Paris – The 40th Anniversary of Jim Morrison’s Death

On March 13th 1971, a young poet and rock idol moved from America to Paris with his girlfriend.  After four years of heavily being in the limelight for both the right and wrong reasons, a brief exile had become a necessity to escape the trials and tribulations bestowed upon him, as well as a need for renewed creative inspiration in a place that is home to many writers, poets and philosophers. Unfortunately, the old habits of this troubled genius failed to cease, and on July 3rd 1971, he met his demise in mysterious circumstances. Over the years, several theories have put been put forward about what actually happened that night, including whether or not he died at all. Whichever story is true, it led to a quick burial at the world famous Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

The name on the grave that has provided an alter for hundreds and thousands of adoring fans to pay their respects is James Douglas Morrison, the enigmatic frontman of 1960s rock band, ‘The Doors’. Made up of a quartet of Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, John Densmore and Jim Morrison, the band was highly unique and they took America by storm when they burst onto the scene in the mid 1960s.

The mistake that people make regards ‘The Doors’ is that they perceive Jim Morrison to be all they had. This is completely false! Jim Morrison needed ‘The Doors’ as much as they needed him, and he constantly reiterated that. Although Morrison was an exceptional individual who had a vision of the world that seemed so logical, yet so hard to comprehend for many others, the backing music of ‘The Doors’ was just as out of the ordinary, and when they came together, something beautiful and spiritual occurred. Choosing not to have a bassist in the band, they opted for an organ instead, and this added a dark and intense mystical overture to the music. The band itself cannot be pigeon holed. Each member brought a different array of talents that made the music sound a combination of rock n roll, blues, psychedelic, jazz, and even cabaret with the striking voice of Jim Morrison.  With the haunting and philosophical lyrics they conjured up, it all exploded into an electric sound that still remains distinctive today.

However, everything about Morrison’s life was at a fast pace, unpredictable on different scales, a mixture of ingenious poetry and lyrics in contrast with the constant excesses of alcohol, drugs and anti authority behaviour, which ultimately lead to his self destruct. Jim Morrison said it best when he described himself:

“I see myself as a huge fiery comet, a shooting star. Everyone stops, points up and gasps “Oh look at that!” Then- whoosh, and I’m gone…and they’ll never see anything like it ever again… and they won’t be able to forget me- ever.”

And he was right, we have never forgot and no one has been seen like this since. Even forty years after his death; his legacy, his poetry, his philosophies and his music with ‘The Doors’ still lives on to the point that celebrations are organised all over the world, acting as a gathering of appreciation for this larger than life character. On this particular occasion,  the 40th anniversary,  it was going to be a huge event not to be missed for avid ‘Doors’ fans. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to be in Paris for this weekend’s Doors Fest, the place where he died and was buried. As an added bonus to the weekend, the culmination would result in fellow ‘Doors’ members Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger and friends playing at Le Bataclan on the night of the 40th anniversary.

Saturday 2nd July 2011. This was my third time in Paris and being an obsessive ‘Doors’ fan, it was also my third visit to the grave of the man considered to be my idol and inspiration. Four years earlier to the day was my last visit and I remembered how special it was back then, celebrating the 36th anniversary, and also getting to see Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger perform in Paris that night for the 40th anniversary of the famous “Summer of Love” of 1967, coinciding with the release of ‘Light My Fire’, which reached number one in America. I was left in awe that night, but this was something a little different and a little bit more special. Having scoured the internet for information about the weekend, I realised just how huge it was becoming with various tributes being organised around the world in the UK, USA, France, Germany, and Holland, but surely none more special than the place where Jim finally rested, with his former band members putting on a tribute show in his honour later that night.

My excitement built as I stood outside the huge gates of Pere Lachaise, the old, white decaying walls surrounding the area. As I entered the cemetery, I noticed how unconventional it was compared to the UK. There was thousands of monuments and tombs which appeared from the pavements and they were tightly clustered against each other, mostly coloured in white or light grey, and there was no grass in sight. It seemed very peaceful and calm, but there was a sense of darkness that clouded the atmosphere. It felt a privilege to be walking amongst where legends such as Oscar Wilde, Chopin and Edith Piaf are also buried, but there was only one person who the majority would visit this weekend.

I dug out my i-pod and couldn’t resist but mirror the mood within the cemetery by putting the classic ‘Riders on the Storm’ on as I made my way through the cobbled and still compound in search of Jim. It wasn’t long before I started to notice the increase in various ‘Doors’ or ‘Jim’ t-shirts, which I also sported,  as my destination neared. As I turned the corner, I saw in front of me a congregation of followers nestled on the footpath and I knew that I had reached the final resting place. As this was the day before the 40th anniversary, it was relatively quiet compared to what would be perceived the following day, but enough to show how highly regarded Jim Morrison is.

I turned off the cobbled walkway to make my way through the bare grassless ground towards the grave. A huge tree is situated just outside the barriers and over the years, thousands of fans have scribed messages of appreciation all over the vast thick trunk; anything from quoting his mesmerising song lyrics to simple mourning statements, and it strangely resembled a work of art. By this time, I made the mood even more meaningful and eerie by putting the daunting and dark psychedelic ballad, ‘The End on, a song that leaves me in disbelief of how it was ever written due to the sheer genius of it. This coincided with me walking to the barrier to stare at the grave that was covered with flowers, memorabilia, hand written messages, and of course in tribute to the excess; bottles of whisky and full unlit cigarettes. Even the dead like a drink and a cig, especially on their anniversary. I stood and admired, like I had done twice previously and thought about the tragedy that happened for him to die so young. However, I do believe that because of his inspiration and early passing, this helped preserve the legacy, aiding ‘The Doors’ to last forever. Even Jim himself was noted as saying that he should die, because record sales would go through the roof, which actually occurred. But, did Jim anticipate this response so long after his death? Whether we see it as a tragedy or not, the fact remains that by Jim passing, his legend lives on, probably to a greater capacity than if he died in his 60s or 70s. He was best to die young and become the “huge fiery comet” he once proclaimed to be and leave us with his memories, music, poetry and rock n roll antics.

So, I had paid my respects, listened to the music whilst being grave side, and empathised with fellow mourners. Where to now? There could only be one place to go. Outside Pere Lachaise cemetery is a bar named “La Renaissance” (La Ren for short) and for ‘Doors’ fans, this was our Graceland. The bar is kitted out with ‘Doors’ pictures and all that can be heard is their music, no other bands allowed. With this theme in place and its location, there’s only one type of person this is going to attract, and that is the most passionate of fans. I took a seat at the bar and looked around, surrounded by Morrison t-shirts, the music from their self titled first album firing out from the speakers behind the bar.

The bar wasn’t overly busy, but I noticed several different accents from American to Dutch to French in my locality. I introduced myself to a group of people and we immediately became engrossed in conversation, obviously the initial topic was about Jim Morrison. It’s quite mind blowing really to be able to hit it off instantly with several people, from different nationalities, backgrounds and ages, all bound by our shared love for ‘The Doors,’. The differing ages shows how Jim Morrison’s impact still effects those that weren’t around when he was performing, even many years after his death. Some people who turned up were still in their late teens and early twenties and I found that quite astonishing. The majority of the English had come over on a pre organised ‘Doors’ coach trip that took several hours to complete, yet that didn’t deter them being part of this weekend. People from Nottingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Luton and Poole made the effort.  Our usual routine lives became lost, it just didn’t matter out here, this is where we belonged. The only commonality was ‘The Doors’ and our love for similar music. Conversations became an easy instant connection with the recipient, like we were all wired into the same “stoned immaculate” state. We all seemed very similar in our tastes in other music and we rarely disagreed in theories. It was strange that this collection of fanatical ‘Doors’ fans all held the same ideals, even ones that could be slightly controversial amongst the music industry in general, but let’s face it, to be into ‘The Doors’ on this level, there has to be some controversy instilled into your persona.  It was as if by some weird cult-like hypnotic connection, ‘The Doors’ and Jim Morrison became a gateway to our truth about life and love, opening the “doors of perception” in our minds. It was a great feeling to be unified with these strangers, like we had all found our long lost brothers. After several hours spent talking the night away with many random people, “La Ren” closed and I looked forward to the following day.

Sunday 3rd July 2011, the big day had arrived and the early start began with a short trip to Notre Dame, where I lit a candle for Jim Morrison. I made my way up towards the grave once again, and this time, it became obvious that the day was unique as scores of people gathered around the grave, all wearing ‘Doors’ t-shirts paying their respects. It was a very emotional moment as I began to realise the monstrous effect Jim had on so many people who had travelled from all corners of the globe to be part of this day. Some looked upset, others sat around alone with their thoughts, others decided to celebrate by drinking and smoking in the area and a few were sat in groups playing ‘The Doors’ music, absorbing the mood. It was more difficult to get close to the grave for any real period of time as the queues mounted behind. Typically, more and more memorabilia had been thrown onto the grave, and a series of candles burnt around the headstone.

Now that the respects had been paid, it was back down to “La Ren” to experience a wave of “Summer of Love” with new found friends. Masses of people congregated and drank in the baking Paris heat as devoted fans poured from all the exits of “La Ren” onto the streets and pavement. ‘The Doors’  music roared through the bar and onto the streets, much louder than yesterday. Every song would see at least one fan scream out a lyric, and sometimes it felt like a communal karaoke session as the majority of the bar couldn’t contain themselves to sing choruses to the great songs, such as ‘People are Strange and ‘Break on Through’. The atmosphere had become lively and electric, yet there was such a peace about it, and everyone was in perfect harmony with each other.

In the midst of the celebrations, I met a man from Australia, who worked for ABC. He was interviewing various people, recording their thoughts and impact of ‘The Doors’ on their lives. I was lucky enough to be interviewed, displaying my own obsessive nature towards this idyllic band that had touched my soul in every aspect possible. The guy was hoping to conjure up some sort of short documentary based on his experiences. With any luck, he might send me a copy!

Other interesting characters I met was an American woman who moved to Paris in 1989, and has put fresh flowers on Jim’s grave every day since. The impact he must have had on this woman’s life dwarfs my own. She wanted everyone to sign a book to commemorate the event, and she took the time to talk with almost everybody she could to see the impact Jim Morrison had from different perspectives.

There was also a French guy present who used to work security for a bar back in the day, and he claimed to have picked Jim up once or twice from the pavement as he staggered out a bit worse for wear. I could see in this man’s eyes that we was certainly emotional throughout the day, and for those that could understand the language, he too took the time to share stories from the past.

There was such a togetherness about the whole experience. Our backgrounds were nonexistent as all anyone talked about was music, and it was so easy initiating conversations with people that were complete strangers. I fail to see how any other personality in music could have such an effect, apart from Elvis Presley and John Lennon. Yet there are still people who constantly question Jim Morrison’s characteristics, stating that he was a buffoon, loser or an idiot. These people don’t really understand the depths of his meaning and what he was trying to say, and I feel sorry for those that can’t comprehend his philosophies and actions. From the response of the daytime alone in Paris, Jim’s way reached many people, and for those blessed enough to understand, it made the whole couple of days much more extraordinary and meaningful.

After spending several hours in “La Ren”, it seemed that everyone’s passion had grown significantly. There were a couple of people who were only present because their partners had dragged them along, and despite being minor fans initially, their eyes were opened to the strength of infatuation, stating that they couldn’t believe what they were witnessing.

With dusk coming around far too quicky, it meant the gig loomed upon us, so we made our way towards “La Bataclan” to witness a very special celebration of the lizard, and to “get together one more time.”