By Bernard Wolfe
Slamming the door in the Woodstock Nation
Minutes before darn, July 3, in the bathroom of his Paris hotel suite, at age twenty-seven, James Douglas Morrison, most flamboyantly swinging but least open of The Doors, a Los Angeles rock, stopped breathing. The causes, reported six days later and with judicious press management, were described as “natural”.
There is no nagging, no tattling. Only agreeable items are being calculated, in close to wholesale lots. The spirit of the mourning hour is exquisitely civilized, almost tightlipped. Yet many who knew Morrison are disconcerted: the paragon now being ceremoniously evoked, family man, dedicated poet, inspired film maker, crowd shunner, bears no resemblance to the man they observed in the amok flesh.
Whatever the motive, the news of the death was overhandled. Los Angeles Times pop-music columnist Robert Hilburn felt the wonderment about this had to be faced; he called his obituary note, “Why Morrison Death News Delay?” The answer, after talks with Bill Siddons, The Doors’ personal and press manager, was a letdown—no particular reason, except “to avoid all the notoriety and circus-like atmosphere that so surrounded the deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.” The question on many minds was posed in order to dismiss it: “Official Paris police reports…confirmed the original information—Jim Morrison died of a heart attach while taking a bath. Just that. Natural causes. Nothing more.”
No facts have emerged to contradict the managed account. All the same there are people who consider it less than complete. When someone in the earliest prime of life, practically a millionaire at an age when his peers are worriedly getting out of law and medical schools, when such a smiled-upon young man dies in his bathtub of a heart attack, there’s nothing “natural” about it unless Nature, as Rimbaud exerted himself to think, is a maniac.
Sherry, a Pasadena girl who knew Morrison well:
“I couldn’t make sense out of the stories in the papers. Suppose he had a heart attack exactly as they reported, it that what he died of? My God, might as well say Ernest Hemingway died of extensive brain damage. If you want to know the cause of Jim’s death, not just the physiology of it, ask what triggered his heart to stop and whose finger was on the trigger.”
Morrison’s associates are not asking Sherry’s questions, at least not in public, but the paradox remains. On the one hand they consider their friend’s death totally “natural,” as those of Joplin and Hendrix, O.D. cases, were transparently not. On the other, it is a senseless, grotesque event, a violation of Nature’s usual way. Morrison, they insist, was “finding himself,” “unwinding,” “shaking L.A. out of his system,” “getting to lead his own life instead of the life the public wanted him to lead,” “cutting down on his drinking,” “making a go of his new marriage,” “writing the poetry he’d been aching to write,” “turning to film project that excited him”—how, at a moment like this, when the man is geared for living as never before, does an errant blood clot form in his infected lung (Siddons’ speculation), make its way into his bloodstream, cause a cardiac arrest?
Some of his friends see blanks in the causational picture. Dan Knapp writes, “He was beginning to be happy, to find himself. But he had punished himself too severely too often.” Elmer Valentine: “He wasn’t a doper. He drank himself to death.” Even Siddons looks briefly into the shadows: “Jim was very strong but he pushed himself to the limits.” Michael McClure: “I’ll be very interested in finding out what the contributing factors of his death were. Pam [Morrison’s wife] is probably the only person who knows. I know from talking to him that he never expected to live very long.” Kathy Lisciandro: “He’d have no regard for his physical body. He’d just abuse it. He’s fallen out of windows—just in February he fell out two stories at the Château Marmont hotel—just playing.” Sherry: “They give all facts but the relevant ones. I don’t know all the details of Jim’s weeks in Paris but I knew him too well to believe there’d been a sudden surge of life-affirming in him. Maybe statistically he’d cut down on the drinking but with him that could mean going from three-quarter lethal doses to three-fifth ones. During the last two years in L.A. he was alarmingly lazy, passive, sodden, lumpish, inert, and getting more so all the time, and, well, I don’t think a process like that is easily reversible, not without help, anyhow. Maybe he did finally marry the girl they all kept saying he couldn’t live with or without—I wish the people in his circle would stop quoting themselves instead of the facts—maybe he did marry Pam but I know from a phone conversation with him in May that he kept up his old on-again-off-again style of living, one apartment with her, one without. Maybe he was finally doing something close to a reasonable amount of writing. Maybe. The Jim I knew had a king-size block as a writer. For him to get off even a few lines a week might look like a burst of productivity form up close. I suppose he’d have been pleased to find himself but my impression was he didn’t know where to look and had long ago given up trying, except maybe in the bottle. You know what people find in vodka bottles, vodka. Of course he didn’t O.D. No chance. Still and all you can’t say a driven alcoholic and blowtop has a heart attack at age twenty-seven for no reason, just because Nature turned quirky that day. I feel he died by his own hand, the one all those thousands of martinis with all those thousands of beer chasers got lifted by. He died for the simplest of reasons, that he couldn’t stand living. I can’t help it if that’s a medically unsatisfactory postmortem, it sums up all I know about that dude.”
I met Sherry three years ago when I undertook to interview Morrison for The New York Times Magazine. We were turning up at a series of stage doors at the same time for the same reason, though with different ends in mind.
The Times editor had taken note that Morrison was beginning to be talked about as “the most potent sex symbol to come along in our popular culture since Jimmy Dean and Elvis Presley”: his song, Light My Fire, has sold two million records in a very short time, and others like Break on Through, Back Door Man and The End became anthems for a generation turning inward, away form politics; the editors had asked me to look into the source of the commotion. Sherry, opposite of a groupie, was hanging around in the swarm of Morrison—besotted teeners hoping for some sort of access to the “sex symbol,” ready to break on through whatever other side he’d consent to be tour guide to.
She was uneasy with the role of camp follower, particularly an unrecruited one. She carefully explained that she was a writer, that she was writing a movie script around a rock hero patterned after Morrison, that to get her portrait authentic she needed to be close to her model. Pressed, she said frankly that she had no idea why she was hovering about on the edges of Morrison’s world—all she knew was that she couldn’t stay away.
The more I though about sex symbolization as a function ascribed to a certain order of human beings the less I understood the words. I was after Morrison’s thoughts on this, but it was hard to pin him down to appointments and when he made them there were long waits. Sherry was usually somewhere in the neighborhood. Her conversation did not go soggy at key points in the groupie’s schizoid style; her head seemed to contain no dripping wet wash. I needed some answers, if not thoughtful at least audible. Morrison tended to mumble as he got along in his drinking.
Was Morrison in her eyes a sex symbol? “Oh, yes. Oh, you bet. Eyes are the least of it.” How could a man symbolize one aspect of men? Didn’t you have to have a part standing for a whole or a concretion suggesting an abstraction before you had what is generally known as a symbol? “Any part of that boy wants to stand for the whole of my presence I’ll be only too happy. If it doesn’t want to stand it can lie down or do backbends, I’m permissive. Whenever he’s in sight one thing does suggest another, for example, his lying down on stage and making those movements suggests I ought to lie down and do them too, with him, right away.”
Sharp takeoff on groupie responses. Now could we try again? In symbolism a portion of a thing is said to represent, suggest, evoke its entirety. Here they were saying the whole, a man, represented sex, one part of a man—wasn’t this then a sloppy wording?
“Listen, any man who cuts himself down to just that one part of the whole and nothing but, the way Jim does, becomes a lot bigger than the whole, he’s finally made himself whole where the rest of us who pretend that there’s a lot more to us than just that, we stay split up and down and sideways.”
Witty, but wasn’t this dodging the question? Phallic symbols are not phalluses, they just remind us of the male organ. A man can’t remind us of himself through some slight overlapping of traits, he is himself, with all the ingredients that make him up, sexual and otherwise. “Look Jim no doubt started out a full man with penis just one organ among many. But what he does that other men don’t, he makes the whole of him into penis, his entire being is turned into sex, so that means he symbolizes sex, doesn’t it—the whole man’s a phallic symbol?”
Debatable interpretation, though neat. In his performances he repeatedly clutched at his crotch; by her theory this was trunk penis reaching for branch penis, which seemed redundant, at least unfunctional. Seriously, how could a man symbolize a man? Any of the qualities or functions associated with the human condition?
“Who’s talking about the human condition or human anything? Jim’s stopped being human, gotten himself up and out of all the crap, that’s why he’s fascinating. The human condition is to be all chopped up, and what Jim does, he chops off all the unneeded pieces, the chunks they tied on you that weigh you down and slow you down.”
We could take that for our working hypothesis if she wanted. This still didn’t make the man a concrete sign suggesting the intangible or divine, flag reminding us of country, halo turning our thoughts into divinity.
“Oh, he’s a flag. That tells of a country where they’ve sloughed off all restraints and niceness and do anything with body and mind they feel like. The never-never land of the polymorphous-perversers. He’s Norman O. Brown in black leather pants and set to acid freakout music.”
Ingenious formula: Morrison came on as the negation of the humdrum and lackluster state of affairs you expected to find down the block or along the freeway, everywhere on the human landscape. He did then resurrect something in the paved-over human potential, something at least assumed to be there, fantasy freedom, fantasy sex, fantasy departure, through the trick of escaping from the human or going through the motions of escape. Clever reasoning. Did she then imagine that something special might emerge from an involvement with Morrison, something, to put it in her language, beyond?
“For sure. This side of the door’s no good.”
She counted on a breaking on through with Morrison?
“That’s what he symbolizes, what’s available on the far side of all the closed doors. Everything missing here. I sure hope I get to meet him.”
Then she did know what she was looking for in the alleys around these recording studios and auditoriums—to get out of the human?
“Well. To get somewhere. We’re all so stalled. This dude’s in motion.”
Morrison finally stayed put long enough to talk about this. It was in his favorite bar on Santa Monica Boulevard. It was not his favorite subject.
“Everybody has to stand for something, that’s what we’re here for. If Spiro Agnew stands for law and order, all right, say I stand for sex. Chaos. Movement without meaning. Cop baiting. Fifty-two-week paid vacations with double overtime every year.”
But wasn’t he using words inexactly? Agnew certainly stands for law and order but in the sense of program, not symbol. Did encouraging free sexuality, advocating it, mean to be a symbol of it?
“Every entity in the world’s a symbol, it can’t be helped. I mean, everything parades as itself, but really stands for something else, everything you see and smell is a small deposit of the intangible, the everywhere mystery. Know what I think? If there were real things in the world instead of just a panorama of symbols all the poets would have been accountants and census takers.”
Could he expand on that? As he condensed the thought it was a little harder to follow, confusing too, since there are accountants and census takers in the world and they even count poets.
“It’s summed up in a poem I just finished: ‘They are filming something in the street, in front of our house.’”
Promising beginning; how did the next lines develop?
“That’s the whole poem. Haiku compression compressed some more. When I get out a volume of my things I’ll print it on a page by itself.” (A year later he did just that.)
Would it have diluted the poem’s intention to have added a few words hinting at the content of the film, the director, the actors? As it stood now didn’t it have a slight cliff-hanger quality?
“You don’t get my point. People have the feeling that what’s going on outside isn’t real, just a bunch of staged events, all I did was record this feeling. I can’t give any plot line because it’s what all the people experience all the days, all the meandering happenings. I don’t say this just because I studied film at U.C.L.A. and it’s the thing I plan to get into. It’s my view of things.”
He meant, in short, that it was not inaccurate, not a violation of reason, to call him a sex symbol?
“Better than being called a chime lesser.”
Would he mind repeating that?
Child molester. Right. Was there a point to his drinking this many stingers with beer chasers?
“Yes, there is a point to my drinking this many, it’s as much as I can drink.”
Did he have a reason for drinking his capacity every time he drank?
“I believe I have, to get drunk.”
Would he comment on a recent article referring to his “performing prodigious feats of marathon sexuality”?
I’m a performer. I’m called upon to perform.”
“Acts. Performers are actors. What actors perform are acts.”
Of an order to be taken for feats?
“Well. They tag you for a prodigy. I don’t know how that happens, maybe they see you as a child because you don’t behave like their definition of an adult, then they remember you’re past childhood so if you still look like a child you must be a special kind, a child prodigy, say, that’s better than child mlesser. So if they’ve got you pegged for child prodigy, then each and every thing you do has to be prodigious.
Was that what you came to after all the hard work of phallicizing yourself from head to toe, taking hold of yourself for support? The end product of liberation is masturbation?
“Maybe he’s not scared, just tired after the work. Maybe he reaches for himself in the spirit of relying on yourself, you know, falling back on your own resources, the reality freed man has after all only himself to hold on to.”
And sing over and over about the many ways in which sex can be deadly and death sexy?
“You can get too damn analytic about these things. Who knows what death he’s talking about, anyway, maybe he’s referring to the death of the deadening, sex-squelching sides of him, the sides he’s killing and peeling off.”
The singer’s father and mother seemed to occupy prominent places on the casualty list.
“Only natural, man. How’re you going to live without killing your parents stone dead? It’s you or them, little buddy.”
Sherry, going on twenty-four, was living at home. There wasn’t a chance of getting her own place unless she realized some money from her movie script about Morrison.
Parent-killing and parent-mauling were the stated themes of his celebrated number, The End. Twice I watched him do it in concert.
Explaining to his “beautiful friend,” his “only friend,” that this is “the end of our elaborate plans,” he encourages her to “ride the snake, to the lake, the ancient lake,” the reptile being defined as “seven miles long,” “old,” “cold.” His growly baritone is almost sweet, almost down to a love whisper, as he laments (or crows?) that “I’ll never look into your eyes again”; but there’s the rasping edge even pitched low, the suggestion of a snarl held back, the mixture of Arctic distance and muted parody. At the mother’s bedroom door, music having left him altogether (by this time he’s visited pop’s room and unceremoniously, with some melody still lingering, wiped him out), he falls into a toneless, grinding, dirge-slack recitative. On the verge of the ghastly ellipsis, the point at which words as well as music cave in, his eyes clamp shut, his lips form the unspeakable syllables, “I wa-a-a-ant”—he screams.
Just what has happened to this troubled fellow? Has he, after wiping his father out, gone on to ravish his mother? Sherry: “It’s certainly a possibility.” But the final lines could be taken to mean that the restless young man has given up his impossible appetites and accepted restrictive reality, couldn’t they? Sherry: “The thing is to be free. Whether he gets rid of the old bag by balling her or by throwing her out of his head in his business, don’t you see. Let him get there any way that works. Christ, man, who cares about the technicalities?” She didn’t want her lyrics to be a bit more informative? “I happen to think good writing doesn’t clutter up the plane with details.”
Morrison: “The End is about three things, sex, death, travel.”
With a suggestion that sex is a means of travel to death?
“You can take it that way, you can also take it the opposite way. The theme is the same as in Light My Fire, liberation from the cycle of birth-orgasm-death.”
How? By dying? That route wouldn’t eliminate the cycle so much as speed it up, some might argue.
“Then take the resolution as a coming to terms, a bowing to the inevitable. Of course, it could be a not coming to terms. Any way you want. I’m just saying there’s one cure for the plague, run away fast and come back slow.”
That sounded like a reasonable therapy wherever the bubonic might be a threat. Was there perhaps some politics burden to his message? Since he had been quoted as calling himself an “erotic politician”?
“If the erotics I work make the Agnews tear their hair I guess they’re political. I guess patricide and incest are political, once you start killing and balling your parents no telling how far you’ll go, you might go on to governments. I don’t make programs, the way I see myself I primarily open doors.”
Any and all doors? Some led straight into the nineteenth century, that was when the themes of patricide and incest were heavy on people’s mind.
“If you want to take The End as being about patricide and incest. Read the last note to mean accommodation, not extermination, if that suits you more, that’s as twentieth century as you can get. I only aim to please.”
Didn’t his heavy drinking open a wide door to times past and, some argued, surpassed? His peers appeared to be energetically down on alcohol as an old-hat ease-giver.
“I have several answers to that. Old hats often fit best. Ease isn’t what I get out of booze, just the energy to raise my voice and cop-out unconsciousness to keep the cops out when my voice gets loud enough to attract the fuzz. My peers are all dopers. Dope’s all the go now. Well, I always have to buck the stream. I don’t feel right in the majority. The most revolutionary thing you can pump into your system these days in the midst of all these dopers is good rotgut firewater. Booze is mother’s milk to me and better than any milk ever came from any mother.”
Could we talk for a moment about snakes and lakes? Why was his lake ancient, his snake so old and cold? Why did his snake have to be the one means of transportation to his lake, why not a Greyhound express bus or a nonstop 747? Why was it so important to establish his snake’s length as being in the area of seven miles, surely a herpetological hyperbole? Was the intention in these details to scare somebody?
“You don’t seem to realize that when you’re going on two everything looks old and big as hell and feels pretty chilly, you’re the one scared. Listen, I’ll make a deal with you, don’t mess with my lakes and snakes and I won’t mess with yours.”
Why did he reach for his genitals at climatic moments in his performances?
“Because they’re there. Because to have is to hold. Because the audience wouldn’t be stirred if I reached for my nose or my elbow. Because I’m a politician and politicians have a long reach. Because there’s no drink to reach for. Because these vinyl pants are too f- – – -ing tight. Because.”
He rambled. Some of his more reverberant phrasings came in these marginal spatters, without connective tissue:
“Nietzsche was right. In Rebirth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. About lyrics and music being incompatible. At some point as rock develops, the poets and the musicians will walk away from each other…We have this new ghetto, a ghetto of the young…I’m shy except when I’m on stage…Snakes are fine snails with no ecological function. I don’t care about their use value…I bring chaos in lyrics, the others in the group bring back order in music…Rimbaud. Apollinaire, Breton, Cendrars, Max Ernst, Céline, Burroughs. From religion as the road to knowledge to chaos as the road. Though chaos with a road isn’t so chaotic. Unless the road curves back on itself. Peters out. Gets lost. I like the idea of a road getting lost. You could write a song about the San Bernardino Freeway winding up in San Luis Obispo…You can’t stun people so easily today, they’re blasted enough by the headlines. They look for something else form us, something that’s that not like the news and maybe counteracts it. If you could give them some quiet, some sag in the nerves, that might be the biggest thing. The kinds think they come to us for incitement but really all they really want is to relax for an hour…Kids and cops, cops and kids. Two-handed game between them that neither player understands. The mob scenes at our concerts. Those kids are so used to taking orders and accepting authority, they’re scared to go all the way in baiting the cops. They want a wrestling match, sure, but on the other hand their kind of glad the cops are there and as strong as they are. They want the cops to hold them back, they wouldn’t know what to do if they took over the place and could really run wild. To run wild you’ve got to be wild, that takes vocation and practice.”
Perhaps we could focus on the recent articles about him. Wasn’t there a contradiction running through them? How could “an angel in a Renaissance painting” be a “gaunt Ariel from Hell,” a “warlock of popculture,” a “demonic vision out of a medieval Hellmouth,” a “black priest of the Greatest Society,” an “exterminating angel”?
“You know how it is with writers. I’m lucky, I just have to put the skeleton on paper, thirty or forty words, say, and flesh them out with voice and gestures. I write the bare structure and perform the content. These poor magazine hacking sons of bitches, they don’t have a stage to deliver their words from so they’ve got to get all their vocalizing and gesturing on the printed page, so naturally their prose get a little pumped up.”
Kurt von Meier had discovered in him rich “suggestions of sex, death, transcendence.” What transcendence did he have in mind, death through sex or sex through death?
“The first on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, the second on Tuesdays, Thursday, Saturdays.”
If he was actually producing a “music of outrage,” just what was the object of his rage, the world (a political stance) or the body (a Manichaean one)?
“Depends on what’s within reach. Sometimes it’s only your crotch.”
Did it depend sometimes on what was out of reach, a stance neither political nor Manichaean but essentially one of show-business strategy, and safe?
“Oh, sure, when it’s not the one it’s certainly the other. Or a car wash. Or a banana split.”
If it was true that “The Beatles and The Stones are blowing your mind, The Doors are for afterward, when your mind is already gone,” then why the “staggering horrors” people saw in him: because body can’t get lost with mind?
“No, because mind can’t get lost with vodka. Because take enough vodka to lose mind you simultaneously lose body. For good. Horror that’ll give you blind staggers every time is physiology. All this stuff you’re bedded in and have to give up billing. It’s f—ing humiliating, always being spear carrier to your meat. Who the f— it thinks it is, forever barking orders. That’s the best reason I know for drinking, to shut it up for a minute. But, oh, next morning, how it barks.”
We came to the core matter. It had been suggested that he was unique in the rock world as a “troubadour of Oedipality.” By this reading, most of the rage and lust in the songs, the rageful lust, lustful rage, was a displacement onto “girls” and “friends,” peer sex objects, of strong sentiments originally directed toward the “Ogress of the Nursery,” mother. With the bulk of the lyrics it could be argued either way, the wordings were cryptic. But certainly The End, one of the most emotional of his offerings, was a wild outburst of Oedipal passions: Pop is mowed down and Mom taken over.
“Absolutely. Unless you see it as Mom being mowed down and Pop taken over. Or Mom being exhaled and Pop inhaled. Or Mom being deposed and Pop installed. Or both being kissed off and the snotty kid going off to hit the road. Listen, real poetry doesn’t say anything, it just ticks off the possibilities. Opens all doors. You can walk through any one that suits you.”
The doors that were said to be opened in that particular lyric were two quite unambiguous ones, that in Pop’s room, for purposes of killing, that to Mom’s quarters, with an intent taken by most listeners to be physical possession. On the premise of this interpretation, the most popular, we were up against a paradox. Freud’s early assumption was that of all the layers in the unconscious the Oedipal was the deepest and the most energetically repressed. More recent psychoanalysts saw a theoretical problem when, as in Stendhal’s autobiographical novel, patricidal attitude toward the father and incestuous urges toward the mother were hauled into the open and elaborately dwelled upon: how do such profoundly buried materials, such as guilt-laden “secrets,” come to the conscious surface so readily? Did he see this contradiction in some of his own writings? How would he explain these bottommost “criminal” appetites rising so spiritedly and with no hampering to the top? His own lyrics made it clear that he was with the more traditional Freudians in regarding incest as the most awful of all the transgressions, the taboo against it as the mightiest of the admonitions—could he then explain his straight forward confession, very much in public, bellowing in public, to the primal crime?
“It’s only a song, man, five minutes of tickling the public, not a signature on a police blotter.”
But the song had a content. He was the one who had put it there. It was apparently his thought that such content would tickle people. It was hard to believe that the judgment was purely strategic, other-directed. What the artist intuits will tickle people often tickles him, too.
“I know what you’re working up to. The new orality psychology stuff. I’ve read some of Melanie Klein and the others. The idea that the Oedipal later isn’t as deep as people used to think, that it gets deposited when the kid goes into the genital period and a whole lot of stuff has come together in his head before this, below it, when he was all mouth and no muscle or genitals. I know the whole line of thought, man. That there was just oral passive helplessness and bawling for Big Ma before the kid began to grow muscles and came to see his genitals muscle and could counter for his ache for Ma’s shelter with a little genital aggression, at least in his fantasies. Deny yearning mouth with blustering phallus. I know this—there’s a whiny toddler inside every growling rapist school.”
He did indeed. His summary of the logic was flawless.
“Sure. By this reasoning it’s easy to make a big red badge of your Oedipality and wear it on your sleeve. It’s closer to the surface and then you can dredge it out a lot faster than the worse Ma-cuddly stuff under it. Use the one to hide the other. What do they call that dodge? The lesser crime. Cop out to the Oedipal sin because it’s nowhere near as bad as the oral ones that lie deeper. The crimes of the sucking babe wanting to hold tight to Mamma and go on sucking forever, and feeling abandoned by the old biddy because first she ejected him, then shoved him aside, cut him off. Anybody’d rather own up to fantasy crimes of muscle than those of the blobby and flabby. That’s what you’re accusing me of, right?”
No accusations involved. What was held to be the human being’s most guilty secret he had publicized as a headline, a slogan, a street cry: we were trying to find the explanation for that.
“That’s what’s behind your sneaky questions about why my snake has to be seven miles long, right? The insinuation that it’s an inchworm? Well, poetry’s my business, not nit picking, and this kind of nit picking is death to poetry. There’s a misunderstanding here. I agreed to be interviewed by you. I did not agree to be psychoanalyzed. I certainly did not agree to let you examine my poetry with a tape measure.”
I said there was indeed a misunderstanding. My intention was least of all to psychoanalyze him. I had neither the credentials not the commission to do so. There was Oedipal content in his lyrics. It was identified as such by people other than myself. I was curious as to how it came to be there: I assumed my readers shared that curiosity; there was no way to find out except by going to the source. I wanted to print his comments on this matter, not mine. There was no malice in my question as to why his snake had to be as elongated as he had made it. He had to admit that a seven-mile-long snake was rarity and an attention getter. He was responsible for its dimensions. He couldn’t say he’d stretched them so just because he felt they’d tickle the public. Any light he might care o shed on the origins of his titanic vision I’d be happy to transmit to The Times audience. I agreed that poetry did not have to explain everything but now and then poets were friendly enough to add some illuminating footnotes.
“We can’t do this talking in a bar. When I’m asked questions like these I want time to think them out. Why don’t you write your questions out exactly and in detail on paper, and I’ll study them and give you my answers in writing.”
I sent him several pages of questions. Some days later he delivered to me five pages of typewritten notes which he explained he’s extracted from his notebooks because he though they were pertinent to my interests. They covered a wide range of subjects, from voyeurism, séance, archaic drama, cinema, gambling, vertigo, ecstasy, dancing, possession, shamanism, the birth of cities, comedy, tragedy, to certain practices of the old Tsars and the concept of God as a hermaphrodite, and were in no way pertinent to my interests, my questions, or my assignment. Three lines were underlined in red: “But most of the press were vultures descending on the scene for curious America aplomb. Cameras inside the coffin interviewing worms.”
That was the last time I saw him. I told The Times editors that Morrison and I had not found a way to talk with each other fruitfully. I would be satisfied if The Times would finance a month’s stay for me in a rustic rest home, if we could find one that required a vow of silence from its guests. I needed a period of quiet in which to renew my faith in the power of words to generate something more than decibels. I did not feel that I was in the main a linguistic positivist but it was my suspicion that if language got entirely reduced to noise something might be lost.
Morrison called me a few times after that, usually to give me further thoughts he’d had on the role of the shaman, the function of cinema, the stance of the spectator. I acknowledged that all of his ideas were interesting and well-formulated even though I was not competent to judge because I was remote from shamanism, knew little about movies and less about spectator sports. His last call, in March of 1969 had more topical import: some days before, at the Dinner Key Auditorium in Miami, he’d been arrested for “exposing his private parts” before twelve thousand young fans and “stimulating masturbation and oral copulation.” It was this event he wanted to talk about.
“I guess you heard what happened in Miami.” I’d gathered from the papers that at eleven p.m. on March 7 his vinyl pants had become unbearably tight. “I can guess what you’re thinking.” He was the one facing a felony charge in Dade County so his thoughts were to the point, not mine. “Don’t you want to know why I did it?” It might be of interest to know why he thought he’s done it. “I suppose the way you see things it looks like I had to establish for a barnful of eyes that the snake is seven miles long.” Had he established it? “The cops sure took it for even miles long, the way they came down on me.” What had he established for himself, except that to make your private parts public, whatever their proportions, is a good and speedy way to get arrested? “That it’s very, very hard to just get up on a stage and sing a song when you’re a sex symbol. They didn’t come to hear my mouth, they were all ogling my pants. The way they refuse to grant your mouth when they’ve been taught you’re all below the waist is very frustrating for a poet. You come forth with your fine words and they keep staring at your pants. I decided for once to give them what they were in the market for. The cops just don’t understand the democratic process. They are just not attuned to the will of the people.” Well put: now did he want to talk about why he opened his pants, aside from wanting to demonstrate how blind to democratic procedures the cops are? “You’ve got to get this through your head. Once and for all, man. Six inches isn’t going to establish you’re finally disentangled from the Ogress. Seven miles just barely might.” Had he done this to his own satisfaction in Miami? “The cops helped. Plenty. Six measly inches couldn’t cause that amount of commotion.” Had he, like the scrappy kids he theorized about, been pleased that the cops were present, and in strength? “They’re not so strong. They had the muscle to book me but I’ve got the money to beat this.” What would that prove, except that he had an awful lot of money? “Money, I’ve heard it said, is the longest snake of all, the oldest, the coldest. Rides you to the rarest lakes. Nice talking to you.” (Months later he was acquitted on the felony charge. Somebody must know what it cost but the information is not available.)
There was one more transaction between us: when his poems and notes were published he sent me a copy, without comment. Representative lines from the collection, without comment:
“More or less, we’re all afflicted with the psychology of the voyeur. Not in a strictly clinical or criminal sense, but in our whole physical and emotional stance before the world. Whenever we seek to break this spell of passivity, our actions are cruel and awkward and generally obscene, like an invalid who has forgotten how to walk… The voyeur, the pepper, the Peeping Tom is a dark comedian. He is repulsive in his dark anonymity, in his secret invasion. He is pitifully alone. But strangely, he is able through this same silence and concealment to make unknowing partner of anyone within his eye’s range. This is his threat of power…Film spectators are quiet vampires…Peep show…imitates the keyhole of voyeur’s window without need of color, noise, grandeur…The appeal of cinema lies in the fear of death…The voyeur is masturbation…Imagery is born of loss…The breast is removed and the face imposes its cold, curious, forceful, and inscrutable presence…You may enjoy life from afar. You may look at things but not taste them. You may caress the mother only with the eyes… The theory is that birth is prompted by the child’s desire to leave the womb. But in the photograph an unborn horse’s neck strains inward w/ legs scooped out. From this everything follows: Swallow milk at the breast until there’s no milk…”
Sherry’s dream came true: Morrison finally noticed her, they began a tangled, sometime relationship. Her retrospective:
“This isn’t easy to write about but I’ll do it. They’re talking up a Jim Who’s a complete stranger to me, some pink-cheeked Little Fauntleroy of rock. The kids should get one long hard look at him without the velvet suit and lace collar… He struck two notes when we started seeing each other. ‘You’re nice to look at and you’re bright, I can use you. Just get straight on this, you’re mine, you belong to me, you’re my property, you do what I want.’ And: ‘I know how to handle you, keep you dangling. Trust me, I know what I’m doing.’… He wanted dirty talk from me, it excited him. ‘Act like a bitch in heat, that’s all you are.’ ‘You have to beg me for it, say please.’… The sadomasochistic games. Always spanking me. ‘You’ve been a bad girl, haven’t you. You want to be punished. Come on, cry. I want you to cry. I want to hear you crying. Answer me. Say yes, say yes, sir.’… He wanted mostly to be the passive one… I had to do things to him. He was mostly impotent, sometimes it would take hours. Sometimes when it didn’t work, no matter how I tried, he’d turn violent. Very. Choke me and beat me. I had a lot of black and blue marks to explain. Twice I think I was very close to getting killed, had to run… Remember what he wrote about seeking to break the spell passivity with actions cruel and awkward. He knew what he was talking about. After hours of being inert and giving orders, being catered to, he could be cruel, oh, yes… Big problem of importance. Most of the time with me he never had an orgasm, gave up. A few times he acted as though he did but I sensed it was an act. I never had a full response and it would drive him wild, he thought I was holding out on purpose, he’d squeeze my windpipe hard… The brute and the baby. His oscillation between the two. A lot of roughing up, then the sudden collapse, whimpering, ‘I need somebody to love me, please take care of me, please don’t leave me.’… That mouth vs. phallus business really bugged him. Once I said to him, ‘You know, you’re said to be all phallus, but really you’re all mouth. Your biggest games are talked. You talked your old man dead, but the rear admiral’s still in the Pentagon. You talked a triumph over your old lady but she’s still serving the rear admiral breakfast every morning, unmolested as always.’ For once I was smart, I said it over the phone from a place five miles away… My stomach turned when I read Michael McClure’s recollections. How he found Jim sitting in his room holding the first copy of his book, crying and saying, ‘This is the first time I haven’t been f—ed.’ Who f—ed him? The kids who made him rich for telling them everything but the plain truth? The cops he begged to come after him, whom he could always buy off?… The time I read him the report on a new study of incest in the United States. Statistics that showed it was pretty common practice. I said, ‘You’re not as avant-garde as you thought, Jim. A lot of people seem to have gotten there before you. With more than their mouths.’ I wasn’t so smart at the time. I was in the same room with him. I had the bruises for days afterward… The way they’re all quoting that phony explanation for Miami he once gave a reporter. ‘I think that…was the fulmination, in a way, of our mass performing career. Subconsciously, I think I was trying to get (that point) across in that concert…I was trying to reduce it to absurdity, and it worked too well.’
“I saw him right after that bust. He wasn’t talking about reducing anything to absurdity or anything else. He said, ‘Off the fuzz. All pigs to the wall. They had me in their greasy hands and I’m going to slip right out. While we’re at it, off the Joint Chiefs of Staff too.’ The kids will remember him as tough, brutal, bestial, savage. The image I keep is a different one.”
Another dream has become actuality for the girl called Sherry: a producer has an option on her screenplay, she’s moved into her own place. She writes she’s revising her script:
“My producer and I agree that the public has had it with rock stars. I don’t want to be accused of being behind the times so I’m changing my central character entirely; now he’s a young New Left politician. I think that’s a very fresh approach, politics is really in now and the younger dudes getting into it show up very sexy…”