The Doors (of Perception)

Posted on 27 Jul 2021.
Image from the documentary When You’re Strange, dir. Tom DiCillo, 2010

We’re fortunate to have good access to updates on American popular culture on our television. Recently we watched a documentary on the popular music outfit The Doors, When You’re Strange (dir. Tom DiCillo, 2010), which differs from the celebrated biopic on Jim Morrison, featuring Val Kilmer as the protagonist (The Doors, dir. Oliver Stone, 1991), in that it takes a less heroic view on the vocalist. To Oliver Stone, Morrison stood as the countercultural hero of the (Left) 1960s/70s, and his demise symbolised the victory of the dark, reactionary forces of jingoist America over the freedom-loving individual of the youth revolution.

The 1991 biopic suffers from this narrow frame, and in the Stone film Morrison’s brilliant bandmates Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist, and Morrison’s own favourite on slide guitar, Robby Krieger, are placed firmly in the background, as props for the ever-present and mysteriously genial Morrison.

DiCillo’s documentary takes a more complex view, both on the band, and on Morrison himself. First, there is no doubt left that the particular sound and approach was a team effort, and that when the group later tore apart the responsibility lay squarely on Morrison’s shoulders. Second, the documentary seems truthful in its portrayal of Morison’s shy character. He stood with his back to the crowd for the first concerts, not daring to face them; he talked disparagingly of photo sessions and portraits of himself; and, most importantly, he saw himself as a literary poet, dedicated to writing and the written word. Never was he as happy as when he was able to write sensitive and meaningful words to be read or heard as literary achievements, when he recorded his own spoken word poetry, or when Simon & Schuster decided to publish a collection of his poetry. The stage and its fame was alluring, but his awkwardness with crowds and other people made Morrison a stranger, even in the midst of adoration and hero-worship, a state of affairs that was sadly perpetuated with Stone’s 1991 biopic.

So was it fame that murdered Morrison? Or was it alcohol? DiCillo’s documentary leaves it open. In a country so infatuated with popularity and monetary success the urge to write poetry or participate in any other kind of high cultural endeavour for its own sake must seem strange indeed. And Morrison was strange, to his times, and, ultimately, to himself. The frontier mentality is brought out well in his relationship to his father, a combatant in the Vietnam war. On one of The Doors’s first albums Morrison had declared in the liner notes that his family was “dead.” In return, or so it may seem, his father, when asked later about his superstar son, answered journalists that Jim should immediately end his musical career, as he had no talent for it. The skirmishes continued into the family, and in the end an uprooted Morrison died alone in his bathtub in a Paris hotel, drunk beyond his wits, and far away from his adoring culture.

He kept looking for his literary roots, his Rimbaud, his Chopin, and his Oscar Wilde.

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About Torgeir Fjeld
Writer, publisher, and educational administrator, holding PhDs in Philosophy (EGS, 2017) and Cultural Theory (Roehampton, 2012). Latest publications include Introducing Ereignis: Philosophy, Technology, Way of Life (2022) and Rock Philosophy (2019) and articles in Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, International Journal of Žižek Studies, and others. Presently serving as Head of Ereignis Center for Philosophy and the Arts, Publisher at Tankebanen forlag, and Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed journal Inscriptions. Fjeld has taught at universities across North America, Europe, and Africa. Here is section dedicated to poetry in translation. This page has a cookie policy.