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Slamming a Door
Did Jim Morrison overdose on a nightclub toilet or die of a drug-induced heart attack in a bathtub at home? Thirty-six years after the death in Paris of the Doors legend, biographers are locking horns over his final hours.
The latest book on the life and times of the 1960s rock star, published this month in Paris, says Mr. Morrison was found slumped behind a locked toilet door on July 3, 1971, in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus — a club that in its heyday rocked to the sounds of Pink Floyd, Cat Stevens, the Beach Boys and Eric Clapton.
This version of the so-called Lizard King’s final hours has angered the author of another 2007 book on the singer-cum-poet-cum-filmmaker.
Not so, retorted Mr. Bernett, a writer and former journalist and nightclub operator who was then the 23-year-old manager of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus. “I’m not tarnishing anything; I’m simply telling the truth” he told Agence France-Presse.
Mr. Bernett says in his book that on the night of July 2-3, 27-year-old Mr. Morrison turned up after midnight, binged on vodka and beer, bought a dose of heroin intended for his girlfriend and disappeared into the men’s room.
“I raised his head gently, holding him by the shoulders to stop him falling over. His face was gray, his eyes shut, there was blood under his nose, and whitish dribble like froth around his slightly open mouth and in his beard.”
Among those who rushed to the scene were two dealers believed to have sold Mr. Morrison drugs and a doctor whom Mr. Bernett knew was at the club that night. The dealers, unfazed, decreed the singer was alive but faint.
And when the doctor, who is unnamed in the book, pronounced him dead, probably of heart failure, the two took matters into their own hands, dragging the singer, with difficulty, out through a back door leading into an empty nightclub that backed onto the now defunct Rock ‘n ‘Roll Circus, on Paris’ hip Left Bank.
Another witness, contacted by AFP, said Mr. Morrison was carried from the club rolled up in a blanket.
“He had a malaise in the toilets and I helped carry him,” said war photographer Patrice Chauvel, who, then aged 19, worked in the club. “I don’t know if he was dead. Maybe he died at home. They announced his death the next day, or perhaps the day after, I don’t remember.”
“He was overweight, bearded, violent and a bit delirious. The boss wasn’t too pleased to have him as a customer as it was a very fashionable club.”
Mr. Bernett recounts that the club owners then told him to let well enough alone and avoid calling in the police.
So the police, when eventually called, registered him dead in his Paris apartment, which before their arrival, Mr. Bernett says, had been cleared of drug evidence by dealer Count Jean de Breteuil — then with singer Marianne Faithfull.
Mr. Morrison’s girlfriend Pamela Courson, who died four years later of a heroin overdose, also aged 27, offered police conflicting accounts but said they had been to the cinema the previous night and she had found him in the tub in the morning. French filmmaker Agnes Varda, a friend of Mr. Morrison‘s, was there to help.
Mr. Steele, a rock musician named Phil Trainer at the time, who in 2005 received a Grammy nomination for his music in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill,” panned Mr. Bernett’s book as drawing its facts largely from well-known biographers Stephen Davis and Danny Sugerman, while adding “scandal.”
“This is making a scandal out of it,” he told AFP.
“He would’ve died anyway,” said Mr. Steele, who disbelieves some of the details in Mr. Bernett’s book — that Mr. Morrison drank vodka rather than whiskey, that he could be bundled out of the club without dozens of people noticing, that no witnesses are named.
With no autopsy to stake out the truth, Mr. Steele believes the earlier official version of the death — that Mr. Morrison may have been carried out of the club drunk but died at home after mistakenly taking a dose of his girlfriend’s heroin instead of sticking to cocaine as usual.
“In my book, which is novelized, I elevate his Bohemian personality,” he said.
As for Mr. Bernett, he says he spoke out now because rumors had long swirled over the death scene, and the time had come to speak out.
“For years people have been asking me what really happened. This is thetruth.”
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