At my lowest emotional times, I ask myself: “Why did I become a writer?” And then, every once in a long while, something happens that lifts me from my abstruse melancholy.
I have been a persistent pen pal to some of the most notorious individuals that have graced our planet in the last 40 years. I am constantly amazed that I’m not alone in feeling that writing via pen and pad produces the most heartfelt and honest expression of our thoughts and emotions. Several of my pen pals have commented on a catharsis they experience through the physical act of writing. While the majority of my epistolers have gravitated to email, several stalwarts have endured, one of which just provided me with my most cherished literary moment.
I arrived at Charles de Gaulle in the evening. I took a cab and checked into what I hoped would be my bohemian room at the Hotel de Medicis. The phone rang at 9pm, and the voice on the other end said: “Hey man, you could have at least brought some of that California sun with you.” I laughed and said: “I’m going to have to drag you back to Venice, and Jim replied without missing a beat: “I was in Italy last year.”
Jim suggested we meet in one his favorite spots. Figuring it was a cafe or hotel lounge, I was a little surprised when he suggested we meet in Bois de Vincennes, the largest park in Paris. Knowing it’s a huge park, I asked him how will I find him, and he said: “Easy… Meet me at the entrance to the Zoo at 11, but don’t bother getting there early because I’m usually late.”
I’d briefly met Jim in 1985 at the newly relocated Rizzoli bookstore on 57th Street in Manhattan. I was a senior at NYU and worked at the bookstore specifically so I could rub elbows with successful writers and the infrequent icon that decided to tell a story and sign some books for their endearing fans. Jim had recently released “Cages”, his politically charged collection of poems and drawings. I was shocked when I heard he was actually going to do a signing, but it soon made more sense when I learned he was committed to seeing that his collection would be a commercial success as he was donating all proceeds to the National Congress of American Indians.
Assuming I wouldn’t be able to do much more than say hello, I’d decided to write him a letter. I expressed my appreciation for his music and his writing, and my admiration for his ability to just walk away from what he had long described as “Chum for the Masses”. I was right; Jim got to the store at 3:30 for a 3pm signing, and the best I was able to do was say hello and hand him the envelope with my letter. Little did I know that was the first of dozens of letters I would address to him, each one followed by his response.
To say Jim Morrison has been a mystery over the last decade is an understatement. There have been no performances, no interviews, no music released and no promotion for his documentaries. Unless you happened to be fortunate enough to catch him at random poetry houses, where he occasionally drops in to recite some lines, you have been limited to news alerts that generally are pieces that ask the question: what has he been up to?
I didn’t listen; I showed up at the zoo at 10:55, and to my surprise Jim was already there. He looked different from his recent pictures: he had a relatively long beard, more grey than black, his face was full, and his eyes were bright. His overall appearance expressed health and clarity. I knew it was him, and he recognized me from a few pictures I shared over the years of myself with my wife and kids. As I approached him, he held out his hand and said: “This is a trip, 30 years and I don’t know what your voice sounds like!” I responded: “I promise I can sing better than Dylan.” He laughed and said: “Let’s check out the prisoners. I got the tickets.”
I asked Jim when was the last time he visited the zoo. “I have mixed feelings about zoos,” he said. “I made a few visits here in the 80s and 90s, but I started visiting more frequently about the time of a zoo worker strike around 15 years ago. The place had really turned into a shithole. I am not really sure how bad it was for the animals, considering they were out of their environment to begin with, but the public didn’t like the looks of things. Sometimes you have to taste the food to decide if your dog would like it.”
He wasn’t done on the zoo topic, not for one moment: “I used think zoos were bad from the get go. But not everyone is going to know how fucked up we treat nature’s people if they don’t see it every once in a while. This zoo does a great job of trying to fool the animals and has created significant awareness of how barbaric petting zoos and tiger parks are. Can you imagine that we have regressed so much that countries sanction controlled kills? Think of it, your president’s sons cherish their kill trophies like musicians covet their Grammys. They raised 150 million bucks to apologize to these animals and open a few eyes, so the least I can do is buy a ticket.” He then joked: “By the way, you owe me 20 euros.”
The reference to Trump being “your” president begged the question: “Jim, last I checked you’re still an American citizen. Isn’t he your president, too?”
In his flowing style, he went on to answer a couple of questions I wanted to ask: “Many people think I skipped the US to avoid some bullshit prosecution for my honest performances on stage – completely un-fucking-true, man. I dig the States and I really dig most of the people. I feel sorrow that I put my mother through so much grief over my father, I couldn’t help myself, the man was in the kill business. It seemed like things were coming around a bit, but the virus is spreading. Shit, look at what’s happening in the UK, in Turkey, in Poland, in Hungary, and they are doing their best to fuck up France. I am not anti-American; quite the opposite. It’s just so much unfulfilled potential, the country could do so much good, and it’s going backward. You know, Pink Floyd was not my cup of tea, but Roger has caused me to listen closely. That brave dude has made me a fan – his new stuff is humbling, and I’m coming to understand the old work, too. He is one guy I would like to meet.”
What an amazing moment; after all these years, Jim Morrison is still a shy guy that really doesn’t know his place in the world, much less the music world. He would really “like to meet” Roger Waters. I bet that could be arranged.
I generally would do a lot of research before I interview someone, but no amount of research could prepare you for a meeting with Jim Morrison. Even the notion of giving an interview is repugnant to Jim. He explained: “You know, man, interviews are not my thing. I’m almost never on the sell; I speak through my writing and what I hope shows up on film. We are having a discussion like two old friends, it’s just that you caught me on a clear day, and it’s cold and I stay warm by talking a lot. You know, Harry, I owe many people for how nice they’ve been to me. I owed you this conversation. Let’s get some coffee.”
We dropped into a cafe in the Zoo. Jim grabbed a couple of seats and I went to get us some coffee – it was the least I could do, since he wouldn’t accept payment for the zoo tickets. He grabbed a table in the corner where it was quiet, and when I got back, I saw that he’d pulled out a leather covered flask that had an engraved image of an Indian standing next to a horse. He poured some whiskey into his coffee and was about to hit mine when I told him I was having hot chocolate. He replied: “I’ll just pretend you’re a kid that isn’t old enough to drink coffee that needs to bring down the sweetness of the whipped cream.” And just like that, I was drinking whiskey with the Lizard King in a zoo in Paris, wondering if it was really happening.
I had a feeling we were going to spend some time there, but not knowing when our time together would end, I knew I had to get some more questions in. I was hoping to shed some more light on this enigma of a man.
While I was processing the situation, as if he could read my mind, Jim said: “I know you need to write an article about today, and you didn’t come here for the weather, so just tell me what you want to know.” Not wanting this be a typical Q&A session, I chose to go with the flow, and asked him about the flask and his party habits.
“I was really out of control for extended periods of time with the group. I was uncomfortable with all the attention and didn’t want to feel everything that was going on around me,” he recalled. “I also realized the drinking and the drugs set me free; they helped release my demons and allowed me to empathize with the screwed over or the brainwashed. Let’s face it: I was basically a guy without direction, and my friends hooked me up. Don’t get me wrong, I saw shit and a lot of things pissed me off. The Doors gave me a voice; after the band made it, people wanted to read my writing and see one of my films, no matter how hard the critics were on the work. So, I still sometimes carry a flask and drink some bourbon, but my hard partying days are long gone – I buried that shit as soon as I could stare in the mirror for 5 minutes straight without looking away.”
Our conversation turned to music. I asked him: “Who goes from being one of the most famous rock stars in the world to a guy that hasn’t released an album in 30 years? Did you hate it so much?”
“It’s not like that at all, man,” Jim responded. “I haven’t run away, but I said what I had to say musically. I don’t need the money anymore, and I make selective appearances when it’s for the right reason. It might sound selfish or vain, but I would rather people remember the music the way it was written for the time it was written in. I ain’t here to criticize other artists, but I’m too old for Vegas and I just don’t want to be some teenager’s fantasy lay. I have always told myself, if I have something to say, I can write it and release for free; I don’t really want to be a part of some insane ticket grab where people want to see their favorite group and they get fucked over by some scalpers. I told Geldof he should do another show – I would be happy to pitch in. It was an honor to appear at Live Earth and Hurricane Relief. I hope people don’t think I’m hiding… I’m here in broad daylight.”
I asked him what he remembered most about those Doors reunion appearances, and he said: “It was great to see Ray, Robby and John again. These guys are really good people, but they unfortunately never got the due they had coming to them. because of all of the mayhem surrounding the Doors, almost all because of me. Most people have no clue how talented these musicians are. Robby sounds like no one else, John has a sense of rhythm and pace that kept it all together, and Ray… Man, I loved that guy… That guy lived in the music, he became one with the riff. I sometimes hear him playing in my head… And what a gentle, sweet guy he was… I miss him.”
“When did you last speak to Ray?” I asked.
“I spoke to Ray while he was in California shortly before he left for Germany on a last ditch effort for a cure,” Jim replied with his voice slightly shaking. “I told him I would meet him there, but he asked me not to come. He said he was tired and he was going for Dorothy, his wife of almost 50 years, but he didn’t have much hope. He said, ‘I have everything I need, Jim, but if you want to do something for me, write some words and set them free when you are ready’. He apologized for ‘Light My Fire’, for the final time, and I laughed and told him he should have held out for more money.”
My next question was: “How much did that piss you off, the licensing of ‘Light My Fire’ – did it really hurt your relationship with the guys?
“I was not happy, but so much shit was written, a major exaggeration, but it was important that it happened,” Jim said, and went on: “The Doors were never the band where the lead made the lion’s share of the money, or made the decisions; we all had the authority to sink or swim the band. I know John understood and Ray and Robbie came to understand that I wasn’t on a power trip, and my stance empowered them. We played on and off for another decade, and at any given time, if any one of us didn’t want to go to particular a city or play a specific song, we didn’t. When you come right down to it, we all kind of saw things the same way, and what was real important to me wasn’t important enough to fight over.”
“So if Jack Daniels wanted to license ‘Whiskey Bar’, would you consider it?” I asked.
He responded without a moment of hesitation: “Well, I don’t know too much about copyright law, but you would have to ask Bertolt Brecht’s estate for permission, or you could just ask Led Zeppelin – I am sure they would have no problem with it.”
“Jim, you don’t worry too much about what you say, do you? Do you have a feud with Zeppelin?”
He answered my question sharply, as expected: “Here is what I think: when you write something and someone releases it without crediting the author, it’s not the author that suffers, but the audience. I’m making a joke about Zeppelin, but it’s not like I am whispering a secret; everyone can make up their own minds. When you listen to ‘Bring It On Home’, doesn’t it mean something different if you know Willie Dixon wrote it? Face it, these guys are huge talents, they don’t need to pilfer. Tell your own stories, bleed your own blood, look at a giraffe all day and write about a woman’s beautiful neck, but please let Willie be Willie. Shit, you know Willie was a Golden Gloves heavyweight champ… I think Robert Plant got off easy writing a check and giving him writing credit.”
“Jim, did you ever fulfill Ray’s request to write some words for him?”
Once again, he became noticeably emotional, as he said: “I’ve been writing a lot over the past couple of years, and I’ve shared my words with Robby and John. We are going to do something again pretty soon. I think the time is right; there is so much to say, and the people saying it aren’t being heard because only one faction of society is listening.”
“Is there someone out there saying what’s on your mind?” I asked.
“Not exactly, but close and probably better,” he humbly admitted. “To me, music is about getting a reaction and making people feel something. It doesn’t always have to be the deepest of feelings, but it has to be something that makes you breath and makes you think. Man, just take a song like ‘Twentieth Century Fox’ – a light little jingle, huh? Maybe to some, but there was a point to that song. Some people got it and it meant something when it was written. I don’t think it’s stood the test of time and may in fact be a jingle now, but then again, I haven’t been in LA in quite a while.”
“The only place you consistently get a sense of people writing about real life events, struggles and pleasures these days is rap,” he continued. “But the music turns many people off either because of fear, the inability to associate with the artists and to some extent racism. I thought it was a burning hot fucking dagger when Kanye looked in the camera and said George Bush hates white people. This is the way he felt, and he was a voice for so many that felt the same way. When Snoop or Eminem write about Trump, how can you blame them? If Puerto Rico was populated by blond-haired and blue-eyed Arians, do you think your president would be throwing paper towels around? It’s the same way we wrote about Vietnam and the war machine. When someone is playing deadly chess with peoples’ lives and you choose to write about whipping your hair, there is something way out of synch. At least Chuck Berry and Chubby Checker were singing from their roots and making you get your ass off the couch to dance.”
“Jim, what would you say to someone that says you sound bitter?” I hoped he wouldn’t take this question the wrong way.
He asked: “Do you think I am bitter, Harry?”
“Not as I sit here listening to you, and that is why I’m asking this question. I think something gets lost in not hearing the prophet in your voice,” I elaborated.
“I’m not a prophet, but thank you for the ridiculous embellishment,” he replied. “I’m not bitter. I’m actually pleading; I wasted a lot of time when maybe I could have said more, but then again, my talents are limited. I don’t have the gift of promotion, especially when I’m in control, as I have been for the better part of the last few decades. I’m really not that interesting, but some of these kids have a real chance to spread the word and spread it fast. Man, when we were starting out there were only a few places to make it big in the media, and I did a very good job of fucking that up. There are so many good people out there, just check it when there is a need, people open up the hearts and wallets – it’s the leadership that’s so screwed up. Anyone with an audience and a voice should speak up.”
“That sounds great, Jim, and most people think they have a sense of where you stand. But are you using your voice effectively? Face it, you’re talking to me…” I observed.
He then said: “I made a promise to myself and to Ray a few years ago. You are the first person I’ve spoken to, Harry, but there will be others. I’m going to release a book of poems and short stories to coincide with an album Robby, John and I will be releasing. Listen, I have spent a great deal of time writing since Ray’s death, and you need to know hard work is not my friend, but I have some thoughts I need to share. I sent Robbie and John the words and my thoughts about the speed and the feel of the music. I have listened to most of the tracks and I dig what I heard. We are getting together in a couple of weeks; we are committed to getting most, if not all, of our new stuff out on the fifth year anniversary of Ray’s death. We are going to follow that up with a tour of some kind, not visiting Miami, with all the cash going to three charities, each one close to our hearts.”
“What charity are you supporting?” I asked.
“I want to see what we I can do about the dog festivals in China,” came the slightly unexpected response. “I figure, why not do something that 99.9% of the world agrees upon. I don’t want to get too aggressive about it – maybe we can create a new way for the people of Yulin to look at things. You know, man, they do love dogs in China.”
“I didn’t know you had a thing for dogs. Why dogs, Jim?” This question begged to be asked.
“I have been watching people bring dogs to this park for decades,” he said. “And I have noticed a bunch of really pure things. The dog people hang out, they kneel down to greet the other dogs, and they may not all be wonderful people, but the fact that they can be so smooth with their pets means to me they have it in them to treat people a little cooler. People will stand in an elevator and look straight ahead, and not connect with anyone else along for the ride. But if one of them is carrying a dog, it’s merry fucking Christmas, man. You know it, scores of people die every fucking day from some power hungry zealot of some fucked up regime and people don’t look up at their television screen unless there’s a weather update or some sports score is being read. Maybe it will hit home when they all get clued in about this barbarism and they stop to think about their poor little Fido getting electrocuted. Shit, my guess is the next thing you know there are hashtags all over the place and Facebook goes into overdrive. Maybe we should call the tour ‘Save Fido and While You’re at It Let’s Save Some People Too’. Hey, I don’t know if it makes sense, man, I just want to plant some brain seeds.”
Next, I asked Jim how his film work fit into his current plans, and whether he felt he’s accomplished what he’d hoped for.
“I never wanted or expected to be a critical success. I don’t consider myself a documentarian, but I have always tried to focus on the shit that’s not getting enough attention. I might have been a bit too abstract to get the point across, but I am good with the topics I chose. Every film I’ve done is the raw truth; I don’t care if it’s about fucking or saving the rain forest, the key to me is to tell the story as I see it.”
“I realize my work is not everyone’s cup of tea,” he went on. “When I did my piece on the church, maybe it was too much for most… But isn’t abusing children worse than seeing a bunch of nuns get sodomized by priests? I’m thinking about filming the creative process that we are about to get underway. I realize that will be interesting to many, and if it makes some dough, we will do some good things with it.”
Our conversation continued until the Zoo was closing. I knew the end of my time with Jim was quickly approaching. And then he asked: “Hey, you in the mood for some blues, man?”
Jim and I hung out that evening, and I got to see for myself that the craziness was no longer with him. I left knowing that he was a generous and sincere soul; no pretence, no affectations. The guy is as genuine as he is unaware of his gargantuan fame. He’s a good soul away from the lights and hysteria, from the throngs of people that slow down to look at a car crash.
And just how generous is Jim Morrison? The man sang ‘Cars Hiss by My Window’ to an audience of five. And now I know why I became a writer.
Harry Hayward is a writer and journalist specializing in politics and culture. His other passion is collecting vintage tennis racquets and old tennis ball cans.