‘He just liked to f*** with people’: The myth and mayhem of Jim Morrison’s disastrous final show

Fifty years ago, The Doors frontman gave his last performance as he spiralled out of control, signalling the end of the Sixties dream. Guitarist Robby Krieger guides Mark Beaumont through the tempestuous curtain call

Friday 11 December 2020 13:09
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Jim Morrison performing in 1968
Jim Morrison performing in 1968
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omewhere in the docks of New Orleans, 12 December 1970, Jim Morrison’s mojo deserted him. Shambling drunk, he took the stage at the Warehouse – a venue steeped in the musty stench of Mississippi cargo and “juju vibes” – with his trademark booze bravado. But soon he began forgetting lyrics to The Doors’ classics, shouting the words to “St James Infirmary Blues” over whatever song his bandmates happened to be playing. An attempt at a new track, “Riders on the Storm”, was aborted and Morrison tried to win back the disgruntled crowd with a meandering joke with no punchline. Midway through the show, his essence simply fled.

“The bayou and the juju conspired to snuff out Jim’s spirit,” Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek wrote in his 1998 autobiography Light My Fire. “Halfway through the set his energy, his vital force, his chi, just left him. It became a vapour.”

At one point, by some reports, Morrison collapsed on the stage and refused to get up. Come the encore he spent “Light My Fire” slumped over his mic stand and “The End” sat on the drum riser, until drummer John Densmore nudged him with his foot in the direction of the microphone. Suddenly struck with an incandescent rage – at his demonisation by the establishment perhaps, his forthcoming prison stretch, his lack of personal control or his inability to translate the ideals of the hippie counter-culture into free and unhindered creative expression – he picked up the stand and began smashing it into the stage, splinters flying. His anger only dissipated when a roadie placed a hand on his shoulder, a sign that it – the fit, the show, The Doors – was over.

The self-styled Lizard King had shed his golden scales, become a husk. It was the last show he’d ever play.

If ever a butterfly was broken on a wheel, it was Jim Morrison. In the early days of The Doors he emerged as a quasi-mystical sex symbol for the LSD generation. Fronting a band capable of mingling rock, jazz, blues and classical tones into a timely, hallucinogenic stew, he was counter-culture personified; a poet tuned in to ancient texts and arcane desert spirits, a raving rebel and a charismatic rock shaman with a bone structure hand-carved by Zeus. He was once arrested in New Haven in 1967 for improvising a poetic but obscenity-strewn rant onstage about the policeman who’d maced him backstage. His performances were legendarily unpredictable too: “wild, crazy s***,” Manzarek wrote of the onstage antics of one of rock’s earliest crowd-surfers. “Amp leaping and rafter hanging and all manner of absurdo c***.”

Jim would always lead us somewhere that we didn’t go the night before

“He was always like that, even from the beginning,” Doors guitarist Robby Krieger tells me today. “We just dealt with it. That was part of the reason that people wanted to see us, they wanted to see what would happen next. It was kinda crazy but we were not a band that just played the same set every night the same way. It was always different and Jim would always lead us somewhere that we didn’t go the night before. He just liked to f*** with people. He hated the fact that some of these bands would just play the same songs night after night the same way and all of us were from a jazz-influenced place, where you did improvisation. So every night the song was different, which kept it interesting.”

Unfortunately, Morrison’s unpredictability spilled offstage. Generally glued to a bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon, which he often used to wash down all manner of pills, he went from free-living debauchee to violent alcoholic just as The Doors began to find themselves at odds with their own audiences. The band were there to deliver genre-splicing musical odysseys, while the crowds turned up for the hits – “Light My Fire”, “People Are Strange”, “Hello, I Love You” – and Jim’s wildman behaviour. “They didn’t want intense psychic acts in the ether,” Manzarek wrote, “they wanted a freak show.”

This tinderbox situation finally blew in Miami on 1 March 1969. Inspired by an experimental theatre group called Living Theatre, who set out to rile their audiences into anti-establishment thinking with angry and confrontational performances that often included nudity, an intoxicated Morrison set about antagonising the 12,000 fans crammed into the 7,000 capacity Dinner Key Auditorium. He called them “idiots” and “slaves” and shouted “you didn’t come to listen to music, you came to the circus!”, while also advocating free love, hedonism and emancipation: “A crazed prophet in the desert at the dawning of a new age,” Manzarek wrote. With the crowd whipped into a frenzy that threatened to collapse the stage, Morrison held his champagne-drenched shirt in front of his groin like a toreador’s cape, offering to show the crowd his penis and occasionally, very briefly, whipping the shirt aside. “Nothing could be seen,” argued Manzarek. “[He] teased and taunted and cajoled that crowd into believing he had shown them his c***. He had hypnotised them … created a religious hallucination.”

The year before things blew up: Morrison in 1968

The crowd invaded the listing stage in pitched battle with security; Morrison himself was thrown off it by a bouncer and led a parade of fans through the auditorium riot. Four days later, on vacation in the Bahamas, word arrived that a warrant had been issued for Morrison’s arrest, claiming that he had simulated oral sex (by kneeling in front of Krieger mid-solo), exposed himself (despite there being no photo evidence amongst the 500 images presented), swearing at the crowd and being drunk (fair cop). “That Miami thing was such bulls***,” Krieger says today, “because Jim never really did what he said they did. In fact, after the show we were having beers with the cops up in the dressing room. So nobody got arrested, nothing happened until a week later, some politician got it in their mind to make a big deal about the show and how dirty it was. Jim was swearing and stuff but it was a total bulls*** deal.”

What was intended as a liberating statement ended up straitjacketing The Doors. Radio stations stopped playing their music, hampering the chart success of their fourth album The Soft Parade. Having only ever played four shows in a row before, Miami was intended as the start of their first proper 20-city tour. One by one, the venues cancelled the dates; The Doors were blacklisted. “They had this thing called the Hall Manager’s Association or something like that and they decided that The Doors were no longer fit to play in any of their halls,” says Krieger. “They owned all the big halls. It took about a year for them to ease up on that and finally we were able to play some places. It was not easy even after that because every time we played there’d be 30 cops at the front of the stage just waiting for us to f*** up.”

When The Doors finally got back onstage, it was with a new clause inserted into their contracts allowing the show to be stopped and all band proceeds confiscated if Morrison so much as swore onstage. In the wings on one side of the stage would lurk two police officers holding warrants just waiting for them to fill in an offense; with LSD now illegal, on the other would-be vice squad cops hoping to bag a conviction from the kings of acid rock.

Despite all this demonisation, The Doors entered 1970 optimistically. After the drawn-out genesis of the experimental and orchestral Soft Parade album, only lengthened and strained by Morrison’s erratic behaviour as he indulged his passions for poetry, film and hard drinking outside the sessions, they enjoyed returning to the four-piece hard rock format for 1970’s fifth album Morrison Hotel. It was an international hit. “We knew how to make records, it wasn’t rocket science. We were all in a good place musically, to be done with the Soft Parade album, which just took forever, it was a good space.”

Mid-court case, the band were allowed by the judge to fly to the UK in August to play at the Isle of Wight Festival. “That was pretty cool,” Krieger recalls. “The best part was that I got to sit next to Jimi Hendrix on the airplane all the way over to London. Really cool guy. The show was kinda crazy – they were making a movie of the whole thing so they had these real bright lights. Jim wasn’t going for that, he’d gained weight, he had a beard, he didn’t look all that good. I guess that’s the reason that he insisted that they keep the lights real low and with a red tinge, don’t ask me why. Jim didn’t fucking move a muscle the whole time, which was kinda boring, but overall I think it’s a really good show.

“That was a crazy night,” he continues, “because right before that I remember there were thousands of kids outside that couldn’t get in, they got pissed off and they ripped down the fence. The cops were beating on them and stuff, and Joni Mitchell was crying. It was a pretty crazy night.”

However, back in the States in October, Morrison lost his Miami case. Six months of hard labour at Raiford jail loomed, pending appeal. It was this weight that Morrison carried with him to New Orleans, intensifying his drinking and crushing his spirit. In the wake of that disastrous final Doors show with Morrison, the band convened to agree that they would stop touring.

How did Krieger feel about the decision? “Not good. But it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. I fully expected that we would start up again at some point but unfortunately that never happened.”

The show marked a turning point of sorts. Sessions for sixth album LA Woman that winter would produce some of the band’s most legendary songs – “LA Woman” and “Riders on the Storm” among them – and Morrison showed signs of reforming too. He’d turn up to recording at the band’s rehearsal room sober and committed: “That was pretty good for Jim,” says Krieger. “He was staying in this motel right across the street so he was always there and it was fun for him.” He also responded well to his bandmates’ intervention to curb his alcoholism, acknowledging he had a problem and vowing to address it.

Morrison in 1969

Were things looking brighter for The Doors before Jim went to live in Paris, with his girlfriend Pamela Coulson, after LA Woman was completed? “Yeah, especially after the album came out and started doing really well,” says Krieger. “We never expected Jim to pass away over there, it was pretty horrible in that respect.”

Sadly, Morrison’s addictions weren’t addressed quickly enough. On 1 July 1971, his appeal still underway, Morrison died from heart failure in the bathtub of his Paris apartment, aged just 27. “In those days we didn’t have rehabs or any of that stuff,” Krieger says. “We tried to make Jim stop drinking and stuff a couple of times but it never worked and we were hoping that when he went to Paris that would be a whole different vibe and maybe he would clean himself up – that’s what he said – but that’s pretty tough to do on your own [and] unfortunately the opposite happened. Had Jim come back from Paris then I’m sure we would’ve been playing again but we’ll never know.”

The Doors resumed touring to support subsequent post-Morrison albums Other Voices (1971) and Full Circle (1972), but were destined to be overshadowed by their own myth and tragedy. The three remaining Doors disbanded in 1973 and, despite continuing to play The Doors’ music in various formations, have only sporadically reunited since – to put music to Morrison’s poetry on 1978’s An American Prayer album and for events such as their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inauguration or their VH1 Storytellers special, with Morrison’s shoes filled by an array of chasm-throated singers including Eddie Vedder, Perry Farrell, Scott Weiland and Ian Astbury.

“We just found a tape of one of [the last shows],” Krieger says, “so hopefully we’ll be able to use that. It might not be that good, but it’s a historical event.” Indeed, while Morrison’s last gig in New Orleans wasn’t The Doors’ finest live moment, it has grown in significance over the ensuing five decades. It represents the Sixties dream sapped of its potency by a threatened status quo, but also the need for anger and rebellion in the name of personal freedoms. It might have been a drunken red-mist meltdown, but when Morrison smashed the Warehouse stage, a genuine display of fury and frustration compared to the studied destructions of The Who, he flattened the way for punk’s nihilism and gave leftfield rock carte blanche to destroy. It may sound like a spluttering, but it lit a whole new fire.

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