John Jeremiah Sullivan
No One Here Gets Out Alive (1980)
by Danny Sugerman and Jerry Hopkins
You can't ask writers to name the most important books of their youth. They cannot hear the question—it passes through a region in the left temporal lobe that changes it into a different question: What would you like us to think were the most important books of your youth? How many authors have racked 300 words recounting the Jove-like descent of Hemingway's Michigan stories into their adolescent world, when what they should have said is Choose Your Own Adventure 91: You Are a Superstar.
I undertook, as an experiment, to suppress that part of the brain responsible for this distortion, and yesterday began to receive the first stray images. Flame-bright reds and oranges. A Jesus-like man, standing: his lithe and shirtless torso draped down the cover. His left areola—flat, dark, and hard, like an old Spanish coin—seems somehow disturbingly prominent.
Rows of tall black capital letters appear: NO ONE HERE GETS OUT ALIVE. Little white ones: The Biography of Jim Morrison. I don't need to see the authors' names. Hail, Hopkins and Sugerman, unacknowledged legislators.
In my memory there's a group of us, the world's most unintentionally humorous gang, who carried this book through the hallways in the eighth grade, always with cover out, like a badge. Signifying what? That we were skaters and people in bands. The strange tale of James Douglas Morrison, a Florida-born military brat who wanted with every cell in his body to be a great English poet but had been so culturally malformed by post-World War II America that he emerged a drug-gobbling sex shaman, canting such verses as
Ride the snake
Ride the snake
To the lake
The ancient lake, baby
The snake is long
Ride the snake
There was an album, An American Prayer: Jim reads his poems over riffs laid down by the other three Doors. A thing positively glorious in its awfulness. I popped it into my mom's car tape deck, when she picked me up from the strip-mall record store. "Her cunt gripped him like a warm friendly hand..." My mother's finger shot out toward the eject button. "I would have been ashamed to play something like that in front of my parents," she said. Exactly, Mother!
No One Here Gets Out Alive does include this one sentence, in which the co-authors address Jim's artistic "lineage," which is apparently vast, comprising "Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Poe, Blake, Artaud, Cocteau, Nijinsky, Byron, Coleridge, Dylan Thomas," and others. The list led me to read some of those writers, at first as a way to know Jim. Inevitably, they were better at their worst than the Lizard King at his best. Not that I won't go to my grave defending "Break on Through," but poetry-wise, there's no recovering from
Lament for my cock
Sore and crucified
I seek to know you
Therein lay the beauty of Jim as a literary figure. His almost unimaginable suckiness made him approachable, and through him you discovered actual writers, eventually shedding him, much as a snake does its skin. A snake does not despise or dishonor his old skin; he just moves on. He's old, and his skin is cold. Ride the snake.
John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead comes out in November.