Monday, July 16, 2007

Exhuming the Lizard King

Posting about Jim Morrison is as good a way as any for a blogger to mark himself as an old geezer. Younger readers may wonder why the fascination with the music of the Doors and the life of their leader continued for years after Morrison's death in 1971. Poet, magician, mystic, shaman - Jim Morrison captivated classic rock listeners with his provocative lyricism and outsized persona, while the other Doors - Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger and John Densmore - weaved hypnotic and sensual musical patterns behind him. With over three decades hindsight, though, the image of Morrison as a troubled soul whose alcoholic binges and substance abuse caused him to wind himself into tighter and tighter knots becomes clearer, and his death from an apparent drug overdose seems a fitting end.

Plenty of speculation has surrounded Morrison's death over the years. The official death certificate claims Morrison died of "natural causes". An overdose of heroin has been the most accepted explanation, although no autopsy was performed. Yet Morrison feared needles, and a number of his close friends claimed he never used heroin. Some think he snorted heroin by accident, believing it to be cocaine. Others believe that he was set up by drug dealers. Still others swear that Morrison is still alive somewhere, faking his death to escape the rock star image that he felt was increasingly confining to his creativity.

Now, after 36 years, the manager of the Paris nightclub where Morrison was seen prior to his death has come forward with what he claims to be the truth about what happened that night. Sam Bernett, at the time manager of the Rock 'n' Roll Circus nightclub, says that Morrison died in the bathroom at the club, that drug dealers carried Morrison's body back to his apartment and dumped him in the bathtub, and that Bernett was warned not to tell of what he saw.

Bernett describes greeting Morrison in the crowded club on July 3, 1971, the night of Morrison's death:

"I greeted Jim as I always did," recalled Bernett from his home in Paris.

"He didn't look in great form, and immediately went to his usual spot at the bar and ordered a bottle of vodka. He was also drinking beers.

"I was used to talking about everything with him - from Janice
(sic) Joplin to the beatniks - but that night it was just a bit of small talk."

Morrison had come to pick up heroin for his girlfriend Pamela Courson, a frequent user of the drug:

"He'd come in to pick up heroin for Pam. He was always collecting drugs for her and the club was full of dealers."
According to Bernett, Morrison bought the heroin from two men working for Jean de Breteuil, a French playboy and drug dealer.

"The dealers who Jim was talking to were well known," said Bernett.

"Both were French guys in their 20s. I knew what they were up to, and kept an eye out for Jim. He disappeared to the toilets at around 2am.

Like Elvis, he never returned.

"Then, about half an hour later, a cloakroom attendant came up to me and told me someone was locked in one of the cubicles and wasn't coming out. It was then that I got a bouncer to smash the door down.'

Bernett was met by the sight of Morrison's body, slumped on the toilet.


"For a few seconds our eyes were glued to the unmoving corpse. We were mesmerised by the baffling spectacle.

"The flamboyant singer of The Doors, the cool and good-looking Californian guy, was now a collapsed and inert lump lying in a nightclub toilet.

"Seeing Jim in such a bad way was pretty awful. We were certain he'd been snorting heroin because there was foam coming out of his lips as well as blood. He was scared of needles so never injected drugs. He just snorted them."

Is there a doctor in the house?

Bernett's first reaction was to send for one of his regular customers, a doctor. The medic, who Bernett refuses to name, "recognised Morrison but kept his cool. Very calmly, and expertly, he examined the body for a few seconds.

"He pushed Jim's head back, lifted his eyelids, opened his mouth, and fixed his ear to his chest to listen to his heartbeat. He looked for marks and bruises on the body and the arms.

"It was a quick and professional examination. His diagnosis was very confident: 'This man is dead. Apparently the victim of a cardiac arrest.' The doctor was not stupid and spoke of a lethal overdose."

The drug dealers then showed up and hauled Morrison back to the apartment. Meantime, the club owner swore Bernett and other witnesses to secrecy:

Minutes after the tragedy, a representative of the club's owner - a well-connected Paris businessman called Paul Pacini still alive, we are trying to get a comment from him] - warned Bernett not to tell anyone what had happened.

Bernett says: "I was told, "Since Morrison's friends want to take him with them, we have nothing more to do with this story.

"The club has no responsibility for what happens here. It was a sad accident, certainly, but that's fate. So we saw nothing, we heard nothing, we shut up! OK? It's what we better do to avoid a scandal."

Bernett adds that he saw little point in calling the emergency services, as he was convinced Morrison was already dead and nothing could be done for him.

And he says anyone else in the club that night who had an inkling of what went on - including Marianne Faithfull - was also sworn to secrecy.

So why is Bernett talking now? He says he wants to clear his conscience after all these years, but as a coincidence, Bernett has also written a book about his experiences with Morrison that he'd like to sell some copies of. Bernett is 60 now, and looking to pad his retirement fund.

So what of Bernett's story? It does seem a bit strange that he's coming forward now, although I would suggest that if he really was wanting to cash in, he'd have done it in the 80's, when posthumous Morrison fascination had hit its peak and speculation about his death was rampant. Pamela Courson died of her own overdose a few short years later, and good luck finding those drug dealers and getting them to talk. Jim Morrison's death will likely remain one of the great mysteries of rock 'n' roll's glory days.