Tribute: 43 Years Ago, Jim Morrison Died
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Tribute: 43 Years Ago, Jim Morrison Died


Jim MorrisonIn the true sense of the word, Jim Morrison is an American legend. Morrison was fascinated by mythology, and from the beginning he cultivated a mythic mystique. He’s become a symbol of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and a subject of conspiracy theories, but at his core Morrison was a poet fueled by a dark, uncontrollable fire. But that fire couldn’t sustain itself: 43 years ago today, drugs and alcoholism snuffed it out forever.

Even in an era crowded with giants, there was something uniquely compelling about The Doors and Morrison himself. There was a seething, intensely sexual darkness to his music, his lyrics and his stage persona. He studied Nietzsche and Native American mythology and saw rock music as a vehicle for his poetry and mystic vision. He loved Ginsberg and Kerouac, but also William Blake and Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Poster child for his era that he is, Morrison wouldn’t have been out of place among the 19th-century libertines he admired. Yes, he was the Lizard King, but he was also a modern Dionysus.

With Morrison’s sudden death on July 3, 1971, the myth threatened to eclipse the man. Mystery shrouded his passing. Officially, he’d died of heart failure in the bathtub of his apartment in Paris, where he’d moved just a few months prior. But since no autopsy was performed, theories proliferated. Some fans refused to believe he’d died at all, because faking it seemed like something the death-obsessed Morrison might actually do.

Death had always haunted Morrison. Though it was heroin that eventually took him out, his biggest demon of all was alcohol, and in the last few years of his life he was constantly drunk. Far be it from me to psychoanalyze a rock god, but given the known relationship between addiction and trauma, Morrison’s drinking may have stemmed in part from a memory he himself has described as “the first time I tasted fear.” As a small child, Morrison witnessed the brutal aftermath of a truck crash on a New Mexico highway. The image of the workers’ blood-soaked bodies in the road is captured in the song “Peace Frog”: “Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding/ Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind.” Has a better description of trauma ever been penned?

Morrison’s progressing alcoholism was nowhere more apparent than in his live performances. From the start he gained a reputation as a stage rebel when the Doors performed “Light My Fire” on The Ed Sullivan Show. When Sullivan famously ordered Morrison to change the phrase “Girl we couldn’t get much higher” (because, you know, drug reference), Morrison politely agreed to the host’s demands, then defiantly sang the line anyway. When Sullivan refused to shake his hand after the show, the singer couldn’t have cared less.

But as his fame escalated, Morrison’s stage antics went from cheeky to outright destructive. In 1967 in New Haven, Connecticut, he became the first rock star ever to get arrested on stage. After aggressive backstage flirting got him sprayed with mace by a police officer, he took to the stage and delivered a drunken, anti-establishment rant that sparked an audience riot and got him arrested on obscenity charges.

Beginning around 1969, he began showing up obviously intoxicated to shows on a regular basis. He had also put on weight, courtesy of the bottle. His concerts grew sloppier, and bandmate Ray Mazarek sometimes had to take over vocal duties because Morrison failed to show up on time. He hit rock bottom performing at Miami’s Dinner Key Club. Visibly intoxicated and goading the audience, he attempted to incite another riot but instead ended up arrested for public drunkenness, profanity and indecent exposure. On a $50,000 bond he was able to elude his six-month prison sentence. The other Doors maintained that Morrison had never actually exposed himself, and in 2010 he was pardoned posthumously by Florida Governor Charlie Crist.  But at the time, his behavior led to radio and record store boycotts. The Doors stopped performing live, and Morrison escaped the scene by moving to Paris, where he died at the age 27.

Many versions of his death were told and retold. Nobody truly believed his heart attack to have been natural. For years, the most credible story held that he’d spent the night at home snorting heroin (he hated needles) with his girlfriend Pamela Courson, who herself would fatally overdose three years later. But in 2007, Sam Bernett, who managed Paris’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus nightclub at the time of Morrison’s death, told his own version of the tragedy: Morrison had not died at home, but in the bathroom at his club, where he’d sampled the heroin he had bought for Pamela. According to Bernett, two dealers had schlepped the singer’s lifeless body back to his apartment to absolve the club of liability.

We may never truly know what happened 43 years ago today. But as with any myth, the details are secondary. Ultimately it doesn’t matter how or where Jim Morrison died; somehow, every version of the story feels equally true. Fast on the heels of Hendrix and Joplin, Morrison was consumed by his own dark fire and ascended into legend.

For someone who only spent five years being both famous and alive, Morrison has cast a towering shadow, inspiring vocalists as diverse as Iggy Pop, Layne Staley, Scott Weiland and Julian Casablancas. Perhaps more than any other rock star, Jim Morrison personified the excess of late 60s counterculture. But he transcended it as well. He possessed a poetic vision that few of his contemporaries could even grasp. His fragile eggshell mind had been irreversibly opened, and he was determined to open our minds, too.

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About Author

Erica Larsen AKA Eren Harris blogs at Whitney Calls and Clean Bright Day. Their writing has also been published on Salon, Selfish, Violet Rising and YourTango. They live in Los Angeles with their husband and their enormous cat.