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50th anniversary of the death of Jim Morrison

Annabelle Steffes-Halmer
July 2, 2021

Rock legend, poet, sex symbol: 50 years after his death, people are still fascinated by Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors. But who was the man behind the legend?

Jim Morrison, young man looks into camera, stretches out right arm
Jim Morrison in 1971Image: Imago Images/Zuma

Multi-talented artist, charismatic frontman, coveted lover: at the height of his career, Jim Morrison completely lived up to the image of the proverbial rock star. His style was unconventional, sent shockwaves through straight-laced America but fascinated the younger generation.

But the real man behind this success story was often depressed, withdrawn and rebellious. His excessive use of drugs and alcohol is likely one of the reasons why the singer died at the young age of only 27. To this day, numerous legends surround his death on July 3, 1971.

"Wild child full of grace, Savior of the human race"

The extroverted performer on stage had little in common with the introverted boy he grew up as. Born James Douglas Morrison on December 8, 1943 in Melbourne, Florida as the son of a Navy Admiral, Jim was used to moving homes — by the time he was 16, he had already moved 18 times and had lived with his family in nine different states. He was close to his younger siblings Anne and Andy, and the three always had each other's backs.

Morrison found support of a different kind in writing and drawing, which he started at an early age. He discovered music, and was passionate about film. Morrison started out as a diligent student, was class president and a model boy scout. But he became more withdrawn toward the end of his high school years. 

"Let's swim to the moon"

This quiet boy became an active young man who pursued his passion for film in Los Angeles. However, he soon discovered that studying at UCLA's film school was not his thing after all. But this was where he met fellow student Ray Manzarek, who was four years older. They got together to play music, with Manzarek on the piano or organ and Morrison as vocalist and songwriter.

"Moonlight Drive" is one of Morrison's early songs, with an ambiguous tune and poetic or morbid lyrics — depending on the point of view. The song was penned on the roof of a three-story house in Venice Beach at a time when Morrison was very much into taking LSD as a recreational drug. Morrison, who was 21 years old at the time, expressed that he was keen on breaking the "gates of perception."

Drummer John Densmore and guitarist Robby Krieger joined Manzarek and Morrison's "Doors of Perception" band — the name of which was inspired by the title of a 1954 book by the British writer and philosopher, Aldous Huxley.

The Doors, a group of men stand by an airplane
The Doors in 1968Image: Express/Getty Images

The band toured from club to club on the L.A. music scene. It took a while for the Electra label to discover them and offer a record deal. But once the offer was signed, the band recorded its debut album in Sunset Sound Recording Studios within just a week in 1966. The second single from the album, "Light My Fire," which had been penned by Robby Krieger, became a hit that would climb to the top of the charts in 1967.

With their psychedelic blues rock style making heavy use of the organ, the band had created a unique sound, which was embellished by Morrison's mystical and provocative lyrics. He would often elaborate on existing lyrics and add unpredictable lines live on stage, sometimes making it challenging for the the rest of the band to follow.

And while this was part of his unique charm, it also got him into trouble at times: In 1966, for example, while the band was performing at the Whiskey a Go Go club, Morrison's lyrics went off on a particularly explicit tangent in which he picked up on the theme from the Oedipus Rex Greek tragedy. After singing about killing his father and sleeping with his mother, the club decided to kick the band out.

"Break On Through To The Other Side"

This certainly wasn't the last scandal that Morrison would stir up over the following years. The Doors' live shows became notorious, adding to the myth surrounding the band. Jim Morrison always would take center-stage, seducing women and men alike with his persona. Wearing tight black leather pants, he would danc as if he was transported into a trance, heaving to the beat of the music in a shaman-like performance. At times he would stop to recite poetry, or simply throw himself into the crowd without any word of warning.

It was at a show in Miami in 1969 that Morrison appears to have reached the point of spiraling out of control. Completely drunk, he walked onto the stage at the Dinner Key Auditorium, a former seaplane hangar, yelling: "You’re all a bunch of f*kin’ idiots! You're all a bunch of slaves!"

By this point, he had been heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol for months, and known for acting at times aggressive toward his fans. Still, it came as a surprise when he asked if the audience wanted to see his penis, and went on to unbuckle his belt to show his underwear. A riot ensued between Morrison, the police and the audience, and the evening descended into chaos.

Jim Morrison sings into microphone
The iconic Doors frontman liked to refer to himself as the "Lizard King"Image: Manfred Rehm/dpa/picture alliance

Everyone who was close to the singer swore that at no time had there been any act of indecent exposure, but his erratic behavior was enough for the authorities to issue an arrest warrant. In August 1970, Morrison was charged with lewd and lascivious behavior, indecent exposure and profanity.

He rejected a plea bargain, was released on bail and later sentenced to labor at Dade County prison. The case was still on appeal at the time of his death.

"LA Woman, you're my woman"

Morrison was finished — he knew it, the other band members knew it as well. He was not cut out for the rock star life. Instead, he had come to regard himself as a writer, a poet, someone with a message to communicate — and not just an entertainer.

To get through his gigs, he had to get high on drugs every night. He expresed that he wanted to quit the band, but at Manzarek's request, he gave the band another six months to record their sixth and final studio album, LA Woman. It was the only album not to be followed by a tour.

Gravesite set with stone and adorned with flowers
Jim Morrison's grave in Paris

In the spring of 1971, Morrison moved to Paris to live there with his longtime girlfriend, Pamela Courson. He needed to get away from L.A., from excess, from the rock star life, and rather concentrate on his poetry.

But he was in poor health, frequently coughing up blood, which also happened on the night of July 2. His girlfriend ran him a bath and went back to sleep. An hour later she woke up to find Jim Morrison lifeless in the bathtub of her Paris apartment on 17 rue Beautreillis. The official version of the story has it that he died of a heart attack.

"This is the End, my only friend"

Many fans and biographers, however, believe that Courson, a heroin addict, invented that story. Morrison could have died of an overdose, they say. Others believe Morrison only staged his death, and that the coffin that was carried to the Pere Lachaise graveyard in Paris four days later was empty.

A memorial in Venice Beach for  Jim Morrison, grey stone wall on grass, palm trees in background
A memorial in Venice Beach commemorates the singer/songwriterImage: A. Steffes-Halmer/DW

Pamela Courson stuck to her version of the story until her death less than three years after Jim Morrison. Like him, she only lived to be 27 years old. The band officially dissolved in 1972.

In the early 2000s, Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger attempted to stage a reunion and brought singer Ian Astbury, former frontman of The Cult, on board. The Doors of the 21st Century were not very successful. The legend that the band was build on during the four short years of its existence from 1967-1971, during which they released six albums, could not be revived. Jim Morrison always stood — and still stands — at the center of the myth even 50 years after his death.

Death makes angels of us all

And gives us wings

Where we have shoulders

Smooth as raven's claws. 

Jim Morrison poem from An American Prayer


This article has been translated from the German original