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The rise and fall of The Doors' counterculture idol, Jim Morrison

The number 27 is a jinxed figure for the Western music industry. It brings back the memories of the young and talented lives that were lost at the tender age of 27. It acted as a curse to The Rolling Stone guitarist Brian Jones, the guitar legend Jimi Hendrix, as well as the American sensations Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison by cutting short their musical conquests. Like most of the people on the list, Jim Morrison also brought about his own doom.

Morrison, who had a military background, led a nomad life from a very young age. As he was routinely ushered into army bases and establishment strongholds, who knew that he would later be the embodiment of the counterculture movement. The excessive touring exposed young Morrison to a variety of geographical landscapes and cultural histories that influenced and shaped his mind. He was accused of having an excessively imaginative mind when he claimed that he had witnessed a car accident in the desserts at the age of three or four, where the native Americans lay in a pool of blood at the side of the road: “Indians scattered all over the highway, bleeding to death.” The book entitled The Doors offers a completely contrasting narrative from Morrison’s father who denied any such incident and said, “We went by several Indians. It did make an impression on him [the young James]. He always thought about that crying Indian.”

Morrison’s impressionable mind was soon taken over by Celtic mythology, Friedrich Nietzsche, whose views on aesthetics, morality, and the Apollonian and Dionysian duality would appear in his conversation, poetry and songs, the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, whose style would later influence the form of Morrison’s short prose poems, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Baudelaire, Franz Kafka and many others — all of which showed Morrison the life of an artist.

In truth, it was books that kept Morrison going. His senior year English teacher said, “Jim read as much and probably more than any student in the class, but everything he read was so offbeat I had another teacher (who was going to the Library of Congress) check to see if the books Jim was reporting on actually existed.” Such was his imagination that the teacher, “Suspected he was making them up, as they were English books on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century demonology. I’d never heard of them, but they existed, and I’m convinced from the paper he wrote that he read them, and the Library of Congress would’ve been the only source.”

After his brief careers in cinematography and journalism, Morrison ventured into lyric writing and played with the idea of forming a band amid the swell of new music the decade was suffering young kids. By then he was living a bohemian life in Venice Beach, living on the rooftop of a building with his UCLA friends. He cut off all ties with his family soon after leaving the house and later falsely claimed that they were dead on many occasions.

The Doors were formed during the summer of 1965 with Ray Manzarek, a fellow UCLA student, as the first member apart from Morrison. They met one day when Manzarek was lying on the beach at Venice accidentally encountered Morrison. He was impressed with Morrison’s poetic lyrics, claiming that they were “rock group” material. Subsequently, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore joined and the group became bound with the common interest in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s meditation practices. The band name was inspired by the title of Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception which was a reference to the unlocking of mental boundaries through psychedelic drug use. Huxley’s own title was a quotation from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in which Blake wrote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

The band struggled for two years before rising into prominence in 1967, after signing with Elektra Records. Though Morrison was the lyricist of the group, Krieger’s contribution in this field is also remarkable. The single ‘Light My Fire’ took over the Billboard Hot 100 for three consecutive weeks upon its release. By the time their second album Strange Days was released, The Doors were a popular name in every American household.

It’s uncertain if Morrison was hit by sudden fame and took his role too casually but by 1968, he started arriving late for performances and recordings and when he did show up he was often too drunk to perform. By early 1969 it was evident that his unruly lifestyle was taking a toll on his physical appearance as well. The formerly svelte singer, lauded as the Lizard King had gained weight, grew a beard and moustache, and began dressing more casually — not caring about public appearances. He tried to break away from the group several times saying that he had become weary of the rock star life.

However, on March 1, during the band’s performance at the Dinner Key Auditorium in Miami, Morrison triggered a furore by screaming “you wanna see my cock?” among other obscenities. Though nothing happened, six warrants were issued after him and the band suffered a heavy loss following the cancellation of a lot of concerts following the incident. After a lengthy and much-needed break, the group reconvened in October 1970 to record their final album with Morrison the L.A Woman.

After finishing the recording of L.A Woman, Morrison joined Pamela Courson in Paris in March 1971. In truth, his relationship with Courson was complicated and confusing, to say the least. They both had other partners while they were together but, despite the tumultuous relationship, Pamela was his number one supporter who pushed him to do better for himself, to dream bigger and to live cleaner.

As such, his time with Courson in Paris proved to be beneficial to his physical and mental health. He shaved his beard and lost some of the weight he had gained and described going for long walks through the city, alone in letters. It made the moment he was found dead in the apartment bathtub in March 1971 all the more shocking and heartbreaking. Since there were no witnesses and no autopsy was done, the cause of the death has varied from a heart failure to a heroin overdose. Incidentally, Courson died three years after his death also at the age of 27.

Often a highly impressionable mind gets deeply affected by the slightest disturbance. Morrison’s taxing relationship with his family might have pushed him down the slippery slope. Morrison’s brother, Andy, talked about how their parents never resorted to physical abuse but instilled discipline by the traditional military method of dressing down which was basically verbal abuse consisting of yelling and berating children until they were reduced to tears. In fact, Morrison’s father, who was not happy with his son’s career choice, wrote a mean letter to Morrison after hearing one of the initial albums, asking him “to give up any idea of singing or any connection with a music group because of what I consider to be a complete lack of talent in this direction.” We never know what triggers a person. The problematic parenting might not have affected Morrison’s siblings, but it needs to be acknowledged as a potential source of his troubles.

No matter the cause, the saddening story of Jim Morrison is one which has played out on countless occasions over the years and while we can mourn the loss of the singer’s talent and potential, we must also acknowledge his place on history as a troubled soul.