While living in London in the early 90’s, I read an article by Charles Bremner about Jim Morrison’s “50th birthday party” at his grave site. Bremner is still the Paris correspondent for “The Times” of London, at the moment writing about Sarkozy and DSK, as the French call Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Morrison is famously buried in Père Lachaise cemetery, eternal home to the French creative élite and those who die in Paris, like Jim and Oscar Wilde. I am a Doors dévotée myself and lived in Paris from 1969-70, just missing the Lizard King’s fleeting presence in the city from March-July 3, 1971, the day he died, an initiator of the 27 Club. Due to serendipitous timing, both Morrison and I had witnessed the violent Spring awakenings that occurred in the aftermath of the student riots of May, 1968. But I missed him (and still do).
Listening to the revelers who had gathered around Morrison’s last resting place, the journalist Bremner mocked a young worshiper’s claim that Morrison was a god. Yet, this simple faith professed was shared by others. Oliver Stone, for one, superimposed an image of the god Dionysus over Morrison’s face in his film, “The Doors.” In the preface to No One Here Gets Out Alive, Doors’ aide Danny Sugarman termed his boss a “modern-day god.” Drummer John Densmore described Doors’ concerts as “rituals” in his book, Riders on the Storm.
Morrison himself seemed to believe the myth. His darkly divine image was both natural and cultivated. He resembled a Greek god and, according to Sugarman, had his hair styled to look like Alexander the Great. Like many ancient gods, Morrison embodied contradictions: virile, yet feminine-featured; human, yet animalistic in his black leather; frenetically sexual, yet aspiring to die. See videos here and here.
Reading Nietzsche had convinced Morrison of the Dionysian power of music to revive myth. Entranced by his beautiful face, his rebelliously erotic presence, and the primitive strains of his music, the fans agreed, whipping themselves into an ecstatic communal frenzy. Oliver Stone depicted these ever-burgeoning, increasingly chaotic, concert throngs in his film. Clearly, the role Morrison had assigned to himself was devouring him. He must have known that the end of the ritual was the death of the god: the Lizard King must die.
Morrison was not just a singer/songwriter, but a poet as well. Not surprisingly, given my research, since he had been traumatized at age four by the sight of dead Native Americans by the side of the road, victims of a car accident. His words are telling: “Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind,” an apt metaphor for the vulnerability of a young child’s mind. Also, his father was an authoritarian admiral who punished him by “dressing down,” a military-style berating. After his father said he had no talent for music, Jim wrote him off completely.
But there is more to Morrison than the paradigm of the wounded child who becomes a poet. His story has a mythic dimension. According to poet Robert Graves, the origins of all true poetry lie in a mythic devotion to the archetypal White Goddess who torments, inspires and destroys her victim, with immortality as his reward. The 19th-century Romantic poets often intoned their cruel mistress. This revolutionary group was bent on changing both poetry and society through a return to Nature and feminine values, while rejecting paternalistic, old régime authority. The rebellious climate of the 1960’s recycled this trend. Long hair, flowing garb, free love, social and political consciousness, feminism, the exalted inner self and the “back to earth” movement, all heralded the symbolic death of the Father. In psychological terms, in times of crisis there is a return to the Mother, both on a personal and a societal level.
In Morrison’s poetry, reference to wombs, tombs, caves—all maternal symbols—abound. The man who rejected his real mother in life (he had claimed both his parents were dead) valorized the mythic Mother in his poetic symbols: blood, lakes, sacred pools and forests. Assertive sorceresses, queens and goddesses inhabit his poetry. While others see the “Man in the Moon,” Morrison saw a woman’s face—-the Mother.
A product both of his time and his intellectual proclivities, Morrison verbalized his beliefs in his personal mantra, “kill the father, f____ the mother,” as cited in Densmore’s book. This Oedipal formula, according to Graves and Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, actually describes an ancient ritual of matriarchal religion: the murder of the old king by his younger replacement for the overall fertility of the community. By killing the Father, perpetual, authoritarian rule is rejected. Embracing the Mother liberates sexuality and creative self-expression. Breaking on through to the Other Side could be a metaphor for right-hemispheric, poetic consciousness.
It is understandable that Morrison, wearied by charges levied against him, fled to Paris to concentrate on his poetry, not rock stardom. Since his school days, he had been enamored of French writers who had helped construct his identity: Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Cocteau, Céline and the existentialists. He had even modeled his stage presence on Artaud’s theory in Le Théâtre et son double.
Unfortunately, he was already too deeply entrenched in the maw of a myth to forego its tragic conclusion. Although the circumstances of his death are controversial, some claiming a heart attack, others an accidental drug overdose, it is generally agreed that he was found dead in his bathtub. This detail eerily conforms to a mythic theme. As Graves tells us, from the Cretan Sun-god Minos to the Mycenaean Agamemnon to the Celtic hero Llew Llaw, sacred kings often die in their bath, albeit at the hands of an assassin. Morrison’s “assassins” were drugs, alcohol, and an inescapable devotion to a myth. Judging by his world-wide fans (nearly 9,500,000 on Facebook alone), by closing the door on his life, he opened an immortal door, and will continue to entrance generations of music lovers for years to come.