Book Reviews: Jim Morrison Memoirs

Break On Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison by James Riordan and Jerry Prochnicky
544 pages, $20 hardcover. Published by William Morrow & Co., Inc., 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019.

Riders on the Storm: My Life with Jim Morrison and The Doors by John Densmore
319 pages, $19.95 hardcover. Published by Delacorte Press, 666 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10103.

With at least six books on Jim Morrison and The Doors now on the shelves, five published within the last year to take advantage of tie-in sales on the flowing, copious coattails of Oliver Stone's powerful film, The Doors, you'd think one of them, at least, might approach "very good," "excellent," even "definitive."

Not so. There have been no good books written about Jim Morrison and the band he fronted, and I'm beginning to wonder if there ever will be. It seems that those writers most attracted to such a task in the first place are just those writers least equipped—emotionally, historically, musically—to do their subject justice. Could it be that there's a place in rock writing for Albert Goldman after all?

Ultimately, after all the tales of Morrison's boozing, drugs, degradation, womanizing, and swift slide down into sodden alcoholism and desperate artistic flailing, there seems to be not a great deal to say about the entire Doors phenomenon—at least by those who have written about it so far. For these tales are as old as rock'n'roll itself: vague but blinding visions of an ecstatic state transcending poverty and middle-class stuffiness alike, with hopes that the liberating power whipping around a roadhouse stage—the power that tells musicians and audience alike that we're on the edge, that anything can happen, and it just might happen tonight—will somehow change things forever.

For the lucky (or unlucky) few, that power degrades into the powers of fame and money, in which what was once transcended nightly by music is now transcended more permanently by sales, marketing, investments, even as the door to the original fading vision, a door never actually passed through, is kept ajar by drugs and alcohol. Jerry Lee Lewis has lived on this edge for nearly 40 years. Bob Dylan continues to warp in and (mostly) out of it. For a brief time, Elvis embodied it all, even if he never thought about it in such terms. And for a slightly longer time, Jim Morrison—who certainly thought about it a great deal—was an avatar of a far darker version of the same dream.

Funny thing is, Jim Morrison's tragedy is revealed in these two books, almost despite the authors' intentions. There's much loose talk of "shamanism," by Riordan, Densmore, and Morrison himself, but very little understanding of the shaman's role in the society of which he is an integral part. Morrison seems to have latched on early to a carefully selected, tiny handful of quotations—from Blake, Nietzsche, and Castaneda—by which he then proceeded to systematically destroy first his body, then his mind, and finally his soul. He was hardly the first. His models were such early burn-outs as Verlaines, Rimbaud, and Dylan Thomas—the cheapest romantic clichés of the self-destructive poet, used as an excuse for getting drunk instead of writing for 150 years now.

In his early 20s, Jim Morrison had a dim, embryonic vision of alternate realities to be shared through religious, ritualistic proto-theater, with music the key ingredient. He wanted to, in Blake's words, "cleanse the doors of perception"—hence the group's name—so that "every thing would appear as it is, infinite." Of course, this is half of what life is about; Morrison forgot the rest, which is that, while we pursue the infinite, we are rooted in the finite, the limited, the body, duality; the awareness of the tension between life and death, the finite and the infinite, is what it is to be human. Morrison's furious drive to break on through whatever boundaries he saw with alcohol, music, and outrageous behavior eventually erected new boundaries built of these very tools. As far as anyone knows, these last boundaries remained invisible to him until the end, when death was the only door left open.

It's difficult to come down too hard on Doors drummer John Densmore's Riders on the Storm. The book is an extremely personal, if superficial, account of one simple, decent, frightened man's ride on the rock'n'roller-coaster of the American '60s. With Morrison's long-time lover, Pamela Courson, dead just three years after Morrison himself, guitarist Robby Krieger's taciturnity, and keyboardist Ray Manzarek's almost desperate (and quite successful) Doors boosterism, this is likely as close as we'll ever come to a clear vision of what it was like to live and work with Morrison.

Written in the form of diary entries, letters to Morrison after his death, and page after page of brave if embarrassing gushing, Riders has "Writing Workshop" written all over it. Doing TM, reading Joseph Campbell, attending men's workshops with Robert Bly, Densmore worked on the book for years, for better or worse without a ghostwriter or an "as told to." But Riders remains little more than a good sit-down for a couple afternoon beers with a sincere, earnest, not very articulate musician attempting to come to terms with a long-past period of his life that tortures him still. Densmore's remorse at his own cowardice in never confronting Morrison on the singer's self-destructiveness is painful to read, and very real; to judge the man's writing seems churlish. But, as with so many books about rock, after I finished it, I felt like reading a book.

Break On Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison, by James Riordan and researcher Jerry Prochnicky, was the wrong choice. This fat, seemingly well-researched study has all the wit, wisdom, perspective, and grace of a five-pound block of Velveeta. Riordan's third book, it's monochromatic in style, insufferably righteous in its increasingly defensive posture toward Morrison, snarled in hopelessly tangled non-sentences, full of errors of grammar and punctuation, and rife with malapropisms. Morrison goes through "rights" of passage, has a "pension" for self-destruction, is "wailed" on the head by a bottle-swinging Janis Joplin, and is finally laid to rest in a Paris burial "sight."

The sentences are filled with empty, dead words: "Their relationship...fluctuated dramatically on an almost moment-to-moment basis." Who needs those last seven words? Open the book at any page to find more examples than you ever wanted to read of how not to write well. William Morrow is a large, prestigious publishing firm; don't they employ copy editors any more?

But the story is there, the facts copious, and the mystery of Morrison's death finally revealed (he OD'd on Pam Courson's heroin). This is, without a doubt, the most thoroughly researched book on Morrison and the Doors yet to be published (though no one seems to have yet uncovered a photo of Morrison's mother), and reveals Danny Sugerman's No One Here Gets Out Alive for the puerile, fawning mess it is. (Densmore reveals that Sugerman and Ray Manzarek deleted large chunks of negative information about Morrison from No One Here; that's the only way Sugerman's book could be published.) All Break On Through seems to lack is writing.

But not even Prochnicky's ample legwork can be trusted. The one set of public-domain facts I was able to check proved infinitely malleable in an axe-grinder's hands. Riordan has nothing good to say about The Soft Parade, The Doors' fourth album; I happen to like it quite a bit, and was surprised that he offers not a single favorable opinion from anyone else. More to the point, he states (p.337), "Incredibly short for a Doors album at only thirty-four minutes, The Soft Parade is undefined and, like the title says, soft." Besides the fact that Riordan should have written "as" instead of "like," The Soft Parade is actually longer, by a minute, than its predecessor, Waiting for the Sun, and within seconds of the playing time of Strange Days, which Riordan praises as The Doors' best album with no complaints about its brevity. A small thing, an album's exact length, but if the man is so careless as to fudge data on such a trivial issue, I'd hesitate to take his word in larger matters.

Jim Morrison did not accept limits, and they eventually claimed him. No genius, he was a failed visionary, a boy who refused to become a man, a stranger to responsibility, and ultimately, a victim to his own unbridled appetites; he died little more than a pathetic, burned-out creep. But before that happened, he had a few good years of dark, ominous words and melodies that spun out with cold clarity, a musical immediacy that sounds as fresh today as it did a quarter century ago when it sent thrills of sex and death up the spines of a young audience who'd never heard the like. Yes, he was the Lizard King; what Densmore, Riordan, and Prochnicky make more than clear, while shedding remarkably little new light, is something we all knew anyway: that "I can do anything" was the shallow, desperate boast of a man already fallen off the edge on which he so loved to live. The tragedy of Jim Morrison—who, like all sacrificial media gods, will always be young; that's why we love to kill them, love to help them kill themselves—is that he destroyed himself in full view of millions, and no one did a thing to stop him. He never broke on through to the other side—he merely broke.

In the end, all that matters in a book is the writing, what Ezra Pound called "the quality of the affection." John Densmore's Riders on the Storm contains much affection and little writing; Riordan's and Prochnicky's several pounds of publishing product has neither.

Meanwhile, the Doors mill of original albums, new videos, and recompilations grinds on—the Doors sell more records now than they ever did, and still to the same segment of the population: 15-to-21-year-olds. Perhaps the saddest thing is that Morrison's appeal might remain merely the bulge in his leather pants, the dry-humped mike stand, the lolling tongue—he who would be shaman-king relegated to being David Cassidy's dark precursor. A sad and cautionary tale, and one that remains ill-told. Perhaps it's better so—even after all this bad writing about a failed life, I still love The Doors.—Richard Lehnert

Glotz's picture

That's a take away...

I'd like to see if there are any good Morrison bios out there since '91.

dalethorn's picture

For even the most casual reader, the term "coverup" in Morrison's death still resonates louder than the rest of his alleged excesses. Feel free to dig in - from what some people say, he absolutely didn't do heroin - he bought it for his girlfriend. Some of the insightful articles on Morrison will be compromised by the anti-Israel vitriol in those articles, owing to his father's presence as a naval commander where a tragic event occurred. Hopefully interested people can get past that and form their own opinions. Personally, when I see a musician who's worth millions more dead than alive, when the new music has dried up and death - especially a controversial death - occurs and gives a big boost to languid record sales, well, I can do the math. Not saying that was the case with Morrison, but after all, money is far more real than mere opinion.

KathleenM's picture

An article called "L.A. Woman and The Last Days of Jim Morrison" clears up any notions of a cover up. Bit of a long read, but offers the most detailed account of what happened that fateful night in July 1971.

dalethorn's picture

Thank you for the lengthy but highly informative post below. As to the subject of his death and someone (anyone) "clearing it up" with their detailed account, my experience says to consider the possibilities, not the least of which is the financial outcome. Far more important figures have had their deaths whitewashed.

ok's picture

..I tend to believe that the least highlighted aspects of Doors’ presence – and the ones I’m particularly, if not exclusively, interested in nowadays – are the dry humor in Morrison’s lyrics and, most of all, the music itself.

Glotz's picture

Those two things are tantamount to the whole story.

Much of his writing is so fitting in this time. The Doors' music still has so much substance and unique musical style that it will always stand the test of time. 'Just a bunch of white boys playing the blues' is so off the mark on every level.

The Zionist connected garbage out there is utter tripe, fit for this generation of fools.

durtal's picture

Thank you for those insightful reviews ! (Typo on Verlaine : the one and only)

KathleenM's picture

When members of your own camp throw you under the bus your image and legacy, unfortunately, are pretty much set in stone in the minds of too many people.

"Longtime friend and admirer" Danny Sugerman, you know, the kid who "idolized" Jim Morrison, along with Jerry Hopkins came out with "No One Here Gets Out Alive" in whatever year, which Ray "Jim-Wasn't-A-Showman-He-Was-A-Shaman! Manzarek had an un-credited hand in writing.

Those who actually knew and cared about Jim Morrison refer to it as, "Nothing Here But A Lot of Lies".

Here is Doors' producer, the late Paul Rothchild's take on this "bestseller":

"Danny Sugerman, (co-author of the book) is a FAN of the Doors who took Jerry Hopkins' original manuscript and destroyed it. Danny didn't interview me, Jerry did. Danny then changed a lot of my interview to HEARSAY that other people did. I am FURIOUS about the book, and so is everyone else I've talked to who is quoted in it. It's a great piece of sensationalism, very little of which holds to historical fact. The general shape of it is correct, but Jim is sensationalized rather spectacularly, and the best parts of Morrison are not there. The people who really helped the Doors' career are treated in a very cavalier manner, and the only people who come off well in my opinion are the groupies and sycophants who were hanging around the band and close to Danny Sugerman - who was a groupie himself."

link to interview:

Even as a naïve teenager I finished the book thinking, "That Jim Morrison was an a**hole." And sadly that has pretty much the Jim Morrison narrative over and over and over and over again.

I'll give you a small example. I think it was Hopkins' "Essential Lizard King" book (which I returned for a full refund) where he included a story that was supposed to give some kind insight into Morrison - where Jim did something outrageous and then "the very next day!" Jim Morrison "barged into" the home of Elektra Records executive Jac Holzman and sat and showed Holzman's son how to play an African thumb piano.

Holzman's take on that same scenario? Jim Morrison knocked on his door one evening and said, "I know its Adam's birthday and I just wanted to bring something over to him," then Morrison sits down proceeds to teach Holzman's son how to play an African thumb piano. Holzman said, "The relationship was Jim treating Adam as an adult and Adam understanding that Jim some child in him."

link to Holzman's comments:

The second version of the story is a little sweeter and a little more endearing. But why go with that angle regarding Jim Morrison when the nastier portrayals sell better? (There's the story of Jim being at the home of Pamela Courson's parents where they were serving martinis. A guest came into the kitchen to find Jim Morrison pouring his martini down the drain and refilling his glass with water and saying to the guest, "Don't say anything but I just hate these things [martinis]." Imagine the wild and crazy shaman refilling his glass with water just to be polite!)

It seems obvious to me at least that Jerry Hopkins had some sort of personal hatred for Jim Morrison as everything he has ever written about paints nothing but a horrible, ugly picture of him. Maybe it was personal, maybe it was petty jealousy or maybe it was Hopkins' idea of being a journalist.

Its funny that Hopkins contributes to the myth-building as far as Jim Morrison is concerned because Morrison sat down with Hopkins in 1969 and Morrison was pretty straightforward about a lot of famous quotes, the meaning of the song "The End", etc., etc., and yet it doesn't seem that Hopkins took anything Morrison told him into consideration when writing biographies about him.

link to Hopkins interview:

It was the 25 year-old, unemployed Manzarek's (with Masters in Economics, not art or music) idea for Jim Morrison, already known to have a terrible problem with the bottle and to be, by nature, painfully, painfully shy, to be the lead singer of a band Manzarek was putting together.

They were all also well aware that Morrison was not exactly stable. Robby Krieger, whose father was a psychologist, recalls a story of when he first showed up to audition for Manzarek's new band and witnessing Morrison's over-the-top reaction to a dope deal gone bad he thought to himself, "Jesus! This guy's not normal!" (Morrison had also gotten drunk and arrested before the band's first rehearsal.)

link to Krieger interview:

People forget the part of the legendary "Venice Beach" story where Jim Morrison said, "The first thing we have to do is find a singer." (I honestly believe Morrison's original idea was to help out with the songwriting aspect.) But Manzarek saw his friend who, in his words, "looked like a movie star!" and Morrison's, as one journalist put it, "highly marketable cheekbones" and Manzarek just had to have him as his front man. (Manzarek gave Morrison singing lessons and even worked out with the natural-tendency-toward-being-chubby Morrison.)

Manzarek must have felt that Morrison owed him money or a career after all of the problems Morrison caused the band to go along with Sugerman's and Hopkins' "biography" and to encourage the fantasy that Jim Morrison faked his own death (a fantasy that caused a lot of pain for the Morrison family with people showing up at their door after Morrison's death demanding to know where Jim was).

As a result people resent the fascination with the "Morrison mystique" and they feel that The Doors get more attention than they deserve. Any benefits provided by the film "Apocalypse Now" was ruined by "No One Here Get's Out Alive" and all of the biographies that followed.

If Manzarek and Sugerman treated their dead...I don't want to say they thought of him as a friend, its obvious they didn't...and former band mate's life story with honesty, integrity and maybe just a bit of compassion, maybe try to put Morrison and his problem into perspective, Jim Morrison would not be considered "the most divisive figures in rock", The Doors would be treat with more respect and everyone would be a lot better off.

(As far as Densmore whiny little book. Not very classy for someone to write a biography about a guy they clearly hated. Densmore repeated second hand rumors and said he met Jim Morrison's mother and she seemed "very nice". So I guess Densmore KNOWS that Jim Morrison's mother was a nice person and that Jim had no reason to resent her or to cut her out of his life. That's the impression I got anyway. Meeting someone once and growing up with that person as your parent are two different things there Johnny.)

I'm not saying Jim Morrison was actually a saint of a guy who people unjustly criticize. He wasn't. He definitely wasn't. But let's put everyone in the rock music industry during the 1960s alone on the witness stand and let's see how the more beloved and sainted figures come across. A surprising number of them would make Jim Morrison look like a prince.

As Jim Morrison said, "Death makes angels of us all and gives us wings where we had shoulders smooth as raven's claws". Well, just about everyone else got their wings, as well as their revisionist histories, but Jim Morrison's shoulders are still considered pretty smooth.

Robby Krieger, who got along with Jim Morrison and who is the only band member to ever show Jim Morrison any understanding or compassion is said to be working on his biography. I would hope that he gives Morrison a fair shake but, unfortunately, I don't know that people will still be flocking to read books about Jim Morrison anymore. What's sad is that this might actually be a good one.