Sunday, July 3, 2011

Jim Morrison - Forty Years Gone

Forty years ago today, a 27-year old rock star was found dead in a bathtub in Paris, the apparent victim of a heart attack. How do 27-year old guys drop dead of heart attacks? In the case of Jim Morrison, we’ll never know. Nobody performed an autopsy, the band’s manager saw only a sealed coffin and a grieving common-law widow when he arrived in Paris. Conspiracy theories abound…was he really dead? If he was dead, was it a drug overdose? If he wasn’t dead, where did he go? To truly disappear from sight and stay disappeared they way Jim Morrison has for the past forty years, there can be no doubt – he’s dead. Forty years after his death I think it’s pretty safe to draw that conclusion.

I didn’t get into The Doors until I was a senior in high school. It happened in the most unusual set of circumstances. It was a week before we seniors were due to graduate, and my AP English class had time to kill, especially since we had already taken the AP exam. Our teacher, Mrs. Gray, brought out a record player and an album. The album was The Doors’ Absolutely Live. She put on Side 4. Out of this tiny record player came The Celebration of the Lizard. It had a series of poems, some storytelling backed with music by the other Doors. That was the hook. It was different, it was strange, it was eye-opening. A few days later I spotted a paperback book in the local Waldenbooks bookstore. It was called No One Here Gets Out Alive. It was written by Jerry Hopkins [who had also written a biography of Elvis] and Danny Sugerman, who later became The Doors’ manager. A fairly thorough book, it documents the Doors’ meteoric rise to fame and Jim Morrison’s equally quick crash that ends in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. It was a fascinating look at how a guy, the son of a US Navy Admiral, can evolve from this shy person who wouldn’t even face his first audience into the Lizard King and then into this wild, drunken, out of control burned-out rock star.

The book got my attention, but I wanted to hear the music these guys made. Apparently the book got the attention of a lot of people because The Doors still sell over 1 million albums a year. The first two albums I bought were LA Woman and Morrison Hotel. Once I digested those, I bought The Doors and Strange Days. I couldn’t help but be struck by how much the band’s music changed in a just a few short years. The Doors had Light My Fire, the first song Robby Krieger wrote in his life. Just think about that for a second – you’ve just written your first song, and it goes to Number 1 in the country. Where do you go from there? But I digress. The Doors had more than just Light My Fire. There are two covers – Howlin’ Wolf’s Back Door Man and Kurt Weill’s Alabama Song/Whiskey Bar. The rest of the songs are all Doors originals, including the finale The End. It originally started out as a song Jim wrote about the break-up with his girlfriend [I’ll never look into your eyes again…]. Where he got the part where he wants to kill his father and have sex with his mother, I’ll never know. But as a teenager, this is some pretty wild stuff.

There’s more of the same on Strange Days. The music is dark, mysterious. Ray Manzerek’s organ often gives the music a kind of carnival-like feeling. Robby Krieger had been trained in Spanish flamenco guitar, so his guitar adds another exotic character to the music. He didn’t use a pick, and given his flamenco training he could play chords and lead lines at the same time. Robby often played bottleneck, which made the music even more interesting. John Densmore was influenced by jazz, so he didn’t always play a steady rock beat like most rock drummers would. Jim drew his inspiration from the works of Blake, Rimbaud, and Nietzsche. He also drew inspiration from copious amounts of LSD. The Doors didn’t have a proper bass player. Ray Manzerek held down the bottom end in live performances with a Fender bass keyboard. He has said that his left hand was the Doors’ bass player while his right hand was the Doors’ keyboardist.

I don’t say anything about the albums Waiting for the Sun or The Soft Parade because there’s not much to say. Some of the music on those two albums is pretty good – some of it is rubbish. Morrison Hotel and LA Woman were the last two albums The Doors would record in Jim Morrison’s lifetime. Compare and contrast the last two albums with the first two and you get two different bands. Where the first two albums are dark, mysterious psychedelic works influenced by classic literature and lots of drugs, the last two albums saw The Doors become a bar band that could play hard rock and roll. This music was influenced by the blues and lots of alcohol, much of it consumed by Jim. Here’s where you get music like LA Woman, Roadhouse Blues, You Make Me Real, Peace Frog/Blue Sunday, Love Her Madly. I like to hear Maggie M’Gill and The Changeling back-to-back. Hearing LA Woman and Roadhouse Blues back-to-back is another thing I like. My iPod playlist for this period looks something like this:

Wild Child / Maggie M’Gill / The Changeling / Love Her Madly / LA Woman / Roadhouse Blues / Waiting for the Sun / You Make Me Real / Peace Frog/Blue Sunday / Land Ho! / The Spy / The WASP [Texas Radio and the Big Beat] / Riders on the Storm

When You’re Strange is a biographical movie about the Doors. Unlike other biographies were you have interviews with the people involved, this movie relies completely on film clips. The movie is narrated by Johnny Depp. The thing about the movie that caught my eye was the footage of Jim out in the desert. I wondered to myself if it was from HWY: An American Pastoral, a short film Jim made in 1969 [details of which are in No One Here Gets Out Alive]. My instincts were right – those clips were indeed from that movie. That’s NOT a guy playing Jim Morrison for the movie – it is Jim Morrison in the flesh. Getting that footage for this film was quite an achievement. If you have already read No One Here Gets Out Alive, then When You’re Strange won’t provide many surprises. There is one thing I saw in the movie that I did not know before. I always thought the group got their name from the Aldous Huxley work The Doors of Perception. According to When You’re Strange, the name came from a line in the William Blake poem, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The line reads If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. One thing the movie captures very well is how chaotic Doors shows could be. The crowds stopped listening to the music and they wanted to see a spectacle. There are many clips of fans rushing the stage, in concert after concert, only to be tackled by cops before they could get to Jim. You can hear audio from the infamous Miami show where Jim was reported to expose his penis to the crowd [did he or didn’t he?]. If I have a complaint about the movie it is the use of all those Vietnam clips. Did they really need to be there?

Jim Morrison died forty years ago. It’s hard to imagine what he would look like today. I can imagine what his music would be like though. While he was in Paris the band started working on another album, just waiting for him to return from Paris to add his vocals. He never did return, but The Doors finished the album. Its title: Other Voices. It’s not bad – too bad you have to get it as a two-for-one import these days [Full Circle, their final album, is also on the CD]. The Doors didn’t survive too long after Jim’s demise. They left a fairly decent body of work. Such was the appeal of Jim Morrison even ten years after his death that Rolling Stone ran a cover with Jim’s picture [see above]. The caption: He’s Hot, He’s Sexy and He’s Dead. He’s still hot, and he’s still dead. I’m not sure about the sexy bit, but my 17-year old niece sure likes him. :-)


Joanne Glasspoole said...

I thought this was an excellent article. I republished it on

Tony Howard said...

Thank you Joanne!

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