If any poet can be said to have lived in the eye of the storm, then that poet was surely James Douglas Morrison, to paraphrase one of his best song lyrics. Morrison's electrifying live performances as lead singer with the Doors, one of America's greatest ever rock groups, stunned audiences throughout America and Europe, and he quickly came to symbolise for the rebellious young, anti-authoritarianism, individualism, liberation and freedom.
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His Enduring Influence
He was the undisputed auteur of Rock as Theater; not showmanship but a unique fusion of music, song and Greek Tragedy, as in the Sophoclean drama of The End, The Celebration of the Lizard or The Unknown Soldier. There was no one before him but many after - The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Patti Smith, Kiss, Marilyn Manson, Bono et al.
Is it Poetry?
It is a contradiction in terms - the sedate and cloistered life of a poet and the wildly hedonistic lifestyle of a Rock Star; but this itself reflected the contradictory duality of Morrison. The rareified world of academia and the literary intelligentsia have yet to confer on his poetry the widespread critical acclaim and recognition of Bob Dylan; unless perhaps as term papers in some liberal arts colleges.
But even Dylan has not made it onto the core curricula of American University literature studies - literary academe is notoriously conservative and snobbish. But make no mistake, Morrison's lyrics are poetry; in the beginning, poetry and song were inseparable - poems were sung and songs recited as poetry. However, the leading popular music critics were quick to pick up on Morrison's literary merits,
" writing as if Edgar Allan Poe had blown back as a hippie. " - Kurt Von Meir, Vogue.
" The Doors are the Norman Mailers of the Top 40." - Joan Didion, The White Album.
" It's like Morrison's poetry; most of it is the work of a genuine poet, a Whitman of a revolution-ready 60's." - Harvey Perr, LA Free Press.
" If T.S.Eliot had been in a rock group, he would have been the Doors and done The Soft Parade." - Patricia Kennealy, Jazz & Pop
" This is Joycean pop, with a stream of consciousness lyric in which images are strung together by association." - Richard Goldstein, New York Magazine.
" Morrison is a very good actor and a very good poet...challenges you to try interpret." - Fred Powledge, Life.
" When he did the bridge to " End of the Night ", he said, " Realms of bliss, Realms of light " - I said , " Jim, that's William Blake's Songs of Innocence. He said, " I know, but nobody's busted me yet." The Doors really represented the first time a rock band really tapped into literature, and it worked." - Michael C.Ford, L.A. poet.
A Distinguished Admirer
In 1968, Morrison wrote a letter of appreciation to Wallace Fowlie, author of over 30 books and Professor of French at Duke University, to thank him for his translation of Arthur Rimbaud's collected poetry,
" I don't read French that easily...I am a rock singer and your book travels around with me."
Fowlie is the author of Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: The Rebel as Poet, first published in 1993, and now in its seventh printing. This was based on a popular series of lectures he gave during the 1980's and early 1990's. In 1991, Prof. Fowlie was commissioned to write a 30 page preface, Jim's Place in the History of Poetry and Mythology, for The Doors Complete Music folio,
" I have little doubt Jim Morrison would be both flattered by and proud of Wallace Fowlie's analytic literary analysis of his poetry and lyrics...it would be a grateful Jim Morrison who would thank Wallace Fowlie today for tracing and linking his work with such a distinguished poetic heritage." - Danny Sugerman, The Doors' manager.
A Brief Biography
James Douglas Morrison was born in Melbourne, Florida on December 8 1943, the first child of Steve Morrison, a career Navy officer, and Clara Clarke, the daughter of a Wisconsin lawyer who gave up the law to become an Alaskan carpenter. The unavoidable itinerant upbringing may have contributed to the rootlessness of the adult Morrison, who never owned a home.
In February 1964, twenty year old Morrison transferred from Florida State University to the Theater Arts department at UCLA - amazingly the faculty staff included Stanley Kramer, Jean Renoir and the German director Josef Von Sternberg ( his 1954 movie Anatahan, was a favorite of Jim's).
He graduated in June 1965 with a B.A. in Cinematography - among his notebooks was his " thesis in film esthetics " which formed the basis of The Lords: Notes on Vision.
" Contrary to the Oliver Stone movie, Jim did not quit college. He received his Bachelor's degree and I received my Master's degree in June of 1965 " - Ray Manzarek
The Venice Notebooks
After graduation, Jim lived on an abandoned Venice Beach warehouse rooftop for several months, all the while writing and composing the songs that kept coming into his head. This incredible outpouring of creativity resulted in the notebooks which supplied most of the songs on the first two Doors albums, as well as others which would be used on subsequent releases.
A chance encounter with his old UCLA buddy, Ray Manzarek, on the beach, led to the instant decision to form a rock n' roll band and " make a million dollars " - which as we know, came to pass.
The Lords and The New Creatures
At the suggestion of his friend, the poet and playwright Michael McClure, Jim had separate private editions of his first two books of poetry printed of 100 copies each, published by Western Lithographers, Los Angeles, Spring of 1969. In May 1970, both editions were amalgamated as The Lords and The New Creatures, and published as a hardcover by Simon and Shuster, with the paperbound edition issued in the months following Jim's untimely death on July 3 1971.
Despite the fact that they ignored his request that the book be credited to James Douglas Morrison, he was pleased, and telegrammed his New York book editor,
" Thanks to you and Simon & Shuster, the book is great beyond my expectations."
Jim remarked to Michael McClure, with tears in his eyes, " This is the first time I haven't been ****** over."
The Fireside Edition
The Fireside edition, an imprint of Simon & Shuster, is a medium sized paperback of 140 pages. My main criticism is that the original slender volume of poetry has been printed as a mass-market book; so what originally comprised barely 70 pages has been expanded to double the size. On some pages there is only a few lines of text, sometimes just one.
Along with Vladimir Nabokov's The Original of Laura, this is one of the most flagrant examples of padding that I know of. I also own an earlier English edition by Omnibus Press - 70 pages, printed on amber-yellow and lime-green thick glossy paper, very attractively designed with solarized photos of the author. This is much better in keeping with the artistic vision of Jim Morrison.
Jim's Artistic and Literary Influences
Jim's personal philosophy was hugely influenced by Nietzche's The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music,
" The devotion of the greatest is to encounter risk and danger, and play dice with death...that which does not destroy you, makes you stronger...Though the favorites of the gods die young, they also live eternally in the company of the gods."
From the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, " The poet makes himself into a visionary by a long derangement of all the senses ".
Antonin Artaud, the writer/actor and founder of the Theater of Cruelty, wrote while incarcerated in an asylum during the 1930's and 40's,
" If the theater is not just play, if it is a genuine reality, by what means can we give it that status of reality, make each performance a kind of event? "
" ...eroticism, savagery, blood lust, a thirst for violence, an obsession with horror, collapse of moral values, social hypocrisy, lies, sadism, perjury, depravity etc."
From William Blake, the English poet, artist and mystic, he took the name of his group, " If the doors of perception were cleansed, every
thing would appear as it is, infinite." Also " The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom ".
Jim casts his cinematographer's eye on the medium of film and the moving picture, the camera, cinema, multi-media, theater, the nature of perception, voyeurism, alchemy, shamanistic ritual and more.
Comprising of pithy maxims, epigrams, abstract and factual observations and notes and prose-poems centered around the unifying theme of vision. Its coherent structure and originality makes it one of his strongest and readable works.
The Kennedy Assassination
Several pieces allude to this,
" Our injured leader prone on the sweating tile...Lithe, although crippled, body of a middle-weight contender...Cameras inside the coffin interviewing worms."
Oswald is the deadly voyeur,
" The sniper's rifle is an extension of his eye. He kills with injurious vision."
Was there a conspiracy?,
" The assassin (?), in flight, gravitated with unconscious, instinctual insect ease, moth-like, toward a zone of safety."
" When play dies it becomes the Game./ When sex dies it becomes Climax."
" All games contain the idea of death."
" The appeal of cinema lies in the fear of death."
Jim explained his fascination with death in an interview,
" I think in art, but especially in films, people are trying to confirm their own existences. Somehow things seem more real if they can be photographed and you can create a semblance of life on the screen....
" But people fear death even more than pain. It's strange that they fear death. Life hurts a lot more than death. At the point of death, the pain is over ".
" It is wrong to assume that art needs the spectator in order to be. The film runs on without any eyes. The spectator cannot exist without it. It ensures his existence."
The London Diorama
Robert Baker, a Scottish artist " invented the first Panorama, a concave, transparent picture view of the city. This was superseded by " the Diorama, which added the illusion of movement by shifting the room. Also sounds and novel lighting effects. Daguerre's London Diorama still stands in Regent's Park, a rare survival ".
When you are next in London, take the subway ( we call it the Tube ) to Great Portland Street, cross over the main road towards Regent's Park, and you will come to Park Square, the Diorama is on the right. Sadly, it is no longer in use - the building is used as a center for Prince Charles' charitable foundation.
An apparent reference to Michael Powell's 1960 cult movie, Peeping Tom, a sensation in its day,
" The voyeur, the peeper, the Peeping Tom, is a dark comedian. He is repulsive in his dark anonymity, in his secret invasion."
The camera as voyeur,
" Camera, as all-seeing eye, satisfies our longing for omniscience. To spy on others from this height and angle."
Cinema and Film
Morrison sees the cinema as the most demanding of all media,
" Cinema is most totalitarian of the arts. All energy and sensation is sucked up into the skull, a cerebral erection."
Jim Morrison is forever young, immortalised on film, " Film confers a kind of spurious eternity." Cine film are " collections of dead pictures which are given artificial insemination...(and are)...an intermittent other world, a powerful infinite mythology to be dipped into at will."
The notion that creative artists are the real holders of power, the Lords, in society,
" The Lords appease us with images. They give us books, concerts, galleries, shows, cinemas. Especially cinemas. Through art they confuse us and blind us to our enslavement."
Jim further elaborated in an interview,
" What that book is a lot about is the feeling of powerlessness and helplessness that people have in the face of reality. They have no real control over events or their own lives. Something is controlling them. The closest they ever get is the television set...
" Somehow the Lords are a romantic race of people who have found a way to control their environment and their own lives ".
The New Creatures
All the poems are untitled and written in a highly abstract free verse. Words and images are quite startling and occasionally seemingly random and disparate, ala the " cut-up " technique of William Burroughs' " The Naked Lunch ." David Bowie and Bono have used this writing technique in their lyrics.
The Celebration of the Lizard?
This poem in eight short verses evokes a primitive civilisation, teeming with reptilian creatures and wild animals. Why the fascination with reptiles?
" I just always loved reptiles. I grew up in the South-West and I used to catch horned toads and lizards...I think that a snake just embodies everything that we fear...Also we must not forget that the lizard and the snake are identified with the unconscious and with the forces of evil...It's all done tongue-in-cheek...That's supposed to be ironic..." Jim.
Then, the peace is shattered by outsiders,
" Fall down./ Strange gods arrive in fast enemy poses./ Their shirts are soft marrying / cloth and hair together./ All along their arms ornaments / conceal veins bluer than blood / pretending welcome. / Soft lizard eyes connect. / Their soft drained insect cries erect / new fear, where fears reign.
These invaders are merciless,
" Loose, nerveless ballets of looting./...The air is thick w/ smoke./ Dead crackling wires dance pools / of sea blood.
The virgin land is being ravished,
" The snake, the lizard, the insect eye / the huntsman's green obedience. / Quick, in raw time, serving / stealth & slumber, / grinding warm forests into restless lumber. "
The soft parade has now begun
A poem in three verses evoking an evening sunset in L.A.,
" Clouds weaken / & die./ The sun, an orange skull,/ whispers quietly, becomes an / island, & is gone.
But the city has a dark underside,
" The artists of Hell / set up easels in parks / the terrible landscape,/ where citizens find anxious pleasure / preyed upon by savage bands of youths."
And finally, a plea for sanity, " Kill hate / disease / warfare / sadness / Kill badness / Kill madness."
Are those our friends
A longer poem in two verses with a predominant anti-war message,
" My son will not die in the war / He will return / numbered peasant voice of Orient / fisherman.
An image of the Vietnam war,
" The chopper blazed over / inward click and sure / blaster matter, made / the time bombs free / of leprous lands / spotted w/ hunger / & clinging to law."
A drifter, perhaps an ex-G.I., wanders through the desolate landscape of a bombed-out city,
" The new man, time-soldier / picked his way narrowly / thru the crowded ruins / of once grave city, gone / comic now w/ rats & the insects of refuge."
T.S.Eliot's The Waste Land is referenced, " this could be fun / to rule a wasteland."
The assassin's bullet
A highly effective poem which is a thinly veiled commentary on the political assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy,
" The assassin's bullet / Marries the King / Dissembling miles of air / To kiss the crown. / The Prince rambles in blood. / Ode to the neck / That was groomed / For rape's gown."
Here the elevated diction is almost Shakespearian.
Morrison mentions labyrinths, mirrors and the infinite in his works - I'd say he was aware of Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinian poet and writer.
A final word from Jim,
" Listen, real poetry doesn't say anything, it just ticks off the possibilities. Opens all doors. You can walk through any one that suits you...If my poetry aims to achieve anything, it's to deliver people from the limited ways in which they see and feel."
Jim Morrison - Wilderness ( 1988 - the first volume of his collected posthumous poetry and writings ).
Jim Morrison - The American Night ( 1990 - the second and last volume ).
Ray Manzarek - Light My Fire ( 1998 - one of the most important Doors books, a superb insider's account of the Doors legend ).
John Densmore - Riders on the Storm ( 1990 - another essential first-hand account of the Doors' story ).
Jerry Hopkins & Danny Sugerman - No One Here Gets Out Alive ( 1980 - the authorised biography that revitalised the Doors and sold millions in the process ).
Danny Sugerman - The Doors - The Illustrated History - ( 1983 - a lovingly compiled compendium of rare photographs and reviews, criticisms and interviews ).
Jerry Hopkins - The Lizard King (1992 - a fresher, condensed version of his earlier biog. This book has a more complete chapter on Jim's brief time in Paris and reprints some major press interviews. A worthwhile book, but read the others first ).
The Doors - Jan.1967
Strange Days - Oct.1967
Waiting for the Sun - July 1968
The Soft Parade - July 1969
Morrison Hotel - Feb. 1970
L.A. Woman - April 1971
For those new to the Doors, I'd suggest you try the last two albums first, and then work back. Greatest Hits compilations are fine, but the Doors really were an albums band - each set of tracks carefully conceived and sequenced to be heard in their entirety on each separate project.
After Jim's death, the remaining three Doors carried on a trio, augmented in the studio by extra musicians. They released:
Other Voices - Oct. 1971 - an excellent album, but almost unanimously scorned. I've always liked this, and concede that although the Doors are not the same without their leader, Ray, Robbie and John did not overnight become bad musicians.
Full Circle - 1972 - another fine release, perhaps not quite as good as its predecessor. This was the final album of original music from the Doors until:
An American Payer - Nov.1978 - Jim's recited poetry with new music from the surviving three Doors.
The Doors - 30 Years Commemorative Edition 2001 is outstanding value - over 3 hours of performance footage. Fantastic!
The Doors - the 1991 Oliver Stone movie. This much derided film's primary thesis is to portray Jim Morrison as an obnoxious, pot-smoking, acid-headed alcoholic, presumably in the belief that sensationalism would sell. Where was, all Doors fans asked, Jim the gifted poet / composer / thinker? However, the movie does recreate authentically the L.A. music scene of the 1960's really well, with production values and no expense spared sets. So really a mixed bag, but worth seeing with reservations.
This year is the 40th anniversary of Jim Morrison's death, and to mark this, I am hosting my own unofficial write-off. No need to leave a comment or link here - just write a Jim / Doors review anytime this year, to celebrate this great American icon. So come on Doors fans, get writing!
This is also another review for April National Poetry Month, for which Befus is hosting a write-off.
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