I like to look over the obituaries in the print edition of the New York Times — there are a lot of interesting stories there. Today, I couldn’t help noticing this beautiful face in the paid death notices section.
Figuring this lady had to have been an actress, I glanced at the information: died aged 90 in Santa Barbara, Calif., cancer, nothing about acting. I didn’t really register the name, just turned the page. Then I turned back, thinking, “No, no, she was someone I need to know about.” I’m glad I did because this lady was Penny Courson, Pamela Courson‘s mother! Every true Doors stan (and viewer of Oliver Stone’s 1991 biopic, The Doors) knows that Pamela Courson was the petite redhead who was Doors lead singer Jim Morrison’s common-law wife and “cosmic mate,” with him in Paris when he died in a bathtub, aged 27, on July 3, 1971.
I’ve written before that the Doors were THE big band when I was in high school, even though by then Jim was dead 10 years. That was due to the best-selling Morrison biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive, which came out in 1980, with an extremely well-chosen cover photo. By the following year, Jim was such a phenomenon that he made the cover of Rolling Stone with the cover line: “He’s hot, he’s sexy and he’s dead.” I still have my original copy of the book.
I think I was as fascinated with Pamela as I was with Jim. I always identify with the women more and it seemed her story got short shrift, though she obviously mattered a lot to Jim.
For a lot of people, Pamela was a polarizing figure — the Yoko Ono of the Doors. Jim Morrison fanatics are like other music fanatics who tend to blame any convenient female for the downfall of their beloved male idol. Pam supposedly encouraged Jim to be a poet in Paris rather than a rock star, though if you read anything about Jim at all, you come away with the impression that he was impossible to steer in a direction he didn’t want to go in.
Even worse, to Pam haters, were the contradictory accounts she gave of the last night of Jim’s life.
If Jim died of a heroin overdose — which is a widely held theory — then Pam’s detractors say it had to be all her fault because heroin was her drug of choice, not his. If she didn’t give it to him herself, then maybe one of her dealer friends murdered him. I’d argue that she couldn’t force him to take anything he didn’t want to take. Jim was a massive alcoholic who had used other drugs — just because his friends thought he didn’t use heroin doesn’t mean he didn’t do it. He wouldn’t be the first person or the last to claim that he didn’t touch that stuff. If only the French authorities had performed an autopsy! But with no evidence of foul play, no autopsy was done, leaving the door open for Pam’s enemies to spin their stories, as well as the conspiracy theorists who claim Jim didn’t die at all, but faked his death in order to get away from the hectic rock-star life.
After Jim’s death, Pam moved back to California, where she had both grown up and lived with Jim. By all accounts, she was devastated, often living with friends who took care of her. Jim’s will left everything to Pam, with the stipulation that if she died within three months of him, the estate would pass to his brother and sister. She didn’t get any money for a couple of years because she got tied up in lawsuits, but she settled everything in 1973, only to die of a heroin overdose — like Jim, at the age of 27 — on April 25, 1974, leaving no will. It was less than three years after Morrison’s death, but more than the three months mentioned in Jim’s will, so, interestingly, after her death, her parents, as Pam’s next-of-kin, inherited Morrison’s entire estate. Jim’s parents then sued the Coursons. From what I can tell online, the court reaffirmed the Coursons’ rights, but some arrangement was reached with the Morrisons so that the two families shared in the estate.
In a story that Rolling Stone ran about Pam’s death in its June 6, 1974, issue, attorney Max Fink, the co-executor of Jim’s will, claimed that the entire Morrison estate was worth $350,000 to $400,000 at the time. I wonder how many millions it is worth now?
Pamela’s parents hoped to bury her next to Jim in Paris, but it proved to be too complicated to get her body overseas, so she was buried in California under the name Pamela Susan Morrison — Pam had referred to herself as Mrs. Morrison after she and Jim took out a couple of marriage licenses, although they never sealed the deal.
You can glimpse a few seconds of Pamela in motion starting at 2:06 here, apparently from 1972, but keep the volume off because it’s some weird shit. Turn the volume back on for this brief audio of Jim and Pam speaking (Jim orders out for food; he doesn’t know the address because they’re at a friend’s place). The full conversation with Rolling Stone’s Ben Fong-Torres is here. For more Pamela pictures (and style inspiration), check out Pamela Courson Inspirations and She dances in a ring of fire.
Speaking of rock stars and their relatives, the New York Times also ran a long obituary on Cafe Wha? founder Manny Roth, who died at 94. It is worth reading. I, for one, was amazed to discover Roth was the uncle of my close personal friend David Lee Roth, lead singer of Van Halen. It turns out that David Lee used to visit the club when he was a kid. No wonder he got into music! Cafe Wha? played an important part for other musicians in New York in the 1960s. Bob Dylan got his start there. Bruce Springsteen and his band the Castiles played afternoon sets for teenagers for two months in 1967. Jimi Hendrix played regularly before he was Jimi Hendrix: He was Jimmy James, leading a band called the Blue Flames. Other performers who hit the Wha? stage early in their careers were comedians Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen.
Manny Roth gave up the club in 1968 because it wasn’t making money. It was a restaurant for a while, but it then re-opened as Cafe Wha? and you can still go there today. I highly recommend it. There’s always a rocking house band — I had them play at my wedding in July 2001. We obviously had such a good time with them that there was a Cafe Wha? outing in February 2002. Just this week, I stumbled on the photos from that night while looking for Throwback Thursday material.
I took a selfie of me and MrB about 10 years before the word “selfie” came to exist. I love pre-“selfie” selfies.
My selfie technique has improved a little bit since then, fortunately.
UPDATED AUG. 5, 2014, TO ADD: When I first wrote this, I should have called out the obituary’s request for donations to the Jim Morrison Film Award at UCLA, just in case anyone missed it! The Coursons really did work to support Jim’s legacy.