Showing posts with label Jim Morrison. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jim Morrison. Show all posts

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Down Inside the Gold Mine

For almost forty years, Jim Morrison—memorably christened by Lester Bangs as “Bozo Dionysus” in an article published in 1981—has remained a seductive, if dangerous, teen icon. In order to understand the way Morrison’s artistic reputation has been cultivated and maintained over the years, one need only to acknowledge the role of the mass media. The first step cementing Jim Morrison’s immortality occurred about a decade after his death, at age 27, with Jerry Hopkins’ and Daniel Sugarman’s 1980 biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive, which also served to rekindle interest in the Doors’ music. At about the same time, Francis Ford Coppola used the Doors’ “The End” on the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now (1979), which, combined with the subsequent biography, implied that the Doors, the debacle of Vietnam, and the 1960s were all inextricably linked, in some dark, self-indulgent, and death-worshiping way. The fact is, certain rock stars associated with the so-called Sixties “counterculture,” such as Jimi Hendrix, were not at all opposed to the Vietnam War. Whether Jim Morrison was opposed to the Vietnam War, or cared a jot whether it was happening or not, is a question I cannot answer. I’ve read the biography, and I conclude that he was most interested in his career (although that might have been as a poet and not as a rock god).

A decade later, Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991), while if not precisely about the Doors, served to renew interest in the so-called “Lizard King” for yet another, younger, generation. Despite the fact that Hopkin’s and Sugarman’s biography demonstrated, as Lester Bangs observed, “that Jim Morrison was apparently a nigh compleat asshole from the instant he popped out of the womb until he died in a bathtub in Paris….” (216), Stone’s bio-pic managed to transform Jim Morrison—whose life, suggested Bangs, amounted “to one huge alcoholic exhibitionistic joke” (218)—into the seductive, Romantic image of the self-destructive artist. The Doors is a movie that Hollywood would call “high concept”: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll (& Satanism). The question remains as to why anybody born after 1970 should care in the least about Jim Morrison; to enjoy the music of the Doors is another issue entirely.

Despite my skepticism, the reissue of Oliver Stone’s The Doors this week on Blu-ray Disc (Lionsgate) is yet another indication of the film’s resilience and remarkable durability over the past seventeen years. The question for me, when watching the movie last evening—which looks spectacular in high definition, incidentally—is what it is actually about. What, precisely, is the putative attraction of the film? What's the story? Is it about Jim Morrison, or about the 1960s? Rock ‘n’ roll in the 1960s? Clearly it is not about the Doors as such, as a rock band, although the members of the Doors are featured in it. The movie is clearly about Jim Morrison, but only insofar as he embodies the pagan impulse of the 1960s. In the film’s first extended scene, Morrison is shown as a small boy witnessing an accident involving Native American Indians. We are encouraged to believe that the spirit of an elderly, dying Indian lodged itself, however remarkably or improbably—mystically—in the body of the young white boy who serendipitously witnessed the man’s dying moment. (By the way, I have severe doubts whether the biographical incident, mentioned in the Hopkins and Sugarman biography, ever actually occurred, but that is another issue.) The premise of the film is that Jim Morrison, as an emblem of the turbulent 1960s, is in fact a pagan: not anti-Christian so much as non-Christian. That’s the thesis of the film as I see it: the 60s was a moment of pagan resurgence, of paganism. (From the lyrics to Hair: “This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius.”)

But there’s a problem with this idea: don’t confuse historical processes with individual, idiosyncratic, and perhaps dubious biography. Here’s Lester Bangs:

In a way, Jim Morrison’s life and death could be written off as simply one of the more pathetic episodes in the history of the star system, or that offensive myth we all persist in believing which holds that artists are somehow a race apart and thus entitled to piss on my wife, throw you out the window, smash up the joint, and generally do whatever they want. I’ve seen a lot of this over the years, and what’s most ironic is that it always goes under the assumption that to deny them these outbursts would somehow be curbing their creativity, when the reality, as far as I can see, is that it’s exactly such insane tolerance of another insanity that also contributes to them drying up as artists.... this system is . . . why we’ve seen almost all our rock ‘n’ roll heroes who, unlike Morrison, did manage to survive the Sixties, end up having nothing to say. Just imagine if he was still around today, 37 years old; no way he could still be singing about chaos and revolution. (218-19)

As Slavoj Zizek has observed, in a typical Hollywood film, the film’s historical background most often serves as the excuse for what the film is really about. He says:

In Reds, the October Revolution is the background for the reconciliation of the lovers in a passionate sex act; in Deep Impact, the gigantic wave that inundates the entire east coast of the US is a background for the incestuous reunification of the daughter with her father; in The War of the Worlds, the alien invasion is the background for Tom Cruise to reassert his paternal role....

Employing the same logic, The Doors uses the turbulent 1960s as a background for Val Kilmer to allow the alien soul within him to be reclaimed by the old Indian he witnessed, as a child, to be dying on the edge of the highway. I know that to suggest that this is the actual plot of The Doors sounds ludicrous, but most certainly it is more accurate than to say that The Doors is “about” the 1960s—a discursive site, but not, as portrayed in this movie as in many others—a period of recent "history."

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.