Jim Morrison-Poet, Songwriter, Singer (1943–1971)

8 Dec 1943
3 Jul 1971
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Jim Morrison was the charismatic singer and songwriter for the 1960 rock group the Doors until his death in a Paris bathtub at age 27.

Born on December 8, 1943, in Melbourne, Florida, Jim Morrison was an American rock singer and songwriter. He studied film at UCLA, where he met the members of what would become the Doors. Known for his drinking and drug use and outrageous stage behavior, in 1971 Morrison left the Doors to write poetry and moved to Paris, where he died of heart failure

Singer and songwriter. Jim Morrison was born as James Douglas Morrison on December 8, 1943 in Melbourne, Florida. His mother, Clara Clarke Morrison, was a homemaker, and his father, George Stephen Morrison, was a naval aviator who rose to the rank of Rear Admiral.

George Morrison was the commander of United States naval forces aboard the flagship USS Bon Homme Richard during the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Incident that helped ignite the Vietnam War. Admiral Morrison was also a skilled pianist who enjoyed performing for friends at parties. Morrison’s younger brother Andy remembered, “There was always a big crowd around the piano with my dad playing popular songs that he could pick up by ear.”

During his early years, Jim Morrison was a dutiful and highly intelligent child, excelling at school and taking a particular interest in reading, writing and drawing. He underwent a traumatic but formative experience around the age of five when driving with his family through the New Mexico desert. A truck packed with Indian workers had crashed, leaving dead and mutilated bodies of the victims strewn across the highway. “All I saw was funny red paint and people lying around, but I knew something was happening, because I could dig the vibrations of the people around me,” Morrison recalled. “And all of a sudden I realized that they didn’t know what was happening any more than I did. That was the first time I tasted fear.” Although his family members have since suggested that Morrison greatly exaggerated the incident, it nevertheless made a deep impression on him that he described years later in the lyrics of his song “Peace Frog”: “Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding/ Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind.”

Morrison moved frequently as a child due to his father’s naval service, first from Florida to California and then to Alexandria, Virginia, where he attended George Washington High School. As a high school student, Morrison began to rebel against his father’s strict discipline, discovering alcohol and women and bristling at all forms of authority. “One time he told the teacher he was having a brain tumor removed and walked out of class,” his sister recalled. Nevertheless, Morrison remained a voracious reader, an avid diarist and a decent student. When he graduated from high school in 1961, he asked his parents for the complete works of Nietzsche as a graduation present – a testament to both his bookishness and his rebelliousness.

Upon graduating from high school, Morrison returned to his birth state of Florida to attend Florida State University in Tallahassee. After making the Dean’s List his freshman year, Morrison decided to transfer to the University of California at Los Angeles to study film. Because film was a relatively new academic discipline, there were no established authorities, something that greatly appealed to the freewheeling Morrison. “There are no experts, so, theoretically, any student knows almost as much as any professor,” he explained about his interest in film.

 

In addition to studying film, he also developed an increasing interest in poetry at UCLA, devouring the Romantic poetry of William Blake and the contemporary Beat poetry of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac as well as composing his own. Nevertheless, Morrison quickly lost interest in his film studies and would have dropped out of school altogether if not for his fear of being drafted into the Vietnam War. He graduated from UCLA in 1965 only because, in his own words, “I didn’t want to go into the army, and I didn’t want to work – and that’s the damned truth.”

Elektra Records signed the Doors in 1966, and in January 1967 the band released its self-titled debut album. The Doors’ first single, “Break on Through (To the Other Side),” achieved only modest success and it was their second single, “Light My Fire,” which catapulted the band to the forefront of the rock and roll world, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart in June. The Doors, and Morrison especially, became infamous later that year when they performed the song live on The Ed Sullivan Show. Because of its obvious drug reference, Morrison had agreed not to sing the lyric “girl we couldn’t get much higher” on the air, but when the cameras rolled he went ahead and sang it anyway – cementing his status as rock and roll’s new rebel hero. “Light My Fire” remains The Doors’ most popular song, featuring prominently on virtually every major list of the greatest rock songs ever recorded.

Combining Morrison’s darkly poetic lyrics and outlandish stage presence with the band’s unique and eclectic brand of psychedelic rock music, The Doors released a flurry of hit albums and songs over the next several years. In December 1967, they released their sophomore album, Strange Days, which featured the smash hit “Love Me Two Times” as well as “People are Strange” and “When the Music’s Over.” Months later, in 1968, they released a third album, Waiting for the Sun, highlighted by “Hello, I Love You,” “Love Street” and “Five to One.” They went on to record three more popular and groundbreaking albums over the next three years: The Soft Parade (1969),Morrison Hotel (1970) and L.A. Woman (1971).

Throughout the band’s brief tenure atop the music world, Morrison’s private life and public persona were both spiraling rapidly out of control. His alcoholism and drug addictions worsened, leading to violent and profane onstage outbursts that provoked the ire of cops and club owners across the country.

Morrison spent nearly the entirety of his adult life with a woman named Pamela Courson, and although he briefly married a music journalist named Patricia Kennealy in a Celtic Pagan ceremony in 1970, he left everything to Courson in his will and she was deemed his common law wife after his death. Throughout his relationships to Courson and Kennealy, however, Morrison remained an infamous womanizer. His drug use, violent temper and infidelity all culminated in disaster in New Haven, Connecticut on the night of December 9, 1967. Morrison was high, drunk and carrying on with a young woman backstage before a show when he was confronted by police and sprayed with mace. He then stormed onstage and delivered a profanity-laced tirade that sparked a riot and led to his arrest on obscenity charges.

In an attempt to get his life back in order, Morrison took time off from The Doors in the spring of 1971 and moved to Paris with Courson. However, he continued to be plagued by drugs and depression. On July 3, 1971, Courson found Morrison dead in the bathtub of their apartment, apparently of heart failure. Since the French officials found no evidence of foul play, no autopsy was performed, which has in turn led to endless speculation and conspiracy theorizing about his death. In 2007, a Paris club owner named Sam Bernett published a book claiming that Morrison died of a heroin overdose at his nightclub and was later carried back to his apartment and placed in the bathtub to cover up the real reason for his death. Jim Morrison was buried at the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, and his grave has since become one of the city’s top tourist destinations. He was only 27 years old at the time of his death.

Jim Morrison remains one of the most legendary and mysterious rock and roll stars of all time. He was a gifted lyricist whose poetic odes to rebellion, set to the music of The Doors, inspired a generation of disaffected youth who found in his words an eloquent articulation of their own hopes and frustrations. His tragic early death at the hands of drugs and depression likely deprived the world of much more in the way of beautiful music and poetry. Morrison’s goal as a lyricist and singer was to open the minds of those who listened to his words, to encourage them to leave behind the familiar in search of the new. As Morrison put it, paraphrasing Aldous Huxley who was himself paraphrasing William Blake, “There are things known, and there are things unknown, and in between are The Doors.”

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