Jim Morrison: Rock Star, Testator, Tourist Attraction



What do these mysterious words mean?  What language is this anyway? And most importantly for our purposes, why are these words etched into a plaque on Jim Morrison’s grave?  Keep reading, all shall be revealed.

The Rock Star

For those of you in my oldster generation, it might have blown your minds to realize that last July 3, 2011 marked FORTY YEARS since Jim’s death. Time has gone super-sonic, no?

For those of you who were born after Morrison died in 1971 (most of my students), I perhaps need note that Jim Morrison was the singer in a band called The Doors.  Here are the words of a California judge describing Jim Morrison and his critical importance to The Doors in a 2008 judicial opinion, Densmore v. Manzarek, 2008 WL 2209993 (Cal App 2d Dist.) (unreported).

The Doors, as a rock-and-roll band, rose rapidly to great heights of success. In 1966, The Doors signed a six-album deal with Elektra records that would include such hits as “Light My Fire,” “L.A. Woman” and “Riders on the Storm.” Morrison played a pivotal role in the growing fame of The Doors. According to Nigel Williamson, a British critic and writer, “… the musical vision and the power of ‘The Doors’ came specifically from Jim Morrison. I’m not denying the contribution that the other three musicians in the group made. But I think without Jim Morrison there would not have been a group as we know ‘The Doors’ to have been. The music would not have existed in that shape or form.

The judge doesn’t really give a sense of Jim’s wide appeal and immense popularity (The Who opened for The Doors in 1968).  Jim helped shape the world’s conception of  a “rock star”

  •  rail thin  (at the height of his powers he weighed 145 pounds at 5’11”)
  •  sexy leather trousers
  •  long flowing hair (Jim’s celebrity hairdresser was one of the victims of the Manson family at Sharon Tate’s house)
  • and a general reckless disregard (Morrison had several famous run-ins with the law and he was not averse to drugs or drink).

From an infamous arrest in Miami

If you have never heard a Doors song, you should check them out. Francis Ford Coppola used a Doors song, The End, to establish the mood in the beginning of the best movie ever made, Apocalypse Now.  Listen, watch, it might change your life or something.

Tragically, Jim Morrison was a member of the “27 Club”.

It’s not a real club of course, but a group of very famous rock stars of Morrison’s generation who all died at age 27 including Brian Jones (an original Rolling Stone), Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin (and later, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse). Morrison died in Paris and he was never autopsied.  The most widely accepted story is that he died from an overdose of drugs, but I have read so many different versions of how Jim died that I’m not sure we will ever truly know the cause of his death.  If you are interested in the various stories, I can recommend  the books The Lizard King and Break on Through for some of the versions of Jim’s last days. And the web is, of course, chock full of gossip, slander and conspiracy theories surrounding Jim’s demise.  Google away.

The Testator

Remarkably for such a young man, Jim died TESTATE, with a very simple two page will that  he had executed when he was 25 . His will notes that he is a “single man” and it makes only one disposition – of the residuary of his estate to Pamela S. Courson.  Pam was his gorgeous girlfriend. From all accounts they had a tumultuous relationship.  To say they were polyamorists would not be unfair.

According to the will, if Pamela were to predecease Jim,  his residuary estate would pass in equal shares to his brother and sister.  He left nothing to his parents (who would have inherited his entire estate if he had died intestate).

Just last year, a great new documentary about Jim, “When You’re Strange” (narrated by Johnny Depp!!!) was released. It helps to explain the omission of Jim’s dad, who was an Admiral in the Navy during the Vietnam war.  He is interviewed in one of the extra scenes on the DVD and he admits to advising Jim to forget about a musical career because he believed that Jim “had no vocal talent”. That must have stung. I did not find any dirt on Jim’s mom, any reason why she too was disinherited, but he didn’t leave her a cent either.

Pam Courson survived Jim.  In fact, she was living with him in Paris when he died. Pam inherited his entire estate – $80 million plus annual millions more from continuing music sales, according to Johnny Depp in that documentary.  Pam was only 24 when she came into all that wealth. She and Morrison had been a couple for five or six years. Sadly, Pam died of a heroin overdose almost three years after Jim, also at the age of 27.  She died unmarried and childless and INTESTATE.

My students can tell you that it was Pam’s parents who ended up legally entitled to all of Jim’s estate! Wow. Do you think Jim would have considered them the natural objects of his plentiful bounty? Of course, this did not sit well with Jim’s family who attempted to contest Jim’s will after Pam died.  Weirdly, a probate court in California ruled that Jim and Pam had entered a common-law marriage in Colorado although neither of them resided there (perhaps the court was making the point that even if the will were deemed invalid, Pam would still inherit everything as the surviving spouse, so Jim’s parents’ were screwed, legally). Regardless, according to the court in the Densmore case, Pamela’s parents “Pearl and Columbus Courson, and Morrison’s parents, Clara and George Morrison, resolved their differences and agreed to share equally in Morrison’s interest in The Doors.”

Isn’t it ironic that although Jim died testate, his estate is being enjoyed by the parents he effectively disinherited and some legal strangers/common-law in-laws?

By the way, the Densmore case was a trademark/publicity rights case, dealing with whether two of the surviving Doors, Ray Manzarek and Robbie Krieger, could hold themselves out as “The Doors” and use Jim’s image at their concerts. The court ruled, NO – they could not hold themselves out as The Doors and they could not use Jim’s image without compensating his estate.  The court also awarded Jim’s “heirs” $3.2 million from the two survivors.

The Tourist Attraction

Most geezers of my generation can tell you that Jim Morrison was buried “in that cemetery in Paris”. Somehow, we all know that.  And when you visit Paris, images of Jim are everywhere (just as NYC sells our tourists boatloads of John Lennon crapola, Paris specializes in Jim Morrison tat – posters, t-shirts, fridge magnets, coffee-mugs and even grave-rubbings). Last winter when I was in Paris, I resolved to go find Jim’s grave and pay my respects. I learned that the name of that cemetery that holds Jim Morrison  is Pere Lachaise .  It is situated at the eastern edge of the city.  I found I could  take the No. 69 bus all the way from the Eiffel Tower to the cemetery.  It was a great ride through the heart of Paris. You don’t even need exact change on Paris buses – the drivers pull out these darling change purses and make your change while everyone else cools their heels – can you imagine that system in NYC?  There would be blood.

Pere Lachaise turned out to be the Disneyland of Cemeteries!  Seriously, it’s a real cemetery with over 300,000 permanent guests but it’s also a huge tourist attraction!

When you arrive, they provide you with a map of the crowded cemetery, which is built on a rather steep hill.   The map points out where many famous people’s tombs can be found.

Pere Lachaise is not the kind of “lawn cemetery” that we are used to, with grass between rows of headstones, but rather there are lots of large monuments and sculptures and mausoleums that hold entire generations of families as well as individual grave sites.  Here is what one entrance looked like.

I imagined that Jim Morrison would have a really large and cool mausoleum. I was psyched to find him. I went looking for Jim on a cold day in January and yet Pere Lachaise was buzzing with tourists.  It was a bit reminiscent of Dawn of the Dead movies except the people lurching around the cemetery on the uneven cobblestones were all clutching maps.  In my random wandering, I ran across Chopin’s grave!

But, I couldn’t seem to find Morrison.  I stumbled around for quite a while until I saw lots of people all converging on a particular spot.  I joined them and we arrived at a knot of others who were patiently waiting turns to get a glimpse of……Jim’s grave.  It wasn’t at all what I imagined it would be – in fact, after all the grand mausoleums and monuments, it was rather modest and crowded in between other graves.  Here’s is a photo I took

Here it is with the zoom.

If I had a better camera you would be able to read the inscription on the plaque on Jim’s grave that some other tourist was able to snap

The plaque was commissioned by Jim’s father in the 1990’s.  In the Johnny Depp documentary, Admiral Morrison said that he “went to his old Greek teacher” for the saying that is inscribed on the plaque, “ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟΝ ΔΑΙΜΟΝΑ ΕΑΥΤΟΥ” which he said means “True To His Own Spirit”.  Wikipedia notes that the words literally mean “According To His Own Daemon”.  So there you have it – a tribute in Greek from the disinherited father to his son who showed the world how to be a rock star.


1 Response to “Jim Morrison: Rock Star, Testator, Tourist Attraction”

  1. 1 Oscar Wilde | The Dearly Departed Trackback on April 1, 2013 at 3:03 pm

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