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The Legacy of Jim Morrison and the Doors

Looking back at the groundbreaking singer and band 25 years later

The Doors

Doors, circa 1970

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Nearly twenty-five years ago, in the middle of a season in which rock & roll was seeking to define itself as the binding force of a new youth community, the Doors became the house band for an American apocalypse that wasn’t even yet upon us. Indeed, the Los Angeles-based quartet’s stunning and rousing debut LP, The Doors, flew in the face of rock’s emerging positivist ethos and in effect helped form the basis for a schism that still persists in popular music. While groups like the Beatles or the many bands emerging from the Bay Area were earnestly touting a fusion of music, drugs and idealism that they hoped would reform — and redeem — a troubled age, the Doors had fashioned an album that looked at prospects of hedonism and violence, of revolt and chaos, and embraced those prospects unflinchingly. Clearly, the Doors — in particular the group’s thin, darkly handsome lead singer, Jim Morrison — understood a truth about their age that many other pop artists did not: namely, that these were dangerous times, and dangerous not only because youth culture was under fire for breaking away from established conventions and aspirations. On some level, Morrison realized that the danger was also internal – that the “love generation” was hardly without its own dark impulses. In fact, Morrison seemed to understand that any generation so intent on giving itself permission to go as far as it could was also giving itself a license for destruction, and he seemed to gain both delight and affirmation from that understanding.

Consequently, in those moments in the Doors’ experimental, Oedipal miniopera “The End,” when Morrison sang about wanting to kill his father and fuck his mother, he managed to take a somewhat silly notion of outrage and make it sound convincing, even somehow justified. More than the songs of Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones, Morrison’s lyrics signified a recognition that an older generation had betrayed its children, and that this betrayal called for a bitter pay-back. Little wonder, then, that the Doors’ music (“The End” in particular) became such a meaningful favorite among young Americans fighting in Vietnam, in a war in which children had been sent to kill or die for an older generation’s frightened ideals. Other groups were trying to prepare their audience for a world of hope and peace; the Doors, meanwhile, were making music for a ravenous and murderous time, and at the group’s best, the effect was thoroughly scary and thoroughly exhilarating.

Now, a generation later — at a time when, at home, antidrug and anti-obscenity sentiment has reached a fever pitch and when, abroad, the Doors’ music is once again among the favored choices of young Americans fighting in a war — Jim Morrison seems more heroic to many pop fans than ever before. A film like Oliver Stone’s Doors — which is the most ambitious, epic-minded movie yet produced about rock culture and its discontents — can even make it seem that the band, in a dark way, has won its argument with cultural history. But back in the late 1960s, it seemed rather different. To many observers, it appeared that the group had pretty much shot its vision on its first album. By the Doors’ second LP, Strange Days (October 1967), the music had lost much of its edginess — the sense of rapacity, of persistent momentum, that had made the previous album seem so undeniable — and in contrast to the atmosphere of aggression and dread that Morrison’s earlier lyrics had made palpable, the new songs tended too often to melodrama (“Strange Days”) or to flat-out pretension (“Horse Latitudes”). It was as if a musical vision that only a few months earlier had seemed shockingly original and urgent had turned merely morbid, even parodic.

In addition, Morrison himself was already deeply immersed in the patterns of drug and alcohol abuse and public misbehavior that would eventually prove so ruinous to him, his band, his friends and his family. Some of this behavior, of course, was simply expected of the new breed of rock hero: In the context of the late 1960s and its generational schisms, pop stars often made a point of flaunting their drug use or of flouting mainstream or authoritarian morality. Sometimes this impudence was merely showy or naive, though on certain other occasions — such as the December 1967 incident in which Morrison was arrested after publicly castigating police officers for their backstage brutality at a New Haven concert — these gestures of defiance helped embolden the rock audience’s emerging political sensibility. More often than not, though, Morrison’s unruliness wasn’t so much a display of countercultural bravado as it was a sign of the singer’s own raging hubris and out-of-control dissipation.

In other words, something far darker than artistic or political ambition fueled Jim Morrison’s appetite for disruption, and in March 1969, at an infamous concert in Miami, this sad truth came across with disastrous results. In the film version of this incident, Oliver Stone portrays the concert as part pageant and part travesty, and while it was perhaps a bit of both, most firsthand accounts have described the show as simply a pathetic, confusing mess. The Doors had been scheduled to perform at 10:00 p.m. but had been delayed for nearly an hour due to a dispute with the show’s promoters. By the time the group arrived onstage, Morrison was already inebriated, and he continued to hold up the performance while he solicited the audience for more to drink. A quarter-hour later, after the music had started, Morrison halted songs midway and wandered about the stage, berating the audience to commit revolution and to love him. At one point, he pulled on the front of his weatherworn leather pants and threatened to produce his penis for the crowd’s perusal. (Oddly enough, though more than twenty years have passed, and more than 10,000 people, including band members and police officers onstage, witnessed Morrison’s performance, it has never been clearly determined whether Morrison actually succeeded in exposing himself that night.) Finally, toward the end of the show, Morrison hounded audience members into swarming onstage with him, and the concert ended in an easy version of the chaos that the singer had long professed to aspire to.

At the time, the event seemed more embarrassing than outrageous, but within days the Miami Herald and some politically minded city and legal officials had inflated the pitiable debacle into a serious affront to Miami and the nation’s moral welfare; in addition, Morrison himself was sized up as the foul embodiment of youth’s supreme indecency. The Doors’ nationwide concert schedule ground to an immediate halt, and in effect the band’s touring days were finished. Interestingly, amid all the hoopla that would follow — the public debate, the shameful trial for obscenity — almost nobody saw Morrison’s gesture for what it truly was: the act of a man who had lost faith in his art and his relation to the world around him. On that fateful evening in Miami, Jim Morrison no longer knew what his audience wanted from him, or what he wanted from himself for that matter, and so he offered his most obvious totem of love and pride, as if it were the true source of his worth. The Doors’ lead singer – who only two years before had been one of rock’s smartest, scariest and sexiest heroes — was now a heart-rending alcoholic and clownish jerk. He needed help; he did not merit cheap veneration, and he certainly did not deserve the horrid, moralistic brand of jail-house punishment that the state of Florida hoped to impose on him.

Of course, Morrison never received — or at least never accepted — the help that might have saved him. By 1970 the Doors were a show-business enterprise with contracts and debts, and these obligations had been severely deepened by Morrison’s Miami antics. As a result, the band would produce five albums over the next two years, including two of the group’s most satisfying studio efforts, Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman, surprisingly authoritative, blues-steeped works that showed Morrison settling into a new, lusty and dark-humored vocal style and lyrical sensibility. But if Morrison had finally grown comfortable with the idea of rock & roll for its own sake, he also realized that he no longer had much of consequence to say in that medium. In

March 1971, Morrison took a leave of absence from the Doors, and with his common-law wife, Pamela Courson, moved to Paris, ostensibly to distance himself from the physical and spiritual rigors of rock & roll and to regenerate his vocation as a modern poet. Perhaps in time he might have come to a compassionate understanding of what he and his generation had experienced in the last few years, as the idealism of the 1960s had finally given way to a deflating sense of fear and futility. (Certainly there were glimmers in Morrison’s last few interviews that he had begun to acquire some valuable insight about the reasons for and sources of his, and his culture’s, bouts of excess.) As it turned out, Morrison simply continued to drink in a desolating way, and according to some witnesses, he sometimes lapsed into depression over his inability to reinvoke his poetic muse, taking instead to writing suicide notes.

Finally, at five in the morning on July 4th, 1971, Pamela Courson found Morrison slumped in the bathtub of their Paris flat, a sweet, still grin on his face. At first, Courson thought he was playing a game with her. On this dark morning, though, Morrison was playing no game. His skin was cold to his wife’s touch. Jim Morrison had died of heart failure at age twenty-seven, smiling into the face of a slow-coming abyss that, long before, he had decided was the most beautiful and comforting certainty of his life.

INITIALLY, MORRISON’S DEATH SEEMED TO BE the end for the Doors. The year before, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin had died as well, also of causes brought on by alcohol or drugs. Now, Morrison’s death — which had been more clearly foreseeable — made plain that early fatalities were likely to be one of the more frequent costs of rock heroism, that today’s brightest prodigy might be tomorrow’s next likely flameout. Though the surviving Doors — keyboardist Ray Manzarek, drummer John Densmore and guitarist Robby Krieger — went on to make two albums as a trio under the band’s name, they could never really rebound from Morrison’s death. If, in some ways, Morrison had turned out to be the band’s most troubling and limiting factor, he had also been the group’s central claim to an identity or purpose, and without him the Doors weren’t even a notable name.

Today, though, twenty years after Morrison’s death, the Doors enjoy a renewed popularity that shows no signs of abating — a popularity that might have proved far more elusive had Morrison survived and returned to the group. The roots for this renewal trace back to the middle and late 1970s and to the issues surrounding the advent of the punk movement. By 1976 many younger rock & roll fans and musicians began to feel that the pop world had lost touch with its sense of daring, that much of the music of the 1970s, and the work of the surviving mainstays of the 1960s, had grown too timid in content and too obsessed with privilege and distance. As punk rose, it brought with it a reevaluation of rock history, and as a result, some of the tougher-minded bands of the late 1960s — such as the Doors, the Velvet Underground, MC5 and the Stooges, all of which had explored some difficult and often unpopular themes during their short-lived careers — enjoyed a new currency that transformed them into some of American rock’s more enduring and pervasive influences.

The Doors’ revival was also helped along by Francis Coppola’s use of the band’s music in his film Apocalypse Now. Watching Coppola’s repellently beautiful immolation of the Vietnamese jungles by napalm, accompanied by Jim Morrison intoning “The End,” made it vividly plain that the best of the Doors’ music had all along been a brilliant and irrefutable soundtrack to one of the more notorious examples of modern-day hell. And finally, the Doors’ comeback owes a great debt to No One Here Gets Out Alive, Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman’s highly sensationalistic (and probably frighteningly accurate) account of Morrison’s life and death. The book’s chief theme (a theme that has also been appropriated and advanced by Oliver Stone) is that “Jim Morrison was a god,” a dark-tempered, visionary poet who was also a heroic example of the wisdom that can be found by living a life of relentless excess.

In other words, Jim Morrison has gradually been rehabilitated into one of the more indelible, widely revered heroes of the 1960s. In part, this has happened because several of the people involved in this reclamation have a stake in redeeming Morrison’s legacy and because they have found that there is still a considerable career to be made in perpetuating his and the Doors’ history. But perhaps it is more interesting to ask why Morrison’s revival has played so well and so consistently with the modern rock audience of the last decade or so. In other words, what does a contemporary rock audience find in Morrison, or need from him, that cannot be found in the musicians of its own generation? After all, we are told repeatedly that this is a more conservative era and that in particular, today’s youth is far more conservative than the youth of the 1960s. If that’s the case, why does such a large audience continue to revere an artist who appeared to be so radically hedonistic (even nihilistic) in his outlook?

The truth is, Jim Morrison is the ideal radical hero for a conservative era. Though he may have lived a life of defiance and rebellion, it was not a defiance rooted in any clear ideology or political vision, unlike, for example, the brand of rebellion that John Lennon would come to aspire to. Morrison’s defiance had deep personal sources – it derived from a childhood spent in a family with a militaristic and authoritarian disposition. Consequently, Morrison’s mode of insurrection was hardly insignificant or without merit; indeed, it was often wielded as a badge of hard-won courage, and that courage is partly what today’s audience recognizes and loves about him.

But Morrison’s defiance often took the form of outright disregard — an absence of concern for how his impulses and temper not only could offend uptight moralists but could damage the people who loved and depended on him the most. In short, Morrison committed his outrages and cultivated his hedonism in sometimes remarkably conscienceless ways, and unfortunately, this habit may also be part of what many rock fans admire or seek to emulate about him. In a time when some pop stars try to engage their audience in various humanitarian and political causes, and in a time when numerous role models and authority figures advise the young to make a virtue of restraint or abstinence, there are many fans who are unmoved by these admonitions. A few artists, such as Guns n’ Roses, are seen as living out this bravado for today’s defiant types, but none, of course, has lived it out quite as effectively as Jim Morrison, who was fond of telling his audience, “I don’t know about you, but I intend to have my kicks before the whole fucking shit house explodes.” It isn’t so much a radical message, since radicalism aims to change something beyond the domain of the self. In a sense, it’s simply a dark extension of the philosophy of self-regard that has become so identified with the Reagan-Bush era. But the costs of this bravado can be sizable, and it would be nice if the custodians of Morrison and the Doors’ history were more scrupulous about how they portray the nobility of his excesses or the fascination of his death. But then, the myth of a young poet and libertine — who sought to test the bounds of cultural freedom and personal license; and who suffered the misunderstanding not merely of established American culture, but of family, friends and rock culture as well; and who died because he just could not reach far enough or be loved deservedly enough — is probably too good, and too damn lucrative, for any biographer to resist romanticizing or exploiting.

After all, in some respects death is the perfect preserving element of Morrison’s legacy. It has the twofold advantage of having halted the singer’s decline before he might have gone on to even worse behavior or art and, to a large degree, of helping absolve him of the failures of his last few years. It’s almost as if, somewhere, somehow, a macabre deal were struck: If Morrison would simply have the good grace to die, then we would remember him as a young, fit, handsome poet; we would forgive him his acts of disregard and cruelty and drunkenness and recall him less as a stumblebum sociopath and more as a probing mystic-poet. Plus, there’s a certain vicarious satisfaction to be found in his end. If you like, you can admire the spirit of someone who lived life and pursued death to the fullest, without having to emulate that commitment yourself. Morrison has saved his less nervy (and smarter) fans the trouble of their own willful self-negation.

And so Jim Morrison died, and then, with the help of former friends, band members and biographers, pulled off the perfect comeback: one in which the singer and his band might never disappoint our renewed faith, because there would be no new music, no new art, no new statements to test their continued growth or our continuing perceptiveness. In short, it was a comeback in which Morrison would be eternally heroic, eternally loved and eternally marketable.

Of course, it’s probably a bit graceless to beat up too much on a dead man — especially one who already beat up on himself plenty during life. So, let’s allow Jim Morrison his posthumous victory: If, in some regards, he was perhaps just a bit too mean-spirited or selfish to be an easy hero of the 1960s, he has certainly proven to be in step with the temper of the last decade. Never mind that he threw away his greatest visions and potential in an endless swirl of drugs, alcohol, insecurity and unkindness, and never mind that he is dead. Never mind, because in the end, death has been this rock hero’s most redeeming and most rewarding friend.

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