Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Promised Land Callin’

“What are you doing Brother Berry?”

Well, any fool could see what I was doing. I was mopping up the damn mess hall floor. But I wasn’t about to go off on Big Earl Little. No doubt, Earl was the biggest, baddest man locked up at the Federal Medical Center in Springfield, MO.

“Just mopping the floor, Earl, minding my own business.” Didn’t matter that I answered politely, he got angry all the same.

“I can see what you’re doing right now. I’m not a blind man,” he hissed from behind clenched teeth. “What are you doing with your life?”

A lot. I’d been studying some business management, some law, and a lot of history. I loved reading about American history, but world history, you could take that. I hated it. I figured while I was doing my stretch of time I could get my diploma. I always felt embarrassed about not graduating high school.

“Oh, nothing much. Writing some songs, working in the kitchen, doing half-assed jobs to make the time go by. I’m studying for my high school diploma and –"

“Now why you doing that? For the white man’s stamp of approval? You need the white devil to tell you you’re qualified? That you rate? That’s not where it’s at brother.”

I stopped mopping and leaned my chin on the handle. Is that why I was doing it? I didn’t think so. The Man was never going to give me his blessing. That was sure enough. What’s it been, five years, since the law got on my tail, starting in June of ’58 when a tire blew out on the way home from Topeka? Joan was in the car, a fine young thing, when that flat-top stopped and the state patrol officer got out.

“What’s the trouble, boy?”

Not that boy shit. I got all humble and sweet.

“Just fixing my tire officer. Then I’m on my way home to St. Looie.”

It wasn’t long before he searched my peach Cadillac and found a week’s pay, almost $2000, and my revolver, which I always took for safety on those long car rides after a gig. He didn’t ask me no questions, just slapped on the cuffs and brought me to the station. Possession of a concealed weapon. I signed my own bond and got out of there pronto, but they kept my money, and my gun. Joan was escorted home.

“I don’t see it that way Earl. Just trying to better myself.”

Earl clucked his tongue.

“Have you heard of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, The Messenger of Allah?”

I shook my head.

“He’s a black man, like us, and a great teacher. Do you know the true knowledge of the black man? We are the original men, raped, murdered and exploited by the devil white race. Just look at what they did to you.”

December 1959. Two black plain clothes cops came down the stairs at Club Bandstand, my club.

“Do you know Janice Escalante?”


“Did you bring her from Yuma, Arizona?”

“No sir, from El Paso.”

“Do you want to make a phone call?”

That was it. Charged with white slavery, but made bail again. She said she was 21, but I didn’t know that for sure. Find ‘em, fuck ‘em, forget ‘em. I forgot that last one when I hired Janice to be a hostess, dressed as a squaw. After all, she was an Apache Indian.

“The Honorable Elijah Muhammad has said that black prisoners are the symbol of white society’s crime of keeping the black man oppressed and turning them into criminals. The true history of the world has been whitened. Blacks have been brainwashed for hundreds of years, told they are worth less than the white man, especially in this country, a country that made us slaves and cut us off from our African history. We have no knowledge of our true identity Brother Berry.”

I was listening; maybe this Elijah fellow was onto something.

“The Negro,” he spat out the word like something foul in his mouth, “was beaten into worshipping a blond, blue-eyed, golden haired god. They turned the Negro against himself, taught him that black is a curse, and the Negroes learned to turn the other cheek, grin, bow, shuffle, sing the devil’s music and prance around for the amusement of white society.”

I thought of my eye-rolling and duck-walking and a wave of shame swept over me. I was an entertainer, a clown, a joker and a minstrel for the white man. I was left wide open to take in his words, words that seared my soul.

“Once there was a paradise on earth, a blissful world of black men and women. The moon separated from the earth, then the original men came and Mecca was founded. But there was one man, Mr. Yacub, who preached angry words in Mecca and was exiled. He put a curse to create a bleached out person as revenge on Allah. It took centuries and centuries to make the devil whites dominant. When it happened, the devil race turned our heaven into their hell.”

My hell began in January of 1960. They said I violated the Mann Act, that Joan was underage when I took her across state lines. Then, in March, I appeared before a cracker judge, again charged with violating the Mann Act. This time they said Janice was only 14. They had no proof, but all you had to do was look at that girl to know they were wrong. No way she was 14!

Two weeks later I was found guilty, sentenced to five years behind bars and fined $5,000. I won an appeal, and then the Joan case was dismissed in June. But they weren’t going to let me off that easily. Not the racist white judge, not my Jew lawyer who started by begging for mercy, not even trying to show I was innocent. It made me sick to my stomach. Three years, $10,000 fine. That’s why I’m here, 35 years old, in prison clothes, a black man who never stood a chance. I saw that as clear as day now that Earl explained it to me.

I was deep in thought when I realized Earl was still talking.

“Muslims do not defile their bodies with narcotics, tobacco or liquor. A Muslim does not eat pork, a filthy creature that bathes in its own excrement. The key to being a Muslim is submission, reaching toward Allah. Brother, could you bend your knees and pray with me?”

It was hard to kneel in prayer. Why? I’ve bowed and stooped and strutted and walked like a beast for the amusement of the white world that only responded with scorn, prejudice and violence. Why couldn’t I bow to Allah?

As if he heard my thoughts, Earl said, “You’ve bent down for shameful reasons. Do it now for exalted ones.”

My knees hit the hard floor. From that position there was nowhere to go but up.

“You are lost Brother Berry. Are you willing to be found? Are you willing to join your brothers and sisters in the Nation of Islam?”

I would be getting out in October, again a free man. But now, with the things I’ve learned, I’m already there. Sorry great white father. You can’t imprison my soul.

Chuck Berry’s legal troubles began in June 1958, charged with possession of a concealed weapon on his way home from Topeka with Joan Mathis. The following December he met Janice Escalante in Juarez, Mexico and hired her to work at his club. Berry was arrested on white slavery charges at the end of the month. The Mathis trial began on January 25, 1960 and was dismissed on June 2. The Escalante trial started on March 12. Two weeks later Berry was found guilty but won on appeal. In October 1961, he was found guilty and sent to prison. Berry wrote “No Particular Place to Go,” “Nadine,” “You Never Can Tell” and “Promised Land” while in Springfield. Chuck Berry was released on October 18, 1963.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Twentieth Century Fox

All the colors faded to black and white before they returned, brighter and more brilliant than before. From the floor came a voice.

“Ray, you’ve seen The Wizard of Oz, haven’t you?” asked Jim, an earthen vision in brown corduroys and t-shirt.

Ray thought he heard someone speak in a muffled walrus sound. He sat on the couch, under an Indian bedspread, unmoving. Time had stopped.

“Whoa. Do you feel it Jim?” Ray spoke, starting his own conversation. “This is great shit.”

“Where did you get it?”

“World’s Biggest Drug Store!” They erupted into a paroxysm of laughter, reveling in the reference to Huxley.

Jim returned to his own line of thought. “Well, you remember how it all starts in black and white, maybe sepia, I don’t know. Then, but then, when Dorothy’s house crashes and she opens the door, everything is incredible, the colors, like, they jump out of the screen.”

Ray wasn’t listening, stuck in his own head. “It’s like the end of 400 Blows, you know. When Doinel is at the beach, locked in the frame, frozen for all time.” It had been four hours since Ray had sucked his LSD-laced sugar cube until it dissolved and he was so tired.

Jim was anything but lethargic. His energy was without bounds, and when he talked about movies, or literature, there was no stopping him.

“Do you think everything was in black and white back then? It’s like, you know, you never see things in color from 30 years ago?” Jim was sprawled out on the Oriental rug, looking off into space beyond the ceiling, some of Ray’s film magazines strewn at his side.

He’s an interesting cat, I gotta give him that, thought Ray. Ever since the two met at UCLA, both enrolled in film school, sharing classes, he was intrigued. The guy was smart, though strange. He knew every book he’d read by heart, wrote poetry, made movies, had wild ideas.

“I’m pretty sure things have been in color forever, but I never thought about it.” Jim could be right, couldn’t he?

“When I was back in Florida, there was a person there who put me in a movie for Florida State. It was a gas. I had to walk to the mailbox, and read a rejection letter. I had a scene with some old square. I had to ask him, uh, ‘What happened? How come my parents didn’t look ahead?” Jim emitted a snide chuckle.

“Is that why you decided to study film?”

“Ah, no, man. That wasn’t a movie, it was a commercial, man, a warning. I wanted to make movies, movies that say something, you know.”

Ray had seen Jim’s student film. It was crazy, man, wild. It had no plot, something about a stag film, and hand puppets. There were Nazi storm troopers, some broad’s ass jiggling as she walked, the sounds of balling and kids chanting in the background. Oh man, the professors hated it. Everyone hated it. Ray thought it was pretty good, though it was clear Jim knew nothing about editing or camera work.

“Film is where it’s at, Ray. You know that - Kurosawa, Fellini, Truffaut. They’re for real. They know, man, they know what’s going on. Even tripping we were both thinking of movie scenes. It doesn’t get more real than that.”

“Hey, did I tell you about this cat I met at my meditation class?” Ray and his girlfriend Dorothy were hip to the TM scene, attended talks by the Maharishi himself. “I was talking to this guy, John, he’s a pretty good drummer, and I mentioned the 400 Blows. He cracked up, man, thought it was about blow jobs or something.” Ray laughed; Jim didn’t.

“I’ve been thinking about a film I’d like to make. It starts with me swimming in a quarry, waterfalls surround me. I get out of the water and dress, and, I’m walking alone. It’s very quiet and I’m walking through jagged stones, desolate, immaculate. Then I’m hitchhiking in the desert but no one will give me a ride.”

It didn’t sound like much of a movie to Ray. Where was the story? Jim was in a trance-like state, watching the weird scenes playing in his head.

“Then I talk about the Indian workers, you know, from that truck accident. I’ve told you that story, about the Indians scattered all over the highway, bleeding. I must’ve been around four years old, I think, looking out the window my parents’ car, redskins lying all over the highway. I felt like the soul of an Indian, leapt into me while I was locked in the car.” Jim paused dramatically. “I tasted fear man, for the first time.”

Jim went on.

“Then there’s an old junked car half-buried in the sand and, and, I come out of it. Finally a car pulls over to pick me up, but, this’ll blow your mind, there’s no driver. I’m the driver! You get it? And, and I’m driving down the highway, just me, no one else for miles around, only desert and mountains.”

Ray didn’t get it. “I don’t see the point. I don’t know, it sounds kinda boring to me.”

“Oh, no, it’s not boring, not boring at all,” Jim was on a different plateau now.

“Well, it’s, you know, come on, it’s obvious. Then I’m at a service station, or a truck stop, looking at the magazines, spinning the paperback book rack, around and around. There’s a dog bleeding on the highway, wailing a sad mournful cry. But I’m back in the car, bopping along, screaming for it to stop, you know. It’s in my soul, it takes me over. So, OK, so then, I drive the car in circles, spinning the tires, kicking up dust. Then I’m jumping up and down with these kids, but I’m really in the car, driving. It was like, it was a vision. Then it’s night and I’m reading a map by headlight, trying to figure out where to go.”

“Where?” asked Ray, hoping this would lead to something interesting.

“I don’t know that’s not important. I’m searching, you know, on a quest. Next scene, it’s morning, and I need gas. You know where I’m headed? Joshua Tree. That’s what the attendant says. You see?” Jim points to his temples.

Ray lit up a joint and took a long drag. He said nothing.

“But I don’t go there. Now I’m headed into L.A. through different neighborhoods, Chicano, white, black. Lots of cars, a long way from the desert, right. Houses and palm trees, like a dream. I go to Venice, lots of freaks and old people. Then to Hollywood, the Strip. Gradually day destroys the night, but it’s not like night in the desert, when I was reading the map. Oh no. It’s noisy, horns honking, traffic rushing by, music in the air. I’m in a phone booth, telling someone I’m back in town from the desert. Just a regular conversation, as if nothing happened.”

“But nothing did happen.” Ray was lost. Or Jim was crazy.

Now Jim sat up and stared deeply at Ray. He began to yell.

“Listen man, you got a problem? Don’t you see? It’s spiritual, it’s deep. I killed someone out in the desert! And I don’t care. It was the guy who gave me the ride. I wasted him. That’s why you didn’t see him. I walk the streets; no one knows my terrible secret. I ask a guy outside a club if there’s any pussy, or LSD, trying to provoke him. Last thing you hear are sirens and gun shots and alarms and, so, they catch caught me, see?”

Jim exhaled, instantly calm. A beatific smile played on his lips.

“That’s the kind of movie I want to make. Beautiful, spiritual. It speaks to the human experience. We’re all killers.”

Ray didn’t know what to say. It was ridiculous, valueless. Ray switched the subject.

“What about music?” Ray started seeing glowing colors, the weed kicking his waning trip up one last notch. He pulled off his frameless glasses and rubbed his eyes.

“What about it?” Jim replied crisply, annoyed that Ray was disinterested in his epic.”Film is the great art form of the twentieth century. There are no rules. I like that.”

“OK, but remember we talked about starting a band? I could ask John if he’s interested and if he knows anyone who would want to join. We could be the American Rolling Stones!” Ray chuckled. He knew Jim loved the Stones; they really blew his mind. Not now though. When Jimbo got angry, he didn’t let go.

“You really think The Rolling Stones are gonna last forever? The Beatles? Come on. Film is where it’s at, eternal. Remember that class we took with von Sternberg? I mean, his movies are like 40 years old and they’re still important, dark, mysterious; they still survive. I didn’t start living until I began to study film. I’m not ready to stop now. I want to live forever man, immortal.”

“Poets live forever. Your poetry makes for great lyrics, great songs. They’ll last. And songs are only three minutes long.”

“I’m no singer. You think I want to be the next Fabian?” Jim snapped. “That’s not my bag. Rock and roll is for teenyboppers and little girls, man, it’s not serious.”

Ray was taking another drag when Jim ripped apart his future plans.

“Anyway, I’m going to New York, that’s where the real film culture is, not Hollywood, not plastic L. A.”

Ray knew that when Jim left he’d never see him again. Jim wasn’t much on staying in touch. He didn’t talk to his own family. There was only one thing to do.

“Want some more?” Ray offered another sugar cube.

Jim smiled, an inscrutable smile of innocence and deviltry, as on his knees, he leaned forward, mouth open.

The ceremony was about to begin.

Ray Manzarek met Jim Morrison at UCLA, where they were enrolled in the film school. Both graduated in May 1965, Jim with a B.A. in film, Ray with a Master’s. After talking about music while walking Venice Beach in July, they formed The Doors (taken from Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception). The group, which included Ray’s friend John Densmore from his meditation class, and John’s friend Robbie Krieger, made a demo in September. Signed to Elektra, they finished their first album in the fall of 1966, though it wouldn’t be released until January 1967.

Jim maintained his interest in film, directing promos for “Break on Through” and “Unknown Soldier,” as well as a 51 minute movie entitled HWY- An American Pastoral (1969), described by Jim in the story above. At the time of his death, Morrison was rumored to be working on a feature film project.