Jim Morrison Essay - Critical Essays

Morrison, Jim


Jim Morrison 1943–1971

American songwriter, singer, poet, and filmmaker.

Morrison's songs are macabre, full of sexual tension, and dwell on subjects not usually thought to be standard rock fare. His songs and poems are alternately tender, violent, literal, symbolic, simple, and profound. The group he fronted, The Doors, complemented his poetry with a jazz-based sound, usually dominated by an electric organ. This combination became one of the most notorious acts in rock in the late sixties.

Morrison was studying filmmaking at UCLA in 1965 when he met fellow film student and keyboard player Ray Manzarek. They formed The Doors and Manzarek began to write music to Morrison's words with the rest of the band (Robbie Krieger, guitar, and John Densmore, drums). Their first commercial success came in 1967 with "Light My Fire," a song which is typical of The Doors's sound. Their first album also contained "The End," one of Morrison's most bizarre songs. It deals with love, death, and Oedipal tendencies, and the words, singing, and music are full of the tension that was carried further in their stage act. However, their concerts were not "acts" to Morrison—they were a slice of life wherein his innermost fantasies could be revealed. He often carried his audiences to the edge of those fantasies, as documented in Morrison's and Paul Ferrar's short film Feast of Friends.

Morrison's songs deal with themes that seemed to bring together the views of the young. "When the Music's Over" is a long piece about rebellion, and in "The Unknown Soldier," Morrison takes the part of a soldier who is executed, yet comes back to life to shout repeatedly, "The war is over!" Symbols which recur in his work are water ("Moonlight Drive," "Wishful Sinful"), dreams ("Horse Latitudes"), and reptiles. The lizard symbolism is especially important, as fans began calling him the "Lizard King," after a persona in one of his songs. He dressed in tight, leather pants and reptilian clothes and apparently thought that, like the Lizard King of the song, he really could do anything, and in 1969, he was arrested and convicted for exposing himself onstage. After this incident, The Doors found it more and more difficult to get concert bookings, their creativity dwindled, and Morrison's lyrics became more trite. Just before his death, however, he had written and recorded one of his finest songs, "Riders on the Storm."

Morrison's poetry is strange, elliptical, excessive—just like the man himself. Its surrealism often passed over the heads of his young fans, who were not aware of Freudian and Oedipal themes. The Lords and the New Creatures, a volume of poetry, and An American Prayer, an album of Morrison reciting his poetry, are full of his excesses—especially his sexual infatuations—but also contain flashes of mystical brilliance. It is fitting that Morrison's death was shrouded in mystery as well. He died of a heart attack in Paris, but no one besides his common-law wife saw the body. In fact, there are those who claim that Morrison is still alive—that he was a god, that his work was his testament to the world, and that his "resurrection" will prove that Jim Morrison still "can do anything." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)


Williams: On interpreting "The End," I considered for the first time the other day, that the lines "This is the end my only friend," and particularly the lines, "It hurts to set you free but you'll never bother me …" at that point, when I heard that, it occured to me that the song was about a murder, and not just a guy leaving a girl. I didn't decide that, but the possibility opened that the whole thing was the murderer's mind and ah, the stream of consciousness starting from and leading back to … Rothchild: It's interesting that you say that, because Jim is fascinated with the concept, not only as physical death, this is my interpretation, we haven't really discussed it, he's interested in spiritual deaths, conceptual deaths, more than physical deaths actually, you'll find this theme in many of his songs, uh, the line in the song, "The end of nights we tried to die …" Williams: That goes right back to "Crystal Ship." Rothchild: Exactly.

Uh, I'm not sure if this is what Jim has in mind but it's almost as if Jim is saying … realize this is my interpretation, and not Jim's cause I've never asked Jim, he presented it to me and said it's for your head, interpret it as you will, Jim's saying almost as a friend, okay, my friend and I take an acid trip, and then I say to my friend this is the end my friend, my only friend, the end of laughter and soft lies, the end of nights we tried to die ah, the line, the end of nights we tried to die, to my mind is a direct reference to the concept that most psychedelics are a form of physical poisoning, that chemicals are a means of reorienting the body through a kind of poison …

Williams: You're saying this is the end, during the trip or before it? Rothchild: The way I feel it, the trip has started and he's saying this is the end. Williams: As a beginning. Rothchild: Right. This is the end. He has had a realization concerning a relationship, now this can be far more universal than a statement to this theoretical friend who is right there, this could be the end of world, the end of laughter and soft lies, or the end of—Williams: Himself.

Rothchild: Precisely. He's saying okay here's a trip, everytime we take a trip there's a death—, of concepts, of bullshit, a death of laughter and soft lies, let's get real with ourselves, let's get real with each other, um … there's one thing Jim used to say during the song which is just a stark death image. It was the blue bus theory, but it was stated in a different way, and he used to use them both, he used the blue bus thing and he'd also say, uh, "Have you seen the accident outside, seven people took a ride and something something something and seven people died," which is really very groovy, "have you seen the accident outside"—the world—seven people took a ride, this trip, looked at the world, and died. All of that that they saw in themselves which before lived, in other words the bullshit concept of the world which had been burned into their brains since childhood, had to die. And with every end there is a beginning, it is a cyclical thing, the end always has in it inherent a beginning, uh, trying to remember … "Can you picture what will be so limitless and free, desperately in need of some stranger's hand in a desperate land." Things are very wrong out there so let us kill ourselves or those things in ourselves that are false…. (pp. 103-04)

[Rothchild:] Of the other imagery in the song, the little poetic bits between the double verse section in the beginning and the double verse section in the end, you have things like the snake—well there he's saying just get down to reality, the snake thing of course is just pure sexual imagery (to my mind), ride the snake to the ancient lake, that comes right out of Negro imagery, blues imagery, which Jim is very familiar with, "the snake he's old and his skin is cold," what he is saying is okay let's get down to the realities of life, there are very few realities and one of the few truly real realities is sexual awareness and companionship, Jim is very lucid in that department…. Oh right, and, the first one of...

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Sandy Pearlman

The Doors are spectral. Maybe more than anybody. What counts is the impression for which no significant referent detail can or should be found. The music ends and there is no detail which you can refer to actually justify your impression. But you have that impression. And it's not even ambiguous. "The little girls they understand." Understand? Most importantly, there is a statement being made. But how? Take the words of a Doors song. Lots of people think the songs make them "swim in mystery." And if they think so, then they do. But usually the words aren't really bizarre or neat enough to do that. Everybody I know thought that Strange Days wasn't half as much fun as the first album [The Doors]. They figured Morrison would be a better old time type poet by now. Give the boy time, you know, he'll grow. But in an old timesy poetry sense his songs weren't any better. The words were good enough to be unambiguously assertive, to literally make a statement. Not good enough to automatically give you the creeps. Since the company men printed all the words (even some that weren't there) on the inner record sleeve, there was disappointment in homes all over America. At last everything could be understood all at once. The context of mystery, a hangover from what the first album did to us all, and reinforced by the resemblance of so much of the music on the second to that of the first album, seemed threatened by clarity….

So here are the points. The Doors' words aren't bizarre enough. But even the words of really conventionally neat stuff (The Bible; Baudelaire; miscellaneous batwinged English poets, i.e. [William] Blake/[Samuel Taylor] Coleridge; R. Meltzer, etc.) stop being bizarre when you set eyes upon them. Familiarity nibbles away surprise, and suppose then somebody...

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Karl Dallas

Sociologists are beginning to think that the sexual revolution of recent years has a wider significance than merely who sleeps with whom. Certainly, in Morrison's completely unambiguous lyrics, it seems to be part of a wider scene where all the comfortable assumptions are challenged.

"We want the world and we want it now," he yells, and audiences have been known to join in the chorus. But the atmosphere is something else again from the "We Shall Overcome" cosiness that they have made of Pete Seeger's great music.

LBJ has been known to sing along with "Overcome," but I don't fancy he'll be able to mouth the words of Morrison's "The Unknown Soldier," an apocalyptic piece which seems...

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Jonathan Cott

To see the Doors as a radical political influence seems to me misguided. According to Morrison, "The Unknown Soldier" is a love song. "The violence is just a metaphor," he's quoted as saying. "It's about sexual intercourse. The firing squad is just a metaphor for what's going on." Soldiers in Vietnam turn on and listen to the Doors records—what kind of politics is that? Are the Doors any more subversive than the Vietnam war?…

With the Stones at the doorstep, it takes a lot of cerebration to see the Doors—a less interesting musical group than, say, Traffic, though they still write nice songs like "Light My Fire" and "Love Street"—as more relevant than Dylan (A. Goldman in New World Writing...

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Jerry Hopkins

The 40-minute film [Feast of Friends] prudently edited from a much longer and less successful version, represents nearly a year of covering the Doors in concert and on vacation and accurately captures the unique Doors personality.

The in-performance footage stands out. Many filmed dramas and documentaries about rock have shown the clutching hands and ecstatic faces that confront the musician or singer, but no film before Feast has captured in so exciting a manner what actually takes place during a near-riot….

Morrison has often said the film was an attempt to capture some of what they see in their travels. In an impressionistic and carefully paced filmic collage,...

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Alec Dubro

Alternate suggested titles for The Soft Parade would be The Worst of the Doors, Kick Out the Doors, or best, The Soft Touch.

The Soft Parade is worse than infuriating, it's sad. It's sad because one of the most potentially moving forces in rock has allowed itself to degenerate. A trite word, but true.

The Soft Parade represents a clear and present decline in musicianship…. [The] Doors are a rock group, and at heart a rock group must produce vital, listenable, interesting music, or the rest is just so many limp wicks waving in the Miami breeze….

And this gorgeous-looking album is not vital, not very listenable and is certainly...

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Patricia Kennely

Run, do not walk—nay, teleport yourself—to the nearest record store and take this record home with you, 'cause the Doors can still do it and we all ought to be glad and I hope it shuts up the bad-rappers for good and all.

The Soft Parade: none of it is bad; most of it is very superior music and some of it is absolutely glorious. (p. 40)

[The] real beauty of The Soft Parade (album) lies in Shaman's Blues and The Soft Parade (song)—and, to a lesser extent, Runnin' Blue. None of these songs sounds like anything the Doors have done before: they are all technically sophisticated, well-balanced, and definitely positive in statement, and I...

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Ed Jeffords

[Highway] is Morrison. Morrison hitchhiking. Morrison speeding through the desert. Morrison drinking beer. Morrison pissing. Only near the end did he reveal he had killed a man and stolen his car. The picture's beauty lay in its honesty. Morrison, the star, was totally free of everything—but himself.

For those who missed the point, the film ends with a short "love is where it's at" rap by four persons bathing in a mountain stream.

Ed Jeffords, "Film Notes: 'Highway'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1970; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 57, April 30, 1970, p. 48.

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Lester Bangs

Morrison Hotel opens with a powerful blast of raw funk called "Roadhouse Blues."… This angry hard rock is that at which the Doors have always excelled, and given us so seldom, and this track is one of their very best ever, with brooding lyrics that ring chillingly true: "I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer / The future's uncertain and the end is always near."

From there on out, though, the road runs mainly downhill. It's really a shame, too, because somehow one held high expectations for this album and wanted so badly to believe it would be good that one was afraid to listen to it when it was finally released. The music bogs down in the kind of love mush and mechanical,...

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Michael Cuscuna

The Doors … were among those who created the rock underground, and turned the deaf, overconfident recording industry around. Without hit singles, these groups sold thousands of albums on the basis of the quality of their music and the power of word-of-mouth.

With their first album, the Doors brought many innovations to rock. Essentially, it was the first successful synthesis of jazz and rock….

The Doors were the first group to introduce the theater song and its derivatives into the realm of current popular music. Listen to their The End….

The group's second album, Strange Days, was one of the first concept albums in the underground, and...

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Patricia Kennely

Absolutely Live is one of the absolutely finest live rock and roll albums ever made, and no mistake….

Absolutely Live is good…. [Enough] new songs are fitted in to make the double-record set less of a Doors anthology than an actual, carefully programmed concert caught on record, complete with rock-ya-sock-ya curtain-raiser (Who Do You Love), medley (three standbys and Love Hides—one of the most beautiful lyrics the Doors ever had), theatrics (When The Music's Over), production number (The Celebration Of The Lizard), and encore (Soul Kitchen)….

[This] album does contain upon its last side The Celebration Of The Lizard,...

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Gloria Vanjak

There are a few fine [songs on Absolutely Live]: "Who Do You Love," "Build Me A Woman," and Willie Dixon's "Close To You," but they account for about 15 minutes in an 80-minute set. We are then left with the rancid/poetic "Celebration of the Lizard" …, a mediocre new song, "Universal Mind," which sounds like a single that would not have made it, plus the old war horses "Five To One," "Music's Over," etc. These are enlivened by Morrison's humorous raps on life and liberty in concert hall America….

But in the end we are left with the music, and when tackling his own material, the result is hysterical slaughter. Listen to his juvenile-soul rant at the close of "Five To One," his intoxicated...

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Lester Bangs

[Thirteen is] a total, A-1 rock 'n' roll album, worthy of a place of honor in anybody's collection….

One heretofore somewhat clouded point brought out by the release of this set in an era when the Hit has given way to the gnawingly personal statement, is that the Doors at their best laid down tracks that were absolutely clear, architecturally impeccable, with no part missing and no dross left in. Ah, weren't those the days, when songs like "Hello, I Love You" and "Light My Fire" hit the radio, as catchy as regular AM pap but far more gutsy and infused with the rather wry sense of humor (it shows up best in some of their most "serious" songs) that too few have given the Doors credit...

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R. Meltzer

There isn't one serious cut on [L.A. Woman]….

[Morrison is] taking no chances about being taken seriously or with universal import. In fact he's not even writing his own snake lyrics anymore. Instead there's John Lee Hooker's "Crawling King Snake," a whopper of a readymade and proof positive that he and his boys are still listening to the roots….

[The] Doors have never been more together, more like the Beach Boys, more like Love (the band they originally played second fiddle to at the Whiskey or the Troubador or wherever it was)…. Morrison [sets] the tone with lines like "Why did you throw the jack of hearts away?" on "Hyacinth House."… In terms of what they're...

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Michael Watts

["L.A. Woman"] stands as [The Doors'] nadir, a spunkless, sterile effort that sounds as if it's been put out just so's everyone won't forget the name, and of course, the name is Jim Morrison. The Doors have always had two things going for them: an ability to throw some catchy riffs together in a brief context …; and Jim Morrison, who was built up as America's answer to Mick Jagger. Morrison, as Mick Farren pointed out in this paper last week, has always been a mediocre singer, but he's disguised it to an extent by his ability to come on like some rock Messiah.

Michael Watts, "Stale and Sterile Mister Morrison," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), July 10,...

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Michael Oldfield

With Morrison …, each Doors concert or album became more than just music—it was theatre; theatre of the macabre, theatre of cruelty; theatre of the absurd all rolled into one. And always living theatre….

Properly performed (it's not done particularly well on "Absolutely Live") "The Celebration Of The Lizard" lulls an audience with a grotesque recitation before Morrison screams at ear-piercing level "Wake up!" then alternates the two sides of Morrison's psyche throughout the song….

[The Door's first album] showed that Morrison was one of the major "poetic" lyricists of the twentieth century. I use the word poetic to differentiate between him and say, Chuck Berry, who wrote in...

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Mike Jahn

[The Doors'] music was a melodic hard rock which did not detract from Morrison's lyrics. Morrison, when he was good, was very good, using broad, emotional and exotic images to create poetry that urged "breaking free" of traditional restraint, always a hot topic but particularly so in hippie circles in 1967.

Morrison managed to take "breaking free"—the perennial plea of the hip—and turn it into an ambiguous semi-nightmare. In his songs, the characters wanted freedom but feared it, and played out their torment in the company of an assortment of familiar, but at times foreboding images: the sun, the sea, running, falling, sleeping, and snakes—there seemed no end of reptiles in Morrison's songs....

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Lester Bangs

["The End"] was the first major statement of the Doors' perennial themes: dread, violence, guilt without possibility of redemption, the miscarriages of love, and, most of all, death.

Nevertheless, the last time I heard "The End," it sounded funny. Even by Strange Days, the second Doors album, it was becoming apparent that the group was limited, and that Morrison's "Lizard King" vision was usually morbid in the most obvious possible way, and thus cheap. The whole nightmare easily translated into parody—and there was a supremely sad irony here….

[The] Doors' artistic stock had hit an all-time low with The Soft Parade…. Relying more and more on brass, strings, and...

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The Doors presented as complete a statement as the Doors themselves were capable of, each track unveiling another facet of Morrison's polygonic personality. If "Back Door Man" established his erotic credentials, "Soul Kitchen" enhanced them….

The album's tour de force, "The End," had begun innocently as the Doors' show farewell, stretched by Morrison into a molten fresco of travel-weary images and faces. "C'mon, baby, take a chance with us," he cajoled, outlining terrors real, imagined, pulsing with phosphorescence and decay. He walked through hallways beyond the range of vision, confronting the Oedipal embrace of "Father I want to kill you … Mother I want to …," the beast language of primal...

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Lester Bangs

An American Prayer [is] the best recitative sluice of American literature on LP since Call Me Burroughs, and hell, even Burroughs never had the sheer nerve to lead with "All join now and lament the death of my cock." In a way Jim was really the end of the Masculine Mystique as celebrated through American culture up to and through rock 'n' roll, because unlike clowns of John Kay ilk, Jim was always in on the joke, in fact ballooned it to full erectile expanse before bending to gulp dirty bathwater in who is to say was not one last attempt at autofellatio? You could hear how wise he was to both the humor in traditional sex roles and their imminent rupture—unlike La Smith or indeed any of his progeny, he...

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Nick Tosches

What Jim Morrison wanted more than anything—more than fame, more than wealth, more than the women's wet submission that fame brought with it—was to be taken seriously as a poet. But he was too immature. Too unfinished to sense how little he knew about the job of turning a vision into meaningful words and rhythms.

The Doors' most ambitious work was often their worst. Trying to make of rock & roll something it could never, should never, be, Morrison seemed a pompous fool rather than the intrepid seer he fancied himself. With dark, messianic urgency, he delivered images and ideas that were embarrassing in their unoriginality. In the small book of poetry from which [An American Prayer]...

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Toby Goldstein

Jim Morrison's life was filled with the events of which legends are made. No mere rock singer, he was both godlike and pompous, sensual and piggish, never existing on a middle ground. Seven years have passed since his death, and time is notorious for making what once seemed shattering, merely quaint. An album of accompanied Morrison recitations, some feared, would sound so dated it could tarnish the Doors legacy. But An American Prayer … remains decisive, possessing the ability to operate outside of time while making the listener painfully aware of Morrison's irrevocable departure.

No matter that [Martin Scorsese's] Taxi Driver, Patti Smith and the Son of Sam have all made headlines...

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Paulette Weiss

[Is] "American Prayer" valid today? Can new music by the Doors tacked onto a monologue recorded more than eight years ago do justice to Morrison? Even if it were artistically successful, why release a rock-based disc with literary ambitions at a time when literacy itself seems to be dying, when young rock fans often can't (and often aren't required to) read, let alone deal with the complexities of poetry?

The truth is that "American Prayer" sounds more than a bit old-fashioned, faintly reminiscent of beat poetry read in the dark coffee houses of the Fifties. Yet it is a strangely moving, strikingly cohesive, and, above all, entertaining album for reasons that go beyond mere nostalgia....

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Scott Isler

Poetry or not, Morrison's lyrics always worked best via surprise attack; [on An American Prayer] his earnest readings … are sympathetically backed by the impeccable Manzarek, Krieger and Densmore, reunited for this holy purpose. Although he tends to sound like Ken Nordine without a sense of humor, Morrison wades through his imagination beguilingly; not as effective for employing tired poetic devices ("cool jeweled moon") or embarrassing imagery ("Lament for my cock") as when he truly lets down his reserve (a chilling, simulated phone booth confession of murder).

Mixed in with the readings set to music are live recordings as frightening in their way as anything else on the album. It must be...

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Terry Rompers

The Doors' popularity is currently at its highest level since Jim Morrison's demise in July, 1971….

Unfortunately, the fascination with Morrison's self-destruction seems to have overtaken any real passion about the group's music…. It is the music, however, that made the Doors fascinating, not Morrison's leather clothes or petulant eroticism. The Doors were a pioneering West Coast outfit who succeeded in a variety of musical areas, including jazz, blues, pop and protest. An examination of their recorded legacy reveals a lot of promise, some stellar achievements, and a few outright failures. There has never been another group like the Doors; even their vocals/keyboards/guitar/drums line-up is...

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