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The Doors' Jim Morrison Died In 1971, The Same Year NPR Debuted Original Programming

Sep 1, 2021
Originally published on September 3, 2021 1:42 pm

This story originally aired on Sept. 1, 2021.

Fifty years ago, on July 3, 1971, Jim Morrison — lead singer of the rock group The Doors — died in Paris. It was the first year of NPR and Mike Walters, an early host of All Things Considered, worked his way up to that news by reciting a few relevant lyrics from "An American Prayer," a song written by Morrison: "We live, we die, and death not ends it / Journey we more into the nightmare / Cling to life our passioned flower."

Morrison's death was a cultural milestone of NPR's first year. The Doors had just released L.A. Woman, an album so memorable it still lives and breathes, half a century later. The title track is one of the great rock songs of that period: "Driving down your freeways / Midnight alleys roam / Cops in cars, the topless bars / Never saw a woman / So alone, so alone," Morrison sings on the rock classic, a vignette about people at the margins of society.

Morrison often wrote about alienation, drawing millions of fans, including generations of high school kids who could relate. Listeners were also entranced by the band's unmistakably dark sound. When Morrison performed, he and the band packed auditoriums with their theatrical screams and pulsating electronic music. And by 1971, the year of NPR's story, The Doors had played some of the biggest gigs, like the Hollywood Bowl and The Ed Sullivan Show.

That spring, the 27-year-old singer-songwriter moved to Paris, where he had plans to develop his poetry. But, a few months later, he died of a cause that was listed as heart failure, though no autopsy was performed. The initial news of Morrison's death and funeral was kept quiet to avoid the attention that surrounded the passing of such other rock personalities as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

"Morrison's death was heartbreaking," says Anthony Decurtis, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. "You know, he lived hard for someone to die at 27, certainly. And it was a big, big loss. I think Morrison had much more work to do. We all have missed out on that."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE MUSIC'S OVER")

THE DOORS: Yeah, come on.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Fifty years ago this summer, a host of NPR's All Things Considered had some news to break. It was 1971, the first year of NPR, and host Mike Walters worked his way up to that news by reciting a few song lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MIKE WATERS: We live. We die, and death not ends it. Journey we more into the nightmare, cling to life our passioned flower.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE MUSIC'S OVER")

THE DOORS: (Singing) Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WATERS: Those words were written by Jim Morrison, lead singer for a rock group, the Doors. He died in Paris last Saturday.

INSKEEP: July 3, 1971. We are celebrating NPR's 50th anniversary by noting cultural milestones of NPR's first year. And Jim Morrison's death was a big one. The Doors had just released an album called "L.A. Woman" with music so memorable, it still lives half a century later.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WATERS: When Morrison performed, he and the Doors packed auditoriums with their theatric screams and pulsating electronic music.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DOORS SONG, "L.A. WOMAN")

ANTHONY DECURTIS: I saw the Doors back then. The first two times were among the best performances I have ever seen. The audience was just mesmerized, and Morrison had that kind of power. He wanted to take you on a journey.

My name is Anthony DeCurtis, and I am a contributing editor for Rolling Stone.

The title track, "L.A. Woman," is one of the great rock songs of that period.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "L.A. WOMAN")

THE DOORS: (Singing) Well, I just got into town about an hour ago, I took a look around, see which way the wind blow. Where the little girls in their Hollywood bungalow...

DECURTIS: They weren't part of the love generation. They weren't part of Haight-Ashbury. This was a darker, fiercer vision that they had, and "L.A. Woman" captures that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "L.A. WOMAN")

THE DOORS: (Singing) Driving down your freeways, midnight alleys roam. Cops in cars, the topless bars, never saw a woman so alone, so alone, so alone, so alone.

INSKEEP: Who was the author of that vignette about people at the margins of society? Morrison himself tended to obscure his family ties, but he was born in Florida and grew up as what's called a military brat. He was the son of a U.S. Navy officer who grew up moving among bases in the 1940s and '50s. He emerged from that upbringing estranged from his family and went on to write about alienation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL ALL THE PEOPLE")

THE DOORS: (Singing) People are strange when you're a stranger. Faces look ugly when you're alone. Women seem wicked when you're unwanted. Streets are uneven when you're down. When you're strange, faces come out of the rain when you're strange. No one remembers your name when you're strange, when you're strange - when you're strange.

INSKEEP: Maybe it was that alienation that drew millions of fans and later attracted generations of high school kids like me.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DOORS SONG, "ROADHOUSE BLUES")

INSKEEP: And if it wasn't the alienation, it was the unmistakably dark sound of that band.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROADHOUSE BLUES")

THE DOORS: (Singing) Well, I woke up this morning, I got myself a beer. And I woke up this morning, and I got myself a beer. The future's uncertain, and the end is always near.

INSKEEP: By 1971, the year of our story, the Doors had played the Hollywood Bowl and "The Ed Sullivan Show." Morrison also was known for frequent drug use and was convicted on charges of indecent exposure and obscenity. During one of his last recorded interviews, he began dialing a rotary phone and took time to order snacks and alcohol.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM MORRISON: Yeah, we'd like to make an order, please. Morrison. A half a pint of Beefeater. And do you want some potato - yeah, a bag of potato chips. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: There's not a lot of places to get exercise around here.

MORRISON: A large one. Thanks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I mean - what? - ride a bicycle and walk...

INSKEEP: He went on to talk about gaining weight, which, along with a beard, made him look like an elder statesman in his 20s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MORRISON: I drink a lot of beer. Puts on, like, (unintelligible) pounds...

BEN FONG-TORRES: Are you...

MORRISON: Shall we stop for a minute to have some refreshment?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Potato chips.

INSKEEP: Yet in that same interview, Jim Morrison held a book of poetry that he'd written and spoke of his potential.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MORRISON: This book is more of a collection of aphorisms and notes. There are only five or six really solid traditional poems in it. I don't consider that my career as a poet has really even begun yet.

INSKEEP: Soon after that interview, Morrison moved to Paris, where he had plans to develop his poetry. He died in Paris of a cause that was listed as heart failure, though no autopsy was performed. He was 27.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WATERS: The initial news of the death and funeral was kept quiet because those who knew him intimately and loved him as a person wanted to avoid all the notoriety and circus-like atmosphere that surrounded the deaths of such other rock personalities as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DOORS SONG, "RIDERS ON THE STORM")

INSKEEP: Music critic Anthony DeCurtis was a young Doors fan when he heard the news.

DECURTIS: Morrison's death was heartbreaking. You know, he lived hard for someone to die at 27, certainly. And it was a big, big loss. I think Morrison had much more work to do. We all have missed out on that.

INSKEEP: But the Doors had finished "L.A. Woman," that final album, before Morrison's death.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIDERS ON THE STORM")

THE DOORS: (Singing) Riders on the storm, riders on the storm...

DECURTIS: And, you know, he ended up being buried in the cemetery in Pere Lachaise in Paris in the poet's corner, you know, along with people like Oscar Wilde and Balzac. And he deserves to be there.

INSKEEP: Which is why Morrison's death stands as one of NPR's cultural milestones of 1971.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIDERS ON THE STORM")

THE DOORS: (Singing) The world on you depends. Our life will never end. Got to love your man, yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.