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Jim Morrison was a mesmeric figure in the American sixties, a rebel poet and godhead in snakeskin and leather. He lived fast, died young, and left a less-than-exquisite corpse in Paris while hiding out from the law. In his prime the writers and critics went nuts trying to do his weird mojo some measure of justice. (One called him "an angel in grace and a dog in heat.") Jim was the greatest American rock star of his era, and one of its most publicized celebrities, but—more than three decades later—his life and works have yet to yield all their secrets and enigmas.
Jim Morrison tried to set the night on fire. As lead singer of the Doors, he was an acid evangelist on a suicide mission to deprogram his generation from what he saw as a prisonlike conformity to social and sexual norms. He was a seer, an adept, a bard, a drunk, a bisexual omnivore. Jim styled his band "erotic politicians," and relentlessly urged his huge audience—at the height of the dangerous sixties—to break on through the doors of perception, to free themselves from robotic familial conditioning, to seek a higher, more aware consciousness. Doors concerts—throbbing with war-dance rhythms and superheated intimacy—were as close to the experience of shamanic ritual as the rock audience ever got. The Doors captured the unrest and the menace that hung in the air of the late sixties like tear gas, and they did it with hypnotic cool.
Between 1965 and 1971 Jim Morrison wrote a hundred songs, recorded seven platinum albums, wrote and published four editions of poems, made three films, recorded his poetry, wrote screenplays, and filled dozens of notebooks with verse and notations. He played more than two hundred concerts with the Doors. He established himself as a sex icon and the major American rock star of the sixties. He violated all of puritan America's sexual taboos and—in a frenetic burst of political energy— even threatened the vindictive Nixon administration with his blatant invitations to protest and revolt.
Jim Morrison, as it turns out, was much more important than anyone realized at the time. Critically dismissed as a has-been Bozo/Dionysius before his death, Morrison's poetic visions have stayed on the radio for more than thirty years, and on into the new century. They have become the classic texts of classic rock, reaching out to generations beyond the one that first understood the deepest meanings, the organic unity, and the transcendent qualities of his greatest work.
Jim Morrison was the last incarnation of that quintessential late- romantic figure, the demonically aroused poet shaking with rage at his world and his contemporaries; a prophet with terrible eyes and rigid features, clad in black leather. He was arguably the major poet to emerge from the turmoil of the legendary American sixties. Decades later, Jim Morrison has materialized as the true avatar of his age. His words are burned into the brains of three American generations—the emergency telegram of "Break On Through," the visionary cadences of "L.A. Woman," and the mysterious whispered verses of "Riders on the Storm." His voice echoes on classic-rock stations from coast to coast. His image haunts dorm walls everywhere, emblazoned: JIM MORRISON/AMERICAN POET / 1943–1971. The Doors' album sales, as of this writing, are over fifty million units, and climbing.
Today, more than thirty years after Jim Morrison died, important new revelations are emerging concerning his tumultuous life, his tragic death, and his enduring legend. And the questions about him still linger. Who was he really? Why did he destroy himself? Why was he failed by everyone who knew him?
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It wasn't all great, being a rock god in the sixties. The tours were primitive and disorganized. The groupies were pretty, but they gave you herpes and the clap. The drugs and alcohol turned you into an imbecile. Your old lady slept around while you were on tour. The critics hated you when you got huge, and suddenly the press that had built you up into a deity began to tear you down. The Doors at their best were about as good as rock music ever got. At their worst, they were one of the most pretentious bands on the planet. But no one had a clearer grasp of the complexities and ironies of the age than Jim Morrison.
Living the times as he did, in full senses-deregulated consciousness, Jim understood the American sixties for what they were: an era of new religious visions, spiritual crisis, political unrest, race riots, assassinations—as well as a rare opportunity for change and reform. The decade's promises were never fulfilled, but some of its goals—such as integration, civil rights, the "global village," and the bringing of East and West into closer harmony—are clearly still in process. Jim Morrison hitchhiked along this psychic landscape like a killer on the road, and the Doors' music still has the uncanny power to poison every new class of ninth graders with its dark messages and raw power. What thirteen-year-old today can play "People Are Strange" and not hear it as a postcard of comfort from beyond the grave? How many dead rock stars have an annual riot at their tomb?
In one of his unpublished spiral notebooks, sometime in 1968, Jim penned his credo in blue ink: "I contend an abiding sense of irony over all I do."
Jim Morrison's famous "Lizard King" persona was a joke, but it was a serious joke, a cosmic put-on. Jim's serial evocation of the American desert and its reptilian underworld was part of his existential drive to include in the experience of life the omnipresence of impending death. In another notebook entry he wrote: "Thinking of death as the climactic point of one's life."
John Densmore, the Doors' drummer, who was often frightened and bewildered by Jim Morrison's behavior, later observed that all the other California bands of the sixties preached the raising of consciousness toward a state of enlightenment. But the Doors' message, he wrote, had been all about "endarkenment."
No rock singer ever sounded more like he meant it than Jim Morrison. No one else could have released a subversive, antimilitarist song like "The Unknown Soldier," with its hellacious screams of violence and despair, amid the brutality of the Vietnam War. Alone of his generation, Jim's power depended not just on the surge of his poetry with the blinding charisma of his amplified performances, but also on the sheer, cussed rebel energy it took to stand up to society and challenge its hypocritical, constipated moral values in a time of dangerous upheaval.
Alone of the sixties rock stars, Jim Morrison didn't see his mission as a show. "For me, it was never an act, those so-called performances," he said. "It was a life-and-death thing—an attempt to communicate, to involve many people at once in a private world of thought."
Jim Morrison took the inherent dread of the American sixties and made it even crazier, more desperate. Then he made it into a joke, and Jim's volatile essence was a rocket destined to burn out. Drugs would destroy the bravest and craziest of the rock stars. "Revelation would turn into delusion." When his spiritual drive was exhausted, sapped by addiction, dementia, and legal battles, Jim's body followed soon after. Jim Morrison's tragic death at twenty-seven in 1971 was the last in the sequence of rock extinctions that began with Jim's hero Brian Jones (at twenty-seven) in 1969, and continued with Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix (both also at twenty-seven) in 1970. The rock movement never recovered. The surviving heroes would carry on, new ones were born (and also would die), but the midnight hour had passed when Jim Morrison flamed out. Those whom the gods love die young.
The theater is dark and smoky. Outside, police sirens scream as the cops teargas the kids who can't get in. Suddenly a white-hot light pierces the gloom and a jellied scream rips open an abyss of despair and fury. The Doors are in town tonight, and Jim Morrison is acting out his epic pathos, the lead singer as an illuminating angel from hell.
Looking beyond the lip of the stage, he sees a dark jumble of chaos and disorder as the convulsive young mob of teenagers pulses violently before him. The energy the band is putting out may be awesome, but it is nothing in comparison to what is happening down in the audience, where the chaos is not an act, and often gets much crazier than it does onstage. Jim Morrison's experience of the concert was the inverse of the audience's, as he witnessed nightly scenes of mass rapture, anxiety, lust, fear, and joy. Jim learned early on that the real energy in the room belongs to the audience. It's this knowledge that compelled him to document these Bosch-like fantasias for posterity in his film, Feast of Friends.
There is something awful, deeply moving, and terribly human in the tragical history of Jim Morrison. On the surface, it's a story of how the excess of fame and unlimited freedom ruined a young American poet. Looking closer, it becomes clear that Jim Morrison's early fury and mania gradually evolved into a kind of artistic maturity, one that was more keenly experienced and aggressively lovely—and prophetically fatal. This book seeks to replace the myths and the lies that have overwhelmed the legend of Jim Morrison with new reporting and a reconsideration of both the known facts and the wild, unsubstantiated rumors. The portrait that emerges in the end reveals a damaged, fiercely loving, compassionate man who overcame his self-destruction through a body of darkly beautiful work that echoes down to us today, with its romantic glamour and spiritual power intact. Mr. Mojo—still rising.
Is everybody in?
The ceremony is about to begin.
The Lizard King's School Days
The devotion of the greatest is to encounter risk and danger, and play dice with death.
Anyone inquiring more than superficially into Jim Morrison's life immediately realizes that the story of his childhood is crucial to understanding what happened to him later. First, he remained very childish his entire life. (Of course, for the rock stars who came to fame and fortune very young, what else was there for them to do?) Second, when Jim joined the Doors and began performing in public, he abruptly severed all contact with his family and never saw his parents again. Third, his early act was a graphic, pull-no- punches rewrite of the ancient Oedipus legend, in which he sang of killing his father and fucking his mother in front of tens of thousands of his fans.
Why did Jim Morrison hate his parents so much? Why did he hate himself? How was he able to create such pure American music out of his own anguish? Why did he end up with a crazy girlfriend who was an even heavier character than himself; who tried in vain to control him; who may have killed him in the end? How could it have happened that this cool, talented guy—one of the great artists of his generation—morphed into a monster, and then immolated himself?
The problem with answering these questions is that Jim Morrison's troubled and problematic post-World War II childhood within the sheltered, close-knit world of military families has been one of his story's most closely guarded mysteries. His parents, Admiral George S. Morrison and Clara Clarke Morrison, have never commented publicly on their notorious firstborn son. Jim's brother and sister have been equally reluctant to speak of their brother. Whether fear of scrutiny or a desire for privacy drives this steely reticence, any inquiries to the Morrison family concerning the late rock star and poet Jim Morrison are parried by California attorneys claiming to represent his estate. The Morrison family's wall of silence has immured Jim's childhood, especially his tense and unhappy adolescence, since the day he died.
This shouldn't be surprising, since Jim Morrison tried to convince the media that his parents were dead, and that his siblings never existed. He probably thought he was doing them a favor.
Here's what is known about Jim's first twenty years.
His father, George Stephen Morrison, known as Steve, was born in Georgia in 1920 and raised in Leesburg, Florida. The Morrison family was descended from Scottish settlers who arrived in America in the late eighteenth century. The name Morrison is thought by some scholars to derive from the Latin root of Moorish. In Roman times soldiers from far-flung provinces were moved around to guard different parts of the empire. Thus Celtic troops from Britain would be sent to guard Morocco, while Moors from North Africa maintained order in Britain. Folklorists say, for example, that the quaint English custom of the Morris dance can been traced to a Moorish antecedent. In this context, Morrison could mean "Moor's son." Late in his life, Jim would visit Morocco at least twice, searching for something he was unable to describe to his traveling companions.
Steve Morrison's parents were hardworking, God-fearing, nondrinking southern Presbyterians, and Steve followed the family's tradition of military service and entered the U.S. Naval Academy in the late 1930s. He was a trim young man, short of stature and serious, with an air of quiet authority. With World War II about to begin, his class was hustled through an early graduation in 1941, and Steve Morrison was posted to Hawaii for flight training. Later that year, just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he met Clara Clarke at a military dance. Blond, bubbly, very pretty and slightly heavy, she was the daughter of a Wisconsin lawyer and political maverick who defended union activists and had run for political office as a socialist candidate. It is interesting that Jim Morrison's maternal grandfather came from the great populist/progressive/socialist strain of American radicalism, a powerful sector of dissent and anger that challenged the two- party establishment from a strong political base in the upper Midwest and produced national leaders like Robert La Follette.
After a brief and war-torn courtship typical of thousands of young couples in that dangerous time, Steve Morrison and Clara Clarke were married in April 1942. They moved to Pensacola, Florida, where Steve continued flight training before shipping out on a vessel laying mines in the waters around Alaska. Their first child, named James Douglas Morrison, was born in Melbourne, on Florida's Atlantic coast near Cape Canaveral, on December 8, 1943, amid the greatest burst of military energy his country ever experienced. He was called Jimmy by his family, and answered to that name all his life, at least to those who knew him intimately.
His father was soon flying Hellcat fighters in the South Pacific, and spent the next eighteen months on duty. While her husband was overseas, Clara lived with her husband's parents, Paul and Caroline Morrison, who operated a laundry in Clearwater, on the Gulf of Mexico. Jimmy lived in his grandparents' house until he was three, and Clearwater remained the family's hometown of record during Jimmy's childhood.
Steve Morrison emerged from the war a decorated Navy pilot and an ambitious officer devoted to his career. His first postwar assignment was in Washington, but, determined to rise in the naval hierarchy, he moved his young family around with very little notice as he earned promotions and his assignments changed. Correctly guessing in 1947 that quick advancement lay in the new technologies that were reshaping the world, Steve Morrison transferred into nuclear weapons systems in the period when the hydrogen bomb was being developed at Los Alamos and tested at the White Sands proving grounds in the deserts of New Mexico. His new duties required a high-level security clearance that specified that his work was never discussed at home. Obscured by official secrecy (references to Lieutenant Morrison's duties during this period are still heavily censored in copies of his naval records made available to the public), all that is known about this era is that the Morrison family lived in naval housing in the vicinity of Albuquerque. Jim's sister, Anne, was born there when he was three years old.
If his sister's arrival was traumatic for the quiet only child, something else happened in New Mexico that left a profoundly vivid impression on Jimmy. Early one morning the family was driving in the desert somewhere between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. According to Jim, his mother and father were in the car, along with his grandparents. At one point his father pulled off to the side of the two-lane road, and he and Jimmy's grandfather got out of the car. Jimmy looked up and saw the grisly remains of a very recent head-on collision between another car and a truck carrying some Pueblo or Hopi Indians, "scattered on dawn's highway bleeding," as he later famously remembered. Dead and injured people were lying in the road, and from somewhere rose the anguished voice of a woman wailing in pain and hysteria.
Fascinated by the bloody spectacle, Jimmy tried to get out of the car to follow his father, but his mother held him back. So Jimmy pressed his face to the window, taking in the gory aftermath of the fatal traffic accident. His grandmother blurted that she'd always heard that Indians didn't cry, but these people were wailing in anguish. Jimmy shuddered and strained to get a last look at the carnage as his father climbed back in the car and pulled onto the road again. A few miles farther, they stopped at a filling station and called the highway patrol and an ambulance. Jimmy was visibly disturbed and kept asking questions. He got so upset that his father finally said, "Jimmy, it didn't really happen. It was just a bad dream."
But he never forgot the dying Indians. "It was the first time I discovered death," he recounted many years later, as tape rolled in a darkened West Hollywood recording studio. "I'm just this little . . . like a child is a flower, man, whose head is just floating in the breeze. But the reaction I get now, thinking back, looking back, is that, possibly, the soul of one of those Indians, maybe several of them, just ran over and jumped into my brain. . . . It's not a ghost story, man. It's something that really means something to me."
After this encounter on a desert highway, Jimmy began to wet his bed at night. It drove his mother crazy. As an adult he remembered going to his mother's bed when it happened, and being forced to go back to his room and sleep in his wet sheets. Shame city. He tried to hide it when it happened, but she always found out. Then he started to be afraid to sleep in his own bed at all. Some nights he fell asleep curled in a ball on the floor. (The bedwetting may also have been connected to a childhood bout with rheumatic fever, which Jim told his doctor about in 1970. This illness might have, additionally, weakened Jimmy's heart.)
If Jim Morrison's trusted lawyer is to be believed, Jimmy was introduced early to sexuality. In 1969, while preparing for the obscenity and lewd conduct trial that could have resulted in a prison term for his client, Beverly Hills attorney Max Fink debriefed Jim Morrison on his sexual history. According to a transcript of a taped interview later conducted by Fink's wife, Margaret, the lawyer said that he asked Jim why he had chosen to expose himself onstage in his home state of Florida. "I thought it was a good way to pay homage to my parents," Jim replied.
Taken aback, and mindful of the abyss that seemed to separate Jim Morrison from his family, Fink then asked what his parents had done to him. Jim reportedly mentioned the bed-wetting trauma, then let slip that he'd been molested by a man when he was a boy. Jim refused to tell Max Fink who had molested him, except to say it was someone close to the family. When Jimmy tried to tell his mother, Fink claimed, she had gotten angry, called him a liar, and insisted such a thing never could have happened. Fink said that Jim began to cry as he told him the story, and claimed Jim had said that he could never forgive his mother for this. (For the record, the Morrison family's attorneys categorically denied that any of these incidents or "this alleged behavior" ever occurred.)
In 1948 the family moved again, to Los Altos in northern California. Here Jimmy Morrison started public school as a shy and chubby boy who hated getting on the bus in the morning. Cold War paranoia was in the air amid fear of nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Schoolchildren of Jimmy's generation were indoctrinated about the omnipresent threat of thermonuclear annihilation and required to practice duck-and-cover routines during monthly air raid drills, sometimes squatting under their desks, sometimes lining the darkened halls of their school buildings to be beyond the range of shattering glass as phantom A-bombs pulverized their world. Television—viewed on tiny, seven-inch black- and-white screens—made a deep impression on Jimmy. In second grade, Jimmy and his buddy Jeff Morehouse—another son of a navy family whose wanderings roughly kept pace with the Morrisons—were avid viewers of Dumont's Captain Video and paid-up members of his fan club, the Video Rangers.
Jimmy's younger brother, Andrew, was born in Los Altos the following year, 1949. Then this fairly typical navy family's transient wanderings began in earnest. They went back to Washington, D.C., for a year before moving to Claremont, California, where they lived while Steve Morrison was serving in Korea. Jim attended Longfellow Elementary School. In sixth grade he was a slightly chubby, asthmatic natural leader, the best kickballer in the school, and president of the student council, which required him to open morning assemblies by reciting the pledge of allegiance. But then Jimmy got in trouble. He was asked to leave his Cub Scout pack after he refused to follow directions and was unruly with the den mother.
In 1955, the Morrisons returned to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where, family members recall, they noticed a change in Jimmy. He gave up his piano lessons and refused to spend time with the family. Living on the edge of the desert, Jimmy became fascinated with the mysterious, prehistoric-looking desert reptiles—lizards, snakes, armadillos—that scurried around the hot, dry landscape. The horned toads fascinated him, little scaly dragons with flicking tongues and nightmare eyes. He hunted them down, seeking their lairs, reading books about them. Desert reptiles became Jim's personal totem, making dozens of appearances in his notebooks on their way to what became a national fetishization at the behest of the future Lizard King.
In 1955 Commander Steve Morrison was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Midway, and the family relocated again, this time to San Francisco. They moved into a big shingled house in suburban Alameda, where Jimmy began the eighth grade amid the convulsive birth of rock and roll and the epic milestones of juvenile delinquency—Elvis censored on Ed Sullivan, Bill Haley's irresistible "Rock Around the Clock," Little Richard's savage jungle rhythms, Fats Domino's gutbucket New Orleans R & B, Chuck Berry's clever three-minute high school anthems, black leather motorcycle jackets, switchblade knives—a James Dean maelstrom of 1950s rebellion amid Eisenhower-era conformity, repressed sexuality, and the political stresses and apocalyptic threats of the Cold War.