Thursday, May 15, 2008

Bozo Dionysus

For what perverse reason do “classic rock” radio stations always play the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” whenever it’s raining? I awoke to find it raining here this morning, and sure enough, as I sat down to check my email after having turned on the radio, like clockwork the DJ played “Riders on the Storm.” The song is instantly recognizable, of course: the opening crash of thunder, the tinkling of the keyboard imitating falling raindrops, and, inevitably, the sinister lyric about the “killer on the road” whose “brain is squirmin’ like a toad.” As poetry it is of a badness not to be believed; there is no group in rock history that so insistently challenges the issue of whether musical quality and canonical status go hand in hand as do the Doors.

I can think of no other band of the so-called “classic rock” era so inevitable, and so dubious, as the Doors. Neither could the incomparable Lester Bangs, certainly the wittiest and most iconoclastic of American rock critics. His temperament was such that he couldn’t tolerate the solecism of the rock star, and if ever there were the sort of rock star who excelled at impropriety and obnoxiousness, it was Jim Morrison, characterized by Bangs in an essay published in 1981 as “Bozo Dionysus.” Bangs’ essay, “Jim Morrison: Bozo Dionysus a Decade Later,” was written in response to his having read Jerry Hopkins’ and Danny Sugerman’s Morrison biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive. Having read the book, Bangs concluded that Morrison “was apparently a nigh compleat asshole from the instant he popped out of the womb until he died in the bathtub in Paris....,” as illustrated by incidents such as when he was a kid rubbing dog shit in his little brother’s face, or his later, pathetic, “cock-flashing incident” in Miami in 1969, an action, Bangs observed, that was motivated out of “the same desperation that drives millions of far less celebrated alcoholics.”

What makes the Doors so inevitable as rain? Although he was writing early in 1981 in the context of a Doors resurgence (repeated a decade later with the release of Oliver Stone’s film), I think Lester Bangs is correct when he observes:

... can you imagine being a teenager in the 1980s and having absolutely no culture you could call your own? Because that’s what it finally comes down to, that and the further point which might as well be admitted, that you can deny it all you want but almost none of the groups that have been offered to the public the past few years begin to compare with the best from the Sixties. And this is not just Sixties nostalgia—it’s a simple matter of listening to them side by side and noting the relative lack of passion, expansiveness, and commitment in even the best of today’s groups. (Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, p. 215)

Bangs has a point, and I can provide anecdotal evidence to substantiate it. Several semesters after I started teaching college twenty-seven years ago, I had a student in my class who had the distinction of having been born at the Woodstock festival in 1969—there were two babies born at Woodstock, and he was one of them. (Not that it meant anything to him. His stepfather told me this, not the kid—at the time—to whom I’m referring.) He was a punk rocker with an aggressive, “fuck you” attitude—died hair, safety pins in the ears, the whole apparatus. He dressed like a Hell’s Angel—motorcycle boots, leather pants and jacket, always a black T-shirt with an image or writing on it. The overall effect was comic, however, because of his age—because he was so young, he was a sort of ludicrous pastiche of a Hell’s Angel, especially when he wore a bandanna, and became a sort of Kewpie doll version of a Hell's Angel. He liked to hang out but didn’t have very much money, so he used to get the owner of the record store to play albums for him, and he would pass judgment based on only a couple of listens. He liked the Sex Pistols and the early Clash, and he liked American groups such as The Ramones and Black Flag. Most importantly, he loved Iggy Pop. He didn’t like later Clash albums such as Sandinista! (1980), because while he claimed to be apolitical, he was actually conservative; he didn’t like the Left-leaning, liberal posturing of that album. And he despised Combat Rock (1982), saying the Clash were sell-outs.

He had very little to say about Sixties groups (with the exception of The Stooges, of course), but he did, though, express great love for the music of the Doors. If you stop to think about it, he was growing in his mother’s womb when Jim Morrison drunkenly flashed his flaccid cock on stage in Miami in March 1969; he wasn’t yet two years old when Morrison died. He would have been around eleven years old when Hopkins’ and Sugerman’s Morrison biography was published and became a best-seller. And he would have been twenty-one when Oliver Stone’s The Doors was released, and I’m very sure the depiction of Jim Morrison in that film made a huge impression on him, as it did others of his generation.

Can you imagine being a teenager in the 1980s and having absolutely no culture you could call your own? Lester Bangs asked, rhetorically, and it was absolutely the right question to ask in order to explain why the Doors had a resurgence beginning in the 1980s. To answer the question is to understand why Iggy Pop is so beloved by that same generation of teenagers. “Surely he [Morrison] was one father of New Wave, as transmitted through Iggy and Patti Smith,” Bangs observed, although he goes on to say, “but they have proven to be in greater or lesser degree Bozos themselves” (219).

Why the appellation “Bozo Dionysus”? I think what Bangs is getting at is the disjunction between what Morrison sought to do and what he actually did: “Jim Morrison had not set out, initially, to be a clown,” but that’s what he became when his literary ambitions were frustrated. By the time of infamous flashing event in Miami, he was too drunk on stage to do anything but do something pathetic, which he, sure as rain, did. He had become redundant by the time L. A. Woman was released in 1971 (for some, however, he had nothing left to say after the Doors’ first album) and like many failed poets, found solace in booze. Perhaps he sought to find a literary renewal in Paris, but all he found was more drugs and, inevitably, alcohol.

The irony is that the song for which the Doors perhaps are most famous, “Light My Fire,” was written not by Morrison but by Robby Krieger (unless you count the lyrics, of course), but I think Lester Bangs is right when he claims that the one great song Morrison had in him was “People Are Strange”:

People are strange when you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly when you’re alone
Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted
Streets are uneven when you’re down

The song’s evoking of a subjective disorientation and dislocation was the effect Morrison frequently sought, but seldom achieved; the song happens to be on what seems to me to be the best, as in listenable, Doors album, Strange Days (1967). Later albums, such as The Soft Parade (1969), fail, primarily because the band was by then engaged in self-parody, and no one can do parody any better than the artist does of himself: think of the “When I was back there in seminary school” and “You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!” rant that begins the muddled “The Soft Parade”—self-parody at its best, and therefore an embarrassment for the listener.

I again refer to Lester Bangs, who claimed that, like it or not, Jim Morrison was one of the fathers of contemporary rock. In Lacanian, that is, psychoanalytic terms, his claim can be understood as saying that Morrison's function is that of the objet petit a, the lure around which the drive circulates, the absence around which the rock community explains its history to itself. In other words, if Jim Morrison didn't exist, we would have to invent him.


Tim Lucas said...

Sam, while reading your amusing description of the Woodstock-born kid you had in your class, I couldn't help flashing back on the words of John Sebastian: "Whew! That kid's gonna be far-out!"

Score one for Mr. Sebastian.

Unknown said...

Interesting thesis. I was 17 in 1981 and I had just started listening to everything that The Doors recorded. Yes, there were very few Alternatives, Pink floyd maybe, but Morrison had that angryness and aggressiveness for the Zurich Riots which were the dominant Zeitgeist where I spent my youth. We want the world and we want it ... noooow! Punk was to simple and stupid, Reggae boring and SKA not political enough. And somehow it hasn't changed much since 1981, or has it?