Ian Astbury: One door shuts... another door opens

When Jim Morrison died, in 1971, that was the end of The Doors. Or was it? Thirty years later, the remaining members have hired a Brit in his stead. Tim Cooper meets Ian Astbury

Wednesday 10 December 2003 01:00

When he walks on stage at Wembley tomorrow, Ian Astbury could be forgiven for introducing himself with a well-worn phrase: "Tonight, Matthew, I'm going to be... Jim Morrison." Unlikely though it sounds, the Merseyside-born singer of The Cult has taken over at the helm of one of the most influential and legendary rock bands of all time - The Doors.

Thirty-two years after Jim Morrison died of a heart attack in a Paris hotel room at the age of 27, two-thirds of the remaining trio are back on the road for one last tour. Stepping into the dead man's shoes is Astbury, who shares not only the charismatic Morrison's brooding dark looks and baritone croon but also his interest in mystical philosophies and Native American shamanism. "When I was first offered the job, I'd say people were about 80-20 against the idea," he admits. "And I've got to confess that if you'd asked me what I thought about The Doors going on the road with a new singer, I'd have said it was a ridiculous idea. But I've always loved Morrison and The Doors, so I obviously felt flattered and honoured."

Astbury first stepped into Morrison's shoes three years ago on a Doors tribute album, Stoned Immaculate, and was later asked back for a TV special. So spookily successful was his reincarnation of Morrison, singing "Wild Child" and "Touch Me", that he was invited to take part in a one-off Doors reunion to mark the 100th anniversary of Harley-Davidson last year. The original keyboard-player, Ray Manzarek, and guitarist, Robby Krieger, enjoyed themselves so much that they decided on a world tour before retirement.

So, at the age of 41, Astbury finds himself on the road with two men in their sixties, and at the centre of the same sort of adulation from Doors fans that Morrison once enjoyed. It's a position he could scarcely have imagined when he was growing up on the Wirral, hearing The Doors for the first time on Radio Luxembourg. "I probably first heard them when I was nine or 10, on my parents' transistor radio," he says. "At the time I loved David Bowie and T. Rex. But I was drawn to The Doors - they were so different, so much darker."

Astbury's childhood was similarly dark. He had to help to raise his younger brother and sister after his father, a merchant seaman (Morrison's father was also a sailor, albeit an admiral), had a near-fatal car crash and his mother became ill with cancer. The family moved to Canada in 1973, and by the age of 16, Astbury had been to 12 schools. His mother died on his 17th birthday, and his father attempted suicide soon afterward. No surprise, then, that Astbury, who had begun work as a teenager to make ends meet, and had to go back to work after his male boss tried to rape him - "We needed the money, so I couldn't afford not to" - had a nervous breakdown at the age of 18.

Leaving his home in Canada, he returned to Britain. He became drawn to the Morrison myth after reading Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman's seminal biography, No One Here Gets out Alive, which became "a sort of bible" for the troubled teenager. After a period as a homeless punk rocker, Astbury formed the band Southern Death Cult in 1981. Their music was inspired by The Doors, and their imagery by the American Indians whose rituals and spiritual beliefs had fascinated him while he was growing up near a reservation in Canada. "I've always been fascinated by mysticism and shamanism," he says. "My grandmother was in a spiritualist church, and I grew up in a kind of pagan household."

With their name shortened first to Death Cult and later to The Cult, the group's epic rock sound, married to the singer's rock-god looks (he was photographed for Vogue), made them one of Britain's biggest American success stories in the mid-Eighties. Astbury set up home in California and led a lifestyle that made Morrison's excesses look tame, clocking up countless arrests for wanton acts of drunken destruction; he even managed to imitate Morrison by being jailed for obscenity.

By 1987, seemingly bent on self-destruction, he went into hospital with the old rock'n'roll ailment of "nervous exhaustion". He says of the period: "I'd become everything I used to hate. If I was 17 years old and I'd seen myself walking down the street at 27, I probably would have crossed the street and spat on myself."

Cutting back on his drinking, he moved to Los Angeles and found a new wave of success with The Cult. Then hisold demons returned to haunt him, and it wasn't until his father's death in 1989 - also from cancer - that he reassessed his life. The following year, he established a festival in San Francisco called The Gathering of the Tribes and married an American girl, Heather, with whom he went on to have two children, Dustyn and Che.

Astbury's fascination with Morrison led Oliver Stone to consider him for the main role in the director's 1989 biopic of The Doors. The job went to Val Kilmer but did bring Astbury an introduction to Sugerman and the surviving members of The Doors.

Five years ago, Astbury's world imploded again, under the weight of a crumbling marriage, an increasing reliance on alcohol, the break-up of The Cult and a $61m (£35m) lawsuit brought by the family of a young American Indian boy who claimed his image had been used on an album cover without permission. Astbury found sanctuary in a "spiritual journey" to Tibet and a trip to Cuba to track down "the children of the revolution". When he returned, he left his wife and sought help. "I made big breakthroughs in therapy in 1998," he recalls. "That was my big clear-out year."

The following year, he joined Krieger on stage at a solo gig by the former Doors guitarist, the first step on the road to their current reunion. The original drummer, John Densmore, suffering from tinnitus, was unable to take part and brought an action to stop the band using their old name, on the grounds that they were not The Doors without Morrison - hence their unwieldy billing as The Doors of the 21st Century. Densmore was replaced by the former Police drummer Stewart Copeland, who had to pull out on the eve of the tour after breaking an arm.

Now, with a new drummer, Ty Dennis, in place, all is finally well. Astbury is growing into the role, for which, in some respects, he seems to have been born. He shares Morrison's fascination with the concept of performance as ritual space. "I love the tribal, barbaric element of real, raw music, when everyone stops looking around and locks into a communal celebration," Astbury says. "You walk out so elated."

Ticket sales have been encouraging enough for Wembley Arena to be booked for the first London show by Doors members since the original line-up played The Roundhouse in 1968. "The challenge was to win the audience's hearts and minds," Astbury says, "and as soon as people saw I had the right amount of reverence, putting the music and the heritage of Morrison first, they felt more confident about it.

"It's not a matter of impersonation; more a question of recycling a classic body of work. It is not about recreating what The Doors were then but about Robby and Ray wanting to play the music for one last hurrah. It would be painful for them if it fell on its face, because it is their legacy. But it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, and I would rather have a go than wonder what might have happened."

When he is playing with Manzarek and Krieger, Astbury says, it is almost as if the ghost of Morrison still stalks the stage. "When they play, they hit something deep within you, and I am sure Morrison must have felt that too," he says. "I guess I must have tuned in to some of the things he tuned in to. Sometimes I come off stage and feel like I need an exorcism."

The Doors of the 21st Century play Wembley Arena tomorrow

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