Sex, Death, Reptiles, Charisma, and a unique variant of the electric blues gave the Doors an aura of profundity that not only survived but has grown during the two decades plus since Jim Morrison's death. By themselves, Morrison's lyrics read like adolescent posturings, but with his sexually charged delivery, Ray Manzarek's dry organ, and Robby Krieger's jazzy guitar, they became eerie, powerful, almost shamanistic invocations that hinted at a familiarity with darker forces, and, in Morrison's case, an obsession with excess and death. At its best, the Doors' music -- "Light My Fire," "L.A. Woman" -- has come to evoke a noirish view of Sixties California that contrasts sharply with the era's prevailing folky, trippy style.
Morrison and Manzarek, acquaintances from the UCLA Graduate School of Film, conceived the group at a 1965 meeting on a Southern California beach. After Morrison recited one of his poems, "Moonlight Drive," Manzarek -- who had studied classical piano as a child and played in Rick and the Ravens, a UCLA blues band -- suggested they collaborate on songs. Manzarek's brothers, Rick and Jim, served as guitarists until Manzarek met John Densmore, who brought in Robby Krieger; both had been members of the Psychedelic Rangers. Morrison christened the band the Doors, from William Blake via Aldous Huxley's book on mescaline, The Doors of Perception.
The Doors soon recorded a demo tape, and in the summer of 1966 they began working as the house band at the Whisky-A-Go-Go, a gig that ended four months later when they were fired for performing the explicitly Oedipal "The End," one of Morrison's many songs that included dramatic recitations. By then Jac Holzman of Elektra Records had been convinced by Arthur Lee of Love to sign the band.
An edited version of Krieger's "Light My Fire" from the Doors' debut album became a #1 hit in 1967, as did the album, while "progressive" FM radio played (and analyzed) "The End." Morrison's image as the embodiment of dark psychological impulses was established quickly, even as he was being featured in such teen magazines as 16. Strange Days (#3, 1967) and Waiting for the Sun (#1, 1968) both included hit singles and became bestselling albums. Waiting for the Sun also marked the first appearance of Morrison's mythic alter ego, the Lizard King, in a poem printed inside the record jacket entitled "The Celebration of the Lizard King." Though part of the poem was used as lyrics for "Not to Touch the Earth," a complete "Celebration" didn't appear on record until Absolutely Live (#8, 1970).
It was impossible to tell whether Morrison's Lizard King persona was a parody of a pop star or simply inspired exhibitionism, but it earned him considerable notoriety. In December 1967 he was arrested for public obscenity at a concert in New Haven, and in August 1968 he was arrested for disorderly conduct aboard an airplane en route to Phoenix. Not until 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 did Morrison's behavior adversely affect the band. Court proceedings kept the singer in Miami most of the year, although the prosecution could produce neither eyewitnesses nor photos of Morrison performing the acts. Charges were 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.
The Soft Parade (#6, 1969), far more elaborately produced than the Doors' other albums, met with a mixed reception from fans, but it too had a #3 hit single, "Touch Me." Morrison began to devote more attention to projects outside the band: writing poetry, collaborating on a screenplay with poet Michael McClure, and directing a film, A Feast of Friends (he had also made films to accompany "Break On Through" and the 1968 single "The Unknown Soldier"). Simon and Schuster published The Lords and the New Creatures in 1971; an earlier book, An American Prayer, was privately printed in 1970 but not made widely available until 1978, when the surviving Doors regrouped and set Morrison's recitation of the poem to music. In 1989 Wilderness: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison was published. Although Morrison expressed to friends and associates his wish to be remembered as a poet, overall his writings have found few fans among critics. By then some felt, especially after "Touch Me," that the band had sold out, and Morrison's dangerous persona was more often ridiculed than not. Critic Lester Bangs once tagged him "Bozo Dionysus." Soon after L.A. Woman (#9, 1971) was recorded, Morrison took an extended leave of absence from the group. Obviously physically and emotionally drained, he moved to Paris, where he hoped to write and where he and his wife, Pamela Courson Morrison, lived in seclusion. He died of heart failure in his bathtub in 1971 at age 27. Partly because news of his death was not made public until days after his burial in Paris' Père-Lachaise cemetery, some still refuse to believe Morrison is dead. His wife, one of the few people who saw Morrison's corpse, died in Hollywood of a heroin overdose on April 25, 1974.
The Doors continued to record throughout 1973 as a trio, but after two albums it seemed they had exhausted the possibilities of a band without a commanding lead singer. Manzarek had hoped to reconstitute the group with Iggy Pop, whose avowed chief influence was Morrison, but plans fell through. After the Doors broke up, Manzarek recorded two solo albums, and one with a short-lived group called Nite City. He produced the first three albums by Los Angeles' X, and in 1983 he collaborated with composer Philip Glass on a rock version of Carl Orff's modern cantata, Carmina Burana. Krieger and Densmore formed the Butts Band, which lasted three years and recorded two albums. In 1972 a Doors greatest-hits collection, Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine, was released, hit #55, and went gold. Krieger released his first solo album in 1981 and toured in 1982.
Ironically, the group's best years began in 1980, nine years after Morrison's death. With the release of the Danny Sugerman-Jerry Hopkins biography of Morrison, No One Here Gets Out Alive, sales of the Doors' music and the already large Jim Morrison cult -- spurred by his many admirers and imitators in new-wave bands -- grew even more. Record sales for 1980 alone topped all previous figures; as one ROLLING STONE magazine cover line put it: "He's Hot, He's Sexy, He's Dead." And that was just the beginning. The 1983 release of Alive, She Cried, followed by MTV's airing of Doors videos, introduced Morrison and the band to a new generation, and Oliver Stone's 1991 film biography of the group, starring Val Kilmer as Morrison, was a critical and commercial success. Of the 12 Doors albums, all are gold, and seven are platinum. The 1995 reissue of An American Prayer features "The Ghost Song," a new track on which the surviving Doors provided musical backing to an old recording of Morrison reading from his work.
In 1990 his graffiti-covered headstone was stolen; in 1993, on what would have been his 50th birthday, hundreds of mourners -- many not even born before he died -- traveled from around the world to pay tribute. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
Formed 1965, Los Angeles, California
Jim Morrison (b. Dec. 8, 1943, Melbourne, Fla.; d. July 3, 1971, Paris, Fr.), vocals.;
Ray Manzarek (b. Feb. 12, 1935, Chicago, Ill.), keyboards.;
Robby Krieger (b. Jan. 8, 1946, Los Angeles), Guitar.;
John Densmore (b.
Dec. 1, 1944, Los Angeles), drums