Last Summer for Lizard King
Jim Morrison’s Eviction from Père Lachaise
Charles D.J. Deppner
Paris, France. You exit the Père Lachaise stop of Metro line 3, shuffling past platoons of design students, portfolios in tow. You trace the ancient walls to Père Lachaise’s southeastern-most gate. There you enter this necropolis of necropoli. With an aesthetic obliviousness and a northeastern bearing, you ignore the jungle-like grandeur of ancient oaks, birch trees, and willows, fully-integrated within rows and rows of sculpted stone and bronze. Like some banal safari, you follow fellow tourists, growing clusters of gray dumpsters, and concentrations of graffiti. Ahead lies a circle of crypts, and within this circle, you can hear a muttering of whispers and the clicking of cameras. With your goal just ahead, tunnel vision takes over, and you stumble, step, and trod over the graves of the anonymous, suddenly finding yourself within a worn and weathered clearing, face to face with an odd assortment of mostly American characters. And, suddenly, truth kicks in…
[[lizard_grave]]This wasn’t the first time I visited the final resting place of “Mr. Mojo.” In tenth grade, I got the chance to go to Europe. By then, however, my sneaking suspicions that the Doors were “totally Vegas” and Morrison was a “total Elvis” were best evidenced by the Dead Milkmen’s opening to “Bitchin’ Camaro.” But, after all, I was in Paris, and a trip to the Changeling’s grave would certainly mean extra-special Brownie points with my few “counter-culture” friends.
Of course, back in ’85, the gravesite wasn’t exactly the family-friendly the place it is today. The idea of seven or eight rolling dumpsters within twenty-five feet of each other in a cemetery hadn’t fully formed yet. Then, the area around “Jim” was strewn with the flotsam and jetsam of the ebbing tide of the Sixties revolution. It reeked of puke, piss, and booze. Spent condoms, spent needles, candles, flowers, joints, roaches, cigarette butts, bottles, all stuck in an expanding cobweb of merciless graffiti restricted to this southern portion of Père Lachaise.
But why was I here now? Upon my return from my first trip, I vowed if I had another chance to go to France, I’d intentionally avoid doing the really cliché sights of Paris, such as the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Elyssee, the Mona Lisa, and the grave of James Douglas Morrison.
My adolescent visit to the Red Rooster’s grave became a real sore spot for me, as I grew to avoid and dismiss “rock history,” searching for something alternative and new. The ignorance of my youth encouraged me to shovel vast energies into hollow idols such as Morrison. Resentment grew, and apart from his reconstructed ability to antagonize an audience, his overrated image congealed in my mind as little more than someone who was overweight, drunk, and a mediocre poet to boot. Morrison’s freedom was only as free as a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and some LSD. But what I resented most was the fact that I once visited Père Lachaise for the sole reason of seeing Morrison’s grave and nothing else.
Named for the Jesuit Father-Confessor of Louis XIV, Père Lachaise was converted to a cemetery in 1803. It was hoped to become the final resting place for France’s new-found, post-revolutionary middle-class, but for its first few years, Père Lachaise wasn’t much more than a dumping ground for the cadavers of Paris’ vast poor. In an early 19th Century publicity stunt, the cemetery’s owner acquired and united, for a price, the 650 year old bones of France’s most famous unconsummated letter-writing lovers: philosopher-monk-eunuch Abélard and his student Héloise. Since then, people, for the lack of a better pun, have been just dying to get in.
Aside from its genuine beauty and peacefulness, Père Lachaise’s legend resides with its residents. From artists such as Delacroix, Seurat, and Modigliani, writers such as Molière, Balzac, and Wilde, composers such as Rossini and Chopin, as well as a host of peripheral, less-notable characters, Père Lachaise’s rolls read off like a condensed and tangible history of the past four hundred years — but speaking with a significant percentage of its visitors, you’d think it only represented the last thirty.
For the first twenty years, Morrison’s gravesite existed only as one of Paris’ dirty little secrets, confined to the pages of No One Here Gets Out Alive , High Times , and Rolling Stone . But, in 1991, Oliver Stone injected the gravesite into the American pop consciousness with its depiction in the denouement of The Doors . The blockbuster film coursed its way through theaters, video stores, and cable. The invigoration and perpetuation of Jim Morrison as a licensable product was secured, but at what cost?
Since the film, interest in the gravesite (vs. the actual cemetery) has increased exponentially. Ravenous fans, Americans in particular, with their media-validated idol, march, stomp, and storm past, through, and over Père Lachaise’s ramparts to partake in a communion of sugar-coated junk history. The less-than-frequent acts of grave desecration suddenly became the standard. The garbage and graffiti, once restricted to lower tiers of the cemetery’s ascending plan began eating its way up, out, and over. Any blank surface can become a placard for childish tributes and the misquoting of Doors lyrics.
Paris’ initial response to this onslaught was initially conciliatory. There was a mass deployment of garbage receptacles in the vicinity of the grave. The original headstone was replaced with a less-destructible, theft-proof headstone. A single burning candle was placed as the only tolerated totem offering to rest at the grave. Security in the cemetery was increased, including an eternal house arrest of Morrison. (In an ironic reflection of Morrison’s life of legal entanglements, the grave is under constant guard during all operating hours by a single indifferent gendarme.) And, perhaps as a preventative measure, motion picture film or video at the gravesite is not permitted, enforced by an insincere “Pour la famille” (for the family) sandwiched between the sneers and snickers of an attending gendarme.
Relatively speaking, Paris has done a lot to accommodate the dead singer. However, it was becoming increasingly more obvious that Morrison’s legacy is only intent on consuming more and more of the graveyard’s resources, if not the graveyard itself. The paths between the cemetery gates and the grave are only being beaten deeper as well as wider. The graffiti, litter, and vandalism, once limited to the sixth division of Père Lachaise, is frenziedly redistributing itself, by simply avoiding the scrutiny of cemetery security.
On the other side of Paris, similar rituals take place near the opening of Alma Tunnel, which witnessed the demise of Princess Diana. Just at its opening, the last place “Di” would have seen the great blue sky, is a statue of an outstretched hand, holding up a single torch with a flame covered in gold-leaf. It has become the “unofficial” Princess Di memorial. On it and the area around it, scribbled in permanent marker, are messages to the departed Princess. On a daily basis, the area quickly swamps with flowers, cards, candles, stuffed animals, and other offerings dedicated to the “Princess of the People.” Americans make up the largest contingency participating in this phenomena, and its presence is increasingly felt on scheduled tours of the city.
To many of the French, who are innately anti-royalist, the scene is a disfiguring blemish on the capital’s complexion. One night a vehicle drove by the sight splattering the statue with a bucket of bright yellow paint, obscuring many of the tributes to the dead princess. Many sounded out with written pleas in English and French, asking: A) what possessed the perpetrators to desecrate such a lovely sight?, and B) when would Paris commit itself to the rehabilitation of the statue so once again it could once again have a beauty befitting the royal divorcee? Nonetheless, the city drags its feet in refurbishing the statue on the grounds that doing so would only be a temporary cessation of the frenzied assault on the true meaning of the monument buried somewhere beneath a thick soup of sentimental hogwash and yellow paint.
But what is the true meaning of this monument recently absorbed by the late Princess of Wales’ legions of followers? During the late 19th century, in the neighborhood around the Alma Tunnel, existed a studio shared by Italian sculptor Bertholdi and French architect Eiffel. It was in this studio that they constructed the pieces which composed the Statue of Liberty, as well as her models and maquettes of ascending sizes. The studio was eventually torn down for a widening of the boulevard and all the remaining pieces were removed. The Hand of Liberty holding the Torch of Freedom was placed near the Alma Tunnel as a monument of Franco-American Friendship. A reminder of a gift given from the people of France to the people of the United States, as a token gesture of good will, representing the fraternity of two countries who both had decided to conceive a world without Kings, a world without Princesses.
And what did we give the French in exchange? We performed the often over-touted conditional task of helping keep France free. Free to what? Free to host and accommodate our terminally vacuous slack-jawed culture victims. Free to endure the onslaught of loud gum-chewing zombies of pseudo-history, ready and willing to invert their own freedom in random acts of idolatry; consuming and conquering all between themselves and a chance to experience the mere sensation of bowing a head and giving a high five, in practically the same motion; all over the wormy guts of a Sixties Ricky Martin.
This year marks an unprecedented case. Morrison’s lease at Père Lachaise was brought up for review, and it was determined that Morrison’s remains would be exhumed and evicted from the cemetery, unless the Morrison estate can establish really good grounds for why they shouldn’t.