Note Perfect, part two

The Bandshell at Golden Gate Park, A Decade On
by Jack Hilton
(originally published in Rolling Stone Magazine, July 1980)

To look around the park today, you’d hardly realise what had happened there. The grass and flowers have all grown back, and although there’s more than a few gang tags to be seen, they’re all more recent. Only a small stone plaque, half-hidden by the ferns that surround it, can be seen. And it tells as little of the story as it can. The inscription reads:

To the memory of the 42 people who lost their lives in this place on July 15th, 1970.
“Out here we is stoned, immaculate.”

And aside from a small notation specifying the identity of the donor, there’s nothing much more to go on. Fortunately, the donor’s not a hard man to find, and it’s to his doorstep I go next.

Jim Morrison opens the door (the Door?) wide, just as you’d expect. He’s going a little grey at the temples these days, but he looks like he’s aged maybe a year since 1970, not the ten you’d expect. His full beard hides the marks on his neck, but the distinctive snake-like pattern on the back of his left palm is plain to see. This is him, the former Lizard King, now turned ‘private citizen’ according to himself, and the unofficial ‘Mayor of Haight-Ashbury’ to nearly everyone else. Whichever of these is the case – and it seems there’s an element of truth to both of them – Morrisson remains one of the most vocal critics of the federal government.

“We lost a lot of good people that day,” he says when I ask him about the plaque “and yet that’s all the memorial the cocksuckers at City Hall will allow us.” All this time, and his rage is still very close to the surface. But he’s clean and sober. There’s no alcohol or dope on his breath, his movements are precise and his diction clear. “Every time I see Johnny Densmore’s mother, I feel like apologising to her all over again.”

Morrison’s struggle with the city over a fitting memorial has been a long one, and it remains the most visible of his causes. John Densmore’s death that day pretty much spelled the end of the Doors. Although Morrison, Krieger and Manzarek would all continue to record as solo artists, and even occasionally combine their talents on stage, as they memorably did at the Concert for Bangladesh with John Bonham sitting in for Densmore, the band effectively died that day.

“It’s not just John, though,” Morrison clarifies. “41 other people died that day. Tim Leary got trampled, a lot of good people got trampled. Three of them were yours, weren’t they?” he asks sagely, and he’s right. Three members of the Rolling Stone staff also died in the riots: journalists Gary Mitchell and Hunt Thompson, and photographer Stephen Davidson. “This is just as personal for you guys as it is for me,” he says with a knowing smile, and I can’t deny it. I didn’t know any of the three who died myself, but at least half the people currently working for Rolling Stone did.

“The Sixties died that day,” I say, but the words die on my lips. It’s an easy cliché, a platitude, almost, and Morrison’s face is a thundercloud.

“The Sixties didn’t die then. If Altamont couldn’t kill them, if Kent State couldn’t kill them, if goddam Chappaquiddick and Stonewall couldn’t kill them, neither did this. The Sixties never ended. They’re a long fucking national nightmare, from 1963 onwards, that we’re all still trying to wake up from.”

Perhaps it’s this attitude that has kept Morrison in Haight-Ashbury all these years. From being the hippie capital of the world in 1968, the neighbourhood has gone downhill. It’s not quite as bad as inner city Detroit or Manhattan, but it’s far and away the worst neighbourhood in San Francisco. A big reason for this is that it’s also the biggest ghetto for Noteheads. A great proportion of that number who are too thoroughly marked by the drug to continue to get along in middle America seem to wind up here. And despite the soaring crime rate, and a murder rate more than twice the national average and third highest in the country, the population of Haight-Ashbury continues to grow each year.

Morrison will acknowledge all this, and clearly takes his leadership role in the community seriously, but he won’t talk about the drug. Not about his own use or about how high the rates of addiction to it remain in his hometown.

But there’s no way to tell the story of the Bandshell Riot without talking about the drug. You know the one. It has a million names, although the one Morrison himself used to use most often was Open Door. Bowie called it Freecloud, Hendrix the Haze, but to most people it’s best known by the name John Lennon gave it in 1965: Note Perfect.

Every official version of the riot that day blames the use of Note Perfect for most of what went wrong. However implausible that may be to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the drug’s more common effects, it’s over-shadowed in the public mind by the long shadow of the drug’s mutagenic effects. It’s never been hard to drive the American public through fear – Joe McCarthy demonstrated that, and Ted Brighton has built a Presidency out of it.

But even to those who sympathise with the Noteheads, it’s hard to avoid an atavistic shudder of fear. Morrison is typically forthright on the subject: “I knew a lot of people, back in the day, who were musants. Nothing serious in terms of powers – that part was always exaggerated by the establishment. Hell, the most common powers, if you could even call them that, were heightened senses, usually hearing, sight or touch. Hardly anyone got anything beyond that, and for most people it wore off when the drug did. The whole scare campaign was bullshit, man. Most of the people who got mutated were more direly in need of medical attention than anyone they ever hurt.”

He sighs as he talks about this, and for the first time I see him as the old man he’s becoming, TK years old, but aging a little faster from his cares. And from his nightmare, the one he’s so certain we all share.

Morrison seems less certain of how exactly we could all go about waking up. “Man, I don’t fucking know. I’ll tell you one thing, though. We need to get the fuck out of Vietnam.” And there it is, in nine simple words. The thing no one will dare say except for Morrison, and one other.

For six years, ever since the re-commitment stalled, the nation’s been walking on eggshells about this. Brighton might have only just hung on to the Presidency in 76, but he’s certainly played it for all it was worth since then.

And maybe it’s only now, ten years since the Bandshell Riot, 8 years since re-commitment, and nine months of Brighton’s second and final term left, that someone can say it without fear of being branded anti-American or accused of communist sympathies. Maybe now Morrison and Kennedy won’t be the only voices in the wilderness.

“Bobby takes my calls these days,” says Morrison with a certain satisfaction. “Time was, a President had no time for a rock star, but now we’re just two veterans of the same war, even if we were on opposite sides to begin with.”

Robert Kennedy’s decision to send in the Army to help disperse protestors in Golden Gate Park – the match that lit the oh-so short fuse that blew up into the Bandshell Riot – has been widely called the worst error of his entire Presidency, with his handling of the Chappaquiddick incident a close second. In 1970, Kennedy and Morrison pretty much defined opposite poles in the public consciousness. These days? Time has mellowed Morrison, at least, who is now more philosophical about the issues.

“We don’t understand the kinds of pressures a President is under. And I don’t believe he could have forseen how bad it would get. The older I get, the more it seems to me that there were good intentions in the majority of hearts that day, they just got waylaid by the confusion in pretty much every head.”

So there you have it. The most famous man on the ground when the Bandshell Riot occurred, and he isn’t sure what happened that day either. How is anyone else ever going to know?

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply