Sunday, 25 October 2015
Beneath the Surface: Jim Morrison
What price reputation, that most fickle of things? Fame, infamy; praise, ignominy. Where does it begin? Where does it end? Who creates it anyway?
I have mused over recent times on the incomplete, uneven, unpredictable beings among us. These occasional wonderings and wanderings have led me back to a mercurial spirit, a shooting star, as those who turn up, do their thing, then exit this life in a flash are sometimes named.
Jim Morrison has appeared on Pale Green Vortex before ('Bright Midnight', June 2011, and 'Ship of Fools', Sept 2012). You either get Jim Morrison - and by extension the Doors - or you don't. I know one person to whom the mere mention of his name is enough to precipitate a tirade of expletives; he is, to this person, pretty much the most loathsome being ever to walk the surface of the planet. Morrison seems to touch many sensitive spots in many people. For my part, I know the music of the Doors less than a few people, but better than most. I have read less about Jim Morrison and the Doors than those few same people, but again more than the majority of folk. I have books of Morrison's words and poetry, which I have dealt with cursorily. There are a number of biographies. Some people consider Stephen Davis's to be 'authorative'. I would beg to differ. Should you wish to know where the Doors were performing when, and which concerts Morrison was too drunk to sing properly, this is the book for you. However, in terms of real insight into who Morrison was beneath the skin, and what made him tick, aside from a small number of purple empathetic passages, this book is remarkably lacking.
So, who was Morrison? According to the mainstream viewpoints he was singer, writer, poet; drunk, slob, bar-room brawler who burnt out real quick. To the more romantic among us, he was also of a mystical and shamanic mentality unique among the 'rock stars' of the time. Fame and infamy: in the media version of the life and death of Jim Morrison, he is a sensational and salutory example of how not to do things. For my part, I followed the official paper trail to a tee. In 1968, Jim Morrison was the closest thing to a god that there was in my life. Having shed his pretty-boy rock-god image, he was sexy in a way that was both tough and beautiful, charismatic, possessed of a marvellous voice, and wrote memorable songs with a dark and primal edge to them. If you wanted to be anyone, it was the Jim Morrison on the cover of 'Waiting for the Sun'. By 1970, though, Morrison was the last person I wanted to be. He became fat, grew a shaggy beard, looked twice his age. He was into alcohol, had up on charges of obscenity on stage in Miami. He was, in my mind, uncool and irrelevant. A new generation of long-haired skinny guitar heroes was emerging, playing music far more cutting edge than the not-very-progressive songs of the Doors's final two albums.
Time changes perception. That new generation of guitar-wielding young dudes has largely passed into oblivion, while Morrison, the Doors, the words and music have endured. In some respects, Jim Morrison was way ahead of me. At the tender age of seventeen I just couldn't get a lot of what he was wrestling with. But, in the on-off romance of 45 years that is my relationship with Morrison, I find myself appreciating more and more of what he was about.
To return to my question two paragraphs back: who was Morrison? Is there any reason to trust mainstream rock press more than any other mainstream media? They need sensation, a good story, to survive as much as does the Sunday Mail. During the period of Jim Morrison and the Doors, there was a perception that rock music, and everything associated with it, was a force for good. A perception which, it turns out, was naive and distorted, to say the least. Particularly, perhaps, with regard to its public relations and media emissaries. So - where else can we look for an inner view of the life and times of Jim Morrison? Let's get personal....
First stop: 'Strange Days' by Patricia Kennealy Morrison. Patricia purports to have undergone a Celtic handfasting marriage with Jim Morrison in 1970, and her book is subtitled 'My life with and without Jim Morrison'. She has some vicious detractors, mainly females who continue to spit venom through the medium of the internet. This alone suggests that there is something in Patricia's story. My suspicion is that what she says is considerably embroidered and embellished; yet there is the ring of authenticity about her book as a whole. What seems to be problematic for some to realise is that there was a bundle of young ladies in the life of Jim Morrison, all of whom had their part to play. Their error was to fantasise of themselves as the one and only. Whenever in the shit, Morrison returned to Pamela Courson, long-term muse and chain. In 'Strange Days' Morrison comes across as a proper human being, not as a rock god, rock devil, or whatever. He can be remarkably kind, sensitive, and gentle, and is intelligent and articulate. Yet he can also behave like a narcissistic, cowardly bastard. All are parts of the emanation that was Jim Morrison.
'Strange Days' at least provides an insight, albeit one-sided, from somebody who knew him, and knew him in intimate ways. Where else can we go?
Second stop: 'A Feast of Friends' by Frank Lisciandro. There is a recent edition, which is fairly expensive. However, I got hold of an earlier one through Amazon for 37 pence (less than one dollar to our transatlantic readers). It arrived quickly and was in tip-top condition.
Frank Lisciandro was a friend of Jim Morrison. A few quotes from his opening chapter tell the story, I suppose.... 'Like other rock heroes whose lives ended too soon, Jim has become a cultural icon. Now the tabloids and magazines, Sunday supplements and MTV devote columns to recreating the Morrison myth. For a friend this should be welcome news. Don't believe it. I find very little truth in what I hear and read.' And again.... 'As the misinformation barrage about Jim increased, I noticed that the people who should be heard from - the people Jim trusted and worked with and tripped with and those he shared his time and thoughts with, his friends - were not being heard from at all. So I began to contact and interview Jim's friends one by one.....' Such is the content of this unique little book.
In the standard renditions of the life of Jim Morrison, he often disappears, for days on end, much to the frustration of the other musicians, the record producers, and suchlike. It's as if the 'disappeared Jim Morrison' is a non-entity, doesn't count. Which is an interesting perspective, since when a person 'disappears' they turn up, appearing, somewhere else. Where Jim Morrison 'disappeared' to was sometimes solitude, but often it was to the company of his friends, that part of life outside the limelight. 'A Feast of Friends' goes some way to filling in the gaps: when he was 'disappeared', Jim Morrison was frequently most himself.
The Jim Morrison who emerges from 'A Feast of Friends' is not without his warts, his problems, especially his drinking problems. But he is a human being of humour, capable of decency and generosity of spirit, imbued with the passion for discovery, for pushing the boundaries, confronting people with the poverty and mediocrity of the culture. A free spirit indeed.
In the end, Jim Morrison had to go. Listen to the succession of songs on 'Absolutely Live', from 'Universal Mind' ('I was doing time in the Universal Mind, I was doing fine....'), through 'Dead Cats, Dead Rats ('Fat cat in a top hat, thinks he's an aristocrat, that's crap....'), down to 'Celebration of the Lizard ('Lions in the street and roaming, dogs in heat rabid, foaming, a beast caged in the heart of the city....'). Nowhere else in live recorded music have I sensed energy like this: electric, dangerous, about to explode. Controlled, but barely controlled, chaos. A layer has been tapped into which threatens the status quo. Jim Morrison becomes one of the dangerous men of America, alongside the likes of Timothy Leary. He has to go.
There are different ways to get rid of a person. One is to persecute them, play on and destroy their sense of omnipotence. Hound them out of existence, watch them implode. Such was the case with James Douglas Morrison. 'A Feast of Friends' is, maybe, the closest we have to a meaningful epitaph. Thanks, Frank. And thanks, Jim.