Lester Bangs The Doors

Lester Bangs excerpts and full review of Jim Morrison and the Doors from the book Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste – A Lester Bangs reader
lester bangs the doors

Jim Morrison: Bozo Dionysus a Decade Later

We seem to be in the midst of a full-scale Doors Revival. It had been picking up steam for a while, but when Jerry Hopkins’ and Daniel Sugerman’s biography of Jim Morrison, No One Here Gets Out Alive, became a Number One best-seller last year, all the Doors’ LP product began to move in a big way again. Now there is the inevitable talk of a movie of Morrison’s life, with (shudder) perhaps equally inevitable hints that John Travolta might have the starring role. The first question that would occur ot anyone might be that asked by the first person I told I was doing the article: "Yeah, just why is there this big Doors fanaticism all over again, anyway?" The answer to that is not so hard to find, though in the end it may be questionable just how much it really has to do with the Doors. I’m reminded of the younger brother of an old girlfriend – recently graduated from high school, and still lives with their parents in Detroit, and when she told me he was playing in a rock band and I asked her who his favorite artists were, she said: "His three favorite groups are the Yardbirds, Cream, and the Doors."

        Think about that for a minute. The kid is now entering college. The Doors broke up ten years ago this July–well, okay, Morrison died them, and if you want to call the trio that went on after his death the Doors you can, but nobody else did–and Cream and the Yardbirds have been dead since ’69-’69. Sure all three of them were great groups, but were they all that epochal that somebody who was in elementary school when they scored their greatest triumphs should look back them like this, to be holding on to them after that many years? Yeah, the Beatles were one thing, but Cream?

        Perhaps a more apposite question, though, might be can you imagine being a teenager in the 1980’s 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 in 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. There is a halfheartedness, a tentativeness, and perhaps worst of all a tendency to hide behind irony that is after all perfectly reflective of the time, but doesn’t do much to endear these pretenders to the throne. Sure, given the economic climate alone as well as all the other factors it was a hell of a lot easier to go all-out berserk, yet hold on to whatever principles you had in the Sixties–today’s bands are so eager to get bought up and groomed and sold by the pound it often seems as if even the most popular and colorful barely even exist, let alone stand for anything.

So what did the Doors stand for? Well, if I remember correctly, back in 1968 when I was living in a hippie crash pad in San Diego, California, all my roommates used to have earnest bull sessions far into the night about the “Death Trip” the Doors were supposedly on. Recall this one guy used to sit there all day and night toking on his doob and intoning things like “Genius…is very close to..madness..” instead of doing his homework, and he had a high appreciation of the Doors’ early work. Me, I always kind of wanted Morrison to be better than he actually was, like I wished all his songs could have had the understated power of, say “People Are Strange” (Faces look ugly when you’re alone/Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted…) and, like many, it was only after being disappointed that I could learn to take the true poetry and terror whenever it could be found and develop an ever-increasing appreciation for most of the rest of Morrison’s work as prime Bozo action.

As for the Poet himself, Hopkins’ an Sugerman’s book is primarily interesting for what it apparently inadvertently reveals. In the foreword, on the very first page of the book, Sugerman lets go two sentences which have stopped more than one person of my acquaintance from reading any further: ” I just wanted to say I think Jim Morrison was a modern-day god. Oh hell, at least a lord.”
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It is never revealed whether Hopkins shares this assessment, but the authors then go on for almost four hundred pages, amassing mountains of evidence almost all of which can for most readers point to only once conclusion: that Jim Morrison was apparently a nigh compleat asshole from the instant he popped out of the womb until he died in the bathtub in Paris (if he did indeed die there, they rather gamely leave us with). The first scene in the book takes place in 1955, when Jim was twelve years old, and finds him tobogganing with his younger brohter and sister in the snowcapped mountains outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. According to Hopkins and Sugerman, Jim packed his two moppet siblings afront him in the toboggan so they couldn’t move, got up a frightening head of downhill steam and aimed the three of them straight for the broad side of a log cabin:

        The toboggan was less then twenty yards from the side of the cabin on a certain, horrifying collision course. Anne stared dead ahead, the features of her face numbed by terror. Andy was whimpering.
        The toboggan swept under a hitching rail and five feet from the cabin was stopped by the children’s father. As the children tumbled out of the sled, Anne babbled hysterically about how Jim had pushed them forward and wouldn’t let them escape. Andy continued to cry. Steve and Clara Morrison tried to reassure the younger children.
        Jim stood nearby looking pleased. ” We were just havin’ a good time,” he said.

        Surely an auspicious episode with which to begin recounting the life of a god. But it is only the beginning. Later we will see Jim’s litte brother breathing heavily at night due to chronic tonsillitis and the future Lizard King sealing his mouth with cellophane tape and laughing at his near-suffocation. Or ridiculing a paraplegic. Or, at the age of seventeen, rubbing dogshit in his little brother’s face.

        What the book makes clear is that this sort of thing was no different in kind from later Doors-era antics like covering an entire recording studio (when they first went in to cut “The End”) in chemical fire extinguisher foam, or dragging a cab full of people up to Elektra Records president Jac Holzman’s apartment in the middle of the night, where Jim ripped out massive amounts of carpet and vomited all over the lobby. yet this was the sort of thig that not only the authors but his friends and fans from the Sixties seemed to admire, even encourage. On one level it’s just another case of a culture hero who you may not by now be so surprised to learn you would never have wanted to be around. On another, though, it’s just more Sixties berserkitude of the kind that piddles down to pathetic sights like Iggy Pop walking through a song called “Dog Food” on the Tomorrow show in 1981 and then telling Tom Snyder that he represents the “Dionysian” as opposed to “Apollonian” type o’ performer. But there was a time that was true for both Iggy and Jim, though one must wonder just what the creepily conservative teenagers of these supremely Apollonian times might see in this kind of behavior which if anybody they knew was imitating would probably cause them to immediately call the cops. These kids would feel threatened by any performer who came out today and started acting like Morrison did, so is it only the remove of a decade that allows them to feel safe enjoying his antics? Or is it that, just like they could conceivably march happily off to get shot to pieces in El Salvador or Afghanistan to the tune of “The Unknown Soldier” without perceiving any irony, so they can take the life an death of Jim Morrison as just one more TV show with a great soundtrack? And could it be that they are right? If Jim Morrison cared so little about his life, was so willing to make it amount to one huge alcoholic exhibitionistic joke, why should they or we or anybody finally care, except insofar as the seamy details provide trashy entertainment? Or do they, like Danny Sugerman, take exactly these rantings and pukings as evidence he was a “god” or at least a “lord?”.

        Similarly, in the legendary Miami “cock-flashing” incident, the book reveals that likely all that really happened was he made a fool out of himself, moving entertainingly if not smoothly from “Ain’t nobody gonna love my ass?” to “You’re all a bunch of fuckin’ idiots,” surely an appropriate homage to the Living Theatre’s Paradise Now. When you’re reading all of this stuff, one emotion you may well feel is envy, like I too would like to be able to have a fullblown temper tantrum whenever I pleased, and not only get catered to by everybody around me but called a genius and an artist for letting myself act out in this way. Or actually, any of us who aren’t catered to in this way can count ourselves lucky, because it’s supremely unhealthy. 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. Because how can you finally create anything real or beautiful when you have absolutely zero input from the real world, because everyone around you is catering to and sheltering you? You can’t, and this system is I’d submit 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. there are some people who think that everything he’d been through had finally wrought a kind of hard-won wisdom in him that, had he lived, would have allowed him to mellow into perhaps less of a cultural icon and a better poet. Though there is another school of thought which holds that he’d said it all by the first Doors album, and everything from there on led downhill.

        My response is somewhere in between. I never took Morrison seriously as the Lizard King, but I’m a Doors fan today as I was in 1967; what it came down to fairly early on for me, actually, was accepting the Doors’ limitations and that Morrison would never be so much Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Villon as he was a Bozo Prince. Surely he was one father of New Wave, as transmitted through Iggy and Patti Smith, but they have proven to be in greater or lesser degree Bozos themselves. One thing that can never be denied Morrison is that at his best (as well as perhaps his worst or some of it at any rate) he had style, and as he was at his best as a poet of dread, desire, and psychic dislocation, so he was also at his best as a clown. So it’s no wonder our responses got, and remain, a little confused.
Lester Bangs Jim Morrison and the Doors
        Certainly there are great Bozo moments scattered through the Door’s records: the mock-portentousness of the “Do you remember when we were in Africa?” coda to “Wild Child,” the drunken yowling sermon Yew CAN-NOT pe-TISH-SHON the lo-WARD with PRAY-yer at the beginning of “The Soft Parade”; the whole idea of songs like “Five to One” and “Land Ho,” extending to the rhythmic bounce of the latter. Hopkins and Sugerman point out the line I see the bathroom is clear in “Hyacinth House,” and of course there are many here among us who always thought “The End” was but a joke, not to mention the scream of the butterfly. I recall sitting in anotyher hippie pad, in Berkeley during the Summer of Love, when one night in our dope-smoking circle on the floor we were not at all nonplussed to hear the FM deejay take off “The End” halfway through and bury it with snide comments before returning to his fave rave Frisco group; admittedly there was probably some Frisco vs. L.A. chauvinism at work there, but we laughed right along with him at this “masterpiece.” Finally, the Bozo Classic to end ’em all was probably Absolutely Live, which included such high points as Morrison stopping “When the Music’s Over” to scream at the audience to shut up; the way he said Pritty neat, pritty neat, pritty good, pritty good before “Build Me a Woman,” which begins with the line, I got the poontang blues; the intro to “Close to You”: Ladies and gentlemen…I don’t know if you realize it, but tonight you’re in for a special treat–crowd cheers wildly--No, no, not that, not that…last time it happened grown men were weeping, policemen were turning in their badges…; and, best of all, the (almost certainly improvised) sung intro to “Break on Through #2”: Dead cat in a top hat suckin’ on a young man’s blood/wishin’ that he could come…thinks he can kill and slaughter/thinks he can shoot my daughter…dead cats/dead rat/thinks he’s an aristocrat/that’s crap...–true street poetry indeed. Plus the bonus of a brief reprise of the Petition the Lord with Prayer bit, in which this time he sounds like no one so much as Lenny Bruce doing Oral Roberts in his “Religions, Inc.” routine–listen to ’em and compare.

        In the end, perhaps all the moments like these are his real legacy to us, how he took all the dread and fear and even explosions into seeming freedom of the Sixties and made them first seem even more bizarre, dangerous, and apocalyptic than we already thought they were, then turned everything we were taking so seriously into a big joke midstream. Of course, there are still the other songs too, which will always be starkly poetic in the evocations of one gazing on a city under television skies, perhaps the best conjurings of the L.A. myth in popular song: “End of the Night,” “Moonlight Drive,” “People Are Strange,” “My Eyes Have Seen You,” “Cars Hiss by My Window,” “L.A. Woman,” “Riders on the Storm,” But even in these there are lines, all the “Mr. Mojo Risings,” that give away his own sense of humor about, if not his talents as a poet, certainly his own persona and even the very real way in which he let his pop stardom lead him unto a betrayal of his poetic gifts. And perhaps what we finally conclude is that it’s not really necessary to separate the clown from the poet, that they were in fact inextricably linked, and that even as were were lucky not to have been around any more than our fair share of “Dionysian” infants, so we were lucky to get all the great music on these albums, which is going to set rock’n’roll standards for a long time to come.

                                                                                                Musician, August 1981

Excerpt from “Innocents in Babylon

…Older Rastas from the neighborhood came wandering up to the house, some of them ragged, and I looked at them and then at Tom Hayes, who was wearing a pair of pants that probably cost $50, a Billy Preston T-shirt (I was in my Grand Funk) and a razor cut, and the irony turned to an absurdity so extreme it became a kind of obscenity. It was, at the very least, embarrassing, for me and for these people, and I seriously doubt if for all the talk of brotherhood of Rastafari there is anything beyond that embarrassment which they and I will ever be able to share. What I mean to say is I’ve been on lots of press junkets before, but this was the first one into Darkest Africa. What I meant to say is that a whole bunch of people were flown, all expenses paid, to Jamaica, so that we could look at these people, and go back and write stories which would help sell albums to white middle-class American kids who thinhk it’s romantic to be black and dirt-poor and hungry and illiterate and sick with things you can’t name because you’ve never been to a doctor and sit around all day smoking ganja and beating on bongo drums because you have no other options in life. I know, because I am one of those kids, caught in the contradiction–hell, man, my current favority group is Burning Spear. But I wouldn’t want to organize a press party in that village they come from in those hills they sing about. And not because I don’t want to pollute the “purity” of their culture with Babylon, either–because there is something intrinsically insulting about it…”

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