Who Is this Woman Anyway?

by Lisa Nesselson

I had just turned 15 when Jim Morrison died -- I owned most of The Doors records and had always found Jim attractive. I liked his diction -- why did Mick Jagger have to slur his delivery like that, I wondered?

I'd get into fights with other kids who insisted that Jim had written "Alabama Song". (These same ignoramuses usually thought that Janis Joplin had written "Summertime" and Procol Harum had thunk up the melody for "A Whiter Shade of Pale". I, of course, knew different, because my mom had excellent taste in music and I had heard these classics and modern classics purveyed by other musicians in other settings.) My fellow pre-teen and teen adversaries didn't see why "authorship" mattered to me -- and yet they'd have been the first to take umbrage if anyone suggested that The Cowsills had originated the song "Hair". My blood ran cold when, as a 19-year-old camp counselor, I realized my youthful charges believed that Elton John had composed "Pinball Wizard".

(If the previous paragraph is gobbledygook to you, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht wrote "Alabama Song" for a musical called "Mahogoney", Gershwin wrote "Summertime" for the musical "Porgy & Bess", Gerome Ragni & James Rado wrote the lyrics and Galt MacDermot wrote the music for "Hair" (billed as "The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical"), and Bach penned the music for "A Whiter Shade of Pale." "Pinball Wizard" hails from another brilliant rock opera, The Who's "Tommy" where it was originally vocalized by Roger Daltrey.

Anyway, like a zillion other people, I liked The Doors from the first moment I heard them and I've gone on listening to them ever since. I first went to pay my respects to Jim Morrison in 1980 -- and did so more or less inadvertently. I was with a college friend who wanted to see Colette's grave and had instructions from her boyfriend to place a red rose at the tomb of Abelard and Eloise.

Pere Lachaise cemetery is like a cobblestone city unto itself with winding roads and a layout that, in Gallic fashion, assumes that you were born knowing what the designers and surveyors had in mind. It was drizzling and we were struggling with a very approximate map when an elderly French man straight from Central Casting approached us with an impish grin. His wool beret was better than an umbrella and he definitely didn't know enough to come in out of the rain. "Bonjour mademoiselles! Vous voulez voir Jeem, n'est-ce pas?" 'Hello, yourself, kind sir,' we said. 'No, actually, we're not looking for Jeem; we're looking for the great French writer Colette and the famous lovers Abelard and Heloise.'

"But you are American, are you not?" he insisted. "You must see Jeem. Jeem receives so few visitors on a day like today." I was taller than he was, but he tugged my American sleeve and began leading the way to chez Jeem. I was so intrigued by the (now oft-described) setting that I wrote up an article on spec and sent it off to "Rolling Stone." My three-page essay was returned to me at my Paris address along with a very nice rejection letter from a female staffer thanking me for my submission but explaining that "We have limited space in the magazine and we really have to devote it to musicians who are still alive and making music." She went on to say that she thought my piece was really quite good and that I could "probably place it" with a magazine in France. Although she didn't have any names of likely publications at her fingertips, she closed by saying "I'm sure you know of some."

Her reasoning seemed sensible enough and I -- who had been reading "Rolling Stone" faithfully since the Altamont concert issue -- was thrilled to have received a personal communique in an envelope with the magazine's distinctive logo imprinted on its linen surface.

Not long after that came the landmark "He's Hot, He's Sexy and He's Dead" cover. Whereupon, like many a visionary before me, I had the bittersweet satisfaction of having been ahead of my time.

I went back to Pere Lachaise over the years and even snapped a lovely photo of the memorial bust (the one that was later sullied and mutilated) mere days after it had been placed on the grave. (The photo was published on page 185 of Dylan Jones' "Dark Star".) From 1981-1984 I worked for a radio station in Paris and more than once I lugged my UHER reel-to-reel tape recorder to the cemetery (security was far laxer in those days) to capture local color. Somewhere there's an audio tape of me and others running and hacking after we'd been tear-gassed for no particular reason.

Once a kindly guard told me that people were foolish to visit Morrison's grave "...because he's not even buried there anymore. His family disinterred him. That spot is empty now." The man seemed quite serious and sincere. But when I asked him if he'd repeat into the microphone what he'd just told me, he explained that as a civil servant he was not permitted to express his opinion to the press.

So nothing, really, qualifies me to hold forth on Jim Morrison and The Doors, beyond a journalist's open eyes and an aficinada's open ears. Like Jim and Ray Manzarek I majored in film at a major university. On the poetry front, I own an 1876 printing of Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs du Mal" -- a gift from Ralph Culpepper, a now-deceased American who returned to France after WWII on the GI Bill and never left, working with the Motion Picture Export Association of America (MPEAA).

Ralph, who tirelessy collected obscure posters and cinemabilia and immediately passed his findings along to libraries and archives, told me one of the saddest stories I've ever heard. Since his fondness for rescuing movie-related stuff was well known -- as was his selfless prediliction for placing such goodies in public collections when he could have sold some of them and made a handsome profit for himself -- remarkable donations sometimes made their way to Ralph's desk.

As he told it, late one Friday afternoon, a huge musty package wrapped in brown wrapping paper and secured with twine was delivered to him at work. It had been in someone's attic, or perhaps the ancient cellar of some long-defunct production or distribution outfit. Ralph was very late for an important appointment, but he took just enough time to peel back one corner of the package, whose moldy aroma had already begun to permeate the small office. Ralph gasped, recognizing one of the original posters for Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" -- an incredibly rare and valuable version with only the boldly sketched trademark robot and no extraneous lettering. Ralph was thrilled -- the stack of posters was over an inch thick, what other treasures might it contain? Unfortunately, he didn't have time to look. It would have to wait until Monday.

When Ralph returned to the office on Monday, buoyed by barely contained excitement and expectation, his heart skipped several beats. The package was nowhere to be found.

As best he was able to determine, the cleaning woman, seeing a grit-coated smelly package wrapped in twine, had assumed that it was trash to be disposed of. And so it was that the operation was a success but the patient died. Ralph's trained eye saw just enough to know that someone had brought him a shipment of gold nuggets and his sense of drama -- added to the fact that he was already running late -- allowed him to put off sifting through the rest of the metaphorical mining pan. The cleaning woman -- who was accustomed to interpreting filthy things as objectionable -- probably wouldn't have believed you if you'd told her the contents of that package could have bought her a platinum mop.

Which brings us back to Jim and his band's forays into gold and platinum. James Douglas Morrison died at 27. When he was my age, he'd been dead for 13 years. Just as we'll never know what (literally) priceless wonders that ragged package of posters might have contained, so are we doomed to eternal speculation when contemplating what poems, songs or piercing flights of fancy Jim might have created had he lived.

For those who have been inspired by the body of work Jim left behind, every song, every poem, every tattered morsel of his legendary behavior, is like a peek into an unexpected surprise package no clean-up crew can ever discard.

Call Usher

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