One for the Money, Two for the Show: A Sit Down with Elvis and Rock Star Biographer Jerry Hopkins

 | Thu 6 Mar 2014 12:48 ICT

“I hope I see you today, I’m meeting Jerry Hopkins there at 3:00 p.m.” The message came from my friend, Will Yaryan.  It was all the motivation I needed to get to the Sunday Jazz at CheckInn99 late last year. I had never met Jerry before but I had heard a lot about him, in addition to reading some of his books and knowing about many others. A passage he wrote in one of those books, Bangkok Babylon, had altered the course of many an afternoon and evening for me in Bangkok, Thailand. I wanted to thank him. I grabbed the book as I headed out the door.When I arrived at CheckInn99, Dr. Will and Jerry Hopkins were already there, listening to the sounds of William Wait on saxophone, Keith Nolan on keyboards and other talented musicians. Will Yaryan is a former record company public relations man with Atlantic Records. His friendship with Jerry Hopkins goes back 40 years. Will introduced me straight away and I learned Jerry and I have at least one thing in common, which didn’t make the conversation easy but it was always interesting. Jerry and I are both deaf in one ear and the good ears don’t always align well. During a break in the jam session, Keith Nolan joined in on the conversation. The subject was music and everybody there liked it. At one point Keith told me the batteries were dead on his camera and asked me if I would mind taking a picture of him with Jerry, using my camera phone? Done. You can see that picture on Keith’s Facebook page where he adds the words, “Jerry Hopkins – A gracious legend.” I agree with Keith Nolan’s assessment of Jerry Hopkins. What makes a man a legend? That’s a difficult question to answer. For starters Jerry Hopkins published the best selling biographies of Jim Morrison of The Doors, Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix. In addition he’s penned biographies for David Bowie, Don Ho, Yoko Ono and almost, Raquel Welch. Hopkins is the author of 40 books, including a definitive book on the Hula. He is also the author of an unpublished work,The History of The Condom. The most recent book I have purchased, written by Jerry Hopkins is, ROMANCING THE EAST: A Literary ODYSSEY from the Heart of Darkness to the River Kwai.  (Tuttle Publishing –  Singapore – 2012). A wonderful read so far, spanning 150 years of literature in Asia and featuring those who have traveled here during that time.But it takes more than books to make a legend. He also had two stints as a correspondent for Rolling Stone – once in London and once in L.A. and served as contributing editor for the iconic magazine for 20 years. His stories are legendary and enchanting. On that first day I heard about his time as chief “kook booker” for The Steve Allen Show, where he met Frank Zappa for the first time. About thirty minutes into the conversation I handed Jerry my copy of Bangkok Babylon. Rather than have him sign in the standard place I asked him if he would read a passage on page 16, which had meant so much to me since I first read it almost 10 years ago. He did. And as he did he chuckled, signed the page, still smiling and said, “It’s true. It’s good advice.” The passage reads:“When in Bangkok, do what your mama told you never to do. Talk to a stranger.”I next saw Jerry Hopkins one week later. It was the evening of Bangkok Night of Noir, Sunday January 5th, 2014. I was at a table that included Collin Piprell, author of Kicking Dogs among many others and a longtime acquaintance of Jerry’s. There was an open chair next to me. Jerry sat down and ordered some food and drink. One of the featured authors for the evening saw Jerry and came over to shake his hand and tell him how pleased he was to see him at the event. “Kevin told me about it last week.” said the man whose books have sold in the millions. I got a kick out of Jerry’s reply on a couple of levels. One, I was glad Jerry remembered my name from a week ago. Two, I couldn’t remember telling him about Night of Noir, although I am sure I did. Jerry may need a hearing aid but his memory, short term and long term, is just fine. If you read Bangkok Babylon, which is about the real-life exploits of Bangkok’s Legendary expatriates, you will learn that Jerry Hopkins likes to have a good time. So I wasn’t completely surprised when at a little after 9:00 p.m. for a scheduled 7:30 p.m. start, Jerry stood up. “You leaving, Jerry?” I asked. “Yea. I hate Filipina cover bands.” And just like that the person who has been described as a real life Forrest Gump, for being in the right place at the right time, went up the tunnel leading to Sukhumvit Road. Unlike the Forrest in the movie, Jerry didn’t seem a little tired and I didn’t think he was going home, now.After those two occasions at CheckInn99, I wrote Will Yaryan telling him I’d very much like to interview Jerry and suggested that the three of us get together for a lunch meeting. I wanted Will to come along because I thought it would be fun and suggested a restaurant where we could meet. Will wrote back: “Jerry says, the food there is no good.” Jerry has appeared on Anthony Bourdain’s popular cooking and travel shows, not once but twice. The first time he was responsible for the footage that shows Tony on the second floor of Nana Plaza as the show’s credits roll. The second time Tony and Jerry pull up to a restaurant in a longboat  – again Jerry’s idea. In addition Jerry has written books titled: Strange Foods and Extreme Cuisine. On his web site there is a picture of him eating a deep fried baby frog. I figured he was entitled to call the dining shots. We settled on Hemingway’s Bangkok on Sukhumvit 14, outdoors by the fountain, along with a date and time.Jerry and Will arrived on time. Jerry looking fit in his trademark Hawaiian shirt, well groomed beard, large spectacles and sparking blue eyes. For a man of 78 years, with four wives, two grown children, triple bypass heart surgery, a heart attack and pacemaker in his bio, he looked damn good.All my previous interviews had been via email, so I was a bit of a fish out of water in the company of a career journalist and distinguished author, even if he has described himself as a whore monger and bottom feeder at times. Jerry always maintains a comfortable, if not joyful manner and soon apologized for leaving early on the Night of Noir, explaining that a friend of his had opened a bar nearby and reiterated his feelings for Pinay singers.  Jerry Hopkins likes all kinds of music but not all music.  My temptation, when in the company of a rock n’ roll legend was to talk about sex, drugs and rock n’ roll and I told Jerry so. But I thought I’d be clever, so I asked Jerry, since you are the journalist, what would you talk about with Jerry Hopkins if you were interviewing Jerry? “Sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, of course.” Jerry said, somewhat incredulously. Now I was feeling better.Kevin Cummings interviewing Jerry HopkinsCuriosity may have killed the cat but it has helped Jerry Hopkins see the world. There is a quote attributed to Yogi Berra that goes, “When you see a fork in the road, take it!” Jerry struck me as the kind of guy that would take that fork, every time. In addition, when he comes to the same fork a second time, he’ll go left if he’d previously gone right. Jerry Hopkins would be a fascinating person even without his fascination for transsexuals or lady boys as they are known in Thailand. I was curious where and when that fascination began. As Jerry tells it, he was in Hawaii around 1989 when he saw what he described as a vision walking on the other side of the street. Jerry did what Jerry does, he crossed that street and made an introduction to a very “beautiful creature”. They went to a nearby bar. Jerry wanted to know her story, “Well, I was born a boy.”  Jerry then sits up straight to demonstrate how she thrust out her artificial but perfect breasts and told him, “And now, I’m a man!” That relationship remained friends only. But that meeting led to the introduction of another transsexual, Vannessa whom Jerry unashamedly admits to falling in love with and sharing his bed with during those Hawaii years. And oh, by the way, she was a hooker to boot, working the Chinatown beat on the island of Oahu. Jerry told a story about his live-in lover hitch-hiking home and arriving with a large box of donuts in one hand, received from a grateful bakery truck driver as a tip for services rendered and a pair of high heels in the other. It was 6:00 a.m. and Jerry was sipping his morning coffee. If you were looking for Ward and June Cleaver, you’re in the wrong neighborhood or perhaps the wrong galaxy. The whole time Jerry speaks he has a gleam in his blue eyes.There was pretty much no subject Jerry was unwilling to get into, except, perhaps wife talk, but I didn’t really press him on that subject since there was so much else to talk about.  Even his bad experiences, if you can call them that, are memorable. The originally authorized biography to be done of Raquel Welch doesn’t get done when a terse letter arrives from an attorney representing the sex symbol. The biography is never made but you cannot take away all the memories Jerry has of being in Rio de Janeiro with Raquel and being treated like royalty. Another time, Jerry is hit while walking in the crosswalk in those Hawaii years. His injuries are serious. But it is during his convalescence that he decides when he can ambulate again he will go to divorce court, as they had already been to bankruptcy court and start the next chapter in his life, which leads to Bangkok, Thailand.“Jerry Hopkins’, NO ONE HERE GETS OUT ALIVE sets the standards for rock biographies and Jerry’s just as good in person.” Timothy Hallinan, author of Little ElvisesHopkins rock biography, NO ONE HERE GETS OUT ALIVE about the iconic Doors lead singer, Jim Morrison has been translated into at least 16 languages. It was the first rock biography that made it to #1 on the New York Times Best Sellers List. It made the list again when the Oliver Stone movie, The Doors was released in 1991. Those facts are pretty well established. I found it more interesting to learn from Jerry that the first topless bar he ever went to was with The Doors lead man in Los Angeles. Hopkins told me Morrison was nothing like the person the press portrayed him to be. “Jim had read more books than any rock star I had ever met.”  It was Morrison who was the fan of Elvis Presley, more than Jerry and encouraged him to write the biography. One reason the first Elvis biography has a dedication to Jim Morrison, who never lived long enough to see it published. Dead of a heroin overdose in Paris at age twenty-seven.When you get three hours of Jerry’s time, which is what I got at Hemingway’s restaurant in Bangkok, it’s not a matter of getting enough material suitable for print, it’s a question of what the hell am I going to leave out? Trust me, I am leaving out plenty and it is not your typical cutting room floor stuff. It would make most people’s highlight reel. The Groucho meet Lenny story has been written before, when Jerry introduces the famous Marx brother to Lenny Bruce. But perhaps lessor known is Jerry being in the audience when Harpo, the Marx brother who never spoke, grabs a microphone on stage and says to the crowd, “As I was saying …”. What was the response? I ask Jerry. “The place just erupted.” Among the biographies that get discussed but not written by Jerry, in addition to the one of Raquel Welch, is one for the famous rock concert promoter Bill Graham, whom Jerry spoke with about the possibility more than once. Bill died many years later in a 1991 helicopter crash.In the course of the interview I notice that Jerry Hopkins, the legend, is wearing the same pair of shoes he wore the first two times I saw him at CheckInn99. They are, Blue Suede Shoes. As in the the rock n’ roll standard written by Carl Perkins and recorded by Elvis Presley, among many other rock legends. Jerry Hopkins biographies of Elvis Presley are so closely linked to the musician that in 2007 Jerry was flown in by the Presley estate to participate in Elvis activities at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee and Honolulu in February, 2013. The shoes Jerry is wearing cannot be a coincidence. How many people do you know who wear blue suede shoes? I mention them to Jerry about two hours into our lunch. “I’ve got the title for this interview, already” I say, pointing under the table, “A Conversation with the Man in The Blue Suede Shoes.” Jerry smiles for the 100th or so time that day and says, “You’re the first one to notice in quite awhile. I like it.”If you look up, SEX, DRUGS, and ROCK N ROLL in your Urban Dictionary you’ll read the term is a nickname for the lifestyle of rock stars. You’ll also see that of the three rock examples used, Elvis Presley is #1: Died of a drug overdose. I learned from Jerry Hopkins that Jim Morrison’s drug of choice was alcohol. Jim telling Jerry once, “It’s suicide, one drink at a time.” As for Jerry’s own lifestyle, it has been comfortable. When I alluded to his 2013 interview, WHEN YOU’RE STRANGE in Post Magazine and asked him how much money he did put up his nose over the years, Jerry peered at me over his glasses and said, “Not that much.”You cannot leave out the time Jerry speaks of a Billy Preston concert to be held on Sunset Boulevard at a club that escapes me at the moment, but don’t worry, Jerry will remember. The concert was to be filmed. To get Billy’s true fans and to create the proper authenticity it was decided to bus in some of the residents of nearby Watts, California. The date was August 3, 1966, just a little over one year after the famous Watts riots, which occurred in the summer of 1965. On the way to the concert Jerry hears, on his car radio, that Lenny Bruce has died. He takes that fork in the road again to Lenny’s house. When he arrives, Lenny is in the bathroom, dead, naked and the police are letting people have a look see, two at a time. The crowd in Lenny’s Hollywood Blvd. home begins to grow. Jerry tells me at that moment he thinks, “It’s time to go to Billy’s concert.” And he went.What is Jerry Hopkins working on now, you may be wondering? He is researching a book in which he will profile 25 kathoey (lady boy) sex workers. That should bring a whole new context to the Joe Friday line, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

I’m no psychologist but it seems to me the mentally healthy way to go through life’s journey, is thinking the Hopkins way. Be curious. Ask questions. Cross the road if you see something you’ve never seen before. Stop and see the two-headed cow, if someone takes the time to advertise one. You never know what else you might see for one quarter more? Stand in front of the Fun Zone mirror and enjoy the distortions. Jerry will be careful in his next life, maybe. Having a good time is still important to Jerry Hopkins. The Thailand resident now splits his time between the craziness of Bangkok and the quiet of his family home near the Cambodian border in Surin with his wife, fruit trees, ponds, fish, frogs and many guests. Getting the facts right is also important to Jerry. As it is to every good journalist. Toward the end of my questioning, listening and laughing session, I reported back to Jerry, incorrectly, that I was glad he was having just as good a time, now, as any other time in his life. Jerry looked at me as if I was deaf in one ear, “I said, better!”

That he did. That he did. Who would want to be disagreeable with a gracious legend, anyway?

Jerry Hopkins in Thailand

This post first appeared in Thailand Footprint and may be seen there at: