James "Jim" Douglas Morrison (December 8, 1943 - July 3, 1971) was an American singer, songwriter, writer, and poet. He was the lead singer and predominant lyricist of the Doors, and is considered to be one of the most charismatic frontmen in the history of rock music. He has been referenced throughout pop culture in film, literature, television, theater, poetry, and even comic books. He was also the author of several books of poetry and made a documentary, a short film, and two precedent music videos (The Unknown Soldier and People are Strange). Morrison's controversial death at the age of 27 stunned his fans and has been the subject of endless rumors, which play a significant part in the mystique that continues to surround him. Moreover, that mystique became a teaching tool for other musicians in defining a self-discipline and moral ideal that may have eluded Jim Morrison.
Of Scottish and Irish ancestry, Jim Morrison was the son of United States Navy Admiral George Stephen Morrison and Clara Clark Morrison, who met in Hawaii in 1941, where Stephen Morrison was stationed. Jim Morrison was born December 8 of that year, in Melbourne, Florida. Morrison’s early life was a nomadic existence typical of military families. His mother lived with her in-laws in Clearwater, Florida, for 3 years before her husband would return from his service in World War II. Upon his return, the Morrisons then had a daughter, Anne Robin (born in 1947, in Albuquerque, New Mexico), and a son, Andrew "Andy" Lee (born 1948, in Los Altos, California).
According to Morrison’s brother, Andy, their parents had determined to never use corporal punishment on the children, and instead instilled discipline and levied punishment by the military tradition known as "dressing down." Consisting of loud scolding and berating the children until they tearfully acknowledged their failings. As Andy states, the practice never drew a tear from his brother. Biographers record that during his youth, Morrison was a dutiful, respectful son who excelled at school and greatly enjoyed swimming and other outdoor activities. In accordance with his parents’ hopes, Morrison intended to follow in the military footsteps of his father. However, he became disruptive and a discipline problem in school when he discovered drinking in his adolescence; which developed into a life-long pattern of alcoholism and substance abuse.
Morrison graduated from George Washington High School in Alexandria, Virginia, in June of 1961. The following August, Morrison was sent to live with his paternal grandparents in Clearwater, Florida, where he attended classes at St. Petersburg Junior College. In the fall of 1962, Jim transferred to Florida State University. While Morrison attended FSU, he appeared in a school recruitment film and in January 1964, urged on by an FSU professor, Morrison headed for Los Angeles, California. There, he completed his undergraduate degree in the University of California-Los Angeles' film school. Jim made two films while attending UCLA: The first one entitled First Love, and the second, Obscura.
Once Morrison graduated from UCLA, he broke off most of his family contact. By the time Morrison's music ascended to the top of the charts in 1967, he claimed that his parents and siblings were dead, in materials distributed with the first Doors album. Morrison's father acknowledged the breakdown in family communications but said that he could not blame his son for being reluctant to initiate contact.
As a result of his family's nomadic existence, Morrison's early education was routinely disrupted as he moved from school to school. Nonetheless, he proved to be an intelligent and capable student drawn to the studies of literature, poetry, religion, philosophy, and psychology, among other subjects. Biographers have consistently pointed to a number of writers and philosophers who have influenced Morrison's thinking and, perhaps, behavior:
While still in his teens, Morrison discovered the works of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. After Morrison's death, John Densmore opined that the nihilism of "Nietzsche killed Jim."
Works relating to religion, mysticism, ancient myths, and symbolism were of lasting interest, particularly Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. James Frazer's The Golden Bough also became a source of inspiration and is reflected in the title and lyrics of the song, "Not to Touch the Earth."
He apparently borrowed some wording from the King James New Testament. Their first hit single, "Break On Through" includes the lines: "Gate is straight, deep and wide/Break on through to the other side," which is quite similar to Matthew 7:13-14: "Wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, …strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life," addressing issues of death and the afterlife, one of Morrison’s common themes. Morrison's second verse in "Light My Fire" includes the line, "…no time to wallow in the mire," a wording possibly borrowed from either 2 Peter 2:22, which reads, "…the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire" or from Socrates’ deathbed statement, as recorded in Plato’s Phaedo: "…They said that whoever arrives in the underworld uninitiated and unsanctified will wallow in the mire…"
Morrison was particularly attracted to the myths and religions of Native American cultures. These interests inspired the many references to creatures and places, such as lizards, snakes, deserts, and "ancient lakes" that appear in his songs and poetry. His interpretation of the practices of a Native American "shaman" were worked into some of Morrison's stage routine, notably in his interpretation of the Ghost Dance, and a song on his later poetry album, "The Ghost Song." The song, "Wild Child," was also inspired by Native American rhythm and ritual. According to Morrison, one of the most important events of his life occurred when he was a child in 1949, during a family road trip in New Mexico, when he and his parents and grandmother came across the scene of an accident in the desert. Morrison realized the Native Americans were bleeding to death and was afraid. He came to believe that the souls of the newly-dead Indians were running around, "freaked out," and that one had leaped into him.
Both of Morrison's parents have claimed that the accident in the desert never happened. In interviews concerning this subject, Morrison said that his parents told him he was "just having a bad dream" in order to calm him down. Regardless of whether the incident was real, imagined, or fabricated, this experience greatly influenced the content of his songs, poems, and interviews.
He was also drawn to the poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, notably British poet William Blake and the French poets, Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. Beat Generation poetry, such as Jack Kerouac's On The Road, had a strong influence on Morrison's outlook and manner of expression. He was similarly drawn to the works of the French writer Céline. Céline's book, Voyage au Bout de la Nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) and Blake's Auguries of Innocence both echo through one of Morrison's early songs, "End of the Night." Eventually Morrison got to meet and befriend Michael McClure, a well known beat poet. McClure had enjoyed Morrison's lyrics but was more impressed with, and encouraged him to pursue, his poetry.
Morrison's vision of performance was colored by twentieth century French playwright, Antonin Artaud (author of Theater and its Double) and by Judith Malina and Julien Beck's Living Theater, which perhaps influenced some of Jim's confrontational behavior on stage. While in college, Morrison began practicing Charles MacKay's (author of Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness Of Crowds) insights regarding influencing and manipulating crowds. When speaking to an old friend from Clearwater, Morrison said, "You've got to make them believe you're doing them a favor by being on stage. The more abusive you are, the more they love it."
In 1965, after graduating from the School of Theater Arts at UCLA, Morrison had wowed fellow UCLA student and keyboardist Ray Manzarek, who desired to combine the lyrics with his music; thus, the Doors were formed. They were soon joined by drummer John Densmore, who recruited guitarist and lyricist Robby Krieger. The name of the band was inspired by William Blake's poem, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," in which Blake wrote, "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite."
The Doors were first noticed on the national level in the spring of 1967, after signing with the Elektra Records label. The single "Light My Fire," hit number one in June 1967. Three months later, Morrison controversially disobeyed censors, refusing to change his edgy lyrics, when the Doors performed on the famous Ed Sullivan Show. Ed Sullivan broke a long-standing tradition by not shaking their hands. The Doors were not invited back.
By the release of their second album, Strange Days (1967), the Doors had become one of the most popular rock bands in America. Their blend of blues and rock tinged with psychedelia had never been heard before. Morrison's complex, surrealist, allusive lyrics added a deeper, intriguing dimension to the already distinct music. Guitarist Kreiger made outstanding lyrical contributions, writing many of the band's hits. The Doors' eclectic repertoire included a swag of stunning original songs and distinctive covers, such as the memorable rendition of "Alabama Song." The four also broke new ground in rock music with their extended concept works: The End, When The Music's Over, and Celebration of the Lizard, among others.
The Doors' sound was a significant innovation, dominated by Morrison's deep, sonorous baritone voice against the interplay of Manzarek's keyboards, Krieger's classically influenced flamenco guitar style, and Densmore's crisp, fluid drumming. The Doors didn't have a bass guitar in the lineup; Manzarek provided bass lines on his newly-released Fender keyboard bass, a small bass-scale electric piano. Though the group hired bass players in the studio, the Doors usually appeared as a four-piece in concert.
Morrison and Manzarek's film school education was put to effective use when the Doors produced a promotional film for Break On Through, decades before music videos became common-place. The Doors continued to make innovative music videos, including ones for The Unknown Soldier and People Are Strange.
In 1968, the Doors released their third studio LP, Waiting for the Sun. Although Morrison wanted to make a concept album, Elektra Records decided against it and only a clip of the B-side-intended, extended suite, Celebration of the Lizard, made it onto the album. The song would be recorded in its entirety, live, on their Absolutely Live album (1970). With the release of Waiting for the Sun, the Doors had exhausted the cache of material that Morrison had written. Sourced from his early poetry writings and favorite lines from his favorite books, this cache had provided all the material on their first three LPs.
By this time, Morrison's attitude towards rock music, the audience, and stardom began to take its toll. He became increasingly antagonistic towards fans, their requests for hit songs and their lack of appreciation for his exploration into poetry and performance-theater. By 1969, Morrison made a concerted effort to distance himself from the "Lizard King" image by growing a beard and wearing regular slacks, jeans, and T-shirts. The formerly svelte singer began to balloon in size due to his rapidly escalating alcoholism.
Morrison famously lived by an oft-repeated quote from Blake, "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." Even before the formation of The Doors, Morrison took copious amounts of LSD, but soon switched to alcohol, which he began to consume in herculean proportions. He would increasingly start to show up for recording sessions extremely inebriated (he can be heard hiccuping on the song, "Five To One") as well as being late to arrive for live performances. These actions caused the band to linger on stage playing only music or occasionally forcing Ray Manzarek to take on the singing duties. Such excesses and apathy took their toll on Morrison and the band. On March 1, 1969, at The Dinner Key Auditorium in Miami, an intoxicated Morrison provoked the crowd to mayhem. Scattered accounts of what happened that night afforded Morrison a warrant for his arrest on charges of indecent exposure and public profanity. Fallout from that event resulted in much negative publicity and the cancellation of many of The Doors' scheduled concerts.
Despite these setbacks, the band courageously decided to break new ground with their fourth studio LP, The Soft Parade. Heavy with orchestration and poetry, it was also the first album where songwriting credits were given to specific band members. Much of this decision had to do with Morrison wanting to divorce himself from the hits that he did not write and attach his name to the songs he did write, as well as Robby Krieger seeking credit for increased contribution to the LP during Morrison's increasing apathy and absences. The Soft Parade was widely criticized in the media, both for alienating fans and being tame compared to their other works. Morrison's lyrics received much of the criticism from the press, who labeled it "college standard one-line non-sequiturs." Regardless of criticism, The Soft Parade featured some of The Doors best work: The hypnotic "Wild Child," the Krieger-penned ballad, "Touch Me," and the tour-de-force title track.
Following Morrison's conviction and the criticism of The Soft Parade, the Doors embraced their musical roots with the release of the Morrison Hotel LP (1970). Featuring a much grittier, Blues-based sound and lyrical content, Morrison Hotel shot the Doors back into the charts and into the hearts of their wavering fans. Morrison Hotel can be seen as Morrison's lyrical coming of age. The past tendencies towards the abstract, and non-sensical, poetic borrowings had evolved into the earthy, sincere voice of an older, wiser man.
After a lengthy break, the group reconvened in October 1970, to record what proved to be their last LP with Morrison, L.A. Woman. It solidified the group's return to its musical roots, featuring songs that would quickly become not only among its most popular but also its strongest. These included: The title track, the pounding "Texas Radio and the Big Beat," the guttural "Been Down So Long," the evocative "The Changeling," and the album's epic masterpiece closer, "Riders on the Storm." The L.A. Woman album also saw another major change in the group's recording career. They changed producers. The disenchanted Paul A. Rothchild left and Bruce Botnick took over, bringing with him new recording techniques, like recording Morrison's vocals in a bathroom for the excellent acoustics.
While most rock bands begin their careers with a blues foundation and gradually evolve into "pretentious" lyricists and alternatively-influenced musicians, The Doors presented a complete reversal. The "pretentious" direction of their earliest work matured steadily into a down-to-earth Blues-orientated and lyrically sincere and grounded band. This rare essence has become one of the most endearing qualities of the band over the years.
Even though Morrison was a well-known singer and lyricist, he encountered difficulty when searching for a publisher for his poetry. He self-published two slim volumes in 1969, The Lords / Notes on Vision and The New Creatures. These were the only writings to be published during Morrison's lifetime.
The Lords consists primarily of brief descriptions of places, people, events, and Morrison's thoughts on cinema. They often read as short prose paragraphs loosely strung together. Beat poet, Michael McClure, describes the work as Morrison's deconstruction of his UCLA thesis on film. The New Creatures verses are more poetic in structure, feel, and appearance. These two books were later combined into a single volume titled, The Lords and The New Creatures. Morrison recorded his poetry in a professional sound studio on two separate occasions: Once in March 1969, in Los Angeles, and again on December 8, 1970, his 27th birthday. Some of the tapes from the 1969 session were later used as part of the Doors' An American Prayer album, released in 1978. The poetry recorded from the December 1970, session remains unreleased to this day and is in the possession of the Courson family.
Much later, two posthumous volumes of poetry were published, both of them selected and arranged by Morrison's friend, photographer Frank Lisciandro, and Courson's parents, who owned the rights to his poetry. Volume 1, released in 1988, is titled, Wilderness: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison and became an instant New York Times best seller. Volume 2, The American Night: The Writings of Jim Morrison, was released in 1990.
Morrison's best-known but seldom seen cinematic endeavor is HWY, a project begun in 1969. Morrison financed the venture on his own and formed his own production company to ensure creative freedom and independence. More of an art film than a commercial endeavor, Morrison played the main character, a hitchhiker turned murderous car thief, who is alluded to in Riders On The Storm. Composer/pianist Fred Myrow selected the eclectic songs for the film's soundtrack. The film shows the influence of other independent producers and directors, such as Andy Warhol, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Jean-Luc Godard.
In the summer of 1962, Morrison met his first love, Mary Werbelow. It was not until 2005 that Werbelow spoke about their relationship, in an interview with Robert Farley of the St. Petersburg Times. Manzarek says all the guys in film school were in love with Mary. She was gorgeous, and sweet on top of that. "She was Jim's first love. She held a deep place in his soul." The couple had a special connection, which is evident in the lyrics of early Doors material. "The End," Manzarek says, originally was "a short goodbye love song to Mary." Morrison is quoted, speaking to Mary several years after their break-up in 1965, "The first three albums are about you. Didn't you know that?" The interview adds great insight to Morrison from his time as a student among friends through to the notorious Miami incident.
Morrison met his long-term companion, Pamela Courson, well before he gained fame or fortune, and she encouraged him to develop his poetry. At times, Courson used Morrison's name. After Courson's death in 1974, the probate court in California decided that she and Morrison had what qualified as a common law marriage. Courson and Morrison's relationship was stormy with frequent loud arguments and tearful periods of separation and reunion. Doors biographer Danny Sugerman surmised that part of their difficulties may have stemmed from a conflict of having an open relationship and the consequences of living such a lifestyle.
Morrison had numerous short flings with women who were celebrities in their own right: Nico from Velvet Underground, singer Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, with 16 magazine's editor in chief Gloria Stavers, and with Janis Joplin. Judy Huddleston recalls her relationship with Morrison in Living and Dying with Jim Morrison. In 1970, Morrison participated in a Celtic pagan handfasting ceremony with Patricia Kennealy-Morrison. Before witnesses, one of them a Presbyterian minister, the couple signed a document declaring themselves wed; however, none of the necessary paperwork for a legal marriage was filed with the state. Kennealy discussed her experiences with Morrison in her autobiography, Strange Days: My Life With and Without Jim Morrison. At the time of his death, there were reportedly as many as twenty paternity actions pending against him and the only person making a public claim of being Morrison's son was shown to be a fraud.
Morrison's gravestone reads, "Κατὰ τον δαίμονα ἑαυτοῦ,(ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟΝ ΔΑΙΜΟΝΑ ΕΑΥΤΟΥ)." The meaning intended by the Morrison family when the inscription was selected is "True to his own spirit." Either Morrison's father selected the phrase or drafted it himself. The literal meaning is "according to his own daimōn," an Ancient Greek word that implies a minor deity, attendant spirit, luck, fortune, "guiding star," and the like, with no negative or pejorative connotations. Morrison is buried in "The Poets' Corner" of the famous Père Lachaise cemetery in eastern Paris. Morrison's grave is the most popular grave in the cemetery and has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Paris, along with the Eiffel Tower, The cathedral at Notre Dame, and The Louvre.
Morrison moved to Paris in March 1971, with the intention of taking a break from performing and concentrating on his writing. Hoping to get his life back on track, Morrison lost a great amount of body weight and shaved off his beard, returning to his original stage appearance.
His death was reported on July 3, 1971. He was 27 years old and found in his bathtub by Courson. Throughout Morrison's turbulent career, there had been numerous rumors that he had been killed in an auto accident or had died of a drug overdose. Before the official announcement of his death, the press had been told that Morrison was simply "very tired" and resting in an unnamed French hospital, contributing to the suspicion. The official report listed the cause of death as heart failure. No autopsy was performed because the medical examiner, pursuant to French law, found no evidence of foul play. The lack of an official autopsy left many questions unanswered and provided a fertile breeding ground for speculation and rumor. According to Stephen Davis' biography of Morrison, it was reported that he had dried blood around his mouth and nose and large bruising on his chest, which suggests Morrison died of complications from tuberculosis. In Wonderland Avenue, Danny Sugerman recounts that he briefly interviewed Courson and said she told him that Morrison had in fact died of a heroin overdose after he inhaled a massive amount of the substance, believing it to be cocaine. Sugerman added that Courson had also given numerous contradictory versions of Morrison's death. A 2006 episode of the French television series, Death of an Idol, interviewed supposed witnesses who were at the Rock 'n' Roll Circus nightclub and supported the heroine overdose story. In John Densmore's autobiography, Riders On The Storm, he reasoned that Morrison had taken heroin with a strong liquor, climbed in the bathtub, and committed suicide.
Morrison was quoted to say that when he returned from Paris, he was going to let "bygones be bygones" with his father. Also within weeks before his death he called bandmate drummer John Densmore and asked how the newest album had been received, and when Densmore replied that it had been doing well in the charts, Morrison replied, "if they like this, wait'll they hear what I got in mind for the next one."
In The Lizard King, film director Jerry Hopkins recounts that, well before the Doors achieved noticeable success, Morrison had joked that he should fake his own death in order to generate publicity. According to some of Morrison's friends and band mates, once the Doors had achieved their remarkable success, publicity was no longer seen as being so desirable. Morrison then spoke of wanting to fake his death and move to Africa in order to escape the scrutiny that surrounded his every move. He told them that if he could succeed with the ruse, he would write to them using the pseudonym/anagram "Mr. Mojo Risin." Such a disappearing act would have paralleled the life of one of Morrison's favorite French poets, Arthur Rimbaud. According to guitarist Robbie Krieger and other Doors members, they have yet to receive any letters.
Throughout Morrison's turbulent career, there had been numerous rumors that he had been killed in an auto accident or had died of a drug overdose. Also, in the days preceding the announcement of his death, the press had been told that Morrison was simply "very tired" and resting in an unnamed French hospital, contributing to the suspicion.
Some conspiracy theorists contend that Morrison did not die in Paris. The fact that only two people (other than the police, emergency personnel, and mortician) admitted to the press that they had seen his body has helped keep the rumor alive for over 30 years. Others contend that Morrison replaced the Ayatollah Ruhollah Mosavi Khomeini, who disappeared in France during 1978, missing three digits, and reappeared four months later, with all ten fingers. This theory was bolstered weakly by a 1980 Mike Wallace Sixty Minutes television interview, during which the Ayatollah declared (through an interpreter) he had never lost any fingers.
Speculation about the cause and actuality of Morrison's death plays a large and continuing role in the Morrison mystique. Rumors still abound that Morrison committed suicide, was assassinated by the Central Intelligence Agency, murdered by a witch, died in a toilet at the notorious Rock and Roll Circus nightclub or any number of variations, including being "disappeared" by his well placed parents. Additionally, there are persistent rumors that he is still alive and living in India, Africa, South America, as a cowboy in Oregon, above a Quik-Check in New Jersey, or anonymously in North Dakota. The "Morrison legend" has taken on a life of its own.
Morrison remains one of the most popular and influential singers/writers in rock history, as the Doors' catalog has become a staple of classic rock radio stations. To this day, he is widely regarded as the prototypical rock star: Surly, sexy, scandalous, and mysterious. The leather pants he was fond of wearing both on stage and off have since become stereotyped as rock star apparel.
Morrison's performances have influenced many, including Nick Cave, Richard Ashcroft, Glenn Danzig, Patti Smith, Ian Curtis, David Gahan, Henry Rollins, Ian Astbury, Perry Farrell, Scott Weiland, Trent Reznor, Eddie Vedder, Jude Rawlins, Ville Valo, Sully Erna, The Blood, Siouxsie Sioux, and Jeff Martin.
The legendary punk prototypes Iggy and the Stooges are said to have formed after lead singer Iggy Pop was inspired by Morrison while attending a Doors concert in Ann Arbor, Michigan. One of Iggy's most popular songs, "The Passenger," is said to be based on one of Morrison's poems. After Morrison's death, Iggy Pop was considered as a replacement for Morrison. The surviving Doors gave him some of Morrison's belongings, and hired him as a vocalist for a series of shows.
Ex-Jane's Addiction frontman, Perry Farrell has unearthed a lost track featuring the vocals of the Doors' Jim Morrison and plans release it.
Wallace Fowlie, professor emeritus of French literature at Duke University and internationally recognized expert on the poet Arthur Rimbaud, wrote Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: The Rebel as Poet—A Memoir. In this book, Fowlie recounts his surprise at receiving a fan letter from Morrison who, in 1968, thanked him for his latest translation of Rimbaud's verse into English. "I don't read French easily," he wrote, "…your book travels around with me." Fowlie went on to give lectures on numerous campuses comparing the lives, philosophies and poetry of Morrison and Rimbaud.
Jim Morrison said he walked in the footsteps of French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), once remarking, "I am a Rimbaud with a leather jacket." This lineage between them is very fitting. Both symbolized the rebellion of youth against a society's identity-squelching potential. Both were brilliant individuals torn between their profound, mystical feeling that there is something "beyond" this world that their poetry allowed us to touch, and their inclinations toward their self-destructive inner demons. "If my poetry aims to achieve anything, it's to deliver people from the limited ways in which they see and feel," Jim once said, and he and his band did indeed open the "doors of perception" with their hauntingly beautiful music.
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