My life changed 35 years ago today.
During the summer of 1981, I was living in Neumarkt, Germany, a little town nestled in the Bavarian hills. I was the guest of a couple of families kind enough to host a high school graduate whose idea of preparing for college was growing his hair long, sprouting a gnarly beard, buying a lot of vinyl records, and making up each day as he went along. Which was the whole point of disappearing to Germany for a summer. I had spent four years as a high honor roll student at Wheaton Central High School, and was ready to do anything but worry about grades.
The German young men and women I got to know in Neumarkt were living their own version of the Age of Aquarius, donning psychedelic pants, talking a lot of politics — especially their concern over the escalating nuclear arms race between America and Russia — and doing a lot of partying like their world was going to end tomorrow. It was the kind of summer where one day you found yourself on a scooter (which I crashed more than once) bombing around the winding streets of Neumarkt, that night you were talking politics and art at a party with students you just met, and the next thing you knew you were on a bus headed to Paris with a bunch of German kids, where you shared a squalid room in dumpy hostel for a few weeks.
My friends Bruce (a Wheaton Central classmate), Robert (from Neumarkt), and I stayed up all night in the hostel playing practical jokes on each other and roaming around. We got little sleep, partly because no one else in the place was sleeping, and partly because we didn’t want to. If you went to sleep, you might miss a spontaneous party breaking out in the hallway or a poker game in the next room. Everyone in the building lived a sort of impoverished communal existence. Males and female shared one shower area although we had separate stalls. I used my bed sheet for a towel and lived off a baguette a day unless I won enough money playing poker to buy something more substantial.
It was easy for us to get around Paris. The Metro went everywhere. We usually jumped the turnstiles and rode for free or walked. On July 3, we somehow made our way to the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery, one of many Parisian cities of the dead that have a history all their own. Père Lachaise was like no other cemetery I’d ever visited, a sprawling little city consisting of tombs, mini-chapels, gardens, and cobbled paths on a hill.
At first, we explored winding, tree-lined paths in search of the tombs of famous people such as Oscar Wilde. We also hoped to find the grave of Jim Morrison but had not bothered to ask anyone for a map. I knew about the band’s hits and some deep cuts, having become turned on to the Doors a few years earlier when Apocalypse Now featured “The End” in its soundtrack. But I had not been turned on to the mystical power of Jim Morrison.
As it turned out, we didn’t need a map. Within a few minutes of exploring the cemetery, we noticed the word “Jim” with an arrow written in chalk on a number of tombs. And so we started to follow the arrows.
As we walked up a lane and approached a row of tightly clustered graves, we noticed a crowd had gathered. We heard strange, ethereal music, which I recognized as “End of the Night” from the Doors’ first album. The air was filled with the smell of sweet incense. Not only had we found Morrison’s grave, we had stumbled on to the 10th anniversary of his death.
I broke off from my friends and let the thick cluster of revelers swallow me up. There were American expatriates like myself, ranging from the backpack-and-beard crowd to couples holding hands. There were European kids with long hair and curious smiles on their faces — smiles that would turn to anger during massive nuclear protests in major European cities later that year, but not on this day. There were many older hippie holdovers from the 1960s, looking like they had walk right out of the fields of Woodstock, dressed in gowns, beads, and flowing white shirts. They had weathered faces, dirty hair, and bare feet. They passed around bottles of booze and stole glances at Morrison’s grave.
These were the true believers I had read about in magazines about the hippie counterculture. They came from another era when rock musicians were gods, not just entertainers, and listening to music meant discovering layers of yourself. And Jim Morrison was one of the greatest of their gods.
The hippies looked just a little said amid the revelry, like they were trying to awaken spirits of the past at the grave of a man who symbolized a lost era. The music of the Doors continued to waft into the air like the incense, coming from somewhere in the throng. I thought of Indians doing a ghost dance on the North American plains, only here they were here, in Paris, with me.
The surviving members of the Doors, John Densmore, Robby Krieger, and Ray Manzarek, were there, mingling among the crowd, signing autographs, sharing their booze, and sharing their memories. It’s remarkable to think of that moment, free of security guards and a horde of news media. Today such a scene would be carefully choreographed and documented in real time on social media. Back then, the surviving Doors were just members of our little party, quietly working their way through the crowd. If I had not noticed them signing autographs, I would have assumed they were like everyone else.
A white bust of Morrison watched all of us, along with a bottle of booze someone had planted to keep him company. His grave was covered with graffiti, and his face had begun to crumble, like he himself had under the weight of fame before his death at age 27. He was long dead but he was alive at Père Lachaise, the shaman in command of a tribe of followers and strangers from different countries and generations. And on July 3, 1981, on a day when I was free of commitment, free of material want and need, and with a life of possibility ahead of me, I was one of them.
From that point onward, I wrote — not for good grades but for me. The streets of Paris and the places I visited in Germany formed the settings for short stories and poems, some of them about an alter ego named Eddie Black whom I created in Paris. Robert and I deepened our friendship as we discussed Eddie’s personality and exploits while exploring record albums be owned and ones I was buying. My time in Germany and indeed my life assumed a new context. Every new place was like a muse.
Eventually the summer abroad came to an end. No more poker games in run-down youth hostels. No more friends with long hair. No more German teens in their psychedelic pants and political talk. Suddenly I was far from home, in Dallas, Texas, at Southern Methodist University.
My first years in college would be lonely and traumatic, marked by family turmoil and a sense of not fitting in on the campus. I was alone, alienated, and homesick for that summer of my own making, especially moments like communing with strangers at Père Lachaise. To endure the alienation, I became immersed in the music of the Doors, the best selling Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive, and the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, one of Morrison’s many literary influences. His influences became mine: I took a poetry-writing class and kept writing poems and a journal throughout college (eventually getting a few poems published). Morrison’s words and the band’s atmospheric sound inspired me. The song “People Are Strange” captured my own sense of feeling off balance in a college setting that, it turned out, was just wrong for me in many respects (“People are strange/when you’re a stranger/faces look ugly/when you’re alone”).
During those two years at SMU, I experienced the internalization of music: when you cross the line from being a fan of someone’s music to identifying personally with an artist. I became one of the true believers. Have you ever cared so much about anyone’s music that you feel the words and chords seep into your soul? Have you gotten through a hard time in your life by putting an album on repeat play? If you have, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.
I transferred to the University of Illinois in Urbana, where I graduated, far happier and adjusted, with a journalism degree and a deeper love of all things rock music, including all the classic rockers. Since that time, I’ve read several books on the Doors and helped a friend, Patricia Butler, write one (Angels Dance and Angels Die). I’ve edited and designed a book on rock and roll (Say You Want a Revolution, by Robert Pielke, an experience through which I got to know Danny Sugerman, co-author of No One Here Gets Out Alive), formed relationships with musicians during my marketing career, and passed on a passion for the Doors to my daughter.
Throughout his life, Jim Morrison was fond of telling a story about his family driving through the desert and coming across dead Indians scattered on a highway as a result of a car accident. Morrison believed the ghosts of one of the dead Indians leaped into his soul. On July 3, 1981, Jim Morrison’s ghost leaped into mine.