The Alta Cienega motel, 1005 N. La Cienega Boulevard, sits on a busy corner in West Hollywood about 10 blocks from the fabled Sunset Strip. Built in 1948, the 23-room lodging adopted the mid-century modern architectural style that gained favor in the years following World War II.
Seventy years later, the Alta Cienega has outlasted a dozen competitors to remain a wildly popular place to spend the night. This is because Jim Morrison, the charismatic and controversial vocalist for the Doors rock group, lived in room 32 from 1968 to 1970. In those days Morrison paid $10 a night to stay to live there. Surly and unmanageable when drinking, Morrison had been kicked out of his former residence, the Hyatt House on Sunset Boulevard, for hanging from an upper floor window by his fingertips. I promptly relocated to the Alta Cienega which only had two floors.
The motel is just steps from the Doors’ former office as well as the studio where the band recorded their final album, “LA Woman”. More than a few Trip Advisor reviewers say the place is a seedy dump that smells bad, has a bedbug infestation, and poorly maintained air conditioning. Standard rooms are $105 per night unless a guest wants to stay in room 32. Then the rate is doubled.
$210 plus 12% LA County bed tax and a $15 parking fee just to stay in a stinky 10×10 room where the management refuses to provide clean towels and linen?
Morrison’s bodyguard, Vietnam vet Tony Funches, says the singer liked the Alta Cienega because he could walk one block to the band’s offices on Santa Monica Boulevard. “He usually ate across the street at Barney’s Beanery with his friends”, Funches says. “And he always brought a lot of ladies from the Phone Booth strip club back to his room”.
An intimate tryst with the Jefferson Airplane’s singer, Grace Slick, may or may not have taken place here, depending on which rock history book you read. Janis Joplin, groupie Pamela Des Barres, porn star Kitten Natividad, Andy Warhol fashion model Edie Sedgwick and even Linda McCartney are all rumored to have spent time with Morrison at the Alta Cienega. This rundown motor lodge reeks of rock and roll history and there’s seemingly no shortage of visitors willing to pay the price to spend the night.
A grossly overweight manager in the 24-hour motel office says more than half of the guests don’t last the night. “After a couple hours they ask for a different room”, he says, the air whistling through a gap-toothed grin. “It’s creepy in there, and they like it for a while but then they gotta get out”.
A $20 gratuity changes hands and the manager agrees to show me the room. It’s occupied on this balmy holiday eve, but the prospect of a double sawbuck overrides any ethics he may harbor. Defying most of the known laws of physics, the manager hauls his bulky frame to the second floor where he loos both ways before peeking in the window of room 32. “Just checkin'”, he wheezes. “I saw their car drive off a while ago”. His pass key rattles in the cheap lock and the door swings open to reveal the Lizard King’s den. The walls, ceilings, and furnishings in the bedroom and bathroom are completely covered with graffiti, song lyrics, and messages left by thousands of pilgrims who’ve stayed here. The initial effect is stunning. The space is a living, breathing work of art that could have been created by the misguided disciples of Charles Manson. It’s no wonder that so many guests leave after a while.
Once inside, the manager keeps looking nervously out of the window at the parking lot. “Hurry up. You got five minutes, he says. “And fer Crissakes don’t touch any of their stuff”, he adds.
Leaving the Alta Cienega’s potholed parking lot, I cruise past a couple of sputtering neon signs above massage parlors that advertise all-night services. On the sidewalk outside the neighborhood liquor store, a man with no shirt and long greasy hair gleefully rolls in glass shards from a broken bottle. Two sheriff’s deputies do their best to get him on his feet and into the back seat of a patrol car.
For a lifelong Doors fan, this journey into Jim’s world was easily worth the picture of Andy Jackson that disappeared into the manager’s pocket. Despite looking like the motel was built around him and his desk chair, he was right about one thing. There’s a heavy, palpable vibe in Jim Morrison’s former room and at $4 a minute, I was in there for exactly the right amount of time.