The Indiscreet Charm of Jim Morrison
Let us speak of false dichotomies. When it comes to Sixties bands, it’s usually “Are you a Beatles man or a Stones man?” Well, my reply is, “I’m neither, my good sir—I’m a Doors man.” Strange for me to admit it, since I’m a sworn foe to pretentiousness and phony mysticism in all their variegated forms: but there’s a charm—an indiscreet charm, if you will—to the band and particularly to its front man, one Jim Morrison (charged with exposing himself onstage in Miami 40+ years ago this week), damned difficult to resist.
Regarded in the very best of lights, he was the Cassandra of the Flower Generation, a spokesman for the Dark Side of the Sixties, a neo-Romantic crooner speaking to and for the Dionysian in all of us. Regarded in the worst of lights, he was an obnoxious, pretentious drunk.
Some would say Morrison’s entire career was one long indecent exposure, but I beg to differ. Still, I know where those aforementioned hypothetical some are coming from. Haven’t stepped foot inside a college dorm for quite a few years now, so don’t know if Jim Morrison posters still decorate undergrads’ walls—but in my day they certainly did.Many stoners and/or hearty/hardy partiers had an affinity for the man which was quite annoying. Kind of a white trash Bob Marley, if you will.
Posterity in many ways has not been kind to Mr. Morrison. He occupies a no man’s land between high art and low art, between coolness and dirt-bagginess, between real artistry and cheesy showmanship. Unlike no other artist I can currently think of in that regard.
Regarded in the very best of lights, he was the Cassandra of the Flower Generation, a spokesman for the Dark Side of the Sixties, a neo-Romantic crooner speaking to and for the Dionysian in all of us. Regarded in the worst of lights, he was an obnoxious, pretentious drunk. Like Denis Leary once said:
“We need a two and a half hour movie about the Doors? Folks, no we don’t. I can sum it up for you in five seconds, okay? I’m drunk—I’m nobody. I’m drunk—I’m famous. I’m drunk—I’m fucking dead. There’s the whole movie, okay? Big fat dead guy in a bath tub—there’s your title for you.”
Long been unsettled by the specter of the archetype of the drunken/drug-addled artistic genius. Although I’ve been known to imbibe a beer or two (or three) in the writing of these posts, my constitution inhibits me from becoming an all-out alcoholic because, especially since reaching my thirties, the hangovers are simply too brutal to endure on a regular basis. My saintliness, like most saintliness, stems more from personal weakness than any strong ethical code.
But there is a troubling connection between substance abuse and inspiration going way back. Dionysus was the ancient Greek god of wine and madness and it was to him early dramatic performance was dedicated, and he’s the deity often name-checked in relation to Morrison. Best depicted in Euripides’ The Bacchae, Dionysus is a youthful, upstart god followed by a throng of drunken, dancing women. Those who deny his deity are ripped apart, live, by their mothers. From The Bacchae:
On, on! Run, dance, delirious, possessed!
Dionysus comes to his own;
Bring from the Phrygian hills to the broad streets of Hellas
The god, child of a god,
Spirit of revel and rapture, Dionysus!
Science and rationality are to be applauded, but let’s not get too cocky—and let’s not forget there is a mysterious, wild, spine-chilling side to life. Although I strongly favor clear-headed thinking and eschew superstition, I’ve got to admit that our lives are becoming disturbingly plain-jane and yawningly utilitarian in scope.
Even our religions these days seem drained of mystery. Our church services might as well be PTA meetings, and our God’s either an uptight schoolmarm or a smarmy insurance salesman.
The music of the Doors is a nice shaker-upper of our complacent, overly-logical modern selves. Favorite Doors song is the “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)”:
Now listen to this—
I’ll tell you about the heartache
I’ll tell you about the heartache and the
Loss of God
I’ll tell you about the hopeless night
The meager food for souls forgotten
I’ll tell you about the maiden
With wrought-iron soul
Is it great poetry? Maybe, maybe not. Morrison considered himself a poet, but let’s face it: he would have amounted to precious little had he not been backed up by an excellent set of musicians—Ray Manzarek on keyboards, John Densmore on drums, Robby Krieger on guitar. Holy shit, these guys are good.
The music of the Doors, by the way, is great traveling music—car, bike, boat, foot, camel, horse, whatever. It’s urban but not urban, rural but not rural. It conjures up images of seedy streets and awe-inspiring landscapes alike. Popular music is strangely human-centered and therefore city-centered, so it’s heartening to hear Morrison nodding to Nature in songs like “When the Music’s Over”:
What have they done to the earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her
Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn
And tied her with fences and
Dragged her down
Let us now speak of alternate realities. There are some people it’s just well-nigh impossible to imagine as old. How would Jim Morrison have turned out? Religious convert like late-Seventies Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens? Casino-circuit has-been? Guest judge on American Idol? Children’s book author? Republican candidate for Congress? All of the alternatives are cringe-inducing—for he’s a being forever crystallized in time, impervious to further evolution. That’s one of the pros and also one of the cons of dying young.
Florida governor Charlie Crist posthumously pardoned Morrison in 2010. Just goes to show that drunken assholery can become endearing or at least forgivable when tied to a love of Nature, a keen interest in the past, and an un-self-conscious fervor for life’s enduring enigma. Future trainwrecks of America, take heed.