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Remembering Jim Morrison

The Doors frontman and his admiral father lived a generation's turmoil.

Addled, dressed in black leather, Jimmy Fallon had all the mannerisms down: he swayed as he held onto the microphone stand, head lolling on his shoulders during the instrumental breaks; his eyes alternated between passion and oblivion. He had the vocal style down, too—the semi-croon that could ascend to an alarming shriek. Adding to the effect, the band playing behind him were dead ringers for the dead singer’s lost mates: the Doors, the seminal sixties band fronted by Jim Morrison. But instead of evoking dark psychic worlds, Fallon’s Morrison sang the lyrics from the PBS program Reading Rainbow. He inserted poetry, as Morrison often did, into the song’s instrumental section—but instead of “The Graveyard Poem” or “Horse Latitudes,” he recited from Goodnight Moon and other nuggets of childhood literacy.

Few rock singers made themselves so ripe for parody as James Douglas Morrison, who would have turned an ungodly 70 this week if he hadn’t helped charter rock’s 27 Club in Paris in 1971, where he died from a likely drug overdose. Morrison’s Doors compatriots—the guitarist, Robbie Krieger; the drummer, John Densmore; and the keyboardist, Ray Manzarek, who died earlier this year—were inventive musicians, but no one doubts the source of the group’s enduring fascination. Sixties rock was filled with charismatic front men, from Mick Jagger to Jimi Hendrix, but none could carry Morrison’s water when it came to conveying darkness and danger. Morrison saw himself as a shaman—he believed the soul of a dead Indian had passed into his when he was a child—and he performed often with his eyes closed, apparently trying to summon the muse.

Or maybe he was just having difficulty standing up. Morrison’s energies were slowly drained away by his ruinous alcohol and drug abuse, which worsened over time and transformed an articulate and sensitive soul into a drunken, raving creep who mistreated everyone dear to him and enclosed himself within a fathomless despair. His descent alienated his bandmates and eventually made the Doors unviable on stage—not only because a gonzo Morrison could barely perform, but also because, in 1969, plastered on booze and whatnot, he caused a near riot at a performance in Miami in which he allegedly exposed his genitals. A Florida court convicted him of indecent exposure and profanity, and his appeals were pending when he died (Governor Charlie Crist pardoned Morrison posthumously in 2010). If Morrison the poet/shaman has endured in pop culture, so has Morrison the insurrectionist and drunken lout—the embodiment of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Morrison’s fame during his lifetime pales beside the Cult of Jimbo that sprang up after 1971. His grave in Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery has to be guarded to protect against defacement, and for a good while some believed that he hadn’t died but had staged his demise—and would, like Christ, return at an hour of his choosing.

Like millions of others, I was captured by the Doors’ music at a young age. They sounded like no one else, and they seemed to have a profound secret knowledge of the world so treasured by adolescents and young adults. Youthful listeners hear an apocalyptic quality in their music, but that’s an energy that tends to burn itself out. It certainly did with me. Before reading obituaries this spring for Manzarek—whose keyboard playing anchored the group’s sound—I couldn’t recall when I had last listened to the Doors, let alone thought about them. It had been at least 20 years, I reckoned. For people past a certain age and with some degree of self-consciousness, acknowledging any interest in the Doors, even if long past, seems vaguely embarrassing (though most things we’ve loved embarrass us sooner or later). But Manzarek’s passing reminded me of how potent I had once found their music, and I wondered if any of it could stand up for a creaky middle-aged listener punching his workaday ticket to the grave. I wondered about Morrison, too. His image was bound up in self-mythology as Dionysius reborn, sex god (the Lizard King), and doomed blues poet (Mr. Mojo Risin’), but for me, part of the Morrison fascination had always included his unhealed breach with his father—a prominent Navy admiral involved in one of the decade’s historical turning points, whose career had poignant intersections with his son’s.

Admiral and Jim Morrison, aboard the USS Bon Homme Richard in January, 1964. U.S. Navy photo.
Admiral and Jim Morrison, aboard the USS Bon Homme Richard, Jan. 1964. U.S. Navy photo.

The Doors’ first album appeared in January 1967, their sixth and last in April 1971—prolific by today’s standards but par for the course back then, when pop groups were generally expected to release new music every year. On their debut record, widely regarded as their best, the Doors put down a formidable collection of songs: “Break on Through,” “Soul Kitchen,” “Light My Fire,” and “The End.” Listening to it after so many years, I expected to skip over “Light My Fire,” a song I felt I could safely never hear again. But I was surprised by how alive it sounded, especially its long, Coltrane-influenced middle section. Morrison’s youthful yet sepulchral voice is unravaged by the madness that would claim him, and the lyrics (mostly guitarist Krieger’s) blend romantic idealism with morbid urgency: “The time to hesitate is through/No time to wallow in the mire/Try now we can only lose/And our love become a funeral pyre.” The effect was to leave me ruing lost time. Similarly, hearing “The End” again brought me back to my college years, when I listened to the song repeatedly in dorm rooms cluttered with empty beer bottles and the smell of pot smoke. I always felt a shudder when Morrison got to the famous Oedipal section, where he sang of killing his father and coupling with his mother. The song may be a monument to rock music pretension, but it retains a subconscious power that Francis Ford Coppola understood when he used it in the opening montage to Apocalypse Now. Ultimately, “The End” was probably less important for its shattering of taboos than for opening up a space in listeners’ minds apart from parents and other formative influences.

Much of the Doors’ music can’t be divorced from this context of unstructured freedom—and herein stands the barrier for older listeners. Breaking on through, vague as the command was, once seemed essential. The struggle that engages most of my waking hours today is not the attainment of some new consciousness but an existential bargain to delay my surrender until a more auspicious time. Break through? I just want to hold on. Morrison’s voice on the early Doors’ records is haunting in this regard. It conjures an earlier self and the need to achieve a spiritual autonomy above all else.

It must be that gulf between youth and age that made me gravitate, this time around, to the later Doors’ albums, on which the group shifted from its earlier psychedelic sound to a harder blues style. This evolution was also reflected in Morrison’s writing, which became more concrete, and in his singing voice, which slowly degraded as the toll of his suicidal lifestyle began to show. “Blood in the streets it’s up to my ankles/Blood in the streets it’s up to my knee,” he sings on the 1970 “Peace Frog,” one of their best late songs. “Blood on the rise it’s following me.” The song, which shows off all the band members’ muscles, is tough to beat as a testament to late sixties dread.

On the group’s last album, L.A. Woman, the blues orientation becomes most explicit, as does Morrison’s sense of isolation. The album’s anchors are its seven-minute radio classics, “L.A. Woman” and “Riders on the Storm,” both of which play somewhat against type. Rock’s best long song, “L.A. Woman” has served as accompaniment for countless ecstatic road trips, but it’s more desolate than it sounds, while “Riders on the Storm,” though ostensibly about a serial killer, sounds almost hopeful by the end. The emotional core of “L.A. Woman” comes from its famous bridge, in which the last remnants of the Lizard King dissolve into Morrison’s final incarnation, Mr. Mojo Risin’, an anagram he made out of the letters of his name that resonates with “Got My Mojo Working,” an old blues classic. It’s difficult not to feel carried away by the song’s tempo changes or by the sense of farewell in Morrison’s vocals.

Though it remains the only musical genre I really understand—years of jazz and classical have netted little—rock music lost its hold on me years ago, and the best I can do now is to enjoy it in a retrospective way. Even that diminished mandate has its limits. Listening to the Doors again reminded me of how the essayist George Trow, before putting on his father’s old fedora, had first to “torture it out of shape so that it can be cleaned of the embarrassment in it.” You can try to reshape an outdated hat; the only thing to do with outgrown music is to put it away, even as you realize that part of yourself goes with it. Morrison himself seemed to recognize the problem. “I’m twenty-seven years old,” he said in the last months of his life. “That is too old to be a rock singer.” He died in Paris on July 3, 1971, thus avoiding the implications of that dilemma.

Jim Morrison's gravestone in Paris. iconauta / cc
Jim Morrison’s gravestone in Paris. iconauta / cc

The day before, in Washington, D.C., Admiral George S. Morrison presided over the decommissioning of the USS Bon Homme Richard, an aircraft carrier that saw action in the Pacific dating back to World War II. Morrison had assumed command of the ship on November 22, 1963; his first job was to tell the crew that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. Now, he was retiring the vessel at another pivotal moment, though he didn’t know it yet. A naval attaché would confirm his son’s death.

Aboard the Bon Homme Richard, on August 2nd and 4th, 1964, the admiral commanded the U.S. fleet when North Vietnamese torpedo boats fired, or seemed to fire, on the U.S. destroyer Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. President Lyndon Johnson used these incidents, dubious as we now know the second was, as his pretext to pass the Tonkin Resolution, paving the way for full-scale U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. In March 1965, the first U.S. ground troops arrived in Vietnam. By January 1967, when the Doors’ debut album came out, there were over 400,000.

Carrying critical links to both the Vietnam War and the youth culture that mobilized against it is a lot of karma for one household.

In the Morrison mythology, the admiral plays the part of the standard 1950s dad, too invested in his career and too repressed to understand his artistic son, whose middle name, Douglas, was for Douglas MacArthur. No doubt there is some truth to this portrait, but George S. Morrison’s life was every bit as eventful as his son’s and far more gallant. At 22, he was serving aboard the minelayer Pruitt in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked. During the war, he flew combat missions in the Pacific, and he later earned a Bronze Star in Korea. He became the youngest admiral in the navy in 1966, just as the Doors were astounding audiences at the Whiskey a-Go Go on the Sunset Strip and preparing to record their first album. By then, the admiral and Jim had fallen out, polarized by years of mutual incomprehension and by the father’s harsh dismissal of the son’s career plans. When the Doors made it, Jim told reporters that his parents were dead.

Though he had seemed on a career fast track, the elder Morrison never became a full admiral, and Doors drummer John Densmore believes that Jim’s notorious reputation was a key reason why. The navy, Densmore suggests, was reluctant to give the father of the Doors’ lead singer a higher profile. If the father resented the son for this, his actions did not reflect it. During Jim’s Miami obscenity trial, his defense team admitted a supportive letter from the admiral in which he vouched for his son’s good character while acknowledging that he had barely spoken with him for years. He had followed Jim’s career, he wrote, “with a mixture of amazement and in the case of Miami, great concern and sorrow.” He concluded: “I will always follow his progress with the greatest of interest and concern and stand ready to assist him in any way, should he ask.”

The years passed. The admiral served his final tour in Guam, where he led relief efforts for Vietnamese refugees. He gave no public statements about his increasingly legendary son, even as he saw posters of Jim on the bedroom walls of his friends’ children. He never talked about it with anyone in the Navy, “but the young guys all knew,” said Andy Morrison, Jim’s younger brother. Jim’s fame increased with multiple Doors revivals, first generated by the 1981 Morrison biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive, and then again by the 1991 Oliver Stone film, The Doors. “I don’t think Daddy ever understood the impact Jim had on music,” Jim’s sister Ann said. But the admiral wanted to make some kind of peace. In 1990, he and Ann went to Paris to visit Jim’s grave, where he added a plaque to the gravestone that read: Kata Ton Daimona Eaytoy, generally translated from the Greek as “True to his own spirit.”

Jim’s demise in Paris, where he lived his final months, has long been the subject of speculation. What is clear is that Morrison was deeply depressed. He had scrawled repeatedly in his notebooks, “God help me,” and his final entry read, probably coincidentally, “Last words, last words/Out.” Psychoanalyzing the dead is a fool’s errand, but it’s no great leap to assume that some part of a gifted 27-year-old’s inner torment might have to do with the unresolved conflict with his father.

In fact, during Morrison’s time in Paris, the admiral had been on his mind. Alan Ronay, an old college friend, spent weeks with Jim there. “One night we had a conversation that was totally moving,” Ronay told Morrison biographers James Riordan and Jerry Prochnicky. “It was full of affection … Jim telling funny stories about his dad and so on. The stories were really tender and warm. I wish his parents could’ve heard it. I really felt that he’d totally reclaimed himself.” But a few months later, he was dead.

Jim Morrison once described the Doors as “basically a blues-oriented group.” If he never quite got there as a blues vocalist, his profound sense of estrangement lies at the core of that music, which he and the Doors grew closer to on their final albums. For all of its sixties trappings, the Morrison saga owes its pathos to older sources: the classical theme of separation from the father, and the blues motif of feeling like a stranger in the world. Admiral Morrison may have brought the two strands together with his gravestone inscription, True to his spirit. Its origins are Greek, but it can do as an American blues for a father and son who rose to lonely ranks.

Paul Beston is managing editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.