Turn the clock back 34 years and you’ll find me standing in front of Jim Morrison’s grave in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. I didn’t need a map to find it. I just followed the graffiti. Arrows with the word ‘Jim’ chalked on trees and monuments marked the way to the final resting place of the American rock star they called The Lizard King. As I drew close the graffiti became more dominant and the air was filled with the smell of marijuana.
Lyrics from Jim’s most famous songs recorded with The Doors were scrawled without care or consideration on neighbouring graves. ‘Father. Yes son? I want to kill you’ may not the most appropriate thing to have daubed on the side of your mausoleum but back then it was the price you paid for being the Père Lachaise neighbour of James Douglas Morrison – singer, poet, rock idol, and junky. To the fans this was the Lourdes of rock ’n’ roll.
In September 1982 Morrison had already been dead for 11 long years. There had been number of conspiracy theories and persistent rumours that he was still alive. However subsequent accounts of what happened on the night of his death had established that he almost certainly overdosed on a batch of rogue heroin and died of heart failure in the bath at his Paris apartment.
Inevitably there remained a vocal minority who harboured doubts. The fact there had been a hastily issued death certificate, no autopsy and a very quick funeral had been more than enough to fuel hopes that Morrison was alive and in hiding. Which is why among the rag-taggle of Doors fans, hippies and latter-day Beats holding vigil at his graveside that late summer afternoon there were a small group insistent that Jim had faked his own death to escape from the public eye. There was even a rumour that he was working incognito in a Los Angeles bank – an utterly bizarre suggestion.
The Morrison grave – which in those days featured a carved stone bust of the singer – was laden with flowers, messages of undying love, candles, incense and small tokens of devotion – a pebble, a shell, a packet of cigarettes. I noticed one man – older than the rest, maybe in his fifties – wearing a frayed sports jacket, scuffed baseball boots and beaten up jeans sitting, apparently meditating, at the side of the grave. A half-empty bottle of red wine leaned against his leg. A dog-eared copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road lay on his lap. To be honest he looked beat in every sense of the word. He exuded an air of grimy despair and exhaustion but though his eyes were tight shut there was look of unshakeable determination on his weather-beaten face.
It was a poignant sight – a traveller in life intent on showing respect to a kindred spirit from a younger generation. A traveller whose ideals were being dismissed and trashed by a thrusting and merciless new world, making one last attempt to find satori in Paris. I guess he knew he was on a hiding to nowhere in a society where money was worshipped beyond poetry, beyond jazz beyond friendship and love. The only ‘Howl’ to be heard in 1982 was that of the wolves gathering across the Atlantic in Wall Street. Even in Paris – city of art, city of love and so vital to the history of the Beat generation – corporate greed was endemic.
I’ve visited Père Lachaise on many occasions since that encounter and as well as visiting the graves of Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Proust, Piaf, Molière, Balzac and many more, I always drop in on Jim. The bust, made by Croatian sculptor Mladen Mikulin, is long gone. It was stolen by trophy hunters in May 1988. Whisked away on the back of a motorbike. In its place is a flat stone with a bronze plaque bearing the Greek inscription: ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟΝ ΔΑΙΜΟΝΑ ΕΑΥΤΟΥ meaning ‘Follow your own daemon – true to your own spirit.’ Then spelling of the word daemon is important for in classical mythology a daemon is a good spirit unlike the modern demon which is invariably malevolent.
Sadly when I last visited a couple weeks ago the site was grubby, unkempt and strewn with rubble and bits of litter. It was clear that though flowers, candles, ribbons and messages still arrive almost daily most of the graffiti has gone and so has the marijuana. The cemetery authorities and the local gendarmerie have clamped down on the more excessive displays of affection and solidarity by hardcore fans. You can no longer find Jim by simply following your nose.
It’s not surprising perhaps as things really started to get out of hand with the release of Oliver Stone’s 1991 film The Doors which generated a mass of new fans just in time for the 20th anniversary of Morrison’s death on 3rd July 1991. Thousands of them headed for Père Lachaise to pay homage. Many were drunk and stoned and the authorities responded by closing the cemetery.
The wild party continued outside its walls and eventually the drunken crowd tried to smash its way through the gates. There’s a blog somewhere on the web in which Doors aficionado Michelle Chapman describes the near riot that ensued as the mob sang ‘break on through’ and ‘light my fire’ as they tried to crash and literally burn their way into the cemetery. The police responded with tear-gas as a stolen car was driven into the gates.
Jim – 20 years dead – was for a while considered an extremely bad posthumous influence. Anyone visiting his grave in the 90s did so under the watchful eye of regular police patrols. Morrison mania gradually died down and over the years the devotees have become noticeably less radical. Most are simply curious tourists. Many are in late middle-age which makes something of mockery of the three-foot high makeshift security barrier that keeps them from the actual shrine and bears a notice saying ‘Do Not Jump Over The Fence’. The people I saw a couple of weeks ago couldn’t have jumped the fence if you paid them. Half of them couldn’t even have climbed over it.
Although I am glad that the thoughtless desecration of neighbouring graves has been halted I am sad that Morrison’s memorial has been allowed to deteriorate to such an extent. Of course just 45 years after his death there are still plenty of people alive who remember what an awkward, drunken, pain in the arse he could be. His behaviour was no worse however than many of the other creative talents who lie revered in Père Lachaise. Certainly no worse than many leading members of the Beat generation currently being celebrated in a major exhibition at the Pompidou Centre less than three miles from Morrison’s grave.
I went to check out this show and, should you be in Paris, I urge you to visit before it ends on 3rd October. As you would expect there is lots of Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac, Cassidy and Corso. Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy is just one movie running on a big screen and amid a magnificent mish-mash of Beat memorabilia and ephemera. Check out Jack’s old clothes, a Burroughs adding machine, old tapes, recorders and even telephones on which you can Dial-a-Poem. The act of passing the mantle to the next generation is represented by a huge video loop of a young Bob Dylan giving it his all with the famous Subterranean Homesick Blues clip from DA Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back. To the side of the screen a sage-like Allen Ginsberg is in conversation with Dylan’s friend, confidante and sometime road manager Bob Neuwirth. It was shot in an alley by the side of London’s Savoy Hotel – a rather un-Beat location.
There are memories too from Mexico, Tangier, California, New York and of course Paris and the Beat Hotel – the dirt-cheap boarding house on the Left Bank favoured by beat writers and artists which for six years, between 1957 and 1963, served as the ‘office’ from which many of their most enduring works were composed.
The Beat Hotel was at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur and never really a hotel at all but a a flop-house housing a spectacularly talented group of occasional residents and an indulgent concierge – Madame Rachou – who cheerily tolerated the bohemian ways of her charges. Ironically today, more than 50 years after Madame R shut up shop, the building really is a hotel – a boringly snotty boutique establishment whose only nod to its former existence is a small perspex covered notice listing some of the more prominent residents: Brion Gysin, Harold Norse, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Ian Sommerville and William Burroughs.
In the Beat Generation exhibition Brion Gysin’s room – No. 25 – has been reconstructed. It was here that Gysin conducted experiments with his ‘Dreamachine’ – a supposed means to hallucination and enlightenment that he fashioned out of cardboard, a single 100 watt lightbulb and the motor from a record deck. A kind of bizarre hybrid drawing on the old What The Butler Saw machines and the kaleidoscope, it nonetheless fired the beats psychotropically fuelled imaginations. It was also here that Gysin and Burroughs probed the literary potential of the cut-up technique.
On the face of it Room 25 looks a bit of dump but it was the Parisian mixing-pot for so much of the chaotic, haphazard and crazy artistic anarchy that emerged, promising a world full of hitherto undreamt of possibilities. A world that for the Americans in particular (Gysin was Anglo-Canadian and Sommerville was English) could help overcome the suffocating atmosphere of God (and commie) fearing puritanism that was so stifling at home.
Indeed the exhibition helps pull into some kind of focus the full-blown post-war reaction of the Beats to the buttoned-up paranoia of McCarthy era America. Just as the dadaists and surrealists before them had reacted to the horrors of the First World War with a wild wave of creativity, the artists of the Beat generation searched for a new spirit of freedom in the 1950s and early 60s with literature, poetry, painting, film, photography and jazz.
Liberated by daring experimentation and fuelled by large quantities of booze and drugs, the Beats scandalised straight society and relished behaving badly. To the present day observer their attitudes can seem alarmingly misogynistic but viewed in context it can be seen that they were breaking free from an era with very different values to our own. Beyond their loutish, drunken escapades serious artistic inroads were being made.
The radical nature of what they were doing, particularly in their belief ( like the surrealists before them) that a kind of artistic purity and truth could be accessed through dreams and stream of consciousness thoughts, is laid bare in the Beat Generation show, perhaps epitomised by Kerouac’s 120 foot long On The Road type-scroll which is laid out across the full length of the exhibition hall. Written in 195, and not to find fully published form for another seven years, it was the result of a new working method that saw Kerouac using the steady rhythm of his fingers on the typewriter keys punctuated by the carriage return to type in a near trance. It was he said “an ecstatic experience”. The exhibition notes quote him as saying: “I wrote it in one go, letting the subconscious express itself in its own way…hardly knowing what I was doing except that I was writing.”
Of course it’s well know that Jim Morrison idolised Kerouac and when he wrote: “I see myself as a huge fiery comet, a shooting star. Everyone stops, points up and gasps ‘Oh look at that!’ Then – whoosh, and I’m gone…and they’ll never see anything like it ever again… and they won’t be able to forget me – ever.” he was surely channeling the spirit of his unwitting mentor.
It clearly drew on Kerouac’s much quoted statement from On the Road: “…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centre light pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”
As a teenager Morrison devoured the Beat writings of Jack Kerouac and would quote lengthy passages from On the Road. It seems however that whe they eventually met Morrison was probably badly disillusioned. In his book Subterranean Kerouac, writer and editor Ellis Auburn relates a brief, sad tale of the long haired, leather-clad rock star travelling to Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1968 to seek out his literary hero. He would find the great Jack Kerouac, a broken alcoholic, living with his mother – a formidable woman who made it abundantly clear that she had no time for damned hippies. She wouldn’t even let Morrison through the door “without a hairnet”. Kerouac himself was by this time a boorish, bloated drunk. He had become increasingly right wing and reactionary in his views and had alienated many of his friends. But then he had never been quite what he appeared. All that high-spirited travelling in On the Road was based on a couple of journeys in the passenger seat of his friend Neal Cassady’s car and various rides on the Greyhound bus network. Cassady – immortalised as the wild and free Dean Moriarty in On the Road – would later go on to drive the famous hippy bus for Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Neal was always more adventurous, volatile and dangerous than Jack. The truth is that Kerouac never really managed live the life that he wrote about. He didn’t even acquire a driving licence until he was in his mid thirties.
Jack Kerouac would die from a massive haemorrhage caused by cirrhosis of the liver just a year after his strange encounter with Morrison. He was rushed to hospital throwing up blood but, despite a 30 pint transfusion, could not be saved. It’s ironic perhaps that the Beats were apt to quote William Blake’s mantra: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” They tended to forget the second part of the quote – “You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.” Kerouac found out the hard way. Morrison too had already travelled far on the road to self-destruction when he sought out his doomed idol. One wonders if Kerouac’s tragic death at the age of 47 had rung any warning bells for Jim or if he just wanted to follow those ‘daemons’ and zoom into the afterlife like a fiery comet?
*The Beat Generation exhibition is at Centre Pompidou in Paris, until 3 October. For more information go to www.centrepompidou.fr Père Lachaise cemetery is open seven days a week and can be easily accessed from either the Père Llachaise or Gabetta Metro stations. More information at www.pere-lachaise.com