James Douglas Morrison of the Doors -- The Lizard King, The King of Orgasmic Rock and the third member of the '60s rock death trinity, along with Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix -- was he a poet? Madman? Visionary? Drunkard?
In this doggedly researched, superbly illustrated and sensationalistic account by frequent Rolling Stone contributor Jerry Hopkins and Doors confidant Daniel Sugerman, Morrison emerges as all of the above and more, the stuff of which genuine legends are made. In an introduction, Sugerman even goes so far as to refer to the late singer as a god -- but it is clear that the god he has in mind is neither benevolent nor self-controlled.
Morrison died -- or disappeared -- in Paris in 1971, at the age of 27. During the preceding four years, the Doors had risen from the bars of Los Angeles to become, by some accounts, the American Beatles. They were the first American hard-rock group to record five consecutive gold albums. The Doors' music and lyrics were deemed worthy of serious analysis by the straight press; Morrison himself had several books of his eerie, primal, sexual, symbolistic poetry published. The Doors didn't simply bang their instruments. Their other-worldly sound was complemented by enigmatic, philosophically saturated imagery.
The Doors were clearly distinct from other rock groups of the time (or any time), and -- ultimately, with their audience. They did not sing standard love ditties or offer paeans to peace and flowers. In a revolutionary time, their message was not a railing against any political system, but rather against all boundaries of authority, of rules, of limitations. "Break on through to the other side." "No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn." "The future's uncertain and the end is always near." "Try to set the night on fire." "No one here gets out alive."
Rock music has traditionally been a rebellious art form, and the evangelist industry has nothing on rock bands for apocalyptic and strident messages. But with Jim Morrison, the anarchistic, iconoclastic stance was more than an image, it was the raison d'etre. Morrison intentionally baited his audiences, inciting them to near riot, challenging them to transcend the barrier between artist and audience. Offstage was simply another setting; the mission remained the same.
Purposefully, even relentessly, on a collision course with society, Morrison's moment with truth would come on a steamy night in Miami when his stage antics resulted in legal charges of lewd and lascivious behavior, indecent exposure, open profanity and drunkenness; they would also inspire a series of "decency rallies" across the country.
Hopkins and Sugerman's book comes at a time of renewed interest in the Doors. The nihilistic punk movement and, to a lesser degree, the frenzied New Wave, certainly owes the Doors a salute. Then, too, Morrison has been the least exploited of the rock legends. The deaths of Joplin and Hendrix were quickly followed by album releases; it was not until last year that any "new" Morrison material was released.
The two authors have done their best work in tracing Morrison's early days, a long-standing mystery. Born in Florida to a mobile military family, the young Morrison was never comfortable with his upbringing. Indeed, in early interviews he would claim his parents were dead. Popular and intelligent -- he had an IQ of 149, and an 88 grade average while attending George Washington High School in Alexandria -- he could also be difficult, bizarre, even sadistic. On one occasion, he harangued an older woman sitting next to him on a bus, reducing her to tears, repeatedly demanding, "What do you think of elephants?"
Morrison traced his nature to an early event ("the most important moment of my life"), when he was 4. Traveling near Albuquerque, his family came upon an accident involving Pueblo Indians. Several were dying on the roadside, and after as the Morrisons left the scene, the boy became more and more hysterical. He later claimed that at that time the soul of a dying Indian had entered his body.
His eccentricities became more exaggerated while he was attending junior college in Florida. He immersed himself in the philosophy of Montaigne, Sartre and Nietzsche. In class he would carry on discussions with his teachers while the other students listened, enraptured. And he began to get arrested for drunken or disorderly behavior.
From Florida he went to UCLA, and when his dabblings in film did not gain a favorite reaction, he turned to music, and to LSD, which he swallowed "like beer nuts." The Doors initially met with rejection, but word soon got out that this band was something different, especially the driven singer with the sudden lurches in mood and tension. Despite their strange style, they were signed to a contract, and became a near-instant succcess. "Light My Fire" (not written by Morrison) was a No. 1 nationwide hit. The first album went gold.
The Doors' commercial success was matched by their critical acclaim. They were hailed in Time and Newsweek; they appeared on Ed Sullivan and the Smothers Brothers show. But Morrison began to spiral out of control. At a New Haven concert there was a backstage incident with a policeman who maced him. Morrison went onstage and during the music recounted the incident, insulting and baiting the police until they arrested and dragged him offstage.
As their success grew, Doors concerts became more frenzied. Near riots occurred several times. Morrison began refining -- but not controlling -- act. The audience expected outrageous performances, and Morrison delivered. And the poetry and imagery slowly became less important to the audience than the freak show.
Strangely, Hopkins and Sugarman do not hold Morrison accountable for the change in focus. They picture him as a serious developing artist suddenly limited and trapped by an audience that wanted only sensationalism. But if so, his own words told a greater truth: "You are locked in a prison of your own devise."
Musically, the Doors maintained their success. But Morrison's increasingly histrionic stage performances -- and his endless drunken escapades and conflicts -- took their toll. The Miami arrest, and Morrison's subsequent conviction on the profanity and indecent-exposure charges, culminated in the Doors' fall from artistic grace. Oddly, they would regain public favor with their final album, but by then Morrison was living in Paris, destroying himself.
Hopkins and Sugarman provide extensive and interesting reports on the Miami trial, the recurring alcohol binges and the final flight to Paris, where Morrison, supposedly, was regaining his energy and readying to reject artifical stardom for artistry. Disappointingly, for such a factual account -- and one which largely disdains standard larger-than-life hype -- the authors report every possible Morrison death/nondeath theory. (Only a few people saw his body, and first reports of his death came almost a week after the event. Officially, Morrison died of natural causes while taking a bath, an unsatisfactory conclusion if there ever was one, which may be why silly theories get to take the stage.)
Was he simply on a death trip? An acquantance of Morrison suggested as much in an Esquire article several year ago: "He died for the simplest reason, that he couldn't stand living." But Hopkins and Sugarman deny that accusation, claiming Morrison just wanted to shake everything he could out of life. Perhaps. But in this account, he was seduced by the dark side of the force.