Turning in his grave?

In 1971, Jim Morrison died in Paris. His grave in Pere Lachaise has been a shrine for Doors fans ever since.
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The Independent Culture
The funniest slogan in Pere Lachaise was scratched on the wall of a vault near the entrance: "Tom Cruise should not play Jim." It was 1990, and fans of the Doors were worried about Oliver Stone's proposed biopic. Where else to register their concern but in the Parisian cemetery where Jim Morrison, the band's lead singer, is buried? A year later, someone had inscribed the relieved postscript: "He didn't."

For people whose respect for their hero's memory runs so deep that they could not bear to see a toothy actor pretending to be him in a film, they don't have many qualms about vandalising his gravestone, nor those of the unfortunates interred nearby. Pilgrims from all over the world use chalks, pens and knives to leave their mark in a dozen languages. Common choices include "Jim is Alive" (if so, why are you here?) and appropriate Morrison lyrics: "Cancel my subscription to the resurrection." "This is the end, beautiful friend."

Crazed Doors fans excepted, Pere Lachaise is a fascinating and serene place to have a stroll. Founded by Napoleon in 1804, it is a 40-hectare maze of cobbled, leafy pathways that run between rows of ornate mausolea. Some of these grand edifices have their own iron doors and stained-glass windows, adding to the feeling that the graveyard is a small town in its own right: a ghost town. It attracted two million visitors in 1994, and provided 6,500 guided tours to help those visitors find Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Proust and Edith Piaf. Yet its biggest lure is the grave of a young man in leather trousers from Los Angeles.

In March 1971, as the Doors were finishing their sixth studio album, LA Woman, Morrison moved to Paris. He was bored of acid rock, bored of being the Lizard King. He hoped to escape from stardom and concentrate on being a poet. True to form, he concentrated on getting drunk instead. He died on 3 July, aged 27. The cause of death is probably related to a daily alcohol intake that could pickle an elephant, but it remains vague enough to licence a pile of "the final, definitive story" books, and to fuel rumours that Morrison faked his demise. Even John Densmore, the Doors' drummer, said in 1972: "He's just about the only person I've met who was wild enough to pull a fast one like that." None the less, a burial took place on 7 July.

Would-be rebels and drop-outs were soon lounging on any available tomb, drinking, smoking and singing. The setting, says Dylan Jones, in his biography of Morrison, Dark Star, became "the longest running open-air nightclub in Europe ... a popular place for wild parties and debauchery". Morrison had predicted all this in "Graveyard Poem", a spoken passage he would insert in live renditions of the Doors' most famous hit, "Light My Fire". Art and death, sex, drugs and rock'n'roll: everything the Dionysian idol represented to his devotees was united in Pere Lachaise.

Over the years, the alabaster bust that rested on Morrison's small, plain headstone was chipped away to featurelessness by souvenir hunters. In 1988, it was stolen. In 1991, the headstone itself had been reduced to such disrepair that it was replaced by a breezeblock with a brass plate on the front, and a new bust on top. All that's left of that sculpture is an inch-high metal screw that juts from the granite.

"On the 12th anniversary of Morrison's death in 1983," writes Dylan Jones, "the police used tear gas to break up a group of mourners." On the 20th anniversary, in 1991, a car rammed through the cemetery gates, just before midnight, and a crowd of 400 stormed in. The city's police must be looking forward to the 25th anniversary in a month's time.

I visited Pere Lachaise for a third time last Sunday. At first it seemed as if nothing had changed. The plan du cimetiere still costs 10FF from the florist on the Boulevard de Menilmontant. In the map's index, Morrison's name is still misspelt, with Gallic disdain, "Morisson". When you finally locate Morrison's tiny burial plot, obscured by the monuments around it, you find yourself in a continuous stream of arrivals. But the club's clientele has changed. Last weekend there were no hippies passing joints, nor students guzzling warm beer. Instead there were family outings. People wear anoraks rather than leather jackets, and carry camcorders, not ghetto blasters. A jowly, bespectacled American leans over, and takes a close- up photo. Replacing the lens cap he moves away with his wife and daughter. "So," he says, "who was this guy again?" Throughout the afternoon, I hear the question repeated. On one occasion the response is that Morrison was a "singer and drug addict". The faithful may not have disappeared, but tourists outnumber purists. "I used to be a big fan of the Doors," a 20-year-old Dutch girl concedes. "And he's cute, I guess. Well he was cute." Is this how she imagined the grave to be? She looks around, uneasily. "There's not as many people hanging out as I expected." A middle-aged woman is just as disappointed. "Where's all the graffiti?" she demands. It's as if the Tower of London were missing its ravens.

First people came to see the grave of Jim Morrison. Then they came to join the weird scene that had arisen around it. Then they came to observe the weird scene. And now there's no scene to observe. It is too late to see the kids and the boozing, the slogans and the litter. The cemetery's authorities have had enough of Morrison, and if their responses to our inquiries are anything to go by, they've had enough of journalists writing about him. The graffiti has been scrubbed off the surrounding stones, leaving only faint traces of the vivid scribbles that used to fill every available space. Nor are there any beer cans, bottles, love letters or cigarette ends. Beside the headstone are just four candles, and one bunch of flowers. No one wets the soil with a lager libation. No one has a guitar, no one sings. There's nothing to do but have a friend take a photo of you crouching next to the headstone - should you smile? Or would a solemn face be more appropriate? - and move on. Sit or step on any of the adjacent tombs and you risk a mumbled but firm reprimand from a security guard. There have long been guards in the area, but they used to drift in the background. Today, one stays right by the grave, a quietly intimidating presence, reprimanding anyone who switches on their video camera. Would the man who was tired of his fans' unthinking worship be relieved? Or is the cop-baiting anti-authoritarian turning in his grave? !