Editing Jim Morrison

Talking with the man who smoothed out the poetry and prose of The Lizard King

The Collected Works of Jim Morrison (Image: Amazon)

On Frank Lisciandro’s first day at UCLA film school in 1964 he encountered a Florida transplant named Jim Morrison.

“It was a huge coincidence,” he says about the meeting that would change his life. “We were beginners at the film school, so we had to take all the beginner classes; beginning editing, beginning screenwriting, beginning cinematography. And so we were thrown together … it was just coincidence that I got to be part of that world for that period of time.”

Lisciandro watched as his friend rose to fame as the lead singer of the Doors, becoming part of the team that shot footage for the documentary Feast of Friends, and a key collaborator on Morrison’s film HWY: An American Pastoral. He photographed Doors recording sessions, Morrison’s last poetry recording session, and edited Morrison’s posthumous books Wilderness: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison, Volume I (1988) and The American Night: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison, Volume II (1990).

He talks here about his work on the recently published The Collected Works of Jim Morrison (which he edited), his experiences in tracking down Morrison’s work, and a little book he calls “Nothing Here But Lots of Lies.”


What did you think of Jim’s poetry?

Well, he handed me the first two books that he self-published [The Lords/Notes on Vision and The New Creatures]. They had just arrived at the door of his office. I was a visitor there that day, and my then-wife Katherine worked there as the office secretary. And I walked in and he handed me these two books. I paged through one of them and I thought, “I better bring this home with me tonight and study it a bit.”

I spent several hours reading them and trying to decipher them, and I thought they were indecipherable. And I didn’t fault Jim with that, I faulted my own literary immaturity, my own lack of knowledge. And I kept reading them and I kept thinking about them, and I would decipher a bit of one poem and that would attach to another part of a poem, and suddenly whole poems became available to me. I had access to them. I tried not to attach meaning to them. I wanted to get a sense of the rhythm of the poem, of images in the poem, of the — just the wording he used. And I just thought after a while that he was a gifted writer and a gifted poet. I just kept reading his works until they made some sort of  deeper sense to me.


How did the December 1970 poetry session come about?

He invited us, I guess the day before, or a couple of days before, to come to the studio. He was going to be recording his poetry. And he mentioned that I could bring my camera, and so I did. Katherine typed up the manuscript for the reading. And so it was the two of us and a friend of Jim’s from Germany [Florentine Pabst] and the engineer [John Haeny]. And I took pictures and tried to listen to what he was saying. The rhythm of those poems were really significant to me, to hear him say the poems, enunciate the poems, was a lot more meaningful than reading them myself, because I could see how the phrases fit one another by his reading, how his pauses and his inflections and almost his spoken grammar made the poems come more alive than just my reading them. 

John Haney, the engineer and producer, was quite strict about making sure Jim wasn’t too close to the microphone, making sure that if he tripped over a word to tell him. And so John kept cutting in and having him do pieces over again, especially at the beginning. And then Jim got into the act and read almost flawlessly for dozens of minutes at a stretch. And even towards the end, John just wanted that tape to be perfect, at least perfect enough to edit later.


AUDIO: Jim Morrison The 1970 Poetry Sessions

I read that during the latter part of that session, Jim began to drink; is that what brought the session to the end? 

I think it ended because he had finished reading all the pages that Katherine had typed for him. But he was drinking throughout the reading, and probably had a couple of beers with dinner. At one point he turned too quickly and knocked something over, the stand he rested the poetry on. But he read a very difficult poem at the end. He invited Katherine and Florentine to read with him, and they were kind of shy and reluctant and hesitant about it. And he said, “Well, come on, this is really a poem where I’ve indicated that a woman’s voice should read this part.” And the concept of the poem was a letter from a soldier’s wife. And they read their parts well. He asked them to read in unison. Florentine had a German accent, and Katherine was raised in Brooklyn, and when they started to read in unison, they were pronouncing the words differently, which led to a lot of uproarious laughter. And fun. And, of course, when you ask people to read together, they have to figure out their timing. And so they worked on that for a while and Jim was there with them, at the mike, holding the pages for them, and I think he read one part with them and then they read the rest themselves.


Has that ever come out?

The audio version of Collected Works has the reading, which I call the “Birthday Tapes,” because he made them on his birthday. But someone who was making decisions lopped that last part of the poetry session off and didn’t put it in there. To this day, I don’t understand why that was lopped off, this little delicious ten minutes at the end of the poetry session in which there was laughter and fooling around. I think Rhino is going to release that poetry session in the future. So perhaps they’ll include everything that went on. About three years ago, I asked the estate if I could work on that session, so I went in with a really good engineer at a studio in Portland. And we took out the pauses and the blank spots and all the stuff that didn’t belong in the session. And so Rhino has that that edited version of the reading. 


After the L.A. Woman sessions, Jim left for Paris. What were his plans?

My impression was that he was going to Paris to bring the films we had made and trying to see whether or not he could find a way to raise some money; to show the films to people that he knew in Paris — Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy and some other French filmmakers — and then perhaps them financing the next venture. And the second reason was because he wanted to concentrate on writing. I had the impression then, and from paging through notebooks, that he felt that his performing career with the Doors was over. I think he wanted to get away from the responsibility of being a major music figure in the United States, and he wanted to get away from agents and lawyers and managers and concert hall promoters. And you know, everything. He just wanted to get away and not feel responsible for the existence of this band anymore. He expresses it in his notebook. He just felt it was a heavy weight, and he didn’t want to carry it around anymore. 


Do you think part of it might be thinking he wouldn’t be taken as seriously as a writer if he still did the rock thing as well?

Yeah, I think there was a point in his life when he started talking to [poet/writer] Michael McClure about how he was going to establish himself as a poet. And Michael suggested self-publishing some books. Jim’s path from that time on was to establish himself as a poet. And then Simon and Schuster came along and took his self-published books of poetry and combined them [in 1970’s The Lords and the New Creatures], and that became a hit book. So he felt vindicated that he was on the correct path, that he was doing the right work to become known as a poet; that he wasn’t just writing in notebooks all the time. 


How did you find out about his death? 

It was the Fourth of July [1971], and we got a call from Bill Siddons who was the Doors’ manager, saying that Jim had died in Paris, and he was on his way there. And we were devastated. Katherine and I were on our way to Paris in just two weeks. We had exchanged letters with Jim, and he invited us to stay at his place. We were going to do some touring in Europe, and we invited him to come with us, he and Pam [Courson, Morrison’s girlfriend], if they wanted to. So we were devastated on so many different levels. When someone close to you dies, it takes the wind out of your sails and you’re deflated for a long time. 


Is there a biography about the Doors or Jim that you do like?

They all were mostly relying on urban legend and “Nothing Here But Lots of Lies,” which I think was published as No One Here Gets Out Alive. I won’t say lies; let’s say fictitious. The source material was inaccurate, and so all of those writers had a difficult time getting the facts right. But I’m the wrong person to ask, I’m carrying this grudge about Oliver Stone’s movie [1990’s The Doors]. Many of Jim’s friends felt that it was a slimeball depiction of Jim’s life. It’s an era that I lived through, an era I participated in, and I didn’t see any of that reflected in the film. I saw some character who was a leader of a band who was really popular, in caricature. I didn’t see anything positive. I didn’t see the anti-war movement. I didn’t see the art renaissance, the music renaissance, I didn’t see any of that. Where is the culture that we were developing? That was all missing from Stone’s movie.

Jim Morrison: Friends Gathered Together by Frank Lisciandro (Image: Amazon)

Well, I’m actually carrying the grudge around about No One Here Gets Out Alive, which set the tone for all these urban myths about Morrison. From the publication of that book on, all of the friends of mine that were friends of Jim’s have had a bad feeling about anything written about him because we all feel like it’s going back to those original sources which weren’t real.

And then of course, that book became extremely popular. You can’t go into a used bookstore without seeing three or four copies on the shelf, and everybody read it as if it was biblical in nature and just internalized all that garbage. And then it’s hard to get rid of it once you put credibility to something, you know? 

My own book, Jim Morrison: Friends Gathered Together [2014] was a result of the Oliver Stone movie. I felt that was one way of countering the myths and the misstatements and the lies and all that stuff.


Since you were Jim’s friend, what was it like for you when you began working with his notebooks? Seeing the last things he wrote; what’s it like to physically see that kind of thing?

The physical notebook was just somebody writing in a notebook. But the content of the notebook, the very words on the pages, really had a significance for me, because I was trying to establish when did he write them, during what period of the last three or four or five years did he write them? And what the hell does this all mean anyway? And so Katherine and I, when we first got the job to develop a manuscript for the earlier books of poetry, Wilderness and The American Night, we decided that we’d transcribe every word in every notebook exactly the way it was on the page. And so that would give us a head start into picking out poems, and we could sort them and make some decisions about them. It made it very easy for us to look at the notebooks in a format that was easy to read. I’m just fascinated by everything he wrote. And I’m still looking at the notebooks, actually, even to this day; I’m still trying to figure out which came first and which came second, and what prompted this particular series of poems in this notebook? I’m still researching all of that.


How was the new book compiled?

Well, it’s called The Collected Works. And sometimes that was a judgment call on my part, because although there were about thirty-five notebooks, he never dated a single one of them. No, I take that back. He did date the one on the trials in Miami. Other than that, there are no dates at all in any of the notebooks. And so it’s really difficult to say which notebook came first. 

I could see the language growing richer from one version to the next. And when I put them side by side, all the versions of a particular poem, I could usually figure which was the last or next to last. I had some idea of the order of the notebooks just by occasionally a reference to something. So I used that also. But the idea was to present the last and best version of the poems in the notebooks, and then to present everything that he had published while he was alive, whether it was self-published books or pieces that had appeared in magazines and newspapers. And so to collect those, and then find pieces of poetry that were missing, notebooks that were missing, to try to gather that stuff together and look through it and use what was available to use.


How do you find the things that are missing?

Well, fortunately, in some cases, the people who had the notebooks were requested and begged to please provide photocopies of each page, which they did. Then there were notebooks that had been brought from Paris by Pamela and had ended up in a lock box in someone’s house, and then that someone used those notebooks to, I don’t know, buy drugs, pay off a debt, go to the racetrack — those notebooks ended up in the hands of people who saw they could make profit from them, and started to sell them or wanted to sell them. But Pamela’s father, Columbus “Corky” Courson, he through his own attorneys in Los Angeles contacted the attorneys of these people and said, “You know, you’re going to go to jail. I want these notebooks back.” Well, whoever possesses something in our country usually has a better chance in a court trial than people who say “That belongs to me.” And so the outcome of that situation was that he and I went to San Francisco and met at the attorney’s office, and we were able to photocopy some of the notebooks that had somehow gotten into the wrong hands. 

A couple of those notebooks we didn’t get back. The guys that had them would pull pages from the notebooks, and sell a page of Jim’s handwriting. Yeah, it’s disgusting. I managed to track down some of those pages, but not all of them. About seven or so notebooks, six or seven, were recovered. I think there’s probably two or three that are still out there that have not been recovered. And by now probably one or two of them have been just shredded into single pages, so they’ll never be reconstructed.


So, the legal thing here is you might be able own a notebook, but because it’s not your work, you’re not allowed to profit from it. Not officially, anyway. 


Page excerpt from The Collected Works of Jim Morrison (Image: Grand Central Publishing)

They couldn’t put out their own book of Jim’s poems, but….

They wanted to. They had contacted publishers. These guys were really into entrepreneurial kind of gestures, so they contacted the publisher and then the publisher got in touch with Pamela’s father, who could easily establish copyright of the works. So the deal at the end was they were going to give us the ability to photocopy the notebooks, and he was going to give them the possession of the notebooks. So there was something in exchange.


Are there are poems that might have appeared in, say, Wilderness, that are different in this new book because you realized, “Oh, this version came later and is better”?

Certain poems I think I found another version of. So in the Collected Works, there would be a different version. But mostly everything we found for those two earlier books was the last version, the best version. There’s a section of the book called “As I Look Back.” It’s a series of one or two or three line epigraphs that Jim wrote, and they’re all biographical. As we were going through the notebooks for the first time, Katherine and I would find these and say, “Oh, this sounds really biographical, and he’s got it separated from everything else. Let’s just pull it out and see what this means.” So finally we had collected lots of pages of those. And I found in a notebook where he was intending to collect and connect all of them. And so we put them together in chronological order as best as we could. And the Collected Works has a longer version than Wilderness does of those.


Are you happy with how the Collected Works turned out?

Well, I’m happy that the poems are there for people who read. I wish they would have been done in a different way; one problem with the book is that they left out an index of titles and an index of first lines. And so it’s very hard to find a poem that you’ve read, it’s very hard to come back to that page. But I’m just really happy that we now have, for everyone to study, whatever stuff we could find up to the publication of the book. I’m happy about that. You know, nothing is ever perfect. And so I’ll never be satisfied about anything in my life.


What would you most like people to know about Jim?

I’d like them to know that he thought of himself as a writer, and especially as a poet, and that if they could make the jump from thinking about him as a rock idol and see him more as a poet, I think Jim would be pleased by that. And then to give his writings a chance. The access is difficult in some poems, but if they start with “As I look back” as his reflection of his life, kind of an autobiography, they’ll get used to his writing style. And then take some of that information they’ve gained about who he is and who he thought himself to be, and then look at the poems and give them a chance. Don’t try to find meaning in them right away. Just enjoy the language and the symbols, the metaphors, the images, wonderful images, and come back to the poems. With patience; come back once or twice or three times, and they’ll crack that shell and get a deeper feeling of what’s in that poem for them to take away their own meaning from it.


AUDIO: Jim Morrison An American Prayer


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Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

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