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Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend
Stephen Davis
New York: Gotham Books, 2004.
$27.50, 482 pages, ISBN 1-592-40064-7.

Gerardo Del Guercio
Independent Researcher

Jim Morrison’s influence on the rock music scene is masterfully portrayed in Stephen Davis’s latest biography Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend. Davis provides enthusiasts of 1960s American popular culture with an in-depth analysis of the formative years, adult life and death of Jim Morrison and his role with the Doors. The purpose of Stephen Davis’s text is to demonstrate how “the Doors captured the unrest and the menace that hung in the air of the late sixties like tear gas, and they did it with hypnotic cool.” [ix]. My review will outline how Jim Morrison’s legacy was hard fought and one that developed from the different events he experienced at various stages in his life.

James Douglas Morrison was born in Melbourne, Florida on December 8, 1943 during the peak of World War I. Morrison’s father Steve Morrison was an active military man, and his mother Clara Clarke was a homemaker. Living in various states became a fixture for the Morrison household as they moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1947, Los Altos, California in 1948, and then to Washington, D.C. and Claremont, California in 1949. Childhood was difficult in the 1940s with “new technologies that were shaping the world” [7] such as the hydrogen bomb that made everyday life very disconcerting.

The defining moment of Jim Morrison’s childhood occurred on a desert stretch between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The Morrison family stopped their car to witness “a very recent head-on collision between another car and a truck carrying some Pueblo or Hopi Indians” [8] screaming in agonizing pain. Jim Morrison would later incorporate the image of Indians “scattered in dawn’s highway bleeding” in his poetry and music lyrics. The Indian car crash scene was a significant one in Morrison’s life for the reason that it was his first realization of death. Davis advocates that this scene led to the emergence of Morrison’s Lizard King persona—a persona that would dominate Morrison’s stage career.

Jim Morrison began his post-secondary education in the autumn of 1962 at Florida State University at Tallahassee. While studying at FSU, Morrison developed a passion for film. Unfortunately, his university offered no such program. Morrison tried to sway his parents into having him enroll in UCLA’s film school, but Clara Morrison discouraged the idea and commanded her son return to FSU. Brilliant term papers on literature and psychology eventually led Morrison “to transfer to the film studies program at the University of California at Los Angeles” [43]. The Morrison family refused to support their son in his new adventure and ceased to pay his living expenses as well as his student tuition fees.

During his first semester at UCLA Jim Morrison met graduate student Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore. The quartet would form the Doors later in 1965. Rock critics consider Robby Krieger to be the Doors’ secret weapon for his use of “long fingernails” [85] to pick chords that added an “Iberian fluency” to the Doors’ music. The newly formed Doors began recording “Break on Through,” “Crystal Ship,” “Indian Summer” along with several other tracks to comprise their first demo. Success for the Doors was not easily attained as record labels including Warner Bros., Reprice, Atlantic, RCA, and London all rejected their debut album. Columbia Records offered the Doors their first recording contract in October of 1965. The Vox Super Beatle amplifiers and Continental electric organ that Columbia Records lent the Doors gave the band “a churchy-cum-carnivalesque sound that made their concerts seem like a doomy chapel of extreme experience” [92]. The addition of an electric organ to the Doors’ soundtracks integrated a Gothic Romantic quality to their music that exemplifies the imprint that eighteenth- and nineteenth- century artists like William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud, and William Wordsworth had on Morrison’s writing.

Pamela Courson soon became the woman with whom Jim Morrison would spend the remainder of his life. Those close with Morrison and Courson recall that “she was stronger than he, that he would give her anything she wanted, and that she knew all his secrets, especially those that could ruin him in an instant” [108]. Together Morrison and Courson ingested LSD-25, drank large amounts of alcohol, and snorted cocaine and heroin procured from drug-supplier Jean de Breteuil. What Courson wanted most was that Morrison quit the Doors to lead a placid domestic life. However, the enormous sums of money required to support Courson’s lifestyle made early retirement impossible for Morrison.

The Doors slowly amassed a strong cult following performing for sold out audiences at the Whiskey and other venues in New York and California. Audiences became entranced by Morrison’s oedipal chants of “Kill the father / Fuck the mother” [131]. Morrison’s on-stage charisma attracted Elektra Records executive Jack Holzman to California to meet with the Doors. On August 20, 1966, “the Doors signed a preliminary contract with Elektra” [130] terminating their obligation to Columbia. Success did not sway Morrison toward living a healthier life and he continued consuming up to “five hundred micrograms of LSD-25” [132] and several liters of alcohol daily.

Elektra records produced all three of the Doors’ albums, consisting of The Doors, Strange Days and Waiting for the Sun. Critic Howard Smith declared that, “Jim [is] the most important American sex symbol to appear since James Dean” [147]. Elektra Records launched a full-scale promotion banner intended to give the Doors national exposure. The center of Elektra’s promotion campaign was Jim Morrison. “Biographic posters” of Morrison were distributed across the United States depicting him “as a dark, challenging, mysterious, and provocative rebel and seeker” [153]. Promotions of the Doors were broadcasted on radio and television waves during prime time hours.

Perhaps the Doors’ most controversial public appearance was the September 17, 1967 broadcast of The Ed Sullivan Show. CBS producer Bob Precht censored the phrase “Girl you couldn’t get much higher” from “Light my Fire” because it connoted “a drug reference [that] would get [CBS] in trouble with ‘Standards and Practices’” [203]. Morrison disregarded Precht’s proposal and sang “higher” twice with no special emphasis. An irate Ed Sullivan reacted by permanently barring the Doors from ever appearing on his show again.

The pressure of constant touring and recording finally led to Morrison’s mental breakdown. On December 12, 1970 in New Orleans, Morrison

stopped singing and stumbled to the drum riser and sat down. He missed his cue at the end of the guitar solo, unable to stand, so the band anxiously went through an instrumental cycle. When it was time to finish the song, John Densmore disgracefully rammed his boot in the middle of Jim’s back and sharply pushed him upright. [399]

Morrison was unable to finish the show and left gasping for air on the shoulders of road manager Vince Treanor. Frustrated with Morrison’s behavior, Densmore, Krieger and Manzarek put a temporary end to the Doors. John Densmore contacted Morrison several weeks later about a possible European tour, but Morrison informed Densmore that he and Pamela Courson were leaving for France and that their return was uncertain.

Stephen Davis concludes his study with an examination of Jim Morrison’s Paris years. Morrison and Courson resided in a fourth floor apartment at 17, rue Beautrellis in Paris’s Fourth Arrondissement district. What Morrison enjoyed most about Paris was that its citizens did not readily recognize him. Morrison toured the Place des Vosges near “Victor Hugo’s house [that] was in one corner of the square at no.6” [418], read Rimbaud endlessly and completed a collection of poetry entitled The Lords of the New Creation. Money was never a major concern given that the Doors’ accountants had power of attorney to transfer funds to Paris whenever Morrison required money.

Jim Morrison died mysteriously on July 3, 1971 making his death part of a trio of rock star deaths that included Janis Joplin's and Jimi Hendrix's. An afternoon of spitting up blood led Morrison to return to his penthouse suite to continue “sipping whiskey out of the bottle” [443] and watch Pamela Courson cut “lines of heroin on a mirror with a credit card.” After an intense argument, the couple fell asleep. When Courson awoke the next morning, she realized that her husband was locked in the washroom. After several minutes of prying the door open, Courson found Morrison dead. The medical examiner performed a five-minute examination and declared Morrison dead of a “heart attack caused by blood clots in the cardiac artery” [452]. Doubt still lingers about what was the true cause of Morrison’s decease. Some suggest that Pamela Courson gave White China (a powerful form of powdered heroin) to Morrison in place of cocaine that he consumed in large amounts that night. The supreme court of the United States ruled that Morrison’s money be divided evenly among his biological family and Pamela Courson. Pamela Courson also won power of attorney over Morrison’s copyrights.

Stephen Davis’s Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend outlines the impact that defines Morrison as a viable figure to study in the twenty-first century. The inclusion of Doors music on the soundtrack of Francis Ford Coppolla’s Apocalypse Now, the recent concert tour of the Doors of the Twenty-First Century, and volumes of Morrison’s poetry selling tens of thousands of copies annually proves that Morrison’s impact on American popular culture is one that has been sustained into the new millennium. Morrison’s poetics have recently surfaced onto university campuses. One example of how Morrison has entered American academia is Duke University professor of English Wallace Fowlie’s graduate seminars on Jim Morrison’s writing. Recent music critics have argued that Morrison’s legacy would have been much more powerful had he lived beyond the age of twenty-seven.



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