Forty long years have elapsed since the death of Doors frontman James Douglas Morrison, one of rock's most controversial and self-destructive stars. The late Al Aronowitz bid him farewell in Fusion - and recalled his meetings with the Lizard King--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
We all make our deals with the devil. I suppose Jim Morrison must have realized that he made his. Listen to Jac Holzman, the president of Elektra Records, the company that helped create the great fireworks display that Jim became.
"Superstardom is a speed trip," Jac said, paraphrasing something he once read by Michael Lydon. "The flash is incredible, but it kills you in the end."
We were talking on the telephone a couple of days after the announcement of Jim's death, and Jac was remembering how quiet Jim really used to be, storing up his anger only to let it out in quick and unexpected public detonations. He remembered the first time he saw Jim singing with the Doors in the Whisky a Go Go, one of the worst of L.A.'s schlock joints. It was only a short time after the Doors had gotten their release from Columbia and Jac could understand why.
"They were not very good," he said, "but there was something there that made me keep coming back." He signed them up and put them in a studio with producer Paul Rothchild. It was the summer of 1966 and they completed their album in ten days, but Jac didn't release it until the following January. By the summer of 1967, the album was selling a quarter of a million copies a month. It was a success that came long past the point of anti-climax for Jim. I remember Nico, the tall, blonde beauty, telling me how Jim used to bite his hands until they bled in the dressing room after a show. She and Jim ran together for a while.
The first time I saw Jim perform was in Steve Paul's Scene, the old cellar club on 46th Street. It was back in 1966 and I was with Brian Jones. Jim went through his gimmick of opening his mouth to the microphone as if he was about to sing and then closing it again and both Brian and I got up and walked out. Before long, 'Light My Fire' hit No. 1 on the charts, columnist Howard Smith was pegging Jim as the nation's new male sex symbol and that idiot purveyor of vapid criticism, Albert Goldman, was writing long pompous treatises about how the Doors were the new messiahs. I've never known Albert Goldman to be right. It was soon afterwards that Jim and the Doors were telling reporters to "think of us as erotic politicians." I couldn't quite figure out what they were running for, but it was easy to spot their constituency. The teenyboppers kept telling me that while the Beatles had been optimists, the Doors were pessimists. Meanwhile, Jim was quickly getting burnt out.
I didn't meet him until after he had outgrown all that baloney. It was at Mike McClure's house in San Francisco, where Jim used to go to take lessons in what he really wanted to be, a poet. I remember playing Nashville Skyline for him. He said it was Dylan's most "sensual" album, but then Jim was always hung up on sensuality. When Mike talked about writing a science-fiction screenplay, Jim said, "Yeah, let's make it pornographic science-fiction."
We got drunk that night, sitting at Mike's round, wooden kitchen table with Jim chomping on a cigar and doing imitations like he was somebody's Uncle Charlie. It was the first time I had seen him with a beard and somehow he reminded me of Charlton Heston. I could visualize him acting heroic roles in great cinemascopic epics. All the friends I've talked to now say they knew intuitively that Jim was dead as soon as they got the final phone call. But the sadness for me is that I really expected him to go on to greater things.
We went out to Chinatown the next afternoon, to one of those restaurants with Formica top tables, and we had a rip-roaring meal, with Jim playing Uncle Charlie again. Jim and Mike talked about Artaud. Jim was one of the most voracious readers I've ever met, but that's the way it is with people who are as serious about their writing as Jim was. Actually, Jim and Mike got to finish a film script they were working on together, an adaptation of Mike's novel, The Adapt. They also were kicking around an idea for an original movie musical.
In addition to his book of poetry, The Lords, and his collection of short prose fragments, The New Creatures, Jim also printed a private edition of poetry, American Prayer, for distribution among his friends. He was working on a partially completed manuscript when he died. "I didn't expect Jim to live very long," Mike now says, "not at the intensity at which he lived. He was on a very self-destructive level. But I don't think of it now as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. I think of it as Jack Kerouac, Charles Olson and Jim Morrison."
Jim had already broken with the Doors when he went to Paris to chase after Pamela, the one woman he always went back to out of the countless he knew. He hadn't been getting along with the rest of the group for a couple of years and they had been looking for a new lead singer for sometime. In the old days, at the height of the Doors' success, Jim had constantly kept telling the others that he wanted to quit and they'd take it out on him onstage, sometimes dropping notes and intimidating his phrasing.
To most of his friends, he was always a tragic figure. His audience refused to let him mature. When he tried to read his poetry onstage, the crowd would ask for 'Light My Fire'. They wouldn't let him stop being the Lizard King. He wanted to be considered a poet and a writer and someone serious and the audiences kept screaming at him, "Whip it out! Whip it out!" Finally in Miami, he was accused of doing just that. The last time I saw him, at the Isle of Wight festival almost a year ago, he was still on trial for exposing himself. We got drunk passing a bottle back and forth back-stage and he talked about listening to the testimony at the defendant's table. "At first I thought I was guilty," he said, "but now I'm beginning to think I wasn't."
We kept making a date for later to talk to each other but each time we'd be interrupted by the general conviviality. When he went onstage, he gave the best performance I've ever seen him do. He only screamed once. The last I saw him was when I was leaving the festival. It was late and there was no food around and we were all starving. I had a package with two cakes in it and I smiled and gave him one. He took it and smiled back and gorged himself with it.
He is buried now in the Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, near the grave, I'm told, of Moliere. Superstardom is a speed trip. The flash is incredible, but that's the deal you make. He had quit his heavy drinking the last couple months. According to his friends, the death certificate says he died of a heart attack brought on by respiratory complications. He died peacefully. When Pamela found him in the bathtub, there was a smile on his face.
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