The life and work of Jim Morrison, since his death, has been subject to much scrutiny. He has found little favour in showing himself, as he hoped, as a serious artist, despite a loyal and close-knit fan base. I've found sympathy for the call of Morrison, “to break on through,” and these feelings intensified two years ago, just after 3 July 2004, the 33rd anniversary of his death.
The following is a look at the message of Jim Morrison, given the changes in his image, which have occurred over time. Throughout the stages of his short, but remarkable life, he varied his appearance, music and stage persona to increase the effectiveness of his message, that is, for his followers to awaken from their unconsciousness. My aim, here, is to foster a greater appreciation of Morrison, both as an artist and as a man; both in line with what he sought.
The name, “The Doors,” comes from a line of a William Blake poem. “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything then would appear to man as it truly is, infinite.” Many have questioned how Morrison presented himself and his music, but one can’t deny his willingness to wear, in the words of the 19th century philosopher, Nietzsche, the mask of the clown, or that the mask testified to his commitment to shatter the glass of false perception, to awaken the ‘sleeping city.’
The sacrifices Morrison made throughout his life confirm his embrace of this ethos. The greatest sacrifice he made, it seems, was the ruin and rejection of his rock star persona and to live a life of self–imposed exile in Paris, where he went to write and to die. How Morrison did what he had to do reflected his mentor, the poet Arthur Rimbaud. Rimbaud travelled the same lonely path of isolated darkness, as did Morrison. Like Rimbaud, Morrison “accepted the belief that the driving force behind the authentic artist is his self-isolation and even his self-immolation.” This was his understanding: there was no retreating from the flight of the artist, even though each new flight became more dangerous than the previous. A poet surrenders him or her self, he or she is the channel or medium through which civilizations experience the ‘other side.’
The lasting influence of “The Doors,” their music and lyrics, marks a distinct era in the history of American music and poetry. The music of “The Doors” is an anthem of the jubilations and the torments of the young. The message is the need for personal freedom, which this generation craved and every generation must.
“Jim drank and yelled and pleaded, cajoled and danced in inspiration to unite the band, to ignite the audience, to set the night on fire, once and for all, forever,” said Danny Sugerman. Sugerman hung with the band from the beginning, wrote a biography of “The Doors” and, in a phrase, was their biggest fan. Sugerman decided Morrison channeled his negative emotions and energies as a way to speak about the conflicts and apprehensions of those who mesmerized by his call. Arnold Wolf supports Sugerman, noting Morrison was unique to his generation, but not history. “Equally, each culture ‘must find ways of publicly and collectively expressing [efforts] at resolving’ the conflicts or ‘contradictions,’ that concern its members, spark their deepest anxieties, and threaten to rend their culture asunder.” Jim felt these apprehensions more than most. Given his public persona, he felt compelled to serve as a social scapegoat, a modern-day crucifixion for the blindness of a ‘sleeping city.’
Wallace Fowlie, of Duke University, gives much credit to the body of work and the life of Jim Morrison. Fowlie was the first to see parallels between Morrison and Rimbaud. Arguably, Morrison, although bad boy and rocker, set in motion an exchange of ideas, which continues unabated nearly 35 years after his death.
Steven Tyler, of “Aerosmith,” and an unofficial heir of Morrison, echoes the observation. In “Living on the Edge,” Tyler writes that, “Something’s right with the world today and everybody thinks it’s wrong.” The affect of the messages seems small, but hope lingers as does the sense of Jim Morrison.
Morrison thought of himself as a serious poet, not merely a rocker. Pretentious, perhaps, but poet is an apt label for a worthy artist. If there’s something critics agree on, it’s that Jim Morrison was worthy.
Rimbaud was likely the greatest influence on Morrison. The sentiments of Rimbaud and Morrison converge. Fowlie sees Morrison reflected in a poem by Rimbaud, “Le Bateau Ivre.” “The world [to Morrison and Rimbaud],” says Fowlie, “is both our fortune and our peril. To realize, fully, the voyages, which a boy’s imagination invents, would [be] the realization of a failure; … this is the moral meaning of the poet, whose final scene is not a triumphant vision, but a humble and pathetic scene of reality: the sea becomes a puddle, the boat becomes a paper boat as frail as a butterfly, intoxication becomes sadness.”
The message of Morrison was an overwhelming force in the music, poetry, and, most importantly, the life of Morrison as an individual. The death of a poet was an eerie silence and one seldom heard. As Jim said, “I want to hear the scream of the butterfly.” A poet places no limits and assigns no destination for that would go against their reason d’etre. Loneliness is in life and in death also. At the end of a long line of accomplishments, where most men would be at their greatest, the poet condemns himself to that of an eternal wanderer, in the words of Morrison, “[A] hitchhiker . . . by the side of the road."
Morrison believed, hoped, he failed. This was consistent with his self-image of a poet. Death denied him the chance for wild success, he would say, in many ways and on many levels.
Morrison was trying to tell us that, in life, no destination exist. To paraphrase Tyler, life’s a journey, not a destination. Death is arrival.
This may seem a cathartic relief, but should be the realization that our work is never-ending. There’s always another ‘door’ to open. Perhaps, the only answer life yields is that knowledge is infinite and, in itself, a salvation. As Morrison, says, ‘the blue bus is calling us.’ What we search for is, and always has been, right there.
Click here to read about why the Morrison legacy persists and continues to grow, thorough the world.
Jeff Black. (2005). “Take 3: Our Generation, Our Life. The ‘60s Kids, Part 1 & 2: Say you want a revolution?” See MSNBC web, msnbc.com/modules/take3/nov/default.htm
John Densmore (1990) “Riders on the storm,” published by Delacorte Press.
Wallace Fowlie (1993) “Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: the rebel as poet,” published by Duke University Press.
Jack Kerouac (1957) “On the road, published by Penguin Books.
Katie Riddell (2006), "Icon Jim + Time." grubstreet.ca
James Riordan & Jerry Prochnicky (1991) “Break on through: the life and death of Jim Morrison,” published by William Morrow.
Danny Sugerman. (1995), “No one here gets out alive,” published by Warner Books.
Arnold Wolfe (1999) “Notes on the enduring popularity of a signature ‘The Doors’ song,” published in the Journal of Communication Inquiry. See Volume 23, number one: pp. 37-67 for January.
Kathleen Riddell is a doctoral candidate at the University of Waterloo. Her research focus is pop culture, especially how Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon are commonly spoken and thought of in religious terms.
Click above to tell a friend about this article.