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Review-a-Day
Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, February 13th, 2005


 

Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend

by Stephen Davis

Rider on the storm

A review by Mark Kidel

Jim Morrison, poet and rock star, died in a bath in 1971, probably of a heroin overdose. His tragic and sordid death, imagined by some as a kind of self-sacrifice, has granted him heroic status and a perversely saintly aura. He may not have died for our sins, but his wild career still stands as a seductive memorial to bohemian rebellion and excess. How many other rock musicians have been inspired by Celine, Nietzsche, Canetti, Artaud and the Living Theater? Morrison may not have been unique in taking Rimbaud as a model, but he took the theory and practice of a "dereglement de tous les sens" further than almost anyone else. While the Beatles were above all sublime entertainers, and the Rolling Stones superlative poseurs -- both bands distinguished by their ability at make-believe -- Jim Morrison devoted himself wholeheartedly to public self-immolation.

Chronicles of self-destruction are often an uncomfortable mixture of facile psychology, prurient rumour and supposition, and the author's inevitable infatuation with his subject. In Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend, Stephen Davis thankfully avoids cod-Freudian interpretations of Jim's very real Oedipal obsessions. But Morrison's substance (mostly alcohol) abuse inevitably gets the better of his biographer, and Davis is inclined to torrents of adjectives and sub-clauses, as if possessed: he writes of Morrison "fasting, tripping, living alone in shamanistic isolation, shedding his reptilian skins of outdated mentalities, peeping in windows, jerking off, writing and rewriting the lyrics for the rock and roll show he was writing in his head . . .".

Baroque new journalese can be tiresome, but Davis generally writes well, ably charting Morrison's discovery of a psychedelic culture that allowed him to escape from the narrow confines of a naval household (his father was a rear admiral in the US Navy). He is also a reliable guide to the chaotic story of the Doors -- an often inspired band of musicians who allowed Morrison to flourish as poet and stage performer, and who coped with the unpredictability of his moods and his slow, painful suicide by over-consumption. Davis's account of Morrison's last weeks in Paris, enriched by interviews with some of the key players, including the film director Agnes Varda, poignantly conveys the tragic quality of a lonely and vulnerable man's last attempt to achieve inner peace.

We get a good sense of other supporting characters, too, including the fawning Andy Warhol, the besotted Nico, the long-suffering producer Paul Rothchild, the decadent heroin supplier Jean de Breteuil, and, throughout most of the drama, Morrison's charismatic and beautiful lover Pamela Courson, a slave to hard drugs, with whom the singer had a complex and fiery relationship: "Jim . . . preferred anal intercourse, while Pamela, who was tiny and rail-thin was less than thrilled . . .". Davis assumes that his readers will enjoy tales of Morrison's sexual addiction -- the eventually tiresome antics of a bisexual serial seducer and self-advertised "Backdoor Man" -- but Morrison the musician and poet remains somewhat inscrutable, as if obscured by a catalogue of misdeeds.

The Doors at their best created a new music that combined the threat of Kurt Weill's "Alabama Song" with the political comment of "The Unknown Soldier", the Oedipal drama of "The End" and the sexual innuendo of Willie Dixon's Chicago blues. Four sold-out shows in March 1968 at New York's temple of rock, the Fillmore East, marked the zenith of the band's stage career: Morrison "executed a flying leap over the drum kit, and landed in front of the mike, screaming on cue . . . a bit later he arched his back and let out an agonized shriek, as if he had been electrocuted". At their worst, they were reduced to banality by Morrison's self-indulgence and inherent instability. Towards the end, he saw himself as a poet --- of the post-Beat visionary kind -- rather than as a musician. The evidence suggests that he needed the riot-inducing force of performance to make the most of his slightly portentous lyrics. Hard as the road and stage may have been, he did not survive long without them.

Rock stars have been self-destructing for several decades now, and we seem no closer to understanding why. There is as yet no illuminating study (or single biography) which unites the complex strands that seem to have contributed to the deaths of Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Ian Curtis, Richie Edwards, Kurt Cobain and others. Morrison's case ought to provide some clues: he was probably the first to take on the role of rock shaman consciously -- although without the support of tradition, training and community which prevents classic shamanism from degenerating from a sophisticated technique of communal healing into self-destruction. The wearing of masks and complex rituals of self protection are just some of the ways in which traditional technicians of the sacred keep grounded while taking flight. Morrison, disciple of the Living Theater, who offered audiences "Paradise Now", exposed his soul on stage. This almost innocent vulnerability has made him a legend, but it was also a part of what eventually destroyed him.

Mark Kidel is a filmmaker whose subjects have included the video artist Bill Viola, the pianist Alfred Brendel and Paris's bordellos.



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