Whenever discussion turns to the greatest rock stars of all time, chances are someone will mention Jim Morrison before long. With his good looks, dark charisma, alluring voice, and poetic nature, the Doors frontman is the quintessential rock singer, and he certainly embraced the role. From his early days as a star in the making to his wild partying antics and ultimate, untimely demise, Jim Morrison unashamedly lived the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle until the very end.
Unfortunately, this was not necessarily a good thing. As in, the "very end" wasn’t very far away at all, since Jim Morrison joined the infamous 27 Club thanks to living so completely like a rock star. Though there is little doubt that "Mr. Mojo Risin’" was an incredibly talented artist whose legacy as a rock legend is richly deserved, he also led a complicated and often tragic life that was full of misfortunes, many of which were completely of his own making. What exactly made the Lizard King tick? What hurdles did life throw in his way? Today, we take a look at the troubled history of Jim Morrison.
Jim Morrison drank way too much
Jim Morrison may be a music legend, but as Jeff Weiss of LA Weekly tells us, his bandmates and representatives of his record label have been quick to point out that the singer’s drinking habits were equally legendary — and not in a particularly good way. According to the Doors’ keyboard player, Ray Manzarek, this led to the occasional confrontation, especially during the making of the band’s most famous work, L.A. Woman (1971). At this point, Morrison’s drinking hadn’t impacted the quality of his lyrics, but the same couldn’t be said about the singer’s health. Drummer John Densmore straight-up calls Morrison an alcoholic, and while he says that the frontman had been able to pick himself up in the early stages of the group, by 1969’s The Soft Parade he was getting blackout drunk and passing out in the studio.
Perhaps the most revealing story of Jim Morrison’s relationship with alcohol during the L.A. Woman era comes from Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records: "After the album was done, Jim and I went out, supposedly to dinner. I ate, he drank."
Jim Morrison’s many, many troubles with the law
As a rock star, Jim Morrison was pretty much the ultimate bad boy. He backed this reputation up with his many, many troubles with authorities. In fact, during his short life, Morrison was arrested no less than six times, per Ultimate Classic Rock. The first of these came in 1963, when the future superstar got drunk at a football game and started mocking both the crowd and the players. When the cops eventually arrived, he stole an officer’s helmet and umbrella from a police car.
Goofy and relatively harmless as Morrison’s first arrest might have been, his next run-in with the police was considerably darker. In 1966, he claimed that he had killed a classmate during a road trip and buried him in the desert. When he was inevitably arrested, it transpired that he had also kissed a 14-year-old girl without her consent, so the road trip had obviously gone wrong in so many horrible ways. Morrison was slapped with sexual assault charges and the police had many no doubt interesting questions about his classmate’s fate, but when the kid eventually turned up unharmed, the singer was ultimately let go. The other arrests, which took place during Jim Morrison’s tenure as a rock superstar, generally involved the kind of stuff you’d probably expect from the Lizard King: Variations of public drunkenness and the occasional bout of indecency and lewd behavior.
The March 1969 incident
Jim Morrison was no stranger to arrest warrants, and as John Burks of Rolling Stone tells us, his personal best was probably the aftermath of a particularly tumultuous concert on March 2, 1969. Over one, frenzied night in Miami, Florida, the Doors singer managed to rack up no less than five misdemeanor charges, and a felony one to boot. At most, he could have been sentenced to three years and 150 days in prison, and as Larry Mahoney of the Miami Herald put it at the time, "They’d crucify him if they could, they’re so worked up."
So what did Morrison do to warrant that kind of anger? If you asked the authorities, the Lizard King had exposed his mini-lizard onstage, which, along with some public profanity and the obligatory-to-Morrison public drunkenness was more than enough to stir the pot big time. According to Ultimate Classic Rock, Morrison turned himself in a month after the fact, and he was actually found guilty of public profanity and exposure. Whether this would actually have caused the vocalist to see the inside of a State Penitentiary or not, we’ll never know, because Morrison died before his appeal. The whole, unfortunate incident was finally put to rest in 2010, when Florida’s clemency board and Governor Charlie Crist posthumously pardoned Jim Morrison, per USA Today.
A faceful of mace for the Lizard King
Jim Morrison’s many misadventures with the law earned him some pretty unfortunate distinctions. As Sterling Whitaker of Ultimate Classic Rock tells us, Mr. Mojo Risin’ may in fact have been the first rock musician who was arrested in the middle of his own concert.
It was December 9, 1967, and the Doors were playing a concert in New Haven, Connecticut. Before the show, Morrison kept himself busy by fooling around with a fan in a backstage shower. Unfortunately, a local cop who was in the security detail didn’t recognize the star and told him to leave the area. This didn’t sit well with the notoriously anti-establishment Jim Morrison, who told the guy to "Eat it," and was promptly maced for his troubles. After the misunderstanding had been taken care of and the officer had apologized, the concert started a bit later than it should have, and everything went roughly as well as you would expect under the circumstances — that is, not very well at all. The furious Morrison delivered such a vicious and insulting onstage rant against the mace-happy officer, and the police in general, that the authorities chose to stop the show and arrested the singer on the spot. This, in turn, caused a small riot that led to 13 more arrests.
Jim Morrison’s dysfunctional relationship with Nico
As Max Bell of Louder tells us, Jim Morrison spent much of 1967’s "Summer of Love" in New York City, where he met more than his match in the form of Nico. Morrison fell for the iconic Velvet Underground collaborator as soon he laid eyes on her, and she returned his affections.
The slight Morrison and the statuesque Nico made for an impressive, peculiar couple. They made music together and all was well … for roughly a month. See, Morrison actually already had a girlfriend, Pamela Courson, who struck back with a high-profile affair of her own. When Morrison learned of this, he dropped New York on the spot and drove back to Los Angeles, without even bothering to wake Nico up. Understandably, she wasn’t particularly happy about this.
Of course, even without the fact that Jim Morrison was pretty much two-timing all along, it could be argued that the two didn’t exactly have the healthiest relationship. According to the book Nico: The Life and Lies of an Icon, their daily routine involved a considerable amount of drink and drugs, and consisted of an ever-repeating circle of "affection-argument-rancor-resolution." The fights often became physical, and though Nico says she would happily have married the man she has called her first love, he was never particularly interested.
Morrison Vs. Densmore
Jim Morrison may have been a hugely influential rock star, but not everyone was willing to give the singer a free pass to do however he pleased. In fact, one of his staunchest opponents was his very own bandmate, drummer John Densmore. In a 2020 interview with the Guardian, Densmore reminisced of his relationship with Morrison, which was so bad that after the singer died, the drummer skipped his funeral and wouldn’t even visit the grave for three years. In fact, Densmore has called Morrison "a lunatic" and "a psychopath," along with several other, even more colorful names. He also made a spirited attempt at keeping the vocalist off the road, and even briefly quit the band himself.
However, don’t take Densmore’s attitude toward Morrison to mean that he completely disliked the man. "Did I hate Jim?" Densmore comments. "No. I hated his self-destruction … He was a kamikaze who went out at 27 – what can I say?" In fact, while the drummer fully admits that it took him several years to forgive the frontman’s alcohol-fueled reign of terror, he eventually moved on to be a sort of protector to Jim Morrison’s legacy, to a point that he even sued his fellow surviving Doors members to stop them from licensing the band’s music for car commercials and touring under the Doors name. "What can I say? Jim’s ghost is behind me all the time," he says.
Jim Morrison may have tried to set his girlfriend on fire
Jim Morrison and his girlfriend, Pamela Courson, had a pretty turbulent relationship. In fact, as photographer Bobby Klein told the Guardian in 2018, things once got quite literally heated. According to Klein, Courson turned up at his door late one night, and told him and his wife a horrifying story: Morrison had forced her in a closet and set it on fire.
As the story goes, Jim Morrison was not a fan of heroin, and he had found out that Courson had the drug and had also been sleeping with her supplier. As such, Klein speculates that the closet-on-fire incident may have been the Doors singer’s strange attempt to frighten Courson to stay away from heroin. Regardless of the truth behind the situation, Klein eventually relayed the story to director Oliver Stone, who decided to include it in his Val Kilmer-starring biopic, The Doors.
The car accident that made Jim Morrison
People who have seen the movie The Doors may remember the scene where young Jim Morrison witnessed the aftermath of a brutal car accident. According to Biography, this actually happened. In fact, Morrison himself had once attested that it was even worse than the movie ended up portraying it.
The singer was roughly 5-years-old when he and his family were driving in New Mexico and passed a terrible scene where a truck full of Native American people had crashed. Though Morrison admits that he didn’t quite comprehend what was happening, and understood the scene as "funny red paint and people lying around," he says that he did catch his parents’ reaction, and as such, the heaviness of the situation weighed on him. He has even said that the incident marks the first time he knew fear.
In all fairness, it should probably be mentioned that Jim Morrison’s family members have been known to insinuate that the incident was actually a lot less horrifying than the singer liked to describe. Regardless of what young Jim actually witnessed or didn’t witness, he immortalized his version of the events in the song "Peace Frog:" "Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding / Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind."
Jim Morrison and drugs
When it comes to vices and addiction, Jim Morrison is possibly most closely associated with alcohol. However, as Ultimate Classic Rock and Biography note, the depressed star was also an enthusiastic drug user who was rather regularly high, often while also drunk. This combination, along with his rather violent temper, could lead to problems, such as his infamous 1967 onstage arrest in New Haven, Connecticut, due to an angry anti-establishment rant inspired by an earlier incident with a police officer.
Morrison’s copious drug use plagued him right up until his death in 1971. In fact, some say that drugs directly contributed to his death, thanks to a long-standing rumor that attributes his passing, which was officially caused by heart failure, to heroin overdose. Seeing as Doors photographer Bobby Klein has told the Guardian that Jim Morrison used to hate that particular drug, this would mean that the Lizard King’s appetites grew (and, perhaps, his standards lowered) as his downward spiral proceeded.
Jim Morrison, Pam Courson, and infidelity
Considering that Jim Morrison was a rock star with considerable sex appeal, it’s perhaps surprising that, as Angie Pamela of Cultura Colectiva tells us, the Lizard King spent the majority of his rock star days with the same woman, Pamela Courson. The two shared a similar, hedonistic outlook on life, and much like Morrison, Courson was also a smart, artistic rebel with a "mysterious vibe." The two met when Morrison was 22 and Courson was 19, and their story continued until his death at 27.
However, said story was not always a happy one: Their relationship was extremely intense, violent, and marred by substance abuse, periods of separation, and infidelity. Though this applied to both parties, Biography tells us that Morrison was downright infamous for his womanizing ways. Apart from Courson, a notable Jim Morrison companion was Patricia Kennealy, a music journalist he was briefly married to in 1970. However, he was far from faithful in this relationship, as well.
His disastrous last shows
By 1970, Jim Morrison’s alcoholism had ballooned him into a bearded, chubby parody of his former rock god self, and as Sterling Whitaker of Ultimate Classic Rock tells us, his ability to perform onstage had suffered greatly, as well. Things came to a head in a December 12 show in New Orleans, in what would be Morrison’s last performance with the Doors.
In this final show, the singer kept forgetting the lyrics to the songs, and when he realized the situation, he attempted to correct the course with a long-winded, bad joke that failed to make an impression. By the time "Light My Fire" came along, he was forced to use the microphone stand for support. In the middle of the song’s solo section, he sat on the drum riser and stopped performing altogether. When drummer John Densmore attempted to reboot the singer by poking him with his foot, Morrison did walk back to the mic stand. Unfortunately, the ever-unpredictable singer then smashed it and walked away in the middle of the show. This was the last straw for the other band members, who decided that the Doors were done playing live shows.
The death of Jim Morrison
Jim Morrison’s life was full of personal troubles, rock star excess and general debauchery, and as Jeff Giles of Ultimate Classic Rock tells us, the year 1971 found him in Paris, in pretty rough shape. Unfortunately, on July 3 that year, it became clear that he would never leave the City of Lights. This was the day Morrison’s girlfriend, Pamela Courson, discovered the 27-year-old vocalist’s lifeless body in their apartment’s bathtub. The reported cause of death: Heart failure.
Jim Morrison’s death was as controversial as his life, and possibly even more so. There have been many rumors, theories, and even entire books about the events leading up to his death. Some say his cause of death was not what the officials claim. Others have even wilder stories. For instance, singer Marianne Faithfull told Mojo in 2014 that Jim Morrison was essentially murdered by his boyfriend, famed drug dealer Jean de Breteuil, who she says supplied Morrison with the drugs that killed him. There are even those who believe that the Lizard King managed to fake his death and went on to live in obscurity.