Jim Morrison’s bright spotlight time with The Doors lasted not quite five years: the band’s debut album arrived in January 1967, and L.A. Woman, the final work to feature the singer, was released the week of his death, aged 27, on July 3, 1971.

It’s now a half century since Morrison died in Paris in opaquely squalid circumstances, due to—take your pick—some mixture of alcohol, heroin, a small respiratory infection, and a general (not to say studied) carelessness. “When the music’s over / turn out the lights,” he sang in 1967, on The Doors’ second album, Strange Days. “Cancel my subscription / to the Resurrection.” Yet his revenant career as all-purpose Dionysian icon seems inexhaustible. From the posthumous album An American Prayer (1978) and The Doors’ soundtrack appearance on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), to the serial publication of various “lost” Morrison writings and the lamentable Oliver Stone biopic The Doors (1991), there’s no medium that Morrison’s shade hasn’t found a way to inhabit. More recently, hip L.A. chanteuse Lana del Rey sang: “Living like Jim Morrison / Heading for a fucked-up holiday.” And now we have a figuratively and literally heavy 600-page tome, like a chic designer sarcophagus, with Harper’s publication of The Collected Works of Jim Morrison. Not designed for casual riffling, it should really come with its own lectern or pulpit. It’s hard to know whom this kind of swanky item is aimed at, but it’s a palpable attempt (in the current lingo) to secure Morrison’s legacy: to fix him as more than just this crazy dude who had a few glorious hits and looked sensational in leather pants

What accounts for such a thriving afterlife? Why is there still such a halo around Morrison’s shaggy head when a cursory examination might suggest a fatally date-stamped cultural figure? How does this Nietzsche-quoting white bluesman and would-be shaman fit into today’s culturally disputatious landscape? A memory is being conjured, but is everything as straightforward as it looks?

Born in December 1943, the young James Douglas Morrison was the son of a career Navy man who bequeathed his firstborn son a middle name honoring no less a figure than General Douglas MacArthur. Constantly on the move from base to base with his family, with no real hometown or settled circle of friends, young James turned to books and music to forge a sense of self-possession. Pursuing the then-prevalent ethos of pop existentialism (via Camus, Nietzsche, and Genet) allowed Morrison to view his own deracinated life as a Sisyphean trial. Unlike many such adolescents, however, Morrison seems actually to have read all the key texts—and a lot more besides. He was particularly taken with doomed poets, demonology, and Greek myth.

This was a cultural moment between the declamatory Beats and rock and roll proper, with European authors all the rage in cheap, widely available paperbacks. The shy, pudgy, bookish James slowly became charismatic Jim in waiting, splicing together a wild strain of Rimbaud and Baudelaire, American blues and Native American shamanism. Such borrowings are likely to be chided these days for over-easy appropriation of other cultures; but at the time, it may have had less to do with privilege than a tentative questing for something larger than the self—less to do with the cliché of rebelling against conformity than a way of locating something to worship in a time and place that was big on prosperity but had little sense of the sacred. Morrison found it in American blues and European literature, and what eventually appeared was his own kind of two-headed soul music: The Doors’ debut album made space for covers of both Howlin’ Wolf’s “Back Door Man” and Brecht/Weill’s “Alabama Song.” Morrison opened a door onto a threshold space that he would call his “bright midnight”: a sublime European Romanticism transplanted to a very American plain of cars, bars, deserts, and beaches—The Golden Bough on the Billboard chart.

The founding myth of Morrison’s short, intense life occurred when he was only a child. In 1947, the four-year-old Morrison was on a family road trip somewhere in the desert between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and they passed the scene of a horrific traffic accident, involving a truckload of Indian workers. He claimed that he felt the spirit of one of the dead Indians enter him and take up residence as storm clouds unfurled overhead: “Indians scattered on dawn’s hi-way bleeding / Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile egg-shell mind.” This scene contains all the elements that he would later obsessively return to in song, poetry, and film. A car in motion. Blood, sand, and death. Ghost whispers and gigantic skies. Here is a liminal scene more real than the polite society he’s being raised in. Nothing quite so full of life for these young inquiring eyes as this moment of messy extinction. A primal landscape, with the figure of the bewildered but awakened man-child set against it: enormous horizons outside, the child’s intently fascinated gaze within. “It was the first time I discovered death.”

The son of a high-ranking Navy admiral, Morrison is shown in his 1957 yearbook photo from Alameda High School in California. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)
The son of a high-ranking Navy admiral, Morrison is shown in his 1957 yearbook photo from Alameda High School in California. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Morrison said that this was the bevel on which the rest of his life turned. Family members didn’t wholly recognize the incident in his later retelling, but that surely misses the point. From a precociously early age, he is scriptwriter, director, and leading man in his own movie and already has an eye for how inner and outer landscapes might merge or complement each other. Was he really (in his own phrase) a changeling, or someone who became who he was early on and remained essentially unchanged? He spoke, moved, and acted at every subsequent point as if he knew that he was a mythic figure in the making: custodian of his own legend.

Why such a pull toward things Native American? For Morrison, it was a ready-made mythos, like the blues: down below the borderline, like the wrong side of the tracks, is conceptualized as a place both more real and more magical, more brutal but also more innocent: nearer to some pre-civilized wellspring, it contains both more light and more darkness. Welcoming, even consoling, but with the tang of random violence; no one there will quail at your excesses. Many postwar artists were drawn to this same half-real half-mythical landscape: Malcolm Lowry, Jack Kerouac, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Sam Peckinpah, among others. Morrison’s hero Antonin Artaud was also inveigled by the prospect of ghost dances and peyote ceremonies. Rather than finding refuge and enlightenment there, it may have unhinged the delicate Artaud, who ended up no longer certain if the voices in his head were really his own. (The same impulse also sent Rolling Stone Brian Jones to Morocco to record The Pipes of Pan, which had a similarly destabilizing effect.)

How might Native American spirits react to being co-opted into what could be viewed as just another form of showbiz shtick? A notion of metaphysical otherness brushes up here against a nascent media world, little concerned with matters of soul, too avaricious to navigate the disciplined process of ritual. What is involved is a certain idea of “possession,” but it may not be a good idea to flirt with such unstable energies—you are just as likely to be co-opted by a fiercely malign spirit as a healing spirit. Such practices can be as deranging as they are light-giving, if the would-be gnostic is not ready to annul the ego entirely.

The Morrison biography Break on Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison, by James Riordan and Jerry Prochnicky, describes a tantalizing meeting between the singer and that other wildly successful 1960s spellbinder, Carlos Castañeda. Here is a zone somewhere between verifiable fact and provocative fiction, or anthropology as a branch of show business. People found it hard to tell whether Morrison was serious about his mystical bent or sending the whole thing up. On the great 2001 live collection Bright Midnight: Live in America, there’s a between-songs exchange with a girl in one audience about astrology. Morrison swaps a few apparently sincere sentences with her about star signs before turning aside to abruptly conclude: “Well, I don’t know. I think it’s all a bunch of bullshit myself.”

The most acute observers of Morrison (and the performers influenced by him who best reflect his example) understand that there is no necessary distance between the two extremes of drug-addled poseur and genuine mystic. Arguably, it was the more unreadable, buffoonish side of Morrison that is the most accurate embodiment of the trickster/shaman tradition. Unlike other 1960s rock contemporaries, Morrison didn’t try to maintain a 24/7 front of imperturbable cool. He was more into leering and clowning excess than icy sangfroid. At the same time, if you revisit many of his interviews, he comes across as surprisingly polite and thoughtful (there’s none of Bob Dylan’s square-skewering sarcasm, say). It’s difficult to rope Morrison into the prevailing hippie ethos: he doesn’t really fit the kind of documentary full of tired footage of painted hippie girls blowing bubbles in the park. He has more in common with a writer like Robert Stone, in whose gritty novels the eros of the hippie dream is slowly extinguished by the Thanatos of Vietnam and tainted by a literally poisonous drug culture.

Francis Ford Coppola’s canny use of “The End” in Apocalypse Now was the key event that elevated Morrison and The Doors beyond the limited purview of nostalgic rock fans. (Morrison and Coppola took the same UCLA film course, though not at the same time.) Apocalypse Now turned Morrison from just another sad, fat white guy into sheer zeitgeist shimmer. The film stages American hubris as a form of primal myth set in a chaotically “desperate land,” anatomizing the implosion of American optimism and residual faith in the nation’s technocratic power. “Of our elaborate plans, the end.” The fable of Colonel Kurtz—a brilliant man who could have had it all but abandoned the easy career path; overweight, brooding, quoting T. S. Eliot—could be a figurative Polaroid of Morrison himself. The “apocalypse” of the title retains the occult force of its original meaning: unwonted and discomfiting revelation. What happens after all the rules of the game have been jettisoned?

The Doors’ 1967 debut album now sounds haunted by a future that it couldn’t anticipate. It is sonically bright but lyrically gloomy. A series of afterlives is conjured: the end of friendship, the end of passion, the end of the night. Harvested together, individual lines read like telegrams from a lover’s purgatory: “I tell you / we must die.” “Our love become / a funeral pyre.” “Before you slip into unconsciousness.” It begins with the Dionysian commandment to “break on through to the other side” and ends with—well, “The End.” It could be an ESP fable in song, Morrison sensing his own beckoning future. Down at the end of this lonely street lies something more desolate than mere heartbreak: for the disillusioned romantic, suicide or self-destruction is the only dream that truly succeeds. Intoxication or love may provide intense peaks, but these fade or end, and there you are the next day, having to struggle up the diurnal hill again. Death is the only true inamorata.

Morrison is one of those figures who embody the tensions of a specific historical moment: here, how rock began to shift from a would-be radical counterculture to a self-obsessed media/celebrity scene. Morrison saw no contradiction in quoting Camus and Nietzsche while also posing for Vogue and giving interviews to Teenbeat. He was both grandstanding and aloof. With his pageboy locks and white ruffles round his throat, he could have lolled in from another century: a lascivious cherub. Other times, he looks as though he just fell out of that morning’s bed and threw on his least dirty laundry. Where his bandmates sported the peacock livery of the era, Morrison often looked like a male hustler on the Sunset Strip. In a dazzling 1967 clip from The Ed Sullivan Show, Morrison looks like something from another realm—not just in contrast with the homely and Nixonesque Sullivan, but even other rock-star guests. His unearthly beauty makes even the likes of The Rolling Stones look like knitwear catalog models. Where a performer like Mick Jagger was all tics and flickers, Morrison perfected the art of stasis, arranging himself like a series of film stills. His stage presence played as spontaneous rite, but it had its roots in the courses that a pre-Doors Morrison took in theater and film. He knew how to be a focal point. He understood the dynamic of being the object of mass attention, the personification of an eros that the audience was both seduced and a little frightened by.

Morrison knew that he was photogenic, but he had an ambivalent relationship with his own sex appeal. At a certain point, he grew a scuzzy mountain-man beard and began to pile on the Budweiser pounds. There’s a certain Romantic notion of wasted youth involved here, of reneging on the contract, as with comparable figures like Chet Baker, Gram Parsons, Elvis Presley, even Morrison’s literary crush Antonin Artaud. This core ambiguity concerning his own relationship to his looks and sexuality has never been sufficiently addressed. (For a bit of psychosexual fun, see how many instances you can find of Morrison using the word “soft” in various poems and lyrics.) His kind of male eroticism tends to get overlooked in the reams of breathless hagiography written by male fans. The vivid snapshots by Joan Didion and Eve Babitz, as well as other female journalists and photographers, feel far more acute on both his appeal and his flaws.

To this day, many remain allergic to Morrison’s particular charm. For a certain kind of male rock fan, he personifies two cardinal sins: he was avowedly pretentious and effortlessly sexy. Where Morrison’s best songs could have been written by no one else, his poetry (as revealed at great length in this Collected Works) feels as though it could have been written by practically anyone in a certain beatnik-y chapbook scene. The best poem qua poem in the Collected Works is the earliest, written while he was still in high school: “Horse Latitudes” has real shape and tension, vivid with imagery you can taste and feel. It’s his first proper work—and, in some ways, his last. He’s more taken with a hazy idea of the poetic than the hard work of poetry itself. Great nature poets make you see the world as if the doors of perception have indeed been cleansed; Morrison makes you feel as if you’re wincing at the midday sun through yet another on-all-fours hangover.

It’s very much the work of a callow young man, thinking his life of drink and drift, motel sex and drugged epiphanies is already a kind of poetry and simply needs to be set down. In Morrison’s own words: “A song is more primitive. Usually it has a rhyme and a basic meter. Whereas a poem can go anywhere.” He meant this to favor poetry over the more banal practice of popular song, but the idea of a poem going “anywhere” is precisely what’s wrong with most of his poetry. It’s bleary, haphazard, lacking any real spine holding it together or pushing it forward. Phrases repeat and are rearranged—seemingly at random. Certain amulet words and favorite phrases recur—any one of which, you feel, could be replaced by any other, interminably. To borrow some lines by his hero Artaud: “None of them strictly / speaking are / works. / All of them are drafts, / I mean / probings or / burrowings.”

There were many good reasons in the 1960s to rebel against society’s suffocating restrictions. But with each successive death of the so-called 27 Club (Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin), it began to look like discarding all boundaries completely was a fatal miscalculation. With Morrison, it is impossible to tell where the “visionary” ethic borrowed from Rimbaud of a “systematic derangement of all the senses” ended and when he just became a shaky old lush. As he increasingly indulged in booze over drugs and in drunken hijinks over considered theatrics, it didn’t take long for him to become bored by The Doors starry acclaim, or skeptical of the ideological verities of the underground. As early as 1968, he proclaims: “The winter’s coming on / Summer’s almost gone.” The song “Five to One” (on Waiting for the Sun) is the real turning point. He sang it drunk, but nothing could disguise his queasy exasperation. He takes potshots at a progressively more unreal utopianism (“You walk across the floor / with a flower in your hand”), and the line “Your ballroom days are over, baby / Night is drawing near” could be addressed to the hippie dream—or himself. All he can suggest as an alternative to the usual blue-sky thinking is a brutally immediate gratification: “Y’see, I gotta go out in this car with these people / And get fucked up.” (It’s Georges Bataille as a gnarly surfer dude.) His desperate drinking played out in parallel with a disaffection with the whole business of being a star and a spokesman. He is the personification of a new kind of rock singer as world-turning revolutionary, but he finds himself playing to audiences who want only to hear the same old Top 40 hits and see the same corny sex-god act.

It all culminated with an infamously disordered performance in Miami in March 1969. Flagrantly drunk, Morrison barely attempts to complete any songs, before returning to what is the real business of the night: taunting his baffled, then ever more disgruntled, audience. “Wait a minute! You blew it. You blew it. I’m not gonna take this shit!” Why are you here? he asks them. Is it for THIS? What happened next has always been disputed, but it was alleged that Morrison exposed himself (or did a good imitation of same). This was an obscene gesture too far for local authorities. What started as trial by headline became actual trial. As with many things in Morrison’s life, it was simultaneously triumph and disaster. The triumph was figurative; the disaster had consequences that were all too real. For once, Morrison seems to have been genuinely thrown by ordinary life biting back against his raucous provocations. In a journal started at the time, he records this thought: “I have been leading a commune life, shielded from adults. . . . Miami an education.” Symbolic disgrace was one thing; the threat of actual jail time was penance of an entirely different order.

It is on the last thing recorded before his death that Morrison came closest to being a shaman for his own culture rather than for some borrowed or imaginary realm. “L.A. Woman” is a kind of joyous threnody for Los Angeles. This is genuine lyric poetry that merges topography and language, the everyday and the occult. The fabled California of surf, sunshine, and whole-food cafés is replaced by one that is far more Bukowski, Nathanael West, and John Rechy (whose “City of Night” becomes a phrase hollered by Morrison on the title song). With “Riders on the Storm,” it’s all in the whispery, crepuscular mood, suggesting some imminent loss or catastrophe just around the curve of the nighttime highway, thoughts like cruel ghosts in the passenger’s head. This California no longer evokes the promise of a Golden West but an irresistibly enveloping darkness.

The Doors vocalist’s grave in Paris’s famous Père-Lachaise cemetery, where many prominent literary figures are buried  (JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images)
The Doors vocalist’s grave in Paris’s famous Père-Lachaise cemetery, where many prominent literary figures are buried  (JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images)

During the recording of the L.A. Woman album, Morrison talked about “taking a holiday”—from what, and for how long, never specified. (When you need to take a holiday from being an adored rock star in Los Angeles, things are definitely not right.) Eve Babitz’s sister Mirandi, who knew Morrison and his long-term partner Pamela Courson socially, thought that Morrison’s excessive boozing and drugging were an attempt to cover up undiagnosed depression. She comments: “It was as if he was very unhappy inside.” Perhaps all the drunken bluster and daredevil stunts and authority-baiting were a numb man’s way of feeling something. This suggests another way of looking at his writing, too. For all its mythic yearning, it leaves very little sense of real emotional engagement. There’s just the suspicion that this ready-made poetic syntax might be a perfect way of not saying what it is you’re really feeling (or, worse: what you’re not feeling).

Were some of Morrison’s final hours spent thinking along such lines? In Paris, exiled from his American horizon, he is thrown back on his own inner landscape. What voices does he hear there? That it was only his rock-star infamy as Boho Jim that would ever get the mediocre poet James Douglas Morrison published or read? He was tired of faking the wild rock-star act but hadn’t put in the sober work required of a real poet. He tried to stop drinking but couldn’t. No new Bateau Ivre was about to flow from his fingers. The role of golden boy can become a terrible straitjacket. Did his always-lurking depression now acquire a suicidal edge, or did he just allow a suicidal lifestyle to take its course, and summon his own “accidental” death?

In the end, at his end, he lay comatose in a gilded bathtub: the sea’s immensity reduced to coffin size. He doesn’t die silhouetted against a rapt American sky but in a small, dark European room. He isn’t extinguished in some Dionysian blaze but slouches into extinction. How limitless and free was everything, finally? Morrison’s scream at the apex of “The End,” after he pronounces the infamous Oedipal line (“Mother, I want to . . .”) isn’t a hosanna of joyous liberation but a howl of pain. Some knowledge is forbidden us for very good reasons.

Top Photo: A half century after Morrison’s death, HarperCollins has published a 600-page collection of his writings. (Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)


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