Jerry Hopkins – who recently passed away in Bangkok – was best known for being one of the journalists in at the beginning of the Rolling Stone story, and even more so for penning the biography of The Doors enigmatic front-man and vocalist Jim Morrison, No One Here Gets Out Alive. This was a multi-million seller that Oliver Stone bought the rights to, and made the cult movie about the band, with Val Kilmer playing Jim, to great critical acclaim. Jerry was a Rolling Stone staffer for 20 years, and he also wrote biographie son Elvis, David Bowie, and Jimi Hendrix.
But his heralded past is not the end of the story by any means. I only came to know Jerry after this much travelled guy had landed in Thailand, in 1993. I had been in Thailand myself since 1988, working for various newspapers and magazines, but it was quite a few years after Jerry had settled here that I was introduced to him by a mutual friend, photojournalist Mikel Flamm. I did not really know anything about Jerry’s past or current work, but it was just one of those things that happen sometimes. We just clicked, and enjoyed each others humour and company. I didn’t question him about his past, about his exploits with the rock icons he had met and interviewed, I was content to just sit and chat with this guy who was so observant about life and everything going on around him, even though he was in his late seventies.
It was an easy friendship to fall into, and he seemed interested in my exploits too… but this is not my story, it’s his. As we got to know each other better, of course the conversations did turn to his rock n’ roll past… and I found it to be an extensive one. Up until the time he passed away I had heard only a fraction of the stories he had to tell, I am sure, and in his times of recall names such as Frank Zappa, Keith Moon or Jimmy Page tripped easily off his tongue. But I had come to know Jerry
in his Thailand phase, where he had made his life for twenty five years, before exiting stage right, and it was this part of his life that we most talked about.
When Jerry arrived in Thailand in 1993 he had made the decision to give up writing about the music scene and those who populated it, and was looking for an alternative outlet for his sharp mind and literary skills, and he decided that food and travel would be his ticket to ride. In this newly found focus he became energised anew, and he certainly did make an impression. By the time his literary and travelling life’s journey came to an end in June this year he had authored a total of 39 books, had penned more than a 1,000 magazine articles, and had lived in or visited dozens of countries.
Apart from the biographies of Yoko Ono, David Bowie, Jim Morrisson, Jimi Hendrix, and Elvis, and a book detailing the history of the Hawaiian Hula, his Bangkok period gave rise to Bangkok Babylon; Extreme Cuisine; Strange Foods: Bush Meat, Bats, and Butterflies; Asian Aphrodisiacs; Thailand Confidential; Romancing the East, and several others, an eclectic collection that had soon made him a stalwart of the expat writers scene in Bangkok.
This was the Jerry I knew, and in the early days of our friendship we would go out to the famous (infamous) red-light bar areas such as Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza (which was only just around the corner from his apartment). All the locals knew him – foreign residents and Thais alike, and he would give them all a cheery wave and a “Sawaat dee Khrap” (the standard way to say ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’ in Thai) on his way up the Soi to the always busy Sukhumvit Road. His favourite place to frequent was at a bar called Big Dogs, at the entrance to Nana Plaza, which provided Jerry with the perfect vantage point to observe the comings and goings of the workers in the bars, and also the arrivals and departures of their customers, into the bargain.
He loved people watching, and his keen eye took in everything. He once mentioned to me that Bangkok had some of the worst traffic congestion of any city he had ever visited, but that there was a strange lack of horns being pipped, or noisy remonstrations from frustrated motorists. I had missed this observation, it had just become normal to me and I had absently just come to accept it as the way things were. Jerry had brought it to my attention, and we had several interesting discussions as to why this was the case. Was it the Buddhist temperament and philosophy … no, because the noise from horns and such was ever present in nearby Vietnam, also predominantly Buddhist … we never did really decide why Thai people simply seemed to accept that they were stuck in a traffic jam, that they could not do anything about it, so they just ‘went with the flow’. Maybe that is just exactly what it was!
Once Jerry had settled himself down at Big Dogs, or another bar with seating giving a good view of the street he would order a Beer Chang and start his favourite pastime – people watching. It was surprising how many of the people passing by that Jerry knew… this was not one shy, retiring homebody – he liked to be out in the thick of things, and it was this – combined with his keen mind – that gave him so much material for his writings. People from all walks of life had sat with him over a few lazy afternoon beers… businessmen from multinationals with their offices in Thailand, bar owners and their workers, diplomatic staff from the Embassies, ladyboys from the transgender community, journalists and others from the writing faction, musicians… as well as the odd tourist who were lucky enough to find themselves sitting next to this engaging and entertaining mine of local information.
Jerry told me once that he did not think of himself as a natural interviewer, and that he sometimes found it difficult to just relax and let things flow. He said he liked to know something about the people and subjects he was writing about, and I understood this, as his apartment was full of hundreds of documents he had typed out while doing his research, meticulously catalogued and placed in his grey office filing cabinets. But I think he served himself ill when he said he was not a natural interviewer: I saw him in action and the people he engaged with always seemed to be at ease when talking to him, and that is the essence of the exercise.
To do the background research, know what to ask about, and then just let the interviewees have their head. Jerry was good at that. Jerry enjoyed the craziness of Bangkok, and the crazy people in it, but he also looked forward to his trips upcountry, to his farm in Surin, where he lived with his Thai wife Lamyai, and her family. He liked the tranquility there, and just chilling out with the locals, away from the always busy and buzzing Bangkok. On a recent trip there he told me how proud he was that he had found water on his land, and had built a well for his farm. This would help out Lamyai and her family and he was full of this news. Something as simple as a well is a big deal in the arid upcountry.
But Jerry was a city boy at heart… he liked the hustle and bustle, and after about a week to 10 days away he always started to feel restless, and headed for the bus station for his trip back Bangkok. For 25 years he juxtaposed these two very different lives, with a great degree of success. Some of the stories I could relate about Jerry are a little risqué, and I will them leave for the movie about his life that should definitely be made… it would have to be at least a trilogy, I think, given the exciting life he lived, in so many different places and countries, and the enormous amount of people that he knew. One of whom was Anthony Bourdain, the famous TV chef, who passed away only four days after Jerry.
Jerry was the only celebrity who appeared twice in Bourdain’s TV programmes as a guest. Even Barack Obama only appeared once. Jerry was a larger than life character who will be missed by his friends from Thailand, and around the world, whether they knew him personally, or only through his books. If you want to meet or renew your acquaintance with Jerry, please visit the Tree Roots Retreat resort on Mae Ram Peung beach, Rayong, where you will find the Jerry Hopkins Memorial Library, with over 1,000 books and files upon files of Jerry’s research and correspondence. See ya around, Jerry!