(The Doors * Rock & Roll)
University of Memphis
Citation: Sundvall, Scott. “Jim Morrison.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 23, 2021. doi:10.20415/hyp/023.r15
Abstract: We have much to learn from the rhetoric of Jim Morrison (and The Doors) and the rhetoric employed by Jim Morrison (and The Doors). Scott Sundvall‘s piece argues that the rhetorical tension of the band partially rests on their still-today reputation as the “band you love to hate,” but also partially on the fact that they (Jim in particular) were also the “band that loved to hate you—the audience and everything about rock and roll.” And there is a positive feedback loop between the two. After all, The Doors in general, Morrison in particular, were about the (rhetorical) meaning in a lack of meaning, insofar as rock and roll itself was dead. Morrison, Sundvall suggests, was the centerpiece of such a rhetorical exchange and comportment. You either love getting your faced shoved into the shit, Sundvall/Morrison argues, or you’re going to get your kicks in before the whole shithouse goes up in flames—in true Nietzschean import. All right!
Keywords: Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, The Doors, Nietzsche, Third Sophistic, excess, bullshit.
The Doors were once called the band you love to hate, and they remain a polarizing figure in rock and roll fandom today. Their frontman, Jim Morrison, is often seen as dorm room romanticism, a fraud poet whose celebration of excess never matched his actual talent. Ray Manzarek, who played keys for The Doors, once described Jim as a showman and a shaman, a rather hyperbolic qualification that likely only fuels resentment of Jim and The Doors writ large. Their music, ranging at times from basic pop rock to blues to jazz to spoken word ensembles, was nonetheless innovative. For example, they were one of the first bands to popularize the Moog and make it mainstream, as it replaced an otherwise bassist. They were the bad boys of rock, Jim at center stage—dark and mysterious LA sounds during a time of flower power grooves, with Jim visually highlighting their sound with his leather-clad appearance and baritone vocal range.
Thus, the rhetoric of The Doors: their song “Five to One” captures their disillusionment with the hippie movement: as it goes, “walk around with your flowers in your hand/trying to tell me nobody understands.” Jim called for actual revolution—what that is, or whatever that means, or whatever such might look like. He once yelled at a crowd, before playing “Five to One, in an attempt to instigate them: “You like getting your nose shoved into the shit; you love it,” he once yelled during a concert. His lyrics were matched at times by his confrontations with police while performing, in one instance, of course, leading to his infamous Miami arrest.
Jim was, after all, an avid reader of Nietzsche, as well as other writers, thinkers, artists, as reflected in his behavior and comportment, music, and films when he was a film student at UCLA. He even once wrote a piano ballad, “Ode to Nietzsche,” which you can find on YouTube, if you want. He was living homeless when Manzarek, a colleague of his in film school, invited him to sing for what would be The Doors, spotting him on the beach. Jim would later claim that his parents were dead, that a Native American spirit had inhabited his body—if not soul—after a fatal road accident as a child, that life was in a constant and precarious balance between order and chaos. Some of these things are certainly; some of these things might very likely be true. He noted in an interview that he believed in the cyclical motion of history and therein of revolutions; in another interview he made fun of the concept of making money itself. It was rather clear early on that Jim would likely join the 27 Club, and yet he had no problem with that. There was nothing tragic about it (assuming, of course, that he actually died).
The rhetoric of The Doors in general, Jim Morrison in particular, has significant relevance to and in the context of our contemporary moment. Jim would be surprised by none of it. Jim once addressed astrology on stage at a concert, noting that he was a Sagittarius, the most philosophical of all signs. One can hear the fans yelling that they, too, believed in astrology. He responded by saying, as the most philosophical of all signs, of course, that he thought it was all a bunch of bullshit. This was the kind of rhetorical turn that Jim would make, using his platform as showman and shaman, to toy with belief—even though the fickle gullibility of rock and roll fans annoyed him, if not disillusioned him. He wanted to get into poetry and film, of course, but he was rather unsuccessful with both, but though again he had little time to try. As it were, somebody was following him.
Jim’s Nietzschean rhetoric—if we can propose such a thing—is perhaps best typified by this comment once given on stage, particularly relevant to our current moment of economic and health crises: “I don’t know about you, but I’m gonna get my kicks in before the whole shithouse goes up in flames—all right!”
Jim belongs to a unique tradition of art and thought: Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Henry Miller. He fits the mold of the Third Sophistic, if we are to place him within a rhetorical tradition. Take the lyrics to the song, “Whiskey, Mystics, and Men”:
Well, I'll tell you a story
Of whiskey and mystics and men
And about the believers and
How the whole thing began
First there were women and
Children obeying the moon
Then daylight brought wisdom
And fever and sickness too soon
You can try to remind me
Instead of the other, you can
You can help to insure
That we all insecure our command
If you don't give a listen
I won't try to tell your new hand
This is it; can't you see
That we all have our ends in the band
And if all of the teachers and
Preachers of wealth were arraigned
We could see quite a future
For me in the literal sands
And if all the people
Could claim to inspect such regrets
Well, we'd have no forgiveness
Forgetfulness, faithful remorse
So I tell you, I tell you
I tell you we must send away
We must try to find a
New answer instead of a way
Jim’s life was short, but it was of excess, significant, and it was enough to base a movie on. He got his kicks in, and yet the shithouse did indeed go up in flames—literally and figuratively. He refused to find a new way. He knew it and flushed.
Jim Morrison's Remix Statement
So, you know, it really happened by accident, really, not by design, or anything like that—me becoming this rock star figure or mythological persona or counterculture hero, or, you know, whatever any of that means, anyway. I’m not going to say I hated all of it, but I wasn’t really built for it, you know, personally—I was just built for it according to the industry. I wanted to be an artist, sure, but there’s no art in rock and roll—rock and roll is dead anyway. I tried to get into jazz and blues later on, but that was only marginally successful. They want a pretty face and voice; they want to see you die. It’s a circus; it’s a vaudeville production; it’s not art. But we all know that, right?
So, I dropped out of film school at UCLA for, you know, the same reasons: the movie industry being just as vampiric as the music industry. Nobody wants to think; they want to follow. Same charades. So, in a way, I was perfect for the rock gig, though it’s a deflating and soul-sucking endeavor. A showman, a shaman, a monster—I was called a lot of things. I didn’t really care for any of it. But when I tried to get back into poetry and film, admittedly using my rock persona as leverage, I couldn’t be taken seriously. It’s a funny thing: being a loved and hated rock star is—it’s a gift-curse, and there is only ever one way out of it.
But anyway, I dropped out of film school and was living homeless by choice, spending a lot of time, you know, on the beaches of Venice. I actually went to film school with Ray, actually, and he found me on the beach and wanted to catch up. I showed him some poetry and songs, and he wanted me to sing one, so I did. And turns out he was forming a band, and he invited me to sing. And we named ourselves The Doors after Huxley’s Doors of Perception, which I maybe regret, but, I don’t know, we were young, and I really didn’t care.
So, we got a residency at The Whiskey as a house band, and you maybe wouldn’t believe this, but I had incredible stage fright. And I’d keep my back to the audience at first. Another part of me just hated the shallow theatrics of it all, though I later realized how such could be, you know, appropriated for artistic effect—at least in theory, right? And this is why the whole Miami debacle is so silly, at least to me—I’d never pull out my dick on stage. It was just another vaudeville gag for a vaudeville operation—the slip of a finger between the zipper. But the more people love you, the more people hate you. And so I had a nervous breakdown.
I really wasn’t into the money, though, I don’t know, having money can be nice, though it can also be a curse in its own right. I never wanted bullions of gold or anything like that. I would have been fine living on rooftops, roaming like a nomad, pursuing more meaningful art. This is largely why I left the business and moved to Paris. People didn’t recognize me there, or if they did, it wasn’t a big fanfare deal. I was just another guy, another artist. America was a disaster and it had turned me into a disaster, not that there is anything necessarily wrong with that.
The fickle gullibility of people annoyed me, and it was kind of highlighted in rock and roll. All these screaming teens, soon to become subservient adult subjects, moving in the wrong directions, led without thinking by equally thoughtless leaders—sham gurus and sex symbols and celebrity. I don’t know. People want to believe in something, but they don’t want to be inconvenienced by any thought that, you know, would otherwise substantiate it. They don’t want novels or poetry; they want glossy magazine pictures. They don’t want music; they want rock and roll, whatever that is, or whatever it used to be, or once was. You know, they want an orgy without a price tag. They want horoscopes to predict the future for them, cos they don’t want to take ownership of it. Cos the future is scary, and the future is death. And that’s really what they want.
So it’s never been anything much more than that—for me. A cosmic accident played on a clown who blows it at all the right moments. I think I tried, perhaps failed, but by whatever rubric, man, I don’t know. I’m not ashamed of my time with the Doors or anything. Yeah, it was fun, ya know? It was a gag. But that’s really all it was. Not sure if that’s disappointing, but that’s what it was. I suppose that’s what it still is. And really, there’s nothing wrong with that.