‘SOME ARE BORN
TO ENDLESS NIGHT…’:
JIM MORRISON –
THE LIFE AND
THE LIZARD KING
Charles Shaar Murray writes that Jim Morrison was ‘both
a creative inspiration who managed to pull undreamed-of
heights of achievement from his colleagues, and a
(self)destructive asshole who drove everybody around him
as crazy as he was, and that the same impulses provided the
motor for both his aspects.’ His was a self-annihilating trajectory
taking the Doors out to the perimeter where there are no stars…
‘OUT HERE IN THE PERIMETERS
THERE ARE NO STARS, OUT HERE
WE ARE STONED, IMMACULATE…’
In his telephone sex novel ‘Vox’ (1992) Nicholas Baker describes his adolescent radio-dial fantasies. The illuminated FM stations form a city skyline. The AM stations beneath are its reflection in the water. The moving dot on the frequency band is his car cruising the city’s imaginary main strip. “The Wasp (Texas Radio And The Big Beat)” on the Doors final studio album ‘L.A. Woman’ (1971) ignites that airtime dream – ‘soft driven, slow and mad like some new language,/ reaching your head with the cold, sudden fury of a divine messenger’.
The young James Douglas Morrison listens to Fifties and early Sixties Rock ‘n’ Roll radio. He wants to be Presley and Jagger. But he wants to be Byron and Blake, Rimbaud and Verlaine, Nietzsche and Dionysus too. He wants the world, and he wants it tuned to permanent acceleration in an eternal present. The Doors are his vehicle, a moving dot in a city of light on someone else’s frequency band. In just five years he tests it to destruction. All the way to Pére Lachaise cemetery in Paris off the Periferique, where he now lies alongside Apollinaire, Balzac, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde and Edith Piaf.
Jim Morrison was the singer with a Pop group. America’s answer to the Rolling Stones. His moody teenbeat pin-up is stapled into ‘Sixteen’ fan-magazine, America’s proto ‘Smash Hits’.
Jim Morrison is also Prometheus in a field of fire. He can shit black planets of perfect crystal, crawling with savage chimerical creatures. He vomits blazing suns that spin as vast and distant as Sirius. He ejaculates poems that are shimmering constellations of spiral galaxies. He’s inhabited by the spirit of a dead Navajo Medicine Man, who entered his child’s ‘fragile eggshell mind’ from a New Mexico roadside autowreck. His live Rock ceremony is demonic incantation, the vile ritual from an HP Lovecraft novel that summons grotesquely monstrous abominations from some blasphemous outer darkness. He’s deliberately ripped, purposefully out of his skull, devouring rational consciousness in unspeakable passions, rebelling against all limitations, on a hedonistic trip to oblivion through endless nights of sweet delight and total sensory derangement. A self-annihilating trajectory out to the perimeter where there are no stars…
He also wrote some catchy tunes.
Like a scene from a beach-bum Surf-A-Go-Go movie the Doors come into being sat cross-legged on Venice Beach where Morrison tries-out “Moonlight Drive” to Ray Manzarek – ‘…let’s swim to the moon,/ let’s climb through the tide’. Manzarek, blonde fringe rippling in the slight breeze, listens captivated. All that intense tortured future unravelling behind their eyes.
‘We’ll get a Rock n’ Roll band together and make a million bucks’ snaps Ray on instant response, with remarkable prescience.
In the Oliver Stone film ‘The Doors’ (1991) the replay of the sequence invites a ‘HEY KIDS, WHY DON’T WE DO THE SHOW RIGHT HERE!’ dance routine. It’s the pubertal fantasy, the Kids From Fame moment of destiny. A Pepsi-ad prelude to all that brooding darkness. But, studio hair-styling aside, it seems a scrupulously accurate recreation of what actually happened.
Manzarek recruits John Densmore – ex Psychedelic Ranger, a drumming physics and psychology major. They meet while meditating. Well – this IS California 1965. Robby Krieger, playing guitar with a jugband, feeds the opening verse for “Light My Fire” into the burgeoning Soul Kitchen.
‘…Can you picture what will be, so limitless and free…’?
IS ABOUT TO BEGIN’
The Doors sign to Elektra.
The ‘Indie’ thing doesn’t exist in 1967. Despite their insurrectionary pretentions Jefferson Airplane take the corporate dollar from RCA, Grateful Dead pact to Warner Brothers, a rather confused Verve see commercial potential in the Mothers of Invention. But Elektra is the closest thing to independent credibility you can buy. It’s the personal project and personal obsession of one Jac Holzman. Funded from an initial budget of just $600, the label is at one time run from his dormitory at St John’s College in New York State. The abbreviated edit of “Light My Fire” will eventually open side one of a now-rare ‘Select Elektra’ (1968) sampler with John Peel sleeve-notes he’d probably later pay blackmail cash to keep rare. ‘In these days, often rancid, it is written in some plastic bound handbook that recorded creations and love are to lie smothered beneath the grasping need for ‘Chart’ records’ he gushes. ‘Only one label has discovered purity lying in the same elusive bed as success. They sign few artists but those they sign find themselves overnight on Olympus.’
Specialising in Folk and Blues originally from the Greenwich Village scene, Elektra builds its quality reputation on a sparse but discriminating artist roster including Josh White, Judy Collins, Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk, the Butterfield Blues Band and Tom Rush. Love and Doors are signed and modestly marketed as a single promotional package, the label’s first concerted foray into electric Rock. The band’s distinctive logo’s jointly share discrete box ads – Arthur Lee’s group with its gender signs iconising the ‘O’ of Love into an instant recognition factor. The Doors are presented in broad stencil lettering, its implications harder, more direct.
The lettering is stencilled in lime-green across the upper third of the first album sleeve (January 1967), Manzarek, Krieger and Densmore emerging in miniature from the shadow eclipsing Morrison’s right eye. And it’s a monumental debut, a film noir, a sensory guide, a jukebox out of control, new – and with cultural intoxicants half as old as time. At one extreme there’s Willie Dixon’s bragging Blues “Back Door Man”, at the other there’s Brecht-Weill’s Weimar political cabaret “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)”, and in the grooves between there’s straight charisma, mayhem, satanic sweetness, reptilian lore and delicious violence. Morrison fingers concepts with a Midas touch. Rock is his second tongue. He assimilates the raw power of Blues into the dramatic projection of theatre, two poles he’ll oscillate between throughout his work.
To Lillian Roxon – ‘New York Sunday News’ music correspondent, the Doors are ‘the boys next door, if you live next door to a penitentiary, a lunatic asylum or a leather shop’. ‘Record Mirror’ is predictably less attuned, ‘the Doors are an up-and-coming US group with an ‘in’ West Coast reputation’ it explains. ‘This, their first album for Elektra is wild, rough and although it’s subtle in places, the overall sound is torrid. They’re Blues-based and get quite an effective sound. One complaint is that perhaps their material isn’t immediately commercial – a new group with a self-penned LP of not-too-obvious material aren’t particularly good commercial prospects.’ Bewildered incomprehension struggles through each phrase. ‘Only the very West-Coast people here will dig this’ it concedes, ‘although the group DO have potential and talent.’
‘Strange Days’ becomes the title of a counter-culture newspaper.
Briefly, the Doors are the hippest band on Earth.
‘THIS IS THE STRANGEST
LIFE I’VE EVER KNOWN…’
Val Kilmer makes a useful visual cipher of Jim Morrison for movie purposes.
But an inexact one. Kilmer is too pretty. Too contrived. Like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan or John Lennon, Jim Morrison is unique. By definition, uniqueness cannot be replicated.
Kilmer comes about as close as we can reasonably expect. But as well as being pretty, the REAL Morrison is an uncouth slob of licentious delinquency. By turn taciturn, pensive, self-absorbed, yet magnetically sensuous.
And the movie ‘The Doors’ autocues randomness into narrative structure. There was no structure. Morrison comes out of nightmare on the tail of star storms. A half-breed, a changeling, shaman and lycanthrope, buffoon and lout, the genes of each strand mingling in unpredictable balance. ‘Beauty walks a razor’s edge’ says Dylan. There’s a not-quite-rightness about the Doors that no movie can fabricate, a skewed angle in extremis. To Morrison himself the Doors music is ‘a gloomy, heavy feeling of someone not quite at home, not quite relaxed.’
In subsequent interviews Ray Manzarek seems strangely confused. As though he can’t believe that those Doors years actually happened. John Densmore still seems stunned, still trying to work out the wounds through therapy and analysis. Muse and common-law wife Pamela Courson Morrison dies of a heroin overdose two years after Jim.
Morrison could infect and alter his surroundings. Could dream environments and states of being into reality, ‘I am the Lizard King, I can do ANYTHING’. He is his own creation. He obliterates his past, spontaneously inventing new ones. Denies his rootless but disciplined Naval family, his authoritarian US Admiral father – ‘…and he came to a door/ and he looked inside,/ ‘Father?’/ ‘Yes, son?’/ I want to kill you’. To a critic, interpreting that inner world outer projected, is an act of deciphering his mischief for mystification. Morrison creates and inhabits a fallen universe of crumbling confusion passing into romantic decay. ‘I am interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos, and especially activity that seems to have no meaning.’ He’s a powerful narcotic living with an intensity that transmits to, and transmutes the world about him.
The litmus is Ed Sullivan. A coast-to-coast live TV shot, crucial launch for Elvis and the Beatles in their turn, it’s a prestige date. And an incident painstakingly recreated for Oliver Stone’s movie. Sullivan requests that the Doors omit the lyric ‘girl we couldn’t get much higher’ due to its drugs inference. Morrison concurs – then sings it anyway, emphasising the offending passage gleefully. It is 17 September 1967. The movie sequence builds convincingly towards this dénouement. Manzarek pointing out that even the mighty Rolling Stones self-censored their “Let’s Spend The Night Together” for the blue-tuxedo’d hunchback. Jagger rolling his eyes in affected tedium as he sings ‘let’s spend some time together’.
‘It’s only a fucking WORD, man’ urges Manzarek pragmatically.
Kilmer/Morrison broods convincingly.
But compare film clips (the Ed Sullivan clip is re-shown as part of an ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ 1982 Doors special). The difference forms the event-horizon between art and artifice. Morrison is genuinely electric, wishful sinful, an aura of crackling danger that communicates across the years. A definitively unrepeatable moment. Despite the movie’s dubbed-on outrage, shocked TV menials and linkmen howling their protest to up the dramatic ante, the on-screen scene just can’t compete.
‘The Doors Are Open’ TV-movie, filmed in London with concert footage from the Roundhouse spliced with the apocalyptical roar of the Kent State University shootings, the Grosvenor Square protest demonstration and Vietnam carnage footing, goes out 6 October 1968 on an ITV time-slot. It snares Morrison quintessentially, stoned immaculate. He lurches like a sick dinosaur, a roughly-hewn Lord Byron with a club-foot mind and a practised insolence. His face massive as a boulder. His heavy-lidded eyes glow with a psychopathic stare, as if they’re rocks subjected to intense radioactivity. His breath looks like it smells as if he’s just eaten rotten squid.
But – revolution for the hell of it aside, Morrison’s real theatre of operation is the libido. To ‘Groupie’ Jenny Fabian he’s ‘a lovely leather animal with dead eyes’, effortlessly communicating a twilit chromatic psychic exploration in a context both liberating and deathly. It’s there in the complex taboo-busting Oedipal games of “The End” which got them fired from their first-ever Club booking at the LA ‘Whiskey-A-Go-Go’, it’s there in the lascivious bare-chested come-on on the ‘Strange Days’ inner sleeve. The Doors are his vehicle, his most complete metaphor. ‘Break On Through’ his destination. The decadent Symbolist poets of the fin de siècle his route-plan. Excess brings heightened awareness, indefinitely prolonged. Without limits.
“Moonlight Drive” – which began the band, sat cross-legged on Venice Beach, opens ravenous for life, ‘let’s swim to the Moon, let’s climb through the tide’, but narrows down to a final dark extinction – ‘Baby gonna drown tonight, going down, down, down’.
Charles Shaar Murray writes that Morrison was ‘both a creative inspiration who managed to pull undreamed-of heights of achievement from his colleagues, and a (self)destructive asshole who drove everybody around him as crazy as he was, and that the same impulses provided the motor for both his aspects.’ The Jim Morrison story, he says, is ‘how the asshole gradually triumphed over the artist’ (‘Q’ April 1991). Confirming and developing the verdict, former Doors publicist Danny Fields explains ‘he began adopting the persona he invented for the stage – you know, dark, brooding mysterious. That’s when he became an asshole.’
Legends proliferate of voracious sexual and narcotic appetites fuelled on – at the end, three bottles of Scotch a day. Danny Sugarman remembers when Morrison picked up a ‘seventeen-year-old on the Strip and butt-fucked her’, stealing her rings as a follow-through. During a stalled recording session, surrounded by musicians and technicians, Pamela kneels to suck his famous cock in an inspired attempt to recharge his creativity…
New Haven, December 1967, headlines the brooding underground notoriety nationwide. Morrison is discovered in flagrante delicto with a nubile in the shower stall prior to a gig, by a Security Cop. Badmouthing the intruder and lunging in a move interpreted as aggressive the Cop mace’s the leather animal with now-dead eyes. Allowed on stage Morrison’s agit-prop set ignites into a scatological harangue about the debacle, taunting and provoking, until he’s busted, cuffed and dragged off by the Police. Splash photos frame him as an overnight icon of innocence crucified by fascist State repression.
Inevitably Miami follows. Six separate Police warrants charge ‘lewd and lascivious behaviour in public by exposing his private parts and by simulating masturbation and oral copulation’. ‘A rather unfair victimisation’ considers ‘Oz’ defendant Richard Neville ‘when one considers that members of his audience were certainly doing the same thing.’ There are further allegations of public profanity and drunkenness. The date is 2 March 1969. Manzarek maintains to the end that the controversial cock was never flipped, although he concedes there was ‘a lot of teasing going on’. History and myth are against Manzarek.
Related charges follow, with appeals and legal complications resolved only by Morrison’s death on 3 July 1971…
‘CANCEL MY SUBSCRIPTION
TO THE RESURRECTION…’
The two most influential American bands of the sixties have no British chart profile at the time. Velvet Underground never chart once. Lou Reed must wait until May 1973 before David Bowie midwives his only Top Ten entry. And while forgotten bands like Herd and Amen Corner stake out block bookings in the Top Three the Doors “Light My Fire” makes a single showing at no.49 (16 August 1967). It isn’t until eighteenth months later that the song goes Top Ten – for ‘blind Puerto Rican Blues Singer’ Jose Feliciano’s cover version. And it isn’t until the Oliver Stone film reactivates interest that the Doors original edit of “Light My Fire” eventually charts, barely scraping the Top Five in 1991. Even the Doors most direct hit – “Hello, I Love You”, gets no higher than no.15 in August 1968, and it is hardly recognised as innovative. ‘New Musical Express’ complains that it merely recycles an old Kinks riff. “Riders On The Storm” – although now invested with radio-play ‘Classic Rock’ status, charts on the strength of Morrison’s death, but still peaks no higher than no.22 (in October 1971).
In the States it’s better, there are eight Top Forty entries including two no.1’s (or three – depending on which paper you read), but that’s a sales achievement dwarfed by – say, that of Herman’s Hermits or Tommy James and the Shondells. The Doors are Elektra’s biggest band, the underground’s most visible profile, and the album’s have sold consistently ever since, but in industry terms they seldom shift units in quantities proportional to their reputation.
There are attempts to split them up. To lure Morrison away. They remain stubbornly loyal to each other, to the group identity. The Doors are often seen as puppets to Jim Morrison’s ventriloquism. That’s light years distant from the truth. They function on synergy. They provide the flexible response that gives Morrison’s often jagged shapeless chopped-up prose its form and structure. The stark ‘roman wilderness of pain’ stripped-down instrumentation to “The End” sets up the dramatic nuances precisely, fading in to the soundtrack function in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 ‘Apocalypse Now’ movie with strident clarity and supernatural rightness. The densely layered build to “Waiting For The Sun” (oddly, on the February 1970 ‘Morrison Hotel’ LP) amplifies and powers Morrison’s harsh exhortation on a rising wave of tension that’s unbearably taut. The complex rhythmic changes of “L.A. Woman” accelerate, dart and weave with guile and a sympathetic magic that’s aerodynamically contoured, while Manzarek’s jazz-literate keyboards float the vocal pretentions gravity-free, giving them sufficient buoyancy not to touch the earth. Their interaction dances on fire with telepathic intuition, an immaculate melange of melodic invention, rhythmic toughness and depraved poetry.
The fourth album – ‘The Soft Parade’ (July 1969), spawns their second American no.1, Robby Krieger’s “Touch Me”, but the hippie press grumble about Paul Harris’ softening strings that sweeten the track. Further, exactly half of the nine tracks, including the three singles, are Krieger compositions. Even the sleeve is prettified, a diminished shot of the band tastefully grouped around a camera tripod. ‘Morrison Hotel’ – the penultimate studio set, marks a return to raw. The gatefold opens out to a bar-room. The Doors on a drunk. Morrison sneers antagonistically, slouched up against the bar, bottle in hand.
There are live albums, videos and compilations to come, but by then Morrison will be dead, his critical reputation in suspension. Rehabilitation comes with the Punk reappraisal. The Stranglers keyboard trims invite Doors comparisons. Echo and the Bunnymen too.
‘More gloppy, pretentious, pseudosurrealistic, hyperliterary, quasi-mystical prose has been written about the Doors than about any other Rock group ever’ snipes Lillian Roxon. ‘Whenever the Doors are mentioned in print, the similes fly like shrapnel in an air raid’. And this is 1971. Before the deluge.
The turning point is the publication of Danny Sugerman’s ‘No-one Here Gets Out Alive’ in 1980. A disciple who’d met the Lizard King at age thirteen and become a worshipping part of the extended Doors entourage, his book is a work of devotion – but not blindly so. It, and the Wild Child’s equally Jim-fixated autobiographical follow-up ‘Wonderland Avenue’ (1989), catches a rising wave of renewed activity in fanzines and small-press journals which in turn feed off the recent issue of Morrison’s posthumous album of poetry, ‘An American Prayer’ (November 1978) – recorded privately on his twenty-seventh (and last) birthday. Morrison’s own bold fabulist texts, crawling with bright visions and chimerical beasts, are discovered or repackaged in legit-lit collections too – ‘The Lords And The New Creatures’ (1969, then 1985), ‘Wilderness: The Lost Writings Of Jim Morrison’ (1988) and ‘An American Night: The Writings Of Jim Morrison Vol.2’ (1990), forcing new appraisals of his skills, while critical tomes multiply alarmingly.
Among the best of them, John Densmore’s own account – ‘Riders On The Storm: My Life With Jim Morrison And The Doors’ still finds much new myth and mayhem to infiltrate as late as 1991. Dylan Jones takes a more extreme, less emotionally compromised position in his ‘Dark Star’ (1990), finding Morrison flawed and fundamentally unlikeable – ‘a Pop genius, but amateur human being’. A photojournal ‘Jim Morrison: An Hour For Magic’ (1982) by Frank Lisciandro – a movie student from Morrison’s days at the UCLA, is totally suckered on the legend, ‘a wizard, a sorcerer, a magician, a medicine man, a witch doctor, an enchanter’ and more.
While Billy Idol, who has a small bar-room walk-on in ‘The Doors’, does a turgid over-reverential vinyl “L.A. Woman’. House Of Love a more sparkling “Spy (In The House Of Love)”. Manzarek produces a manic “Soul Kitchen” for the first album by X, and Adam Ant incongruously covers “Hello, I Love You”. Echo and the Bunnymen record “People Are Strange” for the soundtrack of ‘The Lost Boys’ (1987), and a conflagration of innumerable “Light My Fire”s appear clear across the musical spectrum. And every doom-laden Goth band invoking atmospheres of ceremony or contriving a shared theatre of ambient pain draw on the Doors’ Shaman in Morrison’s head.
A web of cultural convergence culminating in Oliver Stone’s $20-million epic bio-pic.
Which is – to quote the Doors only post-Morrison album title, ‘Full Circle’ (August 1972).
‘THIS IS THE END,
Jim Morrison died a poet’s death. On the morning of Saturday 3 July 1971, in the bathtub of the Paris apartment he shares with Pamela Courson, at 17-19 Rue Beautreillis, Fourth Arrondissement, brought on by the systematic derangement of excess. Gone twenty years he’s now been famous as a dead celebrity four times longer than he was a live one.
It’s possible to imagine Buddy Holly at fifty. A paunchy hits-package playing the chicken-in-a-basket circuit. Perhaps now that Roy Orbison and Del Shannon are dead, he’s considering a Traveling Wilbury’s link-up? It’s even possible to imagine Jimi Hendrix at fifty. His startling noise eruptions sophisticating into more preconceived avant-jazz improvisations, yet perhaps still guesting on a Prince 12” remix.
But Jim Morrison at fifty is inconceivable. Never a musician, he could not have adapted to the touring discipline of – say, a Bruce Springsteen. Lacking vaudevillian self-mockery he’d have made a poor Rolling Stone. It’s difficult to fit him into any long-term LA poolside Rock Star niche beyond the Syd Barrett/ Roky Erikson holy madman. A grizzled pugilistic Charles Bukowski perhaps, a foul-mouthed poet publishing riotous beat-up verse through increasingly obscure lit-mags. Or a red-eyed Zen hermit squatting cross-legged in a cave in the Mojave Desert on a diet of centipedes and peyote. But Morrison was not designed to last. He was self-detonating. Primed to destruct.
Jim Morrison was the singer with a Pop group. America’s answer to the Rolling Stones.
He wrote some catchy tunes.
He also liberated music, made it a little more literate. The Doors were a moving dot of light on the frequency band of my adolescent radio-dial fantasies, ‘slow and mad like some new language, reaching my head with the cold, sudden fury of a divine messenger’. The Doors legitimised for me the lure of poetry, passionate extremes, spiritual quest (and leather trousers), setting it all in an acceptable male working class context. He lit up the ghost shaman in my own skull, pointing out possibilities.
For every one of a million bands flirting with rituals of endarkenment there are few who have attempted, and none who’ve succeeded in replicating the intricate alchemy of Morrison’s terminal romance. That’s beyond fakery.
He’d dominate any normal decade. But in the late sixties – a time when giants walked the earth, he was racked up on the same iconoclastic pantheon as Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Frank Zappa, Don Van ‘Captain Beefheart’ Vliet, Miles Davis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Leonard Cohn, Jimi Hendrix…
Leaving cold vinyl, celluloid, and vast mounds of newsprint and webpages – like this one, me sat typing 4am fuelled on ouzo, stupidly and retrospectively trying to make sense of what was a living breathing orgasm in a long-gone eternal present.
Beyond legend, myth and mischief, his lyrics still burn like Acid and like acid. His voice still contains ecstasy. Would Morrison care? He cared only for the moment. The now.
But now the Doors are closed.
And ‘when the music’s over, turn out the lights…’
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