The American poet, screenwriter, lyricist and rock singer James Douglas Morrison (1943-1971), better known as Jim Morrison, continues to be one of the most influential artists nowadays. Leader of The Doors, Morrison created a unique mythology in the songs of the LA band. Described as ‘Goth rock’ by John Stickney in the late 1960s, the Doors’ sound embodies darkness, transgression, sex and death in contrast with the hippie atmosphere of the West Coast of the time. In his theatrical rock, Morrison depicted his philosophical and literary influences from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy, to Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Kurt Weill, the Beat Generation, Joseph Campbell or James Frazer among others. Due to the supernatural elements of his texts and his charismatic persona, Morrison emerges as a model in pieces of fiction connected to the Gothic or horror such as Joel Schumacher’s Lost Boys (1987), Anne Rice’s creation of the rock star Lestat in The Queen of the Damned (1988), or Charles Burns’s Black Hole, collected in 2005.
This blog post will not examine Morrison’s scandals as a rock star or emphasise his death at the age of 27 as other relevant musicians, it will explore his work as a songwriter and poet. To do so, I will analyse some of his texts taking into account three sources of inspiration: the British author and artist William Blake and how Morrison echoes his ideas in The Lords (1969), James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890) influence on the song Not to Touch the Earth (1968) and Morrison’s myth of the Lizard King, and shamanism as presented in his poetry and different songs. The recent publishing of The Collected Works of Jim Morrison: Poetry, Journals, Transcripts and Lyrics has been really helpful to study Morrison’s work.
William Blake, The Doors of Perception and Cinema
It has been widely written that The Doors took their name from Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954) , a philosophical essay on Huxley’s psychedelic experience under the influence of mescaline and whose title comes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793). The famous quote Blake penned states: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.” From their first single “Break on Through”, The Doors explored Blake’s conception of the mind’s eye, or reaching to view things through the mind and not the senses. Morrison’s experiences with drugs helped him achieve this goal, yet his interest in the subject was much deeper than the mere consumption of psychedelic drugs.
|Plate 14 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell|
As Greenham claims, Blake’s work provides a guide “for the individual to forge a path to freedom from the constraints of the world” (p. 19), and Morrison, throughout his writing, explores “the disconnective function of vision” and how “through the act of birth and growth, a natural state for humanity, the individual becomes increasingly dissociated from the unity out of which he was created.” (p.19) Morrison, thus, connects with Blake’s ideas of Body and Soul through his notions of vision and desire. For Morrison, the individual wishes to return to the origin, to the body of the mother from which they come from, and this desire should not be impeded. Additionally, Morrison emphasises touching as the means of understanding the objects around us, a sense acquired in his “womb-garden”, where vision is no longer necessary:
“Urge to come to terms with the “Outside,” by absorbing, interiorizing it. I won’t come out, you must come in to me. Into my womb-garden where I peer out. Where I can construct a universe within the skull, to rival the real.” (Morrison, The Lords, XX, p. 98)
This quote is taken from The Lords: Notes on Vision, a collection of unnamed poems commenced while Morrison was a cinema student at UCLA, and which he self-published in 1969. The poems contain the concepts Morrison developed in his songs, and adds short texts on what films and cinema meant to the singer. The poet described the book as “a thesis on film aesthetics”’ (Riordan& Prochnicky, p.57).
Interestingly, the singer relates cinema to alchemy, a philosophy and science in which he was widely interested and well-read: “Early film-makers, who –like the alchemists –delighted in a wilful obscurity about their craft, in order to withhold their skills from profane onlookers” (Morrison, XLIV, p.144) are among the voyeurs the poet associated with filmmaking. For Morrison, the camera is an “all-seeing god,”, who “satisfies our longing for omniscience.” By doing so, we can “spy on others from this height and angle: pedestrians pass in and out of our lens like rare aquatic insects” (Morrison, IV, p.74). Morrison distinguishes two evolutions in cinema: spectacle like the Phantasmagoria, “a total substitute sensory world”, and the “peep show”, which “claims for its realm both the erotic, and the untampered observation of real life” (XXXV, p. 126)
Morrison describes cinema in Gothic terms defining films as “collections of dead pictures which are given artificial insemination” (XXV, p. 108). The illusion of the cinema consists of a game of stories the audience witnesses.
There are no longer “dancers,” the possessed. The cleavage of men into actors and spectators is the central fact of our time....We are content with the “given” in sensation’s quest. We have been metamorphosed from a mad body dancing on hillsides to a pair of eyes staring in the dark (XI, p.88)
The comparison between the ceremonies held by shamans and the lack of participation from the audience who watches the films in emphasised when Morrison describes film spectators as “quiet vampires” (XXVI, p.110) who feed upon an illusion. Morrison’s description of the viewer echoes Nina Auerbach’s analysis of the psychic vampires, who “instead of merely drinking blood, they sap energy, but all twentieth-century vampires suck identity from the psychic vampires who infiltrate the eroticism, the ambition, and the power determinants of ordinary life.” (p.101) Where Auerbach studies literary narratives such as George Sylvester Viereck’s The House of the Vampire (1907) to depict vampiric characters, Morrison relocates the vampires in real life. Viewers drain the energy from the films they see for pleasure in contrast to the ecstasy felt in ancient communal celebrations. The “Lords” Morrison writes about are the controlling forces who set the boundaries in a numb/vampiric society without a connection to the transcendent. We are not free to choose, we are given what we must read, listen to, see and like. Morrison’s role as a shaman to connect back to the instincts will be explained in the last section of my blog post, his attempt to awake the society from their sleep through his poems.
Nevertheless, before I move on, I’d like to recommend this 1970 interview in which Morrison explains some of his views on a diverse range of topics, from technology to cinema:
“Not to Touch the Earth”, The Lizard King and the Lizard Woman
In 1968, The Doors published their third studio album named Waiting for the Sun. The track “Not to Touch the Earth” was included in it, as part of an extended piece entitled “The Celebration of the Lizard”. Morrison attempted to introduce the 17-minute session of the piece in the album, but finally only the track was added, and the poem appeared on the gatefold LP sleeve.
The song starts with the lines, “Not to touch the earth, not to see the sun”, subchapters from the 60th chapter of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Frazer’s text, a comparative study of mythology and religion, contains the chapter named “Between Heaven and Earth” with “Not to Touch the Earth” as the first subchapter, and “Not to See the Sun” as the second one. The chapter develops the superstitions against royalty and priests walking directly on the ground or having the sun shining on them, beliefs common in diverse primitive cultures.
The last words of the song by The Doors relate the Sun, his desire for the Moon, and being the Lizard King:
We should see the gates by
We should be inside the evenin'
Sun, sun, sun
Burn, burn, burn
Soon, soon, soon
Moon, moon, moon
I will get you
Soon, soon, soon!
I am the Lizard king
I can do anything
“The Celebration of the Lizard”, which can be listened to in the following video, was explained by Morrison himself:
The lizard and the snake are identified with the unconscious and the forces of evil. That piece “Celebration of the Lizard” was kind of an invitation to the dark forces. It’s all done tongue-in-cheek. I don’t think people realize that. It’s not to be taken seriously. It’s like if you play the villain in a western it doesn’t mean that that’s you. It’s just an aspect that you keep for the show. I don’t really take that seriously. That’s supposed to be ironic (The Collected Works of Jim Morrison, p.45)
By being the Lizard King, the poet becomes the leader of the celebration, the guide who encourages his followers to be “insane” and to “break through”:
Once I had, a little game
I liked to crawl back into my brain
I think you know the game I mean
I mean the game called 'go insane'
Now, you should try this little
Just close your eyes, forget your name
Forget the world, forget the people
And we'll erect a different steeple
This little game is fun to do
Just close your eyes, no way to lose
And I'm right here, I'm going too
Release control, we're breaking through, yeah
The idea of insanity had already appeared in texts like “The End” from the first album, yet, while in that song, madness echoes the constrictions of the human consciousness, in The Celebration it fosters connecting with the mother, the transcendence that can only be reached by breaking the senses.
Although the poet emphasised not to be taken seriously, he is commonly referred to as The Lizard King, and his reptile persona continues nowadays. In his poetry, Morrison not only wrote about snakes and lizards, but also insects; and he did not only mention the Lizard King, he also focused on the less known lizard woman.
As Greenham states, the serpent “crosses the thresholds of life: sex, birth, death and resurrection.” (p. 63) Morrison, separating himself from archetypes in which the serpent woman or lamia depicts vampiric features and embodies a threat especially to men and children, unites the woman and the serpent in his concept of the lizard woman. In his mythology, Morrison blends the reptile and the woman to express how they are the transcendent, and it is the civilization with its rules the one which corrupts the human beings. Through the lizard woman, Morrison expresses the desire to return to the womb of the mother. Besides, the woman has been traditionally associated with the moon, and by linking the serpent and the moon, he reinforces the circle like an ouroboros, the cycle life, death and rebirth.
The lizard woman also emerges in poems like the following from Morrison’s second collection The New Creatures (1969):
w/ your insect eyes
w/your wild surprise
Warm daughter of silence. (VII, p.12)
This connection between lizards and the transcendent is constantly emphasised by Morrison’s introduction of shamanism in pieces such as the abovementioned “The Celebration of the Lizard” and in other poems and songs. The last section of my blog post will focus on how the poet’s beliefs in the spiritual practice emerge in some of his texts.
Jim Morrison The Shaman
In 1947, when Morrison was
three to four years old, he allegedly witnessed an accident while travelling
with his family near Albuquerque. The singer commented on several occasions how
he recalled that, as their car passed by, he could see some Indian labourers
injured on the road. The incident was referred to in the song “Peace Frog” from the
1970 album Morrison Hotel as well as in the spoke performances of “Dawn’s Highway” with the emphasised lines “Indians scattered
on dawn's highway bleeding,
Ghosts crowd the young child's fragile eggshell mind”; and “Ghost Song”, both collected in the posthumous 1978 album An American Prayer, which included the poems Morrison recorded on his 27th birthday on 8th December 1970.
Morrison considered himself a “natural leader, a poet, a shaman, w/the soul of a clown” (“Road Days”). In the abovementioned collection The Lords, he illustrates his perception of shamanism:
In the seance, the shaman led. A sensuous panic,
deliberately evoked through drugs, chants, dancing,
hurls the shaman into trance. Changed voice,
convulsive movement. He acts like a madman. These
professional hysterics, chosen precisely for their psychotic leaning, were once esteemed. (XXXVII, p.132)
|Jim Morrison singing and dancing|
Through his poems with The Doors, he attempted to follow the shamanic tradition, yet his frustration increased when he realised that most of his audience attended the concerts to observe his erratic behaviour more than to listen to his message. Shamans are “typically thought to have the ability to heal the sick, to communicate with the otherworld, and often to escort the souls of the dead to that otherworld”, and the term “shamanism” stems from the Manchu-Tungus word šaman. The noun is formed from the verb ša- ‘to know’; thus, a shaman is literally “one who knows.” (Encyclopedia Britannica) In his shows, Morrison attempted to guide his audience towards a higher consciousness with his lyrics and dances. Songs such as “When the Music is Over” from their album Strange Days (1967), depict the aforementioned necessary connection with the transcendent and the primitive his poetry consists of:
have they done to the earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her,
Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn,
And tied her with fences and dragged her down.
Oliver Stone’s film The Doors (1991), in which Val Kilmer excels at embodying the poet, highlights Morrison’s shamanic condition. The film begins narrating the accident mentioned above, and throughout the motion picture the association between the Indian Morrison saw dying, shamanism and himself is present:
As Stanley Krippner explains, The Village Voice named Morrison a “sexual shaman”; Vogue magazine commented that his songs were “eerie, loaded with somewhat Freudian symbolism, poetic but not pretty, filled with suggestions of sex, death, and transcendence.” In a Rolling Stone interview, Morrison described a ritual as a “human sculpture. In a way it’s like art, because it gives form to energy, and in a way it’s a custom or a repetition, a habitually recurring plan or pageant that has meaning. It pervades everything.” Therefore, his references allude to shamanism as performance.
Morrison’s interest in the religious practice was so intense that he even met the Peruvian anthropologist Carlos Castaneda in an attempt to secure the film rights to The Teachings of Don Juan (1968), the first of the books Castaneda wrote in order to portray the train in shamanism he received under the tutelage of the Yaqui Don Juan Matus. Although the book is widely known in the studies of shamanism and it influenced the 1960s, the truth is that there is no consensus whether the book is a real study or fiction.
As the abovementioned William Blake wrote in The Marriage Between Heaven and Hell, “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” — (Proverbs of Hell line 3 (Plate 7)) Morrison combined all the excesses he found in Blake, shamanism and his surroundings with psychedelic drugs and especially alcohol. There are many theories about his death on 3rd July 1971: he may have died of a heart attack, a heroine overdose, or, as some claim, he even faked his death. What cannot be denied is the huge influence his songs, his poetry and his charisma had on future generations.
In conclusion, this blog post has analysed some of Jim Morrison’s songs and poetry taking into account the connections between his work and the visionary lines of William Blake, the mythological study by James Frazer The Golden Bough, and his deep relationship with shamanism and how he embodied it in his character of the Lizard King. Rest in peace, Jim.
The Doors. (1967). Los Angeles: Elektra/Asylum Records.
Strange Days. (1967). New York: Elektra/Asylum Records.
Waiting for the Sun. (1968). New York: Elektra/Asylum Records.
Morrison Hotel. (1970). New York: Electra Entertainment Group.
An American Prayer. (1978). New York: Elektra Entertainment Group.
Auerbach, N. (1995). Our Vampires, Ourselves. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Blake, W. (1793). The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/45315/45315-h/45315-h.htm [Accessed 20 June]
Castaneda, C. (1968). The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. New York: Penguin Books.
Encyclopedia Britannica. Shamanism. https://www.britannica.com/topic/shamanism [Accessed 20 June]
Frazer. J. (1890) The Golden Bough. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3623 [Accessed 20 June]
Greenham. E.J. (2008) “Vision and Desire: Jim Morrison’s Mythography Beyond the Death of God”. Master of Arts Thesis. https://ro.ecu.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1016&context=theses [Accessed 15 June]
Huxley, A. (1954). The Doors of Perception. https://archive.org/details/Huxley_Aldous_-_The_Doors_of_Perception/page/n1/mode/2up [Accessed 15 June]
Krippner, S. “Jim Morrison : A Failed Shaman?” http://www.ceoniric.cl/jim-morrison-a-failed-shaman/ [Accessed 30 June]
Lisciandro. F. (Ed.) (2021) The Collected Works of Jim Morrison. New York: Harper DesignX
Morrison, J. Las Nuevas Criaturas. Los Señores. (2008, 9th edition). Madrid: Espiral.
Riordan, J., & Prochnicky, J. (1991). Break on Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison. London: Plexus
Stone, O. (1991). The Doors [DVD]. In B. Graham & S. Harari (Producer). U.S.A.: Tri Star
Thomas, T. (1970). CBC interviews Jim Morrison.