You will pry my Doors LPs from my cold dead fingers, world. We might be moving further away from the kind of unhinged rock star megalomania that Jim Morrison represents. We’ve come to realize that Morrison was kind of a bad person, and very definitely a sick person, and maybe we shouldn’t hero worship sick, bad people. Still, Morrison remains the Platonic ideal of the mentally unstable genius, and that shit is catnip for the romantic and sexual imagination. The entire premise of Morrison’s Messianic persona was that he was living life on a different spiritual level – not necessarily a more elevated one, but definitely removed from the ordinary realms of experience – and he could take you there, and though the journey might be difficult for you, you would emerge a changed person. That promise was fulfilled for fans who felt that the music had changed them in some way, in the safety of their own home. It was a much rougher journey for people who had the misfortune of actually having Jim Morrison in their lives. According to John Densmore, being in a band with Jim was very much like being in an abusive marriage, and that seems to be the general consensus. But the mystique of the very unstable genius persists, because we still want someone to take us through to the other side, against all better judgement.
Don’t talk to me about how all these pop groups today all sound the same. I challenge you to pick any one of the dozens of indistinguishable pop groups of the 1960’s out of a lineup. There were, in the end, maybe four or five British Invasion groups that people still remember as separate entities. Otherwise it was a hit parade of quartet and quintets who all sounded like the Hanna-Barbera to the Beatles’ Walt Disney. Who remembers The Hollies? What were their names? What were the names of their wives, children and pets? No one cares. It’s not their fault; they weren’t a bad band. They were just good at something that a lot of other people were equally good at, and history doesn’t remember the averagely skilled. At least Graham Nash went on to distinguish himself as the fourth best-known member of C,S,N&Y.
The Rolling Stones thought their Rock’n’Roll Circus had to be shelved because The Who blew them out of the water, but really, it started with Jethro Tull. Then only marginally known, their input of weirdness got the show going. It was supposed to get them famous as a psychedelic blues band, but it may have been a stroke of luck that the show never aired. They weren’t planning on staying a psychedelic blues band for very much longer, and what they became in their heyday doesn’t easily fit into neat boxes you can sell. (That didn’t stop them selling a lot of records, because there was a market back then for weird shit.)
Funny how airplanes have robbed the world of almost as much talent as drugs and alcohol. Unlike substance abuse related deaths, which are generally seen as signs of poor character, airplane deaths are particularly tragic in their randomness. There’s something Act of God-like about it, like the almighty had a notion that we humans have had all the Otis Redding we’re entitled to. No one would suggest that Redding himself was reaping God’s punishment; he was a standup guy by all accounts. No, it’s the rest of us sinners. Whatever small comfort we can scrape from listening to a little soul music, we don’t deserve. You can still listen to Otis, of course, because the art lives on long after the artist himself is dust, but maybe say a little benediction or something.
This is the jam you put on at parties and/or work as a test to find out who your real friends are. (It’s a trick. You have no real friends.) The Velvet Underground, leaning heavily on their underground-ness, used long violently loud jam sessions like this one to alienate as much of their audience as they could before getting booted out of whatever venue they were playing. It was certainly the first time in the realm of rock music that topics like mainlining drugs and sucking on a ding-dong were topics of conversation, at least in as blunt a manner. No euphemisms or clever entendres for Lou Reed, he calls it sucking dick for heroin in plain English. The Velvets did end up with the distinction that all of the fans they did acquire, all went on to become degenerate drug fiends and sex perverts in their own right. And so the moral corruption of social fibers, or whatever.
A lot of people died because of this song. Literally. The Beatles’ White Album has a unique status among rock albums: it has the Bible-like legacy of having been used as a justification for bloodshed. The record has a complicated legacy even without that baggage. Musically there is plenty to unpack. There was the rivalry and infighting that took place during the writing and recording, the personal struggles that the band dealt with outside of the studio, the growing differences between them that are starkly evident in the music. However, it will always be linked, at least in some people’s minds, to a string of grisly murders. Through no fault of anyone involved, the record came to be tainted by association with the chaos and instability of the wider world, becoming a symbol of a wider cultural fracture that was taking place. That’s thanks to the escapades of Charles Manson, who came to fame the following year for masterminding a series of horrific murders that captivated the world and still do so. The Manson killings, and the subsequent trial and media frenzy, were, besides their sheer brutality, perfectly planned and engineered for maximum imaginative impact. They combined so many elements designed to fascinate the public, and not by coincidence. They confirmed what people had already suspected about the hippie counter-culture: that it was cultish, seedy, sex- and drug- crazed, bent on overthrowing polite society, brainwashing impressionable young people with half-baked spirituality, fully capable of turning perfectly normal kids into homicidal maniacs. There was the class and race baiting, the messianic posturing, the vague political agenda. There was the irresistible celebrity factor: one of the victims was a well-connected movie star. It was the pop-cultural aspect that really made Manson and his Family into pop culture icons in their own right. Manson thought he was a messiah, but he didn’t bother too much with the biblical. He knew that stuff was boring and passe. His acolytes were with him because they’d already rejected Christian dogma. Instead, he used pop culture as his gospel, and he was particularly taken with the Beatles. They were, after all, bigger than Jesus. The inferences Charles Manson made about the White Album were, of course, dead wrong, but they were canny. The Beatles weren’t sending messages about inciting a race war or exterminating the upper classes – not even hypothetically were they thinking about those things. But the messages that Manson thought they were sending him about those things were convincing enough to get people to actually go out and try to do those things. When Manson told a girl he’d nicknamed Sadie Mae that the Beatles had personally earmarked her via song, that it meant she was to carry out Manson’s apocalyptic vision, she obediently went out and killed. (And spent the rest of her life in prison for her trouble.) It was the darkest possible example of rock music’s growing ability to influence real life, and of the potential way that art can escape the artist’s control. It was John Lennon’s innocent ‘bigger than Jesus’ comment come back to show just how dangerous and volatile that amount of fame can turn out to be. There wasn’t any bad intention behind the music. There didn’t have to be. All it needed was bad intention on the part of the listener to turn it into a manifesto of mayhem.
There’s something magical about Pink Floyd playing amid the dust and ruins of Pompeii. There may not be any obvious connection between a dead Roman city and a psychedelic rock band from swingin’ London, but it feels right. Something in the timelessness of mankind’s creativity perhaps. The human drive to make art and the desire to find higher meaning in things – those things haven’t changed over millennia. Civilizations have grown and died, and the way people live and relate to one another has changed beyond imagining, but we still share a universal visual language. We recognize the same musical rhythms. We still look for beauty. It’s an epic connection, but it’s only human nature. Beautiful music belongs in a beautiful place, it’s really just a simple aesthetic choice.