Jim Morrison, 50 years after his death: An edgy rock icon, a poet and web of contradictions
Few rock ‘n’ roll legends have had as enduring an impact on multiple generations as Jim Morrison, whose death 50 years ago next month at 27 made him an even bigger cultural icon than when he was alive.
Yet, while his six-year tenure as the deep-voiced front man in The Doors created a quintessential template for brooding, bad-boy rock singers clad in leather and oozing primal sex appeal, musical stardom was most assuredly not this former San Diegan’s goal. That point is repeatedly emphasized in “The Collected Works of Jim Morrison: Poetry, Journals, Transcripts and Lyrics,” a massive, nearly 600-page book published June 8 by HarperCollins.
“Getting to be in a band was kind of an accident for Jim because he didn’t set out to be a singer. He was always writing poetry and wanted to go into film,” said his sister, Anne Morrison Chewning, speaking from her home near Santa Barbara, California.
“I thought Jim would be a poet, like one of the Beat poets in San Francisco. That’s what I was expecting. And I was worried! Because I thought he would never make enough money as a poet to get by.”
Chewning, who wrote the prologue for “The Collected Works,” is the co-executor of her late brother’s personal estate. She devoted years to compiling and guiding this comprehensive new book, which includes a foreword by novelist Tom Robbins and an introduction by Frank Lisciandro, Morrison’s close friend and collaborator.
“I knew several Jims,” Lisciandro writes in his introduction. “The shy loner who was my classmate at the UCLA School of Film; the rock performer who was always raising the stakes on what was culturally acceptable; the lyricist, poet and writer who surprised me with notebook pages of complex poems and gifts of self-published books ...”
Accordingly, “The Collected Works” features a trove of previously unpublished material. It includes handwritten excerpts from 28 of Morrison’s recently discovered notebooks, recorded and unrecorded lyrics (some with handwritten drafts) to more than 1,500 photos and drawings (including rarely seen family photos).
The book also contains the script and color still photos from his unreleased film “HWY,” a companion piece to his experimental 1969 film, “The Hitchhiker: An American Pastoral,” which was shot largely in the Mojave Desert. And it has some of Morrison’s final writings from Paris, where he died on July 3, 1971, from — depending on the source — congestive heart failure, an accidental drug overdose, or a combination of the two.
And it includes his courtroom notes from his 40-day trial in 1970 in Miami, where — in the aftermath of a charged Doors’ concert at which he allegedly exposed himself — Morrison was convicted on misdemeanor charges of profanity and indecent exposure. He was posthumously pardoned in 2010. Members of Morrison’s family and the surviving members of The Doors demanded an official apology from the city of Miami and the state of Florida for having arrested and prosecuted him in the first place.
In one of his notebooks from the trial, Morrison wrote: “The joy of performing has ended. Joy of films is pleasure of writing.”
‘A more complete Jim’
“I wanted the book to be all-Jim, with his poetry, his thoughts, his song lyrics, his movie (script),” said Chewning, a retired pubic school teacher and librarian. “I wanted people to see a more complete Jim than what they knew from his music or what they read or heard about him.”
Those sentiments are shared by former Doors guitarist Robby Krieger. His memoir, “Set the Night on Fire,” is due for publication this fall by Little, Brown and Company. Also coming this fall is an expanded, 50th anniversary box set edition of “L.A. Woman.” It’s the final studio album Morrison made with The Doors prior to his death and stands as the band’s most fully realized fusion of rock, blues and jazz.
“I think people will be amazed by how much poetry was in Jim and that he wasn’t just this crazy rock star,” Krieger said, speaking from his Los Angeles home.
“He always had a notebook with him to write in. Unfortunately, quite a few of them were left in bars and hotel rooms so we’ll never see all of what he wrote. And he was shy about it. He’d never show us what was in his notebooks or say: ‘Check this out.’ “
Morrison wrote “Pony Express,” his first poem, in 1954 while attending Longfellow Elementary School in Clairemont. He was 10 at the time.
Now on display at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, “Pony Express” is the first of his poems that appear in “The Collected Works.” It is juxtaposed with a Morrison quote from a 1969 Rolling Stone interview.
“I think around the fifth or sixth grade I wrote a poem called ‘The Pony Express,’” he told Rolling Stone.
“That was the first I can remember. It was one of those ballad-type poems. I never could get it together, though. I always wanted to write, but I figured it’d be no good unless somehow the hand just took the pen and started moving without me really having anything to do with it. Like automatic writing. But it just never happened.”
In fact, he self-published two labor-of-love volumes of his poetry in 1969. And, rather than seek to cash in on his stardom, he had his full name — James Douglas Morrison — embossed on the cover.
Following his death on July 3, 1971, the two volumes were formally published by Simon & Schuster under the title “The Lords and The New Creatures.” More posthumous books of his poetry followed. The demarcation appeared to be clear between Morrison’s poetry and the lyrics he wrote for such classic Doors songs as “Break On Through,” “Hello, I Love You” and “Roadhouse Blues.”
That was not the case, though, with other songs.
“Had Jim not been into poetry as much as he’d been at an early age, who knows if he’d have written songs later,” mused Krieger.
“A lot of the songs did come from his poetry, songs like (1970’s) ‘Peace Frog,’ for instance. I had written the music for that and we didn’t have any words. I asked Jim if he could come up with something and he couldn’t. His mind was kind of messed up at that time because it was right after the (1970) Miami court trial.
“So, he went back and looked in one of his poetry notebooks and found this poem called ‘Abortion Stories,’ which became ‘Peace Frog’.”
Krieger paused for a moment of further reflection.
“Another example is ‘Light My Fire,’ which I wrote,” the 75-year-old guitarist continued. “But that last line, right before the end of the song, Jim changed ‘Light my fire’ to ‘Try to set the night on fire.’ I thought he’d just come up with that line at the time.
“I later found out it was from a poem in one of Jim’s notebooks from years before. I am thinking a lot of the songs he wrote might have first come from situations like that. So, I’ve always wanted there to be a book of all of his poetry.”
An avid prankster
Morrison’s fame was rivaled — and fueled by — his notoriety.
A walking bundle of contradictions, he was larger than life on stage whether enraptured by the music or stumbling in a drunken haze. Off stage, he could be sensitive or surly, charming or sometimes combative, an unabashed hedonist or an urbane aficionado of film, literature and theater.
But what he was like as a boy?
“Jim was loads of fun!” his sister recalled, laughing heartily.
“It started when he was little. He would trade me his nickels for my dimes by telling me the nickels were bigger! He would do pranks and silly things, and he would get us into trouble on the Navy base in Coronado.”
Chewning laughed again as she recalled an especially colorful example of her older brother’s mischievous ways.
“When Jim was at UCLA, he came home for a visit in Coronado and I assumed he’d been drinking,” she said. “We went to the movie theater on the base with my younger brother, Andy — tickets were just 10 cents. Before the feature film, they played ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’
“Jim stood up and sang the whole thing. And he was the only one in the whole theater who did. We were just kids and we were all laughing. You can imagine the reaction from the Navy people. Because we were sitting in the officers’ section, they really couldn’t do anything to us.”
Depending on his mood, Morrison could be an outspoken rebel, both with and without a cause.
The strict military family he grew up in was definitely a factor, according to Krieger, who noted: “I know his father wasn’t happy when Jim decided he would rather be a hippie than a soldier.”
Chewning recalls the time his mother would not let Morrison — then still a student at UCLA — enter the family’s Coronado home unless he cut his hair first.
“I think that was the last haircut Jim got for a long time!” his sister said with a chuckle. She then grew more serious.
“My dad just didn’t understand Jim’s poetry and he was clearly not into rock ‘n’ roll,” Chewning continued, while noting that the first song her brother ever wrote was a collaboration with their piano-playing father.
‘A complete lack of talent’
Matters were not helped by the fact that — after hearing The Doors’ 1967 debut album — Morrison’s father wrote a letter urging his son “to give up any idea of singing or any connection with a music group because of what I consider to be a complete lack of talent in this direction.”
Chewning — who was attending college in London at the time — didn’t even know her older sibling was in a rock band, let alone that he was the singer in The Doors, whose music the United Kingdom’s BBC radio network was then regularly playing on the air.
“Someone told my mom about the album and she sent me a copy,” Chewning said. “I was like: ‘Whoa! That’s my brother!’ It was amazing and shocking and surprising. I never got to see the band perform live. But my mother kept all the magazine covers and newspaper clippings about The Doors and I found them (after she died).”
During the height of his rock stardom in the 1960s, Morrison was so estranged from his parents that — when asked — he would say that both were deceased. In fact, his mother, Clara, lived until 2006 and his father, George, until 2008. Both were Coronado residents at the time of their passing.
Chewning and Krieger both contend that Morrison was actually trying to protect his parents by claiming they were dead.
“I think Jim knew what was going to happen (with his rock stardom),” Krieger said. “And he thought, with his dad being an admiral, that some of his antics would be embarrassing to him.”
Morrison was more correct than even he could have realized.
“I only heard this later, but my Dad offered to resign from the Navy if what Jim was doing was upsetting to the Navy — and my Dad loved the Navy!” Chewning said. “It was really special to him and he didn’t want anything (Jim did) to upset the apple cart with the Navy. But, in the end, he didn’t have to resign.”
And what about “The End”— one of The Doors’ most famously controversial songs — in which Morrison declared that he wanted to kill his father and bed his mother?
“People would whisper to me: ‘Are your parents upset about ‘The End’?” Chewning recalled. “And I’d say: ‘Not in the least. The lyrics are just (based on) a Greek myth.’ Jim did it in a new way and I loved the drama of it.
“After my dad retired in San Diego, he studied ancient Greek. Jim’s tombstone in Paris was being vandalized and people were taking pieces of it. So, Dad had a new tombstone for Jim made with the words, in Greek: ‘True to his own spirit.’
“I think that’s what Dad ultimately thought about Jim, and he wanted it immortalized on Jim’s tombstone.”
Jim Morrison at a glance
Born: James Douglas Morrison, Dec. 8, 1943, in Melbourne, Florida.
Died: July 3, 1971, in Paris
Education: Earned a bachelor’s degree from UCLA’s film school in 1965.
First (and only) band: The Doors, formed in 1965, with keyboardist Ray Manzarek (who died in 2013), guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore.
First album: “The Doors” (1967).
Last album: “An American Prayer” (released posthumously in 1978, with new music that the three surviving Doors set to spoken-word recordings Morrison had made prior to his death).
First book of poetry: “The Lords and The New Creatures” (1969, self-published).
Did you know? When The Doors were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, Manzarek, Densmore and Krieger had another San Diego singer, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, perform with them in place of Morrison.
All in the family
“The Collected Works of Jim Morrison: Poetry, Journals, Transcripts and Lyrics” was also released as a six-hour-plus audiobook. The narrators include Jim Morrison, his sister Anne Morrison Chewning, her son, Sefton Graham, and Ian Morrison, the son of Anne and Jim Morrison’s brother, Andy.
The Doors’ most covered song
While many songs by The Doors have been covered and by an array of artists, “Light My Fire” heads the list.
More than 100 artists who have recorded their own versions of the 1967 classic, which was written by Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger. They include Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Alicia Keys, Dread Zeppelin, Chet Atkins, Jose Feliciano, Johnny Mathis, Massive Attack, Isaac Hayes, Woody Herman, New York Disco Machine, The Ventures and Mae West.
In addition, “Light My Fire” has been sampled on records by an array of hip-hop and electronic-music artists. They range from Lauryn Hill’s “Superstar,” A Tribe Called Quest’s “Jazz (We’ve Got)” and Skrillex’s “Breakn’ a Sweat” to The Dead Milkmen’s “If You Love Somebody Set Them on Fire” and The Residents’ “Hitler Was a Vegetarian.”
Lighting their fire
The impact of The Doors in general and Jim Morrison in particular has only grown since the singer’s death 50 years ago next month.
Lana Del Rey namechecks him in the lyrics to her 2012 song, “Gods & Monsters,” in which she declares: “No one’s going to take my soul away/ I’m living like Jim Morrison.”
Iggy Pop has cited Morrison for inspiring him to become a rock singer. Other artists who have been influenced by the fabled front man of The Doors and his band include Patti Smith, The Cure, Nick Cave, X, The Strokes, Joy Division, Billy Idol, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Stranglers, Scott Weiland, Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Allah-Las, Chris Cornell, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Cult, Jane’s Addiction and Marilyn Manson.