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This article was first published
on CLUAS in February 2007

French Letter: The Definitive Guide to Jim Morrison in Paris

Aidan on Jim Morrison and his Parisian adventures...

Aidan Curran, a CLUAS writer since 2004, is now based in Paris from where he files the 'French Letter' column

French FlagAs much as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame and the million other sights on the Paris tourist trail, one essential stop for visitors is Jim Morrison's grave at the Cimiti?e de P?e Lachaise. Rock fans ranging from the curious to the devotional all make the pilgrimage by metro to this picturesque gothic graveyard out to the east of the city just to see Jim, man.

Jim MorrisonIf visiting Morrison's tomb is an essential part of the Paris itinerary, perhaps his legacy is no less a rite of passage in the life of a music lover. There may be fewer die-hard Doors fans today, but surely most music fans went through a Doors phase in their teens; I know I did.

At that time (early to mid '90s) Oliver Stone's biopic of the band was the video being watched in any free house, and The Australian Doors were filling the Olympia (Even Thom Yorke was singing about wanting to be Jim Morrison, but I think he was being ironic). The girls' secondary school near our CBS went to Paris on a school tour and - the rock 'n roll of it! - visited Jim. One girl told us that she took a handful of earth and stones from his grave, which for us was as good as moondust. 'Wow', we said; liking The Doors and worshipping Jim Morrison necessarily means that you are easily impressed.

Then, thanks to the first Suede album and the Leaving Cert curriculum, we discovered thrilling new music and proper poetry. And so we left the Doors, soundtrack to our gullible teenage years, behind us and travelled forth into manhood - student bedsit, cheap lager and the Velvet Underground. I like to think I have maintained that exponential rate of development ever since.

Jim himself was no less guilty than we were of immature pretentiousness and impressionability; it was the subtext of his whole Parisian adventure. The French capital was already the playground of exiled American writers escaping censorious indecency laws back home - just as Morrison left the USA in March 1971 under the real threat of prosecution for having exposed himself on stage in Fort Lauderdale two years earlier.

The 'Lizard King' and rock idol had his own literary pretensions too, though his idols were not his illustrious American predecessors but dissolute 19th century French poets like Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud. Morrison took to referring to himself as a poet on his official documentation (the presiding police officer at Morrison's removal would snigger in disbelief on hearing this) and threw himself into a self-consciously bohemian lifestyle on moving to Paris. He and his girlfriend Pamela moved into an apartment at 17 rue Beautrellis, a quiet backstreet in the arty Marais district, and Morrison apparently spent most of his days wandering along the Seine and over to Shakespeare and Co's bookstore - still a mecca for today's literary-minded Anglophone backpackers and beat-poet wannabes. He also took walks around P?e Lachaise and told a friend that he wished to be buried there.

When I moved to Paris it certainly wasn't to follow Jim, but (still impressionable) I was definitely swung by the fact that many of my Irish literary heroes came here too - Joyce, Beckett and especially Oscar Wilde, now a neighbour of Morrison's in P?e Lachaise. Indeed, there are many points of similarity in the terminal Paris days of both Wilde and Morrison - mainly because of the latter's insatiable ambience-chasing.

Jim Morrison Grave ParisYou'll remember that poor old Oscar was also persecuted for sexual indecency, fleeing the social disgrace of his imprisonment for what he poignantly referred to from the dock as "the love that dare not speak its name". He saw out his last days at the Hotel d'Alsace on rue des Beaux-Arts, and for a few weeks in the spring of 1971 Morrison moved into the very room where Wilde had died (the playwright having looked at the awful wallpaper and sighing "One of us will have to go!"). By this time Morrison, overweight to the point of being virtually unrecognisable, was spending afternoons being loudly drunk and disorderly in the famous literary watering-holes on the boulevard Saint-Germain, like the Caf?de Flores and Les Deux Magots. He even fell from his third-floor hotel window one night, landing on the bonnet of a car and reeling away unharmed.

But it was back in the bathtub of his rue Beautrellis apartment that Jim Morrison finally died on 3 July 1971 - officially from heart failure induced by years of alcohol and drug abuse, but rumours persisted that he overdosed on heroin in a Paris nightclub earlier that night and was unceremoniously dumped home in a state of near-death. Within days a counter-rumour held that Jim had actually faked his death. In among the rumours, the myth of Jim took root and began to grow - which is where most of us as teenage music fans came in.

The graffiti and smoking sessions that once graced Morrison's grave have disappeared - two guards, two hidden security cameras (one in a tree, the other in the nearest lamp-post) and one rather incongruous crash-barrier have seen to that. And if the plot no longer attracts the mid-'90s hordes of fans, there will always be a steady flow of visitors - the curious and the devoted.

There is an inscription on Morrison's headstone in Greek script: KATA TON DAIMONA EAYTOY. Depending on whether you speak ancient or modern Greek, it translates as either "True to his own spirit" or "According to his own destiny". Pretentious, self-absorbed and ultimately insignificant, just like Morrison and his music. But weren't we all like that once?

Aidan Curran

Contact this column by email via frenchletter(at)cluas(dot)com