Thursday, May 2, 2024

No One Here Gets Out Alive

No One Here Gets Out Alive, by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman
April, 1981  Warner Books

The Doors are one of those groups that go through phases in popularity. Huge in their day, then forgotten, then rediscovered due to the publication of this book, then again super famous in 1990 with Oliver Stone’s film hagiography of Jim Morrison; I still remember how the rock chicks at my high school traded out their Motley Crue shirts for Doors shirts when that movie came out. I also recall seeing this very paperback a lot around school. It seems that today we might be in one of those phases where it’s more common to see the Doors put down, their impact on the era minimized, and the poetry of their lyrics ridiculed. 

So, just to put all my cards on the table, I think the Doors were one of the greatest rock groups of the ‘60s (which is to say ever), I think Jim Morrison had the greatest voice in rock, and I’d rather listen to them than the The Beatles or The Rolling Stones any day of the week. 

So it’s strange it’s taken me so long to get around to reading No One Here Gets Out Alive. First published in trade paperback in 1980, the book essentially relaunched the Doors as one of the most popular rock acts ever; the previous year saw “The End” on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which probably gave the band’s popularity just as much of a boost. Plus the version in the movie was uncensored, with Morrison dropping some f-bombs that were cut from the original record release; man I spent forever searching for a release with this version (it wasn’t on the soundtrack), but it wasn’t officially released until 1999, when it came out on one of the Doors remasters. 

At nearly 400 pages of smallish print, there’s more to No One Here Gets Out Alive than I assumed there’d be. Danny Sugerman was a young fan of the group who eventually handled their fan mail; for some reason he appears in this book as “Denny Sullivan,” and not under his real name. Jerry Hopkins was a reporter who did the big inteview with Morrison for Rolling Stone, and it’s my understanding Hopkins had wanted to do a bio of Morrison for some time, not finding any interest from publishers until Sugerman came on board – I guess the “sell” being that Sugerman would add a lot of behind-the-scenes info about the band. 

But then…boy, the other Doors are supporting characters at best in No One Here Gets Out Alive. This really is a bio of Jim Morrison, with the caveat that Morrison was such a chameleon – particularly, a chameleon who drank a whole helluva lot – that you come out of the book with no greater understanding of him than you had before you read it. Essentially the book is comprised of Jim Morrison doing this or that other insane thing while drunk off his ass. Big events, like recording albums or giving concerts or whatever, aren’t much dwelt upon, and indeed in most cases they just happen in the narrative. If you are looking for any sort of peek into the creative process, forget about it. And if you’re really into the Doors and want to know about their two post-Morrison albums, Other Voices and Full Circle, you can totally forget about them (if you haven’t already); they aren’t even mentioned. Even the posthumous Morrison collaboration An American Prayer isn’t mentioned. 

Another thing to note is that No One Here Gets Out Alive, despite being the impetus for a Doors renaissance (up to and including Stone’s film, which largely was inspired by the book), is now itself ignored by Doors fans – it has been put forth that the book is mostly fan fiction with little bearing on the real Jim Morrison, and in particular that Sugerman tarnished Jerry Hopkins’s actual research with a lot of b.s. Morrison idolization. See this 1981 interview with Doors producer Paul Rotchchild for a telling condemnation of the book…particularly given how Rothchild’s comments to Hopkins were changed by Sugerman prior to the book’s publication. 

That said, the book reads just fine as a sensationalistic rock expose. I knew I was in for a good time when I saw that, on the very first page, Danny Sugerman in his Foreword wrote “This book neither propels nor dispels the Morrison myth,” and then, in the very next paragraph, wrote, “My personal belief is that Jim Morrison was a god.” And this friends is pretty much the vibe No One Here Gets Out Alive maintains throughout, alternately informative and idolatrous. 

We certainly aren’t talking about a fantastic piece of word-painting like Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age, still the best rock bio I’ve ever read. Hopkins and Sugerman do occasionally go into literary flourishes to describe Doors music, but for the most part their focus is on the lyrics. Even then their criticism is not on the level of Paul Williams or the like, but more along the lines of a fanzine. We don’t even get much in the way of the behind-the-scenes material Sugerman supposedly would’ve value-added, at least insofar as the music goes, other than occasional rundowns of how such and such a song sounds. 

What we do get is the rambling, exhaustive account of a very gifted but very troubled artist. I have to say, I got very sick of Jim Morrison over the course of No One Here Gets Out Alive, just tired of his constant drunken escapades, but at the same time it was a refreshing reminder of how rock stars were once so casually self-destructive. I mean the flyweight “rockers” of today are too busy hawking merchandise or posing for social media; Jim Morrison would get blitzed and hang from a balcony ten floors up. But man, it isn’t this sort of shit that makes a legend – I mean I’m 49, so I was born after Morrison was dead and wasn’t around at the time…but I’ve known about the Doors since I was a little kid, and I never knew much about Morrison’s personal life. It was the music I knew and responded to, and doubtless that will continue for future generations. 

And Morrison surely was the key to the Doors’s success, even though he himself was uncomfortable with that notion. If you need any indication, just play the albums Other Voices or Full Circle, laughingly credited to “The Doors,” even though Jim Morrison isn’t on either of them. In fact, play “Ships With Sails,” one of the better tracks off Other Voices, with Ray Manzarek on lead vocals, and you might think it’s okay, even if it doesn’t really sound like the Doors. But then…then play the same track with an AI Jim Morrison, and suddenly…suddenly that same track sounds like the Doors. With two songs you can prove who the key to “the Doors sound” was, if for some reason you ever questioned that. 

One thing I’ve forgotten to mention is that the authors also have a tendency to recreate conversations, giving the book the feel of fiction, sort of like Dakota Days. So we’ll periodically have parts wher Morrison is talking to this or that person, and it’s relayed as dialog between two characters, so clearly it is fiction, given that neither writer was there to hear what was actually said. In some ways, No One Here Gets Out Alive is essentially a rock novel; it certainly has the “drugs” part down – though Morrison became more of a heavy drinker than a drug user – and there’s even a bit of sex at times, though Morrison’s conquests are not thoroughly detailed. We do get the random mention, however, that Jim at one point “butt-fucked” a girl…with the quotation marks around it and everything. 

Surprisingly I found myself really enjoying the pre-fame stuff. Usually with these books I don’t care too much about the background, but in Jim Morrison’s case I enjoyed it – particularly the cerebral essays he would secretly write for his younger brother’s school assignments. There’s also lots of stuff about Morrison and his issues with his father, a career Navy officer who was the youngest admiral onboard a ship, or somesuch. Great insight here on young Jim’s part when we’re told how he would see his dad on his ship, bossing around all the men…but then his dad would go home and take out the garbage when his wife told him to. This kernel, while just a quick humorous note in the narrative, actually serves to explain Jim Morrison’s personality more than practically anything in the ensuing 300+ pages; he was never to be bossed around by any woman. 

I also appreciated how the formation of the band was essentially a casual thing that just happened to fall perfectly together. Speaking of the book’s length, the long page count undermines how briefly the group was even together; they were only around for four years, and fame came to them rather quickly. It’s no wonder Jim Morrison, who was the focus of 99% of the attention, struggled with his newfound fame. The book makes it clear that alcohol was the drug he turned to; indeed, No One Here Gets Out Alive is more a document of a (barely) functioning alcoholic than it is an expose on a rock band. For that matter, “rock stuff” is minimal, with minor asides about this or that concert, or this or that personality – I mean we’re told in passing how Morrison got drunk and puked in a bar while hanging out with Jimi Hendrix, with no further detail…meanwhile, I’ve had a shitty bootleg CD for decades that features Morrison and Hendrix performing together on a small New York stage sometime in 1969 or thereabouts. Sounds like the greatest thing in rock history, true, but in reality it’s barely listenable due to poor fidelity and Morrison is drunk as hell, wailing “fuck my baby in the ass” intermittently. Wow, that’s two references to anal sex in the same Doors review! 

I might be an anomaly in that I prefer the later Doors material; I’d rather hear “Five To One” than “Light My Fire.” And the title track of The Soft Parade is one of my favorite Doors songs of all, and I think their last album, L.A. Woman, is their best. But still, it would have been nice to have just a little more info on the sessions that produced the albums. There’s almost this weird sort of inevitability to the narrative, as if the band was just following some pre-ordained trajectory: we’re told “it was time to record the new album” and such, with no topical detail on how they’d worked up the material or whatever. But again this is also a reminder of how labels drove their acts so mercilessly back in the day. One must argue that the methods of the labels did produce results: I mean here we are still listening to music recorded over 50 years ago. In 1969, who was listening to 78s recorded in 1919? 

But it’s less about the music than it is about Jim Morrison getting drunk, with stuff about his “cosmic mate” Pamela often in tow. There’s also a Wiccan rock critic named Patricia, but the merits of the book could be judged on the fact that the authors consistently misspell her last name: they have Patricia Kennely, but it’s actually Patricia Kennealy. Humorously, we’re often given minor asides like how Morrison flies somewhere to see the Stones, or how he went to see Canned Heat, or etc, but the book very much gives the impression that Jim Morrison had no interest in rock music. I’m not sure how accurate that is, but I did get a chuckle out of the part where the Danny Sugerman character asks Morrison if he can get “Denny” tickets to a sold-out Rolling Stones show, and Morrison, giving him a hard time, replies, “What do you need Mick Jagger for when you have me?” Indeed! 

And do not go into the book hoping for interesting tidbits about forgotten Doors lore. Even standard fan stuff like “The Celebration Of The Lizard” is given short shrift, the authors merely leaving it that the band was unable to record it to their liking. And there’s no mention at all of “Rock Is Dead,” that bizarre hour-plus “song” recorded during the Soft Parade sessions that was bootlegged over the years, before officially being released some years ago. Actually that track explains much of what Morrison was doing at the infamous Miami concert, which happened right around the same time as “Rock Is Dead” was recorded. The authors quote some of Jim’s onstage antics during that show, and the lines he is quoted as saying to the audience – “I want to see some dancing,” “I want to have a good time,” etc – are taken directly from what he says on “Rock Is Dead.” So it seems clear that the authors are correct and that Morrison was indeed doing a sort of performance piece at Miami, and it wasn’t just a drunken tirade. 

I’d only read the barest of details about Miami, but the book makes it clear that the charges were trumped-up by biased prosecutors and judges who had an eye on the political field and were looking for votes. Boy, how times have changed. I also got a post-ironic chuckle of how the FBI even got involved in it, further persecuting Morrison. But according to the book, Morrison was inspired by a confrontational play he’d seen in New York and was looking to do something similar on stage, and was only going to strip down to his boxers. What I hadn’t realized was how this Miami debacle essentially killed the Doors, at least as a performing group, given how they were blacklisted in so many places. 

Otherwise the book moves at a good clip, documenting all the high notes in the brief timeline of the Doors, without getting too much in the weeds. We’re also told a little about Morrison’s pursuits in writing and filmmaking, with MGM at one point trying to get him as an actor. But with his wanton drinking and self-endangerment, it’s clear that, subconsiously or not, Jim Morrison didn’t plan on sticking around long. This again is a narrative conceit of the book, which often brings up the destructive bent of the poets Morrison admired. The problem is, Jim Morrison isn’t the most relatable of protagonists, and reading the book one does not understand how people could be drawn to him – we are told nothing of any kindness on his part, or much of a sense of humor other than mean practical jokes. So even as someone who knew next to nothing about the Doors, other than their music, even I could detect that something was missing in this presentation of Jim Morrison. 

But I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. It’s curious that No One Here Gets Out Alive is the book that made the Doors popular again, but I guess it’s an indication of how if something comes out at just the right time, it will resonate. Perhaps in the post-punk, bland New Wave early ‘80s a book about a drunk and disorderly rock star from the ‘60s was just what people needed. But man…in today’s emasculated era, where Supreme Court justices can’t even define what a woman is, we need a rock star like Jim Morrison more than ever. And speaking of which – color me shocked that Morrison was “politically conservative,” at least according to this book! Man…if he’d lived, he could’ve sang at a Trump rally! Come on, people, just imagine an old Jim Morrison singing “Peace Frog” to a packed Trump audience! I can see the incensed CNN reporter now: “They were singing about ‘blood in the streets’ at a MAGA rally!!” 

Seriously though, I wouldn’t say this was the best rock bio I’ve read, not by a long shot, but I did enjoy a lot of it. It also made me decide to read that Doors bio by Mike Jahn I picked up many years ago, which seems to be scarce these days.


Johny Malone said...

I suspect Kilmer improved on the original man in the movie. Bryan Wolf, in Down on Us, introduced him as a quasi-porn star.

Glen Davis said...

I remember seeing the film, and being surprised that Oliver Stone, of all people, didn't delve into any of the conspiracy theories about Morrison's death.

Drew Salzen said...

Never mind Morrison, the book is REALLY about Danny Sugarman, who parlayed the semi-success of the book and then the idea that it was source for Oliver Stone's film into a second book, credited entirely to him, if I recall correctly, which was published as 'Wonderland Avenue', and is a real doozy. Our Danny babysits Iggy at his most louche and debauched between the stages of the Stooges, and has a hand in the whole Mainman deal for 'Raw Power' as well as being around for the 'Kill City' sessions. It's very novelistic, and was quite enjoyable as I remember, if a little inclined to wallow in the mire (so to speak). I got the impression that our Danny fancied himself as a mover and shaker and would have been a rock star if he had any talent.

I've always vacillated about the Doors depending on how I feel about Morrison. Sometimes I think he's an amazing lyricist with a great singing voice. Sometimes I think he's a knob. he was both really, which is what all great rock stars are. Whether I like him or not at any given time says more about my mood than what he achieved. I've got ten years on you, Joe, and I remember American Prayer coming out in the UK - we didn't have oldies stations like you have in the USA, and so for someone with no 'big brother's record collection' to educate, it was all about the music press and taking a shrewd guess whether it was worth the pocket money or not. It was. But two years later, fuelled by the idea of DIY cassette culture, it sounded bloated. A decade later, when we had Guns'n'bloodyRoses, a proper rock star with a proper voice was more than welcome to come back into my record collection.

Proper fickle, that's me. The Doors, though, now there's a band. Put it this way - I still listen to them, but I'm puzzled by what I saw in Blue Cheer...

russell1200 said...

You might like the somewhat obscure Sci Fi novel Glimpses by Lewis Shiner.

It is sort of time travelly involving great albums that for various reasons never quite made it out the door.

Morrison - the Lizard King is one of the people in it.

Note that review by Bradley is more on-point than the blurb.

Doug Wise said...

This book is up on my library shelf alongside “A collection Of Essays” by George Orwell and Christopher Hitchen’s “No One Left To Lie To”.
I remember sitting around back yards and in basements in the summer of 1967 listening to “Light my Fire” on cheap transistor radios. It had massive air play; probably once an hour back in 1960’s AM radio programming format. The combination of Morrison’s lyrics, Krieger’s slinky guitar and Manzarek’s organ are part of growing up for me.
Morrison’s image keeps popping up in the squares of Paris whenever there in is some tragedy in France. The Islamist terrorist rampages at Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan theater both brought out prominent displays of his picture alongside all the candles and flowers. Maybe he’s their muse of death?
Morrison at a Trump rally? Good on you, Joe! I would get on an airplane and fly across the country to see that.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

Drew, have you ever read that Iggy supposedly was asked to take up Morrison's place in the Doors? I've never seen confirmation that it really happened, other than a quote from Iggy that he would never have done it. I've also read that Iggy and Manzarek worked on an album at some point in the '70s, but couldn't get it going. Anyway, I think Iggy definitely could have picked up the Morrison mantle...though supposedly it was the guy who was later in The Butts Band (with Densmore and Krieger) who officially got the gig, but they never went forward with it. Wondering if Sugarman talks about any of this in his bio? "No One Here Gets Out Alive" essentially ends with Morrison's death, so there's nothing on the posthumous stuff.

Oh and Drew, speaking of posthumous -- check out Orson Welles's "The Other Side Of The Wind," if you haven't. It was in limbo for decades but back in 2018 Netflix paid for it to finally be put together. In the movie-with-the-movie there's a part where an "Indian" girl (in real life Welles's mistress) goes into a psychedelic club...and they put Blue Cheer on the soundtrack. Who knows what music Welles himself would've put there, but the person who chose the track did a great job -- it's "Fruit and Icebergs," from the Randy Holden era, and perfectly suits the scene.

And I ALWAYS hated Guns n Roses!! When the others in high school in the late '80s/early '90s were listening to them and Poison and etc, I was listening to The Who.

Russell -- thanks for the suggestion, but I have indeed read Glimpses, and reviewed it on here a few years ago:

Doug -- Thanks a lot for sharing your memories of first hearing the Doors. And thanks for letting me know how Morrison's image keeps showing up in Paris. That's really interesting! I think you might be onto something. Maybe since he was preoccupied with death and died there, they've indeed taken him up as a muse!

Oh, and an overall note...sorry the blog has been on hiatus for the past weeks. Technical difficulties! However, twice-a-week posts will resume on Monday!

Will Errickson said...

There's a passage in the book about Jim's teenage years and all the rebellious literature he read, like the Beats and the French Symbolist poets, and man, that really spoke to me when I read it when I was 19 or so. Loved his life of the mind! And also, Kilmer's performance in the movie is one for the absolute ages.

Drew Salzen said...

Hey Joe (...)
It's been so long since I read Wonderland Avenue that I can't remember if Iggy tried out for the Doors in that - reading about Sugarman since you wrote that (I didn't realise he died so long ago!) it looks like he did, and that makes sense as he modelled himself on Morrison when the Stooges started (per. his comments in Please Kill Me, the oral punk history).

The Butts Band - that was Jess Roden, right? British, ex-of Alan Bown and Bronco (most Alan Bown recordings feature Robert Palmer, though) - good singer, but I can't see how he could have fitted.He jacked in the rock star bit to be a phgtoographer and graphic designer, I believe. Weirdly, I remember reading that Kevin Coyne, the singer/songwriter and ex-psychiatric nurse from Derby, tried out for The Doors or The Butts Band (possibly between the two periods). he was very idiosyncratic as a lyricist and writer, but the results would certainly have been interesting.

I've noticed The Other Side Of The Wind on Netflix - might check it out as I have always been enamoured of the younger Orson (Kane is the template for modern movie making, in my view). Blue Cheer - great band when I was young and loved a well-mangled guitar, but somehow the old man me can't get that excited, sadly.