It’s a weekday in April 1986, and my college roommate and I are arguing about whether or not An American Prayer is a bona fide Doors album. I say it isn’t; he says it is. The album plays as we sit in his bedroom upstairs of the small three-bedroom house where we rent rooms from the elderly woman who lives downstairs. We are both second-year college students, and my mind is a sophomoric stew of Joseph Campbell books and Friedrich Nietzsche quotes, Bob Dylan lyrics and Jimmy Hendrix guitar licks, death and resurrection, and my entire Catholic upbringing, the dying embers of the 1960s, every Flannery O’Connor short story ever written and every U2 song recorded so far.
I don’t know what my roommate is thinking. He’s a sly one, sitting cross-legged on his bed like Buddha, wearing penny loafers and a black T-shirt from the Massachusetts hardcore band The Proletariat—a chimera, never serious, never letting you see into his mind. We’re passing a joint between us and blowing the smoke out the second-story window.
I will tell you this, no eternal reward will forgive us for wasting the dawn.
We’re at the song “Stoned Immaculate”, which is undergirded by a driving blues beat but then dissolves into spoken word, something about two girls named “Freedom” and “Enterprise”. Are we wasting the dawn? What does that even mean? My roommate does not appear to care about such questions.
Jim Morrison‘s music was important to me in the mid-’80s when America was being buttoned and battened down; yuppified, preppie-fied, and Neoliberalized; sold on the idea that drugs were bad and sex will give you AIDS and the music you like best comes from the devil. How can one rescue Morrison from the sclerosis of Classic Rock, which had by then already hammered a handful of Doors hit songs into my brain before I was old enough to have truly contemplated them?
In my imagination, Morrison stood at one end of a great polarity, half of the yang to the yin of titanic cultural forces—the Lord of the Carnival, the mad drunk shaman of sensations. When I was in college, the Morrison lore had yet to be written on stone tablets in biographies, biopics, and documentaries—that would come a decade later, but we knew all the stories anyway. We remember when he was maced in the face by a cop and then walked out onstage in a rage. We remember when, in Miami, he riled up a crowd and prompted two police warrants for indecent exposure and obscenity. And, of course, there was the Ed Sullivan Show performance in which Morrison was instructed by censors not to sing the line “Girl we couldn’t get muc higher” because of its supposed drug overtones. He sang it anyway.
On the other side, yin to Morrison’s yang, stood Ronald Reagan, the great enemy of the ’60s—former B Movie actor, former witness against supposed Communists in Hollywood during the McCarthy Era, former Governor of California who once ordered the state police to march into a peaceful demonstration for the People’s Park in Berkeley with loaded shotguns. He was America’s recently anointed high priest of law and order and moral rectitude, the utterly square dude with a big toothy smile who wanted everyone to stop smoking pot, get a haircut, major in business, and chase the American dream. He once said, “A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane and smells like Cheetah.”
I imagine they were pitted against each other, Reagan and Morrison, two American gods: Sons of the American Dream Factory. Both were handsome, sexually alluring men. Neither had been born in California but would eventually come to embody that state, Reagan rising out of Hollywood movie studios and Morrison rocketing up from the rock clubs that stretched along the Sunset Strip of the 1960s. The movie star and the rock star. What could be more Twentieth Century American than that?
An American Prayer is the 1978 spoken-word Doors album featuring the poetry of its dead lead singer, posthumously set to music by the surviving three members of the band. My roommate and I have been discussing the album at length, beginning with the picture of Morrison on the cover, bearded and puffy-faced and staring offscreen, looking more like a ’70s country rock singer than the Lizard King. Maybe he is giving us a preview of the “fat Elvis” chapter of his career that might have been if he had not died at 27.
What would that have looked like, Jim Morrison in his 30s or 40s? Would he have abandoned music for poetry by then, as he had threatened to do, trading in the leather pants for a tweed jacket? Would he have continued with music, perhaps making an album of Sinatra covers or pursuing a solo career with a one-name moniker, “Morrison”, perhaps? Maybe he would have soldiered on with The Doors for decades like The Who and The Rolling Stones, doing big stadium tours sponsored by Budweiser and Bank of America. He might even have found religion in the late ’70s, like Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens.
What would an American prayer sound like if Morrison had lived, I wonder? Who would deliver such a prayer, in what church, and what Being would bend an ear to hear it? It wouldn’t be any preacher’s sermon; I knew this much. No easy bumper sticker sentiments, no talk of salvation.
Would it be delivered in the idioms of blues music, in the rhythms of beat poetry as Morrison apparently imagined, or something else? Would it be as Morrison imagined it, a bizarre hodgepodge of roadhouse stories and teenage girls sprawled out on motel beds and chrome-bedecked cars; a parade of hitchhikers, angels, and sailors; the restless souls of dead Indians and a lament to my cock? Christopher Columbus’ clap-infected groin? Could it be called a prayer at all?
We’re on side two now, “The Hitchhiker”, which is Morrison at his creepiest, playing the role of a serial killer calling a friend on a pay phone—“But, ah, I killed someone,” he says. “It’s no big deal, ya know”—all while “Riders on the Storm” plays softly in the background.
There’s a killer on the road / His brain is squirming like a toad
We call a poster on my roommate’s wall the Star 80 poster. It’s a spoof ad from Hustler Magazine that lampoons Playboy s “What Sort of Man Reads Playboy” ads. The poster is based on an actual crime scene photo from the murder of Dorothy Stratten, Playboy’s 1980s Playmate of the Year, who was depicted in the 1983 film Star 80 by Mariel Hemingway. The photo was shot from inside Stratten’s bedroom. She is lying naked, face down on the floor, with the top and back of her head opened up and her brains spilling out onto the carpet. Her husband and former manager, Paul Snider, is in the corner, with his back against the wall and sort of propped up in a sitting position. He is also dead. Blood is sprayed against the wall above his head, and a shotgun is draped across his lap.
The caption underneath reads: “What sort of man reads Playboy? A man like Paul Snider, for whom life was one big blast—until his ambitions were shattered by Dorothy Stratten.”
I worry aloud about our landlady seeing this poster when she comes upstairs to clean our rooms. What will she think of us? My roommate shrugs it off. He doesn’t care. Morrison weighs in:
I press her thigh and death smiled.
By the time I began paying attention to The Doors in the early ’80s, “Roadhouse Blues”, “LA Woman”, “Riders on the Storm”, “Break on Through (to the Other Side)”, “Love Me Two Times,” and a handful of other songs had been baked into the now-eternal Classic Rock playlist, songs that instantly make you think of the 60s. But for “Cuspers” and first-wave Gen Xers like me growing up in the ’70s, the ’60s felt like another era. We were the runt end of Baby Boom, obligated to show fealty to bands like Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and the Doors, but also feeling disconnected from the music as well, as if it wasn’t really our music.
I was drawn to anti-war songs, like Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”. In the fields, the bodies burning / As the war machine keeps turning. This meant something different in 1984 than it did in 1970, the year it was released when the Vietnam War was still raging. I could say the same about Dylan’s “Masters of War”, or Crosby Stills & Nash’s rendition of “Wooden Ships”, or Neal Young’s “Ohio”. I gravitated to these songs, aware of their weightiness and connection to history, but I couldn’t relate to the emotions underpinning the music. The Vietnam War seemed like ancient history. The Great Age of War and antiwar and anti-everything, of endless fracture and out-on-the-streets collective rage, had ended. All we had now were the echoes of it crackling out of car radios, stereo speakers, and boom boxes.
From across this great divide, who was Morrison to my generation? The rock legend preening poster boy from an era we had no memories of? The Lizard King? What did that even mean? Was he just another 27 Club member, dead at 27, like Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix and, a few years later, Kurt Cobain? This tortured artist narrative—the story that some people are just too sensitive and too creative to survive the ravages of fame, too good for this shitty world—was sold to us. Morrison’s Young Lion photo shoot was at the center of it. There was Morrison, arms outstretched in a Jesus Christ pose, looking too beautiful and too young to die.
If you were smart, you knew it was bullshit. Morrison was just a talented guy who died young, probably from alcohol abuse. He was not some kind of icon of eternal youth.
Morrison had been made into a saint by 1986, but he was nothing like the Catholic saints I grew up with. Those saints were channels to the divine, chaste, and tormented people who were made holy by their extraordinary suffering. Morrison was something else, shameless and seductive and celebratory. Is everybody in? / Let the ceremony begin. He was the master of ceremony, but for what? It was part sexual romp, part carnival freak show, part torch song, part primitive ritual by firelight in a prehistoric cave. More than any performer before him, Morrison had deliberately cultivated the spiritual possibilities of rock music, toying with religious and mythological symbolism in the lyrics and onstage during live performances.
Sitting in that upstairs bedroom listening to American Prayer, my roommate and I both thought of him in quasi-religious terms because, in our imaginations, he had gone farther than we had, probed the existential and mystical realms, done more acid than anyone, bedded more groupies than anyone, pushed far past all the limits and boundaries of bourgeois American life.
But that Jim Morrison was also a mythical figure. I would discover this as Morrison the man gradually came into sharper focus in the ’90s and ’00s. By then, we knew about his prosaic struggle with alcoholism, the split personality, and the many paternity suits. We learned, too, from Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger about the regular-guy aspects of Morrison, his sweet side, and the many warm, funny moments. Testimony from his dad and his sister also normalized Morrison, making him seem like just another restless army brat who couldn’t quite fit in because his family moved around a lot. A kid who read voraciously and dreamed of a literary future while other kids were obsessed with cars and football games. A kid who asked for the complete works of Friedrich Nietzsche when he graduated from the 8th grade.
That was not such a strange kid. I was that kind of kid, too. Morrison’s father, the retired Navy admiral who had commanded an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, in an interview for Tom DiCillo’s 2009 documentary When You’re Strange remembered his boy fondly as a man who had forged his path in life, going “his own way and true to his own ambitions”. Watching this stoic but obviously heartbroken man, you feel like you are staring into the heart of the generation gap that tore so many families apart, my own included. “Basically, he was a good man,” says the elder Morrison. “He was a good upstanding citizen, and he had moral and ethical standards that were very high, and he was somebody that you’d like to know.”
Morrison’s Lizard King origin myth was eventually punctured by a thousand data points like pinprick meteoroids tearing down the facade. But that is only if you cared enough about the Doors to pay attention to Morrison’s evolving status in the culture. For everyone else, Morrison was just another recognizable ’60s rock icon, a cliché in leather pants and a few half-remembered scenes from an Oliver Stone film.
Would you believe me if I said that rock music saved some of us from soul death in the ’80s? Would you think that I was exaggerating to make a point?
Many of us who were “churched” or overexposed to religious authority when we were children clung to our rock albums like religious relics. We were fully ensconced in our musical tribes—yes—but also united against a common foe, the Christian radio preachers who railed like madmen in the night against our music. It was not enough for them to complain that the lyrics encouraged sexual promiscuity and drug use and heresy, and Satanism; they also claimed that Satan himself was pressed into the vinyl somehow, like some evil incarnation, ready to speak out in a slurry demon voice if you could ever figure out how to play the record backward.
The Preacher’s poison was out there in the world, tainting everything it touched. You could sometimes detect the Preacher’s magisterial judgment in the things your parents and coaches and parents’ friends and some of your teachers said. They were channeling his voice sometimes, or so it seemed. But you had your talismans to ward him off: the very records he insisted you must burn or destroy or throw away at the cost of your soul. You guarded your records and cassette tapes and CDs. They were precious totems made even more precious by the verbalized threats to destroy them.
And there was Morrison, a startlingly seductive figure, at once impish and grandiose, the sly trickster enemy of all the straight moralists and self-righteous prigs, a confident voice ready to be summoned to your side of the argument. Or maybe you would say nothing at all, just put the record on and let it play.
The snake is long. Seven miles. Ride the snake. He’s old. And his skin is cold.
No wonder the Christians hated him.
In my film class that year, I wrote my final paper on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. I chose this film for reasons that I was never able to articulate clearly. By the time I had written the paper, I had viewed the film a half dozen times in the library’s screening room. The paper contained half coherent claims about how the film’s color scheme grows darker and redder as it progresses—that was my thesis. And somewhere in it, I wrote that it was appropriate for Apocalypse Now to be bookended by The Doors’ song, “The End”, though I never explained why.
If I were to write that paper now, I would say this: “The End” captures the sublimely destructive ethos of the ’60s—the Oedipal drama being played out in thousands of households as children murdered their parents in metaphorical fratricide, breaking with traditions, cutting ties, running away; the shattering, irretrievable desolation of the old in favor of the new, in a shower of beautiful and terrible endings; the war at the heart of everything. The song would be instantly recognized by the film’s audience as such, so it was a brilliant choice to bookend Apocalypse Now. The four-minute sequence at the beginning—the familiar drone of that “D” chord scoring napalm blooms in the jungle, overlaid on the serenely defeated face of Martin Sheen—was the perfect introduction to a film about the absurdity and internecine self-destruction of war.
The Doors’ lyrics are full of soul talk. There is the maiden with the wrought iron soul in “The WASP”, and the souls of dead Indians wandering in the desert, and the wet souls gently sighing in rapt funeral amazement in “Newborn Awakening”. A soul could be thrilled or starved. Eyes could photograph your soul. An unhappy girl could play warden to her soul. And, of course, there is “Soul Kitchen”.
Let me sleep all night in your soul kitchen
Warm my mind in near your gentle stove
Turn me out and I’ll wander, baby
Stumblin’ in the neon groves
I listen to “Soul Kitchen” again for the hundredth time and imbue it with meaning that maybe it never had to begin with because John Densmore was pretty clear when he said the song paid homage to a “small soul food restaurant at the corner of Ocean Park and Main.” I can picture the place in my imagination, alive with warmth and comforting smells and harsh electric light, like all great late-night hangouts, but I also cannot help but consider the song’s spiritual possibilities in that great refrain of reinvention. “Learn to forget / Learn to forget”.
The born-agains still speak of souls. I sometimes hear them on AM radio railing about souls. To them, a soul is a possession, a thing to be reaped or harvested or brought to the Lord, as if its only value comes from being able to count it on one or the other side of an imaginary line. Saved or unsaved. But what of the depth and breadth of a soul, the great boundless diversity within it? I never hear Christians speak of souls in this way; their imaginations are stunted.
It isn’t just Christians who suffer from a withered understanding of the soul. Soul talk has mostly evaporated from the culture, except where it attaches itself to something else. Soul food. Soul music. Kia Soul. And so on. Now consciousness is measured far more judiciously, in biological terms, in the activity of brains, in a desirable balance of chemicals that can be achieved or corrected through pharmaceuticals. A brain can be healthy or unhealthy. Soul talk is far too grandiose for this impoverished era ruled by the discourse on pathologies and disorders. New Agers sometimes talk about their souls, but everyone else worries about their mental health.
Who is Jim Morrison to me, now that I have lived long enough to see the twilight of the Reagan Revolution and the dotage of Classic Rock? If he were alive today, Morrison would celebrate his 80th birthday this December. If he were able to move around without a walker and were still inclined to perform his music, there would be fans lining up to pay $250 per ticket to watch him croon “LA Woman” onstage at the Sphere in Las Vegas. Capitalism will reap spectacle from its celebrities up to the moment of their deaths and well beyond.
Reagan died in 2004, at the high water mark of his cultural influence, but 20 years later, his ideological descendants have abandoned him for Donald Trump. Reagan is now the Blarney Stone of American politics; everyone wants to kiss the cold memory of him, grab a pithy quote from the internet to make a point, and move on. The two mythical antagonists of my youth have lost their totemic power, both fading into the cultural wallpaper, their vitality and vibrancy finally spent. Whatever great Manichean dichotomy I had once seen linking them together in the culture is gone, living only in my memory of that time.
And yet, at one time, they were like two rival gods grappling for my young soul. Morrison won. He was like some Blakean angel speaking in verse from beyond the veil, extending an invitation for me to stare into my own death, to take my interior life seriously, even as the new culture of hyper-capitalism was whispering its gospel of material inevitability in my ear. Unlike any other ’60s rock singer, Morrison delivered his New Testament of longing for something more than the paltry table scraps the Establishment was always pushing. His music was an invitation to pursue the new life Nietzsche speaks of in Thus Spoke Zarathustra when he writes, “The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a sacred Yes.” Morrison dreamed aloud of a bountiful banquet, a festival of celebration and freedom. You can hear it in the lyrics to “Waiting for the Sun,” which is the perfect coda to any serious discussion of his philosophy:
At first flesh of Eden
We raced down to the sea
Standing on freedom’s shore
Waiting for the sun