Jim Morrison’s mysterious death half a century ago this year is the stuff of rock and roll legend. The 27-year-old American poet, singer and frontman for the iconic rock band The Doors died in 1971, on a summer’s night in a bathtub in Paris.
The French coroner claimed it was a heart attack and Jim, who was battling both the bottle and the Florida State court system, was buried within 48 hours.
The gloomy details of his demise have added to the band’s allure for me. Not to sound too dark, but as far as rock and roll deaths, Jim’s is perfect.
It is easy to get lost, literally and figuratively, in Paris’s Pere Lachaise cemetery. It’s quiet and soothing, but I didn’t visit to soak up the serenity; I was there to see Mr Mojo Risin’s final resting place.
The place Parisians call “La Cite de Morts” (“The City of the Dead”) is a hauntingly beautiful maze of winding stone paths through neighborhoods of macabre headstones and mausoleums.
I was drawn to the naked trees and the ragged feral cats who slinked among the bouquets of dead flowers.
I gorged myself on the Doors before I left for Paris.
Morrison epitomized the youth counterculture and generation gap arising in the 1960s and ’70s. His flamboyant, reckless, lifestyle and mesmerizing music capture the ethos of a generation that questioned everything.
He also became a member of the infamous rock and roll “27 Club,” well-known artists who all died at the age of 27.
Oher members include, the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain.
His moody baritone and Ray Manzarek’s carnivalesque organ rang in my ears when I got off the Metro and hit the paths of Pere Lachaise.
I felt slightly embarrassed when I half-heartedly admired the tombs of Oscar Wilde and Edith Piaf on my way to Jim’s grave.
I had trouble finding my way and I approached a longhaired girl in a denim jacket and bell-bottoms just before my patience disappeared.
“Ou est Jim?” I asked with a hint of desperation.
She smiled and directed me to around the corner where I found a gaggle of gawkers standing in front of a roped off grave.
A security guard shot me a cursory glance as I joined the group and peered down at the flowers, handwritten notes, candles and sticks of incense that adorned the ground in front of Jim’s final resting place.
The graffiti-covered bust that I’d seen on posters in head shops was missing and a plaque was there in its place.
I popped into a nearby café for a coffee and reflection when I left the cemetery. As I lifted my cup from the saucer, as if on cue, one of the Doors’ hits, “People are Strange” started to play on the café’s radio.
The song appears on the Doors’ 1967 sophomore LP, Strange Days.
Robbie Krieger wrote the music and his guitar whines and dips as John Densmore’s tight drumming and Manzerak’s tack piano give the piece a cabaret feel.
Jim’s lyrics give a sense of vulnerability and I identified with his theme of isolation as I sat and listened. Images of walking alone along the dark Seine flickered before me, and all I could do was nod to the music.
The song’s peculiar vibe and subject mirrored Pere Lachaise. The solitary cats sauntered down the uneven streets among the dead and the green oxidized faces of the gargoyles and statues looked ugly when I was alone there.
The same abnormal splendor I saw in that old French cemetery I found in the song. People, I thought, are not the only things that are strange.
Though one would think Paris would be the city most associated with Morrison, for me it is actually Frankfurt, Germany that holds that distinction.
The Doors were on my mind late one afternoon a few years ago as I sat at one of the outdoor tables in the city’s Römerberg square.
My feet were tired from traipsing around the city, but I was in good spirits with my stein of pilsner, my journal, and the famous gabled facade in front of me.
The structures surrounding Romerberg were mostly destroyed by Allied bombings in 1944 and were rebuilt a decade later. The archaic style evokes Germany’s medieval times, but I wasn’t thinking that far in the past.
Instead, I was thinking of Sept. 1968, when the Doors stopped here during their 17-day European tour.
The Doors had broken through late that summer on the continent with the hit “Hello, I Love You,” a radio-friendly tune that some fans didn’t consider as introspective as their earlier music.
It was written in 1965 after Jim spotted a stunning girl on the beach, and it was dusted off when they needed material for the Waiting for the Sun album.
It turned out to be a wise choice as the song became their second number one record in the States.
With this momentum, the Doors were about to reach their apex before the damnation of drink and drugs tightened its squeeze on their singer.
As I sipped my beer, my head was full of Doors music and like a rider on the storm, it began to wander.
I thought about how on the morning of Sept. 13, 1968, the Doors, fresh from stellar shows in England, arrived far too early at the Römerberg for the filming for the German music show “4-3-2-1 Hot & Sweet.”
The crew was not yet ready as there was a problem with the lighting, so Jim, like one of the curious cats at Pere Lachaise, began to stroll around the square.
It seems appropriate that an armchair theologian like Jim would discover and investigate Nicolaikirche, Romerberg’s little Lutheran Old St Nicholas Church.
The church sustained only minor damage during World War II and looked unchanged from when it was built in the mid 15th century. Jim walked around the altar and was photographed in front of a huge grave slab set into the wall and up in the pulpit.
I had checked out the church earlier in the day and was struck by both its modesty and how it looked almost exactly the same as I remembered from the pictures.
I stood in the same spots where Jim did and felt both satisfaction and peace; a connection I didn’t experience at his grave.
The place was eerily quiet and I imagined how this appealed to Jim. I walked around the altar and sunbeams shone through the colored glass and on to the cold stone floor. I easily could have been moved to write a poem.
Jim returned to the set in the square after an hour and bottles of the popular sweet wine Golden October appeared. The band drank up and laughed under the warm noon sun as a gawking crowd gathered.
A blonde go-go girl was filmed dancing to a pre-recorded version of “Hello I Love You” in front of the Romerberg’s fountain. This footage was later intercut with shots of the miming Doors.
It’s clear the booze has taken effect when the Doors are filmed, but damned if they still don’t look cool.
By the time the crew is ready for close ups of his lip-synching the lyrics, Jim was drunk and couldn’t mouth the words through his smiling. They got through it, but plans to mime “Light my Fire” were scrapped.
Jim gave autographs to some giggling female fans while the Doors went shopping with their wives after filming. Jim was driven to the hotel, where he retired to his room and was not seen until evening.
For me, this afternoon for the band is not just a snapshot of the group at its peak, but with the excess, separation, curiosity and uniqueness, it is also the band in a nutshell.
The Doors stayed at the opulent Frankfurter Hof Hotel on the edge of the Altstadt. The place looked flaxen and majestic when illuminated and a different Doors song played in my ears each of the half dozen times I passed it during my stay in the city.
As I peered into the posh vestibule I tried to picture the reporter from the German music magazine Bravo who cornered Jim in the lobby and asked for a quick interview.
Jim’s answers were curt, but telling:
” I sing what others don’t say,” he said. ” I don’t value the melody. For me, the only thing that matters is the lyrics. I’m a poet. I want to say things that are important to this world.”
“How do you write your poems?” the reporter asked.
“I never write my poems myself; my spirits write them for me.”
“Can you list the highlights of your career?”
“The song ‘The End.’ Four shows at the Fillmore East in New York. We ended the last show with a piece that lasted two and a half hours: and the ever-increasing flood of fan letters is always a highlight.”
“What does the future of the Doors look like?”
“We don’t care. We’re alive now.”
Before the Doors played two very polarizing shows at Kongresshalle that evening, Jim spent the entire day locked up in his room, scribbling poetry in his tattered ring notebook.
When handlers scoured the hotel when it was time for the soundcheck, they found the singer had climbed a shady chestnut tree in the hotel garden and had been sitting on it for hours, writing poems in his notebook.
I tried in vain to locate the tree on the hotel grounds, hoping some of the creativity would rub off.
While Jim had his notebook in the tree, I had my journal at the beer hall. I was seated mere yards from where the band filmed for the television show and with a squint and a little imagination, I was able to visualize them.
I saw blonde and bespectacled Ray hunched over his Vox Continental, foot tapping and head shaking side-to-side to the beat.
Densmore was behind the drums, decked out in hippie gear, hitting the skins, jazz style. Robbie wore a sky blue shirt and a shadowy scruff as he plucked his Gibson and his kinky hair waving in the breeze.
Jim, as usual, was the focal point and in classic Lizard King mode.
This is before the beard and the belly, before that Miami concert and before Paris.
He looked a little unsteady at times in his booted feet, but he was still Adonis in black leather pants, with ringlets of dark hair and a concha belt that caught the sun as he moved.
The imagery faded as the sun dipped lower into the sky and I noticed that my stein was empty. Perhaps because I was in Germany, the next song to fill my head was “Alabama Song,” which was written by German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht and covered by the Doors on their debut album.
“Well, show me the way to the next whiskey bar…”
I sang in my best muffled Morrison as I arose, picked up my journal, and headed down the cobblestone street towards the next beer hall.
The scent of sausages floated by and one of the bells of Nicolaikirche chimed.
“Oh don’t ask why, oh don’t ask why…” I continued. I promised myself that I would turn out the light when the music was over.
Though the Doors recorded two more albums after Morrison died, the band’s fortunes died with him. They split up in 1973.
In 1993, Morrison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Doors.