An anguished, collective "No!" accompanied by boos rises up from the crowd at 17 h 45 (5:45 PM) on the dot as the solid gates clang shut to Pere Lachaise cemetery, home, since July 7, 1971 to James Douglas Morrison, who died on July 3rd of that year, age 27.
Despite ominous overcast skies, occasional icy drizzle and a temperature that wasn't all that conducive to showing off Lizard King tattoos, it had been a mellow day.
At 8 AM, fewer than a dozen mourners hovered at the grave, paying their respects. The stereotype, of course, is that anybody who still holds dear the musical and poetic work of Morrison would be unlikely to be up and about at that early-bird hour, unless they'd neglected to go to bed the night before.
But, as the day makes clear, Morrison's fans run the gamut from spacey goof-ups to sedate middle-aged scholars, with plenty of territory inbetween. As Jim admired Rimbaud and Baudelaire although those literary visionaries had died long before he was born, so has Jim attracted plenty of young followers, their sweet unlined faces aglow with pleasure at making this pilgrimage on this day.
And thanks to them as well as the demands of history, several representatives of the fourth estate appear as the day progresses, trying to capture for the wire services or their daily papers, the essence of what is going on here.
I'm here for my own pleasure as well as for FilmScouts and a funny thought strikes me: I feel more immediately comfortable with this ragtag international bunch than I do at almost any press conference or press luncheon to which I've received an engraved invitation. I don't want to bother anybody or try to get "information" -- I just want to hang out and soak up the vibes. It's sort of a Morrison contact high.
The UPI reporter warns us that a visible microphone earns you an escort out of the cemetery. (A thoughtful precaution, really. This very same week Roger Daltrey accidentally got bashed in the eye with a microphone stand.) The gent from Associated Press echoes the warning. My micro-cassette recorder remains unused at the bottom of my bag.
A colleague says that the Morrison family wants no video, no broadcast-quality anything. To the guards riffling through shoulderbags and poking around daypacks at the cemetery's multiples entrances, the bigger the camera the more "professional" and suspect it is. Why, I wonder, would the Morrison family -- Americans, after all -- have this kind of clout with French civil servants?
The guards -- most of them from the former French colonies -- are polite but irked. "That's enough. Get off the surrounding tombs. Show some respect for the dead," barks a no-nonsense man in a unform who may have gotten into this line of work because he'd mistakenly assumed that it would be a peaceful, uneventful occupation. He tells us to stop videotaping, that video is "forbidden."
"Why?" asks Glenn, the cameraman. (Our generation was taught to question authority. In France, for the most part, "authority" is still in some sort of grace period. Instead of admitting the obvious -- that he is vastly outnumbered by harmless and docile Doors fans -- this lone guard tromps around trying to lay down the law.)
"Because I say so," says the guard. "Because it is forbidden."
Forbidden, huh? I feel like saying, "Sir, are you familiar with the recitation portion of the song 'The End', where Mr. Morrison says "Father, I want to kill you. Mother, I want to GARAWAHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"?"
What we really seek to know, of course, is how come still cameras are okay (their shutters and automatic rewind mechanisms make more noise than our unobtrusive Hi-8 camera) but video is a no-no. Mr. Guard declares the conversation closed by putting his meaty hand over our lens. "Because I SAY so!"
The next day I learn that a camera crew from CNBC -- second only to CNN at providing international news to guests of fine hotels along with garden-variety subscribers throughout Europe -- was turned back at the gates. Their professional video gear was too, well, too PROFESSIONAL.
"Have you made any special provisions for today?" asks a blonde woman speaking accented French. "It's always like this, day in , day out, year 'round," says the uniformed man with the pot belly. "It's not good here. They defile the surrounding tombs. They brought a tree over here and set fire to it. Look at the side of that tomb -- that's fire damage."
I see now what the guard is seeing. He doesn't see individuals in vastly different Jim-themed T-shirts, bearing bouquets of flowers or individual red roses; all he sees is scruffy potential trouble-makers, a tide of visitors that would look a whole lot better to him if it were all ebb, no flow and never ever high. An exterminator does not seek to know whether one particular termite might be a Mozart of the insect realm -- his job is to kill the bugs, get 'em out of there, make the wooden beams safe for democracy.
For me, this is one of many July 3rd visits, dating back to 1980. In years past, there were tape players -- right there beside the grave! -- which gave way to portable CD players.
Today the only music is provided 'a capella' by the fans themselves. An infectiously joyous group of 6 Italians sings a good ways away from Jim's gravesite. Two of them, who are dressed in black leather pants with distinctive Jim Morrison-style silver belts, sport cascading shoulder length curls and know all the words.
But when I speak to the Jim look-alikes in English it becomes clear that they don't understand a thing I'm saying. They've memorized the lyrics by rote -- the same way I know a few Hebrew folk songs, one Japanese ditty and a snippet of Gregorian chant. Now THAT'S cross-cultural clout.
One of the other Italian guys speaks a halting modicum of English. It takes me a while to decipher what it is he's asking, but then I realize he wants to know whether I ever saw the white marble-ish bust of Jim that graced Morrison's grave in the early 80s. I reply that I saw it shortly after it was installed, when it was still pristine and white. One of the more fluent Italians translates this for his friend and the next thing I know, the guy who asked reaches out and spontanously touches me. It's the sweet, unpremeditated gesture of a true believer, trying to get just a little bit closer to hard evidence of a numinous faith.
We bid our farewells in broken Italian.
Not far from where they're cavorting stands the bronze bust-topped monument to Georges Bizet, another composer whose melodies are alive and well in the posterity sweepstakes even if Monsieur Bizet (born 1838) hasn't been with us since1875. (Class, a pop quiz: compare and contrast "L'Amour" from Bizet's "Carmen" with The Doors' "Love Me Two Times").
Will music-lovers still be humming Doors tunes 96 years from now, I wonder? (Class, a story problem: Georges died in 1875 and his music remains popular in 1996. Jim died in 1971. How long will Jim's music have to remain in the public's awareness in order for Jim to display the same longevity as Georges?)
Jim is buried in the 6th Division (2nd row, grave number 5) of the huge cemetery. Unlike the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, Jim's grave is easy to miss. For as long as I can remember, there have been subtle but incongruous renegade markings scattered throughout the grounds to aid the disoriented. Some thoughtful individual with an indelible marker has written "Jim" -- with a scrawled arrow -- on cobblestones, internal traffic signs, the edges of above-ground tombs and funerary monuments. It probably began as a necessary measure since Jim was not listed on official cemetery maps. Now it's just a tradition.
The large tomb of the "Famille A. Brey" along the Avenue de La Chapelle in the cemetery's 69th division, still shows traces of elaborate directions that have been bleached off the grey stone. All that remains is the abbreviation "Jim" with an arrow pointing to the right. On an adjacent tomb, some wag has drawn arrows pointing in two opposite directions. The Scarecrow from "The Wizard of Oz" would say "Some go that way and then again, some go THAT way." A first time visitor with no instructions and no cosmic compass, might have an easier time locating the Emerald City than Morrison's grave.
If you want to pay your respects to the father of motion picture special effects, Georges Melies is buried in the 64th division. The list of famous residents from the arts is too long to cite in its entirety, but the cremated remains of dancer Loie Fuller (whose huge whirling slices of fabric were as much a trademark as Jim's black leather pants), dancer and free-spirited movement pioneer Isadora Duncan and surrealist painter Max Ernst are all stored in the majestic Colombarium, near the Gambetta entrance.
That side of the cemetery is the most entrepreneurial: at a modest bookshop you can buy a souvenir Jim T-shirt and cotton cap combo for 100 francs, on display among the serious treatises on death and the afterlife. Florists carry cemetery maps and color postcards of Jim Morrison.
Whereas Jim was once a blight on the landscape (at one time, city authorities are supposed to have implored the family to repatriate Jim's remains), he has metamorphosed into a more or less fit subject for tourist pilgrimages, not unlike Dealey Plaza (where Kennedy was shot) or Chicago's Biograph theater (where John Dillinger was captured).
Nobody's singing on the grassy knoll but here at Pere Lachaise, young, enthusiastic, slightly drunk fans are singin' and dancin' in the rain.
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