Lead singer for the rock group the Doors, Jim Morrison (1943-1971), personified the mind-bending, uninhibited lifestyle of the 1960s, in his brief but brilliant career.
Like few bands other than the Beatles, the influence of the Doors has eclipsed the generation that first carried it to fame. Like the band, its leader, poet and visionary, Jim Morrison, continued to inspire fascination. Morrison has become a legendary figure, both in rock music and in popular culture, fueled to prominence by a score of books and articles, as well as by a major motion picture, The Doors, that recounted the musician's brief but tumultuous life.
First Creative Outlet in Film
Morrison was born in Melbourne, Florida, on December 8, 1943. His father, a career Navy officer, was transferred from base to base during his son's childhood, but, by his son's early teens, the family had settled in Alexandria, Virginia. After finishing high school in Alexandria, Morrison took several classes at St. Petersburg Junior College and Florida State University before pulling up roots in 1964, and heading for the West Coast. By 1966, the 22-year-old Morrison was enrolled in film classes at the Universtiy of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) but a friendship with fellow student Ray Manzarek would sideline any plans he had of becoming a film maker.
While the two young men had known each other only casually as fellow students, they ran into each other one day by accident, on a Venice beach. As Manzarek later recalled in an interview for a television show transcribed on the American Legends web site, Morrison "knew I was a musician. I knew he was a poet…. So he sat down on the beach, and he dug his hands into the sand…. And he began to sing … in this really haunting kind of voice. It was soft-a soft but powerful voice…. I thought-Wow. Those are great lyrics. And he continued the song, and I thought this is one of the best Rock & Roll songs I've ever heard….As Morrison was singing, I could hear the things that I could play behind it."
Manzarek, an organist, along with Morrison, guitarist Robbie Krieger, and drummer John Densmore decided to form their own rock band to put those songs to music. The young men decided to call their group the Doors, a name inspired by a quote from nineteenth-century English poet William Blake: "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear as it is, infinite." As Morrison was fond of saying, "there are things known and things unknown and in between are the Doors."
Although his new lifestyle as a rock musician was a radical break from growing up in the uneventful fifties or life as a college student, images of his past, particularly his childhood, haunted many of Morrison's works, including his poetry and song lyrics. In Peace Frog, recorded on the album Morrison Hotel, he recalls an event from childhood, singing of "Indians scattered on dawn's highway bleeding/Ghosts crowd the young child's fragile eggshell mind." Imagery involving Native Americans would surround Morrison even in adulthood; in fact he was nicknamed "the electric shaman" by fans hypnotized by Morrison's on-stage energy and powerful charisma. His growing relationship with girlfriend Pamela Courson would also inspire song lyrics; the couple lived together in a somewhat loose relationship, from 1966 on, although they never married.
Meanwhile, a long-term gig at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go on Hollywood's Sunset Strip allowed the Doors to develop their stage presence, and it eventually drew the attention of talent scouts searching for new recording acts. Not the least of the group's attractions was Morrison, who sang in a husky baritone, wore skin-tight pants, and went even further than Elvis Presley had in incorporating sexually suggestive movements into his on-stage performances. With lyrics like "Come on baby, light my fire, " Morrison held young women enthralled.
Band Signed with Elektra
Although they had signed a record contract with Columbia, the label showed little interest in the new band. In 1966, their luck changed when the Doors were offered a recording contract with Elektra Records. They accepted, and, under the management of Bill Siddons, released their self-titled debut the following year. In Morrison's Elektra biography, released in conjunction with the group's debut album, he stated, "I like ideas about the breaking away or overthrowing of established order…. It seems to me to be the road toward freedom-external revolt is a way to bring about internal freedom. Rather than starting inside, I start outside-reach the mental through the physical." Such ideas reflected the attitude of a generation raised under the repressive conventions of the 1950s and rebelling against what they viewed as unwarranted hostilities of an older generation in Vietnam. Morrison and his message tapped a very large nerve.
The Rise of the Lizard King
After the release of The Doors, the group went back into the studio and cut Strange Days, which also came out in 1967. Other albums would include Waiting for the Sun (1968), The Soft Parade (1969), Morrison Hotel (1970), Absolutely Live (1970), and L.A. Woman (1971). Morrison, caught up in Native American lore and the images of the American deserts, dubbed himself the "Lizard King" and wrote several songs, including "Celebration of the Lizard, " in reference to his reptilian alter ego.
Caught up in a wave of popularity, the young band found itself carried into a new world, where drugs, alcohol, and sex played a major role. Morrison, whose status as a celebrity had begun almost overnight, found it difficult to handle the change: his growing dependence on alcohol would dim his talent in the years that followed, and the superstar status made him believe he was immune from normal authority. In one instance, an altercation with a police officer who accidentally attempted to arrest the star for loitering backstage during a concert in New Haven, Connecticut, resulted in Morrison's arrest while on stage after the rock singer began antagonizing the police posted in the concert arena.
Concert in Miami Sparked Controversy
On March 1, 1969, Morrison and the Doors were booked for a concert at Dinner Key Auditorium, in Coconut Grove, in Morrison's home state of Florida. Late for his scheduled flight to Miami, Morrison waited in the airport lounge, drinking heavily, until the next flight was called. When he missed the stop over flight in New Orleans, he again spent the time in the airport bar. By the time Morrison arrived in Miami, he was barely able to stand. During his performance before thirteen thousand screaming fans, Morrison, totally inebriated, exposed himself briefly, to the audience. Nothing was done until pressure from disgusted Miami-area residents forced local police to issue a warrant for Morrison's arrest. The singer, who had been vacationing out of the country, turned himself in to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and returned to Miami, where he went on trial on August 12, 1970. Found guilty of a misdemeanor for profanity and drunkenness, he was sentenced to six months hard labor, although the sentence was stayed, while his attorney appealed the conviction. Morrison would not live to see the outcome of that appeal.
Trial Served as Coda to Life
After the trial in Miami, Morrison's life grew more chaotic, his relationships with band members more strained. His fifth-a-day drinking habit continued unabated, and he began to consider leaving the group to return to film studies. Searching to recover a sense of himself, he went back to the poetry that he had loved while a college student. In 1970, he published his first book of verse, The Lords [and] The New Creatures, which had been privately printed the year before. During an interview with Tony Thomas of the Canadian Broadcast Company (CBC), despite the toll drugs and alcohol had taken on him, Morrison presented himself as an insightful student of life, philosophy, and modern culture: "When I was in high school and college, " he noted, "the kind of protest that's going on now was totally unheard of. At that time, to be a teenager, to be young, was really nothing, it was kind of a limbo state, and I think it's amazing, just in the last five years. What's happened is young people have become increasingly aware of the power and the influence that they have as a group. It's really amazing."
On July 3, 1971, Morrison was found dead in his bath tub, by his girlfriend. The cause of death was determined to be a heart attack, although an autopsy was never performed. He was buried at the Pere-Lachaisse Cemetery, in Paris. His death was kept secret until after the funeral, to eliminate the crowds of saddened fans that would likely have attended.
Further Reading on Jim Morrison
Hopkins, Jerry, The Lizard King: The Essential Jim Morrison, Collier, 1993.
Kennealy, Patricia, Strange Dreams: My Life with and without Jim Morrison, Dutton, 1992.
Riordan, James, and Jerry Prochickey, Break on Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison Quill, 1991.
Rocco, John, editor, The Doors Companion: Four Decades of Commentary, Schirmer, 1997.
Crawdaddy, January 1968; April 1969.
Down Beat, May 28, 1970.
Rock, September 27, 1970.
Rolling Stone, October 2, 1969.
American Legends Home Page, http://www.americanlegends.com/morrison (March 15, 1998).
The Doors' Home Page, http://www.thedoors.com (March 15, 1998).
"Morrison, Jim, interview with Tony Thomas, May 27, 1970, " http://gyoza.com/frank/html/05/Morrisonspeak/html (March 15, 1998).