Jim Morrison was born on December 8th 1943 and died July 3rd 1971. Everything that came between those years created a timeless legend. Best known as the lead singer and front-man of The Doors, he left the kind of enduring legacy of which most can only dream. In the 27 short years Morrison spent on this earth, his mortal coil created an iconic legend that will live forever in poetry, music, film and counterculture.
When Jim was just four, he and his family witnessed a car crash in the desert where a truck had overturned. He described seeing several Native Americans “scattered all over the highway, bleeding to death.” Since his death, Jim’s father has said “he was very upset by it. It did make an impression on him, he always thought about that crying Indian.” Jim’s sister is quoted as saying, “he enjoyed telling that story and exaggerating it. Exaggerated or not, Jim called the incident “the most formative event of his life” and made repeated references to it in the imagery in interviews, songs, such as Peace Frog and poems, such as Ghost Song.
Morrison was a gluttonous reader from an early age, consuming as much poetry, philosophy and history as he could get his hands on. Some of his self-identified influences include Nietzsche, Plutarch, Rimbaud, Molière, Kafka, Camus, Ginsberg, and de Balzac. These formative influences are evident in the style of Morrison’s work and indeed his life – morality, duality, symbolism, surrealism and existentialism appear in his conversation, poetry and songs.
In 1965, after graduating from film school, Morrison lived the epitome of a hippie lifestyle in Venice Beach, California. He wrote many early Doors songs such as Moonlight Drive and Hello, I Love You, without ever knowing he would even be in a band. According to future band-mate Ray Manzarek, Jim lived on a diet of canned beans and LSD.
At a chance-meeting on the beach, upon reading Morrison’s lyrics, Manzarek suggested that the two start a rock band. Drummer John Densmore joined the group and guitarist Robby Krieger subsequently joined at Densmore’s recommendation. With Morrison on vocals and Manzarek on keyboards, The Doors were formed. Morrison was the band’s main lyricist, but Krieger contributed significantly, writing some of the biggest hits, including Light My Fire, Love Her Madly and many more. The group took their name from the title of Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception (which refers to unlocking doors of one’s perception through psychedelics).
The band signed with Elektra Records in August 1966 after a successful stint as a house-band in Hollywood nightclub Whiskey a Go Go. The self-titled debut album, The Doors, was released in January 1967, featuring many of the band’s most famous songs, including Break on Through, The End, and Elektra Records’ first single to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, Light My Fire. Later that year, the follow-up album, Strange Days, solidified The Doors as one of the most popular bands in the United States. Songs such as When the Music’s Over and People Are Strange helped define the band’s signature blend of blues and psychedelic rock.
Controversy, Substance Abuse & Legal Battles
An appearance on the hugely popular Ed Sullivan Show began the band’s reputation for controversy. Sullivan’s censors insisted on a change to a lyric in the song Light My Fire which was perceived as a reference to drugs. The band agreed but Morrison proceeded to sing the original lyrics. The Doors never appeared on the show again.
In late 1967 at a concert in New Haven, Connecticut, Morrison became the first musician to be arrested onstage. He had been kissing a female fan backstage when a police officer happened upon them. Unaware that he was the lead singer of the band about to perform, the officer maced both Jim and the fan.
The band were delayed for an hour while Jim recovered, which riled up the fans in attendance. Once on stage, Morrison began to sing an improvised, obscenity-laced account of what had happened backstage, taunting the police. The concert ended when Morrison was dragged offstage by the police and arrested on charges of inciting a riot, indecency and public obscenity. The incident only served to increase Morrison’s mystique and rebellious image.
In 1968, The Doors toured Europe to promote their third studio album, Waiting for the Sun, which featured some of the group’s biggest hits, Hello, I Love You and Five to One. It was at this period where tensions began to surface between the group as a result of Morrison’s increasing drug and alcohol use, typified by an incident in Amsterdam. While performing a concert with Jefferson Airplane, Morrison collapsed on stage after an especially excessive drug binge.
In early 1969, at the Dinner Key Auditorium in Miami, The Doors gave their most controversial performance. Morrison missed his flight and arrived at the concert drunk, over an hour late. Morrison’s performance was more erratic than usual, berating the crowd and taunting police. A fan jumped onstage and poured champagne on Jim, who then took his shirt off, and began ordering the audience to ‘Let’s get naked’; they obliged. Having removed his shirt, Morrison held it in front of his groin and simulated masturbation.
The County Sheriff’s office issued a warrant for Morrison’s arrest, claiming he had exposed his penis while on stage, simulated oral sex on guitarist Robby Krieger, and was drunk at the time of his performance. Morrison was convicted and sentenced to six months in jail with hard labor, but died before the matter was resolved.
After this, Morrison lost his desire to perform with the band, and tried to quit several times. He became tired of the rock-star life, rapidly gaining weight, growing out his beard and swapping the leather pants, crushed velvet ruffle shirts, and tassel jackets for a much more casual, understated look.
Mr Mojo Risin
With his deteriorating condition, legal issues and growing unreliability, Morrison took something of a back seat on the band’s fourth album, The Soft Parade, with Robby Krieger writing lyrics for more than half the songs on the record. The album was very experimental, incorporating brass and string arrangements – a total departure from the group’s signature sound. Despite the poor critical reception and equally poor chart performance, the album features songs that have become synonymous with the group, such as Tell All The People and Touch Me.
There was very little touring or live performances on the back of the record and therefore it received little promotion. However, this allowed the group to focus on their fifth album, 1970’s Morrison Hotel. With a slightly reinvigorated Morrison back writing most of the lyrics, the album was a return to the band’s psychedelic blues-rock sound. Stand-out tracks include, Roadhouse Blues, Peace Frog, and The Spy. While not as commercially successful as their debut album, Morrison Hotel was the most critically acclaimed and recognised by music journalists of the day as not only The Doors’ best album, but the best album of the entire 1960s. High praise.
Shortly after his 27th birthday, at a concert in New Orleans, The Doors performed with Morrison for the final time in public. The iconic front-man suffered a breakdown on stage midway through the set, slamming his microphone into the stage floor until it was completely destroyed. He then sat down and refused to perform for the remainder of the show. After the show the band decided to retire from live performing.
The band took a break to give Jim some time to recover, before returning to the studio to record what would become the last album the four would ever make together. Released in mid-1971, LA Woman was a masterpiece, with sales figures surpassed only by the ultimately band-defining eponymous debut album. The album is stacked from top to bottom with classics such as Love Her Madly, Been Down So Long, and the haunting Riders on the Storm. In the titular track, LA Woman, Morrison, continually repeats the term “Mr Mojo Risin” – an anagram of his name performed in a kind of mantra chant. The pseudonym has become synonymous with the singer’s image.
Legacy: “I am the Lizard King, and I can do Anything!”
Following the recording of the album, Morrison moved to Paris. He was found dead in the bath just a few months later, joining the notorious 27 Club. Morrison is buried in the “Poets’ Corner” of the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery. The epitaph on his headstone bears the Greek inscription “ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟΝ ΔΑΙΜΟΝΑ ΕΑΥΤΟΥ”, usually interpreted as “True to his own spirit”.
Morrison’s style of lyricism, singing and performance is unparalleled and unreplicable. His work is a distilled amalgamation of his unbalanced personality, his obsession with Native American culture, his thirst for reading and philosophy, and his ultimately fatal panchent for drugs and alcohol. He will live on forever as the archetypal figure of rebellion and counterculture. Morrison was immortalised by Val Kilmer in Oliver Stone’s 1991 biopic, The Doors.
Although The Doors were only together for five years before Jim’s death, and didn’t record their first songs until 1967, the group recorded six of the greatest and most renowned rock albums of all time. After Jim’s death, Manzarek, Densmore and Krieger released two albums with Manzarek and Krieger on vocals: the well-named Other Voices in 1971 and Full Circle the following year. The albums have some decent songs, but there is something very clear missing for the aura of both albums – not merely Jim’s lyrics or even his vocals, it is the absence of Morrison’s presence that is lacking.
The group disbanded in 1973, but in 1978, they reunited to record music for The Door’s final album, An American Prayer. They played backing music under recordings of Jim reading some of his poetry, including everlasting classics such as Ghost Song and Bird of Prey. In 1993, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder inducted the Doors into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For the customary short set, Vedder valiantly filled in for Morrison on vocals. They performed Roadhouse Blues, Break On Through, and Light My Fire.
I could’ve made this easier on myself and laid out my top 15 or even top 20 Doors songs; but instead, I have set myself the enviable task of ranking the group’s 10 best songs. The only criteria I’m using is the songs that – in my opinion – best encapsulate the heart and soul of the group. This isn’t about most famous songs or biggest selling singles, it’s simply my opinion of the 10 best Doors songs. Here we go!
10. When the Music’s Over (Strange Days, 1968)
9. Hello, I Love You (Waiting for the Sun)
8. Break on Through (The Doors, 1967)
7. Touch Me (Soft Parade, 1969)
6. Peace Frog (Morrison Hotel, 1970)
5. The End (The Doors, 1967)
4. Roadhouse Blues (Morrison Hotel, 1970)
3. Five to One (Waiting for the Sun, 1968)
2. Ghost Song (An American Prayer, 1978)
1. Riders on the Storm (LA Woman, 1971)
Happy Birthday, Jim!