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My strange days with Jim Morrison and The Doors

I was in Class 10, when one day while going through my father’s much coveted music tapes collection, I stumbled across a singer whose influence would alter the course of my life - Jim Morrison, writes Jairaj Singh.

india Updated: Dec 15, 2012 15:49 IST
Jairaj Singh

I was in Class 10, when one day while going through my father’s much coveted music tapes collection, I stumbled across a singer whose influence would alter the course of my life. Jim Morrison, the legendary frontman of The Doors and the most iconic rock star of all time, who immortalised his name in less than seven years of performing on stage, was about to blow my mind for better or worse.

I don’t know whether it was Morrison’s voice, poetry, or mystique, I first felt drawn to, but he triggered a phase of upheaval in my life, and inspired me to sink deep within like a stone, and find words to express myself.

In those days, there wasn’t much literature available on rock ’n’ roll, apart from the little band profile you would find on the leaflet of cassettes, and little nuggets of trivia fans carried in their hearts. I was fortunate to find a copy of Morrison’s biography No One Here Gets Out Alive.

No One Here Gets Out Alive was fascinating and thrilling. It gave an insight into the mind of a singer who was supremely dark, mysterious, sexy and sublime, and inspired by French poet and libertine Arthur Rimbaud.

Morrison began by influencing me to write poetry, read Greek plays, listen to blues and jazz, and write letters to girls. The more I heard The Doors, the more fascinated I grew of his dark brooding allusions to war, love, despair, alienation and death. So much so, his life became some sort of an obsession.

I started to read the books he read to understand what went on in his head and discovered the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Jack London, F Scott Fitzgerald, Franz Kafka, William Blake, Aldous Huxley and Charles Baudelaire.

Unlike today, where within minutes you can buy or download entire discographies of bands; it took me more than a decade to collect all The Doors’ albums and bootlegs.

Listening to music wasn’t just selecting songs you liked then, it meant hearing all the tracks of an album in an order, and knowing which song came next. It was a slow, gradual and special process. Before I knew it, Morrison was in my head.

I also read other biographies of his by band mates and other biographers, while watching his influence blossom on a generation listening to their parent’s music. I saw kids younger than me, wearing Morrison t-shirts, talking about how they could relate to him, doing some serious stuff.

I began to hit a rough patch in school: my grades suffered, I was getting into trouble for keeping long hair, and had been caught with contraband at home. To make matters worse, I overheard my father tell my mother one day that he felt responsible because his music had led me astray.

Even though I knew I wasn’t trying to pretend to be Jim Morrison. How could I? I could never sing to save my life. I knew there was a no way out. I had to snap out of it as though I was trapped in a dream.

I don't think I particularly changed though, but I started to discover other music and books. I also watched Almost Famous and wished to become a music journalist.

A few years later, I happened to see Olive Stone’s biopic The Doors, starring Val Kilmer, and I hit a brick wall. The film was visually stunning, factually incorrect and morbidly magical. But, it left me down and out, screaming in my head.

Even though Stone wonderfully recreates the persona of The Doors, he made Morrison appear like a shallow alcoholic with serious intellectual and personality hang-ups. I took it personally.

Ironically, Kilmer with long hair and leather pants, looked so close to the real thing, it took even die hard fans by surprise. Much later, Stone would confess how he had made a mess of the film, and, if he ever got another chance, would like to set it right. He never did. But the damage was done.

You can’t blame him, too. Most music critics still see Morrison as an over-the-top, arrogant and an overrated artist, including the great Lester Bangs. For the rest, it became just cool to criticise The Doors. They openly mocked the man who made every other wild and attention craving rock star appear a cliché.

But, they were partly right about the music. The Doors was not a traditional rock band. Morrison didn’t play an instrument, he was mostly off when he sang, and the band would always have to adjust its temperament and style around him.

In his tribute, singer Marilyn Manson told the Rolling Stone magazine, when they listed The Doors 41 out of the 100 greatest music bands of all time: “They didn't have a bass player. The music often had nothing to do with what Morrison was singing. The keyboard (played by Ray Manzarek) held everything together... Robby Krieger played very odd guitar parts... Yet all this combined into something unique that grabbed people's attention.”

This is not to say The Doors did not sound good. They were a crazy concoction of blues, acid rock, drunken ballads and wild poetry. Morrison concerts, as soon as they took off, became notoriously eponymous and theatrical.

Fans would descend from all over to witness his wild antics on stage and linger on to his immortal words. If by chance they didn't see what they came for, they would egg Morrison on to do something more and more controversial and ridiculous.

The pressure on him was growing immense by late 60s. Afraid of becoming a nervous wreck, he was desperate to return to his roots in poetry, films and music. Before he could, sadly, he got swept away by the deluge of his legacy.

Vir Sanghvi in his famous column, Rude Music, once pointed out, how most people (unfortunately) consider Roadhouse Blues to be the greatest song of The Doors, whereas for him it was always LA Woman (the title track of his last album).

Morrison sang LA Woman at a time when his critics had written him off and declared his career dead. But, ask any professional singer and you’ll be told how difficult it is to sing that song. Mr Mojo was rising, indeed, but a few months later he was gone.

41years after his death, the verdict on Morrison is still split, unfortunately. Most consider him a talented, alcoholic clown, who was much ahead of his time, and became a victim of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll -- a product of his time.

Others were not so forgiving: they exonerated him by calling him a volatile angel, a mystic and shaman, who struck a Faustian deal, and then disappeared at the age of 27, like a shadow swallowed by the night.

Around the time I was traveling in Gangotri, Uttarkashi, there was a rumour floating that Morrison had not died because of mixing drugs and alcohol in a bathtub in Paris, 1971, but in fact escaped to India.

I thought I saw an old foreigner sitting on the side of a street, smiling and talking to the locals in the sun. When I looked again, he disappeared.

Last week was Morrison's 69th birthday, I happened to be at Cafe Morrison. As I saw a hundred odd fans dance to the greatest hits, it hit me what Morrison has been trying to tell me all these years. "Well, I've been down so very damn long/That it looks like up to me/Yeah, why don't one you people/come on and set me free."

Other lesser-known hits:

Love Street

Peace Frog

Yes, The River Knows

Land Ho!

Ship of Fools

Hyacinth House

Moonlight Drive

Maggie M’Gill

Black Train Song

Crawling King Snake

Indian Summer

End of the Night

Blue Sunday

The Spy