Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Ghost of the Lizard King

Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin...

A few weeks ago, on one of my frequent walks, I passed a restaurant that had a plaque on it which said that the building was once known as The Doors Workshop, where the band The Doors recorded their final album, L.A. Woman. And it occurred to me that almost everywhere I go I pass by a place connected to the legend of Jim Morrison. Not unusual -- since Jim lived in this neighborhood for several years during his most creative period as lead singer and songwriter for The Doors. Right around the corner from where I live is a quiet little street where there is an apartment building with another plaque on it that says "Jim Morrison's Last U.S. Residence." And of course there's Barney's Beanery where Jim used to hang out at the bar. Just up the hill on Sunset Boulevard is the famous Whiskey-A-Go-Go where The Doors first gained popularity. And then there's the Canyon Country Store in Laurel Canyon, immortalized in a Jim Morrison song called "Love Street" (...here's the store where the creatures meet...) Supposedly Jim and his girlfriend Pamela had a house nearby (on "Love Street").

I decided to try and find it.

According to a guidebook I consulted, Jim and Pam's house was just around the corner from the Canyon Country Store on a street called Rothdell Trail. (Apparently Jim changed the name of the street for the song.) I decided it would make a nice little hike so I headed up Crescent Heights Ave., which crosses Sunset Blvd. and merges into Laurel Canyon Blvd.

On my way up, I stopped at the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights to browse around the Virgin record store, which is going out of business. Everything was 30% to 50% off, but the prices were still too high for me. I chatted briefly with a woman who had a shopping basket full of CDs, including several Doors albums. She had a long list of selections and was only about halfway done. I thought about asking her to join me on my adventure, but she probably wouldn't have wanted to walk that far.

The Virgin record store is in a retail complex built on the site of what was once Schwab's Drug Store. Back in the golden days of Hollywood, the lunch counter at Schwab's was a kind of headquarters for screenwriters. This was largely due to the fact that across the street from Schwab's, there stood a lavish residential hotel called The Garden of Allah. For years, whenever "serious" writers like Fitzgerald, Odets, Hemingway, Faulkner & Dorothy Parker came to town, The Garden of Allah was their address. However, in 1959, the Garden of Allah was torn down and replaced by a bank and a strip mall. There is a now drive-thru McDonald's on the site, frequented by the likes of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Kind of the Greta Garbo and Dorothy Parker of today. Schwab's closed in 1986.

Joni Mitchell, a resident of Laurel Canyon around the same time Jim Morrison lived there, reportedly wrote the song Big Yellow Taxi about the destruction of the Garden of Allah, "...they paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

I stopped in at the Pollo Loco (located approximately where the pool would have been in the Garden Of Allah days) for a quick taco before continuing my trek up into the Canyon. This turned out to have been a smart call.

The hike along Laurel Canyon Blvd was actually quite nice once I got away from Sunset. There is a quiet side street that runs along the main road which is shady and traffic-free. The side street took me all the way up to the Canyon Country Store. Once there I turned right to follow Rothdell Trail as it wound its way up the hill behind the store. I did not see the house I was looking for, which according to the guidebook was just around the bend. I wandered down a dirt road which dead-ended at the gates of a quaint little cottage nestled among the trees. This certainly did not look like the right house, but it did look familiar. I could have sworn it was the house used in the movie The Doors that was supposed to be Jim and Pam's house. But I didn't want to bother anyone so I doubled back.

As I came down towards the store again, I noticed a two story stained-wood building with a bell on its roof. I remembered reading in the guidebook that Jim's house had a bell on top of it. That must be it. Success. And surprisingly easy to find -- it is in fact directly across from the Canyon Country Store in plain view of Laurel Canyon Blvd. They might have mentioned that in the guidebook.

Now for the second part of my adventure. I had read that further up along Rothdell is an old staircase that leads past several houses and into an open field. A trail leads along the fence bordering the back of the residences to another set of stairs that goes back down to the parking lot behind the store. It seemed like a nice little excursion. And the guidebook said there was an amazing view from up there.

The stairs weren't hard to find. But they were a little treacherous. They look like they haven't been maintained since the days of the Garden of Allah. I passed several tumble-down cottages perched on the side of the hill, only accessible by these narrow and dangerous stairs. I wondered who lived up here? Reclusive ex-rock stars? Mountain goats?

I got to the top of the stairs and found the trail. The guidebook had described it as a "deer trail" and they weren't kidding -- there were fresh deer tracks in the soft dirt. Big ones. I followed the deer tracks along the side of the ridge to a clearing and then paused to take in the view. It was magnificent. To the south I could see the whole lower canyon and parts of the city below, brilliantly lit by the low-angled winter sun. To the west was Lookout Mountain Road snaking its way up into the hills. It was pretty beautiful. And peaceful. I couldn't believe I was smack-dab in the middle of L.A. And not even in a park. I was in some kind of no-man's land. Following a deer trail.

I kept along the ridge for a while looking for the stairs leading back down. Eventually I realized that I had gone way past the parking lot and was hanging out over the edge of the ridge with no way to get down. I started to wonder what other types of creatures inhabited this place... coyotes? mountain lions?

I decided to turn back.

At one point I spotted a gully that seemed to lead back down to civilization. When in doubt, go downhill. I scrambled down the steep walls, clutching at roots and branches as I slid past, until I reached the top of a high wall that looked down into somebody's patio. It didn't seem prudent to try and jump down onto the patio and possibly risk getting shot at in the process. So I had to climb back up the gully. Crawl is more like it. Hands and knees, eating dirt the whole way. I paused about halfway to lean against a tree and catch my breath. My heart was pounding in my throat. I was in full-on survival mode. Every time I grabbed at a root or a shrub, I half-expected a rattlesnake to lunge out at me.

Finally, I made it back up to the deer path. I followed it back around the ridge, assuming I would have to return to the original set of stairs. But I caught a glimpse of a narrow opening and on further inspection discovered that it led to the second set of stairs. I clung to the metal railing for dear life as I made my way down this equally decrepit flight.

About halfway down I passed an attractive young couple on their way up. I asked them if they were going for a hike, but they just looked at me like I was a madman from the desert. They were merely visiting a friend who lived in one of the houses along the staircase. I told them about the amazing deer trail and the wonderful view and they reacted with polite disinterest.

When I got back to the store I bought bottle of water and asked the clerk about Jim's house. He confirmed that it was the one with the bell on it. I sat on the front porch and drank my water watching as the pretty people drifted in and out of the store. I thought they probably have no idea that just around the corner was the home of the Lizard King himself, a true poet of our time, a visionary, an outlaw politician who exhorted the masses to break on through the doors of their timid perceptions and experience life with immediate passion and howling urgency. To resurrect their savage souls and burn down the cathedrals of complacency. To derange their senses and run wild in the streets, tearing down the comfortable walls of their safe suburban sanctuaries.

But they probably wouldn't care.

I hobbled down the hill back to my little room and thought about the deer, running along the trail in the moonlight, miles above the city, guided only by scent and instinct.

I thought about Jim, walking these same streets that I walk, dreaming of poetry and revolution. I think Jim's ghost is still here, still walking these streets, still trying to get us all to "WAKE UP!" His room in the "green hotel" is still there, with its window looking out over the living, breathing L.A. streets.

I saw his face today on the Sunset Strip, his searching eyes gazing into the souls of the misguided and the lost. As if to ask:

"Who among you will run with the hunt?"

I will, Jim.

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