Written by: Paul Gleason
As I sat in the crowded movie house on Friday, February 23, 1991, I could only focus on the hair—the long, black hair that like a rigid waterfall, tumbled from the dead man’s scalp, just touching the lip of the bathtub. Jim was dead in a psychedelic and angelic red light, which transformed the bathtub into a coffin, the bathroom into a tomb, the corpse into something that had already been delivered into the realms of bliss and bright midnight—the “Other Side” to which the Shaman wanted to “break on through.”
Oliver Stone’s camera focused on Jim’s face—the visage of an Adonis whose bright smile and gleaming eyes were in the process of beholding a grand vision, which embraced his spirit with peace: the utter peace for which his body, in all its ailments, fatigue, disorientations, screams, and songs, had been striving for twenty-seven years, ever since he’d seen that first vision of the spirit of the dying shaman unifying with his own soul on the day of the desert car crash when he was a little boy. Jim’s face was a trace reminder and a trace predictor—a reminder of the beauty of the human body left behind (his prematurely graying beard and hair had somehow disappeared), a predictor of the peaceful illumination that awaits us at the end of our highway to the end of the night.
Take the highway to the end of the night
End of the night, end of the night
Take a journey to the bright midnight
End of the night, end of the night
As Pam grabbed Jim’s body, pulling it from the bathtub-coffin and hugging it close, she altered the scene. Stone was now giving a vision of Michelangelo’s Pieta, complete with the naked Jim as the naked Jesus and his common-law wife as Mother Mary. But, his eyes remaining open and his beatific grin remaining firm, Jim beheld the limitless freedom of the desperate land into which he had entered. He’d left behind Pam, Stone, The Doors, the movie’s audience, and “Jim Morrison.”
Who was he now? Just what aspect of Jim had entered the new land, which was filled with demons and snakes but also illuminations beyond his greatest earthly imaginings? The earthly imaginings that he thought would become earthly realities when he sang “Moonlight Drive” for Ray on Venice Beach in 1965?
The realities were too stark, too transparently vicious, for him to handle during the last six years of his life, four of which were a fire of popularity so immense that the words and melodies couldn’t leave his head fast enough to satisfy his bosses, his fans, the media, and himself.
Jim, like Rimbaud before him, knew that words were a sword in an endless battle with a culture that could care less about poetry, mysticism, wisdom, rhythm, vision, and prophecy. The rebels who were his contemporaries needed a Dionysus, a true Jesus, an actor who could live and die—most importantly die—as the eternal messiah and scapegoat. And Artaud and Nietzsche combined to teach him that his own life and death had to be theatrical in nature, a gloss on what had happened in ancient Greek history, when the audience experienced catharsis and rebirth by becoming a part of the tragedy that took place on the stage.
Forget Dylan and his protest songs. Forget The Beatles and their innocent image, which made the psychedelic into the secure. Forget The Stones and their bad-boy image, which was so calculated that it made their desire for “Satisfaction” passionless and commercial.
Welcome Sophocles and the ancient Greek tragedians, whom Nietzsche and now Jim embraced with the fervor that only true Dionysians can. Welcome improvisation, jazz, The Living Theatre, the loss of control, the master of revels, William Blake, The Theater of Cruelty, John Coltrane’s Ascension, Robert Johnson’s crackly blues, and Rimbaud on the debauchery of his Paris arrival. Welcome peyote trips in desert landscapes that didn’t just exist in his present dreams and songs but also as the spiritual void of his country—a country whose biggest spiritual achievement seemed to him to be a bomb that took away death’s mystery from a planet of souls thrown into existence.
Welcome Ed Sullivan and Jim’s first attempt to give birth to tragedy on the American stage of national television. There he stood like a statue, with an attitude that recalled Michelangelo’s David, poised with rock and sling ready to crush the Goliath of the spirit-deadening forces of corporations, television, Ed Sullivan, and the lifeless masses that were already calling out to him in gigs across the land to sing “Light My Fire”—a song that Robby wrote and that he tried to make more mythic by adding a verse about death to the guitarist’s verse about love.
Jim sang “Light My Fire” on that September night in 1967, easily sliding into the word “higher,” which Sullivan’s people just knew had to be a drug reference, but was really a declaration and reaffirmation of the mystical connection between sex and God (which Blake, Lawrence, and Kerouac had affirmed before Jim). The band was The Doors, after all, and Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell gave Jim, Ray, Robby, and John their collective name.
The camera revealed Jim as a contrapposto pastiche. Surrounded by his bandmates and with a backdrop of dangling brown doors behind him, Jim not only was Michelangelo’s hero but also the leather jacket- and pants-wearing mirror of James Dean, Elvis, and Brando. His flouncy white shirt brought the dark romanticism of Shelley and Byron to America’s living rooms, and, to complete the amalgamation, his hair hung in lanky curls down to his shoulders. His microphone was poised, even before he started singing, like a slingshot that would catapult The Doors’ dangerous message across a land ripped apart by racial strife, Vietnam, and the religious, economic, spiritual, and cosmic gap that would only continue to widen as the years passed and the very nonconformity for which Jim apparently stood became part and parcel of the leveling process at which corporate America fell.
What was real about Jim? But what a futile and useless question to ask, as Jim stands poised, his slingshot of a microphone and weapon of a voice at the ready.
America needed reminders—and pastiche seemed to Jim to be the best way to trudge up memories and create curiosities that he felt the theatrical could only convey. Morrison—on the night of Ed Sullivan—was high theater, and he beamed with invigorating light, at once a part and separate from his bandmates, as they began the song.
The Doors were bringing the history of Romanticism to America in a full-on attack on its values and securities. Jim was transforming the radical politics of Shelley and Byron, as well as the causeless rebellion of Brando, Dean, and Elvis, into an erotic act of terrorism on the psyches of America’s youth, who were gleaned on the, by comparison dope-fueled dreams of Dylan and The Beatles’ consumerist psychedelic revolution.
It was the fall, after all, a time of transition from dark to light, from Apollo to Dionysus, from granny glasses, Pepper, and the Summer of Love, into the darkness of 1968—the year of the killings of MLK, RFK, and forgotten thousands in Vietnam and in racial riots.
Jim’s pastiche argued that Dylan and The Beatles had never touched the fire that had lit the demoniac outbursts of the exiled Byron and the gyrating Elvis. His vigorous body remaining pure potential as he sang—he barely moved out of his David pose—he belted out Robby’s song in a dark yawp that sounded like the guttural fornication of Sinatra’s croon and Robert Johnson’s southern twang. To have called his voice a baritone might have done it tonal justice, but a term taken from the classical tradition didn’t do any justice to the improvisational creaks and hollers that summoned up forces in the body—and forced the American body to recognize that it was a place of spiritual transcendence.
The voice entered American ears in a never-before series of syllables that was pure sex. Jim knew that he was exploiting his forebears in this performance—that he was a man born out of time, a man who should have stomped as a shaman in the ritualistic paces that left footprints, unseen and windswept but indelible, on the floor of the desert landscape. But he used pastiche—and the theater of American television and popular culture—as a springboard for what he hoped to be the real revolution and the real return to a Dionysian reality in which time and space exploded into an eternal fire.
Morrison was on Ed Sullivan to light that fire and demonstrate the primacy of the body in its ignition. The Beatles, at least, knew through their study of Eastern mysticism that this revolution would have to come from within. But they differed with Jim’s guru—Blake—who knew that experience, in all its guises and forms, was a sacred inlet to God. As he sang what turned out to be The Doors’ first and greatest hit—perhaps one of the most misunderstood songs in the history of rock and roll—Jim paraphrased his main man: “Your nakedness is the work of God.” This paraphrase reached an apogee that Pepper and all the prog that followed couldn’t touch. It made a gambit with The Doors’ audience, as Jim metamorphosed into a Dionysus who was willing to become the world’s buffoon and carry out a martyrdom for a people who had lost all sense of the sacred—a people who had the Kennedys and MLK killed, a Woodstock nation that lacked the critical rigor of a Nietzsche or the poetic soul of a Rimbaud, a line of labeled egos that clung too easily to the definitions of “free love,” “New Age,” “the Moral Majority…”
Little did Morrison know that his reading and lifelong preparation would be made meaningless by the same mentality that drove Nietzsche to the asylum and forced Rimbaud to abandon poetry. Unlike his teachers, Jim was something new: a Dionysian rock star who knew that his death would come soon and, crucially, that his martyrdom and life’s work would be misunderstood.
The martyrdom was slow, and it came early. Beautiful, buoyant, and boyish in 1967, Jim was the dashing lad with the endless eyes whom all the teen magazines wanted for their cover. They wanted his long hair and naked chest, not his words. They wanted to strip him of the Byronic shirt that signified his poetic identity for an illiterate audience. They wanted him half-naked, teasing, and pornographic in the stark black-and-white images that Americans could understand.
They weren’t able to comprehend that Jim’s life—his entire being—was made for a stage, a period of life that even he couldn’t fathom. The depth of his martyrdom was disproportionate to the depth of his audiences’ understanding, so that when he performed—or, rather, improvised—he was taken for a drunken fool who refused to sing the hits. Instead, he’d dance like a shaman, hide under stages, improvise poems and lyrics, joke, run, hit the deck, and spring up as if resurrected, his mop of hair gleaming with sweat and his snake-skin boots galloping in the fury of the shamanistic dance.
Jim’s performances and life, however, grew tragic over time, but not “tragic” in any way that mattered. As the girls mooned over his frozen visage and body—ironclad in pop magazines all across the land—and the songs ceased to matter, Morrison’s martyrdom became a tragedy of incomprehension. And therein lay the flaw of Jim’s project—because it was a “project” and not the outpouring of spontaneous life. Like Athena, she who gave her name to Nietzsche’s beloved city, “Jim Morrison” was born from the head of a god. As the booze became more necessary and inconsequential tunes like “Hello, I Love You” and “Touch Me” became the mega-hits that “Not to Touch the Earth,” “The Crystal Ship, “Moonlight Drive,” and “The End” should have been, Jim became a rock god who was the king of a band and money-making machine that he never wanted to lead, the face of a culture industry that worshiped the image of the long-haired, swaggering frontman (the Plants, Jaggers, Daltreys, and Kays that imitated him).
But Jim pushed on, his outlaw mind forming new connections with the fringe groups who found rock and roll too clean to face the death whose sickle was sweeping over the American landscape and the entire globe in a single expanding blob of napalm and fire—a fire that could just as easily lead to holocaust as it could to the eternal. “The President’s corpse in the driver’s car,” he bellowed; “No one here gets out alive,” he shrieked; “What have they done to our fair sister?” he moaned.
The more inspired he became by The Living Theatre, the more he delved into the horrible aesthetic of Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, the more cruelty he exerted on his own body and on his audience. Just as he poured whiskey down his throat and made a clownish mockery of The Doors’ cover of “Whiskey Bar,” he berated his audiences. A raging Zarathustra, he mocked them from on high—a god apart from and above the people, proclaiming a new gospel in endless between-song speeches, which accused the multitude of their servitude to capitalism (the same capitalism in which he found himself, the revolutionary, Byronic poet, suffocating) and scolded them for their continual embrace of the security of god and state that forever removed them from the risk of living.
Jim, now as fiery an orator as any Old Testament could produce, was a biblical-style prophet, no longer the shaman from the desert floors of peyote trances and holy nakedness. He was using the rhetorical fire-and-brimstone of Nixon’s Moral Majority—the very technique of his enemies—to bring about revolution. Gone in the blink of an eye or the closing credits of a family-oriented TV show—Ed Sullivan—was the Dionysian dream. The divine drunkenness and spiritual spontaneity was now addiction and heart disease.
And all Jim wanted to do was sing the blues. The Brando-Dean-Presley-Byron-Shelley-David amalgam fell apart even faster than it seemed to arrive on the wings of the first song that Robby Krieger ever wrote. The magazines were no longer interested in the prematurely aging and bloated man whose band tried and failed to imitate The Beatles on The Soft Parade. They didn’t care about the fat man in the bathroom bellowing out “L.A. Woman” and “The Changeling” in a voice that was so naked it almost hurt.
What they cared about was the celebrity that Morrison had become more as a result of his antics than his words. The New Haven and Miami arrests had manufactured Old Testament Morrison as the real, loony Jim. These antics embedded his image in the American psyche as a zany outlaw, desirous of an anarchic future in which sex, drugs, and rock and roll were the new religion. Anita Bryant was so offended by this image that she led a concert for the Moral Majority at the Orange Bowl in Miami, the same city in which Old Testament Morrison, in his zeal, had allegedly exposed himself and simulated oral copulation on Robby Krieger during a guitar break.
Jim’s heart began to fail. He and Pam scrambled to Paris in a desperate attempt to find the poet in the man whose mission to be the modern Dionysus had failed so utterly that he was misunderstood not only by the media and the American public but also by The Doors themselves. Yes, Ray, Robby, and John had no idea why Jim was leaving the band when they’d made L.A. Woman, their best album since Strange Days. Jim’s blues on that record was just as profound, just as aesthetically compelling and revolutionary, as it was back in the psychedelic days of “You’re Lost Little Girl” and “When the Music’s Over.”
The Doors were jamming, recording live, firing on all cylinders, and recording tunes as groovy as “Love Her Madly” and as foreboding as “Riders on the Storm,” but they failed to recognize that Jim’s soul was no longer there. It was already lingering in the red haze of that bathtub in Paris, about ready to experience the exuberance of the other side, as Pam clutched his waterlogged corpse. The bloat was gone, the smile beatific, and the purification complete.
Jim’s heart had already failed, and he was no longer a rider on the storm.