Lobo’s sermon clarified the notion that Jim Morrison, for all the poetry he created, the celebrity he endured, and the mystery he embraced, had spent formative years in Alexandria, a largely overlooked period of time of which only bits and pieces had thus far emerged. – Mark Opsasnick, “The Lizard King was Here, the Life and Times of Jim Morrison in Alexandria, Virginia”
Note: Had he lived, Jim Morrison would have turned 70 tomorrow. I’ve timed this book review to coincide with that anniversary.
On the south side of the Torpedo Factory Arts Center you will find “Alexandria, A Place Through Time,” a series of panels that touches on a select group of famous people, places and events in the city’s history. Native Americans, the Colonial period, politicians, wars, Civil Rights greats, commerce, – they’re all there.
Alexandria is certainly not Hollywood, but the cities' biggest entertainment claim to fame is on the wall too. Earning an eye-catching spot is Jim Morrison (1943-1971), the late lead singer for the Doors, and one of the greatest front men in rock and roll history.
I was vaguely aware this legend spent his high school years living in Alexandria, but knew nothing beyond that. Checking the web, his wiki page revealed a book titled, “The Lizard King was Here, the Life and Times of Jim Morrison in Alexandria, Virginia,” by Mark Opsasnick. I checked it out of the Duke Street Library and could not put it down. In addition to an excellent writing style and providing never before seen photos, the author is a stickler for accuracy. Opsasnick has knitted together a hidden history, one that reads like a detective novel.
Morrison spent 32 of his late teenage months in Alexandria (January 1959 to May 1961). Unfortunately, he did not leave behind any of his writings or notes, and his parents have preferred to remain silent on the subject of their son. Previous articles and biographers give scant to no coverage of Morrison’s time here, and in some cases, regurgitate inaccurate information.
Opsasnick, a native of Greenbelt, chased down over 150 people. Oral histories pose their own problems, but his research is solid.
The thrill for “on this spot” freaks like me is the author’s thorough work on finding places Morrison frequented in both Alexandria and D.C. (Morrison also attended Oak Street Elementary School in Falls Church in the second and third grade).
Here then is a quick look at the Alexandria places Morrison visited.
His parent’s home near Del Ray
Morrison was a “Navy brat.” His father reached the rank of Captain (equivalent to Colonel in the other branches) by the time the family moved to Alexandria in early 1959. The author provides the address, but out of respect to the current residents and neighbors, I will not repeat it here.
Opsasnick notes previous writers and biographers mistakenly identified the neighborhood as Beverly Hills. There is such a neighborhood nearby, but the Morrison house is located in Jefferson Park. The leafy suburb rubs shoulders with Del Ray, and its hilly perch looks down to Old Town and the Potomac River.
George Washington High School in Del Ray
Morrison, who had just turned 16 when the family arrived, attended George Washington High School for the half year in 1959, and then two full in 1960 and 1961. He did not drive, so he either walked or got a ride from a friend.
Fun can be had speculating what streets he took when he walked to school, which is about a mile away. Perhaps a walk down Russell then Braddock Road, or working his way through Del Ray streets, some of which now extend or will extend into Potomac Yard.
The building, built in the classic art deco style, hasn’t changed its look since the time Morrison was there. It is now, however, a junior high school.
Queen Street (Barrett Branch) Library
Alexandria has four public libraries, including the smaller Duncan Branch in Del Ray, a short walk from the Morrison house. Only the first one (in the modern sense), however, at the corner of Queen Street and N. Columbus (Barrett Branch) existed in the 60s. The distance from his house is about a mile and a half.
Opsasnick, who conducted some of his research at this library, notes Morrison often visited here. In the summer of 1961, his brother donated Morrison’s books, numbering almost one thousand, to the library. In an interview with Kristy O’Brien, the author discusses this.
I talked about this with the many librarians at the Alexandria Library on Queen Street and while they all, for the most part, knew who Jim Morrison was, none believed that any of the books from his private collection ever made it into the library's permanent holdings. The general consensus is that the books were most likely sold off in the library's periodic public book sales. I have never come across a book from Jim's private collection and I'm certain none are currently in circulation at the Alexandria Library, though I'd be willing to bet more than a few of those titles are now sitting on shelves in the homes of some older, long-time Alexandria residents.
Another short walk to the east lies the Potomac River waterfront. Morrison enjoyed hanging here. Sometimes he visited the fishermen at the wooden pier, which then extended from the city marina. One can imagine Morrison thinking about his English and Scottish roots, which match those of the seaport city.
As part of his research, the author visited 217 King Street and spoke with Art Wray, owner of the since closed-down “Lunadisc,” a used-record store on the second floor. Wray quipped, “You know, the Lizard King’s ghost still stalks the streets.”
The author also learned Morrison ate at the Hollywood Diner at 705 King Street (Pet Store) and the Snack Bar at 107 King Street (Fish Market Restaurant). Friends also indicated he frequented Timberman’s Drug Store at 106 N. Washington (BGR Burger). Morrison, who dabbled in painting and loved all the arts, also visited the Richmond Theater at 815 King (Old Town Theater).
Alexandria Arena (Roller Rink), 805-807 N. St Asaph
A concrete brute, way out-of-scale to its surroundings, and looking like an aircraft hanger, the Alexandria Roller Rink/Arena was some kind of teenage heaven inside. Opsasnick, who also authored five other books including “Capitol Rock,” notes the venue (1948 to 1979) was one of the premier places in the region for touring rock bands. By the late 60s, the soft, mellow sounds of Guy Lombardo had given way to the heavy metal thunder of bands like Black Sabbath and shock-rocker Alice Cooper. The arena was only two miles or so from where the Morrisons had lived. Currently, a Harris Teeter is being built across the street, and a Trader Joe’s is nearby. A hotel occupies the site.
The Doors played here on August 18, 1967. The band’s self-titled first album had been released in January. “Light My Fire” received heavy rotation and became a smash hit that summer. In July, it topped the charts.
Opsasnick interviewed a handful of people who attended the show, including Phil Wood, a walking encyclopedia on baseball and Washington history.
Unfortunately, the dark forces prevailed in this homecoming. Morrison staggered in with a belly full of Jack Daniels. Perhaps he hid his intoxication on stage, but not off. I’ll spare you the details, but will say another strength of the book is the author’s knowledge of rock music, which he puts in to perspective in this chapter. He also notes that the band played in Annapolis earlier in the day, marking the only time they had to play two in a day. (One can imagine Morrison saw this as a vicious milking of their popularity).
Route 1, South of Alexandria
After skirting past Del Ray and cutting a path through Old Town Alexandria, Route 1 South (Henry Street) crosses over the Capital Beltway into Fairfax County. At that point, its name shifts from Jefferson Davis Highway to Richmond Highway. The suburban commuter vein then snakes its way up three hills to Groveton before heading down in to Hybla Valley.
On numerous occasions when he was here, Morrison hopped on a bus and took this route. His destination, about four miles from his house, was a roadhouse bar called “Club Log Tavern.”
In his book, Opsasnick provides a photo of himself standing where the music venue used to be. The empty lot at 7415 Richmond Highway is now occupied by an auto parts store. To the right stands the Safeway grocery store built several years ago. Perhaps you’ve paid a visit to Citron Lock or fueled up at the Shell gas station, a few steps away.
This particular place was the author’s biggest research challenge. The path to clarity was also littered by the fact that those who remembered going here sometimes confuse it with the 1320 Club, which was built on the same spot after the Club Log Tavern burned to the ground in 1965.
Opsasnick tracked down Ron McDonald, former lead singer for Ronnie and the Offbeats. He remembered a young kid taking notes while watching the band there, and occasionally coming up to him in between sets and asking questions. When the author showed McDonald a photo of Morrison, confirmation was made. Classmates of Morrison who took in the shows also remember seeing Morrison there.
Morrison also loved to visit D.C. I’ll let the Washington bureau handle this one, but I will say it was a thrill learning he went to some Senators games, probably in 1960. And who knows? This could have been his first chug-a-lug of beer.
Opsasnick provides some great details of Morrison’s bookstore visits on Pennsylvania Avenue. The bus from Virginia would deposit its cargo at 12th Street, pretty much the center of where book lovers wanted to be. And of course, there are the music venues he went to at DuPont Circle and other locales. One, Bohemian Caverns, still remains.
Jim Morrison, to say the least, was a restless soul. Biographers are fortunate he spent those three “formative” years in Alexandria. Readers are fortunate Mark Opsasnick uncovered these footsteps.
Happy 70th to the Lizard King.