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Has there ever been a rock star more perfect than Jim Morrison? Charismatic front-man of 60s LA quartet The Doors, Morrison was a performer who, both onstage and off, flung himself to the extremes of sensuality with such ferocious determination as to make most of his contemporaries stand aside in awe. He was a force of nature, a supremely literate and unpredictable ball-breaker that sneered at convention and threw up on its best carpet, time and again. Jim Morrison was the ultimate counter-culture rebel. Yet by the time of his death in 1971, at the age of just 27, Morrison had already begun to fade from rock and roll's collective consciousness, and as the 70s progressed, he was increasingly regarded as just another of those 60s rock casualties that had burned so brightly before snuffing themselves out so intently. But all that changed in 1980 with the appearance of No One Here Gets Out Alive, the first full Jim Morrison biography and a book that did much to reinvigorate his image and help set it apart as something special, something iconic, something perhaps to be worshipped.
No One Here Gets Out Alive was the brainchild of Jerry Hopkins, a roving freelance music writer who had interviewed Jim Morrison in 1970 and was something of an admirer. After the singer's death, Hopkins spent a couple of years researching Morrison's life with a view to putting together a biography, but when the proposed book failed to attract much interest, the manuscript was shelved. Step forward Danny Sugerman, twentysomething legend in his own lunchtime, self-proclaimed Doors insider, and apparent confidant of the late singer. Sugerman was tasked with adding some insider knowledge and cocaine sparkle to Hopkins' manuscript, which he did with gusto and cheek, confident that the invigorated biography would create a significant stir on publication. It did.
Yet despite presenting a narrative that, at times, makes us feel like flies on the wall, like eavesdroppers on seemingly every significant conversation and personal interaction Jim Morrison had, this book is actually a fairly standard biography that is never really more than the sum of its parts. No One Here Gets Out Alive takes a chubby American Navy-brat, has a short hard look at him, then follows him onwards along a meandering road that takes him first to the Promised Land of fame and adulation before coming to a sharp halt in Paris, where it dumps him unceremoniously, and dead, in a bath. The book is packed full of unlikely anecdotes and shallow insights, is written with pizzazz and flair, and is an enjoyable read from beginning to end. It's also a book that must be devoured with a large pinch of salt.
The co-authors were both Morrison fans, and it's clear from the outset that their primary motivation was to present the subject as a pioneer of sorts, as a young man who, from an early age, had somehow glimpsed a world that lay beyond the thin curtain of everyday mores and attitudes, a world free of limitations and hang-ups. Yet they provide no real evidence to show that this was the case. Simply stressing, again and again, that the teenage Morrison was obsessed with the French Decadent poets and the works of Friedrich Nietzsche is hardly enough to persuade us that he was a poetic genius in the making. The equally valid possibility that he was just a precociously smart and aggressive young man who repeatedly bludgeoned his simpler peers with wads of memorised verbiage in order to intimidate them is not one that seems to have occurred to the authors. Or perhaps it did, and their way of exorcising it was to seek method in Morrison's lazy madness: Jim was the all-American libertine determined to live up to the standard set by his hero Arthur Rimbaud by experiencing everything or dying in the attempt.
This 386-page book runs through Morrison's life in a breezy, impressionistic way, feigning the odd examination of its subject now and again but never really succeeding in persuading us that he was anything more than a man bored and frustrated with life in general and who could never be bothered to change it to serve his own purpose. The world just didn't understand Jim, so Jim, tortured soul that he was, simply ended up crying into his absinthe or screwing his days away to wile away the time. It's not a pretty picture. Yet all is apparently redeemed by the authors' insistence that Morrison was, in fact, sacrificing himself for us, or them, or his art. The idea of Jim Morrison as one almost divine is not so hard to swallow if we buy Danny Sugerman's assertion in the foreword that "Jim Morrison was a god." I suppose it's an arguable assertion for those with time on their hands, or their heads stuck where the sun don't shine.
Yet none of that really matters, because the chief pleasure on offer here is in allowing the narrative to paint a vivid picture of a vibrant, loopy and colourful time and simply enjoying that picture, however dubious its authenticity. All the key moments in the evolution of the Doors are ably described and the authors succeed in bringing Morrison's extraordinary performances to life; though, again, they do seem to recognize profundity in all manner of postures and poses that to the casual reader might smack of little more than the loud bellowings of a drunk on the way home from the pub, albeit a drunk with a poetic turn of phrase.
Perhaps what is most striking about the numerous glimpses this book gives us of the inside of the 60s rock and roll bubble is in how oddly banal they make it appear, glamorous people and places notwithstanding. Despite repeatedly peering over the shoulder of a rock god at large in his heaven, nothing of much note seems to occur other than a few informal deals going down, which are usually forgotten the next day, much random shagging, and much bullshit being routinely traded by people constantly stoned out of their minds. This perhaps illustrates a major problem faced by the authors, namely, how to make significant a performer who quickly retreated into his own little world when he became contemptuous of an audience that wasn't interested in what he had to say but only in how much he could shock them.
The biggest problem with this book, though, is that significant episodes in it just can't be taken seriously, and I suspect that much of the blame for this must go to Danny Sugerman and his overactive imagination. Sugerman was only seventeen years old when Jim Morrison died, yet he claimed to be the singer's confidant. It's true that he had been given a casual job in the Doors' LA office when the band hit the big time, but only after making a nuisance of himself. It's just difficult to believe that Jim Morrison would have confided in a hero-worshipping kid. I suspect that some occasional throwaway banter between Morrison and Sugerman was turned into something deeply significant by the latter when it was anything but so. Yet Sugerman created several intimate scenes in this book where Morrison really opens-up, scenes that can only be taken seriously if Sugerman had been present, which he clearly hadn't been. How could he have possibly known, for example, what was said in the private conversations between Morrison and his long-time girlfriend Pamela Courson? Morrison undoubtedly didn't tell him, and Pamela Courson died only three years after Morrison, taking her secrets with her to the grave, yet Sugerman gives us ringside seats and a running commentary. Dare we conclude that some portions at least of Mr Sugerman's insider knowledge were more fantasy than fact?
That's not to say all of this book is unreliable. It certainly isn't. The fundamental groundwork done by Jerry Hopkins is impressive, especially with regard to Jim Morrison's childhood and youth. Morrison's pre-Doors life was well-researched, as the blizzard of acknowledgements at the rear of the book attest. Hopkins clearly spent his year or two in the 70s tracking down and talking to a whole range of people who had known the subject long before the general public became aware of him, from childhood friends and teachers to university buddies and lecturers. The framework onto which he fleshed out the Doors' tumultuous career is also strong, ensuring that the relatively brief chronology of the band is easy to follow and interesting to read. The cake, therefore, is solid and satisfying. It's just a pity that the icing is, at times, a little too sweet for its own good. In attempting to resurrect the reputation of his idol, Danny Sugerman clearly decided that if it took a few flights of fancy to ensure success, then flights of fancy would be what the reader would get. Such is the way with mythmakers.
Despite my reservations about this book, I still think it's one of the better rock biographies and still worth a read by anyone interested in Jim Morrison, the man or the myth. I don't think the book succeeds at all in its aim of persuading us that Morrison was in any way visionary, or even significant, but it does give us a detailed picture of an iconic performer and brilliant lyricist as well as a distinct flavour of the crazy and debauched world he briefly and memorably inhabited. Although the addition of several dramatic segments of dubious veracity could be seen as a problem, it's not an insurmountable one for the average reader, able as they are to ask themselves, "How the hell could he have known that?" He probably didn't. Yet Danny Sugerman's vivid passages are extremely well-written, enjoyable to read, and they certainly intensify the narrative no end. They may be bullshit for the most part, but at least it's bullshit served on a silver salver, and that is what rock and roll was all about.
"Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse" was the motto of fellow art school rebel, James Dean and this standard seems to have been lifted by a replacement flag bearer a few years later in the form of Doors front man, Jim Morrison. In their brief career, The Doors made some of the most timeless, thought provoking and inspirational music of the rock and roll age. Although the band consisted of four talented musicians, this book deals squarely with their more famous singer; a more holistic view of the Doors can be gained from drummer, John Densmore's, autobiography "Riders on the Storm".
Of the two authors, Jerry Hopkins is the better established, having written a biography of Elvis Presley and has written extensively for Rolling Stone magazine. Danny Sugarman runs a management/public relations firm and through his business and personal relationship with Morrison is able to bring Hopkins research to life. Where as Hopkins provides the chronology, facts and dates of the band, it is Sugarman who breaths life into those times through first hand experience. What is being delivered here is a factual account of the bands career but with a personal insight into the people and especially Morrison himself. It should be kept in mind thought that Sugarman's zeal to place his friend in good light may create a bias in the reporting of the events. As an apologist for Morrison the book may make light or totally dismiss some of the darker facets of Morrison's complex personal traits. If you want to read honest reporting of the downward spiral of the rock and roll lifestyle, then a must read is "Hardcore Troubadour, The Life and Near Death of Steve Earle" by Lauren St John . Here however I feel that there is too much of the enthusiastic fan in Sugarman's contribution but that aside it is still a fascinating insight into one of the most groundbreaking acts of the late sixties.
After an opening chapter relating to his formative years and one regarding his the tie spent in education prior to enrolling at film school, the book then really gets going. Although always a writer of poetry, it was meeting Ray Manzarak, musician, film student and soon to be keyboard player for the fledgling Doors, that Morrison really got started down that path to rock and roll and his ultimate destruction. After various line up changes, the band stabilised with John Densmore on drums and Robby Krieger on guitar. Now called the Doors, after Aldous Huxley's "Doors of Perception" the band worked their way around the west coast circuit slowly building a name for itself. The book follows the band through every major event of their career, both in their musical endeavours and their off stage life styles.
What the book makes clear is that Jim Morrison was a very complex person. He could be charming and friendly to and extreme and the very next moment mean and self centred, especially to those close to him. He was also a person who was interested in pushing the boundaries on all levels. Personally he was interested in trying every experience, the closer that brought him to danger the better. Drugs and later alcohol helped open his mind to those experiences, but also made him a person of many mood swings. The upside of this was that on stage he also wished to push the boundaries, both through the actual words and music being performed, but also through the theatrical element of the bands performance. His film school training and his interest in alternative theatre prepared him for the role of front man and enabled him to make a reputation for his live performance. Unfortunately the alcohol addiction of his later years turned the once vibrant performer into a parody of himself.
Morrison, it can be seen, was a man on a collision course with his own addictive personality and in his downward spiral into an untimely death, he took the relationships with band and loved ones crashing into that pit with him. In the year prior to his death in Paris in the early seventies, the band had quit functioning altogether as a solid unit and was preparing to carry on as a three-piece. The news of his death still came as a shock, though most admit that it was only a matter of time. Morrison himself had quipped earlier that year that he would be next to go after two other rock stars had already died young, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, both "J's".
The irony of his death in Paris is that after breaking from the band Paris and its people seemed to put Morrison back on the straight and narrow. The pressures of rock and roll were gone, he was drinking very little and the artistic and literary nature of Paris' bohemian community seemed to suit him. Like Brian Jones before him and Elvis some years later there are mysterious circumstances about his death, but thankfully the book does not sensationalise this, which would have been an easy way to fill space and pad out the book.
No One Here is over 370 pages of solid information about Morrison and the band he led, there are a few black and white photographs and a few paragraphs of poetry and song lyric dispersed at the relevant points, but by and large it is a textual work. Easily accessible to fans and non-fans alike, it shows the rise and fall of one of rocks most enigmatic and complicated sons. As I said at the top, it may view the man and his times through slightly rose tinted spectacles, but it is a good starting place for those who wish to know something about the man who would be Lizard King.
This book is easily found second hand, on e-bay and Amazon Market place for a matter of a few pounds. A new paperback is under £10 from any book shop.