This July marks the 40th anniversary of the passing of Jim Morrison, lead singer of the rock band The Doors during the 1960s. He was, and still is an immensely polarizing figure in American rock history. Whether he was indeed a drunken degenerate or an otherworldly, existential poet, it is undeniable that he is one of the most infamous frontmen that our country has ever seen. His stage presence was, to say the least, hit-or-miss depending on his level of sobriety, but the masses flocked to his performances throughout most of his short career. Whether his appeal stemmed from an admiration of his talent and artistic ability, sheer curiosity, or the ever-present potential for disaster, it is undoubtedly clear that predictability was not in this man’s arsenal. There was no middle ground with Morrison, but rather he reveled in the extremes. According to biographer Stephen Davis, Mick Jagger even visited The Doors’ singer before his performance at the Hollywood Bowl in 1968. As rock was continuing to expand its audience, Jagger was concerned with how to adapt his stage presence to an arena crowd, and turned to the young up-and-comer known for his exhilarating performances.
With a debauchery and a penchant for wild shows that were unprecedented even for the rock world, one has to wonder what exactly motivated the self-proclaimed Lizard King to constantly destroy himself night after night. Was he using substances in an attempt to gain a greater existential understanding, and to allow himself the energy and impulsiveness to convey this understanding through his stage performance? Or was this abusiveness out of a far more personal, psychological issue that did not have any artistic motive? Towards the end of his career (and life for that matter), Morrison was a full-on addict, using alcohol and substances not merely for his stage performance and music but out of need for survival. His sense of his own mortality weighed heavy on him, and he was obsessed with the idea of death. Jim felt emotionally alienated from the world that he lived in and might have used drugs as an escape, or maybe he consumed them because he was simply bored and disgusted with his existence and his career path. Throughout his stint in the music world, he had always wrestled with the idea of being a rock star, for his dream was always to be a poet.
A poet? Many critics, both past and present, would scoff at the notion. Detractors of his lyricism would call his poetry simple and unrefined. Yet there are those who see a genius in his lyrics, who see his words as a portrayal of emotional expression and an understanding of the world through the mind of a child. Despite the racy subject matter at times, there seems to be an innocence and an underlying, deeper yearning in his words. Morrison conveys these dark emotions, desires and the world around him in the most innocent, childlike manner possible. Hence his straightforward, blunt retelling of the Oedipus tale in “The End,” or even the way in which he vocalized all of his lyrics for that matter. He did not, by any means, have the most talented of voices, nor was he able to hit every pitch and note. But take a listen to the world’s first introduction of the band, “Break on Through (To the Other Side).” There is a raw emotion in his vocal delivery, a brazen fearlessness that made the listener feel both threatened and empowered. His voice followed no methods or technicalities, but it instead changed tone, volume or pitch solely on the emotion that Jim was feeling with every lyric and note.
The emotionally raw, sometimes shockingly dark lyricism, vocal delivery and music have inspired countless musicians long after the frontman’s death. Amidst the hippie movement that was taking the rock world by storm, here was a man and a band exploring themes of violence and death, and tapping in to the dark depths of human existence. It ultimately proved that music did not need to be cheerful or hide its bleak subject matter in order to be successful in the mainstream. Morrison and company also upped the ante of what a rock performance was, making it an unpredictable, interactive spectacle that brought the music into an entirely different perspective.
In all this discussion of legacy and his place in the history of music, it is easy to forget that this man was simply human, no different than any other who has walked the earth. He was a troubled man, and had his fair share of problems, shortcomings and failures. Though it is the nature of society sometimes, in the wake of a tragic ending, to gloss over the life of that effected person, one cannot simply ignore the fact that Morrison’s erratic behavior and progressive alcoholism hurt many close to him over the course of his existence. However, this was a human being who, for all of his faults, created something in his short time that people gravitated to, connected with and found inspiration from. For that, he has left an indelible mark on rock music. Whether that mark was good, bad or overrated is totally left to the opinion of each individual. In reflection of this man’s time here, one is reminded of a quote on life by Henry David Thoreau, which stated, “Let its report be short and round like a rifle, so that it may hear its own echo in the surrounding silence.” What better way to describe the life and legacy of James Douglas Morrison.