25 November 2011

The Lizard King

There's a photograph of Chris I wish I could share with you right now. It's the photo he sent to me after we met and had our summer fling back when dinosaurs walked the earth.  He left New York for Germany, we exchanged letters, and photos and eventually....well...you know what happens.  It was a good photo.

In the picture he has on a football jacket, you know the kind?  With wool center panels and white leather arms.  I think it was a Detroit Lions jacket, which makes no sense on a Long Island army boy living in Germany, but doesn't need to.  It screamed youth and virility.

He's wearing a baseball cap, brim curved as if he'd been carrying it around in his back pocket.  There's a lock of thick black hair escaping out the front.  His cheekbones are high and sharp enough to cut glass with. And those damned eyes.  Big, blue and sparkling; eyelashes so long and thick you'd swear he's wearing mascara. You can just tell those eyes are going to get you into trouble of the best kind.

On the back was written  me at Jim Morrison's grave / Paris

And that phrase carried more weight than all the sparkling eyes on earth.  Those words meant worlds to the young music-loving, pot-head, rocker-chick, hair-bag girl that I was.  Jim Morrison!  Grave!  Paris!

Months later, after the eyes had done all the hard work and we'd been dating for a while, I heard the story of Jim Morrison's grave. If you know my husband at all you won't be surprised when I say I've heard it many times since and each time it's a little different. But the essence remains the same, and it's a good story.  Not a narrative so much as a tableau.

Père Lachaise cemetery - historic and beautiful, filled with elegant mausoleums.  Paris's boldest and brightest have been buried here for centuries.  Artists, poets and composers lie in repose amid stone sculpture and statuary elegant enough to made you weep.

And 28 year old Jim Morrison rests among them, in a grave donated by an adoring fan after an overdose in the city of lights back in the year of my birth (about the time of the primordial sludge if you're building a time-line.) Visiting the cemetery as a young man, Chris found hippies, rockers, stoners and would-be poets treating it as a pilgrimage site.

Arrows and signs saying "this way to Jim" had been spray painted on paths, benches and even tombs.  The grave itself was a scene of such adoration and debauchery as to boggle the mind.  People were turning on, tuning in and dropping out.  Barefoot and dirty twenty-somethings strummed guitars. Dreadlocked sleepy-eyed youngsters making out amid sleeping bags, bongs and bongos. A grizzled hippie took swigs on a bottle of whiskey, then poured matching shots into the grave's soil. "One for me, and one for you, Jim."  Cigarettes and joints left lit and smoking as a token of love, and plenty more being toked among the living. Used needles and condoms.  In one version of the story a guy even dies of an overdose.  RIGHT THERE.

The misguided mourning of a dead-before-his-time artist turned into a 20th century bacchanalia. 
Needlessly destructive?  Yes.  Horrifyingly disrespectful of a Paris icon?  Yes.  
Screaming of sex, drugs & rock n roll?  Abso-friggin-lutely.  

I envied Chris the experience of witnessing bohemianism at its best and worst, in Paris.

According to Time-Out Paris, today Morrison's grave is the third most visited site in Paris, behind only the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.  I found this both intriguing and unbelievable.  Regardless, curiosity would have drawn me there sooner or later and on our most recent trip to Paris we decided to check it out.  And while I would never condone spray painting a headstone to give directions, I was kinda hoping to find at least a slice of the depraved flower child vibe Chris's stories evoked.

I did not.  It was all tour groups and barricades.  The grave itself feels like an afterthought squeezed onto a patch of ground at an awkward angle, draped in tawdry plastic flowers.

It had a decidedly UN rock n roll vibe.  There was one very somber beatnik-y girl looking deep and forlorn; I held out hope she'd have a breakdown, recite some poetry or at least light a joint.  But she just sat at the base of the graffitti'd tree and stared intensely at the grave for a long time, leaving only as the next noisy tour group arrived.

Still, I can't say I was disappointed. The tree provided plenty of entertaining reading, for one thing. The cemetery itself is breathtaking and it did kinda feel like hallowed ground. Yeah, Jim Morrison is buried there, but so are Chopin, Edith Piaf and Proust. The final resting place of Oscar Wilde and Marcel Marceau among countless others.  

Visiting Père Lachaise felt a bit like we were paying them all tribute.  

And now I'm going to pour myself a whiskey, maybe one for Jim as well, and then hunt around for that photo of Chris.  G'night.


1 comment:

Alli Arnold said...

Great post. Did you see that my boyfriend was there not long after you were?


I'll forgive him if he comes home soon.

xo Aa