Sunday, July 3, 2011

40 Years On: A Fan's Recollection Of Jim Morrison's Life

On the 40th anniversary of Jim Morrison's death, Ian Mole takes a look back at the life of his childhood hero.

It was Friday 9th July 1971 and as usual my friend Keith called at my home in the morning so that we could walk to school together. He brought very sad news, as he’d just found out that Jim Morrison was dead. Absolute confirmation was made later that day when the Sunderland Echo carried a tiny piece titled ‘Singer Dead in Paris’. I was devastated by this news as Jim was my hero and for years afterwards it made me very sad to think that he was no longer around. His legend lives on of course and sales of The Doors’ products are still very healthy.

When I was a kid, Jim was the ultimate sexy, anti-establishment rebel. He was also an intellectual and a poet. In other words he was the perfect role model for a teenage hobbledehoy like me, and many others. I'm fifty-seven now and I have to say that I still love most of The Doors’ music but I think that in some ways Jim was a real arsehole. He probably would have agreed with me. A paraphrase of Charles Shaar Murray in his review of the first Morrison biography (No One Here Gets Out Alive’ by Danny Sugarman and Jerry Hopkins, 1980), “A bunch of crazy kids egged on by a drunken rabble-rouser” seems to capture it well in the cold light of middle age. Like many young men I thought dying an early death through a life of excess sounded rather romantic. Time of course has taught me that alcoholism isn’t remotely romantic and makes life hell for the alcoholic and all involved with them.

Having read almost every available shred of biographical material about Jim – and maybe we shouldn’t scrutinize the lives of our heroes - it’s clear that he often had little regard for anyone else’s feelings, especially when he’d been drinking heavily, which was a good deal of the time. The way he treated women in particular was gross. Underneath all that though lurked the manners of a Southern gentleman and he could turn them on at times. Whatever his character defects, I don’t think they detract from his work as an artist. The book I like best about Jim is his pal Frank Lisciandro’s ‘An Hour for Magic’ because he made Jim come alive and be human by relating mundane anecdotes about buying clothes and going away for the weekend. It made me think that Jim would be very interesting company, as long as he wasn’t too out of his head. He was certainly extremely knowledgeable and articulate.

He was very widely read and was particularly interested in the tragedies of the ancient Greek dramatists like Sophocles. Oedipus was condemned by fate to kill his father and marry his mother, yet near the end of his life he felt that despite his suffering he had somehow helped to heal his tribe. I read that Jim was most impressed by this concept and given his interest in shamanism this is no surprise. The story of Jesus is of course the most famous parallel and Jim wasn’t above aping the crucifixion onstage, especially on a bad night. He was very conscious of the nature of stardom and the psychology of large crowds and it’s more than likely that the Miami incident (more of which later) was an attempt by him to debunk his own mythology.   

Jim diced with death for many years and was brave enough to push himself to the limits to see what it felt like. He was once warned off seeing a woman who was also the girlfriend of a Mafia don but refused to take the hint. Not surprisingly he didn’t live too long but I get the distinct impression that in his final year or so he was very depressed and regretted his earlier mode of living. He was fond of dangling by his hands from very high balconies and then making it difficult for friends to pull him back up again. Sometimes he fell from an upper window, bounced off a car, dusted himself down again and walked away. In 1984 I fell off a third floor window ledge when attempting to gain access to my flat and sustained serious injuries. I received numerous Get Well cards from friends and relatives, one of which was from my teenage friend Keith and said, “It’s one thing to admire Jim Morrison, another thing entirely to try and imitate him”. Bastard!

Times change of course and it’s easy to laugh at the art, beliefs and habits of former periods. The ‘hippy’ era, with which The Doors were exactly contemporaneous, is easier to mock than most in some of its more flippant and outlandish aspects, though I believe that it also spawned many of the more praiseworthy political and cultural movements of the present day. Although he had some of the trappings, Jim was no hippy and always had a much harder, selfish edge to him. The Doors’ songs have stood up very well to the passage of time though some of Jim’s more outr矇 efforts like ‘The Celebration of the Lizard’ do make me cringe a bit these days.

One thing I admire very much about The Doors was although the bulk of the songs were Jim’s creations and he was obviously the star, they always split everything equally and wouldn’t proceed with any project unless all four members agreed to do it. The “Come on, Buick, light my fire’ episode, which is shown in ‘The Doors’ movie, showed what happened when this agreement was once broached. The other three were entirely different personalities to Jim – they were students of meditation for example – this chemistry worked very well for over five years, four of these being a period of intense celebrity.  

Jim’s book of cinematic observations and poems, ‘The Lords and the New Creatures’, contains some stunning imagery that’s never failed to move me. A friend of Jim’s, poet Michael McClure, said that when the book was first published, Jim cried and said, “This is the first time somebody hasn’t fucked with me!” In the last year or two of his life, after the notorious Miami show in March 1969 which resulted in him being charged with performing lewd and lascivious acts onstage and for which he was facing a heavy jail term, he wanted to get away from his rock star image and be considered as a poet. I agree with his former girlfriend Patricia Kennealy when she said that most of Jim’s best poetry was in the lyrics of The Doors’ songs. One of my favourite couplets is ‘The days are bright and filled with pain. Enclose me in your gentle rain.’ From ‘The Crystal Ship’ on the first album. When I saw his posthumously published poetry collection ‘Wilderness’, I bought it at once but was extremely disappointed by its contents, which seemed to have been selected without any quality control. It struck me as a cash-in job by the Morrison estate and I’m sure Jim would have been doing a few spins in Pere Lachaise cemetery on its publication. The same goes for the second posthumous collection, ‘The American Night’.

The period of The Doors’ history that gives me the biggest buzz was at the very beginning when, as has been related many times, Jim and Ray Manzarek, the former film school buddies, met by chance on Venice beach in L.A. in the summer of 1965 and Jim sang the first bunch of songs that he claimed he’d heard in a big concert in his head. These included ‘Moonlight Drive’. He may have been bullshitting, and he certainly liked to describe events in a, shall we say, poetic manner but I’ve had similar experiences myself and I can quite believe that this mental concert did happen. I like this period because all the potential was there and the world was at their feet while the sadness of the later period was still a long way off, well, four years is a long time when you’re in your early twenties. 

Jim died forty years ago today, almost certainly of a heroin overdose though he was no regular user, on July 3rd 1971 while he was staying in a rented flat near the Bastille in central Paris. For years a lot of mystery and baloney surrounded his death but the story seems clear enough now. He was buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery and has Oscar Wilde and Edith Piaf, among many other celebrities, to keep him company. I’ve visited his grave twice and it really was a toilet. The surrounding gravestones were heavily daubed with graffiti and the grave itself was covered with broken bottles and fag-ends. A bust of Jim that a Czech fan had made had been defaced and scrawled upon. The doctor who examined Jim’s body estimated his age as fifty but in fact he was only twenty-seven. Not long before his death Jim had told friends that he felt forty-seven.     

Many people criticized Oliver Stone’s movie ‘The Doors’ when it came out in 1991 but I thought the characterization of Jim by Val Kilmer in particular was spot on and the attention to events made them appear just as I’d imagined them to be. Even if at times numerous anecdotes from different occasions were all put together into the same scene, I think they were true to the spirit. Patricia Kennealy objected to the portrayal of Pamela Courson, Jim’s long term girlfriend, as being too sweet and cutesy while in her own book about her life with Jim, ‘Strange Days’, she really gets her claws out and calls Pam a whore amongst other things. Do we suspect a touch of sour grapes here?  

A revamped Doors, although they've been legally barred from using the name, is doing live dates and this outfit features Ray Manzarek and Robbie Krieger from the original foursome. I doubt if I'll go to see them but it’s got to be better than seeing a Doors tribute band, of which there are several making a good living. I don’t see anything wrong in Ray and Robbie still playing The Doors' songs as Robbie wrote some of their most popular songs, including ‘Light My Fire’, ‘Touch Me’, ‘Love Her Madly’ and ‘Love Me Two Times’ while Ray made a major input into all the band’s arrangements.

In fact I saw the three remaining Doors, backed up by Jack Conrad on bass and Bobby Ray on guitar and percussion, at Newcastle City Hall in May 1972. This was less than a year after Jim died and it was a great show, though they played only material from the two post-Jim Doors albums as well as Robbie’s compositions. (Incidentally Hawkwind, complete with nude dancer Stacia, turned up unannounced to play support along with Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson.) I also saw Robbie play a London show with two other musicians in 1995 and that wasn’t bad at all either. I don’t know what drummer John Densmore thinks about the current activities of his fellow Doors but I imagine he’s got better things to do. From comments in his own memoir, ‘Riders on the Storm’, it’s clear that the vibes between him and Ray at least aren’t too warm.  


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