The biography of Jim Morrison
The Doors’s debut album was among the first CDs sent by my uncle in my correspondence course on classic rock. Being an impressionable young thing at the time (oh, it was all of three years ago), I was struck by the face on the cover: the brooding stare from under lowered lids and the tumbled mass of dark hair. And the music wasn’t half bad either, with its weird lyrics and dreamy rhythms: in fact, the album swiftly became one of my favourites. But I never paid much attention to the band themselves. When I went to Paris with my parents back in 2004, before I’d really heard of the Doors, we went to Père Lachaise; but, while Mum sought out Jim Morrison’s grave, I homed in on Oscar Wilde’s. And then, a few weeks ago, someone gave this biography to our village fete book stall. I decided it was time to learn a little more.
To be a poet entailed more than writing poems. It demanded a commitment to live, and die, with great style and even greater sadness; to wake each morning with the fever raging and know it would never be extinguished except by death, yet to be convinced that this suffering carried a unique reward.
The book was first published in 1980 and its authors are respectively a rock writer and a personal friend of Morrison’s, so its credentials are pretty good. As a child of the mid-’80s who missed out on all the fun of the late ’60s and early ’70s, I thought it gave a rich flavour of the times: the drugs, the controversy, the radicalism and, perhaps most surprisingly, the incredible innocence. But there are drawbacks. This is not the kind of moderate, arm’s length, balanced biography that I’m used to. It verges on hagiography.
‘My personal belief‘, notes Sugerman in his foreword, ‘is that Jim Morrison was a god… Oh hell, at least a lord‘. His poetry, lyrics and artistic vision are handled with awe. There is no question of their worth or significance, and anyone who dares question their brilliance is implicitly dismissed as insufficiently smart, creative or ‘hip‘. It all feels very dated now, the hippyish slang and the worldview where witches, shamans and the transcendence of reality are taken for granted. In a more secular, more cynical age it feels over-earnest and naive, but it’s the philosophy of the time rather than the book that has that effect. What struck me most about the biography itself were the feverish descriptions of Morrison’s personal appearance. Some felt as though they were lifted from a romance novel:
[He] flexed his lithe but muscular arms and chest, marbling the muscles of his stomach, bunching those of his neck. With his wavy dark hair and sunken cheeks he looked like David come to Hollywood, a fist in a glove of black kid.
Wow. The writing isn’t necessarily bad, but it feels as if it’s ended up in the wrong kind of book. This is pretty typical of the whole: we are given character descriptions and scenes as if we’re reading a novel about Morrison’s life rather than a factual account. Given the slightest chance, the prose bubbles over into exuberance. For example, Morrison’s college friend Felix Venable is ‘the fourth arch-kook of the Golden Age, a loquacious, blond Mephistopheles‘. And the authors describe Morrison in the early days of the band: ‘In dark chino pants and T-shirt, hair curling to his collarbone, an unshaven Botticelli face, he lurked around the kinetic flash and shadow of the Whiskey a Go Go dance floor‘. It’s all slightly mad. But, despite myself, I rather liked it. And it certainly kept me reading.
If I read a biography I don’t have to find the subject sympathetic or likeable in order to enjoy it: indeed, often the most interesting people have something of the night about them. But the thing that stops this being a truly great biography is that the authors are too close to their subject. They’re still entranced by the Morrison myth, without seeming to realise that they’re describing events which show their Byronic hero being unpleasant, misogynistic, self-centred and breathtakingly crass. His behaviour to the women in his life seems to have been particularly reprehensible. But the authors rationalise this behaviour to themselves as the evidence of inner tortured genius, and they apparently expect the reader to do the same. Unfortunately I couldn’t get past seeing it as evidence of a petulant, childish spirit, always desperate to get attention by fair means or foul, deeply needful of a reaction from the outside world. As time went on, he needed that more and more, just as he needed more and more alcohol to prop up his facade. I was extremely surprised that the authors felt able to conclude on a positive note:
I believe Jim’s trip was about life. Not temporary life but eternal bliss. If he had to kill himself to get there, or even to get a mite closer to his destination, that was all right. If there was any sadness at the end of Jim’s life, it was the grief of instinctive, mortal clinging. But as a lord, as a visionary, he knew better.
Really? In a way, this closing note troubled me more than the rest of the book. Where was any evidence of this vision or lordship? To explain away a tragic, isolated death as the culmination of some kind of shamanistic seeking made me feel rather uncomfortable, and I fully confess that’s because I can’t quite get my head around the spirit of the time, with my more detached, more cynical millennial attitude. Since this book was published, we’ve seen other young people follow in Jim Morrison’s path: young people with talent who found a way into a permissive world which not only welcomed their talent but also offered them the potential for self-abuse and then turned the spotlight mercilessly on them until – intentionally or not – they found a way out. Seen in the light of Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison seems less like a visionary lord, and more like another tragic young man.
Overall, this is an absorbing glimpse of the world of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and the authors’ passion for their subject gives the book an immediacy and verve that are rare in more staid, conventional biographies. Morrison was obviously an extremely charismatic man who had a great impact on those around him, and it’s difficult to appreciate the force of his personality without having lived through the period. From an outsider’s point of view, and from what I’ve seen of his poetry, he seems slightly overrated (I’ve got The Lords and the New Creatures somewhere in my library), but I certainly enjoyed reading this. It was fun – perhaps not quite in the way it intended to be – and it infused a little bit of ’70s colour into my grey ’00s world.
More than ever, I find myself wondering: What were my parents getting up to at this date? Mum? Dad? Over to you.