How Jim Morrison Lives through Rock Mythology

In 1985, I crossed paths with Danny Sugerman, co-author of the controversial biography of Jim Morrison, No One Here Gets Out Alive. By the mid-1980s, a global Doors revival was in full swing, and No One Here Gets Out Alive, released in 1980, had a lot to do with that. Sugarman and co-author Jerry Hopkins cast the Lizard King as a modern-day Icarus who flew too close to the sun, a tortured poet trapped in an ugly world of rock stardom. No One Here Gets Out Alive also speculated that Jim Morrison might have faked his death at age 27 in 1971 — an unsubstantiated claim that sparked much debate and critical backlash. Well, accurate or not, the book sold millions of copies.

I was working at a book publishing company in 1985, where I was editing a book about rock and roll, You Say You Want a Revolution: Rock Music in American Culture. I wanted to use a photo of Jim Morrison and had written Elektra Records asking for permission. Out of the blue, I received a phone call from Danny Sugerman. In his laid-back California drawl that suggested Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, he explained that he held the rights to the photo I wanted. Then he asked me about the book I was editing. I explained how the book captured the essence of rock music’s influence on American culture, and a photo of Jim would be perfect. He didn’t ask me another question about the book or the rights to the photo. Instead, we spent two hours talking about Jim Morrison and the Doors. I told him I’d been to Paris for the 10th anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death. He talked of the power of Jim to change lives singlehandedly — Danny’s life and many people he’d met since publishing No One Here Gets Out Alive.

Author photo from 10th anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death
Author photo from 10th anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death

When we hung up, I was reminded of how powerful Jim Morrison’s gravitational pull could be. Clearly, Danny Sugerman would forever remain under Jim’s spell. I also realized the phone call had nothing to do with rights and permissions. Danny had wanted to share his belief in rock and roll mythology, specifically the mythology of Jim Morrison, the rock god and poet. Somehow early in the conversation he must have sensed I was another believer he could bond with. He didn’t come across as a historian. He seemed to me like a disciple. I also saw No One Here Gets Out Alive in a new context: an important addition to rock mythology. That’s how I view it today.

Why Rock Mythology Matters

Since that conversation with Danny, I have come to understand and appreciate the essential role of rock mythology. Rock mythology is important because it liberates us from the mundane realities of life through its epic scope and sometimes sensational storytelling. For true believers — those of us whose lives have been changed by music — rock mythology imparts meaning. We need to believe that the rock gods who influence us also live and die in extraordinary ways.

Since No One Here Gets Out Alive was published, many more myth-makers have emerged, such as Stephen Davis, author of another controversial and salacious book, Hammer of the Gods, about Led Zeppelin. The surviving band members criticized the book for being inaccurate, but the criticisms missed the point: Davis had canonized Led Zeppelin as the ultimate gods of decadent cool, and most certainly did them a favor by elevating them to mythic status. In 2005, Bob Dylan published a memoir of mythology, Chronicles: Volume One, in which Dylan chose episodes of his life to create the portrait of a poet minstrel. Martin Scorsese built on that mythology with the release of the 2019 documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. The movie focused on Dylan’s famous 1975 tour that included a band of merry minstrels (such as poet Allen Ginsburg) and musicians. The movie confused many watchers by including authentic-looking interviews with actors who, it turned out, were playing people who did not exist, or real-life people who fabricated stories. The audience was left to wonder how much of the documentary was authentic and how much was made up. And critics were annoyed that they’d been duped. In retrospect, it seems to me Scorsese was playing with the concept of rock mythology by mixing fantasy with facts.

Elegantly Wasted Rock Gods

Rock mythology needs to have enough elements of truth to be believable, but it also needs to amplify the larger-than-life details. Rock mythology might also be based on stories that are generally agreed upon to be true — but the mythology omits details that are inconvenient. For example, the mythology about Keith Richards being a dangerously romantic rock star has been earned by well-documented drug addictions and scrapes with the law. But the closest Richards has come to dying (as of this writing) was actually from slipping and bashing his head on a palm tree trunk, a pedestrian story that is usually omitted from his rock mythology.

Keith Richards was friends with Gram Parsons, and both of them shared serious drug addictions. The life of Parsons, who left this world in 1973, is the stuff of powerful mythology. He was a boyish Southern gentleman who threw away a pampered existence (he came from a family of wealth) to embrace the hard life of an elegantly wasted rock star. Like Jim Morrison, he was a tortured soul; he was scarred by the suicide of his father when he was 12 and the alcoholism of his mother. Oh, and in his early 20s, while battling the demons of a heroin addiction, the rock god Gram Parsons cut two record albums that influenced the rise of modern-day Americana. Because gods of mythology live very, very large.

Of course, he did not die like any mortal. No, Parsons succumbed to a drug overdose in a lonely motel in the desert. But the story does not end there. His loyal road manager Phil Kaufman (who, in the tradition of rock mythology, was once a cell mate of Charles Manson) stole Gram Parsons’s corpse and burned his body in Joshua Tree National Monument. According to rock mythology, Parsons had wanted his body burned in the desert. Apparently Kaufman was the only person Parsons had bothered to tell, but there can be no other reason why Kaufman would have gathered a posse to steal the body and burn it. In any case, verifying details is not important to rock mythology; what’s important is the highly impressionistic portrait that has emerged of Gram Parsons as a romantic, gone-too-soon, fragile soul. This mythology is so strong that visitors to Joshua Tree (including me) who know the story of his death make it a point to find the spot where his ashes were scattered. (Google “Gram Parsons Joshua Tree site,” and see for yourself.) Who can say for sure where his ashes were actually scattered or whether indeed he wanted his body burned in the desert? But mythology is about storytelling, not pinpoint factual accuracy.

Why is the myth of the rock star who lives fast and dies young so compelling? Perhaps because according to popular mythology, rock and roll itself is a subversive force that emerged from the depths of hell to corrupt the young. Rock and roll is supposed to be dangerous. After all, Ian Drury sang, “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll.” Rock stars are supposed to be dangerous. And under the subversive influence of the devil’s music, rock stars are vulnerable to the temptations of rock life. They may even become agents of the devil himself. Rock mythology says that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil; it tells us three members of Led Zeppelin also forged a contract with Satan. Many others, such as Ozzy Osbourne, might not have been known to sell their souls to the devil, but according to mythology, they did the devil’s work.

Contemporary Myth-Makers

Thanks to the internet, anyone can create their own rock mythology to endure for the ages. If our myths became challenged by the facts, we can either ignore all but the most unavoidably inconvenient truths or incorporate them into a new mythology.

A good case in point is the recording of the last Doors album with Jim Morrison, L.A. Woman. Popular rock mythology says that when the Doors went into the studio to record L.A. Woman, Jim was a bloated has-been who’d run out of ideas and needed to plumb the depths of his childhood journals to find something fresh. After Jim Morrison’s infamously chaotic performance in Miami in March 1969, the band suffered from a slew of canceled concerts. Jim Morrison was charged with obscenity, a process that drained him and the band. Cast adrift, they struggled. By 1970, when the Doors were recording L.A. Woman, the Doors sounded so bad in rehearsals that their producer, Paul Rothchild, quit them, fuming that the Doors sounded like a cocktail lounge act. But somehow — so goes the mythology — Jim Morrison managed to tap into some muse that was still burning inside, and he forged a new instrument from his hoarse, beaten voice.

That enduring perception is probably true, and probably false. Who knows? That’s the point of rock mythology — to paint pictures we hold onto for those moments when our mortal lives feel too ordinary. And so, the myth of L.A. Woman persists.

“Riders on the Storm”

A recently unearthed demo of “Riders on the Storm” challenges the mythology that Jim Morrison was in decline when the Doors made L.A. Woman. The demo, uncovered by album co-producer Bruce Botnick, suggests that Morrison’s voice sounded better than ever, even gaining some depth and soul missing from his earlier recordings. Known as the Sunset Sound demo, it feeds into a mythology that I’ve embraced: the rise of the shamanistic Jim Morrison who was enjoying a creative Renaissance, contrary to the has-been Jim mythology.

According to the myth of Jim Morrison as shaman, he had decided to leave behind his Dionysian past and morphed into Mr. Mojo Risin, a blues persona who sang in a gruffier, lower register. Mr. Mojo Risin is best appreciated on the title track for L.A. Woman (in which he name-checks Mojo Risin, which turned out to be an anagram for Jim Morrison), “The Changeling,” and “Been Down So Long.” But Mr. Mojo Risin actually appears before L.A. Woman, notably on “Road House Blues” from Morrison Hotel, which was released in 1970.

How do I know all this about Jim Morrison’s creative renaissance? I don’t know. I believe. But the belief is well-founded. L.A. Woman was a critical success, and it was no fluke. Morrison Hotel was equally well-received. On those last two albums, the Doors released some of their strongest songs, which sounded nothing like the psychedelia of their celebrated first two albums — a sign of a band growing and experimenting with its sound. And on live albums recorded from the few concerts the Doors could book after the Miami incident, Morrison sounds like a man who is experimenting with different personae onstage. Absolutely Live captures Jim applying the confrontational theater style he’d learned from the Living Theatre in Los Angeles. On Live at the Aquarius: First Performance (recorded in July 1969, but not released until decades after the fact), you can hear Jim Morrison experimenting with the Mr. Mojo Risin persona. He improvises the song “Back Door Man,” by incorporating lyrics from the yet-to-be released “Maggie M’Gill” from Morrison Hotel: “Well, I’m an old blues man and I think that you understand/I’ve been singing the blues ever since the world began.”

On “Riders on the Storm,” Jim achieved one more creative transformation. He conjured up a frightening Wendigo from Native American mythology to inhabit the soul of Mojo Risin. He’d had a longtime fascination with Native American culture. In a spoken recording, he once talked of a childhood incident in which his family came across an accident on a highway. Several Indians were scattered on the pavement, and the soul of one of the ghosts of the dead Indians inhabited Jim Morrison’s soul. He would also capture that moment famously in the song, “Peace Frog,” from Morrison Hotel. If this story alone does not constitute epic rock mythology, I don’t know what does. It’s fantastic enough to sound ridiculous if you are a skeptic. But if you are a believer, you can totally accept a younger Jim Morrison deciding he was inhabited by the soul of a dead Indian and then drawing from that belief to create art.

In “Riders on the Storm,” Morrison evokes the Wendigo to create a feeling of dread that pervades the song even in its rough form. The early take is simpler than the final version, which would be embellished with an echo of Jim Morrison’s voice and the thunderstorm special effects. But the evil spirit of the Wendigo emerges even in this early version, with Morrison’s words creating a powerful narrative:

There’s a killer on the road 
His brain is squirmin’ like a toad 
Take a long holiday 
Let your children play 
If you give this man a ride 
Sweet family will die

The Wendigo also expresses the chaos of existence in the line, “Into this world we’re thrown” (a lyric that Doors scholars believe was inspired by philosopher Martin Heidegger’s concept of thrownness, or human existence as a basic state). Throughout, Jim’s voice is haunting and dark, deep and pure.

He didn’t create the dread alone. “Riders on the Storm” represents a peak performance by the entire band (as well as guest bassist Jerry Scheff) and some brilliant production by the band and Bruce Botnick.

The song was still taking shape when the Sunset Sound demo was recorded. But Jim was already where he needed to be.

The Danger of Rock Mythology

Chasing rock mythology can lead you down self-destructive paths. Gram Parsons killed himself chasing the mythology of the elegantly wasted rock star (a mythology inspired directly by his association with Keith Richards), and in doing so, Parsons only added to that mythology, giving artists such as Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt a template to follow. Embracing rock mythology is like dreaming in the day, and as T.E. Lawrence said, dreamers of the day are dangerous men. But the alternative is to view rock stars like Jim Morrison as ordinary people, even unsavory people who lived and died in very pedestrian ways. This will not do. An everyday insurance salesman or an anonymous computer programmer didn’t give the world “Riders on the Storm” and “L.A. Woman,” did they? Those are not the works of ordinary people. They are gifts left behind by gods who walked the earth.

“Let’s reinvent the gods, all the myths of the ages/Celebrate the symbols from deep elder forest,” Jim Morrison once wrote. We need to reinvent the gods to believe in ourselves and the choice we have made to believe in them through their music.

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