Thursday, December 30, 2010

Recently read: "Wonderland Avenue" by Danny Sugerman

When I mentioned on an internet forum I’m active on that I was reading a book about Laurel Canyon and the music industry in the 1960s and 1970s, someone recommended that I read Wonderland Avenue: Tales of Glamour and Excess, by Danny Sugerman (William Morrow and Company, 1989; 407 pages), I figured I would give it a try. I read Sugerman’s No One Here Gets Out Alive, a biography of Jim Morrison, years ago. I wasn’t sure how much of it was true and how much of it was hopeful memory, but as a fan of The Doors from way, way back, I didn’t find it a waste of my time.

Again, I’m not sure how much of Wonderland Avenue I should really take as gospel truth, but I’m glad I read it anyway. Now, I’m not saying that Sugerman was a liar. I’m not saying that I can’t imagine that a major rock band would let a thirteen-year-old hang out at their office and rehearsal space. After all, it was the 1960s, a completely different universe than the one we live in today, in which any adult who lets a kid not related to them hang around is just asking to be investigated as a pedophile. I’m not even saying that I find it unbelievable that they would hire kid that age to answer their fan mail. Goodness only knows, stranger things happen in show business every day, and a good proportion of that fan mail was probably from kids who were not much older than that. But I’m not as sure that a major recording label would let a teenager write official press releases for the band, or hire on a teenager as press agent and then as manager.

I suppose what I’m really trying to say is that I don’t know how much of Sugerman’s story is how it really was, and how much of it represents how he wishes it had been. Unfortunately, we can’t ask him; Sugerman died of lung cancer in 2005 at the age of 50.

He’s lucky he didn’t die much earlier, and that’s a large part of what Wonderland Avenue is about. If he wasn’t already taking drugs when he met the members of The Doors, at the age of twelve through an umpire who worked the youth baseball games Sugerman played in, he was probably thinking about it. The umpire was also a roadie for The Doors and took Sugerman to a concert one night. The rest, given Sugerman’s unhappy home and school life and his rebellion against them, was probably inevitable.

The first part of the book details how the band, and especially Jim Morrison, took Sugerman under their collective wings. We see Morrison here as not a good influence, especially, but not nearly as bad an influence as he could have been. While he did not stop Sugerman from doing drugs, and actually facilitated the boy’s first use of cocaine, Morrison also insisted that he stay in school, do his assignments, and pass his classes. Morrison also gave his young follower stacks and boxes of books to read.

But then Jim Morrison was gone, first to Paris and then to wherever it is that rock and roll drug users go when they die. Bereft of his mentor, Sugerman started down an increasing and accelerating path of drug use and generally self-destructive behavior. Still, he more or less managed,, for a time, to function as press agent and then manager for Ray Manzarek, who had played keyboards for The Doors, and as manager for Iggy Pop who, if anything, was crazier than Jim Morrison ever thought of being. But the drug use caught up to Sugerman and, at the age of 21, he found himself in the hospital with less than a week to live unless he kicked drugs.

There were points while I read Wonderland Avenue where I was uncomfortable with Sugerman’s avowals of how much fun he had sometimes while he was taking drugs. This is not, I thought as I was reading, how to convince people that a cocaine addiction or a heroin habit (or both) is not a good thing. But I think that his excruciatingly detailed descriptions of what doing way too many drugs does to both body and mind manage to counteract any impression that he might give that drugs are fun.

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