A love letter to Jim Morrison and Los Angeles, 75 years on
08 December 2018 08:00
On the eve of my flight to Los Angeles this summer, my father advised me to do just one thing: listen to the lyrics of Jim Morrison. I trusted his words were of wisdom, and upon closing the door to England for a two-month solo vacation, I opened the doors to, well, The Doors. I was apprehensive of L.A. – the supposed vast city of hazy humanity contrasted the crawling crowds of London – but Jim Morrison had sung of lingering on its love streets, so I was equally hopeful. Upon arrival, I trekked to the top of a canyon park in Malibu and blasted ‘L.A. Woman’ – The Doors’s swan song that compiled every ounce of success from their six-year stint in the limelight into a raw disposal of rock and roll. Despite it being near 75 years on from the birth of their frontman, James Morrison, I was adamant that I would listen to no other artist in America. Why? Even today, the sound of The Doors appeals to a generation governed by conservatism. Their poetic pulse pioneered a radical sense of freedom in music that remains unparalleled. And that was mostly down to Jim.
‘I am the Lizard King, I can do anything’ Morrison wrote in a poem that accompanied The Doors’s 1968 album, Waiting For The Sun. Lizard King stuck as a pseudonym, aptly symbolising the mythic of a man who cavorted the shaman on stage, while styling silk shirts and lion-esque locks. He was the ultimate sex symbol of the sixties, marrying masculine traits with a feminine wildness that contrasted to the airy-fairy surfer music dominating L.A. at the time. His lyrical confessions on revolution, drugs and alcohol were screamed without restraint. I felt it when I was out in the city with a group of fresh friends, who exposed their hearts and souls to old rock and roll. We danced to The Doors in this booming little club off the Hollywood Boulevard – a ten-minute trip away from Sunset Strip’s acclaimed Whisky A Go Go where, five decades earlier, Morrison was making musical history. I experienced drug-enlightening chats in Fairfax with LA women and motorcycle rides in Malibu with LA men, finding myself somewhere in the middle of a modern Morrison world. Stylistically, I was sold.
Everyone was sold by Jim Morrison. His story kicks off on Venice Beach in 1964, where he settled after fleeing from an authoritarian family in Florida. There he met Ray Manzerek, a keyboardist who took a quick liking to his lyrics and subsequently served as co-founder of The Doors. With a name inspired by William Blake and darkly-humoured lyrics paired with blues-steeped accompaniment, their impact was instant. The band’s recordings embodied a new countercultural resistance, advocating Morrison’s defiance to conformity and exposure of the free soul. The Doors were also inherently political: many radio stations refused to play ‘The Unknown Soldier’, yet it still travelled far and wide – popular amongst men serving in the Vietnam War – and Francis Ford Coppola used ‘The End’ in the soundtrack for his cinematic masterpiece, Apocalypse Now (1979). This pervading sense of violence and chaos represented something that had yet to be composed in American music. Radical and raw, it was formed from the circus of Morrison’s mind.
But that circus cost him his life. His alcohol and drug habits took their toll in 1971, when Morrison died of heart failure in Paris, aged 27. The year before, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin had infamously passed though similar causes – also at 27. Was death the cost of being the brightest prodigy? Morrison’s early fatality was arguably foreseeable – lethal addictions, on-stage arrests, and increasingly nihilistic intentions had built up before his flight to Paris. Such traits had formed his image, dubbed as an uncontrollable hedonist amongst the American population. To an extent, he was. But he was also just a man who misunderstood old-school establishments, who wished to be loved through his free-spirited philosophy. Morrison’s antics shouldn’t eclipse the fact that The Doors wrote a hefty amount of damn good music in a very short space of time. What other band had articulated a counter cultural resistance so forcefully? The Beatles, perhaps, but despite their widespread influence, they would never quite match Morrison’s fertile lyrics that tested the boundaries of personal license. No one would.
You could faithfully categorise Jim Morrison as the driving force of rock and roll. But truth be told, that seems to be a somewhat limiting term to prescribe. Morrison was a poetic vehicle – he wanted to be seen as a philosopher, and since the sixties, countercultures have embraced a duty to honouring his literary heroism. Morrison’s self-published book of poetry received a pretty underwhelming response in 1969, but in the summer of this year, I saw it on the shelves of countless stores along Sunset Boulevard. Taking a walk along the Ocean Front Walk in Venice, I met Morning Shot – a mural of Morrison that artist Rip Cronk created in 1991. Across the Atlantic, ‘ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟΝ ΔΑΙΜΟΝΑ ΕΑΥΤΟΥ’ sits on his grave in Paris’s Pere Lachaise – roughly translated as ‘true to his own spirit.’ Much like the minds of all great poets, that’s why Jim Morrison still – and always will – be important. For individuals who acknowledge the dreams and nightmares of modern existence, there’s a comfort in listening to the tongue of a man who first rendered free spirited life into lyrics. And speaking from a summer retrospect, that comfort is even clearer in Los Angeles: a space that has carved his symbolism into a way of life. 75 years on from his birth, Mr. Mojo is still rising.