The Calm Calculus of Reason (Pt. 1 of 9)

The Calm Calculus of Reason (Pt. 1 of 9)

A Conversation with Frank Lisciandro
By Steven P. Wheeler

Jim and Frank pictured at The Lucky U on December 8, 1970. Celebrating what sadly turned out to be Jim’s 27th and final birthday.

When it comes to the life of Jim Morrison, there are very few people who are acknowledged as true friends of the man known as The Lizard King. The three Doors have made their opinions known many times over the past 40 years through documentaries, interviews, and—in the cases of the late Ray Manzarek and John Densmore—through their own writings.
Yet outside the band’s immediate circle, the number of people who could be called Jim’s closest friends and confidantes can be counted on one hand. Pamela Courson, Babe Hill and Frank Lisciandro are the best known; yet only one of them is available to talk about it. Pamela died in 1974, a mere three years after Morrison; while Babe Hill has rarely discussed Jim on the record over the years. Not to mention that his whereabouts today are nearly as mysterious as Jim’s death back in 1971.
Lisciandro not only attended the UCLA Film School with Morrison and Manzarek prior to the formation of The Doors, he also later worked with Morrison on both of Jim’s film projects—along with Paul Ferrara and Babe Hill. First as the film editor for Feast of Friends (which only received its home video release in 2014, 45 years after it was originally made) and also on Jim’s personal film project, HWY (which will hopefully be officially released sooner than later after decades of stops and starts).
A filmmaker and a successful photographer throughout his career, Lisciandro’s personal library of Morrison and Doors photos are unrivaled in terms of quantity for the simple reason that he was a personal friend of Jim’s and had access to shoot not only candid personal moments, but he also toured with the band on several occasions and shot countless pics of the band onstage, backstage and on the streets. He was also one of the cameramen at the Doors’ celebrated Hollywood Bowl concert on July 5, 1968.

Since his friend’s untimely death in 1971, Lisciandro has balanced his own film and photography careers with helping Jim to achieve academic respectability as a poet and getting Morrison’s poetry into the mainstream marketplace. To that end, Lisciandro was not only instrumental in organizing and cataloging all of Morrison’s poetry notebooks and loose pages on behalf of the Estate.
Not only was he a co-producer of 1978’s An American Prayer album (the posthumous release featuring Jim’s spoken word poetry with musical backing from the three surviving Doors), he was the driving force behind the release of two Morrison poetry books to the public—Wilderness: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison, Volume 1 in 1989 and The American Night: The Writings of Jim Morrison, Volume 2 in 1991.
With the 1981 release of the blockbuster biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive and the cartoonish Oliver Stone film, The Doors, a decade later, Lisciandro has also found himself battling the purveyors of the seemingly endless string of Morrison Myths by balancing these hyped portrayals of his friend with modest, yet revealing projects of his own. In answer to the Danny Sugerman/Jerry Hopkins book, which he refers to as “Nothing Here But Lots of Lies,” Lisciandro published the photo-journal An Hour for Magic sharing many of his photos and revealing personal stories of his own first-hand experiences with Morrison.


“The stories that have been made up about Jim Morrison outweigh the facts by so much that I don’t know where to begin to mend the fabric of truth because its been so torn apart.”


Lisciandro also released another photo-book in 1991, Morrison: A Feast of Friends, as a counter to Stone’s cinematic portrait. This time featuring images and some quotes from interviews that he conducted with Jim’s friends and colleagues without the editorial slants and sensationalism favored by far too many Morrison authors and biographers.
Cut to 2013 when Frank and I went back through the entirety of the lengthy interviews he first conducted back in 1991 and we released these historic documents in the book, Jim Morrison: Friends Gathered Together, which is still the #1 Rated Morrison tome on Amazon. The book is available in both print and on all e-book formats.

Throughout it all, Lisciandro is not blind to Morrison’s faults, noting that he “never tried to paint a halo on the guy,” but he has managed to bring Jim Morrison the Man a little further from the shadows. Still, one has to wonder if it’s even possible in this day and age to reveal the real Jim Morrison in the face of the mythological icon that has been created and sold time and time again over the past four decades through a labyrinth of rumors, speculation and distortion which too many unsuspecting fans are willing to accept as facts. Myths and lies that are now sadly spread even further and faster with the internet and social media.
As Lisciandro noted in our own 1991 interview for an expose I was writing about the Oliver Stone film: “The stories that have been made up about Jim Morrison outweigh the facts by so much that I don’t know where to begin to mend the fabric of truth because its been so torn apart.”

 

Culled from more than a dozen interview sessions, what follows is the most in-depth and lengthy discussion of Jim Morrison that Frank Lisciandro has ever taken part in. This extensive interview also serves as a valuable addition and fascinating addendum to our book, Jim Morrison: Friends Gathered Together.

Frank Lisciandro and yours truly discussing Jim Morrison in the proper setting.

 

Frank Lisciandro at UCLA Film School in 1964.

Born and raised in New York, Frank Lisciandro discovered photography and journalism at a young age, and would pursue those avenues in a variety of ways throughout his professional life. After a stint studying photojournalism at Michigan State, Lisciandro caught the “wander-bug of youth” and took off to Europe with some other kindred souls in 1961. It was during this period that the teenaged Lisciandro began to look at his lifelong love of images and reporting in a different way, and discovered a new passion: filmmaking.
Upon his return to the States, he worked for six months to get some money together and began researching various film schools. While NYU had a top-rated film school, Lisciandro wanted to get away from New York. One film school on his list was located at the University of California Los Angeles; the allure of sunny Southern California cinched his final decision.
With that, Lisciandro headed west and began classes at UCLA Film School in January of 1964, the exact same time as another anonymous transfer student from Florida State University by the name of James Douglas Morrison…

 

THE UCLA FILM SCHOOL

Let’s start things off at the UCLA campus back at the beginning of 1964 where you would first meet Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison. Back in those days, the UCLA Film School was supposedly more about experimental or avant-garde filmmaking versus the cross-town film school at USC, which was more about helping students learn the Hollywood philosophy and get them jobs in the feature-film industry. Is that an accurate description?
At UCLA, you weren’t discriminated against if you wanted to make Hollywood films. Although most of us didn’t like Hollywood films as much as we liked European films. There were some at UCLA who were into the Wild Bunch mentality—the Clint Eastwood shoot-em-up Westerns that were around at the time.
But there were a bunch of us—like Manzarek and I—who loved the Japanese films, the Italian films, and the French films that were coming out in the late Fifties and early Sixties; and by the time we were at UCLA, these New Wave films were in full flower.
We were all excited about the future of film. It was truly a time of renaissance of form and format. But there were still people at UCLA who just wanted to make the traditional Hollywood kind of films, whereas people like Manzarek, Jim and myself were caught up in the new wave of filmmaking. That doesn’t mean only the new wave of the European filmmakers, but the new wave that was beginning to happen in the States at that time. People like John Cassavettes were doing it with breakthrough films like Shadows that was made before I went to UCLA. We were all very aware of all that and excited by the possibilities.

What about the experimental filmmakers. Was there a sizeable Godard influence at UCLA?
People like Jean-Luc Godard were as experimental as you could possibly be, but their way of doing experimental films was doing it within a theatrical film format. So they weren’t like the shorter experimental films coming out of America. Godard was experimenting with the very essences of what theatrical films were about. We were looking at that and saying, “Whoa, he’s doing street photography with hand-held cameras, and he’s improvising and yet he’s using actors, and the stories are kind of cool, and look how he’s cutting this all together.”
We were thrilled by that. We wanted something different in film and this was about as different as you could get. So, yeah, we paid some mind to the experimental filmmakers. I first got into that back in the art house theaters in New York, especially during my last year in high school when I used to hangout in Greenwich Village and I used to see these weird, crazy experimental films.

How was the system set up at UCLA? Did the school encourage collaboration with fellow students or was it more about making your own films?
Within the school, we were always working on our own projects, but we were always talking film with each other. The emphasis of the school was not to do a collaborative project, but to do your own project with the help of your classmates.
The most important part of the under-graduate program was the “Saturday Workshop Project” and you had to be there a year before you could get into it. You had to first get through Editing 101, Writing 101, Cinematography 101, and the rest of the basics, and when you got all of those done, you moved through the advanced Editing, Writing and Cinematography courses and if you got through those, you were ready for the Saturday Workshop; which was your first 16mm-sound production.
Funny thing was that it was money out of your pocket because you had to buy the film and have it processed yourself and, ironically, the University then owned your film. That actually ended up being a good preparation for what happens in the real world of filmmaking [laughs].

While attending Florida State University in 1963, Jim Morrison appeared in this FSU recruitment film. The following year Jim would come west (as he would later sing, “the west is the best”) to continue his education and pursue his degree in film at UCLA in the Theater Arts Department. Contrary to Oliver Stone’s factually inept film, The Doors, Jim did indeed graduate with his degree in the summer of 1965.


Since you and Jim arrived at the same time at UCLA, did you collaborate with Jim in the Saturday Workshop?
Jim was in the same Saturday Workshop class that I was, but we weren’t in the same section together. Oddly enough, I was in the same section as Warren Entner, who became a singer and songwriter with the Grass Roots.
Anyway, each class section had five or six people in it, and on each Saturday one of us would shoot our project which we would organize during the term and decide who would be the camerman, who would do this and who would do that. So we would write these short films, direct them, produce them and edit them, and then present them at the end of the year. It was sort of like the “thesis” project for the undergraduates.

You’ve talked about sharing a certain philosophy of film with Ray, did you know him well during that period?
I met Ray soon after I started classes at UCLA. I think that he had already been at UCLA for like six months or so. Ray did his Saturday Workshop a semester before me. He was older than most of the rest of us; he was a graduate student.
But, yeah, I got to know Ray and Dorothy very well and after my first semester at UCLA, I went back to New York and married my high school sweetheart, Katherine [who would later become the Doors secretary], and brought her back with me to California. We found an apartment in Ocean Park about three or four blocks from where Ray and Dorothy were living.

Ray and Dorothy in a scene from one of Ray’s UCLA student films in 1964.

We had other friends, but since Ray and I were both film school guys, and we were a couple and they were a couple, we spent a lot of time together. We’d go see movies together, we’d have dinner at each other’s house, we’d goof around together. And during that time Ray was playing with Rick & The Ravens. So Katherine and I would go see them play; whether it was in Manhattan Beach or Santa Monica. We got to know Ray’s brothers, too. We were all friends. It was a really close relationship; I thought so anyway.
And Ray also did his Screaming Ray Daniels act, in which he just did a solo blues thing at clubs; which was good too. I mean, Ray’s an incredibly talented guy. He can play, he’s inventive, he knew the blues, he knew lots of different musical forms, he’s a smart guy and he was always entertaining. So we loved hanging out with him and Dorothy.


“Jim and I knew each other, because we came to UCLA and started at the same time. We sat next to or near each other in class, and he was friends with Ray, so when Kathy and I would have dinner at their place, once in a while Jim would be there too. It was more of a ‘hey man, how ya doin’’ kind of thing back then.”


What about Jim? Were you close at that time?
I knew Jim a little bit. I knew a lot of the guys who Jim was around during that period, but a lot of those guys were single and liked to go to bars and drink a lot. At that time, I just didn’t have the time or money to go to bars and drink a lot, and I was newly married. So I wasn’t really part of that crowd socially. There was John DeBella, Felix Venable, Phil Oleno. Those were the guys who were closest to Jim at that time of his life.
I did know Jim, because we had classes together and the classes weren’t that big; the entire film school was like 120 students. So Jim and I knew each other, because we came to UCLA and started at the same time. We took all our beginning classes together. We sat next to or near each other in class, and he was friends with Ray, so I’d see him over at Ray’s at times. Ray and Dorothy were feeding Jim sometimes, so when Kathy and I would have dinner at their place, once in a while Jim would be there too. It was more of a “hey man, how ya doin’” kind of thing back then and we would talk about different stuff.

How would you describe Jim in those days?
Well, let’s be honest here, when you’re in a classroom, you’re not really focused on some other guy in your class. Maybe you notice if a good-looking girl sits next to you [laughs], but, no, I didn’t go out of my way to see what this Jim Morrison guy was up to, ya know?
But I had a handful of conversations with him either in class or around the campus. He seemed to me to be rather quiet. He was very enigmatic. In those days, I used to talk a lot about Zen Buddhism, psychedelic experiences, music, film, and photography. Whereas Jim was interested in things like Jungian psychology. I just wasn’t interested in that. I had a whole psychological and spiritual thing going on with Zen. Our conversations were more like, “Did you see the Stones on Ed Sullivan last night? Yeah, man, weren’t they great?” Or “Did you go see the latest Godard film? Yeah, what did you think?”
So when it comes to Jim Morrison at UCLA and what he was really like, I’m not the guy to ask. I was too interested in trying to become a filmmaker and trying to keep up with the rest of the film students. I mean there were some amazingly talented people in that school. Plus, I was recently married, which was a whole new thing for me, and the war was going on and I was trying to figure out how to keep from being drafted, ya know. I didn’t have time to pay attention to Jim or anyone else besides Kathy and myself and our future plans together.

Based on what you observed of him at UCLA, what did you think of Jim as a potential filmmaker?
I was actually one of the few people at the film school who thought his final film project was brilliant; but then again I thought that everybody’s was good. I’m just one of those people who knows and appreciates how difficult filmmaking is, so when someone takes the time and effort to create and produce something like that, I have an appreciation for it. Needless to say, because of that, I may not be the most discerning critic [laughs].
I did feel really bad for Jim because his film kept breaking in the projector when he presented it at the end of the year in the screening room. He had to keep going back to the editing room and repair the broken parts and bring it back and try again. The poor guy was just not lucky and he was not technically gifted. He couldn’t seem to splice two pieces of film together.

Jim’s love of film continued until the day he died. Here he is having fun during the 1968 tour.

What about his overall creative abilities…
Did I know that he was a creative guy? Yeah, I thought he was a creative guy, but I also thought he was a terrible film technician and that he should have tried to overcome that, because that’s what you’re supposed to do in film school; learn a craft as well as practice the art form.
He could have asked anybody there to help him. I thought somebody like Dennis Jakobs who had been at the film school for a thousand years, and was friends with Jim, could have helped him. I would have helped him if he asked me, Ray would have helped him, Paul Ferrara would have helped him. There was no reason why he couldn’t have asked someone to sit with him for a half-hour and show him how to do it properly. But as far as I know, he never asked for help and no one did help him with the physical editing and it was a disaster.
But it was obvious to me that there was a brilliant eye there and possibly a unique and strong filmmaker based on what we did manage to see of his film. I can’t say that I really understood what he was trying to do with the concept of his student film, but I thought there was a brilliance and a uniqueness in his use of visuals.

During that time at UCLA, among the students, were the conversations always about film? Or were there other communal interests you all shared?
Aside from talking about film, we were also always talking music because music was so important at that time, too. I mean Dylan went electric and then suddenly everyone went crazy. The Beatles were happening and the Stones were happening at the time. That was vital to us. Music and film were the common ground; not just for Ray and I, but all the students in the UCLA Film School.
I remember that the first Van Morrison album with Them knocked everybody right down to the ground. Nobody could get up from that one. And Ike & Tina Turner were really important and a really hot act. It was obvious at that time that a transition was happening. Whether it was made by the Beatles or the Kinks or the Stones or Dylan; it didn’t matter. Music was just incredibly vital to all of us.

Van Morrison and Them released their influential debut album, featuring future classics “Gloria,” “Here Comes the Night” and “Mystic Eyes,” in the early summer of 1965. With the popularity of the album on the UCLA campus, it’s little wonder that Van Morrison and his Irish rock band would have such an influence on Ray Manzarek and Jim. Perhaps this album was the ultimate impetus behind Jim and Ray deciding to form a band a few months later. Something worth considering since Manzarek has said that if there were no Them, there would be no Doors. Ironically, on June 18, 1966, a year after Morrison and Manzarek graduated from UCLA, the Doors and Them—featuring the dueling vocals of Morrison and Morrison—would share the stage at the Whisky-A-Go-Go jamming late into the night. The magic that evening has often been recalled by the members of the Doors and Van Morrison when discussing their career highlights.

The dye would be cast in the summer of 1965 when Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek would decide to form a band together after a chance meeting on the sands of Venice Beach. Manzarek hears the proverbial “choir of angels” go off in his head as the shy Morrison recites the lyrics of a song he’s written called “Moonlight Drive.” The rest is history, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet…

The Calm Calculus of Reason – Pt. 2

Jim Morrison: Friends Gathered Together
Print Edition Available Now on Amazon, as well as all ebook platforms

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 Replies to “The Calm Calculus of Reason (Pt. 1 of 9)”

  1. Love the intricacies and the intimacies of this interview. Just the things I would have wanted to ask. Thank you, Steve Wheeler. Fabulous work and so worthwhile!

        1. That’s all we can hope for. Although, if you are indeed hungry for more, I humbly recommend Frank and I’s book, “Jim Morrison: Friends Gathered Together” which features similar candid interviews with a dozen of Jim’s other friends, colleagues and lovers, most of whom have never spoke publicly before. Thanks again for your kind words.

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