City Paper is not for tourists
In his official Elektra Records biography from 1967, Doors frontman Jim Morrison defiantly proclaimed himself “primarily an American, second, a Californian, third, a Los Angeles resident.” But before the rock god arrived in the City of Night, he resided in Beverley Hills—the Beverley Hills neighborhood of Alexandria, Va., that is. The son of two U.S. Navy employees, James Douglas Morrison spent 33 formative months on the west bank of the Potomac, living with his family on upper-crusty Woodland Avenue from December 1958 to the August following his graduation from George Washington High School, in 1961.
These are the dark years of Morrison’s journey to the end of the night, a period that has gone largely unexamined by the singer’s legions of hagiographers. But not Mark Opsasnick. Last week, the tireless chronicler of Washington-area rock ’n’ roll history posted news of his latest project on his Web site, www.capitolrock.com: a book titled The Lizard King Was Here: The Life and Times of Jim Morrison in Alexandria, Virginia.
Startled by the lack of information on Mr. Mojo Risin’s high-school years in the 15 or so available books on the man—and convinced that “something, some formative experience, occurred during his D.C. years that influenced his music and poetry”—Opsasnick began this past February to interview Morrison’s former classmates at George Washington and others who knew him during his stay in the Old Dominion. The 42-year-old Prince George’s County resident has, he says, uncovered “a lot of good stories—a wealth of previously unpublished information on the young Jim Morrison.”
Opsasnick hopes to publish The Lizard King in late 2005. In the meantime, how about a little quiz? It’s simple: Just see if you can figure out which of the fantastic exploits below will actually be appearing in the book. The answer is on Page 149, but no breaking on through (to the other side) to peek beforehand. OK, wild child?
Morrison spent the summer of 1959 caddying at the Belle Haven Country Club, according to one retired groundskeeper, who related how “nobody could chase down a lost ball like that boy. He just had a nose for it.” That talent, however, didn’t please all of the club’s members. “One day a fellow come huffing into the clubhouse, all perturbed about losing his caddy to a lost ball,” the groundskeeper recalled. “I had to take the boy aside. I said, ‘Son, what are you doing out there? What exactly is it you’re trying to prove?’ And he said to me—I’ll never forget it—he said, ‘I want to hear a butterfly scream.’”
One George Washington High classmate remembered Morrison as “sexy and dangerous—a total rebel.” She recalled, for instance, an evening at the Alexandria Bowling Center when Morrison, who would later declare himself interested “in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos—especially activity that seems to have no meaning,” brazenly persisted in crossing the foul line, sometimes “by a foot or more.” The 15-year-old, she said, also “liked to shake the candy machines in the hope that something would fall down.” Finally, she described Morrison as “a sore loser”: “That’s when I realized the foul-line thing wasn’t rebelling—it was cheating.”
A few acquaintances vividly recalled Aug. 16, 1960, as the day Morrison assumed the mantle of poète maudit of Northern Virginia. That evening, Morrison and some friends enjoyed the all-you-can-eat clams special at the now-defunct Beachcomber Restaurant. Afterward, something in young Jim snapped. Scaling a telephone pole, he commenced, in one former friend’s words, “to spout some lame beatnik shit about ‘great golden copulations.’” Rushed to a nearby hospital, Morrison—who declared to doctors that he “saw God on that telephone pole”—was diagnosed with a severe case of food poisoning. Nonetheless, the vision sent Morrison into a monthlong shellfish binge, during which he frequently bragged, “I eat more mollusk than a man ever seen.”
In high school, Morrison’s mordant sense of humor was already on full display. One day when a teacher asked how her students “would solve the problem of infants starving around the world,” Morrison’s hand flew up. “Jim?” asked the teacher, an elderly and genteel Southerner. “Kill the children.” After a long and uncomfortable silence, the teacher wailed, “Jim! We can’t kill the little children!” Hilarity, naturally, ensued. And a fellow Spanish student remembered how, upon being asked to write a sentence on the board to be translated, a straight-faced Morrison scribbled this bit of pre–Lords and the New Creatures absurdism: “We all eat small dogs.”
One George Washington classmate reminisced about one time when Morrison had to take a leak. The future rock star didn’t feel up to a trip to the restroom, the classmate recalled, so he urinated in his locker.
Though his fellow students often marveled at the Rimbaud-reading Morrison’s intellectual capabilities, none of them thought he’d become a famous pop star. “I saw him with an acoustic guitar once,” said one. “But he wasn’t playing it—he was just kind of holding it.” In fact, the teenage Morrison didn’t even own a record player, and he seemed much more interested in becoming an actor than a singer. “He used to hang out at the Hollywood Grill,” recalled another old classmate. “He liked to pretend the Hollywood Grill was really in Hollywood. He’d sit there for hours in his dark sunglasses, trying to appear brooding. I think he was waiting to be discovered.” Ultimately, he was—by a truant officer. CP
The solution to “And He Walked on Down the Hall…to Spanish Class”: The reminiscences about Jim Morrison’s treating his locker like a men’s room, messing about in Spanish class, and suggesting to kill off the world’s starving infants are true. We invented the items about caddying, bowling, eating seafood, and the Hollywood Grill (except for the bit about the record player, which is true).
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Max Kornell.