Full name, James Douglas Morrison; born December 8, 1943, in Melbourne, Fla.; died July 3, 1971, in Paris, France; son of George Stephen (rear admiral in the U.S. Navy) and Clara Clarke Morrison; married Pamela (died 1974). Education: Attended St. Petersburg Junior College, 1961-62; attended Florida State University, 1962-63; attended University of California at Los Angeles, 1964-65.
Hard rock, mysticism, lyrical poetry and theatrics merged in the music of Jim Morrison and the band he fronted, the Doors. During the group's existence in the late 1960s, critics were sharply divided in their opinions of its worth. Some dismissed Morrison as a mediocre, self-indulgent vocalist who sold out to the demands of the pop music market as soon as his group became popular. Others praised him as both a powerful singer and poet and believed that the Doors' unique sound represented a brilliant fusion of jazz, rock, blues, and pop sounds. Today the Doors' music remains popular--and influential, and it seems obvious that much of the controversy surrounding the band arose from the contradictions inherent in Morrison himself. As Toby Goldstein wrote in Feature, his life "was filled with the events of which legends are made. No mere rock singer, he was both godlike and pompous, sensual and piggish, never existing on a middle ground."
Morrison was born into a family with a long history of career militarists. His mother stood passively by while his stern, authoritarian father ordered the children about. After leaving his family, Morrison would claim that both his parents were dead. In 1964 he headed for the West Coast to study film at UCLA. Once there, he felt a great sense of release which he later described as "the feeling of a bowstring being pulled back for 22 years and suddenly being let go." Besides his film studies, he delved into poetry and philosophy, particularly the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and William Blake. Classmates recall Morrison as a brilliant student, but before long he drifted away from school and into the Venice Beach culture, where he dropped acid freely and worked on his poetry. One night on the beach he met Ray Manzarek, a classically-trained musician Morrison already knew from his art classes at UCLA. He mentioned to Manzarek, a pianist in a local blues band, that he had written some songs, which Manzarek asked to hear. "When he sang those first lines--'Let's swim to the moon/ Let's climb through the tide/ Penetrate the evening/ That the city sleeps to hide'--I said, 'That's it,'" Manzarek recalled. "I'd never heard lyrics like that to a rock song before....We decided to get a group together and make a million dollars." Manzarek enlisted a jazz drummer, John Densmore, and ex-jugband guitarist Robbie Krieger to complete the group. The Doors' name came from the title of Aldous Huxley's study of mescaline, The Doors of Perception, and from a William Blake quote, "There are things that are known and unknown; in between are doors."
The newly-formed group practiced for five months before debuting at a Sunset Strip club called the London Fog, where each member made five dollars on weeknights and ten dollars on the weekends. Their strange new sound was too much for the club's owner, who let them go after four months. The Doors were on the verge of disbanding before they found their next gig, at the Whisky A-Go-Go. There they began to build a following. As they added more original songs to their repertoire, Morrison developed into a sensually powerful, extroverted stage performer. His intensity is revealed by musician Jack Ttana's description of a slow night at the Whisky, when he and Morrison's wife Pamela were the only people in the audience. Ttana recalled, "He's into 'When the Music's Over,' and he comes to the part where he freaks out and throws the mike stand on the ground--and he really did it. Even more than that. And they went offstage and Pam said, 'Why'd you do all that?' And Jim said, 'You never know when you're giving your last performance.'" On another night at the Whisky, Morrison went into an Oedipal improvisation during the song "The End," shrieking, "Father, I want to kill you.... Mother, I want to.. [piercing screams]." This was too much for the Whisky's owner, who promptly fired the group. Jac Holzman of Elektra records had been in the audience that evening, however, and he offered the Doors a lucrative recording contract with his company.
The Doors, released in 1967, rapidly sold over one million copies, and skyrocketed the band to fame. This album, with its hit single "Light My Fire," contained all the elements of the classic Doors sound: Morrison's rich imagery and preoccupation with sex and death, Manzarek's classical/rock keyboards, Krieger's versatile guitar work, and Densmore's energetic, jazz-influenced percussion. A Disk Review writer called it "hard rock with slippery, psychedelic overtones" and summarized Morrison's message: "To become more real, to become a better person, cut your ties to your establishment past, swim in your emotions, suffer symbolic death and rebirth--rebirth as a new man, psychologically cleansed." Strange Days, also released in 1967, "was one of the first concept albums.. .and certainly the most subtle," noted Michael Cuscuna in down beat. Amid the minor-key songs of loneliness and alienation was a raucous sexual shout, "Love Me Two Times," a song which "breaks the solemnity of the album, and points out a Doors anomaly," wrote Terry Rompers in Trouser Press. "Only they could play pure pop and still make a deep poetic statement on one side of an LP without skipping a beat or losing their commitment to either genre."
At the height of their popularity, the Doors played to hysterical audiences in every major rock palace in the United States. Morrison believed that these shows were more than mere opportunities to promote his hit songs. To him they were electronic musical rituals, designed to reveal his innermost fantasies and to whip the audience into a purifying frenzy. His skintight leather clothes and the predominance of reptiles in his lyrics led to his being known as the "Lizard King," and in "Not to Touch the Earth," he proclaimed, "I am the Lizard King.... I can do anything." Morrison's original fans, however, felt that he had done little of note since breaking out of the underground. By the time the Doors' third album, Waiting for the Sun, was released in 1969, the national mood of liberation and psychic exploration that had contributed to the Doors' popularity began to crumble. Many began to see Morrison's emotional angst as somewhat absurd and overblown.
The singer's excesses were all too real, however. He was drinking heavily, and was arrested several times for disorderly conduct. When he realized that numerous policemen had been sent to cover a Doors concert in New Haven, Connecticut, Morrison began baiting them from the stage. He was arrested on charges of obscenity, but was later acquitted. The group was banned from auditoriums in Phoenix and Long Island after Morrison allegedly incited his audience to riot. "I always try to get them to stand up," he explained later, "to feel free to move around anywhere they want to. It's not to precipitate a chaos situation.... How can you stand the anchorage of a chair and be bombarded with all this intense rhythm and not want to express it physically in movement? I like people to be free." Law enforcement officials took a dim view of Morrison's sentiments, however. He was arrested again in March 1969 after a concert in Miami where he was said to have committed "lewd and lascivious acts" onstage. After a two-month trial, he was convicted of drunkenness and exposure. That incident exacted a heavy toll from the band. Court costs were immense, numerous concert dates were cancelled, and the Doors, creatively drained, nearly disbanded.
Instead, they went back into the studio to record three more gold albums by 1971. Most music critics reacted favorably to these efforts, particularly L.A. Woman, which Lester Bangs called in Rolling Stone "the supreme statement from an uneven, occasionally brilliant band" and R. Meltzer considered the group's "greatest album." But Morrison, disillusioned with life as a rock star, left the United States for an indefinite stay in Europe. After traveling through Spain, Morocco and Corsica, he settled in Paris, where he began to write poetry and screenplays once again. He died suddenly and mysteriously on July 3, 1971, at the age of twenty-seven. Official reports stated that he had suffered a heart attack while bathing, but because his body was seen by no one but his wife, a legend has arisen that Morrison is not really dead and will someday return. His tomb is in the Poets' Corner of the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, near the graves of Balzac, Moliere, and Oscar Wilde. "The significance of the Doors should not be underestimated," stated Lester Bangs. "Jim Morrison was one of the fathers of contemporary rock."
by Joan Goldsworthy
Jim Morrison's Career
Vocalist, songwriter, poet, and filmmaker. Founding member (with Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, and Robbie Krieger) of the Doors, 1965-71. Author of poetry books, including The Lords and the New Creatures, Simon & Schuster, 1970; The Bank of America of Louisiana, Zeppelin, 1975; Wilderness: The Writings of Jim Morrison, Villard Books, 1988; and of film scripts, including "Feast of Friends," 1969, and "Highway," 1970.
- Selective Works
- The Doors Elektra, 1967.
- Strange Days Elecktra, 1967.
- Waiting for the Sun Elektra, 1968.
- The Soft Parade Elektra, 1969.
- Morrison Hotel Elektra, 1970.
- Absolutely Live Elektra, 1970.
- The Doors--13 Elektra, 1970.
- L.A. Woman Elektra, 1971.
- Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine Elektra, 1972.
- American Prayer Elektra, 1978.
- Dalton, David and Lenny Kaye, Rock 100, Grosset & Dunlap, 1977.
- Hardy, Phil and Dave Laing, Encyclopedia of Rock, McDonald, 1987.
- Hopkins, Henry and David Sugarman, No One Here Gets Out Alive, Warner Books, 1980.
- Jahn, Mike, Rock: From Elvis Presley to the Rolling Stones, Quadrangle, 1973.
- Miller, Jim, editor, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock, Rolling Stone Press, 1976.
- Williams, Paul, Outlaw Blues, Dutton, 1969.
- Crawdaddy, January, 1989.
- down beat, May 28, 1970.
- Feature, February 1979.
- Jazz & Pop, October 1969; October 1970.
- Melody Maker, August 3, 1968; October 10, 1971; March 11, 1972; October 20, 1973.
- Rolling Stone, October 26, 1968; July 12, 1969; August 23, 1969; April 30, 1970; October 1, 1970; January 7, 1971; May 27, 1971; January 25, 1979; October 6, 1988.
- Stereo Review, April 1979.
- Trouser Press, April 1979; September-October, 1980.
- Village Voice, January 8, 1979.