It's hard to find a more polarizing figure in the history of rock music than Jim Morrison. In his short life, he was a gifted singer, lyricist, poet, writer, and film director and the breadth of his talents is matched only in the variety of ways he's been thought of since his untimely death in 1971. There are those who subscribe to the cult of Jim and hang on every word he ever wrote, sang, or spoke, treating him as a prophet. There are Doors fans who think he was a great frontman, singer, and lyricist but who are turned off by his antics. There are Doors fans who love the band in spite of Jim, and there are fans of his who hate the Doors and think they were only successful because of him. For many people, their most enduring and cited reference as to who Jim Morrison was is Oliver Stone's 1991 movie "The Doors." To those Doors fans who know better, and especially the people who knew Jim personally, it's frustrating to no end that the inaccuracies and exaggerations peddled in the movie have been accepted as fact over the past twenty-five years. Luckily, Frank Lisciandro has set out to dispel the myths and to show exactly who Jim Morrison really was by chronicling discussions with people who actually knew him and were close to him.
Author Lisciandro first met Jim Morrison in 1964 at UCLA film school, where both were studying, and he became one of Jim's closest friends until the singer's death in Paris in 1971. The Morrison he knew was not the caricature that has been created in the years since his death, but instead was a smart, shy, conflicted, yet brilliant young man and a warm and generous friend. In Friends Gathered Together, editor Steven Wheeler and Lisciandro have compiled discussions with Jim's close friends and associates that Lisciandro has recorded over the years. The goal was to get fourteen different and accurate perspectives on who Jim Morrison was as a man and to strip away the layers of myth and falsehood that have been built up since he died. Ranging from his high school buddy to people who worked at the Doors' office and the friends outside of the rock music world that Morrison was closest to, this book tells once and for all just who Jim was and, to paraphrase the author's favorite phrase in the book, what he was really like.
I'll admit that, while I've been a Doors fan for as long as I can remember, my perception of Jim Morrison was indeed tainted by the Doors movie. Having seen the movie when it was released and again in subsequent years, I was of the school of thought that he was a talented artist who happened to be a deplorable human being. However, in recent years I've done quite a bit of independent research into the matter and gradually found that much of what I had believed as fact was actually untrue. Going into this book, I knew that Morrison wasn't really as he's been portrayed, and so I was interested to learn more about him outside of the Doors and rock music; I wanted to learn more about him as a flesh-and-blood person. I'm happy to say that on those counts, Friends Gathered Together succeeds in spades.
Beginning with a discussion with Jim's best friend from high school, Fud Ford, we get an idea of a kid who was used to constantly moving due to his father's naval career, and who seemed adept at making new friends when he had to and who was unaffected by moving on at the end of his time in any particular place. However, he was described by Ford as a shy kid who was remembered mostly for being the "funniest person I'd ever met...a real prankster." Ford is the only person interviewed who knew Jim only during his pre-fame years...the remainder of the discussions in the book are with people who met Jim sometime during or after his time at UCLA and the formation of the Doors. These range from people who worked for the Doors' office (including the author's wife), their former manager and his wife, their former road manager, and several of Jim's friends from outside of the band circle, including poet and playwright Michael McClure. The topics pertaining to Jim that are covered range from the subjects' discussions with him on politics, music, art, literature, life, and spirituality. There are also, of course, stories of some of his more adventurous antics, as well as his alcoholism and what he was really like when he was drunk. In the course of these discussions, numerous myths about him are shattered, and the true image of Morrison takes shape as a man who was actually quite shy and soft-spoken, generous to a fault, who was very rarely provoked to anger, and a man who cared so little for personal possessions that he basically had none. In addition, they are all very honest and straightforward about addressing Jim's demons, mainly his out of control alcoholism. Through all of the discussions, it's clear that first and foremost, they all cared about Jim Morrison the person, and his fame and the trappings of his stardom meant little or nothing to them. One thing the book does well is that it really humanizes Jim. It does this mainly by offering glimpses into his life as a normal guy away from the music business and the fame of the Doors. For instance, the recollection of a touch-football played amongst Jim and his friends, which included the author and some of the other interviewees in the book, is looked back with fondness and shows Morrison as just one of the guys. There are other little stories, of meals at restaurants with Jim (where he liked to order several dishes and share with the rest of the table so he could sample a little bit of everything), conversations, and his interest in seeing the world from different perspectives by really listening to the different people he talked with throughout his life. In particular, he enjoyed getting a woman's perspective on issues, and was also fascinated by the pregnancy of manager Bill Siddon's wife Cheri. It's a very different portrait of the man when compared to the way he was characterized in the media during his life, never mind the way he's been portrayed since his death.
In addition to offering personal anecdotes and showing Jim Morrison to be a real person behind his rock star persona, there are also several illuminating revelations about the Doors' career from the friends in the book since they were firsthand witnesses to these events. For instance, at the infamous Miami concert incident in 1969, Jim did not expose himself onstage (while most of the audience actually did, albeit at Jim's urging). While he did go on a drunken rant onstage that night, it wasn't any worse than several Doors gigs in months past, but the media hyped it up to such levels of hysteria that he was arrested and tried in court. However, it was a volatile situation from the outset, with an unscrupulous promoter who oversold tickets, pocketing the extra money and swindling the band out of a large amount of money. Tempers were flaring and discussions were heated hours before the band even took the stage. Likewise with the New Haven incident from late 1967, when Jim was maced backstage by a policeman before the concert, the officer not knowing he was in the band and thinking he was just some long-haired youth up to no good. During the show, Jim berated the cops from the stage, who eventually dragged him off mid-show...and proceeded to beat him up in a parking lot (where several photographs were taken, leading to the police deciding against pressing charges). There are also tales of his crazy antics walking along tall building ledges, laying down in the middle of traffic, and other dangerous things he did. But according to his friends, he did these to test the limits and to truly feel as alive as he could, although several of his friends were cited as bad influences who egged him on to ever increasingly dangerous antics. Unfortunately, it caught up with him in Paris when various health-related issues came to a head and he died at the age of 27 in the apartment he shared with longtime girlfriend Pam Courson. She's been as enigmatic a figure in Doors history as Jim, and nearly all of the friends in the book say the same thing about her: she was aloof, cold, possessive of Jim, and unfriendly toward everyone else in the Doors' inner circle. It was also revealing that there was a division between Jim and the other three Doors...they got along for the most part and made great music together, but moved in completely different social circles outside of the band.
There are a lot of great black and white photographs throughout the book, taken by Lisciandro and showing Jim and his various friends from the book, as well as other figures from the Doors circle. Some are from Doors concerts and while these are enjoyable, the best photos are the ones taken of Jim and his friends in candid moments: waiting in an airport, playing touch-football in a park, goofing around on a train, and so on. In addition to the recollections of his friends, these humanize him and help to portray him as more down to earth than anything else.
Friends Gathered Together is a great book that really humanizes Jim Morrison and reveals what he was like as a regular person...this isn't a book about the Lizard King, but about James Douglas Morrison the man. He had passions, dislikes, friends, quirks, and demons just like the rest of us, and he was quite different and normal to the people who knew him personally. After finishing the book, it's hard not to have a greater understanding for who he was and what he was really like, as well as how the instant and ceaseless pressures of fame (and infamy) got to be overwhelming and exasperating for him. Having read the book, I feel that I know who he was a lot better, and I have a lot of sympathy for him and what he had to deal with, especially from the press; his every word and action was dissected, analyzed, and (usually) attributed to some implied negative motive. That wasn't the real Jim Morrison, and Frank Lisciandro and Steven Wheeler have compiled a book that is essential reading for any Doors and Jim Morrison fan...a book which should be the final word on Jim Morrison not as a rock star, but as a poet, writer, singer, and friend.
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