Paris. July 2, 1971, early evening. Jim Morrison and his girlfriend Pamela Courson went to the cinema to see Pursued, a western starring Robert Mitchum. At another theater, Jim Morrison sat alone, watching a documentary called Death Valley. Across town, at the Rock ’n’ Roll Circus nightclub, Jim Morrison scored some heroin and OD’d in the bathroom. At the same time, Jim Morrison walked the streets of Paris and shot up with some junkies on skid row. Meanwhile, at Orly Airport, Jim Morrison boarded a plane for an unknown destination.
No one knows for sure where the 27-year-old Jim was or what he did that evening, but by the next morning, one thing was certain: He was dead.
Three months earlier, he had fled Hollywood. Bloated, bearded and out of control with his drinking, the once-svelte Lizard King had become a sad parody of his former self. During the difficult recording sessions for the Doors’ final album, L.A. Woman, Morrison would guzzle as many as 36 beers in a single day. His voice was giving out, and he was struggling with his lyric writing.
On March 11, 1971, he went to Paris for a sabbatical. He intended to get clean, lose some weight and reconnect with his muse.
Of the possible scenarios on the night he died, the first has become the most accepted. After the movie, he and Courson returned to their apartment at No. 17 Rue Beautreillis. They watched some Super 8 films of a recent Moroccan vacation before Courson went to bed. Jim stayed up for a while, listening to old Doors albums, trying to suppress a coughing fit that had started earlier in the evening. When he came to bed, he woke Courson, complaining that he felt sick.
He was up an hour later, feeling worse. When he vomited a small quantity of blood, Courson suggested they call a doctor. Jim instead asked her to run a bath for him. While he stretched out in the tub, she went back to bed. The last thing she remembered hearing Jim say was, “Are you there, Pam? Pam, are you there?”
Courson awoke a little after 6 a.m. and realized Jim wasn’t in bed. She called his name. No answer. In the bathroom, she found him submerged in the water. He had a smile on his face. At first she thought he was playing a joke. She shook him. When he didn’t respond, she called the fire department and then the police. They arrived too late.
Jim Morrison’s corpse, wrapped in plastic and packed in dry ice, remained in the apartment while Courson and Alain Ronay, a friend of the couple’s, made funeral arrangements. Three days later, the undertakers finally delivered the coffin that Courson had ordered (the cheapest possible model, the equivalent of $75 USD). Sometime during those 72 hours, a doctor visited the apartment and signed a death certificate. The official cause was listed as heart failure. No autopsy was performed.
By the time Doors manager Bill Siddons arrived from the United States on July 6, he found a sealed coffin and the death certificate. Only Courson and Ronay had seen Jim’s body before it was buried in Pere La Chaise Cemetery on July 7. When Ronay negotiated the deal to get an American into the famous French graveyard, he accepted a 30-year lease. It expired in 2001. As of this writing, the body has not been exhumed.
Siddons and Courson returned to Los Angeles the next day. Siddons told the press, “I have returned from Paris where I have attended the funeral of Jim Morrison. I can say he died peacefully of natural causes … ” This came six days after Morrison’s death (imagine that in today’s minute-by-minute media world). Questions started: Was there a police investigation? Why was there no autopsy? Who was the examining doctor? (Incredibly, Courson couldn’t remember the doctor’s name, and his signature on the death certificate was illegible). Why weren’t Jim’s parents told? (Courson lied to the American Embassy and said Morrison had no immediate family, which allowed for a quick, no-questions-asked burial. There wasn’t even a priest.)
Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek asked Siddons, “How do you even know Jim was in the coffin? How do you know it wasn’t 150 lbs. of fucking sand?”
Putting aside that notion for a moment, what was it that killed Jim Morrison? There were many theories, from the possible (sexual disease) to the paranoid (he was a victim of a government conspiracy aimed at wiping out counterculture heroes) to the preposterous (a spurned ex-girlfriend killing him with a Wiccan hex).
Danny Sugerman, Doors insider and co-author of the best-selling biography No One Here Gets Out Alive, proposes a plausible theory. He says that Courson told him she had been doing heroin and lying to Jim that it was coke and downers (she died of an overdose in 1974). On the fateful evening, they had snorted heroin together (Morrison was terrified of needles). That summer in Paris, there was a potent version of the drug making the rounds, known as China White. “It’s not unusual when someone does heroin for the first time, for them to feel ill,” Sugerman told MOJO. “He was sick, he took a bath, he died. There was no more mystery than that.”
Many of Jim’s closest friends dispute Sugerman’s theory, saying that despite his penchant for excess, Jim never did hard drugs, and in fact, had a disdain for them.
As for the bigger question of whether he’s still alive, Jim once talked seriously about faking his own death as a publicity stunt, and he often joked to friends that one day, he’d split for Africa and change his name to Mr. Mojo Risin’ (an anagram for Jim Morrison). Over the years, he’s been spotted in Tibet, the Australian outback and the American midwest, where he supposedly rides rodeo and writes poetry on the side.
As Manzarek has said, “We don’t know what happened to Jim in Paris. To be honest, I don’t think we’re ever going to know. Rumors, innuendoes, self-serving lies, psychic projections to justify inner needs and maladies, and just plain goofiness cloud the truth. There are too many conflicting theories.”
—By Bill DeMain
From Performing Songwriter Issue 93, Heaven Only Knows