Morrison, James Douglas ("Jim")
MORRISON, James Douglas ("Jim")
(b. 8 December 1943 in Melbourne, Florida; d. 3 [possibly 2] July 1971 in Paris, France), singer, songwriter, and poet, whose songs of rebellion and desire electrified audiences and whose largely wasted and tragic life came to represent the dark side of the creative spirit for generations after.
Morrison was the eldest of three children of George Stephen Morrison, a naval officer, and Clara Clarke, a homemaker. Morrison's father had a distinguished career, rising to become captain of an aircraft carrier by the time his son had moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, and eventually becoming a rear admiral. Morrison attended high school in Alameda, California, but graduated from George Washington High School in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1961. He was an exceptional student in English, amazing his teachers with his knowledge of the lore of literature, including even obscure writers. In high school he filled himself with the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, William Blake, and the Greek poets. After graduating from high school in 1961, Morrison attended St. Petersburg Junior College; then from 1962 to 1963 attended Florida State University. During these years his ambition was to become a filmmaker. At Florida State, and later at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he earned a B.A. in theater arts in 1965, Morrison astounded his teachers with the wide scope of his reading and the deep retention of what he read.
In 1964 Morrison entered the motion picture school at UCLA. He did not find a place to live, preferring to sleep in the seamier parts of Los Angeles, seldom bathing, with a few clothes stored in the trunk of a car. Even when famous and rich, he tended to sleep outside or live in motel rooms, changing motels daily. At UCLA he met Ray Manzarek, a talented keyboardist. One day, while at the beach, Morrison showed Manzarek some songs he was writing, and Manzarek was impressed enough to suggest they form a band. Manzarek recruited the other band members—drummer John Densmore and guitarist Robbie Krieger—from a Maharishi Yogi meditation class he attended. Morrison drew the band's name, the Doors, from Aldous Huxley's book The Doors of Perception (1964), which had been inspired by Morrison's favorite poet, William Blake. The lines from Blake that Morrison drew on are disputed by biographers, but "There are things that are known and things that are unknown; in between are the doors," seems likeliest, although "If the doors of perception were cleaned, everything would appear to man as it truly is, infinite" is a close runner-up.
The Doors wanted to become a club band in Los Angeles; they nearly broke up just before landing a gig as the house band of an upscale nightclub, the Whiskey-a-Go-Go. In September 1965 Morrison met eighteen-year-old Pamela Susan Courson, who was later described as either his common-law wife or his girlfriend. He abused her, perhaps even beat her. She became hooked on heroin by 1969 and died of an overdose on 25 April 1974. By 1965 Morrison was already trying every drug, licit or illicit, he could lay his hands on. His capacity for taking drugs amazed even other addicts.
In January 1967 the Doors became a headliner with the release of their first album, The Doors. Their first hit single, "Light My Fire," written by Krieger, sold over 1 million copies in 1967. The single exemplified the Doors sound: Morrison with deep-throated, fiery delivery; Manzarek's rich, deep, sophisticated keyboard work, Krieger's clear, crisp chords; and Densmore's underlying drumming, blending in with the keyboard, guitar, and singing.
In November 1967 the band's second album, Strange Days, was released to both critical and commercial success, especially among young teens, who flocked to hear the band. By this time, Morrison was almost perpetually strung out on drugs, sometimes unable to stand while performing. He experimented with his onstage behavior, trying to find what limits his audience would put on his performance; his awkward, silly hopping about became sexually suggestive acts. On 9 December 1968 he was arrested for supposedly exposing himself during a performance in Miami, Florida. At the time he seemed almost certainly guilty; from a perspective of decades later, the charges were quite likely bogus. His trial was a sham, and the judge prevented his defense team from presenting evidence that would have exonerated Morrison.
Even so, Morrison showed contempt for his audiences; he cursed them and even spit on the girls who crowded the edge of the stage. Offstage, he demanded that fans give him oral sex in public (and someone almost always complied), and he slept with many women, giving rise to seemingly endless paternity lawsuits. Morrison seemed as much disgusted with himself as with his fans, whom he thought did not pay enough attention to what his lyrics meant. Despite his drug habit, he put on weight, developing a paunch. The other members of the Doors were heartily sick of his rudeness and his lack of responsibility. After releasing a couple of mediocre albums, they made one last good one, Morrison Hotel, named after a seedy Los Angeles establishment and released in February 1970.
For Morrison the album came too late. He tried to sober up, and for a time he seemed a thoughtful, gracious man, but by the end of 1970 he was drinking every day and working his way through the bars of Los Angeles. On or about 21 June 1970 he married Patricia Kennealy, editor of Jazz and Pop, in a witch's wedding ceremony. (Kennealy claimed to be a white witch.) Shortly afterward he left for Europe, but with Courson, not his new wife. The couple found an apartment in Paris, where Morrison hoped to heal himself. Instead, he began touring the bars there, becoming perpetually drunk. On either 2 July or 3 July 1971 he died while taking a bath. Courson discovered his body in the early morning hours of 3 July and called for help. No autopsy was performed; Morrison's body was sealed in a casket, and no one was allowed to view it. The coroner ruled that the cause of death was a heart attack, but it was almost certainly due to an overdose of heroin and alcohol.
Morrison is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. His gravestone has been defaced by graffiti, but by the 1990s it was the third most popular tourist destination in Paris. The name on the gravestone is James Douglas Morrison, the name he preferred. His legacy exists in two forms—image and music. In image, Morrison became the archetypal tragic rock star, burned out at twenty-seven, all rebellion and sullenness. His onstage antics, such as throwing himself into an audience, have become the stock-in-trade of rock singers. Musically, the sound of the Doors has been often imitated; glimmers of the rich sound of Manzarek's keyboarding and the anguished howling of Morrison's singing can be heard in numerous groups and singers such as David Bowie and Alice Cooper.
Dylan Jones, Jim Morrison: Dark Star (1990) assembles the elements of Morrison's life into a critical, coherent narrative. David Dalton, Mr. Mojo Risin': Jim Morrison, the Last Holy Fool(1991), notes how Morrison role-played in his life the romantic image of the mad poet. Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist for the Doors, has written two memoirs. In Riders on the Storm: My Life with Jim Morrison and The Doors (1990), he looks hard at Morrison and delves into the dynamics of making the music that made them famous. My Life with the Doors (1998), does not exploit his relationship with Morrison so much as it fills in the lives of the other people who made the Doors a renowned rock group. An obituary is in the New York Times (9 July 1971).
Kirk H. Beetz