I thought Doors frontman Jim Morrison would appreciate crashing at the pad of a struggling writer. Was I ever wrong
At first I didn’t know who exactly my friend Bob was bringing up to my Bonanza Hilltop apartment in that desert winter of 1968. Then I saw Jim Morrison walking up the outside stairs to my pad, and it freaked me out: The rock god himself, dressed in black leather from his boots to his neck, his long hair ebbing and flowing.
My apartment was upstairs, with a balcony and a sparkling view of lower Las Vegas at night, spread out from Nellis Air Force Base to Henderson like a cache of jewelry. I was making do between construction jobs, living on unemployment, and working on an eventually unpublished novel about a young white guy living on the black side of a very prejudiced Vegas. I was living in, let’s say, genteel bohemian squalor. Perhaps to boost my artist cred, Bob delighted in telling Morrison that I had lived on D Street until everything I had of value was stolen, no doubt to hock for drug money. My friend Bob — better known as Robert Gover, author of the cult classic satirical novel “One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding” — was profiling Morrison for the Los Angeles Free Press. Bob was a best-selling novelist at the time, and I was just a dude living on unemployment between construction jobs — and trying to go clean after years of hard-partying with pretty much anything you could smoke or swallow. It was unreal to me at the time that someone could live like Bob on writing alone — with a beach pad down in Malibu, no less.
Upon walking into my apartment, the Lizard King himself brushed by me and headed straight to my stereo, which was set up on makeshift bricks and boards on the living room floor. I was a Doors fan at that time and their debut album had been coincidentally propped up against the stereo set — and thus it was one of the first things Morrison saw when he came into the apartment.
Jim sat Buddha-style in front of the stereo, immediately putting on my copy of his group’s first album, tuning us all out as he dug his own sound and peered at his own face on the shiny album cover.
Chaos, chaos, chaos!
Such self-absorption set the tone of his Vegas visit. When Bob dropped me off to file for my weekly unemployment check, Morrison feigned napping, ostensibly bored with all that a struggling writer was going through. When we ate out at the Aku Aku tiki restaurant at the Stardust, with those crazy Easter Island statues out front, Bob picked up the tab, although the rock star could have bought and sold him. When we were driving later down Casino Center Boulevard toward Fremont Street, Morrison demanded to drive. Once he got behind the wheel, he floored it. Before we knew it, we were speeding toward Fremont Street with Morrison howling, “Chaos, chaos, chaos!” Bob finally wrestled the wheel away from him, kicked his foot off the accelerator, and got control of the car. If Bob hadn’t gotten control of the car from the crazy bastard, we would’ve been in a horrific car wreck.
Later on during their visit, while we were heading into the Pussy Cat A Go Go — then a popular Strip disco — Morrison flipped a Pall Mall cigarette butt into some artificial bushes near the club’s entrance. A security guard spotted him doing it and, no doubt reacting to Jim’s hippie appearance and overall screw-off demeanor, screamed, “That guy just threw away a roach!”
Out of the blue, security descended upon us. Bob and Morrison gave the rent-a-cops a lot of lip, got roughed up and were taken downtown by regular police and booked for disturbing the peace. Both were bailed out after a few hours and, in true rock-star style, Morrison walked out of the jailhouse with his arms spread out Christ-like, his hairy head tilted with a sarcastic “I win” grin. Luckily for them, neither Bob nor Jim had any pot or other drugs when they were frisked and stripped at the station, since Vegas law was hellish on drugs then. (Incidentally, another depiction of this Strip encounter is in “No One Here Gets Out Alive,” a Morrison biography by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman.)
The last time I saw Morrison was in 1969 before he headed to Paris the following year. The Doors played a now-legendary Vegas gig at the Ice Palace skating rink in Commercial Center. By this time, Morrison had a beard and had put on a lot of weight — a different man than the slender, sleek, leathered lead man of 1968. Morrison was in bad form on stage but, being such an icon, it didn’t seem to matter to the fans.
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But I saw something more like a cautionary tale — perhaps, for me, the road thankfully not taken. Because in July 1971, Jim would be dead in Paris at age 27, another drugged-out rock-star saint, taking his exalted place with Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and other “27 Club” members who ended by way of their own excesses. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Morrison had lived. Would he have achieved a more significant kind of musical or literary greatness beyond mere rock-star status? In the light of my brief encounter with him, I doubt it: Morrison seemed like a nihilist who wanted to merely kick life in the balls. (But then again, most of us have a bit of that in our souls.)
break on through
When my son Ben was a teenager, we had our differences, but one day he had a few friends over and wanted me to tell them about my knowing Jim Morrison. I decided I would; after all, I think my son thought the only thing cool about me was that I had known Morrison. I told some of the above story and said that Morrison wasn’t any role model, but rather emblematic of a wasted life and that the drug and alcohol scene was a dead end.
At the time, Ben and his buddies were disappointed to hear me say that. But the thing about that 1969 show is that Morrison’s disheveled appearance — the beard, the gut — made me remember myself on a ferry back to Gibraltar from Tangiers in 1965. I had barely gotten out with my mind intact after smoking hash laced with I’ll never know what, but my brain had been disintegrated into a trillion molecules and beamed out into the cold universe. Somehow, I got to the American consulate, where a kind official loaned me enough money for passage back to Spain, my own money having been spent on (you guessed it) partying. When I got back to Madrid, where I was hanging out with the movie crowd doing extra work, I was offered LSD. I turned it down. Another Tangiers or LSD experiment would have slam-dunked my soul for sure. I split back to America, to Vegas as always. Many times during my 40-year career as a blackjack dealer, I’d crack to patrons, “I gave up drugs at the end of the ’60s while I still had enough brain cells left to be able to add to 21 — and I’ve been making a living ever since.”
In spring 2011, pulsating above the tourists on the electronic canopy of the Fremont Street Experience was a Doors montage titled, “The Doors: Strange Days In Vegas.” One of the highlights? Of course, it was “Break on Through”:
You know the day destroys the night
Night divides the day
Tried to run
Tried to hide
Break on through to the other side!