Whether we consider Jim Morrison a poet or a rock star, his real art was as a vocalist. This was a form that he mastered, and studied, and took very seriously.
Look at the Hollywood Bowl concert, or listen to his poetry recordings, and you will start to understand his prowess in vocal phrasing, his sense of timing and feel, his complete lack of hackery and automatic recital. Morrison never phrased the same thing the same way twice. He relished the possibilities in the rhythms each word presented, the way you could rearrange conversational cliches to make poetry.
The word ‘spontaneity’ is obviously overused to the point of being meaningless, but in Morrison’s case it is a practical description of his approach to vocal performance.
At the very least, the common image of Morrison as a buffoon pretending to be Byron doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, when you study him as a vocalist. He sounds like no one else, but you can hear echoes of Billy Holiday, Sinatra and Johnny Cash. He is versatile, can go from lyrical whisper to a gasoline growl in an instant, and had a Brando-esque ability to balance the violence and the tender with a Shakespearean command.
The charge of pretentiousness relies on the iconic image of him as a mere stream-of-consciousness garbler, a man who made theatrical use of his babbling narcissism.
When you listen to LA Woman, whatever limitations you may or may not find in the writing, the performance, the timing and ironic sense of feel, the playfulness of his delivery, show an artist who considered the effect of his work very deeply. There is a self-awareness and sensitivity to his audience that is overlooked with an almost ideological fervour by his critics. It suits everyone to dismiss Morrison as a cavorting fake, because to admit any level of craftsmanship would be to admit that a beautiful, sexually dangerous drunk had greater talents than oneself. An unconscionable proposition.
At the very worst, The Doors could be shambling, disordered and masturbatory. However, their characteristic style was progressive and dangerous, and very much centred around playful rhythm.
This playfulness extended to Morrison’s verse, which no one can argue is Milton or Donne, but is far better than is usually given credit for.
Morrison wrote in moving images. If we can say that the Ezra Pound imagism of the early twentieth century was a response to photography, Morrison’s great innovation was to write in dynamic images, as a response to cinema.
Without this understanding of Morrison, and without putting two and two together with his background in film and his love of Brechtian theatre, the poetry will inevitably seem meaningless and contrived.
In its proper context, it can be seen as an attempt to make poetry come off like film, to communicate via images and internal dialogue, rather than sculpted lyric for the page.
A perfect example is LA Woman, the song. We are placed in a revving car on the Sunset Strip, images of topless bars and drunks flashing past us, and a girl’s hair streaming in the flying air.
The song is all about creating a sense of movement, and we don’t get this just from Densmore’s drumming or Krieger’s hysteric runs.
‘I see your hair is burnin’
Hills are filled with fire
If they say I never loved you
You know they are a liar
Drivin’ down your freeway
Midnight alleys roam
Cops in cars,
The topless bars
Never saw a woman…
So alone, so alone
So alone, so alone’
‘Midnight alleys roam’. You’re right, it doesn’t make sense, grammatically. But imagistically, it makes perfect sense. It’s language as cinema.
The language is forced and contorted to meet the stretched activity of the moving thought being communicated.
Morrison was a master of this. In Texas Radio And The Big Beat, the phrase, ‘soft, driven, slow and mad, like some new language,’ captures perfectly the swampy, overwhelming and dreadful creative possibilities that the young poet felt in confrontation with the blues and rock and roll music of his youth. The words don’t make sense the way a WH Auden poem makes sense. This stuff won’t pass the test of literary society.
A pretentious person wants to be accepted, to be part of the cool crew. Morrison sang the blues as himself, not in impersonation of anyone. In this sense, he’s easily a better vocalist than Mick Jagger. No cultural appropriation here, sorry.
Morrison’s style is his own, it’s the growling, theatrical, ironic intellectual outburst of a damaged, middle-class and mercurial boy. His soul is as expansive as the western desert, everything from barren sands to sweltering suburbs. It’s both apocalyptic and a celebration of the human spirit.
The strongest argument for calling Morrison a true poet lies in John Densmore’s creative reaction to his words. Densmore said himself that on first hearing:
‘You know the day destroys the night
Night divides the day
Try to run, try to hide
Break on through to the other side’
…he heard rhythms, his jazz instrumentalist’s brain was awakened to the possibilities of song dynamics in such subtle and joyful interchange between rhythm and image.
Densmore is a consummate percussionist, one of the great underrated heroes of modern music, a true innovator in combing jazz music with rock and roll, something which has never been achieved since, without seeming bloated and tiresome.
The test of a poet should never be if another poet likes it. It should never be a decision for the critic. But when a drummer, himself admired by the likes of jazz genius Elvin Jones, says he can’t help playing along to your words, then you know are onto something.
People say such and such a thing is pretentious because their own relationship with their subconscious is thwarted. Their own creative energy feels like a threat, rather than a strange friend. In a word, they have failed to break on through.
You create movement, by creating friction. And Morrison’s poetry gets its energy not from established meters, or from mimicking an accepted style, but from innovating a new way of combining words and rhythms that clash and seem incongruous.
This is deliberate, just as his suspenseful phrasing and ability to goad and provoke a crowd were deliberate. Whatever you think of Morrison as a poet, claiming that he is a stoned idiot jacking himself off, is a clear sign of ignorance, not just of his music, but of the history of poetry itself.