He was the lizard king who wanted to break through Aldous Huxley's doors of perception. His quest ended in an overdose after alcholism had wrecked his bloated body. Oliver Stone allowed another generation to discover the music behind the myth.
Jim Morrison, born James Douglas Morrison, had both Scottish and Irish ancestors, and was the son of Admiral Sir George Stephen Morrison and Clara Clarke Morrison.
His parents had met and fallen in love in Hawaii, where the future Admiral Morrison, who was at that time, a naval ensign, was stationed. Six months after Jim was born, his mother moved back to the mainland to live with her husband’s parents, Paul and Caroline Morrison, in Clearwater, Florida, whilst her husband shipped out to serve on the Pacific front throughout the remaining years of World War II.
Morrison’s father rose to the rank of Admiral in the U.S. Navy, and commanded the local fleet from his flagship, USS Bon Homme Richard, during the Tonkin Gulf incident. Jim’s mother remained in Florida with her baby son, and Jim did not actually meet his father until 1946, when he was two years old. Jim later acquired a sister, Anne Robin, born in 1947, and a brother, Andrew “Andy” Lee, born in 1948.
According to Jim Morrison himself, one of the most important and formative events of his life occurred when he was just five years old. The family was taking a road trip in New Mexico, when Jim and his parents and grandmother came across the scene of a road accident whilst travelling through the desert.
Jim wrote about the incident in the words of his song, 'Peace Frog', and also in the song, 'The Ghost Song': “Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding// Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile egg-shell mind.” Jim has said that he realised the Indians were bleeding to death, as there was no medical assistance available, and that he, as a small child, felt deeply afraid as he witnessed this event.
He believed that the souls of the newly-dead Indians were running around, “freaked-out”, and that one of the souls had entered his body. Curiously, Morrison’s parents have denied that the incident in the desert ever took place. Commenting about the incident, Morrison has said that he was so upset, his parents told him he was “just having a bad dream”, in order to calm him down. But regardless of his parents’ denial, Morrison referred to the incident repeatedly in song, poems and lyrics throughout his life.
Morrison’s early life was the kind of nomadic existence that’s typical of many children who grow up in military families. Being raised in such a strict and disciplinarian environment, Morrison was a dutiful and respectful child who did extremely well at school, and excelled at swimming and other outdoor pursuits. For a while, his parents hoped that he would follow his father into the Navy, and enter the United States Naval Academy at Anapolis, in Maryland.
As he embarked on adolescence, however, Morrison discovered alcohol, and settled into a lifelong routine of excessive drinking and drug abuse which soon put paid to his parents’ dreams of naval glory. He became a disruptive student - although he did succeed in graduating from George Washington High School in Alexandria Virginia in June 1961.
His father was transferred to serve in California, and Morrison returned to Clearwater, Florida, to live with his grandparents once more. He attended school at St Petersburg Junior College, but carried on drinking and carousing until late every night. He would frequently go out late and return home drunk, in order to annoy his grandparents. Neither of his grandparents drank alcohol, so he would purposely leave empty bottles and beer cans in the garbage where they would see them.
Morrison began his university career at Florida State University, but he had already developed a passion for film, so with the encouragement of one of his FSU Tutors, he transferred to UCLA’s film school in Los Angeles, the Theatre Arts Department of the College, where he completed his Bachelor’s Degree. Jim made two films whilst studying at UCLA, one called 'First Love', the other was a longer film called 'Obscura'.
After graduating from UCLA in 1965, Morrison headed for the artsy, bohemian communities of artists and musicians who hung out in and around Venice Beach, a suburb of L.A. Money was tight, so Jim soon lost weight, and his face acquired the lean, chiselled features that would later became world-famous in the black-and-white photos by Joel Brodsky which would appear on the cover of his future music album, 'Best Of The Doors'.
Jim was a keen poet, and whilst reading his work live at a poetry reading in Venice, he hooked up with fellow ex-UCLA student Ray Manzarek, who was immediately intrigued by Morrison’s writing and lyrics. The two budding bandmates were joined by drummer John Densmore shortly afterwards. The guitarist Robby Krieger auditioned for the group at Densmore’s recommendation - and so The Doors were born. Since experimenting with drugs was such a major part of Morrison’s lifestyle, it’s believed that the band’s title came from the title of the book written by Aldous Huxley on the effects of drugs on human perception, 'The Doors of Heaven and Hell'.
The Doors soon created a sound that was highly innovative, and a fitting accompaniment to Morrison’s distinctive, haunting baritone voice. Ray Manzarek played keyboards, whilst Krieger’s guitar style featured elements drawn from both his classical training, and Spanish flamenco guitar. Interestingly, there was no bass guitar in the lineup, and this is one of the factors that made The Doors musically unique at that time. The bass element of the music was actually provided by Manzarek on his keyboard Fender bass, which was a small bass-scale version of the famous Fender Rhodes electric piano, which had in fact only just been released.
Making use of the latest technology of the late 1960s, The Doors produced a sound that was totally unique and musically ground-breaking. This was due in no small part to Jim Morrison’s lyrics, which were drawn largely from his poetry and writings. Morrison’s songs tackled dark and powerful subjects, such as death, murder and madness, along with the traditional themes of sex and drugs and rock and roll. The Doors’ guitarist, Robb Krieger, also contributed on the song writing side, and wrote or co-wrote many of the band’s most famous numbers, including 'Touch Me', 'Love Me Two Times' and most importantly, 'Light My Fire'.
The Doors were signed to the Elektra record label early in 1967, and began to be noticed shortly afterwards. Their first single release was 'Break On Through', but it was 'Light My Fire' that really put them on the map, when it went to number one in June 1967. Three months later, The Doors were invited to appear on the Ed Sullivan show, a popular Saturday night chat show that had featured celebrities such as The Beatles and Elvis Presley. Morrison caused a furore when he agreed to change the lyrics of 'Light My Fire' so as not to implicate drug taking on the show, but then went ahead and sang the original lyrics anyway! The show’s host, Ed Sullivan, was allegedly so incensed that he refused to shake hands with the band after they had performed. In addition, they were never invited back. Jim’s response to this was: "So what? We already did The Ed Sullivan Show!”
By the time their second album, 'Strange Days', was released, The Doors had become a national musical phenomenon, and were one of the most popular rock bands that the world had ever seen. The band’s mixture of styles, which embraced blues and rock with psychedelic was totally novel, and made them irresistible to young rock fans. Their choice of lyrics was as far-reaching as Morrison’s literary tastes, and included 'Alabama Song' from the Brecht and Weill operetta, and 'Rise and Fall of The City of Mahogonny', which had first been written and performed during the 1930s. The band also created a new genre of song by producing extended concept works, including the famous epic songs, 'The End' and 'When The Music’s Over', along with their famous concert piece, 'Celebration of The Lizard'.
Another factor which made The Doors hugely popular and innovative was the way Morrison and Manzarek drew upon their background in film (they had both studied film at UCLA) to produce some of the earliest music videos to accompany their music. Morrison and Manzarek produced a film for 'Break On Through', their first single release, which featured the four members of the band playing the song on dimly-lit set, with alternate views and cutaway shots of the performers, and Morrison singing the lyrics. Morrison and Manzarek also made videos to accompany other singles, including 'The Unknown Soldier', 'People Are Strange' and 'Moonlight Drive'.
The Doors’ third album, 'Waiting For The Sun', came out in 1968. Morrison originally planned that this album would include several extended concept songs, including 'Celebration of The Lizard' taking up the whole length of Side Two. But Elektra Records vetoed this proposal, much to Morrison’s annoyance. From this point on, Jim became increasingly resistant to the demands of both his record label and the concert-going public, frequently ignoring their requests to sing the most famous numbers from The Doors’ repertoire, including 'Light My Fire' and 'Love Me Two Times'.
The Doors’ fourth album was called 'The Soft Parade', and featured a far more heavily orchestrated, pop-oriented sound than earlier records. The change in musical style was not well received, and this fourth album was widely slated by both the press and the listening popular. After a long break in recording, the band got back together in late 1970 to record what was to be their last LP with Jim Morrison, called 'L.A. Woman'.
Like the fourth album, this record had a highly commercial sound, with smooth instrumentation and Bubblegum-style songs, such as 'L.A Woman' and 'Been Down So Long'. But the album was redeemed by the inclusion of the classic number, 'Riders On The Storm'. Despite the album’s success, the producer Paul A. Rothschild, who’d worked on all their previous records, walked out, loudly voicing his disapproval of the band’s new material, which he called “lounge music”. The album broke with the earlier Doors sound, with its intensely personal and poetic lyrics, exchanging it for a highly commercialised sound, like many other rock bands of the time.
Throughout his musical career, Morrison was as notorious for his rampant sexuality and promiscuity as he was for his drug-taking and rock’n’roll lifestyle. Although he met his life partner and long-term companion, Pamela Courson, long before he became famous, and stayed with her until his death, the couple frequently quarrelled, allegedly on account of Morrison’s infidelity. According to rock legend, the Doors’ singer frequently slept with his female fans and also had many short-lived liaisons with celebrity women, including Nico from The Velvet Underground, Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane and the singer Janis Joplin.
From the late 1960s onwards, Morrison became more and more dependent on drugs, and experimented with a wide range of hallucinogenic substances, including LSD (acid). From being the slender Adonis of early album covers, he became pasty-faced and bloated. He grew a beard and gained over 20 lbs., abandoning his former stage persona of the Lizard King, swapping his tight leather trousers for a more conventional uniform of blue jeans and T-shirts.
In the spring of 1971, Jim Morrison moved to Paris, saying that he wanted to have a break from performing in order to focus on his writing. He lost weight and shaved off his beard, but published sources relate that he became very depressed during this period. Jim Morrison died on 3 July 1971, and was found dead in his bath, by Pamela Courson. One biography of Morrison reports that he had dried blood around his mouth and nose, and large bruises on his chest, which suggested that he may have had a haemorrhage. The French police ruled out foul play, therefore no autopsy was ever performed. But this has led to endless speculation about the real reasons for Jim Morrison’s death.
Jim Morrison is buried in the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery, in the eastern suburbs of Paris. His grave is one of the most popular graves in the cemetery, and has also become one of the most famous tourist destinations in Paris. So in death, as in life, Jim Morrison’s fame lives on…