He was an alcoholic, a genius, an asshole, a poet and-perhaps worst of all-a buffoon. He described himself in typically romanticized terms as "a sensitive, intelligent human being, but with the soul of a clown, which forces me to blow it at the most crucial moments."
Now, James Douglas Morrison is an icon, a mythical rock god with a legacy that far exceeds the facts of his short life. He is, like other generational touchstones (Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain), far better off dead than alive-at least, from a popularity point of view. Dead at 27, Morrison's legacy would come to represent the liturgy of pop culture's creation-death stories: Live fast, die young, leave a gorgeous and marketable corpse.
So it's not surprising that both the public and critics alike have refused the surviving members of his uniquely talented (and configured) band any escape from his specter by replacing him. They've tried. A couple years after Jim's 1971 death of heart failure in Paris, organist Ray Manzarek and guitarist Robbie Krieger did a very short stint with a Morrison disciple named Iggy Pop out front.
According to drummer John Densmore's autobiography, Riders On the Storm, the Iggy lineup came across as crass. It may have been an attempt at severing The Doors from their martyr's legend, much like Morrison had done himself when he was alive, at the hilarious, musically disastrous Miami concert.
So The Doors spent the next three decades mostly deprived of playing their own music with the all-important vocals-until their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, when Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder gave what many have called the only real tribute to the legacy of Jim-era Doors. Vedder, with a voice "uncannily like Morrison's," sang three songs ("Break on Through," "Roadhouse Blues," "Light My Fire"), fronting the surviving Doors in a performance that "sent chills down jaded spines all over the room," according to Pearl Jam biographer Kim Neely.
Neely's 1998 bio makes an interesting case for the Morrison-Vedder connection (besides both growing up in San Diego). And while I wish the new version fronted by former Cult figure Ian Astbury (another Morrison disciple) all the best, Neely's book makes the incredibly unlikely vision of a Vedder-fronted Doors seem like the least offensive of possibilities:
"...[T]he two were very much alike. More than a throaty tenor, it was this rage-against-the-machine outlook Eddie had in common with Morrison, a hunger for truth and a hatred for hypocrisy that both strove to communicate... even when it meant angering.... Most notably, like Morrison, Vedder abhorred... the industry icon factory even as he clearly benefited from it. Both men were haunted by the same internal conflict, longing to be respected as artists rather than pinup gods....
They both needed their fame as desperately as they hated it."
And that's what makes the new incarnation of The Doors such a paradox for their devoted. The same freedom and rebellion that made them legendary may now make it impossible for us to listen to them with un-jaded ears. With our dysfunctional mass hypnosis by the fallen Lizard King's memory, it's hard to remember that the surviving Doors should be allowed the same freedom to recreate or create (or mutate) as their artistic impulses dictate-which is what made them such a magical experience in the first place. One thing Jim Morrison always seemed to understand was how incredibly lucky he was to have such singular musicians as bandmates.
The Doors of the 21st Century should be given at least the benefit of that redoubt.
The Doors of the 21st Century perform at Street Scene on Sept. 5. $40. 619-220-8497.