Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Window On The Doors

Fifty years ago, I worked at the newly-built Holiday Inn at the intersection of Interstate 495 and Route 38 in Tewksbury, Massachusetts,  the town in which I grew up. I’d started in the summer of 1966 as a dishwasher, then a groundskeeper, and ultimately a porter carrying room service trays, vacuuming the lobby, setting up tables in function rooms, and emptying ashtrays. My father would often pick me up on his way home from work. I had my learner’s permit and he’d let me drive the rest of the way in our 1966 Chevrolet Biscayne.
Rock-and-roll groups stayed there when playing concerts at the Commodore Ballroom in Lowell. One of my jobs was putting red plastic letters up on the marquee to welcome them. Sometimes my father couldn’t drive me home and I’d hitchhike. One such evening in 1967, a late-model Buick Riviera pulled over and I hopped in. Driving was the drummer of The Doors, John Densmore. I had never heard of The Doors or of Jim Morrison, who was crashed out and sprawled across the back seat. Though I’d just come from work, nobody told me The Doors were staying there because they weren’t that popular at the time. Nobody was excited enough to tell me they were in residence. Neither was I told to put up a greeting for them on the marquee.
Anyway, Densmore was miffed that he had picked up an American teenager who didn’t recognize him. “Do you know who I am?” he asked.
Densmore and Morrison

“No,” I said.

“Ever hear of ‘Light My Fire’?”
“Umm… yeah, I think so,” I said, feeling uncomfortable. It sounded vaguely familiar but I wasn’t sure. He didn’t look like a typical guy from Tewksbury and nobody I knew drove a brand-new Riviera. His hair was longish, his clothing was different, and he was driving with bare feet. The guy in the back seat had bare feet too and a small tattoo on his ankle. I think it was a flower.

“Ever hear of ‘The Doors’?” he asked, getting more peeved.
Morrison crashed at performance in Amsterdam

“No,” I said. He seemed to sense my nervousness then and eased up. I turned to look behind me at the unconscious guy, and Densmore said something about him. I don’t remember exactly what, but it had a tone of disapproval, disgust even. By this time we’d gone about four miles and I was relieved to tell him he could stop at the next crossroad and let me out. He pulled over and I thanked him before closing the door. “You’re welcome,” he said.
Not long after, I heard “Light My Fire” on the radio and I liked it. So did millions of others and The Doors were invited to perform it on The Ed Sullivan Show. Morrison had been asked to modify the lyric “…girl we couldn’t get much higher,” as the audience might consider it a reference to using drugs, but he sang it anyway and was banned from further appearances.
After that encounter, I paid closer attention to stories about The Doors as Morrison was becoming notorious for his hedonistic lifestyle. He was convicted of exposing himself onstage to an audience of mostly junior high and high school girls in Florida when evidently very drunk. Densmore wrote later that Morrison had a serious alcohol problem and he died in Paris at twenty-seven, only four years after our short ride together. There was no autopsy so his cause of death can’t be known for sure, but many believe it was alcohol-related. 
During his four years of fame, Morrison became a symbol of sixties alienation, of rebellion, and of “the counterculture.” Though I liked his music, I was put off by his behavior and that of so many other counterculture figures too numerous to mention who also died of lifestyle-related causes. I liked much of their music as well and all were heroes to baby boomers. To me, however, they were reverse barometers — examples of how not to act. Some posthumously diagnosed Morrison as bipolar. Such people are often highly creative, highly intelligent, highly sexual, and highly prone to substance abuse. Add his Irish genes to that and what happened to him wasn’t inevitable, but understandable. 
One Morrison biography claims he knocked on Jack Kerouac’s door while he was in Lowell, but was turned away by Kerouac’s wife and told to “get a haircut.” Kerouac died of alcoholism two years later in 1969. While Morrison’s music still appeals to me, Kerouac’s books never did.
Doors Drummer John Densmore who picked me up half a century ago, said in an interview for Huffington Post recently: “Jim was one of those kamikazes who had creativity and self-destruction in the same package, dammit.”
A fitting symbol of his generation? Maybe. What do you think?


Montedoro said...

Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, John Belushi, & some others of the time were wake-up calls to their contemporanians that early death is possible. In a way, that made them good teachers. I had an English teacher in high school who I remember most for one thing he said: "Experience is a good teacher. But the tuition is high."

Gilda Radner's death, Andy Kaufman's, and again, some others, made for similar wake-up calls, but there wasn't the same lesson, as they were blameless, yet the finger still pointed at them. Same for Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, really. And some others.

It was good that all of these folks lived, cavorted as they wanted to, taught us what they had to teach us, and so enriched us. Thanks for the flash from the past.

Anonymous said...

The 1950's in the U.S. were a time of very defined roles. If you were a woman, you were expected to be a mother and a housewife. If you were black,you worked in the lowest rung and kept your mouth shut etc.

Many people did not like being forced into roles. WWII changed a lot. Woman worked outside of the home and liked it. Black and white people worked side by side doing the same job.

By the 60's, people were fed up with all of the rules and some rebelled. Like all rebellions, some people went to extremes. They were idolized because they flaunted the rules that many people were really starting to dislike.


Anonymous said...

"A fitting symbol of his generation?" No. Not by himself.
Perhaps a "Sgt. Pepper's" album covers worth.
There was an astonishing amount of other stuff going on.
How many folks from the era will instantly recognize The Zig Zag Man?
"What do you think?"
About Jim Morrison, or folks who are those kamikazes who had creativity (genius?) and self-destruction in the same package in general?

Tom McLaughlin said...

Morrison was a nihilist. Neitzche and Kerouac were his idols. Morrison was creative but I just don't see evidence for that in Kerouac, who was way overrated. Is the generation coming up in the sixties and seventies creative collectively? Yes, I think so. Self destructive? Yes, I think so. Nihilist? That goes before self-destructiveness. I'm part of that generation. If you're a former student, you grew up in the milieu created by people my age. We deny meaning and substitute environmentalism or animal rights or transitory Buddhism. Not me personally, but I'm an anomaly.

Morrison flamed out in four years. The rest who idolized him do it slowly, one joint -- one bowl at a time -- a wasting away kind of self-destructiveness. They'll fill the dementia wards in their sixties and seventies -- generally speaking of course. Do you see them that way? That's what I'm asking I guess.