"To some, Jim was a poet, his soul trapped between heaven and hell. To others, he was just another rock star who crashed and burned. But this much is true. You can't burn out if you're not on fire." (Source: Unclebarky)
It's well-known, as commentators to this blog have pointed out, that, especially toward the end of his life, Morrison wanted to be considered a poet. The documentary tells us that Pamela Courson, his lifelong mate, urged him to quit the rock star life altogether and devote himself to his second love. Michael McClure and a number of scholars have considered his writings important.
I myself am no expert on his poetry; you'll have to check it out for yourself. (Perhaps comments can enlighten me?)
But the issue the film brings up for me isn't whether he was a "good" poet or not. It's why his literary status seems important in the first place. Couldn't he be a key 60s figure on the strength of his music alone?
Can't 60s Rock Stars Just Be Rock Stars?
There is, in fact, a whole genre of "60s-rockers-who-are-called-poets" (by critics, other writers, fans and the press). Morrison joins the ranks of troubadours such as John Lennon and Bob Dylan (and later, others). As featured in an earlier post, Dylan especially has been subjected to "poetic recitations" of his lyrics. Why, I wonder, can't we just let rock stars be rock stars?
The answer, I think, is that that for many their music so vividly captures the feelings of the era that these individuals are seen to embody the era itself. So much so, that judging them becomes a way to judge the 60s.
I am reminded in connection with this of Alain Badiou's observation that in France, a common way to explain away the trauma of "May 1968" is to "reduce" it "to a student stampede for sexual liberation." If Morrison and The Doors, Dylan and Lennon, were just about "sex, drugs and rock n' roll" -- very well. They were right. We were all too uptight. Now let's get back to business as usual.
But if Morrison was more like, say, William Blake (who is invoked often in the film) than "the American version of the Rolling Stones," his legacy, and by extension the 60s, can be seen as more than just a big frat party. And the visions of the era of enduring value (like canonical texts) and perhaps even sustainable -- rather than simply evanescent drug hallucinations.
Then there's the fact, as Bourdieu pointed out, that poetry, since Modernism, has presented itself as the art form least interested in values such as money, power and even popularity. Calling these figures "poets", then, suggests they may not have been sold on the mainstream ethos of "if-you're-so-smart-how-come-you-ain't-rich (or powerful or popular)". It's a way of saying, in other words, that they, and the era they symbolize, were sincerely (as we think of Blake) rebellious.
Why Does Johnny Depp Sound Over-Dramatic?
Of course, no single rock band or singer (no matter how cool), can bear the weight of such historical importance. That's why the deep, at times hushed tone of Johnny Depp's narration seems overdone, at times even unintentionally funny.
It's also why I think the script of this documentary sounds so similar to other 60s rock docs. It seems in films like these, the trauma of the era is not only displaced onto its rockers -- but reduced to a question of their legitimacy. As such, these films may help sweep the era under the rug. For, it's a lot easier to endorse or dismiss a band, or a singer, than a whole period of social shake-ups.
But the irritation surrounding the 60s is unlikely to go away--no matter what people decide about The Doors.