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9 February 2022

How Jim Morrison killed rock ’n’ roll

Unfairly treated by history, the Doors frontman turned youth rebellion into an art form – and did away with it.

By Benjamin Myers

There’s a moment in the Doors’ performance at the Hollywood Bowl in 1968 where you can discern precisely when the acid that the singer Jim Morrison secretly took beforehand takes effect. Self-conscious and static in the earlier songs, he loosens and comes alive, and, during the show’s closer “The End”, he becomes fascinated by a moth that has alighted on the stage. With the band arranged as if they’re still playing in a minuscule club, and shorn of any showbiz visuals, they rely on the dark drama of their music and the captivating power of their frontman. “I think either he took too much,” the guitarist Robby Krieger remarked 40 years later, “or not enough.” It’s one moment among many that makes this performance film a captivating document of a band striving to transcend the juvenile pop format. This is comedy and tragedy. This is theatre.

Unless you were paying attention, the 50th anniversary last year of Morrison’s death from a heart attack at 27 might have slipped by unnoticed. So too might the 30th anniversary of Oliver Stone’s biopic The Doors. Both were reminders that Morrison has been an unfairly maligned figure for much longer than he was a tribal leader of America’s rebel young. Morrison’s reputation has never fully recovered from the drip-down damage caused by Stone’s film – a fun, hagiographic romp coated in a membrane of gloopy cheese so thick it softened the edges that made the Doors such a sassy and subversive proposition.

The charges against Morrison are posthumous but lingering. He is responsible for, variously, the piety of the perennial Inter-railing pilgrims to his Père Lachaise tomb in Paris; the insufferable, Morrison-quoting prick who hogged the spliff at the house parties of your adolescence; and leather trousers. His lyrics and writing are commonly dismissed as “sixth-form poetry” (to which one might reply: have you heard some of those early Beatles and Beach Boys songs?). One factor unites these criticisms: each is grounded in snobbery towards the naivety of youth. It is 21st-century cynicism directed towards 20th-century idealism, and a lazy dismissal of those boomer cultural gateways (see also Jack Kerouac, non-opiate narcotics, Easy Rider and the New Hollywood films of Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone and others) that led to the liberalism that cultural warmongers rail against today. Morrison-hate, for many, is self-hate.

In fact, Morrison was the greatest frontman of his age, if not ever. Hendrix could play, and Janis was a technically superior singer, but somehow he was the full (damaged) package, the psychedelic Sinatra, an evil Elvis – Presley himself was a Doors fan – fully prepared to burn to the ground the pillars of the establishment, before skipping bare-chested to a promised land of milk and honey. Baroque ’n’ roll, baby. Today, the Beatles of “Get Back”, and the Bowie and Bolan of 1970, appear quaintly timid in comparison.

[See also: How Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes confounded the music press of the 1990s]

You suspect Morrison – who was born in Florida in 1943, and had the archetypal disrupted upbringing of a child of an itinerant military family – would be fine with the myth-making and conspiracy that followed his death. He might draw a line, though, at the forensic analysis of his every scribble that has made it into the new and lavish A Guide to the Labyrinth: The Collected Works of Jim Morrison (Genesis Publications), which comprises 600 pages of poetry, photos and lyrics, as well as two reproduction notebooks and a seven-inch single of his spoken-word material. It follows The Collected Works of Jim Morrison: Poetry, Journals, Transcripts, and Lyrics (HarperCollins, 2021); both were published in collaboration with Morrison’s siblings.

What we learn from A Guide to the Labyrinth is that Morrison was an inveterate note-taker, and a restless, future-facing ideas man who happened to operate in pop’s golden age of marketing, yet who, one suspects, would soon have branched out into novels, screenplays and conceivably the tech world. “In four or five years… I can envision one person with a lot of machines, tapes and electronic set-ups, singing or speaking,” he said during a TV interview in 1969, casually predicting Kraftwerk, hip hop and DJ culture. Second, in today’s climate of uncertainty, where identity politics and online influencers are the dominant youth cultures – and where the medium (the internet) is more powerful than the message – the role of warrior-poet feels curiously analogue. Cute, almost. But missed, too.

Inspired by Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty and the concept of breaking the fourth wall, Morrison may well have been the first rock singer to take the show down on to the floor, to stage-dive, to be among the people. His influence was substantial: Jimmy Osterberg saw Morrison at the University of Michigan in 1967 and became Iggy Pop shortly afterwards, stripping the Doors’ aesthetic down to something more primal with the Stooges, but keeping the frontman’s baritone croon (and later declining an invitation to replace him). The punks fell for the Doors big time; Joy Division, Nick Cave, the Cult, Echo & the Bunnymen, Siouxsie Sioux, the Stranglers, Patti Smith, Jane’s Addiction and countless other faux-shamanic singers that followed were also indebted.

But that was then. Today you’d be hard-pressed to find many young artists citing Morrison as an influence. Kurt Cobain aside, you’d be pressed to find any canonical rock star cited as an influence in 2022. Because the old ways are over. Those freewheeling patterns of behaviour are now deemed unacceptable. It had a good half-century run, but rock ’n’ roll is clearly long dead. Good. It was about time.

[See also: “I didn’t want anyone to know it was me”: on being Joni Mitchell’s “Carey”]

Perhaps Morrison saw this too, and it was his lofty ambition as a poet that still rankles so many. He was certainly a grafter: alongside the publication of two poetry collections, between 1967 and 1971 he released six albums with the Doors, all with merit. In the UK, the band remained only a cult concern, failing (“Light My Fire” aside) to break the top-ten singles or album charts. Later, their status as the go-to soundtrack band for scenes of napalm dropped over Saigon caused them to be cast as relics, as embarrassing as your dad’s dusty bong brought down from the attic.

At his performance peak, Morrison managed to combine his two creative strands – the aspiring poet and bona fide pop star – into something eternal; even the occasional bum note or line of sub-spiritual doggerel draws us closer to him, each a reminder of the importance of spontaneity. Today, spontaneity means dropping an album without notice on Spotify or SoundCloud – and on the latter there is a breed of rapper whose spirit of creative freedom and nihilism comes closest to what Morrison once represented.

There was never really anything peace-and-love about the Doors, and perhaps that’s why those of us with a predilection for the dark stuff remain a little in love with Morrison. Songs such as “Five to One”, “Not to Touch the Earth” and the Oedipal epic “The End” are thrilling, rebel rallying cries at a time when they are needed more than ever. Yet, if modern equivalents were released today, their themes of violence, sex and insurrection would make them ripe for cancellation. A carefully composed confessional tweet from an artist’s social media team or a photo-op with the president provide the talking points now. Music is something that comes out of phones, competing for attention with Twitter, video games, YouTubers, Instagram reels and TikTok dance routines. This is not necessarily better or worse, it just is.

One conclusion emerges: if rock ’n’ roll as a youth movement really is dead, in representing its pinnacle, Jim Morrison helped to kill it off. It’s something I imagine he would be immensely proud of.

Benjamin Myers’s latest book, “Male Tears”, is published by Bloomsbury Circus

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This article appears in the 09 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak's Game