WEIRDLAND: Greil Marcus analyzes The Doors & Jim Morrison

Friday, January 31, 2020

Greil Marcus analyzes The Doors & Jim Morrison

“We really didn’t see it coming, the new world of rabid individualism and the sanctity of profit,” the British novelist Jenny Diski wrote in 2009. “But perhaps that is only to be expected. Perhaps the Sixties are an idea that has had its day and lingers long after its time. There were, of course, those, the great majority, doubtless, who, having finished with their wild youth, put on proper suits come the mid-Seventies and went off to work and a regular life, having just gone through a phase, as the more liberal of the grown-ups suggested. But some—these days called, derogatorily, idealists—maintained their former sense that “society” exists, and believe it persists, beyond the approved decades of self-interest and greed that have followed. We are the disappointed remnant, the rump of the Sixties.” 

In 1968, when Elvis sang “Tryin’ to Get to You,” going back again to Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do” as if it were a talisman of a treasure he couldn’t name, each time deepening it, dropping words in search of a rhythm the song didn’t even know it wanted and now couldn’t live without—what returned was the sense of awe, of disbelief, that greeted him when he first made himself known. In the years before that, his “Mystery Train,” recorded in 1955 for Sun Records in Memphis—before, so the story went, the money machines in Hollywood and New York turned him into a sausage—had over time acquired a patina of purity. There was an elegance in the recording that couldn’t be denied. The coolest DJs, the most sophisticated connoisseurs, chose “Mystery Train” as their one transcendent Elvis—to show that even the dumbest rube could stumble on the sublime.

Unlike any rock ’n’roll singer since “Heartbreak Hotel” devoured the world’s airwaves, Jim Morrison had Elvis’s Greek-god looks, his seductive hooded eyes. But he faced “Mystery Train” as if it were an object of disdain: something that had to be wrecked. Morrison was facing legal charges for indecent exposure. Well before that, Morrison had come on stage drunk, sometimes babbling, lashing out, sometimes at the crowd, sometimes at phantoms only he could see; he appeared on stage in a fog of self-loathing, and he could hate the songs he had to sing as deeply and expansively as he could hate his bandmates, his audience, and himself. l remembered Oliver Stone's The Doors' reviews were terrible: “What a shame to have to take your clothes off for a movie like this,” one critic wrote at the time of Meg Ryan’s nude scene. The media had a sense that ever since the 1960s, life had been empty. That nothing had happened since: nothing worth memorializing, anyway. The anniversaries were attempted funerals. They were attempts to bury something. But the funeral never seemed to end, and the burial never seemed complete. The Doors film is a denial that Stone had missed the 60s craziness, a denial so loud it says one thing: I did miss it. “What does this movie have to say to a ’90s audience?” Stone asked himself and he answered himself: “Freedom. It once existed . . . But there’s a religious fundamentalism returning to this country.” It was a heroic act to make this movie, he wanted you to understand. Six dollars and you could watch. The movie should have been crazy. Instead it was terrifying. 

All I remembered of the Doors was the complex and twisting thrill of being taken out of myself. It was a sensation captured by Ian McEwan in The Innocent, a novel that ends with the fall of the Berlin Wall, about what a young man felt when he first heard “Heartbreak Hotel,” when the song “spoke only of loneliness and despair. Its melody was all stealth, its gloom comically overstated. The song’s self-pity should have been hilarious. Instead it made Leonard feel worldly, tragic, bigger somehow.” In Oliver Stone’s movie, and in real life, The Doors made the myths and were instantly their victims. Already in 1968 the Doors were performing not freedom but its disappearance. This is what is terrifying: the notion that the Sixties was no grand, romantic time or a nice place to visit, but a place, even as it is being created, people know they can never really inhabit, and never escape. In The Factory scene, the mood changes as the band (The Velvet Underground) refuses to let their songc (Heroin) build in any conventional manner, refuses to even hint at a change, a break, a release. Everywhere in the room there is a sense of anticipation and dread. People know what roles they are expected to play but those roles are beginning to break down. The camera fixes on single faces in the crowd, isolating them, and there’s a coldness in the faces, as if they’re watching a snuff movie: as if they know they aren’t going to like what comes next, but can’t turn away. In this long sequence, nothing is stressed, nothing is glamorized. 

The Sixties come forth as a time and place where people live by breaking rules they know are right, mainly to see what might happen. What I remember most about the Dinner Key Auditorium concert in Miami was the feeling that anything could have happened that night, that Jim Morrison could have died, that the people in the cheap seats could have trampled those in the more expensive ones. If Morrison had passed out, we might have cheered as spectators in the Roman colosseum Morrison imagined himself in. People cheered and laughed when Morrison exhorted: "You’re all a bunch of fucking idiots! Letting people push you around! How long do you think it’s going to last? How long are you going to let it go on? How long are you going to let them push you around?” They thought it was part of the act, part of the show. The show goes on, the band plays, the crowd leaps and screams, but there is nothing to hear. It’s a moment of complete suspension; Jim Morrison’s first, public death. This moment hit not like some defining event in one person’s insignificant life, but as a moment in history. It’s a good metaphor for an era that in 1991 had no part in the media’s life-support system. It’s this silence, this almost physical sense of an absence, that as culture the Sixties bequeathed to the next decades: the sense of a different world. It’s a silence that ultimately silences all the endlessly programmed Sixties hits, that mocks their flash.

“Morrison was one of the few if not the only performer I knew who really believed what he was saying,” Robby Krieger said in 2006. "He wasn’t just up there doing his trip and then he’d go home and have a beer and laugh at it all, laugh all the way to the bank. He was a guy that, when he went home it was just some cheap motel somewhere until the next show. He lived his whole life right on the edge, and people could sense that when he was onstage." Unlike Rolling Stones songs about women who needed to be put in their place—“Under My Thumb,” which you can almost see the singer rehearsing in a mirror, or the dizzying “Miss Amanda Jones”—the Doors’ portrait of the perfect L.A. woman was all bright colors, and full of affection. Listening to Roadhouse live 1969, Morrison dives for a monologue—“Money beats soul,” he states, drunk but forming his words carefully in the belief there’s someone interested. He croons: “I-got-something-to-tell-you-about-your-soul.” He stops crooning. “You know how much your soul’s worth? Your soul’s worth about as much as you can get on Wall Street, my dear. Now, you may think I’m cynical or dangerous, to tell you that. You may think that I’m a little hard to take—hey—listen, doll, I’ll tell you the goddamn truth. Money beats soul, every time.” In Pittsburgh, on May 2, 1970, for the fourth number of the set, the band hammers into Roadhouse, and the drama unfolds when Morrison, his voice already desperate, preternaturally expanding with each line, descends into the bubbling swamp of the tune, the place without words. He disappears into the maw of the music and keeps going, you gotta cronk cronk sh bomp bomp cronk cronk cronk eh hey cron cronk cronk ado ah hey che doo bop dag a chee be cronk cronk well rah hey hey tay cronk cronk see lay, hey—he sustains it all for a solid minute. 

With each measure of vocal sounds the pressure is increased, the pleasure is deeper, the abandon more complete, the freedom from words, meaning, song, band, hits, audience, police, prison, and self more real, precious, and sure to disappear around the next turn if you don’t keep your eyes on the road. In that long minute, Morrison sings the whole song in another language, one only he could speak, but that anyone could understand. All of that was in “Roadhouse Blues”: not as autobiography, not as confession, not as a cry for help or a fuck you to whoever asked, but, as Louise Brooks liked to quote, she said, from an old dictionary, “a subjective epic composition in which the author begs leave to treat the world according to his own point of view.” Morrison was not able to cope with the apathy of his audience—it seems as if his attempts to “wake” them up from their collective submission did indeed fail. Around December 1969 Morrison told friends he was having a “nervous breakdown.” Morrison began to taunt the crowd with the same lines that would crack open the show at the Dinner Key in Miami three months later: “You want music?” Everybody screamed. “Well, man,” he said, “we can play music all night, but that’s not what you really want—you want something more, something greater than you’ve ever seen, right?” Someone shouted “We want Mick Jagger!”

With the show breaking down, Morrison went to the edge of the stage and began to declaim “The Celebration of the Lizard.” People laugh. “One morning he awoke in a green hotel. With a strange creature growing beside him.” “Is everybody in?” he asks, with each time people shouting: “NOOOO!” “The ceremony is about to begin,” he says and people laugh out loud or giggle in embarrassment. Then Morrison stood silently. “Stupid,” someone mutters. “Asshole!” There’s more yelling. “SSSHH,” Morrison whispers. “Fuck you!” someone shouts. People are screaming parodies of the lyrics that Morrison isn’t singing. In the murk he has more presence than ever—but his voice is nothing compared to the far more powerful, mocking crowd. Morrison is again making up words to throw the crowd off, to summon the song from the dead: “A creature is nursing its child, soft arms around the head and the neck, a mouth to connect, leave this child alone, this one is mine, I’m taking her home, back to the rain”—he sounds like a poet cowboy. Then the crowd is screaming at him in a way that hasn’t happened before: in the face of the screeching, crows flying out of people’s mouths, and you can see Morrison as the people in the crowd are seeing him, a freak, the Elephant Man, the crowd thrilled at how grotesque he is, how crazy, everybody pointing, and though the band is playing, now the real music is coming from the crowd, a tangled skein of sound moving through the hall without a brain.

“You give people what they want or what they think they want,” Morrison would say to a reporter. “But if you go too fast for them and pull an unexpected move, you confuse them. When they go to a musical event, a concert, a play or whatever, they want to be turned on, to feel like they’ve been on a trip. But instead of making them feel like they’re on a trip, that they’re all together, if instead you hold a mirror up and show them what they’re really like, what they really want, and show them that they’re alone instead of all together, they’re revolted and confused.” —"The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years" (2013) by Greil Marcus

-Jim Cherry (DCM): Little is known about Pamela Courson. What do you remember of her and her relationship with Jim? To your knowledge were there other women who affected Jim as much as Pamela? -Jac Holzman: Well, the thing that I think the movie The Doors missed that was a shame was that Pamela was a pretty good foil for Jim. She could give as good as she got. She would stand up to him. In the movie she is a cartoon of a girlfriend with very little depth. What they actually did was dare and double-dare each other constantly. It was interesting to watch, but it was not fun to be around. I'm sure there were great moments of intimacy and closeness which I was never a part of but it was a prickly relationship for sure. I know that Jim had other women in his life. I think they were as much to taunt Pamela as they were for Jim to get off. -The Doors Collectors Magazine.

"I think Pam was pretty in a sort of refreshing, Irish Spring kind of way, like you might see in an ad on TV. When we were having lunch together- the last time we were together- Jim began talking about changing his artistic identity and the fact that he was maturing at the age of twenty-seven and that he viewed things differently. He felt that he couldn't live without Pamela, that she was the one that he always returned to and she was the complement to his existence." -Leon Barnard (The Doors European Press Agent). The Doors' manager Bill Siddons said: “Pamela was the only one. I knew there were other ones, but ultimately Pamela was always the only real one.”

“Always smile, even if it's a sad one, for sadder that a sad smile is only the sadness of not knowing how to smile. People are afraid of themselves, of their own reality; their feelings most of all. People talk about how great love is, but love hurts. Feelings are disturbing. People are taught that pain is evil and dangerous. How can they deal with love if they’re afraid to feel? Pain is meant to wake us up. People try to hide their pain. But they’re wrong. Pain is something to carry, like a radio. You feel your strength in the experience of pain. Your feelings are a part of you. Your own reality. If you feel ashamed of them, and hide them, you’re letting society destroy your reality.” —Jim Morrison   

February 1971 Interview. Location: Diane Gardiner's Apartment - Los Angeles. Publication: Rolling Stone # 77 - March 4th - 1971. Info: Jim Morrison's last known recorded interview is conducted by Rolling Stone journalist Ben Fong-Torres and also features Pamela Courson. This tape was made unintentionally after a chance meeting at Diane Gardiner's apartment in Los Angeles. The interview is later used in the March 4th, 1971 issue of Rolling Stone. Ben Fong-Torres: "I used to pop into Hollywood on a regular basis. Sometimes I stayed at the apartment of a rock publicist friend, Diane. One of her neighbors was Pamela Courson - Jim Morrison's old lady. One February afternoon in 1971, Jim came around, looking for Pamela. She wasn't there, so he decided to wait for her. When Diane introduced us, I asked for an interview. He and I hit it off right away, and got into doing this kind of parody of a TV talk show. I played Dick Cavett; he was a rock star. With my cheap cassette recorder running, we settled into a pretty serious chat about the future of rock and his own future. Despite his reputation as a wild man, Morrison struck me as a very smart, thoughtful guy."


echox said...

Great post, lots of information I didn't know, thanks!

Elena W said...

you are very welcome, echox!