To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Doors, the legendary band’s debut album, a deluxe box set was released on March 31, 2017. Its third disc features live versions of the band’s classics at the Matrix club in San Francisco on July 3, 1967, during the Summer of Love.
The Doors’ debut album has been hailed as one of the greatest milestones in rock music; Rolling Stone magazine called the record “a stoned, immaculate classic,” and ranked it as number 42 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In September 1967, The Doors reached number 2 on Billboard, just behind The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
So to commemorate—half a century later—the rise of Jim Morrison as a key figure in that period’s counterculture, and his sitll-influential artistic legacy, we recount a few snapshots from the life of the Lizard King.
Bill Siddons, who became The Doors’ manager, met Jim Morrison at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom in May 1967. He was both moved and scared to death by Morrison’s performance, thinking, “This guy is completely out of his mind. His poetry was like a movie. The images were so strong that they came to mind in photo form instead of imagination.”
Siddons is one of the 13 characters interviewed by Morrison’s close friend, the filmmaker and photographer Frank Lisciandro, for the enlightening oral biography Jim Morrison: Friends Gathered Together (2014), which succeeds greatly in dispelling old myths about the singer’s controversial personality—some of them fueled by Oliver Stone’s movie The Doors (1991)—and focusing on the real James Douglas Morrison.
“One of Jim’s real strengths was that he could see through any of us; whatever game we were trying to play,” reveals Siddons in the chapter “No Respect for Authority”: “Jim was willing to suffer in his pursuit of the truth. The burden of him being pegged as a miscreant and rebel just destroyed him as a performer. He ended up being branded as a freak and a pervert. I think that’s what broke his spirit. It was the reaction to the Miami [arrest for indecency]. I think he was fundamentally unhappy because he couldn’t escape his demons. Paul Ferrara was the one who said the word ‘demons’ to me.”
Ferrara, official photographer for The Doors, friend and collaborator of Morrison in the film projects HWY: An American Pastoral (1969) and Feast of Friends (1970), recalls in his memoir Flash of Eden (ekindle, 2016) some remarkable impressions of Morrison. Like D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers, Morrison gathered Lisciandro, Ferrara, and Babe Hill for adventures, excesses, and existential moments on the road: “We were a threesome for some time until Jim started living with Pam more like boyfriend and girlfriend,” explains Ferrara: “Jim would disappear to be with Pam for days on end. We partied all over the place with Eric Burdon, Timothy Leary! In New York Jim met up with Andy Warhol. One of Andy’s actors was Nico (The Velvet Underground), a tall wispy blonde who looked like she was on Quaaludes all the time. Jim and Nico had an on-again, off-again relationship. Through all of his romances, Jim managed to keep a (rocky) relationship with Pam.”
Ferrara had a one-night stand with Pamela Courson, Morrison’s muse and cosmic mate, but that isolated tryst didn’t ruin his brotherly camaraderie with the singer. In contrast, Danny Sugerman, The Doors’ second manager, tried to bed Pam after Morrison’s death but she kicked him off her bed—shouting at him that Jim would have killed the author of No One Here Gets Out Alive (1980) and Wonderland Avenue (1989) for his transgression.
The most sensationalized stuff by Sugerman and Stone would be countered by Tom DiCillo’s documentary The Doors: When You’re Strange (2009), which manages to separate facts from fiction, giving Morrison a more humane aura.
Ferrara also recognizes Morrison’s habitual experimentation with LSD: “Acid can cause long-lasting or even permanent changes in a user’s psychology, and personality. Jim Morrison was one of the people that took a lot of doses. He was always pushing the envelope; he would take four or five hits at a time. He did change. He was always on the edge of hurting himself. Right up to the very end, he was trying to hurt himself.”
Despite Morrison’s reckless lifestyle, Ferrara highlights his often overlooked good qualities: “He was truly unique. He had an elevated sense of his self that is rarely seen among people. Like his dislike for possessions, his generosity, the way he tempted life. His confidence was so strong. He was a prince among men. He didn’t fit any mold. Let’s face it: Jim was The Doors. He was the inspiration. His ‘Jimbo’ character was the link to an alter-ego, a multiple personality.” Morrison confessed to Ferrara that after watching The Misfits (1961) on TV, he had felt like Marilyn Monroe—selling himself and not being comfortable doing it.
Jim Morrison wasn’t a chauvinist, according to his lover Eva Gardony in the chapter “This Affair of Ours” from Friends Gathered Together. Indeed, as EJ Greenham’s doctoral thesis Vision and Desire: Jim Morrison’s Mythography Beyond the Death of God (2009) illustrates, Morrison recognised “the oracle function of women, particularly the culturally censored, and though his writings are read with a male voice in mind and within the context of a phallocentric language, he honours woman in all her forms. ‘Violence kills the temple of no sex’ is a verse from Morrison’s The Lords and the New Creatures (1969). The transformations of life through threshold experiences—sex, death and sacrifice—are scattered throughout this mytho-graphic landscape.”
Ray Manzarek deduced that “Cars Hiss by My Window,” a song from L.A. Woman (1971), “was about living in Venice Beach, in a hot room, with a hot girlfriend, an open window, and a bad time. It could have been about Pamela Courson.” The line “Can’t hear my baby, though I call and call” seems to reference Pam, who was at that time in Paris dabbling with forbidden heroin while waiting for Jim’s arrival. Morrison had begun to see Paris as “built for human beings,” a refuge in exile, far away from the hellish environment that imprisoned him in Los Angeles.
Morrison, who had been an avid reader and self-declared disciple of the influential poets William Blake and Arthur Rimbaud, “was more Rimbaud than Mick Jagger,” Frank Lisciandro said. Wallace Fowlie, author of Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: The Rebel as Poet (1994), theorized in his dual study that some passages from Morrison’s Wilderness: The Lost Writings Volume 1 echo the prose poems from Rimbaud’s groundbreaking Illuminations. As Rimbaud wrote in that 1886 work: “I am an inventor… a musician who has discovered something like the key of love. I do not regret my old portion of divine gaiety: the sober air of this bleak countryside feeds vigorously my divine skepticism. But since this skepticism cannot, henceforth, be put to use, and since, moreover, I am dedicated to a new torment—I expect to become a very vicious madman.”
The ending of 1960s era—and Morrison’s sudden death at the beginning of the 1970s—marked a deep cultural schism that felt as incongruous as a vivid dream blending Los Angeles’ damaged present and Paris’ glorious past.