These days the culture would never tolerate the idealization of a famous drug user or drinker like Jim Morrison. Recovery (or abstinence), not indulgence, is today’s standard of living – which, of course, many of us regard as a healthy turn of affairs. As somebody who has had to discover for himself the ruin that comes from unbridled alcohol abuse, I can’t help but have compassion and hope for those people who struggle to live in ways that are healthier both for themselves and for those who care about them.
But there’s an old saying worth invoking at this point: Hindsight is a motherfucker. In other words, modern-day concerns and ideals aside, things clearly didn’t work out that way for Jim Morrison. He didn’t recover. He didn’t pull back from the abyss in the same way that, say, Bob Dylan or Eric Clapton did. Morrison succumbed to that void – he agreed to it – and that truth is inseparable from any meaningful examination of his life’s work and worth, no matter what our final judgments may be. Clearly, Morrison found something in his acquiescence to alcoholism – something other than just his own death (though that may have been part of what he was seeking). Anybody who drinks regularly and heavily does so for any number of reasons. Perhaps they have a genetic bent, or perhaps they’re fucked up emotionally and the drinking seems to give them a quick respite from their troubles. But there are other reasons. Drinking – like drugs – can seem to offer illumination in measured doses. Also, drinking – like drugs – can feel like a wild or brave adventure. It can give you permission for all manner of behavior – some of it fun or silly, and some of it horrible beyond belief. The trouble is, these advantages have a short lifespan. That is, they have a diminishing lifespan night after night, and as the nights add up, the drinker himself has a diminishing lifespan. Like Jim Morrison said, “It’s the difference between suicide and slow capitulation.”
Naturally, I can’t help but wish Morrison had found a way out of that slow capitulation. For all his bravado and his awful behavior, I think that not just a fierce heart beat inside the man, but also a fiercely loving and compassionate one. Morrison had some of the same sort of improbable humanity that you find in the work of Louis-Ferdinand Céline or Jean Genet: Their writing may seem nihilistic, but behind it lies a recognition that bringing the unmentionable to the surface might help free us of some of our fears or cruelties. In any event, Morrison had a great capacity to sing for those who felt wayward and deserted and angry – indeed, he was a bit intrepid in how far he would go in that regard.
Fearless, and also a bit foolish, because in the end Morrison failed to draw any saving distinctions between the temper of his art and the intensity of his life. As a result, his visions ultimately helped destroy him. He must have understood that he was headed that way; he certainly told enough people he didn’t expect a long life. In Morrison’s work with the Doors you hear promises being born and possibilities being lost – sometimes in the same breath. But even when the alcohol and other excesses were wreaking their consequences, Morrison still knew well the meanings of the experiences he was describing, and there was a courage and dignity in his best efforts at those disclosures.
It’s true, Morrison might have had a longer life, but that’s not the way he chose it. He defied everything that might have contained his nerve, and he decided to grow by negating himself. Some people, as many of us learn, simply cannot be saved or forced to recover themselves. Their decline becomes part of the object of their life. Just the same, Jim Morrison had the determination to overcome his self-negation through a body of dark and beautiful work that, some thirty-five-years-plus past his death, endures – and still heartens – with good reason. Let’s give him that due, even as we hope for our own kinder ends. After all, he had the grace to sing to young people in this land, in times when they were treated as insane children, desperately in need of some stranger’s hand.
Jim Morrison and the Doors: The Virtues of Waste (2001)
Stories Done: Writings on the 1960s and Its Discontents