Exclusive to STR
February 2, 2007
They called him The Lizard King (I can do anything...). Later, he called himself Mr. Mojo Risin' -- an anagram for his own name first sung in "L.A. Woman." Since his untimely death over 35 years ago, James Douglas Morrison has both fascinated and deeply moved millions of people, young and old, across the world. Whether through the music of his infamous band, The Doors, or through his written words and poetry, or by example of his amazing life, generation after generation just can't seem to get enough of Morrison's essential message: You are whoever and whatever you want to be.
A sufficient number of books have been written about Jim's life to fill a small library. There was the 1991 Oliver Stone film which, in spite of being a huge box-office success, has had both its supporters and detractors. The Doors' music, which spanned but a meteoric flicker from 1965 to 1971 (their first LP was not released until 1967 at that), has increased exponentially in popularity. They are, in fact, far more popular today than when they were performing live on a regular basis in the late 1960s. Jim's gravesite, located at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris , is the third largest tourist attraction in that city -- after only the Eifel Tower and the Louvre. All of this, aside from being amazing, begs the question, Why? What is it that still attracts us to this Jim Morrison like so many moths to a raging flame (Try to set the night on fiiiiiiirrrrrre!)?
Jim was born, like so many others, during the 1940s Baby Boom. His father, George S. Morrison, was at that time a U.S. Navy captain, and later rose to the rank of Rear Admiral -- becoming the youngest man at that time to do so in the Navy's entire history. Reputedly, Jim's home life, which also included his mother Clara, brother Andy, and sister Anne, was strictly conservative and ultra-traditional. It is not difficult to see that Jim rejected these values. What fueled Jim's imagination were French impressionist painters and Romantic poets -- most especially Arthur Rimbaud, whom he revered. He was also enamored of Jack Kerouac's 1957 novel, On the Road, along with William S. Burroughs' The Naked Lunch and all of the other Beat writers and poets of the 1950s and early '60s. He was deeply influenced by the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the theatrical theories of Antonin Artaud, and the heroic exploits of Alexander the Great. He read all of these profound minds and more, surrounding himself with literally hundreds and hundreds of books, searching for the meaning behind it all, determined to ascertain whether life was filled with any purpose, burning for insights into eternal questions. Both relatives and friends relate story after story about Jim's exploits and bizarre behavior, most of which expressed a deepseated defiance towards authority, or were scatalogical altogether. However, true to his intellectual level, Jim's academic achievements kept him consistently at the very top of his class. One can only speculate that this stayed his father's and schoolteachers' disciplinary hands to at least some degree.
As Jim grew, graduating from George Washington High School in Alexandria , Virginia in 1961, so did his understanding of society and his surroundings. He attended St. Petersburg ( Florida ) Junior College in 1962 and '63, then transferred to Florida State University . It was at FSU that he was reported to have become obsessed with Elvis Presley. One time, at a frat party, he allegedly put a record album on the phonograph, and said: "Hey, check this guy out, man. This guy is really good." This was in 1964. No one else in the room knew who the performer was, or had yet heard his name. It was Bob Dylan.
After transferring yet again to the film department at UCLA in Los Angeles , dreaming of turning the ideas in his unique mind into motion pictures, Jim met friend, fellow filmmaker, and future Doors bandmate Ray Manzarek. The name comes from William Blake's prose poem "The Marriage of Heaven And Hell," which in turn served to inspire the title of Aldous Huxley's book on psycho-somatic drug experimentation, The Doors of Perception: "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it truly is--infinite." That was Blake. Or as Jim himself put it: "There are things known, and things unknown, and in between are the Doors." The rest as they say, is history.
With the release of the Doors' enormously successful first LP in January of 1967, what Jim's friends and companions had long known of his rebellious and wild nature now took place on a far bigger stage. America and the world had its collective eye on the hippie counterculture with its anti-Vietnam War stance, and the Doors loomed large in this arena. Their 1968 song, "The Unknown Soldier" was defiantly critical of the war, and more than just a little risque' at that time. Morrison's numerous arrests and clashes with the Establishment became the stuff of legends, most notably at a concert in New Haven, Connecticut, for obscenity; for cutting up while drunk with his coterie of friends on a commercial flight from L.A. to Phoenix, Arizona, to see a Rolling Stones concert; and of course, the March 1, 1969, concert in Miami which led to his notorious indecent exposure trial. In the wake of this, the FBI investigated and kept detailed files on Jim (as it was simultaneously doing with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Elvis, and other rock music and countercultural icons). In this, they made an extensive study of Jim's educational background, and his father's military service records. Publicly, Jim maintained that his parents were dead. The last time he'd seen or spoken to them was 1964.
During the Miami trial (which was, history now shows, purely for political purposes; it was later ruled that in Jim's specific case, the charges leveled against him would've been thrown out), Jim rarely complained to his friends or bandmates. But it was evident he was scared. Doors performances, where and when they were to be had at this stage due to the hex of Miami, were heavily monitored by police and arrest threats were now made at even the slightest violation of any and all public codes. He began to drink and use drugs even more heavily than before (though the early fusillade of grass-smoking and acid tripping had been replaced by cocaine and pills by now). He took on weight. And between his legal problems, frequent car crashes, and hard-partying lifestyle, he was falling deeper and deeper into severe financial straits. The problems kept piling up.
But in spite of all this, Jim rarely let things change his lifestyle. He was unafraid to speak out against the Establishment, both on stage and in the press. He continued to write some of his best poems and lyrics during this period, and early 1971 saw the release of L.A. Woman, one of the Doors' finest hours. As to Miami , Jim was convicted on two of the four charges, and sentenced to the maximum allowable under Florida law. His attorney posted an appellate bond for $50,000 for him to remain free, pending his appeal's disposition. With all things Miami now on delay, and The Doors' latest and last contractually obligatory album with Elektra Records released to rave reviews, Jim decided to take some time off in Paris to relax, think his life over, and focus more on writing poems. He never returned. On July 3, 1971 (or so most now believe; there is still a contingent of the more conspiracy-minded who hold that Jim faked his own death and went into hiding--a theory Jim would've undoubtedly loved to perpetuate through the rumor mill), James Douglas Morrison passed away at the age of 27. He was subsequently buried (again, by all "official" accounts) alongside the likes of Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Frederic Chopin, Honore de Balzac, and others, entering in fineness the pantheon of vaunted artists and creative talents to which he had ever aspired.
When I was growing up in the 1970s, there was a common belief among most young people that rock and roll could change your life. That it could make you free. Today, most scoff at such a notion as incredibly trite and naive. But I still believe it, because for me, it's true. The Doors changed my life. Jim Morrison changed my life. And all indications are that I'm far from alone.
Jim Morrison was and is many things to many people. Some who knew him maintained he was nothing but an alcohol-drenched son of a bitch. To others, he was a dear and close friend. To the authorities, both past and present, he was and is a threat--a bold and in-your-face reminder that anyone can choose to be free, anyone can be an individual if they only find the courage within themselves. To those of us who watched his exploits and adventures from the bleachers, he was an intellectual rebel (...in the calm calculus of reason.); a sensitive poet (Words got me the wound and will get me well.); a raucus, bluesy singer (Let it roll, baby, roll!); an unapologetic defier of authority in any form (Hey, lemme tell ya about a little somethin' that happened just a few minutes ago right here in New Haven...); an amorous womanizer (Are you a lucky little lady in a city of light?); and a wild, death-defying daredevil (Break on through to the other side!). He was every teenager's dream personified; he was Mr. Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll. He was Dionysus, he was Bacchus. He is the eternal inspiration behind every teenager's act of defiance, and he is behind more than a few, I would guess, acts of disobedience and nonconformity on the part of adults. He is always there, ever young and full of vibrant angst and energy, beckoning us on, beseeching us to join him in unrestricted freedom no matter the cost. The ultimate price we can pay is death, and it's one we're all doomed to pay at any event. The purpose, the sum of our existence is action and experience, no matter if it takes us to heaven or hell. What is important is the intensity of the ride, the complex menagerie of emotions, the wild shifting of both light and shadow. These are the things I think about when I hear the music of the Doors. They are the reasons that I will never forget Jim Morrison.