Jim Morrison: The Lizard King of Rock
Jim Morrison was an American singer, songwriter, musician, and poet, who is regarded as one of the most iconic and influential frontmen in rock history.
He was the lead singer of the rock band, The Doors, and was known for his poetic lyrics, unpredictable and charismatic performances, distinctive voice, and wild and rebellious personality.
Morrison’s antics, style, and work made him an icon of youth counterculture.
Jim Morrison was born on 8th December 1943 in Melbourne, Florida, to George Stephen Morrison and Clara Virginia.
George Morrison was a US Navy rear admiral and naval aviator and would go on to command US Naval forces during the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964.
Morrison had two younger siblings, a sister, Anne Robin, and a brother, Andrew Lee.
When Morrison was 4 years old, he witnesses an accident in the desert in which a truck overturned, injuring some American Indians.
Morrison would later claim that he saw the Indians lying injured and bleeding on the side of the road. The scene of the crying and injured Indians left a deep impression on him, upsetting him.
Morrison would later refer to the incident in the Doors’ song Peace Frog, as well as in spoken word performances such as Ghost Song and Dawn’s Highway.
Morrison considered this incident to be the most formative event of his life. However, Morrison’s account of the incident was very different from that of his father, who said that the family drove by several Indians and saw them crying.
This description of the incident is vastly different from Morrison’s description, according to which Indians were scattered all over the highway, bleeding to death.
In all probability, Morrison had exaggerated and told the story over the years.
Jim Morrison attended the Fairfax County Elementary School in Northern Virginia until his third grade.
After that, Morrison, aged 9, enrolled at the Charles H. Flato Elementary School in Kingsville, Texas, while his father was stationed at NAS Kingsville in 1952.
Then Morrison attended the St. John’s Methodist School in Alberquerque, followed by a stint at Longfellow School Sixth Grade Graduation Program from San Diego.
Since Morrison’s father was in the military, the family was constantly moving about based on where his father was being stationed.
In 1957, Morrison, aged 14, enrolled at the Alameda High School in Alameda, California, for his freshman and first semester of his sophomore year.
Two years later, the Morrison family moved back to Northern Virginia.
In June of 1961, Morrison, aged 18, graduated from George Washington High School in Alexandria. He then went to live with his paternal grandparents in Clearwater, Florida, where he began attending St. Petersburg Junior College.
A year later, he transferred to Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee.
From an early age, Jim Morrison was a voracious reader. He read widely and was inspired by the writings of several poets and philosophers.
Morrison was greatly influenced by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s views on morality, aesthetics, and the Apollonian and Dionysian duality would frequently appear in his songs, poetry, and conversations.
He was influenced by the works of Plutarch and the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, whose writing style influenced his short prose poems.
Morrison also read the works of Jack Kerouac, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, William S. Burroughs, Honore de Balzac, and many of the French existentialist philosophers.
Morrison’s readings were so off-beat and eclectic that at one point his senior-year English teacher thought that he was making up the names of the books he claimed to have read. Many of those books were 16th and 17th-century books on demonology.
On the musical front, Morrison was influenced by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys.
Moving to Los Angeles
In January 1964, Jim Morrison enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
At UCLA, Morrison took part in American poet and social activist Jack Hirschman’s class on the French writer and poet Antonin Artaud.
Artaud was also a dramatist, theater director, and actor, who is considered one of the major figures of 20th-century theatre and the European avant-garde movement.
Artaud’s brand of surrealist theater influenced Morrison’s poetic sensibility of cinematic theatricality.
Morrison made several short films during his time at UCLA.
In 1965, Morrison, aged 22, finished his undergraduate degree at UCLA’s film school in the Theater Arts department of the College of Fine Arts. He did not attend his graduation ceremony, choosing to go to Venice Beach instead.
Life in Venice Beach
Around the time when Jim Morrison graduated from UCLA, he led a bohemian lifestyle in Venice Beach.
He lived on the rooftop of a building in which one of his old UCLA friends lived, surviving mostly on canned beans and LSD.
It was during this period that Morrison wrote some of the early songs of The Doors, such as Hello, I Love You, and Moonlight Drive.
While living in Venice Beach, Morrison befriended many writers at the Los Angeles Free Press, an underground newspaper that he championed until his death.
Formation of The Doors
Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek had first met as cinematography students at UCLA, months before The Doors was formed.
One day in July 1965, Morrison and Manzarek accidentally met on the beach in Venice. They recognized each other from their UCLA days, and Morrison showed Manzarek the poetic songs he had been writing.
Manzarek was impressed by Morrison’s lyrics, stating that they were rock group material.
Shortly thereafter, they decided to form a rock band. Drummer John Densmore joined the group in August. On Densmore’s recommendation, guitarist Robby Krieger auditioned for the group and was immediately added to the lineup.
Together, they combined various musical backgrounds such as blues, folk, rock, and jazz.
The group was named The Doors, inspired by the title of Aldous Huxley’s book, The Doors of Perception.
Early Performances at the London Fog
From February to May 1966, The Doors regularly performed at a Los Angeles nightclub called London Fog, located on the Sunset Strip.
These performances were the band’s first regular gigs. It was here that Jim Morrison gained the confidence to perform in front of a live audience and the group developed as a whole.
They experimented with their songs and performance style. They were able to lengthen their songs, such as in the case of The End and Light My Fire, during their performances and turn them into finished pieces as would appear on their debut album.
Ray Manzarek would later remark that it was at the London Fog where the magic began to happen and the group became a collective entity.
Whisky a Go Go
By June 1966, The Doors moved on to the more esteemed Whisky a Go Go, a nightclub located at 8901 Sunset Boulevard on the Sunset Strip, barely a few doors down from the London Fog.
The Doors became the house band of the Whisky a Go Go, supporting acts such as Van Morrison’s group, Them.
On Van Morrison’s last night at the club, the two bands jammed together on Van Morrison’s song Gloria.
Signing with Elektra Records
On 10th August 1966, The Doors were spotted by the president of Elektra Records, Jac Holzman, and producer Paul Allen Rothchild, at the Whisky a Go Go.
After seeing the group perform two sets, Holzman and Rothchild signed them to the Elektra Records label on 18th August. This would be the start of a long and highly successful partnership between The Doors and Elektra Records.
On 21st August, The Doors were fired from the Whisky a Go Go after Jim Morrison added an explicit retelling of the Greek myth of Oedipus during their song The End.
The Doors recorded their debut album, The Doors, between August and September 1966, at Sunset Sound Records in Hollywood, California.
The self-titled album was released on 4th January 1967 and was produced by Paul Rothchild.
The album includes some of the band’s most popular songs, such as Light My Fire, Break On Through (To the Other Side), Back Door Man, and the long version of The End with its Oedipal spoken word section.
The album shows the diverse musical influences of the band, such as blues, pop, jazz, R&B, rock, and classical music.
Since its release, the album has often been regarded as one of the greatest debut albums of all time.
The single, Light My Fire, reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and remained there for three weeks. It became Elektra Records’ first single to reach the No. 1 spot, selling more than a million copies.
In September 1967, the album reached No. 2 on the charts, stopped from reaching the No. 1 spot by the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The Ed Sullivan Show
On 17th September 1967, The Doors were invited to perform two songs on The Ed Sullivan Show, People Are Strange and Light My Fire.
The network executives asked the band to change the lyrics of Light My Fire from Girl we couldn’t get much higher to Girl we couldn’t get much lighter, for the sake of the viewers. This was requested because the word ‘higher’ in the original lyrics was seen as a reference to drugs.
The band agreed to the condition but Jim Morrison nevertheless went on to perform the song with its original lyrics.
Obviously, Ed Sullivan was not happy with what happened and he refused to shake hands with any of the members after the performance. He also went on to cancel the other six shows of the band that had been planned.
After the performance, the producer of the show told the band that they would never play on the show again, to which Jim Morrison replied, “Hey Man. We just did the Sullivan Show.”
On 25th September 1967, The Doors released their second studio album titled Strange Days.
By the time of its release, The Doors had already become one of the most famous rock bands in America.
The album was recorded during tour breaks between May and August 1967 at Sunset Sound Recorders and includes the Top 30 singles, People Are Strange and Love Me Two Times.
The album features a mixture of psychedelic rock, psychedelic pop, and acid rock. It also incorporates various instruments such as the Moog synthesizer and marimba.
It reached No. 3 on the US Billboard 200 and was critically well-received. But its commercial success was middling, peaking at No. 3 on the charts and then quickly dropping.
Arrest at the New Haven Concert
On 9th December 1967, at a concert in New Haven, Connecticut, Jim Morrison was arrested on stage by the local police.
Morrison became the first rock artist to be arrested on stage during a live performance, an incident that added to his mystique and rebellious image.
The exact reason for his arrest has always been shrouded with a bit of uncertainty. It is generally believed that Morrison was caught by a police officer backstage, while he was making out with a female fan in the bathroom shower stall before the start of the concert. The officer asked them to leave but Morrison refused, taunting the officer instead. The officer then maced him, due to which the concert got delayed by an hour as the band waited for Morrison to recover.
Halfway through the first set, Morrison began to sing an improvised song about the incident with the officer, which was full of obscenities. He also taunted the policemen surrounding the stage.
The police decided to arrest him and dragged him offstage, thereby causing a riot amongst an already unruly and restless audience.
Morrison was taken to the local police station, photographed, and booked on charges of inciting a riot, public obscenity, and indecency.
The charges against him were dropped several weeks later due to a lack of evidence.
Waiting for the Sun
On 3rd July 1968, The Doors released their third studio album titled Waiting for the Sun.
The album was recorded between February and May 1968, and became the band’s first and only No. 1 album, spending four weeks on the top spot.
The album included their second No. 1 single Hello, I Love You. It was also the band’s first hit album in the UK, where it reached No. 16 on the chart.
The recording of this album had been a bit more chaotic and difficult, mostly due to Morrison’s increasing dependency on alcohol.
Morrison’s erratic behavior while intoxicated even led to drummer John Densmore walking out of a session on one occasion.
Another reason for the tensions was Paul Rothchild’s rejection of the band’s 17-minute-long song Celebration of the Lizard.
Nevertheless, the album was a commercial success.
The Doors were now at the height of their popularity.
First Performances Outside North America
In September of 1968, The Doors went to the UK for their first performance outside North America.
They held a press conference at the ICA Gallery in London to announce their arrival.
On the 6th and 7th of September 1968, The Doors played four performances at the Roundhouse, London, along with Jefferson Airplane. The performances were filmed by Granada for a television documentary titled The Doors Are Open, which was directed by John Sheppard.
The Doors also went on to perform on other dates in Europe along with Jefferson Airplane. During a performance in Amsterdam, Jim Morrison collapsed on stage after a drug binge.
The Beginning of Morrison’s Decline
By early 1969, Jim Morrison had grown a thick beard, gained weight, and dressed carelessly. He had become almost completely dependent on alcohol and drugs and had begun showing up late and drunk for his performances and recording sessions.
During a concert at the Dinner Key Auditorium in Miami, Morrison attempted to start a riot in the audience. He shouted out obscenities and even insulted and taunted the audience and the police.
Three days later, six warrants for his arrest were issued on the charges of indecent exposure and other accusations.
The band was forced to cancel many of their scheduled concerts.
The Soft Parade
On 18th July 1969, The Doors released their fourth studio album titled The Soft Parade.
The album was recorded after a hectic tour during which the band did not have much time to compose new material.
Guitarist Robby Krieger got more and more involved in the songwriting process for the album, as Jim Morrison focused more on his poetry and dealt with many personal issues.
Producer Paul Rothchild suggested that the band completely depart from their first three albums by developing a fuller sound, incorporating brass and string arrangements.
The album included their single Touch Me, which reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on the Cashbox Top 100. The single was the band’s last US No. 1 single.
Morrison’s drinking made him unreliable and difficult to work with, resulting in the sessions being dragged on for months. Due to this, the studio costs kept piling up and the band came close to breaking up.
The album was not critically well-received and many followers of the band viewed the album as catering to popular and commercial music. It is often considered the band’s weakest album with Jim Morrison.
Nevertheless, the album peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard 200.
On 9th February 1970, The Doors released their fifth studio album titled Morrison Hotel.
With this album, the band returned to the blues-rock style that they had become famous for. It was seen as the band’s return to form.
The album includes two of their most popular songs, Roadhouse Blues and Peace Frog, which became staples of classic rock radio.
The album went to the No. 4 spot on the Billboard 200 and also became the band’s highest-charting studio album in the UK, peaking at No. 12.
The album was well-received by critics and fans alike.
On 20th July 1970, The Doors released their first live album.
The double album features songs recorded at concerts held in 1969 and 1970 across several cities. The final mixing consisted of many bits and pieces from different concerts, amounting to almost 2,000 edits.
The album includes the first full release of the lengthy song Celebration of the Lizard and many other tracks that had not been released in any of their previous albums.
The album peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard 200.
Bans and Touring
The Doors continued to be banned in more conservative American markets. During this period, they even received new bans at Detroit’s Cobo Hall and Salt Lake City’s Salt Palace.
But in spite of these bans, the band continued to tour extensively, playing 18 concerts in the US, Canada, and Mexico in 1969, and 23 shows in the US and Canada throughout the first half of 1970.
Morrison’s Last Public Performance
The Doors were scheduled for a short new tour to promote their upcoming album. The tour consisted of only three dates.
On 12th December 1970, during their performance at The Waterhouse in New Orleans, Jim Morrison had a terrible breakdown on stage. Halfway through the set, he slammed the microphone into the stage floor several times and then sat down and refused to perform for the rest of the show.
This would be Morrison’s last public performance.
After the show, Manzarek, Densmore, and Krieger met and decided to end their live act, as they all agreed that Morrison was ready to retire from live performances.
Jim Morrison would never perform again.
On 19th April 1971, The Doors released their sixth studio album titled L.A. Woman. This would be the last album of the band with Jim Morrison.
The album is heavily influenced by blues, more than any of their previous albums. It was produced by longtime sound engineer Bruce Botnick after the group had a fallout with Paul Rothchild.
The album includes two singles, Love Her Madly and Riders on the Storm, both of which reached the Top 20 in the Billboard Hot 100.
The album peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard 200 and No. 28 on the UK albums chart. It became the band’s second best-selling studio album and is regarded as one of their best ones.
The title track, L.A. Woman, along with the two singles, would go on to become staples of classic rock radio.
Moving to Paris
After he finished recording L.A. Woman with the Doors, Jim Morrison decided to take a leave of absence from the band and moved to Paris with his girlfriend Pamela Courson.
Morrison and Pamela stayed in Paris in a rented apartment at Rue Beautreillis in Le Marais, 4th arrondissement.
During his time in Paris, Morrison shaved off his beard, lost some weight, and went on long walks alone through the city.
On 3rd July 1971, Jim Morrison, aged 27, was found dead in the bathtub of his apartment at around 6 am, by Pamela.
Although an autopsy was not performed (as it was not required under French Law), the official cause of his death was listed as heart failure.
There were also several reports, none of which were confirmed, that his death was due to an accidental heroin overdose.
Morrison died exactly two years after the death of Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones and approximately nine months after the death of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, all of whom died at the age of 27.
Morrison was interred at the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, which has now become one of the city’s most visited tourist attractions. Irish playwright Oscar Wilde and many other artists and poets have also been buried there.
Three years after his death, Pamela died of a heroin overdose, also aged 27.
Since his death, Jim Morrison has continued to be regarded as one of the most influential singer-songwriters and iconic frontmen in rock.
He is considered the quintessential rockstar, whose dangerous and mysterious look, long hair, leather pants, and captivating performance style, have influenced countless other rock and roll artists.
Morrison has directly influenced musicians such as Iggy Pop, Eddie Vedder, Glenn Danzig, Ian Curtis, and Layne Staley.
Jim Morrison has now become one of the greatest and most popular cultural icons of the 20th century. He epitomized the youth counterculture rebellion with his music, attitude, and style.
Morrison has frequently been voted as one of the best lead singers of all time by rock magazines and in fan polls. In 1993, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of The Doors.
Morrison’s life has also been a subject and inspiration for movies and documentaries, the most famous of them being the 1991 biopic film titled The Doors, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Val Kilmer.