Friday, December 8, 2006
TELL ME TALES OF JIM AND JOHN
There was a time when these two, after Dylan, were the front-running contributors to that phase of nostalgia for the music of the late '60s that I experienced in the closing years of high school, 1976-77. It meant hearing the music of The Doors for the first time -- I mean apart from recollections of '67, when "Light My Fire" was on the airwaves, and '68, when "Hello I Love You" first aired, and '71, when I bought a copy of the spooky "Riders on the Storm" around the time Morrison cashed it in. His death didn't mean a hell of a lot to me at the time. An infatuation with Morrison's simple but provcative lyrics, hypnotic voice, and narcissistic hipness didn't dawn for me till certain avenues of substance abuse opened, as they will, and the vistas presented from that vantage showed Morrison as the only proselytizer of California-inspired drug culture who seemed to accept from the start that it was a doomed trip, a kind of youthful, tribal embrace by Eros of Thanatos, or, as Joan Didion puts it, The Doors' lyrics tended to "reflect either an ambiguous paranoia or a quite unambiguous insistence upon the love-death as the ultimate high." More than that, they reflected comfort with the schizophrenic state of the times, a state that Didion can only grope toward in her memoir of the period, The White Album.
Morrison, for my money in those impressionable teen years when the end of school meant the end of everything existence had been up to that point, offered a giddy sense of how the self-involved ego could insist upon a dynamic indifference to the actual in the name of personal fiction, a mythos of imagination. Perhaps the great visionary poets had done it, but those days were long gone. Now it was only rock poets who stood a chance. The rapidly aging Beats were basically like any other long-haired college profs. Morrison, dead for five years when I started listening to him, looked to me to be a poet in that Romantic sense -- the way of Rimbaud and of Shelley: arrogant, extreme, somehow a bit beyond this world, dead young.
"Better to burn out than to fade away," Neil Young's line, hadn't been written yet in '76, in fact Johnny Rotten hadn't quite penetrated to these shores yet, but already those '60s greats who didn't burn out like Morrison were left to live on in some kind of attenuated twilight. '76 wasn't a good year for anyone who admired the music produced by that generation born 1940-45; as they passed the mid-30s it became clear that the music that had made their careers was beyond them, tied to an age and a period now superseded. So what can a poor boy do but get back to where he once belonged? (Dylan tried it with his Rolling Thunder Revue.)
Though The Beatles' hits were second-nature to anyone growing up when I did, the LPs were still material to be explored, with mature ears that could now understand something of what those times were all about (hell, I'd read Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by then, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). So welcome, John Lennon, no longer the round-faced moptop with the glib wit, but instead the angular guru with the round glasses and lank hair worn Jesus-style, sometimes with a beard that would do any rabbi proud. Back to the Lennon heyday of '66 to '69, and songs like "A Day in a Life," "Strawberry Fields Forever," "I Am the Walrus," "Come Together," "Tomorrow Never Knows," "Across the Universe," "Happiness is a Warm Gun," "Revolution," "Cry Baby Cry." In Lennon there was no posturing toward the role of doomed dionysian minister of eros that Morrison played at; instead it was the posture of the Wise Man, the savvy seer, the raised-consciousness media manipulator. The lyrics were always nonsense that might "make sense" in unexpected ways, or at least might seem to joke against sense in interesting ways.
Lennon's murder in 1980 occurred on a Monday night. Some friends and I had just left a poetry reading in Philadelphia and I stopped to call my wife. She gave me the news as I stood on a city street and it suddenly seemed as if every dark thought that might've been inspired by the Reagan election a month old was caught up symbolically in the event. I remember asking for clarification, "you mean he was shot because he's John Lennon?" It was an assassination, in other words, not simply a murder: as with MLK and RFK and Malcolm X, the '60s legacy of gunning down symbols had reached out and anachronistically struck down a relic and recluse who had just re-upped on the merry-go-round, despite what his hit "Watching the Wheels" proclaimed. As a friend, Harold Watson, who was with me that night wrote, "who saw could've not've seen whole metropolsomes/ blown away momentarily like some metaphysical/ phenomogy.// I'm double drunk man/ and it makes me surquester, richie/ has another martin been christ'd?"
The enormity of the comparison rang true in the light of those times: he died for our sins, which is to say, as scapegoat for that era which would be gleefully repudiated and repealed in the coming decade, its failed geopolitical war restored to honor, its hand-out for the underclass replaced by trickle-down, its analog recordings digitized, its cinema verité of the streets traded-in for blockbusters with "production values," its guitar-heroes derided by walls of keyboards, its radicals converted to conservatives or at least cleaning up their acts to join the mainstream, from communards to capitalist entrepeneurs, and so on. A new age dawned and eventually I even began to take musicians of my generation seriously, but still, when I recall the glory days of rock music, Jim and John are going strong, 25 and 28 respectively, the electronic media are stamping the minds of the children of the middle and working class, the college kids are making news, the 2nd Kennedy has fallen and the Democratic party is suffering a set-back it won't recover from for twenty years, if ever.
Five to one, baby, one in five/ No one here gets out alive--Jim Morrison, 1968
If I ain't dead already, oh girl, you know the reason why--John Lennon, 1968