Growing up, my mom had serious cred with friends of mine for having palled around with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and other Haight-Ashbury (less famous) standards—once, even kicking Jimi Hendrix out of her house when he’d shown up with a friend of hers extremely drunk (or extremely something). With this history running through my veins, I could never bring myself to take Jim Morrison seriously. He always seemed, in my view, to be trying too hard to force his way into the company of 60s greats. Nothing about him ever felt authentic. (Years later I’d feel similarly about a rock god of my own generation, Kurt Cobain. That’s a different story for a different time, but real quick, try to imagine starting high school in 1993 and not liking Nirvana all that much.) So, feeling like his whole persona was a put-on, I could never bring myself to take too seriously the music of The Doors. Don’t get me wrong, I have fond teenage memories in which The Doors provide the soundtrack. (Driving over a bridge, toward an oncoming thunderstorm, while “Riders on the Storm” played loudly on the radio.) But most of those were fueled by something other than the music, something that always seemed necessary in order for The Doors’ music to feel inspiring, to lose its self-consciousness.
So when I received an email yesterday from the good folks at The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, with the subject line, “Was Jim Morrison a poet?” I had my answer ready before the email even opened: “No. No way was Jim Morrison a poet.” Something, though—maybe some mystical force brought in by some desert wind—made me hesitate before hitting the delete button. (More likely it was simply that the question came from The Poetry Foundation and not some would-be author hawking a book on the great mystic poet, Jim Morrison.)
The email was referencing an essay by Daniel Nester on The Poetry Foundation’s website, where the author tackles that very question: “Should we consider Jim Morrison, rock’s Bozo Dionysus, a real poet?” Nester’s first sentence gets the discussion off on just the right foot: “There are two kinds of people in this world: those who think the Doors are a hokey caricature of male rock stardom and those who think they’re, you know, shamans.” That’s about it, isn’t it? From my story above, you know which camp I fall in. And I’ve known those people on the “shaman” side of the aisle and have no idea where they stand on the matter years later. Nester’s essay assumes most of them, in their elder, wiser years, are slightly embarrassed by their devotion to the man and the band. He’s probably right. But he comes across serious people who have thought about the matter seriously and have concluded that The Lizard King was a serious poet. But maybe it’s all beside the point. As Nester reasons, “I have stopped worrying whether James Douglas Morrison…can join the tenuous tribe of poets. He’s been showing up for the meetings for so long now, there’s no sense in throwing him out.”
I don’t know if Nester’s essay has changed my mind about Jim Morrison, but at one point, after David Lehman is quoted talking about “People Are Strange” (“Lehman types out the lyrics in his email to ‘show how rhetorically balanced the first stanza is, each line divided into two clauses conjoined by ‘when.’’”), I found myself on some lyrics website, rereading those first few lines a bit more seriously than I ever had before.
What’s your take on Jim Morrison as song writer and poet? And after reading Nester’s essay have your views changed? Leave your comments below.