The Lizard King Next Door

Every town has its weird history, and even the newest housing tract of wet stucco and green 2x4s has some kind of buried backstory. The island city where I live today is loaded with Gold Rush tales and Victorian mansions, but the fact that Jim Morrison spent his formative years around the block is not something you can learn about at the local historical society.

Alameda is a small city across the bay from San Francisco, and for 57 years the Alameda Naval Air Station occupied the isle's West End and employed thousands of Navy and civilian workers. One of them was George "Steve" Morrison, who later kicked off the Vietnam War as commander of naval forces during whatever happened in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964. Nine months later, his eldest son Jim had graduated from UCLA and was putting together an ambitiously weird and politically important rock band—to this day, the Doors' nightmare song "The End" is the preferred anti-war soundtrack to the horror Steve Morrison set loose in Southeast Asia.

The Lizard King Next Door

By accident, I discovered the Morrison family once lived around the block from me, at 1717 Alameda Avenue. It's my favorite street in town, lined with ornate old mansions and shady trees. Between 1956 and 1958, Jim's bedroom was the one up top. Here, according to his biographers, "Jimmy Morrison" read poetry and listened to Elvis on the radio and cut up his copies of Mad Magazine to mix with newspaper text and his own cartoons. He used his dad's reel-to-reel tape recorder to make parody commercials promoting masturbation and shocked his teachers with his adult-level reading and adolescent pranks. When On the Road was published in 1957, Morrison and his high school buddy fell in love with the Beats. City Lights Bookstore was a ferry ride across the Bay, so the two teenagers bummed around North Beach in their beatnik costumes (sweatshirts, Levis and sandals), sitting in on poetry readings and looking for unattended jugs of wine.

On the other side of Alameda was Oakland, the center of African-American life on the West Coast. Morrison began haunting the record stores downtown, finding a powerful and mysterious voice to emulate in John Lee Hooker. Fantasy Records, in neighboring Berkeley, put out another of the young Morrison's favorite records in 1957: Poetry Readings in the Cellar, with Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti backed by the the Cellar Jazz Quintet.

The house is still there, as are so many of the original Victorian and Edwardian and Queen Anne structures in Alameda. Two doors down is the Home of Truth, the last surviving church of this Hindu/Christian New Age sect that opened spiritual centers from San Diego to Boston in the 1910s. The Naval air base closed 16 years ago, and the military families have since been replaced by a Bay Area mix of cultures and preferences. There is no plaque noting Jim Morrison's teen-aged home, although there's a persistent rumor that he's responsible for the bench at Jackson Park that says "In Memory of My Dumb Friends." (It was actually donated by a pet lover in 1920, to honor the "dumb" or speechless pets of Alameda, and originally had a watering trough attached.)

Where you are and where you've been has a lot to do with what kind of art you make, and the life of a Navy brat in the strange Cold War years of rock'n'roll, electric blues, and the Beat Generation provided a lot of fuel. Now you can just look up anything on the Internet and experience it that way, too, but we are humans and we like our saints to have burial places and birthplaces and relics we can see up close.

I don't have any particular feelings left for The Doors or rock 'n roll in general. But like so many other teenagers growing up on classic rock in California, I loved how that spooky group with the dead singer made the dull sun-blasted grid of suburbs and malls and freeways seem mysterious and wild. Morrison grew up reading poetry in a literate home, in a time when you could catch Kerouac doing his thing on the Steve Allen Show. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Morrison's melodramatic provocations would be the closest thing to poetry most kids would ever hear. His fashion style persists with the Internet-bred indie pouters of today, but people don't do poetry without irony anymore. People don't mean things at all, because meaning itself is laughable, something to pile on in the comments section.

There are many historical tales here in my current hometown, as there surely are in your hometown. The Transcontinental Railroad's original terminus was in Alameda, and the socialist troublemaker Jack London pirated oysters as a kid here and later returned with his custom sailboat, the Snark. (The Snark!) There were other famous alumnae of Alameda High, including Morrison's schoolmate Sharon Tate. Those two would cross paths again in Los Angeles a decade later, and would die in hyperbolic "End of the Sixties" fashion a year-and-a-half apart, one by the knives of Charlie Manson's Family and the other from a Nietzschean/#YOLO insistence that excess would only make him stronger.

And like any lapsed follower of any faith, when I walk by that big white turreted Edwardian with the American flags waving outside, I sense a little bit of the voodoo that Jim Morrison was cooking upstairs, half a century ago. Every town needs its local saints.

Ken Layne's American Journal appears weekly here at Gawker.

[Photo of Jim Morrison via Getty Images.]