Searching for Jim Morrison's Ghost in Gentrified Venice
Doors guitarist Robby Krieger plays at the "Day of The Doors" ceremony in Venice on Jan. 4.
"I am the lizard king, I can Snapchat anything,” croons Jim Morrison’s ghost. Or maybe I’m hallucinating, stirred by the wind, rain and ubiquitous smoke on this Thursday in Venice.
A half-century ago this month, The Doors released their eponymous debut, a record so indelible that the “Light My Fire” organ line soundtracks every imagined flashback of ’60s L.A. In tribute, the city of Los Angeles officially proclaimed Jan. 4 the “Day of The Doors,” complete with a beach-adjacent ceremony featuring the surviving band members, lifelong L.A. residents drummer John Densmore and guitarist Robby Krieger.
Growing up in L.A., The Doors were my favorite band, the archetypal eighth-grade obsession but one that I’d defend to the death. Other than Love, no Aquarian Sunset Strip outfit so effectively captured the city’s sunshine-and-noir dialectic. They embodied the notion espoused by Doors defender Joan Didion that “love is sex and sex is death, and therein lay salvation.”
“Light My Fire” could’ve accompanied the denouement of The Day of the Locust. At the ceremony, Densmore led a sing-along to “L.A. Woman,” which invoked the carnal dissolution and Hollywood Babylon of John Rechy’s City of Night. It’s a song ingrained in our psychic mitochondria but increasingly difficult to physically locate as the 21st century hobbles forward.
If you haven’t been to Venice lately, it’s almost unrecognizable. The onetime Venice West, home soil for L.A.’s bohemia, has become Silicon Beach — the gentrified colony for Google, Yahoo! and Snapchat — where a decent one-bedroom apartment runs $3,000 a month.
Ray Manzarek, The Doors’ keyboardist, “had a two-room apartment over a garage with an ocean view. It was $75 a month,” Densmore recalls at the ceremony. “We’d walk to Olivia’s Cafe on Ocean and Main and wrote ‘Soul Kitchen’ about it. A couple of blocks from here Jim had a loft … no phone, no TV.”
“It wasn’t a loft. It was a rooftop,” Krieger corrects him.
It’s easy to falsely mythologize the past but equally reductive to believe that all change is progress. In the ’80s and ’90s, Venice withstood turf wars between the Venice Shoreline Crips and the largely Latino VS-13 set. Now, someone mentions to me that Snapchat’s HR department overlooks this gathering.
It’s unquestionably good that crime and murder rates have fallen dramatically, but it’s a failure of public policy to protect rents from escalating to levels affordable only to the Patagonia posse talking streaming numbers inside coffee shops with signs outside that read, “Better latte than never.” They paved over semi-paradise and put up an Eggslut.
Some things never change. On the boardwalk, steroidal bodybuilders still flex for tourists and struggling rappers hawk mixtapes. Shoddy bongs and “This is what a cool grandpa looks like” shirts remain for sale. But the lawless psychedelic imagination and airborne Z-Boy spirit seems alien in this macrobiotic plutocracy. You can design a “Celebration of the Lizard” Snapchat filter, but that doesn’t mean it should exist.
“There’s always going to be places for young artists to gather,” Krieger says, taking the long view. “Unfortunately, Venice isn’t like that anymore, but nothing lasts forever. It’s tough to be an artist, but we thought it was tough back then. We never thought music would be our career. We thought we’d have fun for a few years and see where it took us.”
I consider those words after the ceremony, walking through rain-slicked streets searching for the rooftop where Morrison acid-tripped all summer and wrote the lyrics and poems that would become The Doors. When I finally arrive at 14 Westminster Ave., I realize it’s been rebranded the Morrison Apartments. A sign says there are singles and one-bedroom apartments and to “call for an appointment.”
It looks really expensive.
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