Morrison’s Last Whiskey Bar, Part I
James Douglas Morrison was The Doors’ lead singer, sex symbol, and poet. Idolized by teenyboppers on one extreme and by intellectual rock critics on the other, he was also a contradiction, wrapped in fantastic delusions of self-invention and grandeur. He became “Mr. Mojo Risin’” and the leather-garbed “Lizard King.” Some believed he would be the next James Dean or Marlon Brando. Morrison, however, christened himself a shamanistic rock god and beckoned all to join in the “celebration.”
Bringing to the stage a blend of theatrical drama, his avant-garde panache influenced the punk and new wave traditions. His frozen, detached stance at the microphone was a calculated performance with screams, yelps, and “accidental” falls. A typical Doors concert would include a song with verse, chorus, and then an extended improvisation where instruments and Morrison’s lyrical creativity would erupt in spontaneous combustion, forcing the tune into new dimensions. Morrison had an adequate vocal delivery and ability to breath new life into classic blues such as Willie Dixon’s “Back Door Man.” When they performed that number, they owned it.
Morrison’s live performances were unlike those of his English counterparts, who relied on classic stage tradition. Morrison drew upon the rich, more eclectic, and psychologically deeper Hollywood film culture. The Doors were theatrical, yes, but they were also provocative and sinister, dealing with themes running counter to the San Francisco love fest. There were only a handful of rock acts that provided a counterbalance to the psychedelic peace and love formula that was an essential part of 1960s music. The Velvet Underground and The Doors are prime examples of this counterbalance. Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground sang about addiction, transvestism, sadism, sexual bondage, and human sufferings. The Doors explored Freudian themes of patricide and incest as Morrison provided intimate examples of lewdness and self-destruction (Furek, 2008).
Often under the influence of alcohol or psychedelics, Morrison was difficult to understand and was difficult to live with. After the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, Morrison quipped to his Los Angeles companions, in a tongue of arrogance and bravado, “First Janis, now Jimi. You’re drinking with number three” (Jones, 2015).
Black Satan of Rock
The Doors’ lead singer was hailed and crucified as the “Black Satan of Rock,” and the cynical, swaggering former UCLA film student and precocious Doors frontman experienced a quick, albeit short-lived, ascendancy from the trendy Los Angeles club circuit to the top of rock stardom. Immediately there was a yearning disparity between screaming teens and caustic music critics.
Morrison’s exploits and total disregard for others were detailed in No One Here Gets out Alive (Hopkins & Sugerman, 1995). The book follows his compulsive pathway of devastation. In this introspective look into the chaotic world of a rock superstar, a portrait of an ugly, unleashed dilettante emerges. He was spoiled, immature, and cruel. According to Hopkins and Sugerman, the authors of the book, “Incident followed incident: Morrison forcing a girl to drink his blood; Morrison passed out time and again in a deathlike trance induced by booze and drugs; Morrison dangling precipitously from balconies; Morrison abusing his friends, his wife, his audience, himself” (1995).
Morrison was an angry, loud, and obnoxious drunk. Rock critic Lester Bangs observed that his life “could be written off as one of the more pathetic episodes in the star system or that offensive myth that we all persist in believing which holds that artists are a race apart and thus entitled . . . to generally do whatever they want” (Jones, 2015).
Beginning of Their Decent
From the late 1960s, Morrison experimented with substances. His drugs of choice were alcohol, cocaine, and LSD. The substance abuse predictably quickly took its toll: “From being the slender Adonis of early album covers, he became pasty-faced and bloated. He grew a beard and gained over twenty pounds, abandoning his former stage persona of the Lizard King, swapping his tight leather trousers for a more conventional uniform of blue jeans and T-shirts” (“Jim Morrison,” 2015).
After issuing their first album in 1967 and garnering intense media attention, their house of cards was about to collapse. The beginning of their decent was on March 1, 1969. The Doors were in Miami, FL, about to kick off a twenty-city national tour. This was their largest tour to date. The band expected to pick up new fans and recognition across the country, but a drunken Morrison arrived late and refused to perform. Over one thousand ticket holders, packed into the hot, sweaty Dinner Key Auditorium, a converted and rundown seaplane hanger, overbooked the venue. On stage, Morrison began an angry rant titled “Rock is Dead.” Then, in a suggestive pose, he appeared to expose his genitalia to the audience.
Miami was just another illustration of the Lizard King’s unraveling. He had been arrested for public obscenity at a concert in New Haven, CT in December 1967 and the next year Morrison was arrested on a flight to Phoenix for disorderly conduct. All of that was a mere prelude to what was about to unfold. Accordingly, the breaking point was reached after his March 1969 arrest in Miami “for exhibiting ‘lewd and lascivious behavior by exposing his private parts and by simulating masturbation and oral copulation’ onstage” (Pareles & Romanowski, 1983).
“Morrison Slips” and “The Doors’ Appearance Touches off Near-Riot,” were headlines of the incident. Morrison was booked by the Dade County Police Department with threats of incarceration at Rayford Prison. The Doors were subsequently banned from all remaining cities on the tour. They became the pariahs and lepers of the industry.
The Miami Obscenity Trial
The Miami obscenity trial framed another debate over free speech and celebrity responsibility. Parallels were quickly established connecting the previous trials of Henry Miller, Lenny Bruce, and D. H. Lawrence. As Morrison garnered incredible notoriety, his appeal sadly faded. An angry, bearded alcoholic stepped forward—the new face of Jim Morrison. An oblivious, dulled, intoxicated, and detached Morrison walked straight into the blades of a snarling buzz saw, smirking all the way.
The charges were more serious then typical Morrison adolescent pranks and included both state and federal violations. Pertaining to The State of Florida vs. James Douglas Morrison, charges alleged, “The said defendant did stimulate masturbation upon himself and oral copulation upon another” (Manzarek, 1999).
Even though the prosecution could produce neither eyewitnesses nor photos of Morrison performing the (alleged) lewd acts, court proceedings kept Morrison in Miami most of the year. The judgment on the bench docket read
It appearing unto this Court that you, James Morrison, have been regularly tried and convicted of Indecent Exposure and Open Profanity. It is therefore the judgment of the law that you are and stand convicted of the offenses as above set forth . . . It is further considered, ordered, and adjudged that you, James Morrison, be imprisoned by confinement at hard labor in the Dade County Jail for a term of six months and that you pay a fine of five hundred dollars (Manzarek, 1999).
It was a grave matter. Ray Manzarek calculated that, “Between Miami and Phoenix, Jim was facing a maximum of over thirteen years in prison. Three and a half in Raiford Penitentiary in the County of the Dead (Dade County), and ten in a federal hoosegow because ‘interference with a flight crew’ was an offense against the new skyjacking law” (1999).
Charges were eventually dropped, but public furor, which inspired a short-lived Rally for Decency movement, concert promoters’ fear of similar incidents, and Morrison’s own mixed feelings about celebrity, resulted in erratic concert schedules thereafter. Miami verified just how impaired Morrison was and signaled what the band members secretly had feared. It was all about to end.
Events transpired rapidly. The Doors immediately filed an appeal, buying them precious time. Morrison flew back to Los Angeles and bought a plane ticket to Paris. The specter of doing time in Raiford Penitentiary weighed heavily. It was 1971 and any cross-referencing computer systems were years from development. Morrison quickly left the country.
For the moment, Morrison was a free man. Like Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and James Baldwin, he breathed in the ether of literary inspiration and walked the cobblestoned streets as an American in Paris.
Furek, M. (2008) The death proclamation of Generation X: A self-fulfilling prophesy of goth, grunge, and heroin. New York, NY: i-Universe.
Hopkins, J., & Sugarman, D. (1995). No one here gets out alive. New York, NY: Warner Books.
“Jim Morrison: Biography.” (2015). Retrieved from http://www.lifetimetv.co.uk/biography/biography-jim-morrison
Jones, D. (2015). Mr. Mojo: A biography of Jim Morrison. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.
Manzarek, R. (1999). Light my fire: My life with the Doors. New York, NY: Berkley.
Pareles, J., & Romanowski, P. (1983). Rolling Stone encyclopedia of rock & roll. New York, NY: Touchstone.