Jim Morrison was obsessed with the dark side; this obsession contributed to some great music and to his early demise. Jim Morrison’s exploration of the dark side was his excuse for a life of almost incomprehensible dissipation. There is power and beauty in the dark side. The question is: Are the revelations worth the consequences?
If one subscribes to traditional religious values, such as those of the Christian, Jewish or Islamic faiths, the answer is clearly no. The conflicts that bedeviled Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley were conflicts of those steeped in the Christian tradition, yet drawn to the liberation of the dark side. This conflict killed Elvis and drove Little Richard and Jerry Lee to drastic artistic and personality flip-flops.
Jim Morrison renounced the strictures of religious morality entirely. Not that Morrison didn’t have conflicts: a person who drinks himself to death at age 27 is running from more than the confines of Christian ethics. But Morrison was an artist and he took his exploration of the forbidden seriously. This is evident from the pretention of his most ambitious projects, including poems like “The Celebration of the Lizard.”
Morrison’s poetic sorties were not successful because they were not conducted in his primary voice of artistic expression: the rock ‘n’ roll song. Morrison’s soulmates Baudelaire and Rimbaud were steeped in the poetic tradition, and expression in it came naturally to them. Morrison’s poetic expressions sound amateurish, stunted, stilted and self-parodic in comparison with his song lyrics. Morrison played at poetry, but he expressed himself through his music.
“Roadhouse Blues” is the Doors at their most bluesy and raunchy, and the closest thing they have to a dance song. The song kicks off with a dirty blues-rock guitar riff, and is soon joined by Ray Manzarek’s boogie woogie piano and Morrison’s bluesy harmonica. Morrison sings at his most spirited and full throated. This is logical because “Roadhouse” is an ode to Morrison’s best friend: alcohol.
Morrison’s first task is to reach the Roadhouse. He must arrive safely before he can indulge in his passion:
“Keep your eyes on the road
Your hands upon the wheel
Keep your eyes on the road
Your hands upon the wheel
Yeah, we’re going to the Roadhouse
We’re gonna have areal – good time.”
Morrison isn’t giving himself driving tips because he fears for his life. He’s giving himself driving tips so that he can get to the Roadhouse to avoid his life. The Roadhouse is the headquarters of the Party, the place where reality has its weakest grip.
Within the Roadhouse the only rules that count are the rules of the Party: put as much distance as possible between reality and yourself. The irony would be just too cruel were you to die ON THE WAY to the Roadhouse: on the way to the place where you become someone else. It is much more proper to die after you leave the Roadhouse.
“Yeah, back of the Roadhouse
They’ve got some bungalows
Yeah, now back of the Roadhouse
They’ve got some bungalows
And that’s for the people
Who like to go down slow.”
The attempt here is to turn the Roadhouse into a way of life, and not just a place to drink. At the Roadhouse, you can drink to your heart’s content and not have to worry about driving afterward. If you want to “go down slow,” the bungalows are for you. But these thoughts are secondary, the Party is primary. Everything and everyone derives its relevance from how they relate to the Party. The Party appears as technicolor excitement – real life appears as monochromatic tedium.
“Roadhouse Blues” is an alcoholic’s hymn, and Morrison sings it as such. Morrison’s voicing of “Let it roll, baby, roll,” in the chorus, nearly explodes out of his face. After a musical and scat singing interlude, the passion returns. Morrison rouses himself out of his beery reverie.
“Save our city!
Save our city,
Ah right now.”
Morrison feels a threat from the outside. His city of the Roadhouse is always under siege from the sham forces of morality: those who would deprive him of his freedom to escape, those who would force his attention upon reality. They must be thwarted! We must be allowed the freedom to self-destruct. This is our inalienable right.
“I woke up this morning
And got myself a beer
I woke up this morning
And got myself a beer
The future’s uncertain
And the end is always near.”
This verse is the greatest celebration of the self-destructive glory of the intellect over common sense and traditional values in the history of pop music. Rationalization is a tricky and treacherous path around the steep and unyielding mountain of the instinct to self-preservation. Great efforts of the mind are required to rationalize actions that are obviously contrary to fundamental biological imperatives. Only man, with his big gray brain, can choose to live his life so contrary to instinct. There is a frisson that accompanies this realization. Only man can appreciate his own cleverness and self-deception.
So Jim and the boys go to the Roadhouse – they have a real good time. They eventually pass out in the bungalows with some honky tonk angels. What does a real man do the next morning? Does he feel regret and think, “I can’t go on like this, I’m killing myself”? Hell no – wouldn’t be manly. Jim strove to be nothing if not manly. The real man gets up and pounds back a cold one to take the edge off. “You know what the best cure for a hangover is? Well? Do ya? Huh, huh, stay drunk!”
There is no morning after if the night never ends, so get up and get right back into it. Once Big Jim has that first one, it’s all over, the rest of the day is spoken for. It’s all so easy when the day slips by in a haze. As another genius/substance abuser, Lowell George, confided, “It’s so easy to slip, It’s so easy to fall, And let your memory slip into nothing at all.”
“I pay people to take care of me. I’ve earned it. I’m a great man. I don’t have to face up to the fact that I can’t face up to the facts. I can provide a perfectly plausible explanation for my behavior that makes it all sound noble. Chasing my muse and all – I love it. People like little Danny Sugerman suck this stuff up. They don’t realize that I’m just another drunk,” muses Morrison in his bathtub, cocktail in one hand, joint in the other.
But Morrison was rarely this circumspect. He mostly bought his own bunk, though it took ever-increasing quantities of chemicals to keep the belief up. He who seeks to deceive, deceives himself most of all. That is why “Roadhouse Blues” is such a classic: the self deception is so cheerful and clever and bold. Morrison reveled in exposing his clever self-deception to the world. He was an exhibitionist, after all.
Logically, it doesn’t necessarily follow that an approaching apocalypse justifies wanton hedonism. The existentialists believed quite the opposite. They felt that the absurdity of life and the nonexistence of God gave man the freedom and the moral imperative to establish his own humanistic values and to follow them scrupulously. This is the existentialist meaning of life.
Jim Morrison was not an existentialist. “Roadhouse Blues” implies “Life is absurd. There is no God. The end is always just around the corner. Therefore, have a beer – in fact, have several. My advice to you is to start drinking heavily.”
The song concludes with a final,
“Roll, baby, roll
Roll, baby, roll
Roll, baby, roll
All night long.”
This is what is important: continuation of the Party, all night long and the night never ends. As long as the night doesn’t end we don’t have to face up to any of this, and that is about as serious as it gets.
“Wine knows how to decorate the Evil Houses
With a luxury miraculous,
And to make surge from a sunset fabulous
The red gold, where the hot sun drowses
Before he falls into the ocean perilous.” (Baudelaire, The Poison)
While “Roadhouse Blues is a love song to alcohol and the Party, “Riders on the Storm” is a love song to the dark side itself, as personified by Baudelaire’s “ocean perilous.” The sea is mother and the sea is death. The sea is a metaphor for the collective subconscious. The sea is the intimate womb and the vast unknown.
Boundaries are inherently fascinating, and the beach is the boundary between th land and the sea. Jim Morrison was fascinated with boundaries: the boundaries between good and bad taste, between art and the dark side, between life and death. How far can you go in and still come back out?
Biographer and sycophant Danny Sugerman claims that Morrison’s muse lured him into his life of debauchery, and finally so far into the darkness that he could not return. Sugerman believes that a great artist must follow his muse wherever it may lead.
Whatever truth this concept may hold is expressed elegantly in “Riders in the Storm,” which is among the most intensely atmospheric songs in the pop music canon.
“Riders” opens with an undertow bassline borrowed from the surf instrumental classic “Pipeline,” overlaid with a sophisticated electric piano from Manzarek. Reverbed surf guitar adds to the misty atmosphere and underpins the rhythm. Storm sounds wash through, and distant thunder reverberates under the song’s insistent pulse. Producer Bruce Botnick’s seamless mesh of natural and musical sounds evokes the ever changing voice of the sea – a voice that changes from pain, to anger, to patience, to persistence. In the end, the sea outwaits us all.
Morrison sings “Riders” with the preternaturally calm voice of the doomed. The sea is a void that will eventually suck him in:
“Riders on the storm
Riders on the storm
Into this house we’re born
Into this world were thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor all alone
Riders on the storm.”
In the literal sense, the “riders” are probably white caps, like “Nights in White Satin” are probably clouds; but symbolically, we are all riders on the storm, we are all creatures of circumstance. The peculiarities of biology, chemistry and physics that place us here, now, are hopelessly random. This ramdomness annoyed Morrison and led to his rejection of God.
We are actors in an incoherent and unpredictable play. We don’t know how to support each other because we don’t know each other’s roles. We don’t even know our own role, we must create it as we go. There are no Best Supporting Actors and Acresses in real life because we are the only actor in our own lives.
“There’s a killer on the road
His brain is squirming like a toad
Take a long holiday
Let your children play
If you give this man a ride
Sweet memory will die
Killer on the road.”
Not only is existence random and arbitrary, it is also dangerous and violent. There is no end to the treachery. There are those who can’t tolerate the uncertainty of existence. Death is the only certainty, so these people create death to create certainty. Death appeases the void for a while, but soon the sucking, restless noises of the void set the killer’s brain to vibrating again. The vibrating turns to squirming, the squirming becomes so violent that it threatens the killer’s skull. He kills again.
Morrison can see to the center of the killer’s soul. He feels a disconcerting empathy with the killer. In an attack of conscience he warns us, “Be aware of these people. They are more common than you think. Don’t pick up strangers. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t even glance at strangers. You can’t be too careful.”
“Girl, you gotta love your man
Girl, you gotta love your man
Take him by the hand
Make him understand
The world on you depends
So life don’t ever end
Gotta love your man.”
Morrison, the sexist scum, was also a great artist. He could see all the way through: “Men are hopeless. They are concerned only with the production of misery. Women must envelope men within themselves to shield them from the world, and the world from them. Women give life. Women have the patience of the sea. Women are the sea. If man listens to the voice of the sea, he can hear the order and beauty of life as well as the void. Only women can prevent man from destroying himself. This is the woman’s burden.”
Even as Morrison sensed that his own death was imminent, he felt compelled to encourage the perpetuation of life. “Where there is life, there is hope. When one life ends another appears to replace it. Do as I say, not as I do. Beware the dark side. Remain in light.”
The Best of the Doors, a double-disc collection, neatly sums the band up while avoiding the crap. Only reservation: no “Soul Kitchen.”