The Calm Calculus of Reason (Pt. 8 of 9)

The Calm Calculus of Reason (Pt. 8 of 9)

A Conversation with Frank Lisciandro
By Steven P. Wheeler

In Part 8, Frank recounts the making of the An American Prayer album, cataloging Jim’s poetry and getting it released to the masses, and photographing Jim Morrison at work and at play.

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


Let’s move on to a subject that I know is very close to your heart, and that’s Jim’s poetry. There is a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to his poetry, so hopefully we can clear up some of those misconceptions. But first off, how did you become the one who has served in some sense as the “guardian of Jim’s poetry,” and is that term accurate?
If you’re using the term in some sort of legal sense, it would not be accurate. If you’re using it in the sense that I have had a strong admiration for Jim’s poetry and that I’ve helped to organize and transcribe his notebooks and loose pages of poems and worked to get his poetry released, then you could say that.
My respect for Jim Morrison, as a poet happened when Jim released his first two books of poetry. Those collections were what pushed me to become a fan of Jim’s poetry. As I said before, I wasn’t a big fan of the Doors music; not that I disliked it, I just had other musical tastes. And I had read Jim’s poems before he released his poetry books, but somehow when those books came into my hands I realized something very important and that was that Jim thought of himself as a poet.
It was at that time that I realized that his professional and personal intention was to be a poet, and from what I could tell, he was a poet. Those first books made me prize the poems and the poet very, very highly. And from that day on, I was convinced.

You’re talking about the poetry books that were released while Jim was alive, correct
Right. One was titled The Lords: Notes on Vision and the other one was The New Creatures; both were self-published in very small editions by Jim at the same time in 1969, but they were two completely separate books. “Look where we worship” is the first line in The Lords. There are many, many memorable and beautiful lines in those books.

Original copies of Jim’s self-published writings.

What were the differences between those particular books and why did Jim put them together as separate books?
Well, The Lords: Notes On Vision evolved from his observations and studies about vision, and about photography. He writes about [Edward] Muybridge and the famous experiments that were done with stop-motion photography. He writes about cinema; he discusses mass hysteria; all the things that he was interested in that he had kept notes about and made observations about. That’s The Lords.
The New Creatures was more of a book of poems, which starts with “Snakeskin jacket/Indian eyes/brilliant hair.” It’s a book of poems, whereas The Lords was more of a book of observations.

Simon & Schuster combined Jim’s first two self-published work and released them together in 1970.

Jim self-published those books…
Yes, but about a year later, they were published together by Simon & Schuster as a single book, The Lords & The New Creatures, and that happened while Jim was still alive. And that’s still in print today.
How it all came about, as I remember it, Jim sent these poems to his friend, the poet, Michael McClure, and Michael told him to publish them himself. So Jim found a printer, produced the manuscript and had them printed. He picked out the kind of paper he wanted; how he wanted it presented and all of those kinds of things.
Jim printed 500 copies of each book and the day those books came out, I can say without reservation that Jim was as happy as I had ever seen him. He was extremely proud of those books and he was very generous in giving them out to people.

Was that all of Jim’s poetry that was published during his lifetime?
Jim also self-published two more works after that. One of those was An American Prayer, which was published in a very small format (see photo above). Jim said that he wanted it to be small enough to fit in the back pocket of a pair of jeans [laughs]. He had the idea that you could carry it around and pull it out anytime you wanted.
He also self-published “Ode To L.A. while thinking of Brian Jones, Deceased” at the time of the Aquarius concerts. These are the four works that Jim published while he was alive.

But you were also instrumental in getting the two posthumous books of Jim’s poetry—Wilderness and The American Night—published in the late Eighties/early Nineties. How did those projects come about?
Those were two collections of Jim’s poetry from his notebooks and loose pages, most of which had not been published previously. Those that were published previously were in small magazines or underground newspapers.
The whole thing came about through my getting to know Pamela’s father, Corky Courson, during the making of the An American Prayer album in the late Seventies.


Let’s talk a little about that album, An American Prayer. What were the origins of that project and how exactly did you come to be involved with it?
I was invited to participate in the making of that album by the Doors and Corky. John Haeny was nominally the producer although all of us essentially produced that album.
At that first meeting the idea of making an album of Jim’s poetry was discussed; based on the two sessions of Jim’s recorded poetry. Jim recorded his poems in 1969 and on his birthday in 1970. I had been at the 1970 session so I knew the poems, and I had been collecting his published poetry after his death. So Corky and the rest of them understood that I had a keen interest in Jim as a poet, and that I also had material that I had recorded—things like Jim telling the “dead Indians” story.

So what was the initial thought in terms of how that album was going to be structured?
The first discussions were along the lines of “what should be in it?” and “how should we put it all together?” and “would Elektra be interested in it?” Those kinds of discussions. We soon found out that Elektra would be interested in the album, so then we had to figure out a structure.
My idea was to present it like a movie; to shape it like we were doing a movie. And since Jim didn’t really read the various poems in any particular order, I thought it would be a good idea to put the sequence of poems together in an autobiographical way. To start it with Jim’s birth and go right through to the end with “An American Prayer,” which is really sort of requiem.
They all liked that idea, so I transferred all Jim’s recordings to 16mm audio stock and I began cutting it like I was cutting the soundtrack to a film. I worked on it like it was a film without visuals. I was living in Santa Barbara at the time and I had a film editing room there because I had my own production company and was making films.
So every other week, I’d drive down to L.A. and present the next section of poetry to the group. These sections were rough cuts with music that I had grabbed from various sources to act as a guide. I arranged the poems in a loose chronological order, mainly because I couldn’t think of any other way to do it.
The group liked the flow and structure, and the process seemed to be working well. And when the band was figuring out the music, we would move bits and pieces around to make it all fit together.
While that was all going on, Corky Courson and I were becoming friends and we often would find ourselves on the same side of issues when it came to the preservation of Jim’s poems and words; not wanting to cut lines or words. We were in agreement and on the same side of things, in terms of wanting to keep the poems as pure and as intact as possible.

Were all the recorded poems on that album from the 1969 session or were they from both sessions that Jim did?
That’s a hard question to answer accurately off the top of my head. I think that a majority of the material came from the ’69 tape which we refer to as the “Elektra Tape,” versus the “Village Recorder Tape,” which was the one we recorded on Jim’s birthday in 1970.

Jim recording his poetry on what turned out to be his final birthday on December 8, 1970.

Knowing that Jim wanted to keep his poetry separate from his work with the Doors, did you have any reservations about what you were doing with the American Prayer album?
Well, I didn’t come into the project having any options. They were doing this album the way they were doing it—meaning the Doors were supplying the music behind Jim’s spoken words—and I could either be a part of the project or not be a part of the project.
But it was going to be a Jim Morrison album; it was not going to be a Doors album and that was already set in stone by Corky Courson. He had set the parameters and I could either accept them or not, and within those parameters I saw that it wasn’t all that different than a poet reading his poetry with a jazz trio playing behind him, and that’s always been an acceptable practice of presenting poetry.
But in answer to your question, yeah, I had my reservations about it initially. I thought that the purity of Jim’s voice and the purity of the poetry might be better served without musical accompaniment, but, on the other hand, I also believed that Jim’s poetry would have a much better chance of getting public exposure if the three remaining Doors were involved in the project.
In retrospect I believe that it was the best job that we could have done at that time to make a poetry album that had a chance of national exposure. I don’t know if we would have gotten the same reviews and airplay if we had released an album of Jim reading his poetry without any musical textures.
And the album did get national exposure. It even made the Billboard Charts. It won a Grammy nomination for “Best Spoken Word Album” and it won the Netherlands equivalent of the Grammy—the Edison Award—that year. There were some really good reviews, and in the end, the album garnered national exposure for Jim’s poetry, and that was very important to both Corky Courson and I.

What do you think of that album now?
I think the fans and the public appreciated it and they appreciated the music as well. I personally think that the Doors did a very good job in creating music that fit the poetry. What they really did was write a movie score for a film that had no visuals, so I’m thrilled with the end result.
But, at the same time, I’m also anxious for the release of Jim’s poetry recordings in their purest form; the way they were originally recorded. I would love to take all the poems that Jim recorded in those two sessions and the poems that I recorded at the Norman Mailer benefit [May, 1969], with Robbie playing guitar behind him. I would love to be able to put all that material together and put it out on a CD.

Let’s talk about the poetry books that you did help get released, Wilderness and The American Night. Did you push to make those projects happen?
Well, several years after the An American Prayer album, Corky Courson told me that he was thinking about publishing some of Jim’s poetry and I told him that I’d like to be involved in any way that I could be of help.
He had no experience with publishing books, while I had already published my first book, An Hour For Magic, so I could help there. Plus, being a film editor and a filmmaker, you have to understand the process of collecting material and sifting through it all in order to start a project, mold that project, and create a finished work.

So, yeah, I pushed for it. I wanted to do it. The Coursons accepted that Katherine and I would also handle the editorial work associated with the project. I told the Coursons in the bluntest way possible that we could do the best job for them and that we deserved a shot at it. They gave us that shot, the books were published, and they were very successful.

During that time, and since that time, you and Kathy cataloged all of Jim’s personal notebooks. Can you give us a taste of what’s in them?
Well, there’s several notebooks devoted exclusively to the Miami trial. I don’t know if I’d describe it as extensive, but there are several notebooks where Jim wrote about the trial during the time of the trial. There are the type of observations he published in The Lords: Notes On Vision. There’s lots of very interesting material in those notebooks and there are lots and lots of pages.
We transferred everything in those notebooks to the computer and used a software program to analyze it all; to help find the similarities and any redundancies and sift all that out. So I have a very good overview of everything he wrote.

In terms of the Miami trial notebooks, do you recall anything that was especially interesting?
Everything is interesting. Jim’s observations on the judge. His observations on the witnesses. His observations on the people in the gallery. His observations on the jurors. Everything from Jim’s unique viewpoint as both the perp and the victim [laughs], because he was both the perp and the victim. It’s all very interesting and it should be published, perhaps even along with a complete transcript of the performance itself so people would have that context to refer to, as well as some photographs.

Why do you think these projects are so slow to come around?
I don’t know. Since the Coursons and Katherine and I published Wilderness and The American Night, nothing else has come out. Why? The American Night and Wilderness both sold very well and went into translations in other countries. They’re still in publication today, but nothing came out after that.
It frustrates me to think that people are asking, “Is this it? Is this all he did?” I’m here to tell you folks that this is not all he did; there’s more. When we began cataloging all Jim’s material, I didn’t realize how many notebooks there were. I didn’t realize how much material there was.
I also didn’t realize how much polishing of his work the guy did. He was a craftsman of the highest degree. He not only practiced his craft, but he polished his craft. He polished it and polished it and polished it; just like any good craftsman does.
These notebooks are full of Jim Morrison and just the handling of them gives you a sense of the artist. This guy, who might not have been able to splice a piece of film together, but, oh man, could he ever splice a sentence together beautifully.


We haven’t really delved into the extent of your documentation of Jim and the band through your photography. Can you give us an estimate on how many photos you have of Jim and/or the Doors and can you estimate how many of those have been published over the years?
Between late 1967 through 1971, I took somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500 photos of Jim and the Doors, of which less than 300 have been published. I also took photos prior to the start of the Doors; of Rick & The Ravens.

How did your relationship develop with Jim, when it came to you photographing him?
After years of looking at these photographs and choosing which ones would go in a book or which ones would be right for a magazine, I’ve come to the conclusion that when Jim and I were getting to know each other and becoming friends in 1968, he was a little more aloof and maybe a little more uptight or tense when I aimed the camera at him.
But as we got to know each other better and he got to understand my way of doing photography, he changed—maybe he trusted me—and so we had eye-contact and dialogue happening.
Jim was a different person around the time of L.A. Woman. He was really relaxed and pretty loose and I can see within the images of Jim during that time that he just wasn’t carrying around this burden of whatever it was that he was carrying around in the earlier years. So I see a much more relaxed Jim Morrison when he was recording L.A. Woman and I was shooting that session.

How did this photographer/subject relationship work? Were you hired as a photographer to shoot these things or were you more of a friend who always had his camera with him and Jim was open to letting you shoot whatever you wanted whenever you wanted?
I was asked to make photographs on several occasions. One was the Critique TV show and one was the Northwest Tour that included concerts in Seattle and Vancouver. Those were instances where they specifically asked me to make photographs. There might have been a few other times, but those are the two that stick out in my mind at the moment.
Then, because I was the kind of photographer that I was—a documentarian—I tended to carry my camera around with me a lot and I would make photographs of whatever appealed to me in a variety of situations. So I had the opportunity to take these photographs because I had the camera, and, more importantly, I had the access.

As you know, the band’s online record label released the Aquarius performances a while back and I know that you took some amazing photos at those gigs…
For that show I was asked by the record company, Elektra, not by the Doors, to take photographs because they needed something for the album cover. The irony of that concert situation is that Chip Monck was hired to do the lights for the Aquarius shows. Chip Monck is famous for his work at Woodstock and is well-known for his work as a lighting director. And he decided that for the Aquarius shows, the lighting would be red and blue and that the stage would be dark all the time [laughs]. This is not a wonderful choice for a photographer; and especially back in the Sixties when film-speed wasn’t all that fast.
I should add that I asked a friend of mine, Bill Daugherty, who was the best young photographer that I knew at the time, to help me with the Aquarius shoot. In fact, I should probably start labeling all the photos from the Aquarius session with both of our names because I can’t tell which ones Bill shot and which ones I shot anymore.
Anyway, we had a very hard time at the Aquarius because the lighting was so piss-poor—good for the performance, but piss-poor for a photographer—so I ended up submitting a photo that Elektra liked which was the band shot from behind, with Jim being furtherest from the lens and all the guys are in a sort of silhouette with their back to the camera. It’s a striking shot, a striking image, and it’s colorful because the lights are coming at you.

Frank’s photo from The Aquarius concerts that became the album cover for The Doors’ Absolutely Live album.

The record company liked it a lot, but the marketing people hated it because there was no image of Jim from the front. So they took a photo of Jim from another year, from another concert, and plastered it over my image of the band. And that’s what the cover of Absolutely Live looked like, which pissed me off to no end. And it made me realize that the aesthetics of record companies are often dominated by their marketing department, both for the content of the album and its packaging.
They couldn’t do that to me now, because I make sure that no one can in any way tamper with any of the photographs that I submit for publication. You cannot crop it, you cannot put anything on it, you cannot do anything to it or with it. You can publish it, that’s it. You can’t even spread it over two pages in a magazine or a book, if there’s a seam in the middle. I’m trying to protect these images because I believe they are historical documents.

Over the years that I’ve been following the Doors and Jim’s life in a variety of ways, what I’ve come to appreciate when it comes to your photo library is not the concert photos, but rather the candid off-stage Jim Morrison. Do you have a lot of those types of photos that remain unpublished?
Well, the archives are filled with thousands of photos, as I said. But a lot of those are not publishable because of lighting or maybe they’re very similar to ones that were published—literally a photo-strip of nearly identical photos.
With that said, there are photos that haven’t been published because I haven’t found the right place or project to publish them. Hopefully I’ll be able to publish them in the future, and hopefully a lot of them will be the kinds of photographs that you’re talking about; the kind taken in an informal, off-stage moment. I think one of my problems was that I would get distracted. I would take a couple of pictures of Jim and then I would get distracted by other things that I would see that might make for interesting photo-compositions.

During a break from the Miami Trial in 1970, Jim’s closest friends took Jim to the Bahamas to get away and do some fishing. Frank took this photo of Babe, Jim, and attorney Max Fink celebrating an impressive haul.

For instance, there was this one time where I was scouting locations for a movie that I was doing and Jim was happy to tag-along, but I took only one picture of him that entire afternoon. At one point, he happened to be in one location that I was photographing and he happened to be at a good angle and I took one photo of him while we were out there. That photo’s never been published, but I could have taken a hundred photographs of him that day. I didn’t take advantage of those times because I just thought he was always going to be around, ya know.
I could have documented Jim more strongly, especially in those moments when he wasn’t the performer or the recording artist, if I wasn’t so casual about it. But I wasn’t thinking that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to take more photos of Jim.

The Calm Calculus of Reason – Pt. 9


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

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