Jim Morrison's Sister Reflects on Assembling Revelatory New Book of the Late Legend's Writing
Estate of Edmund Teske/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
When Jim Morrison graduated from high school in June of 1961, his parents offered to buy him a gift. Most teens would have asked for a car or maybe some new threads. Instead, the future Doors singer asked for the complete works of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Even as a teen, Morrison operated on a literary level above his peers. His evolution into one of the most arresting frontmen in rock was never an ambition but an unexpected detour. It began on a summer's day in 1965, when Morrison bumped into his UCLA classmate Ray Manzarek on Los Angeles' Venice Beach. As the friends stared off into the Pacific, Morrison began reciting some of his new verses. His voice was barely above a whisper, but Morrison's words were enough to send the musically minded Manzarek reeling. The core of the Doors - their name taken from a William Blake line via Aldous Huxley - was formed on the spot, thus derailing Morrison's potential future as America's answer to Rimbaud.
Classic Doors tracks like "Riders on the Storm," "L.A. Woman," "Break on Through" and "People Are Strange" are imbued with his imagery, but the enduring portrait of Morrison as the leather-clad electric shaman that's etched onto the popular psyche has the unfortunate consequence of eclipsing his reputation as a poet. The Doors may have brought him fame, but it was writing that brought him ecstasy. He wrote constantly throughout his all-too-brief life, producing screenplays, fragments of novels and three self-published poetry volumes.
When he died on July 3, 1971, at the age of only 27, he left behind a formidable library of notebooks and loose-leaf. One scrap bore the heading "Plan for Book," followed by a short outline for how to organize his original works. He never lived to finish the project, but now, 50 years after his death, his family has fulfilled his creative wish.
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Out on Tuesday, The Collected Works of Jim Morrison is a revelation for fans, particularly those eager to look beyond the Lizard King Lothario persona. Culled from 28 privately held notebooks, the nearly 600-page tome is packed with unpublished writing, including poetry, journalistic notes from his 1970 obscenity trial and the treatment for his unreleased film, HWY. Early handwritten song drafts, many featuring Morrison's own revisions, offer an insightful glimpse into his creative process. The pieces span his entire working life, from his earliest surviving poem (an ode to the Pony Express written in 1954 at the age of 10) to a full reproduction of his famous "Paris Journal," believed to have been written while he was living in the French capital during his final months alive.
The George Morrison Family Partnership, L.P./Courson Family Enterprises, LLC
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"I just really wanted this to be a whole collective of what he'd done and what he was," says Morrison's younger sister Anne Morrison Chewning, who serves as a co-executor of the late singer's estate along with her brother, Andrew. The project began over a decade ago when her family obtained a trove of Morrison's journals. "We didn't want them to just sit there in the vault," she tells PEOPLE. "I saw that page [he wrote] with a plan for a book and I thought, 'Okay, well that's it. That's what we'll do.'"
Quotes from Morrison, curated and edited by his friend Frank Lisciandro, are interspersed throughout, providing illuminating context for his work. Chewning also contributed a wealth of childhood photos - vacation snaps, Christmas cards and poses outside an inviting ranch house. They add new dimension to a man with a penchant for self-mythology. "I wanted people to see that we were a pretty normal family," she explains. "Everyone wants to hear about the Lizard King or something, but Jim wasn't that to any of us."
The George Morrison Family Partnership, L.P./Courson Family Enterprises, LLC
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Chewning remembers her big brother as a prankster "from the get-go. He would trade me nickels for dimes because nickels are bigger. And he would send me downstairs when the parents were having a party. Then I would get in trouble because I wasn't supposed to go down there. But we had fun. Lots of fun."
The family patriarch, George Stephen "Steve" Morrison, was a highly decorated Naval officer who would end his distinguished career as a Rear Admiral. After surviving the Pearl Harbor attack that drew the U.S. into the Second World War, he served as an instructor for classified nuclear weapons programs in the Southwest United States. "My dad was gone a lot, and when he wasn't gone he was very busy," says Chewning. "He was at the Pentagon a lot, or he was flying. He was always somewhere." His rise through the ranks meant frequent moves for his family. With his social life uprooted on a regular basis, the teenaged Morrison grew attached to literature. "Because you're always the new person, it takes a while to get used to people," says Chewning. "To Jim [books] were hugely, hugely important."
Morrison's passion for reading became all-consuming, and sometimes he'd resort to less-than-honest tactics to get his fix. Once, his mother gave him some money to buy a new shirt. Morrison bought the cheapest one he could find at Goodwill and spent the rest on books. Another time, he excused himself from class, telling his teacher he needed to have surgery on a non-existent brain tumor. Instead, he spent the rest of the day reading.
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His choice of material was as advanced as his 149 IQ score. He favored the French masters like Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Molière, Balzac and Flaubert, as well as Greek classics from Sophocles and Plutarch, and contemporary work from Beat poets like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He did book reports on esoteric topics like 16th-century demonology, citing books that were so obscure that one teacher was forced to call the Library of Congress to ensure that they actually existed. On a family car trip, Morrison insisted they make a pilgrimage to the North Carolina home that had once belonged to early 20th-century novelist Thomas Wolfe. "Of course, I didn't know who that was," Chewning laughs. "Dad said, 'Well, you kids don't have to go in. I'll just take Jim, I guess....'"
Morrison's voracious reading began to fuel his own writing. "He would find a new word and then write a whole paragraph around it just to get the language of it," Chewning recalls. Though he'd later destroy these early notebooks in a fit of artistic self-consciousness, one of these high school verses would later surface as the evocative spoken-word piece "Horse Latitudes" on the Doors sophomore record, 1967's Strange Days. If this poem is any indication, his writing of this period was usually mature and already steeped in his characteristic darkness. In other words, not ideal for his suburban audience. "Jim read one poem to my mom's bridge group," says Chewning. "I'm sure they just had their mouths open. And then he ran to his room again giggling."
Despite - or perhaps because of - his prodigious talent, Morrison cared little for formal schooling and didn't bother to apply to college. Eventually, at his parents' urging, he enrolled at St. Petersburg Junior College, in his home state of Florida. "He'd never had a job, so he had to do something," Chewning says. He survived on checks from his parents in exchange for a monthly letter. Morrison used these missives as an opportunity to exercise his creativity, writing elaborate (and dubious) tales of calming a riot as a theater burned or watching a man drown in a swamp.
These letters would be among Morrison's last communications with his parents. In later years, Doors biographers would characterize their estrangement as a clash between a rebellious rocker and his disciplinarian father. But Chewning maintains that the reality of their relationship was more nuanced. "I used to get upset because people would assume all admirals and generals were mean and tough, but my dad was sweet. He was funny and articulate. And he never was very angry - he just wasn't like that. But he did expect manners. We were brought up with, 'Yes sir, no sir, yes ma'am.' He and Jim certainly didn't see eye to eye on a lot of things, so they clashed a little. But not horribly."
A turning point in their relationship occurred in January 1964, when the Morrison children paid their father a visit on his latest command, the USS Bon Homme Richard aircraft carrier. "My mom said Jim had to cut his hair before he went [aboard]," Chewning remembers. Morrison complied, but it apparently wasn't short enough for his father, who sent him to the ship's barber for a more military cut. The submission was humiliating for the 20-year-old budding beatnik. "I think that was the last time he cut his hair for quite a long time," Chewning says.
Months later, on Aug. 2, 1964, naval forces under the elder Morrison's command were involved in a military skirmish off the coast of Vietnam. Known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the confrontation is cited by historians as the catalyst that instigated the Vietnam War. For those coming of age in the Sixties, the conflict served as the defining event of the era, and both Morrison men played a leading role on the two sides of the generation gap - the elder on the seas and the younger penning anti-war anthems like "The Unknown Soldier" and "Five to One."
Relations between the pair broke down for good when Morrison Sr. learned of his boy's burgeoning rock 'n' roll career. As he would later admit, "I…wrote Jim a letter severely criticizing his behavior and strongly advising him to give up any idea of singing or any connection with a musical group because of what I considered to be a complete lack of talent in this direction." Save for a single phone call, they didn't speak after that. Morrison never saw either of his parents again. On his record label biography distributed in 1967, he listed them as dead. "He just didn't want to be involved in dad's life," Chewning observes today. "And he knew dad probably wouldn't approve of some of the things he was writing and singing about - and his behavior and his life. He was just totally the opposite of my dad. So, I think he just decided to separate."
When Morrison Sr. was restationed in England as Commander-in-Chief of the US Naval forces in Europe, Chewning went along, too. For years she didn't know what had become of her older brother. "I would worry about him. I thought, 'What is going to happen to him? He doesn't like to work. All he wants to do is write and read and have experiences.' I asked my girlfriend in college, 'What happens to 50-year-old beatniks?' Because I didn't know how he could survive."
Then one day in 1967 she received a package from her mother. It was a copy of the Doors debut album, featuring their breakthrough smash, "Light My Fire." I took her a moment to realize that the handsome guy staring back at her on the record sleeve was her brother. "It was a complete surprise," she says. "I had no idea [Jim was in the Doors]. I was hearing 'Light My Fire' in London, but I didn't have any relationship to it. Then my mother sent me the album. That's always been my favorite Doors cover because it was such a shock to see it. That was such an amazing moment."
Once the surprise wore off, she put the record on the turntable and immediately fell for the music. "I didn't take any time to love all of it," she says with pride. "It's fabulous." She even enjoyed "The End," which raised many an eyebrow with Morrison's dramatic line: "Father, I want to kill you. Mother, I want to…"
Drawing from his highly literate youth, Morrison had paraphrased the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, in which the title character murders his father and marries his mother. Chewning rejects those who take the song literally given his famously strained family ties. "I have to dispel that notion. It just makes me crazy when I hear people say, 'Oh, were your parents upset about "The End"? That was awful.' I tell them, 'No, no, that was just an Oedipus story redone in song. It was amazing.' I didn't take it as against our parents, like some people [did]. People were just in a panic about it. But no, I didn't see it that way at all."
Chewning moved back to California with her husband and infant son shortly after discovering that her brother was a rock star. Hearing that the Doors were due to fly into Los Angeles, she decided to surprise Morrison at the airport. "We went and met him - my husband and my little son. Jim looked at me and said, 'You don't happen to be my sister, do you?'" It was the start of a joyful reunion for the Morrison siblings. Chewning dropped in on a Doors session, where Morrison gave a sweet mid-song shoutout to her baby boy. They also visited the home Morrison shared with his girlfriend, Pamela Courson, and cooked them a Thanksgiving meal. "We'd see him, but not often," Chewning admits. "We were all in our 20s, I was pregnant. People were just busy in their own lives. You didn't know that soon it would be the last time. There just wasn't an urgency, which was the sad thing. I didn't ever see him perform. I wish I had."
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She found out about her brother's death from a radio news report. Courson had found him unresponsive in the bathtub of the apartment they rented in Paris. They'd settled there in the spring of 1971 to avoid the noxious influences of Los Angeles, where Morrison's substance abuse issues were threatening to overwhelm him. "I worried about him because he was in the drug and drinking scene," says Chewning. "But I knew I wasn't going to change that." Many believe his trip to Paris was an attempt to reconfigure his life. In Hollywood he was expected to be Jim the Lizard King: the leather-clad rock 'n' roll bad boy. In Paris he could be Jim the Poet and draw inspiration from the authors who had spoken to him as a boy. The "Paris Journal" and other writing from the period prove that his muse was indeed with him to the end.
The Morrison men were never able to put aside their differences - in life, at least.
"It's too bad," says Chewning. "Pam called my dad after Jim had died and said they had talked about Jim reconnecting. It had only been five years or six years. That's really not very long in terms of most lives." In the decades that followed, Admiral Morrison realized the tremendous mark his son had made in the world of art. He visited his grave at Père Lachaise cerimetry in Paris, the last resting place of literary heroes like Balzac, Molière, Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein. Despite the illustrious company, Morrison's plot continues to draw the biggest crowd. When his family paid for a new headstone, Admiral Morrison penned his son's epitaph in Greek: ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟΝ ΔΑΙΜΟΝΑ ΕΑΥΤΟΥ or True to His Own Spirit. "That just encapsulates what my dad figured out finally," says Anne. "Everyone didn't think he got it and that he really didn't understand, but he got Jim." Admiral Morrison died in 2008, three years after Morrison's mother Clara, his wife of 63 years.
For decades, Chewning worked as a middle school teacher. As part of her lessons, she would play her brother's spoken-word piece "Horse Latitudes," which he had written as a student. "I wanted to show the class that music is poetry. I made it dramatic and turned it up pretty loud. I just love the tone and the sound of Jim's voice. It makes words liquid. He makes it flow so beautifully." Though she doesn't broadcast her ties to rock royalty, the fact would eventually creep out. "I was at the same school for almost 30 years so everyone ended up knowing," she laughs. "It's all been fun for me. Someone asked me if [having a famous sibling] ruined my life. For me, it was just a joy to see Jim grow and do what he did. Except for the tragedy at the end…"
The process of assembling The Collected Works of Jim Morrison allowed her to get closer to the brother she hardly had a chance to know. "It helped me to get a total view of him and his curious way of seeing the world," she explains. "He reaches into people with his words. Even though I don't understand all of what he's trying to say every time, I'll pull out parts of it. His language is so beautiful that it inspires. I always go back to what he said about his poetry: it delivers people from the limited ways in which they see and feel."