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Jim Morrison's Perpetual Flame

By ETER MIKELLBANK

© St. Petersburg Times


The question, freshly sprayed across an unmarked tomb in scarlet paint, begs an answer. Across the cemetery, a thousand tombs away, a crudely painted arrow like an ugly gash points in reply: "JIM." The arrow and name deface a massive turn-of-the-century sepulcher, their crimson scrawl the only color amid damp, cluttered rows of black and gray tombs, grayer cobblestone paths, winding among steep hills.

More than 24 years ago, on a long Fourth of July weekend, when most Americans were packing holiday picnics, James Douglas Morrison, son of a U.S. Navy admiral and former Clearwater resident, packed it in. Allegedly struck down by a heart attack while writing poetry in Paris, Morrison had blazed brightly, briefly, as lead singer/lyricist of The Doors, psychedelic rockers whose Light My Fire was the anthem for the late '60s soundtrack.

On his good nights, the angelic-looking performer could be spellbinding. On his bad nights, he got busted.

And in the afterlife, he's one of Paris' most popular tourist attractions: simply, the most notorious celebrity resident in notorious Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

How popular can a dead rock star be more than a quarter-century after his final performance? Well, only Napoleon at Invalides and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe outdraw him, Paris tourist officials admit privately.

And therein lies a tale ... People Are Strange

From the beginning, Morrison's life, career, writings and recordings were an inseparable, onrushing mass sounding loudly of falling breaks, impending metal crunch and lyrical sirens such as "There's a killer on the road/His brain is squirming like a toad ... "

Depending on your viewpoint and musical tastes, his death was either the tragedy of Icarus or a flight on Buddy Holly Airways. At best, it accorded him charter membership in rock's "Stupid Club." In memoriaum, however, Morrison has blossomed into pop culture's Lord Byron, a romantic poet tragically lost. In death, his larger-than-life stature has become that of a still-slender Elvis. Valentino in a T-shirt. A perennially overdosed James Dean swerving that last highway bend.

In lingered bereavement, for many, his hasty retirement from earthly bounds remains a Hugh Grant betrayal, and though a Morrison-penned line such as "Well, I woke up this morning/and got myself a beer ... " may not instantly sound like a line from Keats or Shelley, it does articulate a certain sentiment among the still-adoring legions making pilgrimage to St. Jim's shrine. Hello, I Love You

Smack in the Right Bank, Pere Lachaise is Paris' largest green space. Decreed the city's Eastern Cemetery by Napoleon in 1804, its 104 acres overflow with remarkable funerary sculptures and dead celebrities. Its paths and sidepaths, its guide notes, " ... form a truly phantasmagoric maze. Mystic enclosures within earshot of the sounds of the city, Pere Lachaise lives on its history, its secrets and its legends (necrophilia, vampirism, prostitution, black masses).

"The cemetery is also a place of pilgrimage for thousands."

Between 1,000 and 2,000 daily seek out Morrison, who easily wrested away Pere Lachaise's resident black sheep award from previous titleholders Oscar Wilde, Isadora Duncan and the literary tag-team of Gertrude Stein/Alice B. Toklas (buried in a joint plot). And while their reverent visitors wouldn't disturb a languid blade of grass, Morrison's necromantic cult turns the cemetery on its ear.

The small, sun-blind plot Morrison may (or may not) occupy is a bold, hieroglyphic Valhalla; a shrine, drawing the faithful and merely curious alike. Initially, fans remade Section 26 into graffiti Mecca, where waters were awash with LSD, marring, scarring and spray-painting everything in sight with spirited tributes, laments and black-humored encouragement ("Get well soon, JIM") in a dozen languages. Most pledge to keep alive the spirit of "Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n' Roll" which earned Morrison his place in their hearts.

And here. In fact, their decorating devotions almost cost Morrison his plot altogether.

For 20 years, worshiping fans also desecrated adjoining tombs, leaving behind an hourly trail of emptied Johnny Walker pints, carvings, flowers and drug paraphernalia. In 1991, after years of complaints, however, cemetery officials and estate attorneys struck terms under which Morrison could rest in peace.

His original tombstone and bust (which had developed a bad case of advanced psychedelia -- day-glo green hair, giant red spots) were removed. The area scrubbed down, security increased, a new graffiti-resistant monument, a massive block of granite-pebbled stone better suited to the inscrutable minutiae of Yosemite National Park (" ... formed nearly 55-million years ago from limey ooze on the bottom of shallow lakes ... ") was set in place with the epitaph: Kata Ton Daimona Eaytok.

Leaning a bouquet of roses beneath the inscription, one fan tells another, "It means "Holding Back the Demons."'

"You sure?"

"Yeah."

Well, it doesn't.

The "Soft Parade," they call themselves.

The vagrant-spirited and young, mostly in their teens, arrive early in their fashion of mourning blacks, leathers, jeans and Black & Decker hairstyles. As the day progresses, however, it becomes evident that Morrison, now starring in his third decade as an ageless idol, is an attraction with cross-generational appeal. Young and old, preteens and Lacoste seniors. School groups. Camera-straps and banana bags abound. Graceland blonds in too-snug Spandex posing for photos beside their grown grandchildren. Hundreds every hour.

"We come because this is something of Paris," explains Lucca, 23, from Bologna, Italy. "Things like the Tower Eiffel, like the Louvre. Also because I like The Doors."

His girlfriend, Antonella, spreading a souvenir map across an adjacent flat tombstone, suggests other celebrity resting places she wishes to visit. "Maria Callas, Daumier, Modigliani, Piaf ... " she calls out.

Beginning to photograph everything in sight, Lucca, ignoring her stream -- "Chopin, Moliere, Proust, Rossini ... " -- discovers that a rain-speckled paper adorning Morrison's stone is another fan's left-behind poem in Italian.

"Balzac ... Colette ... Seurat," Antonella continues.

Silently, three pale blonds amble into the courtyard, nesting atop an adjacent slab. "We want to see his grave," says Dutch punker Andy Speckmann, "because we are his fans. It's difficult to explain. How shall we say it? It makes me sad."

"You ever stop to think," another in the trio, betraying an American accent, asks, "what he would have turned into if he'd lived? Think he would have turned into a fat old drunk or some cheesy rock star like Mick Jagger?"

At the center of Morrison's cult is the mystery of whether he is actually dead -- the still-beguiling disbelief many bring to his gravesite. Given the extraordinary circumstance of his demise -- quick death, quicker burial without public funeral in a foreign land -- the rumors around Jim have been rampant for years. And despite the indignities of an Oliver Stone biopic, they continue to grow.

Tired of performing, the fans whisper, of celebrity, of harassment and arraignments, Morrison staged his own death. Slipping off to run guns in Africa. Drugs in Southeast Asia. More recently, he has been reported recording that much-delayed comeback album. And in truth, many surveying the inauspicious, earth-covered grave come away convinced he's not buried there at all. That the too-small sham grave is only part of his greater and continuing hoax itself.

Studying the inscription, the American muses, "Gee, I was only 4 when Jim died." Noting the carvings and graffiti, the third blond decries the apparent lack of respect paid Morrison, "a prophet," by his fans.

"No, Jim would've liked this," the American counters. "He used to get drunk with friends at graveyards."

Consoled, the trio wedges in between stones, extracting a wine bottle from a backpack. Shunted back a reasonable distance by passing security, they realize they've forgotten a corkscrew. Others arrive laden with twist-cap beer. The damp air fills with the scent of hashish. More arrive loudly, including a Swiss Army knife (with corkscrew), replacing those wandering off from the constant grave watch.

"I've run out of things to see in Paris after a day and a half," says Susan, 21, from San Francisco, clutching a straw hat against a fast-rising wind. "This is something if you're young and American, you have to see.

"It's also like, you know, if you're away from home like it's nice to see something American."

Rain quickly falling heavily through the high cathedral trees shrouding Morrison, several umbrellas pop from backpacks, sheltering two-dozen suddenly huddled strangers. The wine bottle, passed and drained, is pitched ceremoniously upon the grave. Antonella, wet and visibly angry, sails off toward Callas. Reluctantly, Lucca follows after.

Skittering between tombs, his voice draws away in continuing recitation: "To teach the living and tell the dead/c'mon, c'mon/ Now touch me, babe!" This is the End, Beautiful Friend

Morrison clearly danced over the edge to his end. In a way, his death was only self-actualization of his avowed "No One Gets Outta' Here Alive" philosophy and for many, possessing educative degrees in MTV, he embodies the classicism of a Greek hero: He is Icarus, captured before his fall in music videos. Oedipus, in leather pants, with a Greatest Hits package.

Saint Jim, rock's wayward martyr, victim of success, sacrificed to excess, found in a Left Bank bathtub.

He'd undoubtedly be tickled (perhaps he is) knowing he continues tweaking authorities' noses in extremis -- a quarter of a century on -- to an extent that cemetery officials decline all discussion of him. One uniformed gendarme, however, with 20 years' cemetery service, says Morrison's presence breeds drug use and vandalism within Pere Lachaise.

"The fanatics of rock degrade other memorials, and every July 3, thousands overrun the park," he complains, "playing guitars, smoking, drinking and doing drugs in the arm."

Outside the cemetery's ivy-cloaked walls, Brigette Gomez's small flower shop bustles. Morrison, she insists, "is the most popular" and his fans "buy mostly roses, lilies and maps."

"I like the fans," she laughs. "The punks with green hair pointed straight up come in, six or seven together, to buy him flowers and they're very polite. People ask most about Jim. The Americans, English and Italians. Then they ask about where to find Piaf, Chopin and Allen Kardec. The French and the Africans come mostly to visit Kardec, the Father of Spiritualism."

Gomez smiles. Pere Lachaise, she concludes, "has a little bit of everything for all generations." Freelance writer Peter Mikelbank rides the Metro to Pere-Lachaise from his home in Paris. If you go

Cimetiere Pere-Lachaise -- Boulevard de Menilmontant in Paris' 20th arrondisement is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nearest Metro stop: Pere-Lachaise. Jim Morrison's tomb is located in the cemetery's Sixth Division, along the pathway called Chemin Lauriston.

Besides Jim, Pere-Lachaise's grounds are home to Oscar Wilde's immense, winged sphinx (Div. 89, Balzac (Div. 48); Colette (Div. 4); Rossini (Div. 4); Chopin (Div. 11); Proust (Div. 85); while Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas share a plot (Div. 94). Isadora Duncan, Max Ernst and Maria Callas (the Columbarium).

Detailed maps (free, if available) from the Guardian's Office or from the flower shops beside the cemetery walls (approximately $2).

Originally published March 23, 1997



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