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Jim Morrison Lives: The Legacy of the Lizard King

Ten years after his death, three writers explore the cult of the mythical late Doors singer

Jim Morrison Lives: The Legacy of the Lizard King
Photograph by Gloria Stavers

Jim Morrison, 1981: Renew My Subscription to the Resurrection
by Rosemary Breslin

Kelly's mother picked up the phone for the fifth time that night. It was for sixteen-year-old Kelly.

"Who's speaking?" the mother asked.

"Eddie," the boy answered.

"I've got it," Kelly shouted.

When Kelly hung up the phone, her mother inquired, "Who's Eddie?"

"A friend," Kelly replied.

"Where's he from?" She didn't like the sound of the accent.

"Oh, I think he's from Spain," Kelly said and slid out of the den.

Puerto Rican, the mother worried. Just what she wanted for her blond-haired, green-eyed daughter. The next day, she was cleaning Kelly's room. In a small wooden frame on the bureau was a picture of a young man. His hair was long and curly. He wore no shirt. His arms were spread out as if he were being crucified.

When Kelly arrived at her Long Island home that afternoon, her mother confronted her with the picture, "Is this the animal you're going out with?" she asked.

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Kelly glanced at the picture and laughed. "Mom, that's Jim Morrison. From the Doors. A band," she said, tripping upstairs to her room. "And he's dead anyway," Kelly continued as her mother stood in the door-way, still waving the picture. Kelly was relieved that she hadn't noticed the other pictures of Morrison on her fireplace mantle.

Kelly will tell anyone who asks that her favorite group is the Doors. She even bought Eddie-from-Spain a black T-shirt with her favorite picture of Morrison on the front. Kelly can't always name any of the Doors' songs, but if you sing one, she'll know it.

Just why Kelly's into Jim Morrison is difficult to explain, but there's no doubt that she and most of her friends can recite, in great detail, the story of his life. Their talk centers on the drinking, the drugs, the performances that ended in near riots. An arrest in Las Vegas for a fight with a cop. Trouble on an airplane bound for Phoenix, resulting with Morrison in hand-cuffs. An onstage bus in New Haven for rapping about a backstage confrontation with police. And the most famous bust of all, his arrest after a show in Miami on several counts of indecent exposure and lewd and lascivious behavior. Most of these teenagers couldn't care less whether Morrison actually exposed himself or not; they simply adore the fact he would even think of doing it. The new generation of Doors fans, many of whom were in kindergarten when the band peaked in the late Sixties, is attracted to Morrison's unabashed sexiness, the lure of his voice and the hot, ornery lyrics. A song like "The End," in which Morrison, in an Oedipal rage, screams, "Father, I want to kill you/Mother, I want to fuck you," is heady stuff for a seventeen-year-old. To these kids, Morrison's mystique is simply that whatever he did, it was something they've been told is wrong. And for that they love him.

The extraordinary distance between his life, his stardom and their own youth likely fuels the worship: maybe if these kids saw Morrison today, they wouldn't be so certain all his activities were godlike. But in death, he remains their ageless hero, the biggest of them all.

"It's amazing," says Bryn Bridenthal, vice-president of public relations for Elektra/Asylum Records, the Doors' label. "The group is bigger now than when Morrison was alive. We've sold more Doors records this year than in any year since they were first released."

Video: Watch a Clip From Doors' Documentary 'When You're Strange'

The statistics are impressive. Every album in the Doors catalog, for instance, doubled or tripled its sales in 1980 over the previous year. Aided by Elektra's decision to drop the list price of The Doors, Waiting for the Sun and The Soft Parade from $8.98 to $5.98, kids all over America began scooping up the old records. In fact, of twelve Doors albums, ten have now been certified gold or platinum.

"The Doors' catalog is an amazing success," affirms Joe Smith, chairman of Elektra Records. "No group that isn't around anymore has sold that well for us."

The Morrison revival began about three years ago and has grown from a modest renaissance into a landslide. Though the roots of this posthumous popularity are not perfectly clear, music-industry executives tend to trace its origins to the 1979 release of Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now, which prominently featured "The End." This unexpected bit of reexposure was soon followed by the appearance of An American Prayer, an album of Morrison reading his own poetry (recorded in 1971) with instrumental backing added years later by the remaining Doors. Though sales were poor, it stirred further interest in this disembodied voice, this done from the past. But the big push came with the publication of a Morrison biography. No One Here Gets Out Alive, by Daniel Sugerman and Jerry Hopkins. To date, 740,000 trade and mass-market-paper-back copies have been printed, and the book made the best-seller lists. Its last chapter, which raises numerous questions about the circumstances of Morrison's death and the disposition of his remains, is just the sort of dark, eerie, mysterious tale that tends to set impressionable minds dreaming.

Soon, FM stations were sneaking the Doors back onto their playlists. Together, the renewed airplay and the lowered LP prices had the kids buying Doors discs in sufficient quantity to put three of them on the charts again. A phenomenon was reborn.

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Doors

"It's a whole new audience," says Bob Gelms, music director of WXRT in Chicago. His station, along with many other FM rock outlets, is playing Doors songs with the frequency of many current popular bands. As Ted Edwards, music director at WCOZ in Boston, points out, many younger kids are hearing the Doors for the first time.

"The Doors sound perfect next to Van Halen," says Hugh Surratt, music director of KMET in Los Angeles. "We treat them as a very viable part of our programming. It's amazing a band like that has gone on for so long. It's as if they're still recording. It says something for their durability and for the cyclical nature of things. Everything comes back around."

Yet all this chronology, all these facts and figures pall beside the most important aspect of Morrison Resurrectus: the need today for kids — perhaps for us all — to have an idol who isn't squeaky clean. Someone rebellious, someone with a smirk that's more cynical than mean, someone whose sexiness is based on steamy eroticism, not all-American good looks. James Dean, not Shaun Cassidy; handsome with problems gets them always.

Photos: Break on Through: The Lasting Legacy of the Doors

When Gloria Stavers worked at 16 Magazine during the Sixties, she championed the Doors and once or twice even managed to slip Jim Morrison into a publication that counted as its top attractions the likes of Bobby Sherman, the Mod Squad's Michael Cole and the Monkees. "Morrison was never one of our big draws," says Stavers. But things have changed. "Now I get calls from my fourteen-year-old godson to send him pictures of Morrison," Stavers says. "A friend's sixteen-year-old daughter in the suburbs has pictures of Morrison on her wall. She's gone on Morrison and the Doors."

John Densmore, the Doors drummer, is amazed by the fact that he's asked for autographs wherever he goes these days — mainly by fifteen-year-olds far too young to have ever heard the band perform. "About three years ago, my nieces in Boston — who were about thirteen — told me that their classmates were into the Doors," says Densmore. "It isn't like it stopped for ten years, but in the last few years, it's a big business again." In fact, some of Densmore's friends have begun asking him to sign their old Doors records. As one told him: "Shit, your guys are famous again."

There has been some spillover from the younger listeners to a slightly more adult crowd, but it seems largely caused by proximity rather than taste. A trickle-up theory, you might say. "A few kids at school listen to the Doors," says one Brown University student, "but nothing like the little kids. Everywhere I go this summer, I hear the Doors. You can't help it. And my girlfriend just bought an old album; she'd never listened to them before at all."

"I think it's fifty-fifty with kids," suggests Gloria Stavers. "Half of it is their fascination with the music, half is with Jim. Talk about the living dead." Or, you might say, his identifiable, aspirational aura. The common lore about Morrison's life is full of the sorts of things that kids imagine could only have happened in the Sixties. And they wish they'd been there.

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