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.

“Absolutely Live”: A Portrait of Jim Morrison’s Creative Rebirth

Absolutely Live is the only official live album the Doors released in Jim Morrison’s lifetime. It’s also a misunderstood album. Rock historians remember Absolutely Live, released in 1970, as a document of an artist in decline. In fact, Absolutely Live captures a time when Jim Morrison was finding a new muse through avant garde theater.

“I’ll Be Good for Nothing but Nostalgia”

Understanding Absolutely Live means going back to early 1969, an unhappy time for the Doors. The band had released three albums in 18 months, had toured heavily, and was working on its fourth album, The Soft Parade – a punishing workload. The Soft Parade had turned into a beast to create, partly because Morrison was drinking heavily and becoming an unreliable, disruptive force in the studio. 

The pressure of being a rock star was getting to Jim Morrison. He was also struggling creatively. According to The Doors: The Illustrated History, in 1969 he told composer Fred Myrow, “If I don’t find a new way to develop creatively within a year I’ll be good for nothing but nostalgia.” He was writing fewer songs, and his band mates (especially guitarist Robby Krieger) needed to pick up the slack by contributing more to The Soft Parade.

In late February, something happened that had an impact on the band’s fortunes, although no one knew it at first:  Morrison discovered the Living Theatre, and in doing so, found a creative muse.

The Living Theatre

The Living Theatre was a theatrical troupe that broke down the fourth wall and confronted the audience. For instance, in the production Paradise Now, the actors provoked arguments and goaded the audience into participating in the show. The performers protested the inhibition of personal freedoms, including not being allowed to smoke pot or take off one’s clothing. The production culminated in everyone taking to the streets for a parade and demonstration. Open nudity was part of the show.

Morrison had always been fascinated with the visual theater of music – the ability to draw energy from the audience and throw it back in a whirlwind of song and dance. He watched multiple performances of the Living Theatre when the troupe performed in Los Angeles, according to Doors co-founder Ray Manzarek.  As discussed in The Doors: The Illustrated History, Morrison attended a showing of Paradise Now on February 28: “Jim was mesmerized, and he eagerly joined in when the audience was asked to participate; with his beard, most people didn’t realize it was Jim Morrison.”

The Doors were scheduled to perform a concert at the Dinner Key auditorium March 1, in Coconut Grove, Florida, an event that would go down in the annals of rock history as “the Doors Miami incident.” According to Manzarek, Morrison decided to do his own version of the Living Theatre there. 

The Miami Concert

On March 1, 1969, he took the ideas of provocation to an extreme at the now-infamous concert. He berated and taunted the audience. The song “Touch Me” (which he didn’t write) was by then a hit (the band’s last Number One single). Morrison was fully aware that to his fans he was still a sex symbol despite his declining physique. He mockingly exposed his body onstage – including his genitalia, or so the Dade County Sheriff’s Office would contend when charging him with lewd and lascivious behavior, indecent exposure, profanity, and drunkenness afterward. Here’s how Manzarek would describe that night to NPR in 1998:

We’re in Miami. It’s hot and sweaty as a Tennessee Williams night. It’s a swamp and it’s a yuck — a horrible kind of place, a seaplane hangar — and 14,000 people are packed in there, and they’re sweaty. And Jim has seen the Living Theater, and he’s going to do his version of the Living TheaterHe’s going to show these Florida people what psychedelic West Coast shamanism and confrontation is all about.

He takes his shirt off in the middle of the set. He says, ‘You people haven’t come to hear a rock and roll band play some pretty good songs. You came to see something, didn’t you? What do you want? . . . OK, how about if I show you my c—k . . . Isn’t that what you wanted to see?”

Eventually, Morrison challenged the audience to storm the stage. “No limits! No laws! Come on!” he shouted. “This is your show. Anything you want goes!” He urged everyone to take off their clothing. Fights broke out. The stage teetered on the edge of collapse. The house lights came on. Morrison joined the general chaos in the audience even though the rest of the band fled for their safety. He headed a human chain through the venue before leaving for his dressing room. 

“How Long Are You Going to Let Them Push You Around?”

Manzarek insisted that even though Morrison simulated the act of removing his clothing and exposing parts of his body, he never actually flashed his genitalia. The Dade County Sheriff’s Office disagreed. Within days, Morrison was charged with multiple crimes. An actual trial would not commence until August 1970. He would later be sentenced to six months in prison and fined $500. He would never serve the time. 

You can actually hear some audio of him that night. It makes for an ugly listen. At one point, he says,

You’re all a bunch of f—–g idiots! Letting people tell you what you’re going to do! Letting people push you around! How long do you think it’s going to last? How long are you going to let it go on? How long are you going to let them push you around? How long? Maybe you like it! Maybe you like being pushed around. Maybe you love it. Maybe you love getting your face stuck in the s—t. . . you love it don’t you? You’re all a bunch of slaves, letting everyone push you around. What are you going to do about it?

The ramblings of a drunk? Yes and no. Yes, he’s drunk. And yes, he rambles. But if you listen carefully to the audio, you hear the Doors trying to play the song “Five to One,” a 1968 Morrison composition that taunted flower children with lyrics such as:

You walk across the floor with a flower in your hand

Trying to tell me no one understands

Trade in your hours for a handful of dimes

Gonna make it baby, in our prime

Morrison was taking the ethos of the song to an extreme: question. Confront. Provoke. Now, think of the Miami incident in context of this clip from the Living Theatre:

It’s impossible not to notice the similarities, such as when one of the actors in the above clip yells, “America owns the world! We’re all enslaved!” Notice, too, nudity in the context of the performance. 

But the Living Theatre was avant garde. The Doors’ audience was not interested in avant guard. They wanted to hear “Touch Me.” Many venues canceled Doors concerts. But even still, the Doors played more than 40 dates between 1969 and the first half of 1970. Absolutely Live is stitched together from performances from that stretch of 1969 and 1970.

Absolutely Live

Although Morrison sparked no riots or arrests during those subsequent concerts, he had forever shed any semblance of being a rock star. He was now a theater performer who happened to sing as part of that performance. And when he was on, the entire band was smoking hot. In fact, at a May 1970 performance at Cobo Hall, the Doors played so hard that they didn’t end until well after curfew, which led them to being banned from Cobo Hall – ironically not for obscene behavior but for doing what they did best: play music. Absolutely Live is a snapshot of Morrison as he was morphing into the theatrical shaman who eclipsed Morrison the rock star.

When I listen to the album today, I am struck by how hoarse and nasal his voice sounds at times. But his delivery is hypnotic as he embraces different personae. He is a demonic pied piper on the opening song, “Who Do You Love,” his words bouncing along with John Densmore’s Bo Diddley beat. When he sings the Bo Diddley lyrics “Tombstone hand and a graveyard mine/Just 22 and I don’t mind dying,” he chillingly prophesizes his own death, which would happen only months after Absolutely Live was released.

On the introduction to “Break on Through,” he assumes the spirit of a fallen, wasted preacher. To the piercing sound of a gong, he works up the audience by shouting these words: 

When I was back there in seminary school

There was a person there

Who put forth the proposition

That you can petition the Lord with prayer

Petition the lord with prayer

Petition the lord with prayer

You cannot petition the lord with prayer!

He pauses dramatically before shouting the final line, as the band launches into “Break on Through.” Of course, Doors fans know that the “When I was back there in seminary school” spoken verse actually comes from the song “The Soft Parade,” from The Soft Parade. But he applies it to great effect as a build-up to the explosive “Break on Through.” His delivery on Absolutely Live is electric. 

The difference between Morrison the singer in the studio and Morrison the shaman on stage becomes vivid when you listen to both versions of the spoken introduction side by side. Here’s the studio introduction. And here’s the live preamble. In the studio, he is reciting words to no one. He sounds resigned to sadness. Live, he feeds off the audience’s rapturous cheers to create a crackling energy.

On “When the Music’s Over,” he interrupts the song and berates the chatty audience. “Shut up!” he screams, in full Living Theatre mode. Then he gently shushes everyone before asking, “Is that any way to behave at a rock and roll concert?” Then he scolds the audience and pleads, “Give the singer some” . . . before launching into the climactic “We want the world and we want it now!” line. It’s as if he was making a statement recorded for his and future generations: if we want the world, then you need to stop your idle chatter and join me. (Imagine him saying that in 2019 to an audience of mobile phone waving millennials and Gen Zers.)

On the centerpiece of the album, “Celebration of the Lizard,” he transforms into a tormented poet, speaking of lions roaming the street, and a beast caged in the heart of the city. “Is everybody in?” he asks. And then, 

Wake up!

You can’t remember where it was

Had this dream stopped?

Is everybody in? Yes, we are, even from the comfort of our suburban homes decades later, as we listen to a shaman on vinyl.

Mr. Mojo Risin

Jim Morrison was in conflict with who he was and what he had become. But in the spirit of the Living Theatre, he did not hide his inner torment from anyone. He embraced theater as catharsis. In doing so, he rekindled his creativity. In the 24 months following the Miami incident, the Doors released two albums, Morrison Hotel, and L.A. Woman, which are widely regarded as classics.

Both contained songs featuring some of Morrison’s strongest writing – “Riders on the Storm,” “L.A. Woman,” “The Spy,” and “Peace Frog,” among them. (After the Miami concert, the Doors also released The Soft Parade, considered their weakest album, but as noted, most of it had been written and recorded before the concert took place.) Unfortunately, the winning streak of brilliant albums would come to an untimely end on July 3, 1971, when Jim Morrison died at age 27, a victim of his own hard living. He could channel his torment creatively, but he could not conquer his inner demons completely. In the act of trying, though, he left behind a compelling creative legacy. Absolutely Live is a powerful portrait of an artist rediscovering his muse through theater. 

Awakening the Ghost of Jim Morrison

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My life changed 35 years ago today.

During the summer of 1981, I was living in Neumarkt, Germany, a little town nestled in the Bavarian hills. I was the guest of a couple of families kind enough to host a high school graduate whose idea of preparing for college was growing his hair long, sprouting a gnarly beard, buying a lot of vinyl records, and making up each day as he went along. Which was the whole point of disappearing to Germany for a summer. I had spent four years as a high honor roll student at Wheaton Central High School, and was ready to do anything but worry about grades.

The German young men and women I got to know in Neumarkt were living their own version of the Age of Aquarius, donning psychedelic pants, talking a lot of politics — especially their concern over the escalating nuclear arms race between America and Russia — and doing a lot of partying like their world was going to end tomorrow. It was the kind of summer where one day you found yourself on a scooter (which I crashed more than once) bombing around the winding streets of Neumarkt, that night you were talking politics and art at a party with students you just met, and the next thing you knew you were on a bus headed to Paris with a bunch of German kids, where you shared a squalid room in dumpy hostel for a few weeks.

My friends Bruce (a Wheaton Central classmate), Robert (from Neumarkt), and I stayed up all night in the hostel playing practical jokes on each other and roaming around. We got little sleep, partly because no one else in the place was sleeping, and partly because we didn’t want to. If you went to sleep, you might miss a spontaneous party breaking out in the hallway or a poker game in the next room. Everyone in the building lived a sort of impoverished communal existence. Males and female shared one shower area although we had separate stalls. I used my bed sheet for a towel and lived off a baguette a day unless I won enough money playing poker to buy something more substantial.

It was easy for us to get around Paris. The Metro went everywhere. We usually jumped the turnstiles and rode for free or walked. On July 3, we somehow made our way to the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery, one of many Parisian cities of the dead that have a history all their own. Père Lachaise was like no other cemetery I’d ever visited, a sprawling little city consisting of tombs, mini-chapels, gardens, and cobbled paths on a hill.

At first, we explored winding, tree-lined paths in search of the tombs of famous people such as Oscar Wilde. We also hoped to find the grave of Jim Morrison but had not bothered to ask anyone for a map. I knew about the band’s hits and some deep cuts, having become turned on to the Doors a few years earlier when Apocalypse Now featured “The End” in its soundtrack. But I had not been turned on to the mystical power of Jim Morrison.

As it turned out, we didn’t need a map. Within a few minutes of exploring the cemetery, we noticed the word “Jim” with an arrow written in chalk on a number of tombs. And so we started to follow the arrows.

As we walked up a lane and approached a row of tightly clustered graves, we noticed a crowd had gathered. We heard strange, ethereal music, which I recognized as “End of the Night” from the Doors’ first album. The air was filled with the smell of sweet incense. Not only had we found Morrison’s grave, we had stumbled on to the 10th anniversary of his death.

I broke off from my friends and let the thick cluster of revelers swallow me up. There were American expatriates like myself, ranging from the backpack-and-beard crowd to couples holding hands. There were European kids with long hair and curious smiles on their faces — smiles that would turn to anger during massive nuclear protests in major European cities later that year, but not on this day. There were many older hippie holdovers from the 1960s, looking like they had walk right out of the fields of Woodstock, dressed in gowns, beads, and flowing white shirts. They had weathered faces, dirty hair, and bare feet. They passed around bottles of booze and stole glances at Morrison’s grave.

These were the true believers I had read about in magazines about the hippie counterculture. They came from another era when rock musicians were gods, not just entertainers, and listening to music meant discovering layers of yourself. And Jim Morrison was one of the greatest of their gods.

The hippies looked just a little said amid the revelry, like they were trying to awaken spirits of the past at the grave of a man who symbolized a lost era. The music of the Doors continued to waft into the air like the incense, coming from somewhere in the throng. I thought of Indians doing a ghost dance on the North American plains, only here they were here, in Paris, with me.

The surviving members of the Doors, John Densmore, Robby Krieger, and Ray Manzarek, were there, mingling among the crowd, signing autographs, sharing their booze, and sharing their memories. It’s remarkable to think of that moment, free of security guards and a horde of news media. Today such a scene would be carefully choreographed and documented in real time on social media. Back then, the surviving Doors were just members of our little party, quietly working their way through the crowd. If I had not noticed them signing autographs, I would have assumed they were like everyone else.

A white bust of Morrison watched all of us, along with a bottle of booze someone had planted to keep him company. His grave was covered with graffiti, and his face had begun to crumble, like he himself had under the weight of fame before his death at age 27. He was long dead but he was alive at Père Lachaise, the shaman in command of a tribe of followers and strangers from different countries and generations. And on July 3, 1981, on a day when I was free of commitment, free of material want and need, and with a life of possibility ahead of me, I was one of them.

From that point onward, I wrote — not for good grades but for me. The streets of Paris and the places I visited in Germany formed the settings for short stories and poems, some of them about an alter ego named Eddie Black whom I created in Paris. Robert and I deepened our friendship as we discussed Eddie’s personality and exploits while exploring record albums be owned and ones I was buying. My time in Germany and indeed my life assumed a new context. Every new place was like a muse.

Eventually the summer abroad came to an end. No more poker games in run-down youth hostels. No more friends with long hair. No more German teens in their psychedelic pants and political talk. Suddenly I was far from home, in Dallas, Texas, at Southern Methodist University.

My first years in college would be lonely and traumatic, marked by family turmoil and a sense of not fitting in on the campus. I was alone, alienated, and homesick for that summer of my own making, especially moments like communing with strangers at Père Lachaise. To endure the alienation, I became immersed in the music of the Doors, the best selling Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive, and the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, one of Morrison’s many literary influences. His influences became mine: I took a poetry-writing class and kept writing poems and a journal throughout college (eventually getting a few poems published). Morrison’s words and the band’s atmospheric sound inspired me. The song “People Are Strange” captured my own sense of feeling off balance in a college setting that, it turned out, was just wrong for me in many respects (“People are strange/when you’re a stranger/faces look ugly/when you’re alone”).

During those two years at SMU, I experienced the internalization of music: when you cross the line from being a fan of someone’s music to identifying personally with an artist. I became one of the true believers. Have you ever cared so much about anyone’s music that you feel the words and chords seep into your soul? Have you gotten through a hard time in your life by putting an album on repeat play? If you have, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.

I transferred to the University of Illinois in Urbana, where I graduated, far happier and adjusted, with a journalism degree and a deeper love of all things rock music, including all the classic rockers. Since that time, I’ve read several books on the Doors and helped a friend, Patricia Butler, write one (Angels Dance and Angels Die). I’ve edited and designed a book on rock and roll (Say You Want a Revolution, by Robert Pielke, an experience through which I got to know Danny Sugerman, co-author of No One Here Gets Out Alive), formed relationships with musicians during my marketing career, and passed on a passion for the Doors to my daughter.

Throughout his life, Jim Morrison was fond of telling a story about his family driving through the desert and coming across dead Indians scattered on a highway as a result of a car accident. Morrison believed the ghosts of one of the dead Indians leaped into his soul. On July 3, 1981, Jim Morrison’s ghost leaped into mine.

Three Lessons I Have Learned from Jim Morrison

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Thirty four years ago today, I visited Jim Morrison’s grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery to honor his memory on the tenth anniversary of his death. The moment sealed my lifetime interest in the Doors and especially Jim Morrison. But aside from providing the soundtrack to my life and fascinating me with his songwriting, has Jim Morrison really had an impact on how I live and work? Yes. Here are three lessons I have learned from the lizard king, which I apply today:

1. Take Risks

Morrison famously challenged us to break on through to the other side. He constantly challenged himself, too, in his actions and words. He was not afraid to write about disturbing themes in his songs and to explore topics that can still make you feel uncomfortable, such as the Oedipal subtext in “The End” and the killer on the road in “Riders on the Storm.” As a performer, he pushed boundaries to the point of defying audience expectations of rock stars, with sometimes unfortunate results, such as his being charged for indecency in the aftermath of an infamous Miami concert in 1969.

Morrison has inspired me to take risks in all aspects of my life, whether I’m auditioning to perform in a Renaissance Faire or launching my own business. My family and I create our own personal adventures each day, pushing each other to grow and live outside our comfort zones, as we did recently when we all hiked steep, unyielding trails in the Smoky Mountains. We could have enjoyed a relaxing vacation in the comfort of our rented cabin, but instead we pushed each other to literally explore new terrain that was sometimes grueling. We took risks and flourished.

2. Words Matter Continue reading

Emerging Artist Spotlight: Beatrice Brigitte

Beatrice

Beatrice Brigitte doesn’t like to follow formulas. The 25-year-old singer rejects the lush production and auto-tuned, anthemic vocals that rule the pop charts in the American Idol era, in favor of a simpler, more organic sound. On many of the songs she writes (such as “The Day”), her voice floats like a ghost through spare, quiet string arrangements.

Brigitte paints textured landscapes that combine a dreamy, otherworldly sound (think Mazzy Star) with lyrics exploring dark themes such as fear, personal betrayal, and suicide.  In these themes the listener can detect the imprint of one of her influences, Jim Morrison (“Ode to End,” which contemplates suicide, thematically evokes the death wish of “Yes the River Knows” by the Doors).

I discovered her music on Global 14, Jermaine Dupri’s social community where members share interests ranging from music to sports (and it’s an excellent platform for emerging artists). In the following Q&A, Brigitte shares her story and provides a glimpse into life as an emerging artist. Make sure you experience her music on Soundcloud and get to know her on Global 14 and Facebook.

Let’s talk about your background — who you are and how you got into music.

Who am I? Well . . . I’m me. An entrepreneur, an artist, spiritual-being, a wife, an old soul; I have many roles.

To me, music is more of an art form than a way to be famous. I come from two artists who were both painters, and I love painting. I was born in Berlin. My father passed away a month before my seventh birthday, and my mom moved me to San Diego, where she remarried. I grew up in sunny San Diego for most of my life, but my parents moved to Phoenix while I was in high school. At age 17, unlike your conventional rebellion as a teen, mine was discovering music and using it as therapy. I never partied, drank, or did drugs growing up. I was that kid who would be at each concert and festival, standing there in awe.

I have been writing forever, but I did not always want to pursue music. The turning point was watching the band Brand New live in Phoenix. The performance by their lead singer, Jesse Lacey, blew me away. His music was honest, with no bullshit, and very bold. The band’s guitar riffs were very emotional. The experience changed my entire perspective on music.

At age 19 I moved to Los Angeles to work for a tech start-up, which I was working nonstop. I was making a lot of money but not doing what I really wanted to do, which was making music, finding my true self. My first day off occurred when I was 21. I asked, “What the hell am I doing?” I realized how blinded I was by social constraints, and that I can’t be a follower.

I began my journey as a musician by experimenting with being in bands and creating an alter ego, and then concluding that I just have to be a solo artist . . . just to be me, not to hide behind a band or an alter ego. It’s been a great journey and growth process.

Who are your musical influences?

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A long time ago, I was really into Jim Morrison. I went into a whole Doors phase. He was into writing poems and turning them into songs, not writing lyrics in the conventional sense. And he has hidden meanings and analogies in his songs, which is how I write. I also enjoyed the melodies and organic pop style of the Spice Girls growing up. And Winston Churchill is a huge influence on everything I do. Yes, Winston Churchill. He was not only a leader — he was an artist, too. Did you know he was a painter?

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My Cold-Weather Rock and Roll

Jim Morrison, retro. RET

Winter has tightened its grip on Chicago. On a Friday afternoon in early December, the temperatures feel like they are dropping by the minute. The sun escapes the chill of the day early, leaving behind long shadows and an occasional gust of cold wind. This is the time for staying inside and listening to cold-weather rock and roll. Cold-weather music feels heavy like a wool blanket. Cold-weather rock songs can sound as dark and foreboding as a January night or as quiet as a snowfall, but in either case, they make you want to retreat from the outside world. “Gimme Shelter” is cold-weather rock. “Miss You” is not. Led Zeppelin’s fourth (untitled) album is cold-weather music, but Houses of the Holy by and large belongs to summer. Here are some of my favorite cold-weather albums — the music of my world now:

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All Things Must Pass. In my mind’s eye, George Harrison writes somber, majestic songs like “Beware of Darkness” on a cold November afternoon while cloistered in the shadows of his Friar Park estate. Never mind Continue reading

Lessons on creativity from the making of “L.A. Woman”

One of the landmark albums of rock and roll almost died in the recording studio. But today L.A. Woman endures as a lesson on how a change of scenery can unleash creativity. In December 1970, the Doors were floundering as they attempted to make L.A. Woman at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. Lead singer Jim Morrison, lost in the grip of alcoholism, had run out of songs to write, and the band played so poorly that longstanding producer Paul Rothchild quit. So how did the Doors manage to create what is widely regarded as a rock masterpiece? As it turns out, the catalysts for change were the loss of their producer and a casual suggestion by Morrison to find another place to record.

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The reincarnation of Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse is the latest example of how sudden death ignites the career of a down-and-out, self-destructive artist. You see it happen time and again: a troubled celebrity dies unexpectedly. Said celebrity then realizes a surge in PR popularity and revenue.

I blogged about the phenomenon in 2008 in the wake of the death of Heath Ledger. And Rolling Stone more famously did so back in 1981 by analyzing the wild popularity of dead rocker Jim Morrison (“He’s Hot, he’s sexy, and he’s dead”)

And now Amy Winehouse – who only weeks ago was booed offstage in Belgrade – is a star again.

Her break-through album Back to Black, released in 2006, re-entered the Billboard charts, and her lesser known effort, Frank, saw a surge in units sold.

She has became a social media phenomenon, with her Facebook page gaining 200,00 fans a day, and Twitter reacting with a predictable surge of activity as people remember her (and breathlessly report her death long after her demise is patently obvious).

Meantime, Microsoft got itself a black eye for encouraging people to honor her memory by purchasing her music on Microsoft Zune. (Apple escaped criticism although it was featuring her music on iTunes.)

And you can be sure we’ll see some unreleased Amy Winehouse music on the market.

So why do self-destructive artists become so popular in death – especially the likes of Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse, whose careers were obviously in decline at the time of their passing? I think Ryan O’Connell offers a telling perspective in his Thought Catalog post, “Why Do We Care So Much about Amy Winehouse’s Death?”

In American culture especially, we worship celebrities. They’re our version of royalty and I suppose that’s why we take celebrities’ deaths so personally. For some reason or another, their life meant something to us. In some ways, we might be more involved in their lives than our own. It’s for that reason that I found myself annoyed that people were going apeshit about Amy Winehouse dying. I felt like I and many others grieved her death out of some misguided sense of duty. It hit us so much harder because Amy Winehouse never got her shit together. Americans love to tear celebrities down (Amy included. I’m sorry but the American press and “fans” weren’t particularly kind to her. She was mocked relentlessly.) and then we love to bring them back up. We love a comeback even more than a downfall. And what’s perhaps most tragic about Winehouse and the reason why so many people flipped out over her death is that she never got her happy ending. We were never able to rehabilitate her and put a bow on her next album. That’s what we wanted most of all, right? To see her happy and healthy? But it’s hard to tell if those wishes were ever genuine. It’s hard to discern whether or not we truly gave a shit about Amy Winehouse or if we just needed her to fit the typical celebrity narrative.

Americans love the arc of the comeback story. When a celebrity won’t give us the comeback that we want, we create it ourselves.

He’s hot. He’s sexy. And he’s dead.

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Hot, sexy, and dead. Jim Morrison? No — Heath Ledger.

Ledger has been dead nearly three months, and his career is hotter than ever. He’s generating buzz through a successful viral marketing campaign for his role as the Joker in the forthcoming Dark Night. And he just can’t stay out off the cover of entertainment magazines, as witnessed by his latest appearance on the cover of the April 14 People.

As an actor, Ledger lacked the resume of Roy Scheider, whose death on February 10 merited nothing more than a few respecful nods of appreciation. As a star, he was nowhere near the level that Will Smith is. So why in death is he bigger than he ever was in life? Let’s break down the reasons:

He died unexpectedly. It’s a common misconception that the news media favor negative news. No, they like the unexpected, both good and bad. And certainly Heath Ledger’s death at age 28 qualified. By contrast. most newspaper writers probably had Roy Scheider’s obit ready before he died at age 75.

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He’s hot. He’s sexy. And he’s dead.

copy-of-22804_lg.jpgledgercover.jpg

Hot, sexy, and dead. Jim Morrison? No — Heath Ledger.

Ledger has been dead nearly three months, and his career is hotter than ever. He’s generating buzz through a successful viral marketing campaign for his role as the Joker in the forthcoming Dark Night. And he just can’t stay out off the cover of entertainment magazines, as witnessed by his latest appearance on the cover of the April 14 People.

As an actor, Ledger lacked the resume of Roy Scheider, whose death on February 10 merited nothing more than a few respecful nods of appreciation. As a star, he was nowhere near the level that Will Smith is. So why in death is he bigger than he ever was in life? Let’s break down the reasons:

He died unexpectedly. It’s a common misconception that the news media favor negative news. No, they like the unexpected, both good and bad. And certainly Heath Ledger’s death at age 28 qualified. By contrast. most newspaper writers probably had Roy Scheider’s obit ready before he died at age 75.

Continue reading