‘Ship of Fools’ certainly describes a lot of institutions I could point out. If Jim Morrison was trying to mock the establishment of his day, he was on point, maybe even too kind. But with Morrison it’s often hard to tell where the stream of his consciousness is taking us all, or from whence it came. I’ve always considered this song about mid-tier, because it seems untethered from any particular vision or declamation. From the Doors, I want grand intellectual ambition, pretension even. Though they can do the old blues-rock as well as anyone when they want to, that’s not what I pull those records out for.
Who still listens to the Doors? For me they are like musical comfort food, because I’ve listened to them all of my life, and they will never not be relevant to me. But who else are they relevant to, besides nostalgic baby boomers and people who think that doing a lot of psychedelic drugs is a valid lifestyle choice? I like to write about forgotten recordings by long dead artists as if they were new releases freshly unleashed upon the world, often ignoring their actual historic legacy. Thinking about historic legacies can really dampen the intuitive enjoyment of music, so it’s good to listen to them as if they didn’t carry baggage. But do we still have a cultural place, where we are right now, for the kind of rock star persona that Jim Morrison represents? Do we need an icon who fancies himself as an actual shaman, a larger-than-life mystical being who promises that there’s an ‘other side’ to break on through to? We don’t take self-proclaimed rock star shaman’s as seriously as we used to. That kind of swagger, today, would only come off as pretentious and absurd. We can’t accept rock singers who think they’re too mystical for this plane, just as we no longer accept the kind of movie stars who couldn’t do a day’s work without ‘their lighting’. But I think we also need to have icons, and if nothing else, we cling to Jim Morrison because we miss the days when icons were more iconic.
This is definitely one of the weirdest songs from The Doors. Of course, The Doors were a weird band in a lot of ways anyway. But they were usually pretty consistent in their sound. They stayed on-theme, mostly. This is like two throwaway songs mashed together, neither one being regular Doors fare. It’s one half jazz-fusion, one half quasi-bluegrass (and one half tribute to Otis Redding.) The jazz inflection isn’t too far out; it’s something the band had played around with throughout their career, although it wasn’t until The Soft Parade that they went all the way with hiring a real horn section. The hillbilly breakdown is just random. Bluegrass was absolutely not a direction that the Doors ever wanted to go towards. I think it’s either an attempt to infuse a little humor, or Morrison’s way of showing disdain towards all the fancy new arrangements. Or both.
Let this be the only driving lesson you’ll ever need, and a lesson in living too. Take care in taking life lesson from Jim Morrison, who succeeded at living straight into an early grave. But, really, all you need in life is a firm hand on the wheel and a morning beer. You can just live one roadhouse to the next. Isn’t that the blues man’s classic life? We all want to be a bluesman, to be worthy of the blues. We want to live the kind of life that’s inspiring and conducive to art, and worthy of it. Even Morrison wanted that. He wanted to be more than a pretentious college kid with mystical aspirations; maybe all of the mayhem and self-abuse and falling out of windows was a quest for an authenticity and richness of experience that Army brat white boys don’t come born with. Or maybe it was just your garden-variety alcoholism coupled with megalomania. But it does make you think about what kind of experiences fuel great art. Do people who’ve had relatively easy lives need to go out of their way to break something within themselves in order to become great artists, or do people with shitty lives become great artists in order to heal themselves? Is it both? Or is the concept of being a ‘great artist’ just a social construct designed to sell products? Did Jim Morrison do all of the crazy stupid shit that he did because he was cracking open the well of greatness within himself, or was he sad and out of control and in need of help, and the greatness was just incidental? Or are we still talking about him only because he looks good on a t-shirt? Either way, it does seem to be a thing that the most creative people are the ones who drink beer for breakfast rather than the ones who rise at dawn to practice mindfulness.
At last! Something you all are already familiar with. I could listen to The Doors all day. I could listen to them every day. Maybe not all day every day, but let’s just say I could listen to them a lot. Being a Doors fan has cycled in and out of fashion, depending on whether portentous songwriting and psychedelic experimentation and demon-god rock star swagger are being done or not (they’re currently not), but it doesn’t matter. Things that are truly classic don’t wax and wane. It doesn’t matter if you think this is deeply profound or if you think it’s just noodly cocktail jazz dressed up in leather trousers. If you think that you and Jim Morrison are like-minded intellectuals for sharing a Heidegger reference across decades, then great. Jim is surely smiling down on you from heaven – or up from the depths, what have you. He’s thrilled to see that there’s still people who appreciate his literary references. If you only enjoy the song because it’s fun to get high to, that’s fine too. It’s an outstanding song for getting high. (That’s a real fresh take, I know.) That was probably very much a part of the original intention. It’s got something for everybody. Shallow or deep.
I’ve always thought that The Doors were the most perfect road trip music. Obviously they thought so too. I’m not just talking about consciously driving songs like L.A. Woman or Roadhouse Blues, though those were both clearly designed with the open road in mind. You can’t just play the hits on your road trip – that’s boring! – you need to play all of all of the albums. It won’t get you across the country, but you can get across a fair sized state, at least. And it’s the quieter songs like this one that allow you to just glide along and watch the clouds roll above you. Preferably in a desert landscape with a clean horizon and an endless sky. There’s just something hypnotic about it.
A tale of urban ennui as old as time. Even Jim Morrison, the cocksure rock star shaman, is not immune to that sinking alone-in-the-universe sensation. Which, of course, yielded The Doors one of their most popular hits. Morrison wasn’t the most relatable guy on earth most of the time, what with the whole ‘Lizard King’ messiah complex, but the flashes of soul and vulnerability he showed in quieter moment were beautiful. No wonder that this is a song that fans have latched on to. It speaks to everybody who’s ever felt alone, which is, literally, everybody. Alienation is its own aesthetic now, as emotion becomes commodity and communication seems to be reverting into glyphs, but that doesn’t make it any less real.