lead a special commando team on snowmobiles – he’s been training for it for years, you know – and they’re going to sneak across Siberia and kick Russia’s little behind. I’m not supposed to talk about any of that though, so try to keep it on the down-low. We don’t want to give President Gorbachev the heads-up, if you know what I mean … by the way, are we on TV right now?”], but I prefer to place the blame on all of you. So try to mellow out just a little bit.)
And yes, I do realize that the preceding passage might have been a bit more topical had I actually gotten it posted when it was written, a couple of months ago. But let’s not dwell on that; instead, let’s get back to our little story, shall we?
At the very beginning of this journey, I noted that Jim Morrison’s story was not “in any way unique.” As it turns out, however, that proclamation is not exactly true. It was a true enough statement in the context in which it appeared – which is to say that Morrison’s family background did not differ significantly from that of his musical peers – but in many other significant ways, Jim Morrison was indeed a most unique individual, and quite possibly the unlikeliest rock star to ever stumble across a stage.
Morrison essentially arrived on the scene as a fully-developed rock star, complete with a backing band, a stage persona and an impressive collection of songs – enough, in fact, to fill the Doors’ first few albums. How exactly Jim Morrison reinvented himself in such a radical manner remains something of a mystery, since before his sudden incarnation as singer/songwriter, James Douglas Morrison had never shown the slightest interest in music. None whatsoever. He certainly never studied music and could neither read nor write it. By his own account, he never had much of an interest in even listening to music. He told one interviewer that he “never went to concerts – one or two at most.” And before joining the Doors, he “never did any singing. I never even conceived of it.” Asked near the end of his life if he had ever had any desire to learn to play a musical instrument, Jim responded, “Not really.”
So here we had a guy who had never sang (apparently not even in the shower or in his car, which seems rather odd to me), who had “never even conceived” of the notion that he could open his mouth and makes sounds come out, and who couldn’t play an instrument and had no interest in learning such a skill, and who had never much listened to music or been anywhere near a band, even just to watch one perform, and yet this guy somehow emerged, virtually overnight, as a fully-formed rock star who would quickly become an icon of his generation. And even more bizarrely, legend holds that he brought with him enough original songs to fill the first few Doors’ albums. Morrison did not, you see, do as any other singer/songwriter does and pen the songs over the course of the band’s career; instead, he allegedly wrote them all at once, before the band was even formed. As Jim once acknowledged in an interview, he was “not a very prolific songwriter. Most of the songs I’ve written I wrote in the very beginning, about three years ago. I just had a period when I wrote a lot of songs.”
In fact, all of the good songs that Morrison is credited with writing were written during that period – the period during which, according to rock legend, Jim spent most of his time hanging out on the rooftop of a Venice apartment building, consuming copious amounts of LSD. This was just before he hooked up with fellow student Ray Manzarek to form the Doors. Legend also holds, strangely enough, that that chance meeting occurred on the beach, though it seems far more likely that the pair would have actually met at UCLA, where both attended the university’s rather small and close-knit film school.
In any event, the question that naturally arises (though it does not appear to have ever been asked of him) is: how exactly did Jim “The Lizard King” Morrison write that impressive batch of songs? I’m certainly no musician myself, but it is my understanding that just about every singer/songwriter across the land composes his or her songs in essentially the same manner: on an instrument – usually either a piano or a guitar. Some songwriters, I hear, can compose on paper, but that requires a skill set that Jim did not possess. The problem, of course, is that he also could not play a musical instrument of any kind. How then did he write the songs?
He would have had to have composed them, I’m guessing, in his head. So we are to believe then that a few dozen complete songs, never heard by anyone and never played by any musician, existed only in Jim Morrison’s acid-addled brain. Anything is possible, I suppose, but even if we accept that premise, we are still left with some nagging questions, including the question of how those songs got out of Jim Morrison’s head. As a general rule of thumb, if a songwriter doesn’t know how to read and write music, he can play the song for someone who does and thereby create the sheet music (which was the case, for example, with all of the songs that Brian Wilson penned for the Beach Boys). But Jim quite obviously could not play his own songs. So did he, I don’t know, maybe hum them?
And these are, it should be clarified, songs that we are talking about here, as opposed to just lyrics, which would more accurately be categorized as poems. Because Jim, as we all know, was quite a prolific poet, whereas he was a songwriter only for one brief period in his life. But why was that? Why did Morrison, with no previous interest in music, suddenly and inexplicably become a prolific songwriter, only to just as suddenly lose interest after mentally penning an impressive catalogue of what would become regarded as rock staples? And how and why did Jim achieve the accompanying physical transformation that changed him from a clean-cut, collegiate, and rather conservative looking young man into the brooding sex symbol who would take the country by storm? And why, after a few years of adopting that persona, did Jim transform once again, in the last year or so of his life, into an overweight, heavily-bearded, reclusive poet who seemed to have lost his interest in music just as suddenly and inexplicably as he had obtained it?
It wasn’t just Morrison who was, in retrospect, a bit of an oddity; the entire band differed from other Laurel Canyon bands in a number of significant ways. As Vanity Fair noted many years ago, “The Doors were always different.” All four members of the group, for example, lacked previous band experience. Morrison and Manzarek, as noted, were film students, and drummer John Densmore and guitarist Robby Kreiger were recruited by Manzarek from his Transcendental Meditation class – which is, I guess, where one goes to find musicians to fill out one’s band. That class, however, apparently lacked a bass player, so they did without – except for those times when they used session musicians and then claimed that they did without.
Anyway, the point is that none of the four members of the Doors had band credentials. Even a band as contrived as the Byrds, as we shall soon see, had members with band credentials. So too did Buffalo Springfield, with Neil Young and Bruce Palmer, for example, having played in the Mynah Birds, backing a young vocalist by the name of Rick “Superfreak” James (Goldie McJohn of Steppenwolf, oddly enough, had been a Mynah Bird as well). The Mamas and the Papas were put together from elements of the Journeymen and the Mugwumps. And so on with the rest of the Laurel Canyon bands
The Doors could cite no such band lineage. They were just four guys who happened to come together to play the songs written by the singer who had never sung but who had a sudden calling and a magical gift for songwriting. And as you would expect with four guys who had never actually played in a band before, they pretty much sucked. But don’t take my word for it; let’s let the band’s producer, Paul Rothchild, weigh in: “The Doors were not great live performers musically. They were exciting theatrically and kinetically, but as musicians they didn’t make it; there was too much inconsistency, there was too much bad music. Robby would be horrendously out of tune with Ray, John would be missing cues, there was bad mike usage too, where you couldn’t hear Jim at all.”
As luck would have it, I have heard some audio of a young and quite inebriated Jim Morrison at the microphone, and I would have to say that not being able to “hear Jim at all” might have, in many cases, actually improved the performance. But sucking as a band, of course, does not really set the Doors apart from its contemporaries. Another thing that was unusual about the band, however, is that, from the moment the band was conceived, the lineup never changed. No one was added, no one was replaced, no one dropped out of the band over ‘artistic differences,’ or to pursue a solo career, or to join another band, or for any of the other reasons that bands routinely change shape.
It would be difficult to identify another Laurel Canyon band of any longevity that could make the same claim. After their first two albums, the Byrds changed line-ups with virtually every album release. Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention were in a near-constant state of flux. Laurel Canyon’s country-rock bands were also constantly changing shape, usually by incestuously swapping members amongst themselves.
But not the Doors. Jim Morrison’s band arrived on the scene as a fully-formed entity, with a name, a stable line-up, a backlog of soon-to-be hit songs – and no previous experience writing, arranging, playing or performing music. Other than that though, they were just your run-of-the-mill, organic, grass-roots rock-and-roll band – with a curious aversion to political advocacy.
Jim Morrison was, by virtually all accounts, a voracious reader. Former teachers and college professors expressed amazement at the breadth and depth of his knowledge on various topics, and at the staggering array of literary sources that he could accurately cite. And yet he was known to tell interviewers that he “[had]n’t studied politics that much, really.” But that was okay, according to drummer John Densmore, since “a lot of people at our concerts at least, they’re sort of – it seems like they don’t really come to hear us speak politics.”
That’s the way it was in the 1960s, you see; the young folks of that era just didn’t concern themselves much with politics, and certainly didn’t want their anti-war icons engaging in anything resembling political discourse.
* * * * * * * * * *
During the Doors’ glory days on the Sunset Strip, Morrison “struck up an intimate friendship” with Whisky-A-Go-Go owner Elmer Valentine, according to a Vanity Fair article (“Live at the Whisky”). At the time, Valentine was also, coincidentally of course, very close to his own secretary/booking agent, Gail Sloatman, whom Jim had known since kindergarten through Naval officers’ circles. Valentine was also – by pretty much all accounts, including his own – a ‘made man.’
It was mentioned previously that Valentine was a former Chicago vice cop, but what wasn’t mentioned is that he was a fully corrupt cop. By his own account, he worked as a police captain’s bagman, “collecting the filthy lucre on behalf of the captain.” He also boasted that, even while working as a vice cop, his night job was “running nightclubs for the outfit – for gangsters.” One “very close friend” from his days in Chicago was “Felix Alderisio, also known as Milwaukee Phil, who was arguably the most feared hit man in the country in the 1950s and 60s, carrying out at least 14 murders for Sam Giancana and other Chicago bosses.”
Valentine was ultimately indicted for extortion, though he managed to avoid prosecution and conviction. Venturing out to LA circa 1960, he soon found himself running PJ’s nightclub at the corner of Crescent Heights and Santa Monica Boulevards (which, as you may recall, was co-owned by Eddie Nash and was the favored hang-out of early rocker/murder victim Bobby Fuller). It wasn’t long though before Valentine had his very own club to run – the legendary Whiskey-A-Go-Go, where numerous Laurel Canyon bands, including the Doors in the summer of 1966, served their residency.
Valentine obviously had considerable financial backing to launch his business enterprise, and it wasn’t much of a secret on the Strip where that backing came from. Frank Zappa once cryptically referred to Valentine’s backers as an “ethnic organization,” while Chris Hillman of the Byrds simply noted that, “whoever financed Elmer, I don’t want to know.”
Valentine received far more than just financial backing to launch the Whisky; he got a generous assist from the media as well. As Vanity Fair noted, “Within months of the Whisky’s debut, Life magazine had written it up, Jack Paar had broadcast an episode of his post-Tonight weekly program from the club, and Steve McQueen and Jayne Mansfield had installed themselves as regulars.” During that very same era, it should be noted, Mansfield was also a high-profile member of the Church of Satan, with close ties to founder Anton LaVey, who in turn had ties, as we have already seen, to the dance troupe led by Vito Paulekas, which, as we have also seen, had close ties to Laurel Canyon’s very first band, the Byrds.
How was that for a segue?
As a fledgling band, the Byrds had any number of problems. The first and most obvious was that the band’s members did not own any musical instruments. That problem was solved though when Naomi Hirschorn, best known for funding such other quasi-governmental projects as the Hirschorn Museum in Washington, D.C., stepped up to the plate to provide the band with instruments, amplifiers and the like. But that didn’t solve a bigger problem, which was that the band’s members, with the exception of Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, didn’t have a clue as to how to actually play the instruments.
Cast to play the bass player was Chris Hillman, who had never picked up a bass guitar in his life. As he candidly admitted years later, he “was a mandolin player and didn’t know how to play bass. But they didn’t know how to play their instruments either, so I didn’t feel too bad about it.” On drums was Michael Clarke, who had never before held a set of drumsticks in his hands, but who bore a resemblance to Rolling Stone Brian Jones, which was deemed to be of more significance than actual musical ability. As Crosby co-author Carl Gottlieb recalled, “Clarke had played beatnik bongos and conga drum, but had no experience with conventional drumming.”
Gene Clark, though by far the most gifted songwriter in the band and a talented vocalist as well, could play the guitar, but not particularly well, so he was relegated to banging the tambourine, which was Jim Morrison’s (and various non-musically inclined members of the Partridge Family’s) instrument of choice as well. David Crosby, tasked with rhythm guitar duties, wasn’t much better. Crosby himself admitted, in his first autobiography (does anyone really need to write more than one autobiography, by the way?), that “Roger was the only one who could really play.”
The band had another problem as well: with the exception of Gene Clark, who was good but not terribly prolific, the group was a bit lacking in songwriting ability. To compensate, they initially played mostly covers. Fully a third of the band’s first album consisted of covers of Dylan songs, and nearly another third was made up of covers of songs by other folk singer/songwriters. Clark contributed the five original songs, two of them co-written with McGuinn. As for Crosby, who emerged as the band’s biggest star, his only contribution to the Byrd’s first album was backing vocals.
Carl Franzoni perhaps summed it up best when he declared that “the Byrds records were manufactured.” The first album in particular was an entirely engineered affair created by taking a collection of songs by outside songwriters and having them performed by a group of nameless studio musicians (for the record, the actual musicians were Glen Campbell – yes, that Glen Campbell, who also briefly served as a Beach Boy – on guitar, Hal Blaine on drums, Larry Knechtel on bass, Leon Russell on electric piano, and Jerry Cole on rhythm guitar), after which the band’s trademark vocal harmonies, entirely a studio creation, were added to the mix.
As would be expected, the Byrds’ live performances, according to Barney Hoskyns in Waiting for the Sun, “weren’t terribly good.” But that didn’t matter much; the band got a lot of assistance from the media, with Time magazine being among the first to champion the new band. And they also got a lot of help from Vito and the Freaks and from the Young Turks, as was previously discussed.
We shall return to the Byrds, and to our old friend Vito, in the next outing. For now, I leave you with this curious little story about Byrd Chris Hillman’s initial arrival in Laurel Canyon, as told by Michael Walker in Laurel Canyon: “In the autumn of 1964, a nineteen-year-old bluegrass adept and virtuoso mandolin player named Chris Hillman stood at the corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Kirkwood Drive contemplating a FOR RENT sign on a telephone pole across from the Canyon Country Store … It didn’t take him long to find [a place to stay], and, in the canyon’s emerging mythos of enchanted serendipity, one presented itself as if by magic. ‘This guy drives up and he says ‘you looking for a place to rent?’ Hillman recalls. ‘I said yeah, and he said. ‘Well, follow me up.’ It was this young guy who was a dentist. It was his parent’s house, a beautiful old wood house down a dirt road – and he lived on the top, and he was renting out the bottom part. I just went, ‘Wow, perfect.’ The guy ended up being my dentist for a while … It was the top of the world, a beautiful, beautiful place. I had the best place in the canyon.”
In Los Angeles, you see, it is quite common for a very wealthy person to offer exquisite living accommodations to a random, scruffy vagrant. I know this to be true because it happened to Charlie Manson on more than one occasion. In any event, no one will ever guess what happened to Chris Hillman’s mountaintop home, so I’ll just go ahead and tell you: it burned to the ground on what Walker described as a “hot, witchy day in the ‘60s.” According to Hillman, “Crosby was at my house an hour before the blaze. I can’t connect it yet–where the Satan factor came into play with David–but I’m working on it.”
I think maybe I will work on that as well.