Nick Tosches

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 758

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.

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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] takes its title, Jim Morrison asked, affectedly forsaking any question mark, "Do you know we are ruled by T.V." We might be surprised by the dullness of those words, or by their arrogance, but we aren't surprised that a vanity press published them.

The failings of his boyish poetry don't efface the fact that Morrison was one of the great rockers. He and the Doors, in their four fast years in the public eye, made a music unlike any other, and that music was more often brilliant than not. An American Prayer, like every Doors disc, offers further testimony. Though the new album concentrates on spoken poetry rather than songs, it contains a live version of "Roadhouse Blues" … that, by itself, is a solid enough plinth for rock & roll immortality to rest upon.

An American Prayer also strongly suggests that Jim Morrison might've eventually gotten what he wanted, and deserved it, had he not died at twenty-seven…. (p. 94)

Jim Morrison's obsessions were sex and death, and while he wore the uraeus of those obsessions well and always, he looked upon them as impenetrable enemies lying within. When love and the funeral pyre were sung about in the same breath in the summer of 1967, it seemed a pretty conceit. It seemed less pretty when … it became obvious that Morrison, his figure ever darker and more estranged, wasn't only writing and singing rock & roll songs but was also trying to vanquish his demons and curses by invoking new demons and curses. "I am the Lizard King. I can do anything," he had the strange, young nerve to say and believe. It was mythopoeic, but it was also classic paranoia.

Most of An American Prayer was recorded on Morrison's last birthday, December 8th, 1970. By then, his libido and his death wish were becoming one, entwined and inseparable, and that perverse oneness seemed to enthrall him. (pp. 94, 96)

His most impressive poetic efforts are his thoughts about death. In "An American Prayer," he sees death as "pale & wanton thrillful … like a scaring overfriendly guest you've brought to bed." Toward the end of the poem, with an almost Miltonic metrical precision, he writes: "Death makes angels of us all / & gives us wings."

Suggestions of sexual impotence slither through the record. "I'm surprised you could get it up," a woman ("Vaguely Mexican or Puerto Rican") taunts him in "Stoned Immaculate."…

As death was in his mind, so was murder. Jim Morrison's fantasies encroached on his rock-star reality. At dusk one day, he … called poet Michael McClure…. In his wasted voice, he told McClure that he'd just killed somebody out in the desert: "I don't know how to tell ya, but, ah, I killed somebody. No…. It's no big deal, y'know." Morrison's friend, Frank Lisciandro, who'd worked on the singer's film, Hwy, taped the call, and it's one of An American Prayer's eeriest moments.

It all comes together, or falls apart, in "Stoned Immaculate," the LP's most striking passage. Drunk in a dirty room, with a strange woman and his obsessions, he utters, slowly and simply, all it seems he'd ever really wanted to say:

                  Come 'ere.
                  I love you.
                  Peace on earth.
                  Will you die for me?
                  Eat me.
                  This way.
                  The end.

Looking for once toward life, Jim Morrison says with quiet resolution in "Lament": "Words got me the wound and will get me well." But a few months later, he died. It's a loss. An American Prayer is shot through with youthful, flawed aspirations, yet whenever it touches its tongue to brilliance (which it does for long, sensuous moments on end), it illuminates the meaning of that loss and what might have been. (p. 96)

Nick Tosches, "Jim Morrison: The Late Late Show," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1979; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 283, January 25, 1979, pp. 94, 96.

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