The Lizard King Next Door

We are humans and we like our saints to have relics we can see up close.

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.

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.

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