Celebration of the Lizard

Radio says it’s forty years today since Jim Morrison expired in a Paris bathtub at the classic recurrent rock-death age. I agree with This Life‘s Anna that the Beatles were just boring, and the Stones showed flashes and spasms of genius, but neither came close to the Doors in my view. It’s the bottleneck guitar, the Manzarek keyboard solos (if the Doors were around today, they would be making electronica) most of all the baritone drive and lyrical invention of Morrison himself. ‘You’re a poet, not a rock star,’ a woman says in one of the films, and his volume The American Night stands alone from the music and is worth coming back to. In interviews, Morrison came across as a thoughtful and perceptive man, and wasn’t afraid of contradicting his time – apparently he used to torment peacenik drummer John Densmore by placing flowers between his cymbals during gigs, so that Densmore was forced by momentum to clash them to shreds.

The live CDs come close to operatic. During a fifteen-minute rendition of ‘The End’, Morrison screams: ‘Don’t let me die in an automobile! I want to lie in an open field!’ There’s also the spoken word piece ‘Celebration of the Lizard’ which makes you feel you are in another world, one where the sky is always dark and the nights always warm and strange castles glow in the distance. So many classic lines recur and clang in my head: Out here on the perimeter there are no stars. Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind. Others. Maybe it’s just the old hippie in me, but listening to the Doors seemed, genuinely, like entering another frame of being. Not to touch the earth. Not to see the sun.

Morrison was influenced by a lot of junk spirituality. He was born into a peripatetic military family and claimed that, at age four, he witnessed American-Indians dying by a roadside: ‘Indian scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding.’ Morrison believed that the soul of a dying Indian leapt into his body. The family did pass a reservation at the time, travelling from one army base to another, but his sister tells it different: ‘He enjoyed telling that story and exaggerating it. He said he saw a dead Indian by the side of the road, and I don’t even know if that’s true.’ In an article for his old website, no longer online, Irvine Welsh ridiculed this: ‘Like the dead Indian’s soul is thinking yeah, I’ll jump into this stupid pretentious middle-class child body.’

Well, we write the stories of our own lives. We exaggerate and fabulate. Yet there was always something otherworldly, almost demonic about Morrison as a man. Stephen King was freaked out by Doors posters as a child, and used Morrison as the model for Walter O’Dim, his most striking villain: the quasi-immortal hustler, full of high and derisive good humour, an agent of chaos and darkness. King also includes a scene in The Stand where the protagonist is working a deserted petrol pump in the early eighties and a mysterious stranger drives up for gas. ‘He wasn’t old and he wasn’t young… like someone who has been looking into the dark for a long time and has finally begun to see what is there.’ The protagonist, retelling this post-apocalypse, is convinced that the man that night was Jim Morrison.

Yet his lyrics and poetry challenge the 1960s Godhead aesthetic, what Hunter Thompson called ‘the essential old mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody—or at least some force—is tending the Light at the end of the tunnel.’ Morrison wasn’t interested in becoming a drop in the ocean. He wanted to celebrate the reptile brain. He was the Lizard King of the city and the desert and a stalker of late-night bars. Following his heroes Blake and Huxley, Morrison searched for a heightened and intensified version of reality and the world. Everything should appear as it is: infinite. Blue skies and the taste of chrome in your mouth. It is an essentially secular vision. 

I like the idea of Morrison faking his own death and still out there somewhere on the highways in hiding, the wandering man, the walking dude. I think that if he hadn’t died in 1971 he would have grown into an academic or a novelist. As it was, Morrison lived more in his twenty-seven years than most of us could manage in a hundred lifetimes.

They are waiting to take us into

The severed garden.

Do you know how pale and wanton thrillful

Comes death on a strange hour

 

Unannounced, unplanned for

Like a scaring over-friendly guest

You’ve brought to bed

 

Death makes angels of us all

And gives us wings

Where we had shoulders

Smooth as raven’s claws

 

No more money, no more fancy dress

This other kingdom seems by far the best

Until its other jaw reveals incest

And loose obedience to a vegetable law

 

I will not go

Prefer a feast of friends

To the giant family

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