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In the Court of the Lizard King

I haven’t given the band The Doors much thought in a long time. I’ve always liked their music, but with so much music to listen to, sometimes a band that I really like can completely fall off my radar. Then a few weeks ago, the L.A. punk band X’s cover of “Soul Kitchen” popped up while I was listening to music, and I was reminded of how much I love The Doors and Jim Morrison. Jim Morrison’s dark, desperately poetic voice coupled with the band’s carnival of sounds and rhythms have always made The Doors one of my favorite rock bands. After hearing the X song, I decided to revisit some of my old Doors and X albums. I listened to both bands continuously for a few days, relishing how much they have held up over time and how good the music and the lyrics still sound. I was reminded that Ray Manzarek, keyboardist for The Doors, was also the producer and keyboardist on X’s first record Los Angeles, so playing the two LA based bands together not only makes a lot of sense. Most importantly, listening to these two bands together reminded me how closely aligned to punk The Doors were in their music and their message.

The last time I really gave The Doors much thought was back in 2007 after seeing Control, Anton Corbijn’s film about Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. Watching the movie inspired me to go a Joy Division binge afterwards. I listened to nothing but Joy Division for about two weeks, and hearing Iain Curtis’s deep post-romantic guttural cries coupled with the band’s multi-layered use of synthesizer, bass, and drums reminded me mostly of the sound of The Doors. I noted that Joy Division, and particularly Ian Curtis, seemed to be influenced by The Doors, both in the sound of the music and the stage presence of the lead singer. But then again, both bands have poet-singers who were greatly inspired by French post-romantic poetry, and both were radically “anti-establishment” in their sentiment and attempted to carve a radical alternative psychic and socio-political space through their music. They used music as an outcry against the system but also as a kind of transcendent force. I realized how much The Doors connected to punk music, not just through the connection to Ray Manzarek and his transition to punk via X, but also in the band’s overall philosophy and sound.

Given my revised enthusiasm for The Doors, I decided to watch Tom DiCillo’s documentary When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors. Not only did the film provide a catalyst for my thoughts on the relationship between The Doors and punk, but it also allowed me to learn a lot of things about The Doors that I never knew. I was completely captivated and enthralled by the glut of archival film footage. Old concert performances, interviews, television appearances, studio recordings, and “home movies” of the band at work, at play, and on the road take us back in time and show Jim Morrison in the compressed progression of his rise to rock stardom to his death at age 27 in a bathtub in Paris. His rise and fall was fast, hard, and short (less than five years). Like so many other rock icons who lived fast and died hard (e.g. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain, all of whom died at age 27 just like Morrison), Morrison’s creative output was a combustible and captivating force, like a nuclear bomb full of poetry, music, and the torment of a thousand singing souls. This documentary captures the turbulent mix and all-consuming vision of Morrison’s artistic presence. I have always been seduced by Morrison’s voice and his energy, not seduced by Morrison as sex symbol but seduced by his poetic vision and the obvious fury of his energy, not unlike the way I have always been seduced by Ian Curtis (who died at age 24). Johnny Depp, who narrates the documentary, states: “You can’t burn out if you’re not on fire.” Jim Morrison most definitely was on fire.

Structurally, the documentary follows the linear chronology of The Doors. While it’s not the most interesting structure, there is plenty of fascinating material included in the film to keep us hooked. It’s packed with an amazing amount of archival footage and plenty of interesting material about the band. It starts by introducing us to the band, starting with the young Jim Morrison (who grew up under the reign of his military father), then introducing us to the other band members: keyboardist Ray Manzarek, drummer John Dunsmore, and guitarist Robby Krieger). I always enjoy learning the process behind art – whether music, film, painting or poetry – and how that process creates the message a work of art. On the process level, the information the documentary gives about the background of the musicians is fascinating. It shows us what gave The Doors their unique sound. Krieger was a trained flamenco guitarist, and he always played with bare fingers and never used a pick. His Spanish influence is evident in The Doors’ sound, and it takes the music beyond standard rock and provides a fast-driving urgent rhythm. Dunsmore was a jazz drummer, and he continued to apply jazz technique to the band’s music, punctuating the band’s sound with complex, rapidly shifting tempos and beats. Manzarek was in film school with Morrison, and he brought his love of film/drama to the band and inscribed The Doors with their distinctive carnivalesque sound. Also, the band had no bassist, so Manzarek simulated bass on the lower keyboard while ripping out that dark carnival back-sound on the upper keyboard. Morrison, of course, was a poet first and foremost, and he brought his dark poetic vision to the band’s weighty lyrics. He was also one hell of a stage performer.

The film mostly focuses on Morrison, using the other band members to tell his story, but as the other band members admit, without Jim Morrison, there would be no Doors. Jim Morrison named the band based on William Blake’s poem “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.” Certainly the film shows that impossible marriage at struggle in Jim Morrison. The documentary is framed and organized around a film that Morrison made of himself. He drives through the desert in a black Ford Mustang, wearing his classic black leather pants and a blue tie-dye t-shirt. Seeing the images of him barreling through the blaring sun-bleached road is like witnessing him in the afterlife slicing through the documentary about himself. The film within a film is overexposed, hallucinatory and dreamlike, as Morrison drives through the desert, dives into streams, curls up embryonic on rocks, and stares into the camera like he’s looking into another world. It’s almost like he made the film to leave us with his ghost, knowing that his “end” was coming. It very much serves that purpose in the documentary. In fact, when I saw the first clip, I said to myself, “Wait a minute. How could they film Jim Morrison in the afterlife?”

The documentary also talks about the grueling production sessions under the cracking whip of perfectionist producer Paul Rothchild who made the band perform hundreds of takes on a single song, sometimes taking a year to complete an album. In my recent audio tour through The Doors’ albums, I decided to determine what my favorite Doors songs are (though I like them all). I settled on “L.A. Woman” as my favorite song with “Riders on the Storm” coming in at a close second. Interestingly, both these songs are from The Doors final album L.A. Woman (1971) on which they broke from the confining perfectionist constraints of Paul Rothchild. Instead of working under Rothchild’s musical dictatorship, the band went into the studio and “just played.” Depp says it was like they were “back in the garage, back to the four of them, just playing music.” The band’s musical and creative freedom on this album certainly shows in the power of its songs. The album’s title track “L.A. Woman” is one hell of a rocking ride of a song that drives as fast and hard as Jim Morrison’s black mustang in his desert film footage. A little tidbit of music trivia that comes out in the documentary is that the refrain in “L.A. Woman” – Mr. Mojo Risin’ –,  which Jim Morrison inserted into the song, is an anagram of his name, his way of putting his stamp on the music. It’s not surprising that my two favorite songs from The Doors’ complete oeuvre are from the album where the band had the most autonomy. No longer held captive by the controlling presence of Rothchild, the songs explode in creative freedom and urgency and are propelled rapid fire by the band’s raw drive to make music (laying down multiple songs in one day and producing the album in just a few weeks). Another interesting fact about this album is that it is the first with an actual bass player and includes Jerry Scheff, Elvis Presley’s bassist. (We learn earlier in the film that Morrison was obsessed with Elvis which is clearly obvious in his stage presence.)

The documentary also gives Morrison enthusiasts (or momentary voyeurs) a real eyeful of Morrison in full-throttle performance. It is in these stage moments where Morrison is clearly “breaking through to the other side.” He writhes, flails, leaps, and throws himself on the ground. It’s like he’s channeling some kind of explosive inner force. It is in these moments that I remembered the connection I made between Morrison and Ian Curtis. Morrison was not your typical 60s rock star. There is something in him so desperately nihilistic and so infused with an angry hopeless vision which he tries to cut through with poetry and music that he really is one of the first “punk” musicians. Morrison’s explosive rage coupled with introspective poetic retreat and his role as provocateur to incite the audience into acting out in outrage are much more aligned with punk than other rock bands of Morrison’s time. Though his voice and delivery are informed by the blues, his sentiment, and his stage presence are much closer to punk. Then again, X’s music also rides a blues backbone, so maybe the blues, punk, psychedelic rock and all of rock ‘n roll are mixed together as an outward cry against all that is fucked-up.

Speaking of things that are fucked-up, it is no surprise that Morrison had his battles with drugs, alcohol, and egotism, but this documentary does a really good job of showing that it is not necessarily Jim Morrison who was fucked-up (though he clearly spent the large majority of his adult life high and/or drunk), but the system that is fucked-up. Two of the most effective documentary moments in the film are montages that use historical news footage coupled with The Doors playing their songs. The first one is Morrison belting out “This Is The End” (This is the end/Beautiful friend/This is the end/My only friend, the end/Of our elaborate plans, the end/Of everything that stands, the end/No safety or surprise, the end). Morrison grips his microphone and tears the lyrics from the depth of his gut while the film slices back and forth between headlines from the time: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy assassinated; Charles Manson and his clan going on a murderous rampage; Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin dying; students being shot down at Kent State, and finally an image of Richard Nixon as Johnny Depp states, “and a new president removed all hope for change.” The image of Nixon is utterly damning. It is devastatingly hopeless and so indicative of everything to follow the song, Jim Morrison’s death and all the carnage that has happened since Nixon took office – the conservative stranglehold on the government, the ever-growing war machine, the reign of global capital, the silencing of voices, the censoring of media, and the continuing destruction of everything.

The other profoundly effective montage is of “Riders on the Storm,” where Morrison’s voice and the haunting music of The Doors provides a soundtrack for destruction in Vietnam. Things, villages, people, jungles, and mountainsides explode. These images are intersected with the dark image of Morrison singing, of young American boys riding bikes or playing ball, and of soldiers crying with parts of their bodies blown to bits. All of it is punctuated by giant, apocalyptic, explosive clouds of war bursting across the screen. Certainly these images could as easily be of Afghanistan, Gaza, Kuwait, Kosovo, Somalia or any number of countries. The only thing that has changed since The Doors performed that song in 1971 is that things have gotten worse. More wars. More destruction. Fewer liberties. More censorship.

The censorship question does come up as Morrison’s warrant for public indecency in the infamous Florida concert is discussed in detail. Morrison was accused of showing “his cock” on stage, and in fact, I personally always thought that was the case. But actual documentation of the incident, including that from the police who were present at the concert, indicates that Morrison was just gesturing and pantomiming. He actually never really showed his penis, but his gesture was manipulated by the media machine and used by conservative forces (e.g. Anita Bryant) as a symbol to clamp down on freedom of expression (a clamp that persists to this present day). Conservatives used Morrison as a scapegoat for a whole generation of young people who dared to rebel, and it’s been downhill ever since.

The rise of conservatism and censoring of creative freedom are clearly a conscious part of the movie’s intended message. Not only is the documentary a tribute to The Doors and the visionary artist Jim Morrison, but it is also a lament for the loss of that brief window in history when young people attempted to create a moment of organized liberation and to express their drive to rise against the oppressive powers that are conspiring to bring on “The End.” The movie is a lament for that moment when music was a catalyst for mass change, the brief moment before the Powers-That-Be put the clamp down and creative freedom became relegated to the fringes and the underground. We have never recaptured that moment again. Clearly, Morrison understood how tenuous and ultimately false that moment was, which is why the music of The Doors is so aligned with punk (the new generation of “rock” that would occupy the fringes and the underground). The thing that is clear from the documentary is that Morrison understood that the moment of freedom was only an illusion, that ultimately we have always been and will always be “Riders on the Storm.” How we choose to ride that storm is our decision, but the storm is not going away anytime soon, and it sure in the hell isn’t getting any smaller.

When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors is available on DVD and Netflix streaming.

KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. Her work has appeared in Punk Planet, Berkeley Poetry Review, Bad Subjects, and Bullhorn. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com.

 

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Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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