Melissa Talking to Mark Opsanick about his new book “The Lizard King was Here:
The Life and Times of Jim Morrison in Alexandria, Virginia,” which is a history of
Jim Morrison’s life in the Washington DC area. Mark, could you give some idea
about when the public can expect to get a hold of your book?
Mark This weekend I finished up Chapter14 so I only have one chapter to go.
That’ the rough draft. Once the rough draft is done, I have to start editing
and checking the facts. What I do is print out each chapter, read it, make some
corrections… it takes about a week to do each chapter… so another 15 weeks or
so will take me to about January 1st. I’m pretty much right on schedule. I want to
finish Chapter 15 by September 1st. I’ll have September, October, November, and
December to edit the thing and fix it up so it should be ready by the end of the
year. It’s a big project, and now I’m pretty much near the end of the road with it.
Melissa When did you start to writ The Lizard King was here?
Mark February 1st 2004, so it’s going to be almost two full years that it took me to
do all the research and the interviews and writing. If I didn't’t have to work full time
It certainly would have been much quicker, but such is not the case. For a part
time project, two years is along time. I think Capitol Rock was three full years ….
Actually Capitol Rock was four years.. so it didn't’t take me as long as Capitol
Rock, but it still took me a long time to get this thing to the point where I’m at now.
Melissa I imagine that you had collected some of data about Jim Morrison along
the way while you were writing Capitol Rock .
Mark Yes which leads right in to how I basically got started on the project. I had
always been a Doors Fan. This is going back to when I was ten-years-old, reading
magazines like Creem and Circus and Rolling Stone at the Greenbelt Library. The
first band I was really interested in, besides the Beatles, was Alice Cooper. But the
Doors - I was a big fan of as well. I never knew anything about where they came
from. I don’t remember in any of those early magazine articles any mention of
Morrison being from the Washington DC area. So I was oblivious to that.
Melissa That’s so typical of any rock and roll person from the DC area
Mark They just get ignored.
Melissa Think about Jorma Kakonan and Jack Casady. They will be playing in
the area soon. Most people wouldn’t think of them as being part of the DC music
scene. I guess they tie them selves back to there DC roots now, but most people
would automatically associate them with the Jefferson Airplane.
Mark I told people when Capitol Rock came out that I had an interview with Jack
Casady and they said, “That’s nice, why?”
I said, “Casady grew up in DC,” and people didn’t even believe me. They said,
“No, he was in San Francisco with the Jefferson Airplane.” I had to educate them
that Casady had a long history here in Washington DC. He grew up here and
went all the way through Wilson High School and so forth.
Now the thing with Jim Morrison – I was in college down in North Carolina when the
book “No One Here Gets Out Alive” came out. That’s the first biography about Jim
Morrison ever written. They briefly touch upon the fact that Jim Morrison lived in
Alexandria and attended George Washington High School and that is the first time
I found out about it. I didn’t pay much attention to it after that.
I started researching Capitol Rock in 1993 and over the course of the next four
years, during my interviews, I talked with a number of people who mentioned that
Morrison had spent time in Northern Virginia. It was always; they weren’t really
giving me facts, but rather asking me questions. It was like “Well, Jim Morrison
grew up in Northern Virginia didn’t he?” “Was he involved with any bands at that
time?” “Was he involved with local music at all?”
Nobody really knew any of that. I didn’t know. I kind of filed that away. I made notes
about people who had asked me about Morrison. A couple of people had seen the
Doors play at the Alexandria Roller Rink in 1967 and they kind of prefaced that
with asking about Morrison’s time in Alexandria.
As books on the Doors came out, all the way up to 2004, I think I have read twenty
different biographies on Jim Morison, There are actually a couple more that were
printed in Europe that haven’t been published here. There are close to two dozen
lengthy books on Jim Morrison and the Doors that basically give their stories, and
without exception they all basically skip right over the time Jim Morrison spent in
Alexandria, Virginia, and the DC area.
They acknowledge that he lived in the DC area for almost three years, but they
don’t go in to any details at all. Only one or two books even bothered to interview
a friend of his from high school. But they really kind of ignored the whole DC area,
and what roll that played in his life.
So Being a Doors fan, I reach a point where it just fell into place. Capitol Rock was
finished with, and some of my other projects were over with, and it was always in
the back of my mind to find out more about Morrison’s time in Alexandria, Virginia.
So I came up with an idea to explore what had influenced Morrison in his teen
years - what happened to him, what did he experience in his high school years
that may have influenced his later lyrics writing and poetry and so fourth. I got
started on the book on February 1, 2004. I started interviewing, tracking down his
former high school friends. Thus far I am just about finished. I think I have
interviewed over 150 people and this includes forty-two of his former classmates
from the Class of 1961 at George Washington High School.
I had a list of about fifteen people that I thought were closest to Jim at that time. Of
that fifteen I managed to track down interview fourteen of them.
The only person I couldn’t get was Tandy Martin, his girlfriend at the time who now
lives in Peru. But she has only ever given one interview, so I didn't’t expect to get
a hold of her. But I had a great success in locating the people who knew him well.
It is certainly going to be a great deal of information that has never been
Melissa That sounds fantastic.
Mark That’s basically it in a nutshell. I think the most interesting aspect of this
project is to examine the nightclubs where Jim Morrison hung out. I didn’t go into
this project with any expectations of finding anything specific that inspired Jim to
become a rock star in the DC area, but now that the project is over there are bits
and pieces, and a number of factors came into play during his existence here that
may have influenced his decision to go into performance art, a combination of
poetry and music, and his vocal performances as front man with the Doors.
I think one of the things he did while he was in this area was attend a number of
nightclubs in Washington DC and also one in particular down Richmond Highway,
south of Alexandria, called the Club Log Tavern.
Melissa Yea, that name sounds familiar. I grew up in south Alexandria.
Mark That was actually built in 1938 and it existed as the Club Log Tavern until
about1965; then it switched owners and became the 1320 Club.
Melissa Oh yea, people use to hang out there when I was in high school.
Mark That club had an interesting history and I talked at length with Billy Hancock
about it. I found ads in the Washington Post from 1939 through 1950’s for this
place. It started off the Club Log Tavern and it had orchestras and big bands and
pop singers in the 1930’s and 1940’s. In the 1950’s it went towards country music
and around 1958 or so they had a change in ownership and a gentleman named
Carl Simpson bought the club and he brought in rock and roll bands. The first
rock and roll band he brought in to the Club Log Tavern was Ronnie and the Off
Beats. The lead guitarist was Danny Gatton the keyboard player was Dick Hintze
and the lead singer was Ronnie MacDonald, who was involved with Jorma
Kakonan and Jack Casady when they were all in a band called the Triumphs
during their earlier teen years. They were playing there and Jim Morrison would go
to the club and watch this band perform.
Melissa That is so wild.
Mark I had one of Jim Morrison’s former classmates, a woman he had been
friends with, and she told me some stories about Jim Morrison in the Club Log
Tavern that will be in the book. Also, Ron MacDonald remembered Morrison. I
have some extensive interviews with Ron because Morrison would come up and
talk to him on the breaks. He remembers Morrison at the club, scribbling in his
notebooks. Its very interesting . According to Ron MacDonald, Morrison may have
taken some of his mannerisms from Ronnie and the Offbeats. Another interesting
thing is that Ronnie and the Offbeats performed a lot of Bo Diddley tunes
including “Who Do You Love”, and later on the Doors would perform ”Who Do You
Love” on stage. It was rare, but one of the places they did that song was at the
Alexandria Roller Rink in 1967, one of the very few times they played that song
live. I tend to think it was Morrison’s way of paying homage to his roots at the Club
Log Tavern. I could be wrong on that, but it seems like a connection. Aside from
the Club Log Tavern, there were three places in DC where Jim Morrison hung out:
Bohemian Taverns, which is still there, Harrigan’s Restaurant in SW which from
1959-1961 was a hangout for beatniks and artists, and the other one which was
very influential was called Coffee ‘n Confusion. That was really Washington DC’s
premiere beatnik hang out at the time. They didn’t serve alcohol, they only served
coffee and tea, and they had poetry readings.
Jim Morrison actually went there often and it was there that he gave his first public
poetry reading and I’ve interviewed friends of his who were there on that particular
evening. The very first instance of him giving his performance art was at this
beatnik coffeehouse called Coffee ‘n Confusion and it was down at 10th and K
streets. The building was torn down in 1969 and now it’s former site just a vacant
parking lot. I think his experiences there were very influential in him later taking the
stage and becoming a front man with the doors. It certainly spurred his interest in
poetry and the arts and so fourth.
I go into great detail in all these matters and my conclusion is of course that there
were some pretty significant experiences he embarked on when he was living in
Alexandria that later defined his roll as a poet, artist, and rock and roll singer.
Melissa How about the Georgetown scene? Was he into that at all?
Mark Yes, but from all indications, not as much. There were two night clubs in
Georgetown he and his friends would go down and hang out at. M Street in
Georgetown in 1961 was nothing at all like it is today. It was a main commercial
avenue, but they didn't’t have rock and roll music there.
Melissa Mostly country at that time?
Mark Pretty much - country and folk music. The two places he hung out at were
the Silver Dollar, which is still there today, but it is the Bistro Francais Restaurant,
it’s a French restaurant now. The Silver Dollar at the time actually had folk
singers in there and they had those hootenanny things with folk musicians. That
was in ’60 and ’61. Then it went into country music for a few years. Then in ’66 it
went to rock and roll when Roy Buchanan went in there. Morrison was known to
hang out there around 1960. I don’t think it was one of his favorite places. His girl
friend Tandy Martin would go there for the folk music and he would go along with
her. The other place Morrison was in at least a few times was Mac’s at 34th and M,
across from the Cellar Door. It was actually called Mac’s Pipe and Drum restaurant
at the time. They didn’t actually have music at the time; it was just this really weird
neighborhood beatnik hangout. That’s how it was described to me. The old
Georgetown brigade, all the old beatniks would hangout there.
In the mid ‘60’s they brought in live music and they changed it from Mac’s Pipe
and Drum Restaurant to just Mac’s and then in the late 60’s they changed
ownership and it became New Mac’s and was a rock and roll joint.
Melissa Yes, that’s when Billy Hancock was playing there, as New Mac’s.
Mark Yes, It became quite a rock and roll stronghold in the late ‘60’s. I know the
Mad Hatter’s played there a long time, the Fallen Angels played there a while,
different hard rock bands. The old Mac’s, that building was put up in the 1800’s
and it was a number of different businesses, but by 1910 it was already a
restaurant. It became Mac’s around 1959. Before that it was the Gem Lunch
Room. It did become Mac’s in 1959 and it was a weird beatnik beer joint and
Morrison did hang out in there.
Melissa did Jim Morrison have anything to do with the Mugwumps scene?
Mark You know, in the Mugwumps both John Phillips and Cass Elliot had both
attended George Washington High School but they never crossed paths. John
Phillips was, I think class of ’54 and Cass Elliott, whose real name was Ellen
Cohen, she would have been George Washington Class of ’60, but she left after
her sophomore year and moved to Baltimore, so she didn’t have a chance to know
Morrison. The thing is Jim Morrison was not really involved in any local music.
There were no real local bands playing Georgetown at that point. Really what built
up Georgetown was the British invasion of ’64 and that’s when every thing
exploded and of course Morrison was gone by that time. Jim Morrison did hang out
in Georgetown, and there were a couple of places around DuPont Circle as well –
the Brickskeller which is still there, and the Ben Bow restaurant, which is no longer
Melissa I remember the Ben Bow. I knew someone who lived above it in the ‘70’s.
Mark Those places weren’t so much live music venues, they were just places he
and his buddies would go. There were a lot of places on 14th street where
Morison hung out too. There are stories that Morrison went to Rands, the Hayloft
and Casino Royal and places like that to see bands play, but certainly the places
he was really enamored with were Coffee ‘n Confusion, Bohemian Caverns, and
Harrigan’s Restaurant which was down on the waterfront in Southwest I also had
one of his old friends tell me that they would go to upper 14ths street – to 14th
and U to the black jazz clubs. Places like the Colt Lounge, the Spa, the Village
Note - which latter became the Jazzarama. That was all around 1960-1961. Jim
Morrison had found out about these jazz nightclubs by going to Bohemian
Caverns and he loved to explore that whole corridor.that was at 11th and U
Streets and then he just walked down to 14th an U and he would check out the
jazz nightclubs in that area.
That whole area was like no man’s land for white high school kids at the time. You
can see he was pretty fearless.
Melissa My brother had a job working for DC Transit back at that time, checking
the buses arrival times and he had to be down there. I heard some pretty wild
stories about that area.
Mark Recently I had to go down there to 14th and T, because I am writing about
that whole area and how Morison visited these clubs, and I wanted to find out what
they are today. So I went down there, got off at the U street metro and I was
shocked because that whole area is changing into Georgetown. The last time I
was there, there was nothing but old boarded up buildings up and down 14th
Street, and now there are all kinds of new businesses there. It’s very cosmopolitan
now. I walked down 14th to P Street, then I walked all the way down to 20th street
to Dupont Circle, and P Street, which use to be pretty rough in that area around
14th and P and 15th and P, is now all built up. There’s Starbucks and Cosi, and
these coffee shops and bars and restaurants all over.
Melissa That whole area around the MCI center is just like that too.
Mark Oh yeah, I’m down there every Saturday, going to the Martin Luther King
Library. They just knocked down the whole 9th street strip. You see, back during
the 1940’s and 1950’s and even up to about 1965 9th Street was like
Washington DC‘s Time Square. All the way up from 9th and Pennsylvania to 9th
and M, there was a stretch there where it was all peep shows and porno movie
theaters and cheap used bookstores and arcades, I mean there was a big
prostitution stretch and there was a big drug stretch. I talked to Andy Morrison,
Jim Morrison’s younger brother, and he told me that they used to go walking
around there and go to the used bookstores. That was when it was at its most
intense period –1960. It really was like a Time Square atmosphere. I walked that
whole stretch just a couple of weeks ago and it’s all been torn down. It’s all high-
rise office buildings, these ten and eleven-story office buildings. There isn’t one
single business left from its heyday. That tells you how much the downtown area
has been torn up. The city has changed very much since the days when Jim
Morrison would go walking around downtown. He would take the bus from
Alexandria into Washington DC, get off at 12th and Penn and just start walking.
He would check out the bookstores during the daytime and make notes on where
the nightclubs were. I think he walked the entire city pretty much. Then he’d get
his friends to take him back to these nightclubs at night. I think that definitely had
a pretty strong influence on him. He would do the same kind of thing when he went
away to college, both down in Florida and out in Los Angeles. When he took the
stage with the Doors he had had a little bit of experience from being on stage
doing the poetry reading at Coffee ‘n Confusion in Washington, D.C.
Melissa That’s pretty wild. It gives much more of an insight in to the character of
Jim Morrison. My general impression of him has always been of this extreme
narcissism. I guess my opinion is mainly shaped by the movie, “The Doors.”
Mark That’s what has influenced people’s perceptions. The movie, these
biographies that focus on Jim the wildman, Jim the drunk, Jim the rock and roll
star, his female conquests and that sort of thing. The fact is he was an extremely
intelligent, very creative person. He had his personality quirks, and he did do a lot
of things alone, but contrary to popular opinion, he also had a lot of friends in high
school and did a lot of normal things too. During the week he’d spend time in his
bed room reading and drawing, that sort of thing, but on weekends he loved to go
into DC and explore. That would be both on the week ends during the day and
when he could he’d go in the evening with his friends and visit some of these
nightclubs as well. I think Morrison was fascinated with what Washington, DC had
to offer in terms of entertainment and nightclubs.
Melissa Well it was his introduction to culture.
Mark Oh absolutely. He would go to the Dupont Theater, which was on
Connecticut Avenue just below Dupont Circle, and the Playhouse Theater on 15th
Street. He’d go see these movies by Serge Eisenstein and Francois Truffaut, the
French symbolist filmmakers. He would go see all these films that kind of spurred
his love of cinema. All these things had there origins here in Washington DC while
he was living in Alexandria.
Melissa I could see how he would be attracted to Paris, from the similarity to DC.
Mark All of his favorite filmmakers were French and some of his favorite authors
were as well. His favorite poet was Arthur Rimbaud.
Melissa The thing about DC is that it is such a mixture. You have a very strong
international thing, the country, bluegrass, the black- jazz and soul music. I mean
where else is that possible?
Mark The thing I have discovered doing my books “Capitol Rock” and “The Lizard
King Was Here” is that within the music scene in Washington, one particular type
of music would be very intense for a period of time and then it would always
change. I mean, country music was always popular up until the time of the riots in
1968. Up to that time there were a couple of bluegrass clubs that were very
popular like the Shamrock on M Street in Georgetown and the Pine Tavern on
Massachusetts Avenue. There were rock and roll nightclubs all over the city,
especially in Georgetown and the area of 14th Street, and then you had a mixture
of country and rock at places like the Ozarks, Vinnie’s and the Famous, all of
which featured Link Wray and the Raymen at different times. Over in Southeast
DC you had places like the 1023 Club, the Shanty, the Beehive, and the
Stagecoach, which booked some strange combinations of country and rock
bands. Then, in the blink of an eye, you had the riots in 1968, and it was all over
with. A bit later in the early seventies heavy rock and roll moved into the local
nightclubs and then in the late 1970’s there was the punk rock movement. Almost
any style of music has had its moment in DC. It seems to come and go in waves.
Melissa I hope we are in for another one. Thank you, Mark. As always, talking
with you has been extremely interesting. I am looking forward to having the chance
to read you new book, “The Lizard King Was Here: The Life and Times of Jim
Morrison in Alexandria, Virginia.”
|The Lizard King Was Here: The Life and Times of Jim
Morrison in Alexandria, Virginia.”
|Mark Opsasnick's Web Site