The Lizard King Play: Jay Jones Interview

Jay Jones

DE: Tell us a little about yourself, what’s your background?
Jay Jones: I’m an American who first came to the UK in the mid-60s at the age of 20. I grew up in and around San Francisco, started hanging around in North Beach from the age of 14 and eventually did a little acting with the Mime Troupe. I had the good fortune to have lived in the Haight Ashbury before the media turned it into a theme park. In London I did the starving writer routine, declined my long-distance Induction notice, published short stories in Transatlantic Review and other writings around and outside the general commotion of the era’s alternative and literary media scene, like International Times, Cozmic Comix, Running Man, Ink, The Fanatic, Wordworks, Chelsea Scoop, Agenda, Mayfair, Science Fiction Monthly. I have almost always made some kind of living out of writing but mostly journalism or commercial communications. I also write and direct film and video – again wide ranging, from interviews with poets and artists to corporate docs and TV commercials. Now I live in Dartmouth, Devon – a place that reminds me a little of Sausalito without either its real or assumed counter-cultural heritage.

DE: How did you come upon the idea to write The Lizard King?
Jay Jones: I was asked to draft a story for an underground comic magazine, a one-off titled Rock and Roll Madness. There was a list of rock stars to choose from as subjects and Morrison was the only one, not picked by other writers that appealed to me. The comic was published by one of the former Oz magazine editors, Felix Dennis, who is now the richest man in the known universe and has lately morphed himself into a bacchanalian Rudyard Kipling. The strip was too late for the deadline and didn’t get run in the magazine so I sent it to a friend, the playwright poet anarchist Heathcote Williams. One afternoon when we got wrecked backstage at The Royal Court Theatre he insisted I should turn the strip into a play. So I did.

DE: You seem to have a good command of the characters’ voices; did you do much research?
Jay Jones: As you probably know there is actually a Lizard King 1 and a Lizard King 2. The first play has very little to do with biographical matters, but essentially enlists the mythic persona of Morrison as a spirit guide for social and sexual revolutionary diatribe. There are two long, almost mind numbing, monologues that sandwich a play-lette concerning some weirdos negotiating how to exploit the Lost Paris Tapes. At the time I didn’t even know that such tapes really existed. The material was influenced by its underground strip origin so had more in common with Robert Crumb and S. Clay Wilson although theatrically it fits in with some of the La Mama work around then, Jean Claude van Itallie’s plays perhaps. When the play opened in Tribeca in New York I flew over for the final rehearsals and the first night. On the plane I had a discussion about the play and Morrison with Adam Ant. He and his colony were on the way to their first US tour. He was enthusiastic but not very interesting and didn’t manage to turn up for opening night. The thing was originally going to run at the Mudd Club but changed at the last minute to the Judy Caden Gallery in Tribeca. It was an unusual but strong cast that included Gabriel Connaughton as Jim, the strangest Morrison impression anyone is ever likely to see.

His brother Shane nabbed an Oscar for his screenplay of My Left Foot but hijacked a couple of good lines from The Lizard King for a BBC telly play. There was also Chris Fairbank, best known now for the long running British TV series Auf Wiedersein Pet.

On the day that the play was going to open I had something of a premonition… it concerned the one other time I had been in New York on my way to Europe, 15 years before. For a few weeks I stayed with a girl I knew from the Haight called Pam Adams.

This was in an apartment on 57th Street across from The Russian Tearoom that she was borrowing from an actor who was working out of town. His name was Tom Baker and years after that I had read about him getting into trouble with Morrison on a flight to that concert. When the call came to the theatre I knew who was calling but still don’t know how or why. Baker turned up, saw the show and we spent the rest of the night talking in an Irish tavern around the corner. He told me about his romance with Pam and his friendship with Jim. He took a copy of the script with the idea of working on it and getting it in front of Joe Papp at The Public Theatre. After I got back to the UK I talked to him on the phone a couple of times and he had run some workshops on the play and was intending to direct and play Jim in a production. After a lull I heard from Gabriel who wanted to set up a production in London and he mentioned that Tom had died from a heroin overdose. This was in September of 1982, on his birthday, I understand. Gabriel did set up a London run in 1983, which was a disaster, although he first put together a very fine production of another play of mine, Rivers of Blood.

The second Lizard King was written in two stages following approaches to revive it in London and some years later to produce it in LA. I went back to my Tom Baker notes and also had the benefit of the growing number of books, including No One Here Gets Out Alive. An Hour for Magic, Stumbling Into Neon and, of course, the first volume of Jim’s poems (and near the end of the project, the second volume, which was even more useful).

The biographical information became a partial framework for the new play but the idea was to explore the collision between the distractions and temptations of celebrity and an obsessive creative spirit. Morrison’s self-destruction seemed to epitomizes the conflict. His life story (and even the cast of his latter days) had an atmosphere of archetypal Greek tragedy. The voices seemed to arise naturally from what I knew of the people, the situation and even other, similar personalities that I had known from the literary and rock scenes.

DE: Are you a big Doors fan?
Jay Jones: I was always interested in much of the Doors work. A friend of mine was employed at the U S Navy offices off Grosvenor Square when the first album came out. He bought it because the daughter of an admiral posted to London had told him that her brother was the lead singer. This was Anne of course and I actually heard the album the first time at a party at her flat. It was a period when music was supposed to be the engine of cultural and social revolution but so much of it was lightweight hippie confection or not very convincing as a musical experience. The Frisco bands were pretty charmless outside the total live experience and the newer London groups like Pink Floyd and Soft Machine either instrumentally incompetent or self absorbed in sound experiments. The Doors could be listened to for pleasure, had mystery and an irresistible dimension of risk.

DE: The Lizard King was contemporaneous of The Doors movie; did it influence you positively or negatively?
Jay Jones: From the mid 80s onward a lot of the enquiries I had about the play from the UK and the US was with an eye towards turning it into a movie. The often floated Hollywood bio-pic was always being delayed by the Morrison family or the Courson family or Doors’ band members. Once even John Travolta was in the frame to play Jim. By the time Stone had powered through his project the final version of the play was settled. I offered to give him access to some of my research but he replied that his co-writers and researchers were done and he had the script all tied up by then. The director of the LA production held back his dates until after The Doors movie was released thinking we could ride on its publicity and certainly we did get a lot of advance. Stephen Nichols was interviewed on a US national talk show, got picked up on the local TV news and with a good feature in the LA Times. There’s hardly anything in common with the movie and the play except, I was told, that the beard that Nichols used was the same one that Kilmer wore. He shouldn’t have played Jim as bearded but he worried that without it he didn’t look as much like Morrison as he should.

DE: Did you come to Morrison and The Doors through the Living Theatre?
Jim had a background in theatre so did any of these influences on Morrison give you any insight into his character?
Jay Jones: Well, as you can see I didn’t get there through the Living Theatre, but I was highly aware of their appeal to Jim and his interest in transforming concerts into Artaudian, Theatre of Cruelty style events. The play is definitely in the line of this and has something of a challenge in it, permitting the very dark aspect of my Morrison character to give the audience a rough ride. The device of him speaking his thoughts into a tape recorder is wonderful for this purpose and links to one of the play’s forbearers… Krapp’s Last Tape (by Samuel Beckett). The other main theatrical touchstones are The Connection and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, which Nichols immediately responded to when I said to use its flavour in his scenes with Pam. The other big reference is Michael McClure’s The Beard, alluded to in the dialogue, although in The Lizard King it’s Pam that goes down (futilely) on Jim rather than Billy the Kid on Harlow.

DE: How many plays have you written?
Jay Jones: Around five or six, although only three have made it into production.

DE: Who are your influences?
Jay Jones: I’m not sure how to reply to this, as the answer tends to vary according to what I’m working on. There’s also a danger of just mentioning people that I am enjoying reading at any given time. During the writing of The Lizard King I refreshed my tone by looking at the plays mentioned above and also the poetry of Gregory Corso and Leonard Cohen and listening to Neil Young. I almost always have music on when I’m writing and at some level this probably has more of an effect. I keep going back to P J Harvey, Natalie Merchant, Cohen, Dylan, Jan Garbarek, Hector Zazou, Buckethead, Mike Shrieve, Enigma, Narcotango… sorry, it’s hard to know when to stop and I’m starting to feel like one of those people who list their favourite things on Amazon.

DE: What are you working on now?
Jay Jones: I have been researching a possible book, certainly a long article for Beat Scene magazine, mostly about the American expat writers, theatre people and counterculture operators who lived in and around London in the 60s and the 70s. Some of this will involve a history of the Transatlantic Review, which I had some connections with including winning one of its awards for short fiction. Otherwise I’ve gone back to writing poetry more and working on a new play. I know who the characters are in this but not sure what it’s going to say, only that it’s looking at the way humans negotiate both their needs for each other and their self interests in a mix of intuition and calculation, which are often at odds.

DE: Thank you for talking with me.

Originally published March 16, 2012

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