Unraveling Jim Morrison

By Sergio Ariza

It has been 50 years since the death of Jim Morrison, one of the greatest myths in the history of rock music. He is a character that continues to fascinate and repel almost in equal measure; one of those controversial figures that generates absolute love or total contempt. That is something that wouldn't matter much to him either way, the leader of the Doors was comfortable at the extremes. He was never able to play an instrument, yet he was the main composer in his band. Crushed by his own success, the legend of the ‘Lizard King’, and the adulation of fans and groupies, Morrison delivered the best of his career before he became famous, although he was capable of one last burst of genius before the final curtain.  

Morrison was destined to be part of the U.S. ruling class, a white, Protestant, handsome boy and son of a U.S. Navy admiral, but he soon deviated from the path set for him, thanks to his love of the rock & roll of Elvis Presley, the blues of
John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf, and the poetry ofthe French Symbolists.

His extreme and fickle nature was already apparent in his teens when he began to fantasize about suicide until a Bo Diddley song came on the radio and he began to dance and think that life could be worth living. That is, a life as he wanted to live it, not the one that had been prepared for him.


In spite of everything, his main passion in his youth was cinema and what he wanted to be was a director. He enrolled in film school at UCLA and it was there that he met another music fanatic (and outsider), Ray Manzarek, who had already tried to form a band with his brothers. By mid-1965 Morrison had graduated and was living like a bohemian on the rooftop of a Venice Beach building. His diet was canned beans and LSD, but mostly French symbolists and the beat generation, Rimbaud and Kerouac, Aldous Huxley and Friedrich Nietzsche… in a world of doors of perception and supermen, he was clear that he was one of them.

Morrison began to write his own poems, and to memorize them he made up melodies that made it easier to remember the words. He couldn’t even play two chords on the guitar, but in that summer of 1965 he already had a good collection of songs under his arm. One day he hooked up with Manzarek again and decided to sing Moonlight Drive to him: Morrison looked at the stars and thought of infinity; while Manzarek saw dollars raining from the sky. The Adonis was a rock star without knowing it.

In a short time they recruited Robby Krieger on guitar and John Densmore on drums. None of the three musicians were very traditional on their instrument: Manzarek had a vast influence of classical music; Densmore preferred jazz; and Krieger was fascinated by flamenco guitar. Add to all this Morrison's charisma and songs - and you have an explosive mix.


Their first rehearsals were based on translating Morrison's songs into a musical language, the singer would sing them and together they would give it shape, "that's in F sharp, there's a change to B...". By June '66 they were playing at the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles, opening for Van Morrison's Them. The surly Northern Irish singer was a big influence on the man with whom he shared a surname, but the biggest influence on his stage persona was seeing the Velvet Underground in Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable show, where there were guys talking about heroin, sadomasochism and femme fatales while film images were projected onto them and Gerard Malanga danced uncontrollably in tight leather pants.

That's another of the key points of the Jim Morrison mystery that, despite being from sunny Los Angeles, his philosophy was closer to icy New York and the Velvets than to his neighbors who talked and sang about peace, love and music. Morrison preferred lyrics about his oedipal complexes, you know, about killing the father and not exactly killing the mother…  

Their first album had been recorded in 1966, but didn't see the light of day until January '67. They had released Break On Through a little earlier as the first single, and also shot a sort of novelty music video, but the album wasn't doing particularly well until a producer decided to cut Light My Fire down to three minutes for radio airplay and the song exploded in the charts. It was one of the few songs that wasn’t written by him, being composed by guitarist, Robby Krieger, who also shone with a great solo on his SG. To make matters worse, the other great contribution to the song was the wonderful intro by Ray Manzarek on organ. The tremendous success of Light My Fire would follow him for the rest of his career.


While their debut album continued to climb the charts, the band was already embarking on the recording of their follow-up, Strange Days, a better recorded and more ambitious album, but with songs a small step below their wonderful debut. Still, it was a great record, the songs were still coming - mainly out of Morrison's Venice Beach days -, like Moonlight Drive itself, now with a great solo from Krieger on slide, although he also got help from the guitarist who wrote Love Me Two Times and assisted him with People Are Strange. Of course, the album's title track was the menacing When The Music's Over, with which Morrison anticipated his alter ego of the Lizard King.

Morrison had become the new God of rock in the USA, a sort of Elvis 2.0, handsome, charismatic and a nightmare for right-thinking families... Or, in other words, the dollars that Manzarek saw in 1965. But the thing is that Morrison's ego inflated like a hippopotamus, to the point of making his bandmates look down on him. There was no groupie who could resist, no magazine that didn't want him on its cover. The bad thing is that success only made him more bitter, and he became an alcoholic along the way.    


The creative flow had dried up and the collaboration with his bandmates was less fluid, but the hits kept coming, like Hello, I Love You which was number one in 1968. However that song also came from the early days and the group was becoming more and more isolated. 

Despite the fact that Morrison lived on a street in Laurel Canyon, which he referred to in Love Street, the local scene looked down on the group - they were even too scary for the psychedelic groups in San Francisco, they didn't belong to any scene, they were their own island, which would leave them out of the Monterey Festival and, later, Woodstock.

Morrison and the band were drowning in their singer's excesses, for better and for worse. Before the famous incident in which he allegedly pulled out his d*** on stage, Morrison had already become the first rock singer to be arrested by the police during one of his concerts for, according to them, unleashing a riot. Morrison was the epitome of rock rebellion, of ‘no one here gets out alive’, of defying authority. His legend is largely based on that.  

The bad thing is that there was also another side to him, like the egomaniac who couldn't stand the idea of his band being known for almost the only song he hadn't written himself, or, even worse, that of an unbearable asshole. And Morrison could be an absolute asshole, as Janis Joplin found out as, on one occasion, during a party, Morrison tried to grope her, thinking that the Gods of rock are allowed everything, only to see the singer smash a bottle of whiskey over his head with all the reason in the world.


The fact is that the Doors were losing luster and the new Adonis of rock, who had even seen King Elvis reappear on television in a leather suit, had swollen from alcohol and had macerated his voice in whiskey and beer. It was then, far from the Lizard King, that inspiration returned to the band and they recorded another of their great classic albums, L.A. Woman.

But it was too late, the guy who had said that ‘his only friend was the end’ and ‘to cancel his subscription for the resurrection’, had a date with his friend in Paris on July 3, 1971.  

Although not in flesh and blood, his ‘popular resurrection’ was guaranteed and his figure has continued to be debated, loved and hated by a number of generations. There are those who consider him a fake and those who think he is a genius, among the former we have a Lou Reed who despised him openly - of course Reed had an ego as big as Morrison and saw how his adored Andy Warhol and Nico ended up obnubilated by him; so it could also be jealousy. Other famous detractors are David Crosby and Frank Zappa; but he also has fans like Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper and Patti Smith, who always considered him a great poet.

What is clear is that, 50 years later, Jim Morrison's influence is still incredible big, and his figure still maintains the same seductive power as it did five decades ago.