Few performers have been so consistently controversial as James Douglas Morrison, the vocalist and songwriter of the Doors. And none has caused so many writers to construct so much gothic imagery in an effort to describe the mystique.
In the Village Voice, for instance, one chronicler said Morrison was the “first major male sex symbol since James Dean died and Marlon Brando got a paunch” and another called him at (different times) a “leather tiger,” a “shaman-serpent king” and “America’s Oedipal nightingale.” In Eye, he was described as a “demonic vision out of a medieval Hellmouth” and the author of a book about the Doors called him “the Sex-death, Acid-Evangelist of Rock, a sort of Hell’s Angel of the groin.” While the Miami Herald tagged him “The King of Orgasmic Rock,” Joyce Haber dubbed him “the swinging Door” and prose-poet Liza Williams said he was a “baby bullfighter” and “the ultimate Barbie doll.”
If writers have been engaged in an inordinate amount of word-weaving, Morrison’s public has gone farther, spinning and spreading outrageous tales as regularly as the Doors have churned out hits. If you believed them all, Morrison was always drunk and/or stoned; both an angelic choirboy in an unfortunate setting and a satyr seeking a continuing debauch; boorish and inarticulate as well as polite, considered and shy; all the above and none of these. New stories — each wilder than the last — were told each week and over a period of two years Jim Morrison came to represent the perfect Super Star — someone far larger than his work or his life.
In truth, many of the extremes were based on more than fairytale. The week I interviewed him, for example, the Doors were being banned from performing in St. Louis and Honolulu because of exhibitionism and drunkeness charges filed against Morrison following a concert in Miami — yet, it was the same week that Morrison finished writing a screenplay with poet Michael McClure and signed a contract with Simon and Schuster for his own first book of poetry.
Another of the “weird scenes inside the goldmine” of the vocalist’s life (the line is Morrison’s, from “The End”) occurred after one of the interview sessions, when we went out for drinks to a topless joint where Morrison is a frequent customer. There Morrison the psychedelic sex-god sat drinking boiler-makers while young bosomy girls watusi’d and pony’d to “Hello, I Love You” and “Love Me Two Times” and other of the several Doors hits. The scene, like so many in Morrison’s drama, might have been captioned “What’s wrong with this picture?”
Unlike the mythology, the music of the Doors remains a constant — a force which has not been so much an “influence” in rock, but a monument. “The music is your special friend,” Morrison sang in “The Music’s Over,” and for millions, the music of the Doors is just that; just as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper renders a generation weak with nostalgia, so does the Doors’ “Light My Fire.” At the group’s peak, in 1967-68, there was also a strident urgency about Morrison’s music. “We want the world and we want it now.”
Morrison was somewhat reluctant to be interviewed by Rolling Stone at first, believing the publication’s coverage of the Miami concert and aftermath had made him seem a clown. Finally he changed his mind and in sessions that rambled over more than a week and several neighborhood drinking spots, he proved his manager Bill Siddons correct when Siddons said, “Jim used to have a lot of little demons inside him … but I don’t think he has so many any more.” In other words, Morrison had mellowed, matured. Still he was playful – “this is really a strange way to make a living, isn’t it? he said one day — but he was also trying to get people to take him seriously. All poets wish to be taken seriously, but many also have acted in a style that would seem to contradict or destroy this wish.
The first session we met at the Doors’ office (which is convenient to both the Elektra office and several topless clubs) and talked in a neighborhood bar called the Palms. The idea was to get some lunch with the beer, but the cook was out for the day so it was just beer — with a small group of regulars scattered along the bar buying each other rounds and telling noisy stories in the background, while we sat at a small table nearby. There was no perceptible notice paid Morrison when he entered and the full beard he had grown since Miami had little to do with it; he was a regular here, too.
When the tape recorder began sorting out Morrison’s voice from others in the bar, we were talking about Oldies But Goodies, and how everyone (like the Beatles) seemed to be shouting to everyone else to get back.
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It’s country and blues, that’s what it is. People have these new wells of information and ideas and that went pretty far and then it stopped. So now people are returning to this basic form of music. Obviously there’ll be a new synthesis — probably in two or three years. It seems to run in cycles that long; that’s the length of a generation now.
You mean a new synthesis between country and blues?
I don’t know, man. That’s what rock and roll was. I don’t know. There’re a lot of other new elements people have become aware of, like Indian music, eastern music, African music and electronic music. It’ll probably be a pretty wild synthesis. I think in this country we keep returning to blues and country because they’re our two indigenous musical forms. I think … you know what might happen? The great musical minds that in the past have gone classical might get into popular areas.
Don’t you think there are some approaching this now? People like Van Dyke Parks and …
I haven’t heard his stuff so I can’t say. I haven’t heard any of us involved in this mass music today … I don’t think there are any minds as heavy as Bach’s, for example. I don’t think there are any real heavy minds at work today in the mass field. We’re all pretty funky. We have beautiful qualities. But I don’t think there’s any great musical genius at work in the popular realm. There are great poets and lyricists and tunesmiths, but no grand concepts.
But, y’know, a lot of people like Mozart were prodigies; they were writing brilliant works at very young ages. That’s probably what’s going to happen: some brilliant kid will come along and be popular. I can see a lone artist with a lot of tapes and electrical … like an extension of the Moog synthesizer — a keyboard with the complexity and richness of a whole orchestra, y’know? There’s somebody out there, working in a basement, just inventing a whole new musical form. We’ll hear about it in a couple years. Whoever it is, though, I’d like him to be really popular, to play at large concerts, not just be on records — at Carnegie Hall, to play at dances …
If it can be danced to …
By dance I mean it wouldn’t be a sitting-down-and-listening-to type show. With milling around, y’know?
Most of the gigs that you do now are sit-down type concerts, aren’t they?
Yeh, but I always try to get them to stand up, to feel free to move around anywhere they want to. It’s not to precipitate a chaos situation. It’s … how can you stand the anchorage of a chair and be bombarded with all this intense rhythm and not want to express it physically in movement? I like people to be free, not chained. [Pause] We haven’t played in a long time.
About three months — just about. Right?
Yeh. The next scheduled gig is in the bull ring in Mexico City. And while we’re down there we’re going to do a UN benefit in one of Mexico City’s big night clubs. So we’ll cut through all levels of society, hopefully. Then after the Mexico City thing, we do Chicago, St. Louis and Minneapolis. In July. Then a thing at the Aquarius Theatre in L.A. Which has been reserved for eight weeks by Elektra for the dark nights, Mondays. We might also be doing some surprise appearances at the Whisky. Unannounced … no billing … just show up and do a set every now and then.
You’ve been quoted often enough, saying you’d like to be back there.
I just remember that some of the best musical trips we ever took were in clubs. Concerts are great but it gets into a crowd phenomenon that really hasn’t that much to do with music. In a club there’s a different atmosphere. They can see you sweat and you can see them. And there’s much less bullshit. In a concert situation, you can’t really lose. You get that many people together and it doesn’t matter so much what you do. In a club you have to turn people on musically. If it doesn’t cut it, everyone knows it.
It’s harder to bomb in concert?
Yeh, it’s almost impossible, because just the sheer excitement of the event, the mass of people mingling together, generates a kind of electricity, and it has to do with music. It’s exciting, but it’s not music. It’s mass hysteria.
I remember your telling me once that in a club, where you’re working night after night, you have a chance to do some in-performance writing and creating which you don’t have a chance to do in an occasional concert situation …
Right. Also, I just enjoy working. There’s nothing more fun than to play music to an audience. You can improvise at rehearsals, but it’s kind of a dead atmosphere. There’s no audience feedback. There’s no tension, really, because in a club with a small audience you’re free to do anything. You still feel an obligation to be good, so you can’t get completely loose; there are people watching. So there is this beautiful tension. There’s freedom and at the same time an obligation to play well. I can put in a full day’s work, go home and take a shower, change clothes, then play two or three sets at the Whisky, man, and I love it. The way an athlete loves to run, to keep in shape.