The Shaman As Superstar

Published in New York Magazine
By Richard Goldstein

‘Morrison’s eyes glow as he discusses the Apollonian-Dionysian struggle for life’s force. It’s an easy guess which side he’s on.”

“The shaman…he was a man who would intoxicate himself. See, he was probably already an…uh…unusual individual. And, he would put himself into a trance by dancing, whirling around, drinking, taking drugs- however. Then, he would go on a mental travel and…uh…describe his journey to the rest of the tribe”
…Jim Morrison

Los Angeles—He comes to meet you in superstar fatigues: a slept-in pullover, and inevitable leather pants. A lumpy hat covers most of his mane. You mutter “groovy” at each other in greeting, and split for the beach. His most recent song comes on the radio. You both laugh as he turns up the volume, and fiddles with the bass controls. It’s a perfect afternoon, so he picks up his girl. She says, “Your hate makes you look like a Rembrandt, Jim” and he whispers, “Oh, wow,” riding the image as though it were a breaking wave.
Between freeways, you talk about his bust in New Haven (the charge: indecent and immoral exhibition), the war, psychoanalysis, and his new album. He wants to call it The Celebration of the Lizard after a 24-minute “drama” which he has just composed. He is very much into reptiles. He wants the album’s jacket printed in pseudo-snakeskin, with its title embossed in gold.
The official interview takes place in a sequestered inlet at the Garden of Self-Realization, an ashram Hollywood style. You sit not far from an urn certified to contain Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes. Music is piped in from speakers at the top of a stucco arch with cupolas sprayed gold. The ground on which you are assembling your tape recorder is filled with worms. They seem to be surfacing around his hands, and he examines one as you set the mike in place. A willing suppliant, it lies prone upon his palm. Does it know him as a serpent-king?
Amid a burst of strings from the hidden speakers, you ask the trial question. Jim answers in a slithering baritone. “I dunno…I haven’t thought about it.” The garden supplies Muzak hosannas.
“When you started, did you anticipate your image?”
“Nahhh. It just sort of happened…unconsciously.”
“How did you prepare yourself for stardom?”
“Uh…about the only think I did was…I stopped getting haircuts.”
“How has your behavior on stage changed?”
“See, it used to be…I’d just stand still and sing. Now, I…uh…exaggerate a little bit.”
His voice drops an octave at the sight of a tape recorder, and the surrogate audience it represents. He gives a cautious mischievous interview, contemplating each question as though it were a hangnail,, and answering with just a trace of smile in the corners of his quotation marks. But he gets his scene across.
“I’m beginning to think it’s easier to scare people than to make them laugh.”
“I wonder why people like to believe I’m high all the time. I guess…maybe they think someone else can take their trop for them.”
“A game is a closed field…a ring of death with…uh…sex at the center. Performing is the only game I’ve got, so…I guess it’s my life.”
His statements, like his songs, are unpunctuated puzzles. You connect the dots between images, and become involved.
“I’m a word man,” he exults. In discussing his craft, he sputters with esthetic energy.
“See, there’s this theory about the nature of tragedy, that Aristotle didn’t mean catharsis for the audience, but a purgation of emotions for the actor themselves. The audience is just a witness to the event taking place onstage.”
He suggests you read Nietzsche on the nature of tragedy to understand where he is really at. His eyes glow as he launches into a discussion of the Apollonian-Dionysian struggle for control of the life force. No need to guess which side he’s on.
“See, singing has all the things I like,” he explains. “It’s involved with writing and with music. There’s a lot of acting. And it has this one other thing…a physical element…a sense of the immediate. When I sing, I create characters.”
“What kind of characters?”
“Oh…hundreds. Hundreds of ‘em.”

“I like to think he just arrived—you know, came out of nowhere”
… a fan

He was born James Douglas Morrison, under the sign of Sagittarius the Hunter, in Melbourne, Florida, 24 years ago. He once told a reporter, “You could say I was ideally suited for the work I’m doing. It’s the feeling of a bow string being pulled back for 22 years and suddenly let go.”
But he won’t discuss those years on the taut end of existence. He would like you to accept his appearance as a case of spontaneous generation—America’s love-lion spurting fill grown from the neon loins of the ‘60s. “They claim everyone was born, but I don’t remember it,” he insists.
“Maybe I was having on of my blackouts.”
To accept the thumbnail sketch he offers, there is little in Jim’s past to account for his presence. His father is an admiral, but he doesn’t think that explains his fascination with authority or his devotion to its overthrow. His family moved so often that his most immediate childhood memories are of landscapes. But that suggests nothing to him about his current shiftlessness. (He lives in motels, or with friends.)
Jim parries questions about his person experience with acrobatic agility. You find yourself wondering whether he can manipulate his soul with the same consummate ease. Does he choose to show an amiable crescent of himself for this interview? Does his dark side appear at random, or can he summon the lunatic within the way most of us put on the telephone voice? You keep trying to catch him in a moment of prefabricated magic (he wouldn’t be the first shaman to take refuge in ritual). But any attempt to grasp the corporeal essence of Jim Morrison is repelled by that fortress of ego, which is yet another of his persona. Behind the walls, however, you sense a soft, slipper kid, who was probably lonely and certainly bored.
“I was a good student. Read a lot. But I was always…uh…talking when I wasn’t supposed to. They made me sit at a special table…nothing bad enough to get kicked out, of course. I got through school…Went to Florida State University…mainly because…I couldn’t think of anything else to do.”
He came west after college to attend the U.C.L.A. film school. He lived alone in Venice, among the muddy canals and peeling colonnades. The roof of a deserted warehouse was his office. He spent most of his free time there, writing and planning a career in the literary underground. He was brooding (now they say “intense”) and shy (in the fan magazines, “sensitive”). A classmate recalls: “He was a lot like he is now, but nobody paid much attention then.”
At U.C.L.A., Morrison met Ray Manzarek, a young filmmaker and a jazz pianist on the side. For a while they shared a tiny flat, and Jim began to share his poems as well. It was Manzarek who thought of setting them to music. And though he had never sung before, Jim spent the next few months exploring his voice, and transmitting his vision to drummer John Densmore and guitarist Robbie Krieger. They added sturdy hinges to the sound of the Doors. With Manzarek skimming the keyboard of an electric organ like a flat pebble on water, the new group was tight and sinewy from the start. They did bread-gigs at small clubs along the Sunset Strip, re-working rock-blues standards and staking out a milieu for themselves. But they spent most of their dormant period implementing the controlled insanity that Jim Morrison was soon to loose on modern rock. Long before the three musical Doors ever saw the inside of a recording studio, they had distilled the essence of Jim’s screaming recitatif, into vibrant rhythms and riffs.
“We all play a lead and a subjugation thing with each other,” explains Ray.
“When Jim gets into something, I’m able to give of that area within myself. We may look cool, but we are really evil, insidious cats behind Jim. We instigate the violence in him. A lot of times he doesn’t feel particularly angry but the music just drives him to it.”
This total immersion of sentiment in sound amplifies Morrison’s lyrics, transforming them into something more like pageant than poetry. Jim Himself is ennobled by the sound. Onstage, his voice becomes a fierce rattle, and all his games are magic spells. In a tiny sweat-cellar like Ondine, where they first played in New York: magic. In the Singer Bowl in Flushing, where they play on August 2. On the radio. In stereophonic sound: magic. They put a spell on you.
His most powerful piece, an eleven-and-a-half minute mind massage called “The End”, becomes a mighty myth of catharsis, with an Oedipal backbeat:

The killer awoke from dawn
He put his boots on
He took a face from the ancient gallery
And he came to a door
And he looked inside.
“Father?” “Yes son.”
“I want to kill you.
Mother—I want to…”

“Think of us as erotic politicians.”
-Jim Morrison to Newsweek

Elvis Presley was the Rasputin of Rock. He ground country funk into the nation’s consciousness, by playing music as though it were motion. Even with his famous hips obscured on television, there was magic in every quiver of his voice.

Presley’s hillbilly grace is now a patriarchal paunch. But none of the rock titans who followed him has inherited his crown. Even the Beatles built their empire on clean energy (“Yea, yea, yea”) and later refined that base through the safe profundity of artsong. The Rolling Stones came close. Their message was the ecstasy of straight potent sex, and their medium was honest ugliness. But the Stones were after mere rape, not soul plunder.
The Doors, however, are an inner theatre of cruelty. Their musical dramas have made feat and trembling part of the rock lexicon. These days every band worth its psychedelic salt has a local lunatic singing lead. But the Doors have already transcended their own image. Now, they are in search of total sensual contact with an audience. They may yet appear at a future concert in masks. As Ray Manzarek explains: “ We want our music to shortcircuit the conscious mind and allow the subconscious to flow free.”
That goal is a realization of all that was implicit in Elivs Presley’s scared wiggle. But if Elvis was an unquestioning participant in his own hysteria, the Doors celebrate their myth as a creative accomplishment. Playing sorcerer is Jim’s thing—not a job, or a hobby, or even one of those terribly necessary rituals we sanctify with the name Role. Jim calls it “play”:
“Play is not the same things as a game,” he explains. “A game involves rules. But play is an open event. It’s free. Like, you know how people walk to where they’re going—very orderly, right? But little kids…they’re like dogs. They run around, touch things, sing a song. Well, actors play like that. Also, musicians. And you dig watching somebody play, because that’s the way human beings are supposed to be…free. Like Animals.”
Words are Jim’s playpen. He jots stanzas, images, and allusions into a leather bound notebook, as they occur to him. These are shaped and sifted into the thought-collages which are the Doors’ finished lyrics.

Awkward instant
And the first animal is jettisoned
Legs furiously pumping
Their stiff green gallop
And heads bob up
Poise
Delicate
Pause
Consent
In mute nostril agony.

“See, this song is called ‘Horse Latitudes’ because it’s about the Doldrums, where sailing ships from Spain would get stuck. In order to lighten the vessel, they had to throw things overboard. Their cargo was working horses for the New World. And this song is about that moment when the horse is in the air. I imagine it must have been hard to get them over the side. When they got it to the edge, they probably started chucking and kicking. And it must have been hell for the men to watch, too. Because, horses can swim for a while, but they lose their strength and just go down…slowly sink away.”
Even when Jim writes about impersonal situations, as in “Horse Latitudes,” they become charged with the tension of imminent explosion. Violence is his major motif. It permeates to the core of his work. His central symbol, the Great Snake, appears throughout the repertory of the Doors. Sometimes, it is phallic liberator, extolling an act of creative desecration. Sometimes it is a handy fetish to wave in the breeze, instead of the real thing. But most often, it is the agent of self-knowledge, residing in our imaginations, and slinking toward consciousness to be born. Most Doors songs plead with us to reject all repressive authority and embrace the Great Snake, with its slippery equation of freedom and violence.

Saw through your bars
Melt your cell today
You are caught
In a prison
Of your own devise

It is an equation we are eager to make rendering holy what is simply unrestrained.

“Robbie and I were sittin’ on a plane an’ like it’s first class, so you get a couple o’drinks, an’ I said to Robbie, ‘Y’know, there are these Apollonian people…like, very formal, rational dreamers. An’ then there’s the Dionysian thing…the insanity trip…way inside.’ An’ I said. ‘Youre an Apollonian…up there with your guitar…all neat an ‘ thought out…y’know…an’ you should get into the Dionysian thing.’
“An’ he looks up at me an’ says, ‘Oh, yea, right Jim.’”
The Lizard King slithers down Sunset Strip in a genuine snakeskin jacket and leather tights. Bands of teenyboppers flutter about like neon butterflies, but he is oblivious to their scene. He moves past ticky-tacoramas and used-head shops, into the open arms of recording studio B, where his true subjects wait.
He greets us with a grin out Thus Spake Zarahustra, and we realize instantly that Jim is loaded. Juiced. Stoned—the old way. Booze. No one is surprised; Jim is black Irish to the breath. He deposits a half-empty quart bottle of wine on the top of the control panel and downs the remnants of somebody’s beer.
“Hafta’ break it in.” he mutters, caressing the sleeves of his jacket. It sits green and scaly on his shoulders, and crinkles like tinfoil whenever he moves.
“It’s—very Tennessee Williams, Jim.”
Grunt. He turns to producer Paul Rothchild with a spacious grin that says, “I’m here, so you can start.” But Rothchild makes little clicking noises with his tongue. He is absorbed in a musical problem, and he offers only a perfunctory nod to the tipsy titan at his side.
Behind a glass partition three musical Doors hunch over their instruments, intent on a rhythm line that refuses to render itself whole. The gap between Morrison and the other Doors is vast in the studio, where the enforced cohesion of live performance is missing. On their own, they are methodic musicians. Densmore drums in sharp, precise strokes. Krieger’s guitar undulates like a belly dancer—sinuous but sober. And at the organ, Manzarek is cultivated and crisp. With his shaggy head atop a pair of plywood shoulders, he looks like a hip undertaker.
Jim walks into the studio and accosts a vacant mike. He writes in languid agony, jubilant at the excuse to move in his new jacket. But Rothchild keeps the vocal mike dead, to assure maximum concentration on the problem at hand. From behind the glass partition, Jim looks like a silent movie of himself, speeded up for laughs. The musicians barely bother to notice. When he is drinking, they work around him. Only Ray is solicitous enough to smile. The others tolerate him, as a pungent but necessary prop.
“I’m the square of the Western hemisphere,” he says, returning to his wine.
“Man…whenever somebody’d say something groovy…it’d blow my mind. Now, I’m learnin’…You like people? I hate ‘em…screw ‘em…I don’ need ‘em…Oh, I need ‘em…to grow potatoes.”
He teeters about the tiny room, digging his boots into the carpeting. Between belches, he gazes at each of us, smirking as though he has found something vaguely amusing behind our eyes. But the séance is interrupted when Rothchild summons him. While Jim squats behind the control panel, a roughly recorded dub of his Celebration of the Lizard comes over the loudspeakers.
Gently, almost apologetically, Ray tells him the thing doesn’t work. Too diffuse, too mangy. Jim’s face sinks beneath his scaly collar. Right then, you can sense that The Celebration of the Lizard will never appear on record—certainly not on the new Doors album. There will be eleven driving songs, and snatches of poetry, read aloud the way they do it at the 92nd St. Y. But no Lizard-King. No monarch, crowned with lovebeads, and holding the phallic scepter in his hand.
“Hey, bring your notebook to my house tomorrow morning, okay?” Rothchild offers.
“Yeah.” Jim answers with the look of a dog who’s just been told he’s missed his walk. “Sure.”
Defeated, the Lizard King seeks refuge within his scales. He disappears for ten minutes and returns with a bottle of brandy. Thus fortified, he closets himself inside an anteroom used to record isolated vocals. He turns the lights out, fits himself with earphones, and begins the game.
Crescendos of breath between the syllables. His song is half threat, and half plea:

Five to one
One in five
Nobody here
Gets out alive

Everyone in the room tries to bury Jim’s presence in conversation. But his voice intrudes, bigger and blacker than life, over the loud speakers. Each trace of sound is magnified, so we can hear him guzzling any belching away. Suddenly, he emerges from his formic cell, inflicting his back upon a wall, as though he were being impaled. He is sweat-drunk, but still coherent, and he mutters so everyone can hear: “If I had an axe…man, I’d kill everybody…’xcept…uh…my friends.”
Sagittarius the hunter stalks us with his glance. We sit frozen, waiting for him to spring.
“Ah—I hafta get one o’them Mexical wedding shirts,” he sighs with brandied breathiness.
Robbie’s girl, Donna, takes him on: “I don’t know if they come in your size.”
“I’m a medium…with a large neck”
 “We’ll have to get you measured, then”
“Uh-uh…I don’t like to be measured”
His eyes glow with sleep and swagger.
“Oh Jim, we’re not gonna measure all of you. Just your shoulders.”

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