It’s now been 44 years since Jim Morrison shuffled off his mortal coil, and the story of his tumultuous life and early death has been told countless times. In books, magazines, interviews, and even a big budget feature film, it’s almost as if Morrison never left.
The band’s influence is still felt today, and that’s especially true of their lead singer, whose stage persona can be seen, in part or in whole, in the stylings of singers ranging from Perry Farrell to Scott Weiland to Eddie Vedder. When the Doors reunited in the late 1990s to perform on VH1’s Storytellers, there was no shortage of alternative rock gods lining up to pull on a pair of leather pants and do their best impressions of the Lizard King.
It’s a fair point, then, to ask if there’s a purpose to yet another Doors biography. Is there anything new that hasn’t been discussed before? Is there a single anecdote that Ray Manzarek, in the seemingly daily interviews he gave to everybody with a microphone or a pen in the years before he died, didn’t pontificate upon? Based on the latest, from British writer Mick Wall, the answer is no. This is the same story that was told (poorly and with a different ending) in No One Here Gets Out Alive, the Big Bang of Morrison biographies. It’s the same story that Stephen Davis told (very well) in Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend. It’s a similar story to the one told (bizarrely and with little regard for reality) by Oliver Stone in the movie The Doors.
This isn’t to say that Mick Wall brings nothing new to the party, but they’re mostly small anecdotes, like George Harrison inviting Morrison to Abbey Road Studios where the Doors singer met the Beatles while they were recording the White Album. But the main thrust of the story is still the same: pudgy young film student and poet discovers LSD, loses weight, starts writing songs, forms a band, becomes a sex god, has great success, and throws it all away (in one of the worst cases of alcoholism ever documented) while his band members fume indignantly (when they’re not making excuses for him).
Morrison was a star that eclipsed everything in his orbit. It’s why he appears on almost every page of this book, subtitled “A Biography of the Doors”, and the rest of the band drifts in an out. Morrison’s talent was, let’s be honest, limited. He couldn’t play an instrument, his voice was beautifully expressive when he sang in his range but that range was also very limited, his poetry was generally awful even as his lyrics, more disciplined, were often excellent. Forget Ray Manzarek’s constant talk of shamanism and Dionysian ecstasy and the fact remains that Morrison became an archetype. He was the tortured artist, doomed from day one, who transcended death and became a legend.
In many ways, Morrison was symbolic of the decade from which he emerged. He was vital and good-looking, filled with promise, bursting with creativity and a desire to challenge the established order. But, like the Sixties that began with JFK and Camelot, all of that potential was squandered with drugs, promiscuity, and alcohol. By the end of his life, Morrison was a burnt out husk. One of the last things he ever wrote was the scrap: “Last words. Last words. Out. Regret for wasted nights & wasted years. I pissed it all away. American music.” It was in his last journal, along several pages where he had written, over and over, “God help me.”
Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre is very good. It doesn’t add much to the story but it does flesh out one crucial aspect of Morrison’s life: how it ended. The story had first been told in Stephen Davis’s book, but there’s considerably more detail here. Since July 3, 1971, the story of Morrison’s death has been this: he went to Paris to get away from the rock and roll craziness and concentrate on his poetry and to be with the love of his life, Pamela Courson. One night they went to the movies and when they went back to their apartment Jim took a bath. He had a heart attack in the bathtub and passed away. That story has always seemed way too trite for me. I believed it because there was no contradicting story, but it never really seemed right somehow.
It’s not. People are talking now, including the ones who carried Morrison’s body out of the bathroom in a Parisian bar and deposited it in that bathtub. There’s far too many corroborating accounts now not to recognize the truth: Jim Morrison died of a heroin overdose while sitting on the toilet in a bar called the Rock and Roll Circus. In order to avoid police involvement and scandal, he was wrapped in a blanket and carried out the back door to a waiting car. His body was driven home at around 3:00 in the morning and carried up to his third floor apartment, dropped several times along the way. Pamela was mostly passed out, strung out on heroin. They stripped Jim, placed him in the tub, told Pamela what to do (get rid of all the drugs in the apartment) and what to tell the police, and left. Pamela did as she was told, and the French police weren’t really interested in pursuing the matter. It’s a more sordid tale than the myth, but far more believable. Morrison didn’t go to Paris to concentrate on poetry; he went because France wouldn’t extradite him back to the United States, where he was due to be sentenced for the infamous Miami concert. In Paris, he admitted that he was barely reading or writing anything. He was drinking an enormous amount, and had recently begun to try heroin. The heroin that killed him was nearly pure, supplied by Count Jean de Breteuil, Marianne Faithfull’s boyfriend (and former lover of Pamela…it was he who hooked Pam).
Mick Wall’s style is fluid and engaging, though perhaps more befitting a blog than a book. There are many asides and sarcastic comments scattered throughout, and Wall especially seems to hold an intense disdain for Ray Manzarek. While he readily acknowledges Manzarek’s musical skill and his gift of gab, he begins the book by telling how Manzarek had insinuated, in an interview with the author, the old trope that maybe Morrison was still alive somewhere. Rather than shrug it off as Ray being Ray, repeating something that he’s been saying to the punters for over 40 years, Mick Wall seems personally offended by the comment, and almost never fails to include snarky comments when he quotes Ray throughout the book. Some of the snark is funny, but not appropriate for what should be a more dispassionate biographical work. In contrast, the author holds John Densmore in very high esteem (deservedly so…Densmore’s autobiography Riders On The Storm is essential reading for Doors fans, and he is unquestionably the most level-headed and clear-eyed analyst of life with Jim Morrison).
Wall is also surprisingly critical of the music. While he thinks that Strange Days and L.A. Woman are complete triumphs, he’s strangely dismissive of a large part of the band’s brilliant first album, The Doors, and their hard-rocking return to basics, Morrison Hotel. He’s unfairly harsh with both Waiting For The Sun and The Soft Parade, admittedly the two weakest Doors albums but still containing many delights. He savages their performance at the Hollywood Bowl, which I’ve always found to be an extraordinary show, and the showcase they did on PBS (to my mind, one of their best performances on tape). But Wall is clearly a fan. As Morrison devolves, and the band starts to crack under the weight of playing with such a loose cannon, Wall finds it hard to disguise a sense of genuine anger that a band with so much talent could lose the thread so completely.
Wall also refuses to take a position on some of the many controversies of Morrison’s life. He shrugs and backs away from the idea that Morrison was bisexual, though the anecdotal evidence is very strong that the singer was, if not sexually attracted to other men, willing to overlook the gender of whoever was pleasuring him. Was he bisexual or just a drug-addled hedonist? It’s true that nobody will ever know but Wall seems to deliberately shy away from a stance. That’s fair enough, but he’s also agnostic on whether Morrison had been sexually abused as a child. Here there seems to be less room for hesitation. Aside from the fact that he exhibits almost all the signs of the abused child (the addictions, the sexual acting out, the violence toward women, etc), Morrison himself told his lawyer that he’d been abused. In No One Here Gets Out Alive, Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman recall the many instances where a pre-teen Morrison had drawn sexually explicit (and often violent) pictures of children with adults in his notebooks. Sugarman, more a hagiographer than a biographer, dismissed these pictures as being wild and precocious, yet another manifestation of Jim’s towering intellect and Dionysian godhood, when they seemed to me to be a real cry for help. The evidence of Morrison’s abuse is all there, and Wall’s dismissal of it strikes me as cowardly (Wall says that the admission to his lawyer was possibly just more myth making, though by all accounts Morrison was in tears as he told the story). Stephen Davis did a much more thorough job of exploring this angle of Morrison’s life and behavior, including the story of the (male) Florida bar owner who would let the teenaged Morrison on stage to read his poetry in exchange for sex.
Throughout Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre, and most other good Doors books, Jim Morrison comes across as a man who is kind and personable, very witty, insecure (he was hesitant about meeting the Beatles—”What if they laugh at me?” he asked), and extremely intelligent. When he was sober. When he wasn’t sober, and he was drunk more often than not in the last few years of his life, a rage-filled monster emerged. In vino veritas. Today he would have managers shipping him off to rehab and therapy, but in 1971 nobody knew what to do with him, and he paid the price with his life.
Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre is a worthy, though ultimately redundant, addition to the story of the Doors. It doesn’t reach the level of Densmore’s Riders on the Storm: My Life With Jim Morrison and The Doors, Manzarek’s autobiography Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors, or Stephen Davis’s Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend, but it is far superior to the original Morrison biography, the grossly distorted, sycophantic No One Here Gets Out Alive. Wall has done fans a service by providing the comprehensive story of Morrison’s death, but there’s little else here that hasn’t been seen before.