THE POET BEHIND THE DOORS: JIM MORRISON’S POETRY AND THE 1960S COUNTERCULUTRAL MOVEMENT
Steven Andrew Erkel, B.A. Thesis Advisor: Ricardo L. Ortiz, Ph.D ABSTRACT
While there has been a wealth of literature on Jim Morrison, the lead singer of the Doors, little work has actually been done to engage in a serious critical study of his poetry and lyrics. As a result, critics have continually misrepresented his work (usually linking it to a drug culture), the poetic tradition from which he built, and, most importantly, his place within the context of the 1960s. Looking at both his poetry and his lyrics, this thesis begins to discover reasons for Morrison’s fractured relationship with his generation. This relationship can be better understood by examining Morrison’s work alongside two cultural phenomena that were incredibly popular during the 1960s: Eastern religion and also communal living. While, on the one hand, Morrison uncompromisingly insisted upon individuality, allowing people to become the creators of their own reality through their imagination, the spiritual practice of Eastern religion and the material practice of communal living on the other hand insisted upon people following specific creeds and doctrines to reach a higher level of spiritual cognition and/or inner peace. By understanding the reasons for this fractured relationship, we can not only better understand the context of “Five to One” and his notorious 1969 concert in Miami – two instances where Morrison insults his generation for their lack of willpower and their enslavement to a fixed system of order – but we can also see that Morrison himself was highly aware that his core message that he preached throughout his career (1966-71) was radically opposed to the messages and visions embraced by his generation.
Take the highway to the end of the night
End of the night
End of the night
Take a journey to the bright midnight End of the night
End of the night
Realms of Bliss Realms of Light
– Jim Morrison, “End of the Night,”
Jim Morrison – undoubtedly one of the most celebrated performers of the Rock era, one of its most successful songwriters, and one of its most charismatic figures – has since his death in 1971 invited discussions from critics and fans regarding his life, work, and impact on the radical decade of the 1960s.1
While Morrison always considered himself to be a poet, the vast majority of
critics of his work have never taken into account his poetry, instead choosing to base
their examination on Morrison’s myth or legend, concepts which have little
resemblance to who Morrison actually was or what he tried to accomplish. Perhaps this
“myth” began in 1980, when Danny Sugerman, an assistant to Morrison and former
manager of the Doors, wrote in the Foreword to No One Here Gets Out Alive: “Jim Morrison was a god.” poses an inherent problem: Jim Morrison was not a god nor did he see himself as one.
Sections of this thesis appeared in another essay entitled “Fanny Howe and Jim Morrison: A Vision
Beyond the Senses.” The sections of that essay that appear in this thesis have since been modified and expanded.
In his introduction to The Doors: The Complete Lyrics, Sugerman contradicts (or corrects) his earlier remarks on Morrison, writing: “Jim Morrison didn’t want to be a god”
However innocent this line may be, I argue it What is more troubling, indeed, is that these lines were written in the first major biography on Morrison, and have reached more than a million readers.
Not surprisingly, then, Sugerman’s perception of Morrison in No One Here Gets Out Alive has become a catalyst for other critics and fans to propel the “Morrison
myth.” Like Sugerman, Wallace Fowlie, the late professor at Duke University, refers
to Morrison as the Greek figure “kuros” (Fowlie 105). William Cook, who responds to Fowlie’s remarks here, argues that: Fowlie ignores the literary qualities of [Morrison’s] poetry. Like most people that encountered Morrison, either through books or in person, Fowlie never seems to get past the myth. In view of this unfortunate aspect of his discussion of Morrison’s poetry, his approach is neither scholarly nor enlightening
For the best biography on Jim Morrison, see Jerry Prochnicky and James Riordan’s Break on Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison. In the opening pages of their biography, they recognize the decades of writing that fabricated the Morrison myth. As they write: I’ve learned the hard way that it’s not easy to separate truth from myth and the bigger the legend the more difficult it becomes. All good myths soon become self-perpetuating and each person who recounts them tends to add a little something of his or her own. Add this to the fact that there are a host of people out there consciously perpetrating the Morrison myth for their own financial gain, and the maze because a considerable one. The funny thing is that Morrison never needed exaggeration. His truth is indeed far stranger than the fiction that has grown up around him.
Nonetheless, the passage of twenty years [the book was written in 1981, twenty years after Morrison’s death] has clouded the issues and led to many obstacles – lost documents, an absence of witnesses, selective memory, and even worse, creative memory – people remembering what they wish would’ve happened instead of what actually did
Fowlie further writes:
As far as I can ascertain, it is not the name of a god, or even a minor god. It is a general term designating in Greek a young man, an adolescent: kuros […] The word is applied to a youth attractive to men and women. At times it is in praise of beauty. At other times it is hurled almost as a curse at those youths who insolently torment older people. This name I suggest as representative of the nonhypocritical innocence of Jim when he was not aware of the power of his appearance and his personality (Fowlie 105).
While I would not suggest that Fowlie’s “approach is neither scholarly nor enlightening,” as it is the first piece of scholarship to at least engage with Morrison’s poetry, I agree with Cook that “by concentrating on the myth of Morrison” in this instance, Fowlie’s work continues to propel the Morrison myth, rather than engaging in a serious academic analysis on the “literary qualities of” Morrison’s “poetry.” In other words, by continuing a dialogue that fosters the Morrison myth, Fowlie has failed – and, in so doing, has encouraged others to follow in his path – to judge Morrison based on the platform upon which Morrison invited his readers to judge him, his poetry.
Take, for instance, three other prominent books on Morrison – John Densmore’s
Riders on the Storm: My Life With Jim Morrison and the Doors (1991); Patricia
Kennealy’s Strange Days: My Life With and Without Jim Morrison (1992); and Ray
Manzarek’s Light My Fire: My Life With the Doors (1998) – which have all taken the
form of a memoir. While these authors’ personal narratives of Morrison and the Doors
are clearly worth sharing with the public, the overwhelming amount of literature on
Morrison has taken a variety of similar forms, but none of which has sought to examine
his poetry and lyrics.
Far too much has been written on Morrison’s life, his relationship with the Doors, and his myth; by extension, far too little has been written on Morrison’s poetry
Prochnicky and Riordan support this argument, writing:
The image Jim Morrison created for the media was considerably different from the real person. The press saw the side of Morrison that best suited their needs. Predictably, their accounts were steeped in paradox: Writers praised the emotional insights in Morrison’s lyrics and then criticized him for trying to be a poet. The press called him ‘King of Orgasmic Rock’ and attacked him for being pretentious. They praised him for the fusion of rock and drama that The Doors created and then put him down for carrying it too far. They hailed him as the chief shaman of new religion and then questioned his sanity for taking himself too seriously and lyrics. We cannot understand Morrison, his lyrics and his poetry, his life, his understanding of the human form, and his relationship with the 1960s countercultural movement – areas in which Morrison critics have continually tried but failed to understand – unless we begin to extract Morrison the “poet” from how decades of critics and fans have seen him, and begin to have a serious examination of his poetry and lyrics. Strictly as a poet, Morrison’s place in history remains to be seen, not because his lyrics and poetry are not worthy of critical study, but because critics and fans have only engaged with his legacy through the lens of his celebrity.