“What is wrong with these people?” I fume to my two teenage kids at the end of our pilgrimage. It’s about 100 degrees in the shade, and not one of the dozen or so tourists quietly snapping shots of Jim Morrison’s simple headstone here at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris is quaffing a beer, let alone consecrating the rebellious frontman for the Doors’ grave with Johnny Walker Red or smoking something befitting his memory.
For years I held a mental image of a raucous crowd of aging hippies, young nonconformists fresh from the Occupy protests and unwashed backpackers partying together at Jim’s graveside. But the reality is this sparse collection of conservatively dressed tourists, ranging in age from about 16 to 60, minding the barricades and refraining from adding to the graffiti.
And the graffiti! Not only is it minimal, but it’s lame: “Hello I love you, Jim,” “Jim, you light my fire.” Seriously, that’s the best anyone can do? How about a sly reference to Morrison’s dark side, the stuff that every angst-ridden teenager — my younger self included — can wallow in, like “No one here gets out alive”?
“Well, to heck with this,” I say to no one in particular and snap open an icy Heineken. A woman smiles and flashes me a thumbs-up. The cold lager soothes my throat and feeds a rising self-righteousness. I’m the only one paying proper tribute, here; the one who really gets it. These others — they’re just dispassionate tourists who might as well be taking pictures of the Eiffel Tower.
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A Toast to Jim Morrison
More than 30 years ago, I read Jim’s biography and vowed to someday visit the small grave I saw in one of the book’s black-and-white photos, the headstone adorned with flowers and showered with love letters and drizzled with whiskey. Someday, I told my 18-year-old self, I’d make a pilgrimage to Paris to honor this contemporary anti-hero.
Finally, I stood at this spot, fulfilling a lifelong dream. I pass the beer first to my daughter, then to my son, I silently toast this titan of rock history: “Here lies a man who represented true rebelliousness, a fiercely free spirit out to suck every last drop of pleasure from life, who staunchly refused to be absorbed into the polyester double-knit fabric of society or be tainted by crass commercialism.”
Jim had it right, I think to myself: No one here gets out alive, so we should live life to the fullest like Jim — well, stopping short of the addiction issues. It’s a short ride, so throw open the doors of perception and break on through to the other side.
In my youth, I had idolized the man who repeatedly kicked sand in the face of what I thought of in my youth as “convention” and “the establishment.” I wanted to be like the guy who threatened to smash a Buick Opel with a sledgehammer on television if the company went ahead with plans to use “Light My Fire” in an ad for the car. When the Doors performed on The Ed Sullivan Show, the host demanded they change the line “girl, we couldn’t get much higher.” Although the band agreed, Morrison sang it anyway — and punched it.
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Strange Days Have Found Us
That’s what I was trying to convey with my beer-drinking gesture at Jim Morrison’s graveside. In his day, he was the sexiest man alive — those piercing eyes, granite cheekbones, thrusting chin, sensuous lips and nest of dark curls. But it was his darker, poetic side that I wanted to share with my kids. When I was their age, I bought up every piece of vinyl I could find by the Doors, even obscure bootleg and greatest-hits albums.
Like Janis and Jimi, he died young — part of the infamous “27 club” — from a heroin overdose in his Paris apartment (hence the burial here). Like those other troubled musical geniuses, he didn’t live long enough to sell out or drift into middle age.
So here I stand at the end of my pilgrimage, trying to muster feelings of defiance. Sipping my beer, I start feeling, frankly, a little foolish. As the alcohol kicks in, the feelings of self-righteousness fall away, exposing the truth. I am one of them, one of the thousands who make this grave one of the most visited sites in Paris. That beer is just a beer — and I’m sharing it with my kids. I’m no rebel; I’m a family man. And unlike Jim Morrison, I survived my drug-fueled youth.
“Come on guys,” I say as I shoot one last look at the modest headstone, so low it is dwarfed by the others around it. We head off to explore the rest of the cemetery, seeking out some of the great writers buried here: Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Richard Wright, Marcel Proust, all of whom were at least as brilliant and rebellious as Morrison.
Along the way we stumble upon the soaring stone monuments and skeletal figures of the Holocaust memorials. The kids read, take photos and talk about the sculptures and the utter horror of thousands of Jewish French nationals shipped to death camps like Auschwitz and Dachau.
We sit in the shade and share some water. I take a minute to reflect on how patient the kids had been with me at Jim Morrison’s grave. They let me linger because they knew what it meant to me. But the unexpected emotional wallop of the Holocaust memorial — and the kids’ quiet maturity — puts the whole thing into perspective for me.
The self-indulgent nature of a hedonistic life becomes trivial in the face of true tragedy. Unwittingly, my kids have helped me get over what I thought was an essential need — to revisit my rebellious youth. I'm worlds away from that 18-year-old would-be bad boy. I'm here with my family now, and I know what matters most to me today.
Darcy Rhyno is a travel writer and the author of two collections of short fiction, the latest titled Holidays.
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