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World Perspective | CULTURE

Sobering News at Jim Morrison's Grave

Increased security curtails rowdyism at Doors singer's tomb, a popular Paris tourist site.

October 07, 2000|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — In tribute, Anke Bettenfeld, a nurse from Germany, came to the hillside tomb singing "Roadhouse Blues." She wanted to leave a can of beer as a sign of remembrance, but the guard told her to put it back in her bag.

So instead, the 22-year-old woman with strawberry-red dyed hair thoughtfully smoked a cigarette while gazing on the grave. Meanwhile, a closed-circuit TV camera hidden in a street light monitored her and other pilgrims who were arriving.

No tomb in France has caused more trouble than the one under a tall plane tree in Division No. 6 of the Pere-Lachaise cemetery in northeastern Paris. The headstone is a dark, squat block of granite, inset with a graffiti-marred plaque bearing the name of the deceased: James Douglas Morrison, better known as Jim Morrison, the late lead singer of the rock band the Doors.

Morrison died of heart failure in still mysterious circumstances in Paris on July 3, 1971, and was buried in this city's most famous cemetery with the likes of Frederic Chopin, Honore de Balzac, Oscar Wilde and many other luminaries.

Fittingly, perhaps, the Los Angeles transplant who epitomized the liberated, drug-saturated counterculture of the 1960s caused authorities enormous problems even in death. His grave became the site of drug parties, Black Masses and trysts with prostitutes.

A bust of Morrison was desecrated with graffiti and had its nose sliced off by souvenir hunters, then was stolen. In 1991, on the 20th anniversary of the rock star's death, thousands of unruly fans rioted at Pere-Lachaise, and the skull-busting CRS, an elite unit of the French police, had to be called in.

Oliver Stone's 1991 movie about Morrison spawned an entirely new generation of fans and visitors to his unassuming grave. Guards at Pere-Lachaise estimate 1.5 million people arrive each year.

These days, the grave site is unique in France. A guard is constantly on hand to keep an eye on crowds that can swell to 300 during peak hours. The TV camera also keeps watch, in case reinforcements have to be called in.

According to Rainer Moddemann, a Doors fan who wrote a slim book on Morrison's ill-fated March-July 1971 sojourn in Paris, authorities are so antsy that there is even a second all-seeing TV camera, perhaps hidden in a nearby tree.

This fall, the grave has been back in the news after reports that families who own surrounding plots had petitioned Paris officials not to renew the concession for Morrison. But Rosie Bordet, a spokeswoman for the city's Parks and Gardens Department, said those dispatches were without foundation.

A Paris legal firm takes care of the grave, she said, under an agreement with the late singer's father, a retired Navy rear admiral.

"There is absolutely no petition to have him moved and no plan to do so," Bordet stressed. "Jim Morrison can rest in peace in the Parisian earth, and the fans can keep coming to visit him."

Depending on the season, the fans come from France, Germany, Italy, Eastern Europe, the United States and elsewhere. Outside Pere-Lachaise's walls, merchants try to cater to this durable Doors-mania, and even shops dealing in marble tombstones offer T-shirts with Morrison's portrait on them.

Many visitors nowadays were born after Morrison's death. Of them, Bettenfeld and her friend Karina Woll, 23, an optician from Cologne, were typical. They love the Doors' music, they said, but can't relate to the live-fast, die-young lifestyle of the era that might have led to Morrison's demise at the age of 27.

"It's like [German philosopher Friedrich] Nietzsche said," Bettenfeld reflected. 'Sometimes the idiot and the genius are the same person."

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