The ghost of Jim Morrison, originally published December 1986
You know how it is: On a Saturday night in Paris with the rain turning to sleet on the streets outside and inside the cafe it’s dark and warm. The windows are veiled with humidity and smoke curls across the bar. There is a lull in the conversation and behind you the door closes and a figure flits down the street, into the night. “There he goes”, somebody mutters. You turn but the ghost is already gone although the tingle down the spine remains.
Paris is a haunted place. At the Café de Flore it’s Sartre, groping monocularly between table-loads of tourists. At the Ritz it’s Fitzgerald, nervously staggering towards a breakfast of croissants and Martell – at five in the afternoon. And that crash you hear at La Closerie des Lilas is Hemingway, forgetting to duck as he leaves.
Sometimes the ghosts are still alive, like Becket at La Coupole. But the strangest ghost of all is Jim Morrison.
Morrison, the lead singer from the rock group, The Doors, and a rock culture icon/wastrel, died in Paris on Saturday, July 3rd, 1971. His wife, Pamela, found him dead in the bathtub of their hotel room. It was the kind of sordid, low-key death that the general public had come to expect from its rock’n’roll outlaws martyrs but, in the words of Dorothy Parker, it was also a good career move
From the very beginning, Morrison’s death was the subject of speculation and controversy. On Monday, July 5th, both the American Embassy and French police officials denied any knowledge of Morrison’s death. Kind of suspicious, hein? Try keeping anything from those two today.
On Tuesday the 6th, American record company officials (it must have been pretty serious for them to have got in on the act) were confronted with a fail accompli: a sealed coffin, with a death certificate stating that the inhabitant was Morrison, who had died of heart failure. There was no autopsy, and no one could locate the doctor who signed the certificate. Reaction Stateside was predictable: instant canonization and a spectacular increase in record sales.
For countless fans, Jim is still alive – both figuratively and literally. His “grave”, out at Pere Lachaise cemetery, is one of the most…unique sights of Paris. Many hapless grave-sites have been laid waste as a final homage to Jim. Even his own tombstone has not been spared, being totally obliterated by graffiti. The grave of his next-door neighbor, Mme. Gambier, who died, aged 56, on the 24th of November, 1877, is, despite the legend concession å perpétuité, now inhabited by empty wine and gin bottles. The extent of the vandalism had grown so uncontrollably over the years that, before a costly steam-cleaning operation was launched, it was estimated that over one hundred and twenty graves had been damaged by Jim’s restless fans.
There is always someone mounting a vigil by Jim’s “grave”. Dave Johnson from Salt Lake City explained why he had taken the time to go out to Pere Lachaise during the short period he was in Paris: “His grave (my italics) was my number one priority in Paris. His music was haunting and interesting. It created friction between young and old. He was like a god. He meant more to a lot of people than politically powerful figures, both then and now.”
Not everyone was as enthusiastic. Peggy Petrzelka, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when asked why she had bothered to visit Jim said: “I don’t know.” She did add that she thought Elvis’ grave was a damn sight more impressive. It was hard not to agree with her. The famous Morrison pout is still to be seen on a bust over the “grave”, although the famous Morrison nose is nowhere to be found.
For those who know, there is grim irony in all of this. After all, they say, only Jim could have pulled this one off. He hasn’t changed much, they maintain. Sure, he’s put on a little weight, but it’s pretty hard getting some decent exercise when you’re supposed to be dead. Yet when you see him, they say, still in his black leather pants, then you realize time’s been good to him.
Those advocating a “Morrison Lives” stance maintain that Jim’s poetic soul got fed up with the fame, wealth and notoriety he had so assiduously pursued throughout his twenty-nine years (or perhaps longer). Some believe he now resides in Morocco, but most maintain that he’s still here, in Paris.
Who is right? Is he or isn’t he? Has Jim gone to that strange land of the disappeared, to join the likes of Roald Amundsen, Amelia Erhardt, Glenn Miller, Harold Holt, the Flying Dutchman and that farmer – what was his name? – who disappeared from Cuba, Kansas, that night of the weird meteorite storm? Perhaps the mystery will never be solved.
Wait a minute. Isn’t that what we are always being told? Let’s do something about it, now! The next time you’re drinking at a bar on a late and rainy Saturday night and you fell the door close behind you, don’t say “there he goes” again. Go out after the ghost and tackle him! Hold him with a hammerlock until positive identification can be made (two r’s, one s). Do you hear me Jim? If you’re out there, reading this, be warned! And if any overweight, balding man in his black leather pants and his mid-forties suddenly finds himself pinned to the ground in a full-nelson, he’ll know it’s only an I.D. check, strictly routine.