The Poet in Exile: A Journey Into the Mystic
I received the first letter from the Poet a little over six months ago. I knew it was from him, but that was impossible. He was dead. He was buried in Paris in the 1970s. In one of those charming, Jules and Jim, tree-lined, flower-bedecked, mausoleum-encrusted cemeteries so favored by artists, poets, composers, stray cats, and romantically obsessed young girls. He was buried in a simple morning ceremony attended by only five people: his mistress, two French friends, his manager and his secretary. The manager reported a sealed coffin. He never saw the body. The secretary merely attended the funeral and then drifted on to other lives. The mistress retreated into heroin and died of an overdose three years after the Poet's death. Only the two French friends knew the truth and they weren't talking. Not to the press, not to me, not to anyone.
Could the rumors of one hundred and fifty pounds of sand in a sealed coffin be true? A coffin said to be sealed "for the sake of propriety." And what of the Algerian doctor? His signature on the death certificate is said to have been purchased for $5,000 American, a not insubstantial sum in 1970s money. Could it be true? The death certificate says his heart stopped, nothing more. No cause of death, no suspicion of foul play, no death by misadventure, no trauma, no autopsy, nothing. His heart simply stopped. However, given his excessive life style -- the drinking, the drugs, the women -- and the toll it took on his physical condition, it did seem as if the final payment had come due.
Or was it, in fact, a hoax? Was it all an elaborate ruse to free the Poet from his worldly entanglements, including his now increasingly heroin-intoxicated mistress, and send him off to ports unknown where he could pursue his craft unencumbered? Free of his rock-and-roll lifestyle, the pressures of fame and its demands on his time and his psyche. Free of his sycophants and his "drinking buddies" -- the La Brea Mafia -- who laughed too long and too loudly at his jokes. Free of the shrill demands of journalists who hounded him in search of the bon mot, or a revelation of the psychological imperative that made the Poet write.
"What was he really like?" they asked me after his death. I felt like Marlene Dietrich at the end of Touch of Evil. "He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?" Did they expect me to reveal the secrets of our relationship? The hidden, private moments that belonged only to us? Or did they expect me to sum up a Dionysian life in a paragraph? The Poet's needs and visions, the cosmic flights and psychic journeys, the explorations of consciousness that drove him relentlessly belonged to him. If he had chosen to share them with me, they belonged to us. And only us. His dark and peculiar genius was in the music, and the rest was not for public consumption.
Besides, he was far too complex for a tidy summing-up. He was an artist of the first order and the most passionate person I have ever known. Categories could not contain him.
And we were going to change the world. Until the seduction of fame conquered the best of us. Until the seduction of easy money, easy drugs and too-easy women destroyed the best minds of the post-beatnik generation. The Poet, aware of his descent, had gone to Paris to try to save himself and to flee the enervation of the seduction. He was attempting to recapture the muse, to write again. To write his words, his poems, his stories. But he died -- tragically, suddenly, and very mysteriously. He died too early and too young, his great work left unrealized, his promise unfulfilled. A tragic cloud passed over me with his death, and it was, for a long time, impossible to accept the fact that I had lost my friend forever. It took many years to finally let him go.
And then the letter came. Like so many other fan letters requesting an autograph or a picture of the band. Letters from around the world. But this one caught my eye. It bore a very colorful stamp. The fruit of the coco-de-mer, shaped like the hips of a woman, set against an azure sea and a golden beach. A picture of paradise and the intoxicating sensuality of the tropics. I immediately thought of the Poet's lines: "Tropic passage, tropic bounty. How have we come so far? To this lush equator." I opened the letter to see what this fan would have to say ... and was jolted. The words were written in a familiar scrawl.
The eternity of diamond consciousness makes this Herculean task seem almost worth the price of admission.
There was nothing more. This Zen haiku-like three liner could not possibly be from the Poet. And yet it was his hand and his style. But how could he be alive? And if he was, what did this missive mean? Was it a statement of his condition? Did he need my help? And was it even him?
But this cryptic note containing both sides of the coin was a message that flooded me with images of loss and a destiny only partially fulfilled. And as I read the words over and over I felt an exhilaration rise in me, leaving me breathless and on the verge of tears. My God, he's alive! It didn't end in Paris, there's actually more to come!
But then reality intruded. What if it's a sham, I thought. What if it's an evil little ruse from the negatively charged psyche of someone like that witchy woman who purports to be "channeling" the Poet. She sends nasty little notes to me and the other two -- the guitar player and the drummer -- admonishing us for carrying on without the Poet, or for keeping his name alive, or for keeping our music alive, or, hell, for being alive. The notes are always evil and dark, filled with the negative truth of the paranoid. Probably fueled by crystal meth and its accompanying mind-set, an insanity that generates its own reality, the upside-down, inside-out reality that appears to them to be the real truth behind everything.
I quickly picked up the envelope, afraid of what the postmark would reveal. If it was stamped Los Angeles it was from the succubus and I would toss the damned thing from my sight. Instead, it was even more magical than I could have hoped for. Inked onto that envelope, next to that lovely stamp of the coco-de-mer, was a circle that said "The Seychelle Islands," the date and the time of posting. The Seychelles! That little group of islands lost in the Indian Ocean, somewhere between the subcontinent of India and the east coast of Africa. It was real.
And then I remembered a conversation we had had not two weeks before he left for Paris. He asked me if I had ever heard of the Seychelles.
"The sea shells?" I said.
"No," he said. "Seychelles ... somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean. A little group of islands. Way off the beaten track."
I had to admit I hadn't heard of them.
"The coconut tree bears fruit shaped like a woman's hips," he said. "Very lush, very sexual. I've got a travel brochure. Here, take a look."
He handed me a four-page color pamphlet. The islands looked gorgeous, and virtually inaccessible, sitting there in the upper middle of the Indian Ocean. "Beautiful," I said as I handed it back to him.
"Yeah," he said. "A man could really disappear in a place like that."
I nodded, and never gave it another thought. Until now. And then it all fell into place. The bastard had done it. Lighted out for the territory, somewhere northeast of Madagascar and due east of Mombassa on the African coast. He had probably been there all these years, living a Somerset Maugham life in the tropics, relaxed, rested, and writing. Or maybe he just used the Seychelles as home base and spent his time traveling through the Orient. Or maybe he was on a Joseph Conrad-like search. A search for meaning.
But how was he living? On what was he living? All his royalties went to his family. They had at first gone to his mistress, but when she succumbed to the dragon, the money went to his next of kin. Were they secretly funneling money to the Seychelles? I couldn't picture it. He had broken with his family, never making contact with them, to the best of my knowledge, after we graduated together from the university.
And what about his identity? Did he have a forged passport? He couldn't be using his own name. He was too well known. But had they heard of him in the remote Seychelles?
There were so many questions. I was overflowing with them. They raced around in my brainpan, chasing each other and howling and squealing for attention. But they all took second position to the one main question: Was something wrong? And if so, what was I to do? Why didn't he say more? Why didn't he include an address? How could I help him if I didn't know where he was? I looked at the envelope again, and I did know where he was. He was in the Seychelles.
The next few days were lived in a fog. I could only think about him and what to do to help him if this turned out to be real. And then another letter came, from the Seychelles.
Perfumed hair. Painted lips. I enfolded her in my arms glanced past her soft, white shoulder and saw death ... grinning. Had he come for her, Or me?
Again, nothing more. No address, no phone number, no way to contact him. Nothing to indicate that anything might be wrong, except for the darkness of the poem. And my name and the J. were typed. I hadn't really noticed it before. Why weren't they hand-written too?
Then the long-dormant green thing that lives somewhere deep in my digestive tract stirred into life, wrapped a tentacle around my stomach, and squeezed. A rush of dark green fear entered my psyche. Why did he need me? Was he simply down on his luck and in need of a little financial assistance? And if that was the case, why not contact our accountant, demand secrecy, and claim his rightfully due royalties? But then I realized: The accountant couldn't legally justify a transfer of funds. So the Poet had to turn to me. It was possible that I was the only one he could trust who had the funds to help him. His French friends didn't have any money. His other band-mates had the money but, perhaps, not the will to silence that he would require. After all, his letters to me were only signed "J." So whatever was going to happen was going to be on the q.t. -- if money was the problem. I prayed that it was, and not something more serious.
The first thing I had to do was find out about the Seychelles. Where exactly were they? How many islands? What was the capital? What language did they speak -- Hindi, English, a Madagascar Creole patois, Arabic ... what? I went to a travel bookstore and asked for everything they had on the Seychelles. What they had was one book, but that was enough. It told me everything I needed to know.
Creole, French and English were spoken. That explained at least one of his attractions to the Seychelles: He could communicate in English. Not like Paris, where he couldn't even talk to a man on the street or a taxi driver, or order a meal. He had been helpless in Paris, the word-man unable to make himself understood, unable to speak to anyone. Virtually mute, he could only scream out his rage and defiance. I had thought that that affected him terribly. And the booze, of course; the mute agony embalmed by booze, and he was dead. Throw some white powder -- la Chinoise blanche -- into the toxic mix, and he was dead. Or so I had once thought.
As I read on, I found that the tiny archipelago of one hundred and fifteen islands had first belonged to the French. Later it became a British colony (appropriately, the Poet's ancestral blood ties were English). It finally became an independent republic in the Commonwealth in 1976. Its population was approximately 75,000 people, within an area of no more than one hundred square miles. The capital was Victoria, on Mahé Island.
And it was all beautiful. A tiny paradise five degrees south of the equator and remote from the rest of the world. A place where a man could disappear. However, I was sure that someone in the Seychelles would know the American man. But I couldn't describe him now. Was he fat, thin, gray, bald? And what name was he using? Surely not his own.
I thought I would ask for a gentleman of a certain age. Intelligent, good-mannered, a writer -- an American -- perhaps with a tendency to drink. Hopefully someone would know of such a man. But who to contact?
The American embassy, of course. Well ... America does not maintain a political representation in Seychelles. 75,000 people on an archipelago somewhere due east of Mombassa do not get an American embassy.
So I called the Seychelles's travel office in New York City. "I'm looking for a friend," I said to the woman on the other end of the line. I didn't use any real names. "I haven't seen him in many years, but I have reasons to believe he's on one of the islands of Seychelles. He's over fifty, about six feet tall, an American and a writer. He may have been living there for the better part of twenty-five years now. He had a penchant for drink, which he may or may not have today. Does any of this sound like someone you might have heard of?" As soon as I asked the question I realized how absurd it all sounded. How could she, or any one at the travel office possibly have any knowledge of the Poet?
"I'm sorry sir, that description doesn't fit anyone I know. I'll ask here at the office, but we do get a lot of tourists these days and it's really quite impossible to keep track of them all." She was pleasant, and seemed genuinely concerned, but stumped.
"Thank you," I said. "Could you please send me everything you have? Brochures, maps, a list of hotels, bars, anything and everything. Whatever information you have. Please?"
"Of course," she said. "May I have your name and address?" I gave her a phony name and my accountant's address.
"I'll call them all if I have to," I said.
"Sir? Might I suggest that you go to the Seychelles. It would be so much easier. Our phone system is not the best. And it would be a marvelous vacation for you. You'd love it there. As your friend does, if he's been there for twenty-five years."
The packet from New York arrived in two days. I leafed through the lushness of the brochures and was mesmerized. What a delightful string of islands and what a quaint, laid-back way of life. Beach-front hotels, tiny shops, gourmet restaurants, tropical bars, scuba diving, nature preserves -- my kind of place, and just the place for a refugee from the '60s. The Poet as beachcomber.
And then the next letter came.
I see the unseen.
I loved the poem, and I understood the clue, too. He didn't type "J." He was emulating Paul Gauguin. He was doing his own escape to paradise to perfect his art, uninvolved with the daily problems of Los Angeles life. Uninvolved with rock-and-roll stardom. Hell, uninvolved with Western civilization itself. And I remembered that we had once stood on the beach of El Segundo, California, with the shore break lapping at our feet, and come to the realization that we were at the end of the West. The terminus of the Western dream. The very end of Western civilization.
So, like Gauguin, he had fled the whole thing. But the Poet had tossed in a Harry Lime. This was The Third Man. A dead man not really dead. A grand con. A classic swindle. He had pulled a rabbit out of his hat and jumped in to take its place. And when Orson Welles, in his own magic show, turned the top hat upside down, why it was empty! The Poet was gone. And we all wept for him. And our tears were applause for the efficacy of the illusion.
But like Harry Lime, the Poet seemed to be returning. I assumed he was in trouble -- why else would he come back out of the trick hat? And that was my question to answer.
The next day I made the inevitable decision. I would go to the Seychelles. I would scour those little islands ... and I would find him.
The body of Jim Morrison was buried in a sealed coffin in a Paris graveyard, a fact witnessed by the few who attended the interment in 1971. Thus did the richly storied life of the lead singer of the Doors, dead of heart failure at the age of 27, come to a sad and squalid end.
"Or was it, in fact, a hoax?" muses Ray Manzarek in "The Poet in Exile," a novel that invents a new variation on the myth of Morrison. "Was it all an elaborate ruse to free the Poet from his worldly entanglements, including his now increasingly heroin-intoxicated mistress, and send him off to ports unknown where he could pursue his craft unencumbered?"
As imagined by Manzarek, co-founder and keyboardist of the Doors, the "rock God" is not dead and buried. Rather, he has contrived to escape from the sycophants who only encouraged his drinking and other excesses--"the La Brea Mafia," as Manzarek puts it--by faking his own demise and going so deeply underground that the graveside charade in Paris seems believable precisely because the deity himself is nowhere to be seen.
"The Poet was gone," writes Manzarek. "And we all wept for him. And our tears were applause for the efficacy of an illusion."
"The Poet in Exile," of course, is presented as a work of fiction- -the Poet, whom we are supposed to recognize as Morrison, is dubbed Jordan, and Manzarek's alter ego is called Roy. Morrison styled himself as the "Lizard King" and Manzarek calls Jordan the "Snake Man." But the author writes with a wink and nod, and he clearly hopes to enlist his readers in yet another twist on the myth that Morrison cultivated during his own lifetime.
The yarn begins when a letter arrives at Roy's home in Los Angeles- -the missive was mailed in the far-off Seychelles, the message is deeply and characteristically enigmatic and the signature is a single scrawled letter: "J." Agitated and intrigued, Roy goes in search of the West Coast wild man, whom he understands to be its author, and, in a real sense, his own history and destiny.
Roy casts his memory back to the dues-paying years of the rock band that J fronted, a band that goes coyly unnamed in the book: "We were touched by tongues of fire in the little El Segundo beach house that we used as our rehearsal space," he recalls. "We were just trying to take it a little higher. You know, like Van Morrison says, 'Into the Mystic.'" And when Roy finally finds himself face-to-face with the self-styled Snake Man, now older and grayer but no less charismatic, he is aquiver with curiosity.
"I've only just begun to unravel this mystery," says Roy. "I've got a million questions. And...Jordan, you're going to answer every one of them."
The Poet proceeds to describe his journey from substance abuse to spiritual ecstasy, a narrative that ends with a moment of authentic surprise and heart-tugging poignancy. Ultimately, however, the answers provided by the resurrected "rock God" are no more mysterious than the customary on-camera confessions that can be seen on any episode of VH1's "Behind the Music." "I was a success, I was famous, I had money in the bank ... and I had nothing," declares Jordan. "Except a bad hangover." And when Roy finds him to be clean and sober after his long years of self-exile, it's almost a disappointment: "You're a good and decent human being now," announces Roy. "You're not the Snake Man anymore."
The Los Angeles Times; Los Angeles, Calif.; Jan 20, 2002; by JONATHAN KIRSCH