Frank Lisciandro gathered together more than a dozen of Jim Morrison’s friends for a series of conversations and interviews. In the transcripts of these talks Morrison is candidly brought to light by the people who knew him, who were his pals, colleagues, mentors and lovers. “Jim Morrison: Friends Gathered Together” focuses on issues and occasions that illuminate an extraordinary man and gifted creative artist. By weighing the observations of those who knew him, the reader can reach her/his own conclusions about who Jim Morrison was and what he achieved. The result is a more accurate rendering, a more humane and truthful portrait. The book contains 57 original Frank Lisciandro photographs, many never published before.
Harvey Kubernik interviews Frank Lisciandro
about his book,
Jim Morrison: Friends Gathered Together
Noted music historian Harvey Kubernik talks to Frank Lisciandro about his book, “Jim Morrison: Friends Gathered Together”. Kubernik has been a music journalist and author for over 42 years. A mainstay on the L.A. music and arts scene, Kubernik saw The Doors perform live at the L.A. Forum back in December of 1968.
Let’s talk about the origins of your new book and the 2011 discovery of your tape and transcript archive of interviews. What was the immediate impact on reading the transcripts and how did it propel you to move ahead and do a new book with the full transcripts?
FJL: When I started reading the conversations – I prefer calling our talks conversations although interview might also be appropriate – some 20 years after I had transcribed them my immediate reaction was surprise and delight. I didn’t remember half of what I was reading; and it all seemed so true and pertinent to the life of Jim Morrison. The people I talked with (let’s call them “the friends”) were saying what I knew to be true about Jim and telling great stories about him too.
That day I put down whatever I was doing and spent the afternoon and the next day re-reading the conversations, getting more excited all the time. I knew that there was historical and cultural information—about Jim, about The Doors, about Los Angeles, about the Sunset Strip and about the Sixties—in the talks that could not be lost. When I finished reading the transcripts, I was determined to find a way to release them in the most accessible way possible.
Who did you approach for these interviews and why did you approach them?
FJL: In 1990 I had contract with Warner Books to write and design a book of photographs and text about Jim. And, at that same time, Oliver Stone’s film was in pre-production and random pages of his script had come my way. Stone’s production team asked me about using my photographs for research, and about me being a consultant for the film. So I asked to see Stone’s script before accepting their offer. Stone responded that he didn’t allow anyone to read his scripts before production. I replied that I didn’t want to consultant on his film if I didn’t know how he intended to portray Jim. There was already all the bullshit in the book, No One Here Gets Out Alive and I didn’t want to be part of spreading any more lies, rumors and misinformation.
To confront and perhaps counter what I feared would be a negative portrait of Jim in Stone’s film, I decided to talk with Jim’s friends, especially those that had never or rarely had a public platform to talk about him. I didn’t want to interview Robby, Ray or John because they were always being quoted in the media. I wanted to talk to the people who had worked with Jim, who had seen him day-to-day, who had known him as a friend, not a rock star. My intention was to try to get the people who knew him talking about the real Jim Morrison. I was fortunately well placed to do this since most of Jim’s friends were my friends too.
Is one of the reasons behind this new book that you are sick and tired, like some of us are as well, of the often cartoon character Jim gets portrayed in other books and print and online article, not to mention the Oliver Stone film. Is there a need to protect or correct the data misinterpreted about his existing legacy? You certainly accomplished a more accurate and humane portrait….
FJL: Thanks! My original aim when I conducted the conversations in 1990 was to present an accurate portrait of the man including the blemishes and contradictions. I didn’t know what “the friends” were going to say during our conversations. And to insure a more honest view I asked each of them similar questions. And their remembrances of Jim the person were amazingly consistent: he was generous, non-assuming, quiet, funny and intelligent. And those characteristics fit the guy I knew and hung with.
What I didn’t expect were their stories of the time they spent with Jim. Each one had different experiences, different crazy adventures that didn’t match the tenor of their normal lives. It was as if when you were with Jim, you shared his topsy-turvy world.
What is the advantage of doing a book format like this about someone you knew and is there a disadvantage in doing this sort of compilation knowing the principal subject?
FJL: One advantage is that you get stories that you’d never expect in the words of the people who were there. Everyone tells stories in their own unique way, with words and expressions that are the result of their own life experience, education, attitude and ability. I was aiming for stories about Jim but I got stories where there was a lot more going on, because people are always telling stories about themselves and their lives even when they’re telling you about someone else.
This rich tapestry of the experiences from more than a dozen clear-eyed, smart and sharing friends makes the book more than a biography. It becomes the story of a man and the time and place he lived; and it reveals an intimate portrait of the person telling the stories.
I don’t know if there is a disadvantage in this sort of book format. I guess if all the interviewees were dull or bad storytellers, the book would be flat and uninteresting.
As far as preparation, and I know some of the talks were hours long or even over multiple sessions, was there a joint mission in getting some sort of collective and well documented truth out about Jim in the oral history forum?
FJL: Other than asking similar and different questions of each of “the friends,” there wasn’t any preparation going into the project. I was looking for a portrait of Jim but I never expected the richness of the oral history format.
People were not only willing to be heard on the subject of Jim Morrison, they were anxious to set the record straight about everything that happened to them concerning their relationship to Jim. Don’t forget that most of these friends had not had access to the media to tell their stories. And when they told them to me, they had lots to say. I had asked them for transparency and honesty. And they trusted me with the remembrances. No wonder that some of the conversations went on for hours!
How did you prepare the questions? Was it a list of subject specific topics for each person based on your own relationship to them or how they knew Jim?
FJL: I had a list of questions that I asked everyone, and a list of questions that was particular to each person I was talking with. I knew most of these people and I had known them during the Sixties, so I had an idea of how their lives had intercepted Jim’s. Once the conversation started, I listened and asked follow-up questions so that there could be clarity and completeness on a particular point. Sometimes I circled back to a subject to try for more detail. I remember most of the conversations as fun and even joyful as we recalled those days and the events that had unfolded.
What was it like editing the complete tapes and shaping the narrative for this book?
FJL: The conversations were not edited; nothing was removed or changed or altered. I didn’t ‘photoshop’ the conversations to make them sound better. Except for a minor change requested by one of the friends, the words you read in the book are the words that were spoken. It’s difficult to transcribe a conversation accurately with beginnings and ends of sentences, with words sometimes hard to hear on the tape, with differences in pronunciation, but we did the best we could. I read and reread the transcripts to make sure what I heard was on the page.
The narrative arc of the book is a loose chronological order of the conversations so that the first person we hear from is Fud Ford, a high school friend of Jim. And then we have a conversation with Phil O’Leno who was a friend and fellow student of Jim at the UCLA film school. This loose chronology was the only order imposed.
As far as the characters in your book, were there others who declined?
FJL: Yes, three people declined to share their recollections of Jim. I don’t know why. I now realize that there were other friends who would have provided other viewpoints, but the book is almost 400 pages long and I would not have wanted it any longer.
As the book was evolving, what sort of vibe or portrait was developing?
FJL: Over the weeks and months that the conversations were being recorded and transcribed, I had the feeling that a vein of historical accuracy and clarity was being unearthed. I could not wait to have the next conversation, to hear new stories, to learn unexpected facts about Jim. I began to see that all the friends, each in their own style, were constructing a portrait of a man we all knew. And that even where the portraits differed, due to time or circumstance, all of them revealed the same Jim Morrison. That killed me!
Everyone was talking about the same guy and saying very similar things about him. And much, if not most, of what they said was completely different than the false image of Jim embraced by most of the media and unfortunately many of his fans.
Michael McClure is always a terrific interview, especially with his history as one of those original Beat poets. He and Jim would have seemed to have a lot in common….
FJL: I wanted to talk with Michael because he was a mentor and a poet and he had suggested to Jim to self-publish his work. I thought he could tell us about James Douglas Morrison, the poet. And he did! And as well he revealed how a young poet starts practicing his craft.
Michael also confirmed my own unschooled opinion of Jim’s work, saying that Jim was one of the finest poets of his generation. I also appreciated his general review of the ’60s art scene in L.A. That conversation with Michael is one of my favorites in the book.
As far the front cover, why did you select that particular image and any story behind that particular photo you took, where it was, etc?
FJL: I wanted a photograph that was recognizable as Jim and one that captured the viewer immediately. In that photograph Jim is looking at the camera so he’s looking at the viewer; his expression is neutral and engaging. There’s an instant contact. With that image I’m trying to convey to the viewer that the same engagement awaits the readers of the book.
I made the photograph on a three-concert East Coast tour The Doors did in 1968. I was on the tour to help Paul Ferrara with the filming of the documentary, Feast of Friends. The cover image is a detail of the full frame photograph that I used on the title page. It works like a film scene: first the close-up and then the wide shot to reveal the location and more.
As far as the back cover, why pick that photo? Was the “Jim with a movie camera” picture a logical continuation of the film school setting and the movie or cinematic dynamic of the Doors’ music? Any story behind that photo and why you chose to use it?
FJL: The photograph of Jim with his super 8mm movie camera is another attempt to engage the viewer with an image that would provoke questions and a reaction. In the photograph Jim is obviously very intense and poised. He appears to know what he’s doing.
The first question a viewer might ask is “Is that really Jim Morrison?” For those that didn’t know he studied filmmaking, the question might be, “What’s he doing? Is he making a film?” Actually he was making a film. He was working with Paul and I on Feast of Friends and he was collecting his own visual history of the events that were unfolding, like scenes in a movie, all around him.
What about your own photo archive in shooting the band and Jim over that three year period. What were some of your cameras? How about film stock?
FJL: For the most part, I used an inexpensive Pentax 35mm SLR and miscellaneous lenses I had gathered over the years. On a few occasions I also borrowed and/or rented a Nikon SLR and a medium-format camera like a Hasselblad. I shot lots of Kodak Tri-X black & white film and some Kodak Ektachrome transparency film. I had training, education and experience as an editorial and documentary photographer, and that was the path I took making music photographs in the Sixties.
The placement of pictures integrated into the text. The book has a loose chronological theme but did you want to start with one voice and end with another?
FJL: From the beginning I thought of the book as a gathering of friends each adding their testimony for a true picture of the character and person of Jim Morrison. No friend in the book has a higher or more important place than another. Each friend brings their stories and observation to the gathering, like friends bringing dishes to share at a celebration.
My friend Steve Wheeler and I were working on the book for awhile. Steve’s listed as the editor but he was more than that on this project. I insisted from the beginning that our aim was to make the book accessible to anyone who picked it up and to present the full and entire conversations that I had recorded and transcribed. But when you transcribe taped interviews for research, you’re not worrying about punctuation or spelling; you’re just trying to get get all the spoken words down on paper.
Steve did a great job of cleaning up the typos and typing errors, and making the text presentable to the reader. He made sure everything fit and that the transcriptions were readable and understandable. In addition he researched and added countless bits of information to give these conversations a grounding in time and space. For instance he supplied dates and places where events were mentioned and he added interesting anecdotal information to give the reader a better understanding of the issues being discussed.
As we proceed putting the book together we didn’t have a title. One day I was reading Jim’s wonderful piece, “The Wasp (Texas Radio and the Big Beat),” and stopped at the line, “I love the friends I have gathered together on this thin raft.” Wow! I had been waiting for a title and here it was; Jim was providing the perfect description of the contents of the conversations I had recorded, and that was that.
In your book promotions and signings, in West Hollywood, Venice Beach, what kind of questions are asked of you. I mean, I know it always starts with, “What was Jim Morrison really like?” But there seems to be some sort of demographic of real interest from fans that ask you about Morrison when you are away from or in front of a microphone. And not questions that are dominated by the drug and drink questions or the incident in Miami. Can you attest to a new and growing legion of fans and record collectors who want to know the truth or ask about Jim from a personal and/or creative artist viewpoint?
FJL: Yes, that’s a great observation! Over the years Jim’s fans, no matter what their age, have matured. They want to know about Jim’s character, about his poetry, about his filmmaking, about his lyrics and books. They want evidence and facts and are not as ready to rely on rumor and urban legend.
Years ago when Katherine and I put together Wilderness, the first book of Jim’s writings to be published after his death, there were people who understood that Jim was one of the major poetic voices of his era. Not a lot of people, but a solid handful of academics and writers and fans. But fast forward to 2014 and that number has grown to include high school and university students and people whose first language is not English. People all over the world are beginning to get it: James Douglas Morrison was a poet and writer with a unique vision and voice.
I’d like to ask about Feast of Friends, which was just released on DVD with some other existing and found footage. You were the original film editor of that film, what are your memories working on it back in ’68/’69? And was Jim involved during your editing process? And seeing it again today, more than 40 years later, did you further learn anything about Jim or yourself or the Doors, or feel any fresh new memories?
FJL: Our friendship, Jim and I, developed when I was editing Feast of Friends and he would drop by to see the progress. I had arranged an editing space at the back of the band’s rehearsal area; and I liked working at night when it was usually quiet around the Doors’ office. Jim would come by on a break from recording or after dinner and watch scenes on the Moviola’s tiny screen. He became involved in the editing process and his suggestions and decisions helped shape the film.
Aside from Jim’s help, Paul Ferrara, Babe Hill and I were solely responsible for the work that created Feast of Friends; yet our names do not appear anywhere on the front or back cover of the newly released DVD package. There are lots of other names listed, but not ours. It’s like a publisher forgetting to put the author’s name on the cover or dust jacket of the book he wrote.
Copies of Jim Morrison: Friends Gathered Together signed by Frank Lisciandro and limited edition prints of two of Lisciandro’s photos found in the book are now available on the website: www.visionwordsandwonder.com
Unsigned books and Kindle ebooks are available on Amazon.com. Ebooks for Nook, Kobo and iBooks are also available for download wherever those formats are sold.
Books by Harvey Kubernik:
This Is Rebel Music (2002)
Hollywood Shack Job: Rock Music in Film and on Your Screen (2004)
Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon (2009)
Lucky Old Sun (2009)
It Was Fifty Years Ago Today: The Beatles Invade America and Hollywood (2014)
Turn Up the Radio! Rock, Pop, and Roll in Los Angeles 1956–1972 (2014)
Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows (2014)
Books co-authored by brothers Harvey and Kenneth Kubernik
A Perfect Haze: The Illustrated History of the Monterey International Pop Festival (2011)
Big Shots: Rock Legends & Hollywood Icons: Through the Lens of Guy Webster (2014)