Travel to the Père Lachaise cemetery on the outskirts of Paris, and you will find one of Europe’s great necropolises. Under a canopy of ash, maple and hazel, cobbled pathways cut a bewildering maze through endless rows of grand tombs. Along this path, tourists amble along with fixed brows, searching for one of the famous names that litter this land of the dead. Many will be keeping an eye out for one name in particular: that of Jim Morrison, who was buried here in 1971 after dying from a drugs overdose in his Paris apartment.
Only five people were by his graveside the day they lowered his body into the sun-dappled soil. Today, that same grave is ritually festooned with bottles of Jack Daniels, plastic-packaged flowers bought from nearby supermarkets, and black and white photographs of the musician pouting for the camera, back when his youthful beauty seemed as though it would never fade.
Jim Morrison arrived in Paris under a cloud. It was 1971, and The Doors frontman had been forced to leave the US after being convicted of indecent exposure at a Miami concert. With all of The Doors‘ upcoming shows cancelled, Morrison told his bandmates that he was thinking of taking some time out and heading to Europe. They’d just finished recording ‘LA Woman’, and with little to keep Morrison in the country, they let him go.
Within the week, Morrison travelled to Paris, where he joined his girlfriend, Pamela Courson, at an apartment she’d rented in the neighbourhood of Marias near Bastille. Morrison was overweight and in the midst of an all-consuming addiction to alcohol and heroin. He firmly believed Paris would be the place where he would, at last, get clean.
The name ‘Marais’ is a good clue as to what lies beneath this opulent haunt of the French aristocracy. It translates, in English, to marshland, which is exactly what the private mansions in these parts – once occupied by the likes of Nicolas Flamel, Collette and Victor Hugo – are held up by. Alas, by the time Morrison arrived in the area, Marais was distinctly less gilded than it once had been. By the 1970s, the neighbourhood had fallen into disrepair but has since been transformed into one of Paris’ most fashionable and, dare I say, expensive neighbourhoods.
Morrison stayed with Courson at 17 rue Beautreillis, a classic Hausmannian-style apartment that, thanks to Paris’ comparatively unclustered skyline, still looms high above the city streets. It would be in the bathroom of this archetypal Parisian den where Courson would find Morrison dead in the bath, his heart quite still. Opposite the apartment, on 18th rue de Beautreillis, there sits a restaurant now called Le Dindon en Laisse.
Although it went under a different name then, this was once Morrison’s favourite place to eat. The original owners sold the establishment in 1990 to a buyer who had no idea of its connection to Morrison. On discovering the restaurant’s part in speeding up the dangerously overweight musician’s end, they decided to decorate the kitchen with the original tiles from Courson and Morrison’s bathroom.
For a man determined to pursue his poetic ambitions, Paris was perfect. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus Club, where Morrison was a regular – and, according to some, died – was located in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which had once been the very heart of the European intellectual world. Filmmakers, philosophers, artists, and musicians all made their home here and established a thriving cafe culture along the way.
The Café Flore and the Deux Magot, for example, hosted the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Boris Vian, Jacques Prévert and Serge Gainsbourg, to name just a few. Sartre wrote The Roads to Freedom in Café Flore, alongside the bulk of Being and Nothingness and his play The Flies, which, due to Nazi censorship, is deeply allegorical. Simone de Beauvoir, meanwhile, wrote All Men Are Mortal under the Café’s mellow lamplight. It’s likely Morrison sat himself down on one of Flore’s prim tables on occasion but seems to have preferred the atmosphere at the neighbouring La Palette, where fellow American ex-pat Ernest Hemingway had once sipped coffee over his latest manuscript.
Like so many of the famous dead buried at Père Lachaise, Jim Morrison managed to accomplish a huge amount in a very short time. But the people who attend his grave so lavishly are often fixated less on his musical contribution than the contrast between his wild debauchery and his immortal, David-esque beauty. The flocks of visitors who arrive to pay tribute to Morrison, laying pictures of the star in all his youthful splendour, seem to do so in order to keep alive the image of the rock ‘n’ roll adonis rather than the slovenly addict. Still, if there is a place where the troubled may be rendered immortal, it is surely Paris.