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.
There’s nothing mystical about the pleasures of an all-night diner. It’s a haven for the silent camaraderie of insomnia, fried eggs and bad coffee, unchanged since Edward Hopper’s time. If you haven’t staggered into a diner at 4 a.m. robbed of sleep by strange circumstances, have you even lived? Jim Morrison wrote a lot about altered states of consciousness, surreal and dangerous episodes fueled by drugs, and not so much about the mundane stuff of life. But in the diner the strange bleeds over into the mundane, and even the Lizard King has to admire the restorative powers of a cheap breakfast. No matter what misadventures you’ve just had or what journey you’re still in the middle of, going into a diner is like pressing pause. You can step into a greasy bubble where time stands still, twitch-chug five or six cups of burned coffee, maybe eat an or some bacon, and observe the tableau of all the other human strays around you.
Sponsored by Denny’s.
This performance of The Soft Parade begs a couple of questions. Why is Jim Morrison so against petitioning the Lord with prayer? And how did they coax an on-key and non-insane performance out of him in the first place? Morrison was looking, in 1969, like a cult leader on the verge of inciting mass suicide. That is, shambolic and bloated, yet still charismatic. Some of the lyrics on the Soft Parade album were lazy or not written by Morrison at all, but the title track felt like the rambling of an unstable mind. Of course, Morrison’s entire persona was based on the perception that he was dangerously unstable… but yet somehow still in complete cosmic control and eminently qualified to lead his followers into a psychedelic spirit quest. But by the end, it appeared that he was just plain unstable in the garden variety manner, and he had barely any control over himself or his life. Maybe it was Morrison’s tragedy that he insisted on trying to inhabit, as an everyday matter, a persona that sold records, or maybe his life trajectory was exactly what he wanted for himself, in his conception of what it means to be a poet. Most people’s literary ambitions don’t involve dying alone in a bathtub, though. You can still see clearly, though, in performances like this one, that the psychedelic spirit quest is still there for the journeying, even if you can’t trust the shaman.
‘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.