Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Persistence of Fate: Jim Morrison and the '27 Club'

After 4 years I'm left with amind like a fuzzy hammer
regret for wasted nights& wasted years
I pissed it all away
American Music
End with fond good-bye; plan for future—Not an actor
Writer-filmmaker
Which of my cellves will be remembered
Good-bye America
I loved you
Money from home
good luck
stay out of trouble
Jim in a suit...people are strange

- Jim Morrison (Wilderness Vol. 1)

Looking back on the day September 13, 1969, a friend of mine, George, can recall exactly where he was: "I had a job," he says, "to look after Jim Morrison, the singer for The Doors. And it was fucking horrible."

That's the day of Toronto Rock n' Roll Revival, a 13-hour concert at the University of Toronto's Varsity Stadium. Although John Lennon showed up, The Doors headlined.

George was attending the University of Toronto at the time, and to make some money, signed on as an event organizer. Somehow George became a reluctant member of a small group waiting at the airport for The Doors to show up and escort them to the stadium. He'd been told to stay close to Jim Morrison, as it was rumored he was an alcoholic.

"I think he was already drunk when they landed," George explains, "or just acting weird. Regardless, he was a difficult guy to be around and I knew it was going to be a tough night because The Doors was on last."

I ask him if he regards his time with Morrison as important, given that Morrison has become a cultural icon, one of the great die-young gods, like Jimmy Dean and Marilyn Monroe. "Not at all," says George. "I never liked The Doors. I still don't. That organ they play reminds me of a cheap Bar Mitzvah quartet. I wanted to see Chuck Berry and Little Richard and John Lennon, but had to hang with Morrison, so I kind of missed the whole thing."

Mr Mojo Risin'
George is careful to add that as The Doors' performance time grew closer, Morrison began to settle down, and in fact was quite sober, if not catatonic, as the band hit the boards. "There was something about his eyes that wasn't quite right," George adds as an afterthought, stepping into his sedan this bright Sunday morning, on the way to a golf course. "I don't think it was a question of no one being home, so to speak," he says, tapping his forehead. "I think the wrong kind of people were at home. Anyway, that was about forty years ago. It's important to remember how young all those people acted. Morrison was around twenty-five years old but he seemed younger than me, and I was nineteen. Just think about that." Then he's off to the Emerald Isle Country Club.

So I think about that. Maybe George is on to something—something about reckless youth, something about certain people who flame bright with life because they're burning at over three times the rate than the rest of us. An aunt of mine knew Jimi Hendrix, and she said that even though he seemed okay ("dressed a little wild"), you got the sense that he didn't belong anywhere...it was just 'a sense'.

And I think about George's affection for numbers: he's a good golfer, but he's a great numerologist, recognizing patterns and proclaiming hidden truths. He once told me that Einstein regarded math as an art, not just a science — an attitude that comes naturally to most people who are terrible with numbers.

Let's go back: it's July 7, 1983, and I'm hanging around Père Lachaise cemetery, just outside of Paris. I'm on an assignment (okay, freelancing) for a city arts magazine covering the twenty-second anniversary of Morrison's death. I'm five days late, as Morrison split on July 3, but I figure it doesn't matter, he was interred on July 7. Anyway, Morrison will wait around.


This is The End
He lays about ten meters away from where I sip coffee and pretend to adjust my camera, but really study a clump of hippies nested by the grave, wrapped in blankets and sweaters, swaying to an execrable, grating interpretation of People Are Strange provided by a thin, blonde young man who, judging by his accent is of Swedish descent.

It begins to rain, which is expected, even encouraged in Paris, because it makes the whole place even more beautiful. Nobody seems to notice; in fact, the Swedish kid has segued into an up-tempo, cheery version of The End. He sings phonetically, free from the encumbering meaning of words.

So enrapt am I with this revolutionary interpretation of Doors' music, I fail to notice a very short (and I mean short) old woman who has sidled up to me. She's built like a barrel with legs. Her skin is very white and her wonderful eyes are large, green and startling. In French, (which I kind of speak and interpret in dimwitted slow motion) she asks me if I'm a reporter.

"Yes," I reply, "I work for a newspaper," which is true in a Clintonesque way.

"There are no other reporters here," she observes. "Just you. Have people lost interest in the American singer?"

"Perhaps," I reply, mainly because I know how to say 'perhaps' in French. "Why are you here?" I ask. "Did you sing his music?" which is highly unlikely and not really what I want to say.

Drive, he said
She shakes her head. "No. My brother was buried here just the same time as the singer died. I live near here and I like to walk here. I have done this for many years. Au revoir monsieur."

Forward we go: Twenty-five years later I tell my story of the old woman to George, Morrison's disgruntled Toronto amigo. "You think she witnessed Morrison's burial?" I ask. "No," George replies, "I mean 'the same time' doesn't imply at exactly the same time. It could have been months apart either way. It's a language issue. Look, I could figure out the odds of you meeting a witness to the burial of Jim Morrison, and I can tell you now, they'd be freakin' slim."

I'm about to introduce a variation on the theme of Morrison's private internment, but George's attention is drifting. He flicks his smoke away and turns to walk home. "You know what Morrison said to me that day at Varsity Stadium?"

"What?"

"He said something like 'This is the last time I'll ever play Toronto.'"


He knew how to party
"You think he was suicidal?"

George laughs. "No. It's just numbers. He was less than five-hundred days from death. I worked it out once. And I suppose somewhere, deep down, like Hendrix and Joplin and Brian Jones and Kurt Cobain and Robert Johnson—if you're marked for the Twenty-Seven Club, you're toast. It's fate. There's no escape."

I never did finish that 1983 article about Morrison. I could never get it in focus. I didn't have the strength of character to appreciate fate. I myself was in the middle of a strange, dark apprenticeship and didn't even know it.

"Stay out of trouble"

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lyndon B. Johnson: The Most Interesting & Crazy of Them All


The Johnson Treatment in action




When you talk about 1960s pop culture, at some point, often against better judgement, you must talk about Lyndon Baines Johnson.

LBJ (1908 – 1973) is among the most interesting of U.S. presidents. No other holder of that office ever encompassed such a divergent set of personality characteristics (with the possible exception of Richard Nixon during the darkest days of Watergate — when he took pills on top of the booze). And character is contrast.

Brilliant / anti-intellectual, shy / extroverted, crude / charming, violent / peace-loving, honorable / corrupt… Johnson, a towering Texan at 6’ 3.5”, 240 lbs, was an ever-evolving, ever-explosive force of life. There has never been a feature film made of Johnson’s life because American film generally has trouble with shading.

Johnson got the top job when his boss, John F. Kennedy, was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. And he gave up the position because he was simply burnt out.

He had a lousy heart. He expected to die young and smoked and drank heavily. He grew up poor and would take almost every advantage offered to him, underhanded or not.

He claimed, more than once, to close aides and friends, that he had an abnormally large penis.

He inherited the Vietnam War from Kennedy, and did his best to win it—not realizing, until the end of his job, that it was un-winnable. His inability to accept defeat resulted in the deaths of thousands of men, women and children, both American and Vietnamese. When American forces did withdraw from Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge would keep up the killing.

Johnson and JFK: A study in contrast
When in public, LBJ often insulted his wife and friends. Once, while receiving an enema, he gave dictation to a female assistant. While sitting on the toilet, he would sometimes call his aides to the washroom door and discuss affairs of state. If he felt a guest or dignitary was being condescending, he could display his disapproval by farting and belching.

He shook the hands of lepers after his advisors told him the disease was communicable. In order to get a fellow politician to change his mind, the lumbering LBJ might stand two inches from the man, bend slightly, and begin yelling: it became known as ‘the Johnson Treatment’.

He could sniff out nests of political power better than any American politician, before or since, and in this case, he was a genius - no question.

He had numerous love affairs that were, strangely, chaperoned by his wife. Johnson insisted on being called L.B.J., attempting to align his profile with F.D.R. He gave his wife (Claudia Johnson) a new name, ‘Lady Bird Johnson’, because he wanted her to have the same initials as himself. Their children were named Lynda Bird Johnson and Luci Baines Johnson. He even named his dog LBJ, for ‘Little Beagle Johnson’.

LBJ: Warts and all
Bill Moyers, Johnson's press secretary, thought his boss was clinically paranoid. However, his paranoia was somewhat justified: LBJ had thousands of enemies.

He started out as a school teacher and said he was ‘temperamentally unsuited’ to be president.

The Treatment continues
A hardcore Southerner, Johnson did the most of any president in advancing civil rights. He envisioned the creation of a ‘Great Society’, but the Vietnam War gave him no respite.

He was prone to rhetorical grandiosity, once declaring "These are the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem."

He hated Bobby Kennedy so much that he initially refused to let the assassinated senator and veteran be buried in Arlington Cemetary, close to JFK. And Bobby Kennedy hated LBJ just as much.

During a speech, Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson declared that he supported a negotiated settlement to Vietnam. Later, when he visited LBJ at Johnson's ranch, the president grabbed him by the lapels and shook him and screamed, “You pissed on my rug!”

Long hair. Near the end. The real thing
After suffering a massive heart attack at age 46, he hated to be alone.

He became renowned for phoning people late into the night.

He died from a heart attack, alone in his bedroom, reaching for a phone.

Nobody knows quite what to make of Lyndon Johnson — because he was the real thing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Tale of Two Jays: Sebring, Gatsby & the American Nightmare


F. Scott


Tom Krummer A.K.A. Jay Sebring


"The truth was that Jay Gatsby… sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.”

- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

If we can hang out in English Lit 101 for a second—and why not—Jay Sebring (1933 – 1969) could only have happened in America. He was a stock character, right from the Smith-Corona of F. Scott Fitzgerald (his good friends just called him ‘F’), the man whose mind has left us with The Jazz Age, and its greatest poster boy, Jay Gatsby.

The U.S.A. No other country celebrates self-propagation, creativity and perseverance with such splendiferous rewards. And no other country is so agile at commercializing extreme violence. It’s a strange brew causing Messrs. Jekyll and Hyde to seamlessly mind-meld.

Like fictional Gatsby (born ‘James Gatz’ on a farm in North Dakota) with whom he shares an unsettling number of traits, Jay Sebring surely invented himself under the Beach Boy sun of optimism and good vibrations.

First he was Thomas J. Krummer, an Alabama-born Korean War vet. During his service in the Navy, he was found to possess tonsorial acumen.

After four years of buzz cuts, he split for L.A., epicenter of reinvention. It was there that the middle initial ‘J’ of his name became the hip ‘Jay’ and the bummer ‘Krummer’ was replaced by the name of a swingin’ Florida raceway (www.sebringraceway.com).

In Los Angeles, he was a big hit as a ‘hairstylist for men’, cropping the mops of such celebs as Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Kirk Douglas, and Jim Morrison. In fact, Sebring virtually invented ‘the casual look’, a much-touted fashion of the mid-to-late 60s swingers.

Jay Gatsby was a successful bootlegger and became know for his fabulous, debauched parties. In fact, his parties we so dancing-naked-in-the-fountain-debauched that even today one feels a heavy heart that such gigs have followed the Dodo.

Sebring met the actress Sharon Tate at the Whisky a Go Go in October 1964. He was nothing if not a man of action, and within a year had dumped his wife, got a divorce, and became engaged to the beautiful Tate.

Tate and Sebring: Just before the end
Tate & Sebring: Just before the end

Then Tate went to London to shoot Roman Polanski’s film ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers’. It didn’t take long for her to take up with Polanski. Sebring was wonderfully cordial about the whole thing—jealousy is for losers—and made a fast new friend in Polanski.

An aggressive entrepreneur, business boomed for Sebring, establishing salons in West Hollywood, Palm Springs, and Las Vegas. He also nabbed acting roles, including a cameo in a ‘Batman’ where he played the part of Mr. Oceanbring, a character based on himself. The hair care business is still going to this day: checkout Sebring International and watch a video of Jay explaining his theory of the Big Snip.

On August 8, 1969, Sebring was slaughtered in Polanski’s home, along with Tate and two others, by friends of Charles Manson. Jay was thirty-five.

“[Sebring] was short, about five feet six, and was lying on his right side, his hands bunched up near his head as if still warding off blows. His clothing--blue shirt, white pants with black vertical stripes, wide modish belt, black boots--was blood-drenched.”

- Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi

Gatsby was shot in his pool, a willing victim of mistaken identity. Ostensibly, he took a bullet for the woman he loved—but wise guys know that the Gatz saw his jig was up, and with exploding hubris, made the best of it.

So take from the Tale of the Two Jays what you will. Much has been written about the American Dream/Nightmare—a troubled vision that alternately has to do with freedom, wealth, sex, death, or combinations thereof. Certainly Sebring’s story shows us the fragility of success—the terrible randomness of wealth and life. Gatsby’s demise (like today’s sub-prime maestros) warns us that what we term ‘the moneyed class’ is in a constant death struggle with Darwin: you can’t always buy your way out of extinction.

Conclusion? The 1920s was a lot like the 1960s, but without acid, guitars, and possibly Peter Fonda.