The brazen hedonism of Bangkok agrees with Jerry Hopkins. The co-author of No One Here Gets Out Alive, the best-selling portrait of iconic Doors frontman Jim Morrison, Hopkins has been described as "the dean of pop biographers." He laughingly refers to himself as a free-spirited "bottom feeder" with good timing.
"I've been in the right place at the right time often in my life, just like Forrest Gump," says the 77-year-old wordsmith, who also penned the first bio of Elvis Presley, as well as accounts of Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and Yoko Ono. As Los Angeles correspondent for Rolling Stone magazine in the late 1960s, Hopkins experienced flower power in full bloom.
Four times married, Hopkins has lived in Thailand since 1993; his current Bangkok apartment nestles on a restful downtown side street. With his thinning gray hair and trimmed beard, thick spectacles, beige slacks and gaudy, open-necked shirt, the writer has the avuncular air of a retired civil servant.
A short stroll from Hopkins' hideaway, however, lies the Thai capital's main sex-tourism avenue, Sukhumvit Road, where streetside stalls ply hard-core porn DVDs, sex toys and Viagra, as well as chromed knuckledusters and ninja throwing stars. "Being a bottom feeder has a long literary tradition," Hopkins says. "There's a whiff of danger about Bangkok. I hate to romanticize dirt, but we're talking whores and drugs and the fun things in life."
Over half a century, Hopkins has authored three dozen books, covering everything from groupies to the history of the condom. Originally rejected by some 30 publishers, No One Here Gets Out Alive — the first rock biography to reach No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list — has never been out of print since its publication in 1980. (Hopkins says his co-author, the late Danny Sugerman, didn't contribute much to the text but mainly helped get it sold.)
"Morrison was the most interesting of all the rock stars I met because he was the best conversationalist," Hopkins says. "Something I always had trouble with at Rolling Stone was that I was interviewing people whose avenue of communication was singing or playing an instrument. Why should anyone expect them to have a political opinion worth listening to? Most of them didn't, but Morrison was interesting on a totally different level."
Hopkins changes the battery in his hearing aid and sits down to reminisce about everything from the blame he gets for the conspiracy theories surrounding Morrison's perplexing death in Paris at age 27 to his personal taste for transsexual street hookers. (He's also dated a Playboy playmate.)
We begin in 1966. The soundtrack to that heady 12 months featured The Byrds' Fifth Dimension, Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and The Beatles' Revolver. "1966 was a great year," Hopkins says. "I guess '67 was the Summer of Love, but '66 was when all the great records came out."
It was that year that Hopkins and a friend opened what was one of the first head shops in the United States. Los Angeles was a headquarters for the prevailing drug culture, so that became the name of their store. "Headquarters was the first head shop in Los Angeles. I didn't even know what a head shop was." Hopkins' store quickly became a community center for the hippie generation. "Kids would hang out in the afternoon so they didn't have to go home to mom and dad," he says. "They could be with these hip guys who openly sold rolling papers."
They also sold buttons with slogans, like "Save Water, Shower With a Friend" and "Even Paranoids Have Real Enemies." They had Peter Fonda and Bob Dylan posters and underground newspapers. They passed off the old uniforms from the minor league hockey Los Angeles Blades' brass band as Sergeant Pepper outfits.
Born in New Jersey, Hopkins' long and strange trip from Quaker roots to Californian bohemia was set in motion by conflict rather than peaceniks. "During World War II, I would read the dispatches of [Pulitzer Prize–winning correspondent] Ernie Pyle. He covered Europe and then the Pacific," he says. "I decided that was what I wanted to do when I grew up: Travel the world, meet interesting people, write about them and get paid for it."
After college, two years at a newspaper and a stint in the army in Georgia, Hopkins eventually found work for The Steve Allen Show. "I became his 'vice president in charge of left-fielders,' " Hopkins says. "I was Steve's 'kook booker.' Some of the people were genuinely strange."
One such eccentric was a pre-fame Frank Zappa, who wanted to teach Allen an instrument he called a "musical bicycle." "I knew it was a put-on, and Steve had always insisted 'no put-ons,' but Frank sounded interesting, so he came along. He played the spokes like a harp. He beat on the seat and blew at the handlebars. He would not admit it was a joke."