In eighth grade I purchased a black light poster of Jim Morrison’s gravestone at a clothing store in Birmingham, MI. I consider this to be the second phase of my rebellious stage.
The store catered to eighth graders like me who were not yet in the market for the bongs at Birmingham’s head shop, but who still had a hankering for Dead shirts.
These shirts, incidentally, like the poster, represented a lifestyle I vaguely aspired towards, among, strangely enough, a lot of upper or middle-class Jewish kids who went to Tamarack Camps – an upper-class Jewish summer camp, where affecting the fashion, if not the lifestyle, of the 60’s hippies was in style as a kind of second generation mild rebellion. Everyone my age, including older counselors, seemed to own at least a few of those tie-dyes with dancing colorful bears, roses, and skeletons. Later I’d play their songs on piano with my twin brother, Norris, who played guitar, in the piano room of our house, like Jewish Smothers Brothers harmonizing earnestly on “Sugar Magnolia.”
The poster. If you’ve never seen it, it’s a bust of Morrison’s face covered in messages scrawled by fans in different colors and cursives. The closeness of the bust on the poster allows you to read the written names and messages, which are adulatory but sad – among other scrawlings, lots of one-syllable names, (Christ, Matt, John, Drew, Doug, etc.), an anarchist sign, and something in capital letters about “the other side,” (probably breaking on through). The bust on the poster was velvety, since it was made for a black light, and the whole picture, even if it wasn’t glowing neon purple, carried a celebratory, scary, reverent, edgy, elegiac tone, like something out of Baudelaire.
This style was exactly the mood I wanted to project outwards to other people. Yet I probably could not have put that into words then – i.e. “I want to be someone you can respect, who has the power to move, even unsettle, through his art.” My quote in the eighth grade yearbook for the Jewish private school I went to – this school, which I loved, still arguably compounding my need for broodingly dark heroes and lyrics, if only because Hillel was for me a fun and pretty positive place – was lifted from the Doors’ song “Five to One,” and read,
The old get old and the young get stronger / we’ve got the guns but they’ve got the numbers.
It was absurdly militaristic and threatening, yes, but no one seemed to pick up on this, which simultaneously delighted and annoyed me. I thought the quote was important because it validated something about my own self, i.e. the anxiety and anger I felt without knowing why, and which I usually covered up by clowning.
The Doors. I loved their ecstatic sound, with Ray Manzareck’s darkly church-inflected organ riffs, and Morrison’s cultivated madness, all that controlled but uncontrollable fury in songs like “Light My Fire,” “Break on Through,” “L.A. Woman.” I also wanted to express that rage and desire, so I taught myself how to play one of the solos from “Break on Through” at some point in seventh grade on piano, and played it over and over again. I also always loved The Doors’ “Hyacinth House,” “Five to One,” and the slow rain falling after the crackling thunder in the intro to “Riders on the Storm,” when Manzareck starts in and you’re in Vietnam, say, during the war, or somewhere that’s humid, suffocating, and lush with mystery and menace, all which punctuates that perfectly intense pace, while Morrison intones “riders on the storm” with haunting, enviable bravado. I’d have piano lessons with my teacher, Mrs. Abraham, during those years in her basement in Southfield, MI, but I don’t know how I lasted even those few years. I’d play the required scales so clumsily, because I never practiced. I just wanted to be a “Rider on the Storm,” some dangerous sort of Freedom Rider. I didn’t care as much about scales and delicate minuets.
I tacked that Morrison poster onto the bulletin board in my bedroom, on the wall facing Norris’s bedroom, after our parents bought us each a bulletin board and one poster as Hanukah presents. Norris bought a huge poster of Dominique Wilkins, his all-time favorite basketball player.
Nique was photographed at the exact moment he slam-dunked the basketball, during a playoff game against the Celtics, as audience camera bulbs flashed. The profile of his face suggested intense power. His whole body was bent at a right angle, as if you could measure it with a protractor, in a bout of wacky body phrenology, and it would come out to be exactly 90 degrees. His flattop hairdo looked perfect. His white and red sneakers appeared to be levitating in pure air. Also, Norris’s tallis bag was like a sun-saturated, dizzyingly colorful urbanscape from Disney’s Aladdin.
My favorite basketball player was Karl Malone, “The Mailman,” the great Utah Jazz power forward. I liked how dependable Malone was: how he and John Stockton’s pick and roll was unstoppable, despite or because of the fact that everyone on the court (and off) knew exactly when it was happening. I also preferred, over “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose,” the show “Roc,” with the ex-convict and actor Charles S. Dutton. My tallis bag was a regular old blue Jewish star. Despite my rebellious streak, though still in opposition to my brother, I could be pretty conservative in my adolescent tastes.