Most have heard of the legendary musical group The Doors and their lead singer/front man Jim Morrison, who tragically died in Paris in 1971. What many may also remember is that Morrison had numerous problems to contend with during his short life; among them were issues with his father, drug and alcohol abuse, and problems with people and the idea of fame in general.
Who Was Jim Morrison?
Jim Morrison was born James Douglas Morrison, December 8, 1943 in Melbourne, Florida USA, the son of Clara Virginia (née Clarke) and future Rear Admiral George Stephen Morrison. According to Wikipedia, early in his life he was inspired by the writings of philosophers and poets. He was influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, whose views on aesthetics, morality, and the Apollonian and Dionysian duality would appear in his conversation, poetry and songs. He read Plutarch’s “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans” and also read the works of the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, whose style would later influence the form of his short prose poems. He was influenced by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Charles Baudelaire, Molière, Franz Kafka, Honoré de Balzac and Jean Cocteau, along with most of the French existentialist philosophers.
Morrison lived a brief life. Here is a man who was at the top of the popular music scene at the time, and had all the fame and notoriety he could want, but still found his muse not in being a rock star, but rather in poetry. He aspired to write and get published, but despite his popularity as a musician he was at a loss to find a publisher who would take him seriously enough as a poet and put his work out there.
He finally decided to self-publish his poems, and of course had to do so the old-fashioned way as this was decades before print-on-demand technology, ePub, and Kindle. His first collection of work was The Lords / Notes on Vision and The New Creatures. The Lords consists primarily of brief descriptions of places, people, events, and Morrison’s thoughts on cinema. The New Creatures verses are more poetic in structure, feel, and appearance. These two books were later combined into a single volume titled The Lords and The New Creatures. From what I understand, the first self-published version was a limited run of about 100 copies. They were primarily given as gifts to friends and colleagues and anyone who might have potential connections to a publisher. Morrison also recorded his own poetry in a professional sound studio on two separate occasions. The first was in March of 1969 in Los Angeles and the second was in 1970.
|Pictured above: Original editions of (left) “The Lords” and “The New Creatures” (right)|
It was in the summer of 1971 when Jim went to Paris to chill out, take a break from his music celebrity status in America, as well as to devote himself to writing his poetry. Some suspected that he was also evading possible jail time in the States, where he was found guilty of indecent exposure during a Doors concert. Despite his improved physical appearance, Morrison was drinking heavily and his years of the party lifestyle were rapidly catching up with him. Late in the evening of July 2nd, while spending time with his girlfriend Jim tried a shot of heroin on top of all the alcohol he had already consumed during the day. Shortly after he prepared a bath for himself, and it was very early in the morning on July 3rd when he eventually drifted off to unconsciousness and passed away.
Decades later he finally got some well-deserved posthumous recognition. In 1998 the writings of Jim Morrison, Volume I, entitled “Wilderness,” was released and became an instant New York Times Bestseller. Volume II, “The American Night,” released in 1990, also had success. To many people Jim Morrison’s poetry is drivel. Even his first wife stated in an interview that she felt as a poet he was “..a better song writer”. To many others, Morrison’s poems are absolutely brilliant.
What makes good poetry and art?
Is Jim Morrison’s poetry good? Does the creator of any work of art have to die tragically in order to become famous or to have any kind of lasting impact?
When one grows up stateside and studies poetry, names such as Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell, and Walt Whitman come to mind. The notable differences between these the famous classic poets and Jim Morrison was that the former were around much longer to evolve their art.
For those who think Jim’s poems were a bit sophomoric, was there enough indication that he could he have evolved sufficiently to join the ranks of the greats in the poetry arena? The art of poetry is a tricky one, so let’s look the other direction: did not Frost, Stevens, Lowell and Whitman not have their bad periods early on in their careers? And if Morrison had lived a longer life, and stayed away from the booze and drugs, could he not have evolved into what experts might consider a great poet?
Morrison’s involvement with The Doors
The Doors was way before my time, but while I was in high school there was a small niche group of my peers that worshiped the Doors and Morrison. And Jim’s self-read poetry was among their discography. I wondered what exactly it was that they liked so much about him? Was it the music? his poetry? Or quite possibly his shooting star, short lived life? One of the better-known biographies about Jim Morrison and the Doors is “No One Here Gets Out Alive” by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman. In perusing the book and reading some of the reviews, I stumbled across one interesting insight on hero worship vs. worship of art:
It must be known that a derangement of the senses is not rational. Too much literature and film has glorified Morrison’s drug and alcohol abuse causing grotesque behavior as some sort of philosophy of life and inner genius. The persons responsible for the literature and film really have used calculated techniques to sell products. Hero worship has shown to be a major selling point of works related to the Doors and Morrison.
For youngsters in high school or younger it is not difficult to idolize this skewed portrait of Morrison, while older and more mature fans may very well grow to hate the man for what he has been portrayed as. What matters most about Morrison is his art. He was an intelligent and unique person as well, but his flaws need to be represented as what they were, not as his lasting legacy. It is my opinion that his drug use often got in the way of the good aspects of his personality, creating a deranged and pathetic figure.
He also, (his drug abuse could have contributed), did not face up enough to the numerous difficulties that he faced in life (his parents old fashioned views, film school trendy half-wits slamming his work, and troubles with the law), and this may be what hurt him in the end. These difficulties have to be shown for what they were, and then the world will be able to more fully appreciate the aspects of what made Morrison the artist he was. If mainstream works of bloated literature and film continue to romanticize about the worst aspects of Morrison, he and the rest of the Doors will never be appreciated in the ways they should be. I hope some day a person will go through the trouble of writing a critical but always thoughtful work on the band, and Morrison.
Even if Jim Morrison’s poetry may fail to hit the mark for experts, I cannot help but sense that there was something very real in his writings. I suspect that with Morrison, the soul was there. You decide. I have to say that I do find it interesting how contemporary music lyrics and what constitutes serious poetry share, to a certain extent, a common thread with each other in popular culture.
Below are just a few audio recordings of Jim Morrison’s poems, recited by the author himself. The last video clip at the bottom of the post is a documentary (released in 2000, running time approximately 20 minutes) about Jim Morrison and The Doors, directed by the group’s keyboardist, and arguably Morrison’s best friend, Ray Manzarek. This is an interesting insight to not just Ray, Jim and the Doors, but also a brief historical look at Venice California at that time.
::: Under Waterfall :::
::: American prayer :::
::: Lament :::
::: And finally, the documentary from Ray Manzarek :::
I think it would have been intriguing to observe the zeitgeist of Venice during the years between the post beatniks / pre-hippie era. Times can and do change. This presentation is an interesting insight given by Ray Manzarek about how he and Jim began not only The Doors, but also their close friendship. Starting around the 11:45 time marker in the documentary, Ray is reminiscing about one time they wanted to have a barbecue but did not have enough money. As I notice his expression on his face as he talks about those times, one gets the impression, that in life, it is not the destination that counts, but rather the journey. Even though Manzarek had long since become well established in his career when he produced this mini documentary, it is clear that those days of struggling where among the happiest for him. Perhaps for Jim Morrison as well.