Jim Morrison is a mythic figure: a pin-up rock star, a sloppy drunk, an erudite poet, an existential seeker of the chaotic and dangerous 1960s. It’s no surprise then that different examinations of his life tend to yield remarkably different portraits. Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend is an attempt to cut away the myth and present a clear picture of a troubled, brilliant, and ultimately tragic figure. On that level, it is largely successful.
Author Stephen Davis, by conducting dozens of interviews and combing through an impressive array of original source materials, presents a balanced journalist’s view of Morrison from his earliest days as the son of an ambitious naval officer to his final bleary hours in Paris and the ongoing mysteries surrounding his death.
There is a great deal of new information, allegations, and theories in this sizeable volume that are not to be found in other bios. For instance, the seeds of Morrison’s later triumphs and blunders are closely examined in his parental care and childhood behavior. “Attachment theory,” for instance, is proposed to explain Morrison’s erratic behavior, shiftlessness, and inability to maintain relationships. Morrison’s penchant for passing out—both as bizarre practical joke as a youngster and as a common theme as junkie and alcoholic as an adult—is hung on a possible medical disorder. A possible enzyme deficiency is used to explain the habitual tendency to appear affable, social, and polite after enormous amounts of alcohol consumption followed by a light-switch flick to monstrous behavior (slapping women, pissing in public, yelling obscenities—especially racial epithets—at the top of his lungs).
The Big Revelation, if there is one, is a torrent of bisexual and experimental sexual practice by the self proclaimed Lizard King. We see Morrison’s lawyers scrambling at different points during his life to squash rumors and blackmail attempts in this regard. The Doors lawyers are kept quite busy through the end of Morrison’s life, in fact, with paternity cases, obscenity charges and, of course, the Big Trial based upon the Miami, 1969 concert and its subsequent charges of public indecency and inciting a riot that begat the circus-atmosphere trial watched carefully by the “paranoid Nixon Administration” and which effectively helped to set sail The Doors’ career into the sunset.
Davis also does a good job in displaying a Morrison that was many things to many people. He led a secretive, transient life in which various groups of friends, lovers, and confidantes knew little to nothing about one another. Therefore, it’s not surprising that figures such as Patricia Kennealy and Linda Ashcroft emerged with full-length, intimate, and detailed memoirs about their “special” lives and affairs with Jim Morrison. I would have liked to have heard more about the veracity of Ashcroft’s story in particular. Her memoir, Wild Child: Life with Jim Morrison is a well written, engaging, and detailed read that is written by either a master yarn spinner or a woman whose influential relationship with The Doors’ front man miraculously missed the notice of every other important figure in his life.
There are a few shortcomings in this otherwise excellent biography. Davis has authoritarian views on the quality of each of The Doors' albums and songs. For instance, Strange Days is called out as the “one true masterpiece” while songs off later albums, such as “Running Blue” and “Wishful Sinful,” are blithely discarded as disposable filler tracks. Not true at all, this Doors fan says.
It also appeared that Davis had some kind of axe to grind with the surviving Doors, and in particular keyboardist Ray Manzarek. It wouldn’t surprise me if Davis was miffed at the original Doors co-founder for not cooperating with this latest biography, as Manzarek is consistently called out as a “rigid ideologue” and callous capitalist. Other biographies don’t leave this impression at all. In fact, my take, after reading Manzarek’s excellent memoir, Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors, is that Manzarek was the sunny ying to Morrison’s dark yang. Together, they provided the spark to The Doors’ propulsive force as a groundbreaking blues-psychedelic-art rock entity.
Overall, Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend can be considered a landmark biography of the poet and rock star’s life, a history of a complex man as well as the history of a turbulent time in America.