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 (Number Two, 1967) became a Number One hit in 1967, while "progressive" FM radio played (and analyzed) "The End." The band's two sides came to a head during their 1967 appearance on The Ed Sullivan show when Morrison kept the word "higher" in the lyrics to "Light My Fire" despite the show's request to remove it (whether it was intentional or not remains up to debate). Sullivan banned them from making future appearances.
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 (Number Three, 1967) and Waiting for the Sun (Number One, 1968) both included hit singles and became best-selling 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 (Number Eight, 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 (Number Six, 1969), far more elaborately produced than the Doors' other albums, met with a mixed reception from fans, but it too had a Number Three 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 & 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 (Number Nine, 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 four albums by L.A.'s 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 Number 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 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. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder filled in for Morrison for the Doors' performance at the ceremonies.
The Morrison cult continues to grow, particularly among the young. 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. Because of the destruction these visitors often wreak on the cemetery during their pilgrimages, many Parisians petitioned to move Morrison's grave when its 30-year lease expired in 2001; French officials, however, opted to leave Morrison's remains in their resting place.
A box set with material chosen by the band was released in 1997. Emphasizing live (the set starts off with the notorious version of "Five to One" recorded at the March '69 Miami concert) and lesser-known tracks ("Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor," a 25-minute free-form jam called "Rock Is Dead"), the four-disc set includes "Orange County Suite," a "Free as a Bird"–style song — i.e., new instrumental tracks were dubbed onto an old Morrison vocal. His vocals were resurrected yet again in 2000, when Fatboy Slim sampled Morrison's reading of "Bird of Prey" for a track on his album Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars.
That same year, VH1 taped an episode of its Storytellers series in which the Cult's Ian Astbury, Creed singer Scott Stapp, Stone Temple Pilot's Scott Weiland, Days of the New frontman Travis Meeks, and Perry Farrell took turns covering Doors songs. The singers were backed by the surviving members of the Doors; it was the first time the three had played together since their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The episode aired around the same time Elektra released Stoned Immaculate: The Music of the Doors, which featured Krieger, Manzarek, and Densmore participating in their own tribute album.
Capitalizing on the continual interest in the band, the Doors launched an Internet-based label, Bright Midnight Records, which released The Bright Midnight Sampler at the end of 2000. The Doors Live in Detroit and No One Here Gets Out Alive — a radio interview with the remaining Doors members that originally aired in 1980 — followed in 2001.
In 2002, Manzarek and Krieger formed a new band called The Doors of the 21st Century with Angelo Barbera on bass and Astbury stepping in as Morrison. After Densmore opted out reportedly due to tinnitus and Police drummer Stewart Copeland left due to a broken arm, the new band finally settled on Krieger drummer Ty Dennis.
The following year Densmore, claiming he actually had not been invited to take part in the new band, filed an injunction against Manzarak and Krieger in an attempt to stop them from using the Doors name. Jim Morrison's estate joined him in the suit. In July 2005 they won the injunction and the band changed its name to D21C, and then changed it again to Riders on the Storm. In 2008, the five-year legal battle ended when the California Supreme Court refused to hear Manzarek and Krieger's additional appeals to the $5.2 million fine they were ordered to pay Densmore and Morrison's estate during the 2005 suit.
Manzarek and Krieger continued to tour despite Astbury's 2007 departure to revive The Cult. They replaced him with Brett Scallions, the former frontman of Fuel and began touring as Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger of The Doors.
Densmore has continued to thwart efforts to license The Doors' music for commercials, including a $15 million offer from Cadillac and a $4 million offer from Apple, Inc. In a 2002 essay for The Nation he wrote that commercial use of the music would violate its original intent. Despite this, the band's music was licensed for use as the soundtrack to an episode of the CBS crime drama Cold Case in February, 2010.
In 2006, the year before the 40th anniversary of the release of the Doors' debut album, Perception, yet another box set of the band's complete studio recordings, appeared. This one included surround-sound versions of some tracks, extra songs and DVDs. In 2007 the Doors received a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Between 2008 and 2009 several more archival LPs were released: Live at the Matrix captures the widely-bootlegged shows the band played at the San Francisco venue prior to "Light My Fire" catapulting them to success. In September 2009, Rhino Records reissued the Doors' records with Jim Morrison on 180-gram. Two months later, the band's final four concerts with Morrison were released as a box set. Nearly a third of the music on the six-disc Live in New York was previously unreleased.
In early 2010, the band's "Riders on the Storm" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. 2010 will also see the limited release of a new Tom DiCillo-directed documentary about the band, When You're Strange: A Film About the Doors, featuring previously unseen footage and narrated by Johnny Depp. An accompanying soundtrack will pair studio versions of the band's songs with iconic live renditions.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Erica Futterman contributed to this story.