“I’m no preacher but I can tell you this – the lives that people lead are driving them crazy and their insanity comes out in the way they drive.”
Kurt just made it seem so easy. He could come up with amazing things every time he picked up a guitar. And he could walk into a room and pick up something like a breakfast tray and just tap it around and in 10 minutes he’d be doing something musical with it that would knock you out. I was completely in awe of the guy. He just made it seem so, so easy. When I started writing stuff it was like – wait a second – why can’t I do what he did?
Charles M. Schulz
The horrible lot of an ordinary, normal man whose life is determined by dictionaries of easily understandable words and acts. The acts draw him on, like a fragile vessel rigged out with words and gestures. If the fragile vessel runs aground on the submerged rock of inapprehensibility, it is wrecked, and the sailor drowns. At life’s slightest jolt, ordinary people are deprived of reason. No, madmen know no such dangers. Their brains are more subtle. The ingenuous brain finds impenetrable that which such brains penetrate. There is nothing for it but to be wrecked, and – it is wrecked.
Painting by Mark Tansey: Discarding the Frame (1980s)
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
Dear Mr. Bangs, you have publicly thrashed a hero of mine, and I would like to put you in your place. […] you have the nerve to lump Duane Allman together with the Grateful Dead, saying all he did was to have the “stamina to play scales for an hour or two.” When it comes to making a list of instrumentalists of any kind who have played with true visceral passion you can bet that Duane’s name will be there near the top. […] You have done a great man a great public injustice. Take it back or else.
Lester Bangs responds:
You’re right. Duane Allman was a great guitarist. I hate guitar. The greatest guitar solo ever was Lou Reed on “I Heard Her Call My Name.” This is the same man who took a Gibson L-5CEF Guitar (bought 40% off at Manny’s for $1,659 tax included) and plugged a soldering iron into it just to see how it would sound. That’s rock and roll.
Musician Magazine, August 1980
one of my best friends – at least I consider him a friend – one of the finest poets of our Age is afflicted, right now, in London, with it, and the Greeks were aware of it and the Ancients, and it can fall upon a Man at any age but the best age for it is the late forties working toward fifty, and I think of it as immobility – a weakness of movement, an increasing lack of care and wonder; I think of it as The Frozen Man stance, although it hardly is a STANCE at all, but it might allow us to view the corpse with SOME humor; otherwise the blackness would be too much. all men are afflicted, at times, with the Frozen Man Stance, and it is indicated best by such flat phrases as: “I just can’t make it.” or: “to hell with it all.” or: “give my regards to Broadway.” but usually they quickly recover and continue to beat their wives and hit the timeclocks.
but for my friend, The Frozen Man Stance is not to be thrown under the couch like a child’s toy. if it only could be! he has tried the doctors of Switzerland, France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Spain and England and they could do nothing. one of them treated him for worms. another stuck tiny needles in his hands and neck and back, thousands of tiny needles. “this might be it,” he wrote me, “the needles might damn well do the trick.” in the next letter I heard that he was trying some Voodoo freak. in the next I heard that he wasn’t trying anything. the Final Frozen Man. one of the finest poets of our time, stuck there on top of his bed in a small and dirty London room, starving, barely kept alive by handouts; staring at his ceiling unable to write or utter a word, and not caring, finally, whether he does or not. his name is known throughout the world.
I could and can well understand this great poet’s flop in a barrel of shit, for, strangely, as long as I can remember, I was BORN into the Frozen Man Stance. one of the instances that I can recall is once when my father, a cowardly vicious brute of a man, was beating me in the bathroom with this long leather razor strap, or strop, as some call it. he beat me quite regularly; I was born out of wedlock and I believe he blamed me for all his troubles. he used to walk around singing, “oh when I was single, my pockets did jingle!” but he didn’t sing often. he was too busy beating me. for some time say before I reached the age of seven or eight, he almost imposed this sense of guilt upon me. for I could not understand why he beat me. he would search very hard for a reason. I had to cut his grass once a week, once lengthwise, then crosswise, then trim the edges with shears, and if I missed ONE blade of grass anywhere on the front or back lawns he beat the living shit-hell out of me. after the beating I would have to go out and water the lawns. meanwhile the other kids were playing baseball or football and growing up to be normal humans. the big moment would always come when the old man would stretch out on the lawn and put his eye level with the grassblades. he’d always manage to find one. “there, I SEE IT! YOU MISSED ONE! YOU MISSED ONE!” then he’d yell toward the bathroom window where my mother, a fine German lady, always stood about this time of the proceedings. “HE MISSED ONE! I SEE IT! I SEE IT!” then I’d hear my mother’s voice: “ah, he MISSED one? ah, shame, SHAME!” I do believe that she blamed me for her troubles too. “INTO THE BATHROOM!” he’d scream. “INTO THE BATHROOM!” so I’d walk into the bathroom and the strap would come out and the beating would begin. but even though the pain was terrible, I, myself, felt quite out of it. I mean, that really, I was disinterested; it didn’t mean anything to me. I had no attachment to my parents so I didn’t feel any violation of love or trust or warmth. the hardest part was the crying. I didn’t want to cry. it was dirty work, like mowing the lawn. like when they gave me the pillow to sit on afterwards, after the beating, after the watering of the lawn, I didn’t want the pillow either, so, not wanting to cry, one day I decided not to. all that could be heard was the slashing of the leather strap against my naked ass. it had a curious and meaty and gruesome sound in the silence and I stared at the bathroom tiles. the tears came but I made no sound. he stopped beating. he usually gave me fifteen or twenty lashes. he stopped at a mere seven or eight. he ran out of the bathroom, “mama, mama, I think our boy is CRAZY, he don’t cry when I whip him!” “you think he’s crazy, Henry?” “yes, mama.” “ah, too bad!”
it was only the first RECOGNIZABLE appearance of The Frozen Boy. I knew that there was something wrong with me but I did not consider myself insane. it was just that I could not understand how other people could become so easily angry, then just as easily forget their anger and become joyful, and how they could be so interested in EVERYTHING when everything was so dull.
I was not much good at sports or playing with my companions because I had very little practice at it. I was not the true sissy – I had no fear or physical delicacy, and, at times, I did anything and everything better than any of them – but just in spurts – it didn’t somehow matter to me. when I got into a fist fight with one of my friends I could never get angry. I only fought as a matter of course. no other out. I was Frozen. I could not understand the ANGER and the FURY of my opponent. I would find myself studying his face and his manner, puzzled with it, rather than trying to beat him. every now and then I would land a good one to see if I could do it, then I would fall back into lethargy.
then, as always, my father would leap out of the house: “That’s all! Fight’s over. Finish. Kaput! Over!”
the boys were afraid of my father. they would all run away.
“you’re not much of a man, Henry. you got beat again!”
I didn’t answer.
“mama, our boy let that Chuck Sloan beat him!”
“yes, our boy.”
I guess my father finally recognized the Frozen Man in me, but he took full advantage of the situation for himself. “children are to be seen but not heard,” he would exclaim. this was fine with me. I had nothing to say. I was not interested. I was Frozen. early, late, and forever.
I began drinking about 17 with older boys who roamed the streets and robbed gas stations and liquor stores. they thought my disgust with everything was a lack of fear, that my non-complaining was a soulful bravado. I was popular and I didn’t care whether I was popular or not. I was Frozen. they set great quantities of whiskey and beer and wine in front of me. I drank them down. nothing could get me drunk, really and finally drunk. the others would be falling to the floor, fighting, swinging, swaggering, and I would sit quietly at the table draining another glass, feeling less and less with them, feeling lost, but not painfully so. just electric light and sound and bodies and little more.
but I was still living with my parents and it was depression times, 1937, impossible for a 17 year old to get a job. I’d come back off the streets as much out of habit as out of reality. and knock at the door.
one night my mother opened the little window in the door and screamed: “he’s drunk! he’s drunk again!”
and I heard the great voice back in the room: “he’s drunk AGAIN?”
my father came to the little window: “I won’t let you in. you are a disgrace to your mother and your country.”
“it’s cold out here. open the door or I’ll break it down. I walked here to get in. that’s all there is to it.”
“no, my son, you do not deserve my house. you are a disgrace to your mother and your…”
I went to the back of the porch, lowered my shoulder and charged. there was no anger in my act or my movement, only a kind of mathematic – that having arrived at a certain figure you continue to work with it. I smashed into the door. it didn’t open but a large crack appeared right down the center and the lock appeared to be half-broken. I went back to the end of the porch, lowered my shoulder again.
“all right, come in,” said my father.
I walked in, but then the looks upon those faces, sterile blank hideous nightmare cardboard face-looks made my stomach full of booze lurch, I became ill, I unloaded upon their fine rug which was decorated with The Tree of Life. I vomited, plenty.
“you know what we do with a dog who shits on the rug?” my father asked.
“no,” I said.
“well, we stick his NOSE in it! so he won’t do it NO MORE!”
I didn’t answer. my father came up and put his hand behind my neck. “you are a dog,” he said.
“you know what we do to dogs, don’t you?”
he kept pressing my head down, down toward my lake of vomit upon The Tree of Life.
“we stick their noses in their shit so they don’t shit no more, ever.”
there my mother, fine German lady, stood in her nightgown, watching silently. I always got the idea that she wanted to be on my side but it was an entirely false idea gathered from sucking her nipples at one time. besides, I didn’t have a side.
“listen, father,” I said, “STOP.”
“no, no, you know what we do to a DOG?”
“I’m asking you to stop.”
he kept pressing my head down, down, down, down, my nose was almost in the vomit. although I was the Frozen Man, Frozen Man also means Frozen and not melted. I simply could see no reason for my nose being pushed into my own vomit. if there had been a reason I would have pushed my nose there myself. it wasn’t a matter of CARING or HONOR or ANGER, it was a matter of being pushed out of my particular MATHEMATIC. I was, to use my favorite term, disgusted.
“stop,” I said, “I’m asking you, one last time, to stop!”
he pushed my nose almost against the vomit.
I swung from my heels, and I was down by my heels, I caught him with a full flowing and majestic uppercut, I caught him hard and full and very accurate upon the chin and he fell backwards heavily and clumsily, a whole brutal empire shot to shit, finally, and he fell into his sofa, bang, spread-armed, eyes like the eyes of a doped animal. animal? the dog had turned, I walked toward the couch, waiting for him to get up. he didn’t get up. he just kept staring up at me. he would not get up. for all his fury, my father had been a coward. I was not surprised. then I thought, since my father is a coward, I am probably a coward. but being a Frozen Man, there wasn’t any pain in this. it didn’t matter, even as my mother began clawing my face with her fingernails, screaming over and over again, “you hit your FATHER! you hit your FATHER! you hit your FATHER!”
it didn’t matter. and finally I turned my face full toward her and let her rip and scream, slashing with her fingernails, tearing the flesh from my face, the fucking blood dripping and jerking and sliding down my neck and my shirt, spotting the fucking Tree of Life with flecks and splashes and chunks of meat. I waited, no longer interested. “YOU HIT YOUR FATHER!” and then the slashes came lower. I waited. then they stopped. then started again, one or two, “you…hit…your…father…your father…”
“have you finished?” I asked. I think the first words I had spoken to her outside of “yes” and “no” in ten years.
“yes,” she said.
“you go to the bedroom,” my father said from the couch. “I’ll see you in the morning. I’ll talk to YOU in the morning!”
yet HE was the Frozen Man in the morning, but I imagine, not out of choice.
I have often let shackjobs and whores slash my face as my mother did, and this is a most bad habit; being frozen does not mean let the jackals take control, and, besides, children and old women, and some strong men, now wince, as they see my face. but, to continue, and I do believe these Frozen Man tales interest me more than they do you (interest: a mathematical manner of tabulation), and I will try to cut them short. Christ. I think a very funny one (humor: a mathematical manner of tabulation. and I am serious in these things.) was the time I was in Los Angeles High School, say 1938? 1937?, around there? 1936? I joined the ROTC without any interest in army doings in the least. I had these huge grapefruit boils, immense, slugging out all over me and a boy had one of two choices, at this time, either join the ROTC or take gym. well, really all the decent good guys were in gym. the shits and freaks and madmen, like me, the frozen men, what there were of them, were taking ROTC. war was not yet a humane thing. Hitler was just a gibberish Charlie Chaplin doing funny idiot things on RKO-Pathe news.
I went to ROTC because in an army uniform they couldn’t see my boils; in a tracksuit they could, plenty. now, get me, it wasn’t my boils to ME that mattered, it was my BOILS toward THEM. it would upset their glands. with a man in a cave, a frozen man such as myself, boils don’t matter, what makes them matter are things that don’t count – like masses of common people. being frozen does not mean being unrealistic; being frozen means to remain frozen; all else is madness.
be fucked with as little as possible so you may enter wherever you are meant to enter. so I didn’t want to be fucked with by the stares of the human eye upon my disjointed boils. so I clothed myself in military uniform to cut down the x-rays. but I didn’t want the ROTC. I was FROZEN.
so, here we are, one day, the whole god damned battalion or whatever you call it, and I am still a private and the whole school is in some type of manual of arms competition, the grandstands are packed with fools and here we stand, going through the movements, and it’s hot and I’m FROZEN, man, I don’t care, and here we follow these orders, and soon only fifty per cent of us are left and soon only twenty-five percent and soon only ten per cent, and I’m still standing there, these big red ugly boils on my face, no uniform for the face, and it’s hot hot, and I’m trying to get my mind to think, make a mistake make a mistake make a mistake, but I am automatically a master craftsman, there is nothing I can do badly even tho I don’t care, but I can’t force error and that TOO is because I am FROZEN! and soon there are only two people left, me and my buddy Jimmy. well, Jimmy is a shit and he NEEDS this thing, it will be nice for him. this is what I actually thought. but Jimmy fucked up. it was on the command, “Order Arms!” no, it went like this, “Order…” then, pause…”Arms!” I don’t any longer remember the proper maneuver to this order, being a lousy soldier. it had something to do with the jamming of the bolt into the breech. but Jimmy, who cared and was loved by many or at least liked, Jimmy fucked up with the bolt. and there I was standing alone, boils bulging out over my itchy olive drab woolen collar, boils leaping out all over my skull, even on the top of my head in the hair, and it was hot in the sun and there I stood, disinterested, neither happy or sad, nothing, just nothing. the beautiful girls moaned in the stands for their poor Jimmy and his mother and father put their heads down, not understanding how it could have happened. I too managed to think, poor Jimmy. but that was as far as I could think. the old man running the ROTC was somebody called Colonel Muggett, a man who had spent his entire career in the army. he came up to place the medal upon my itchy shirt, his face was very sad, very. he thought me a misfit, the kid with the empty head, and I thought of him as insane. he pinned the medal on me and then reached to shake my hand. I took his hand and smiled. a good soldier never smiles. the smile meant to tell him that I understood things had gone wrong and that it was beyond me. then I marched back to my company, my squad, my platoon, my whatever the hell. then the Lieutenant called us to attention. Jimmy’s last name was Hadford or something like that. and you ain’t gonna believe this but it happened. the Lt. said to the men:
“I wish to congratulate private Hadford for coming so close in the manual of arms competition.”
then: “at ease!”
then “fall out!” or “company dismissed!” or some god damned thing.
I saw the other boys talking to Jimmy. nobody said anything to me. then I saw Jimmy’s mother and father come out of the stands and put their arms around him. my parents were not there. I walked off the grounds and into the streets. I took the medal off and walked along holding it in my hand. then without rancor, fear, joy, without anger or direct reason, I threw the medal down a sewer drain outside a drugstore. Jimmy was some years later shot down over the English Channel. his bomber was badly hit and he ordered his men to bail out while he tried to nurse his plane back to England. he never made it. about that time I was living in Philadelphia as a 4-F and I screwed a 300-pound whore who looked like a giant pig and she broke all four legs of my bed, bouncing and sweating and farting during the action.
I might go on and on, giving incidents within The Frozen Man context. it is not quite true that I never CARE or that I never anger or that I never hate or that I never hope or that I never have joy. I do not mean to infer that I am ENTIRELY without passions or feelings or whatever; it is only strange to me that my feelings, my thoughts, my ways are so strangely different and opposite of my fellow man. I can seemingly never get WITH them, hence I am frozen out both by their choice and my way. please stay awake and let me finish this off with a letter, a letter from my poet friend in London who describes his experiences as a Frozen Man. he wrote me:
“…i’m in this fishbowl, you understand, a vast aquarium and my fins are not strong enough to get around in this big undersea city. i do what i can, tho the magic is surely gone. i just can’t seem as yet to pull myself together out of this cold turkey state and get the ‘inspiration,’ no writing, no fucking, no damn nothing. can’t drink, can’t eat, can’t turn on. just cold turkey. so the gloom, but nothing seems to work just now. it’s going to be a long period of hibernation, a long dark night. i’m used to the sun, to the mediterranean brightness and dazzle, to living on the damn edge of the volcano, as in greece, where at least there was light, there were people, was even what is called love. now, nothing. middle-aged faces. young faces that mean nothing, that pass, smile, say hello. oh cold gray darkness. old poet stuck in the sticks. the styx. the stinks. from doctors to hospitals, with shit specimens, piss specimens, and always the same reports – liver tests and pancreas tests abnormal: but nobody knows what to do, only i know. there is nothing to do but to snap out of this jungle, and meet some mythical young beauty – some sweet domestic thing who will take care of me, make few demands, be warm and quiet, not say too much. where is she? i couldn’t damn well give her what she wants, or could i??? it’s just possible, of course, that this is all i need. but how, where to find it? i wish i were tough. i’d be able to sit down and begin all over again, from scratch, getting it down on paper, stronger, cleaner, sharper than ever. but something has gone out of me right now, and i’m temporizing, stalling for time. the sky is black and pink and flushed at 4:40 in the afternoon. the city roars outside. the wolves are pacing in the zoo. the tarantulas are squatting beside the scorpions. the queen bee is served by the drones. the mandril snarls viciously, hurling filthy bananas and apples from its crotch at the crazy kids who taunt it. if i’m gong to die, i want to come out to california, below l.a., far down the coast, on the beach somewhere, near Mexico. but that’s a dream. i’d want to do that somehow. but all the letters i get from the states are from poets and writers who have been here, on this side of the Atlantic, and they tell me how rotten it is back home, what a nasty scene, et cetera. i don’t know, i could never swing it, financially, since my backers are here, and they’d abandon me if i returned, as they more or less like to keep in closer contact with me. yes, the body gives, but hang on, and forgive the deadly dullness of this letter. i can’t get inspired, i can’t get worked up. i just look at doctor’s bills, and other bills, and the black sky, the black sun. maybe something will change, soon…that’s the way it is. tra la la, let’s face it without tears. cheers, friend.” signed “X” (a well-known poet…editor).
well, my friend from London says it much better than I, but how well, how very well I know of what he speaks. and a worldful of energetic hustlers with their minds shaken awry with the pace would only condemn us for sloth or a kind of disgraceful laziness or self-pity. but it isn’t any of these things. only the man frozen in the cage can know it. but we’ll damn well have to go out of our way and wait. and wait for what? so, cheers, friends. even a dwarf can get a hard-on, and I am Mataeo Platch and Nichlos Combatz at the same time, and only Marina, my small girl-child, can bring light at the highest noon, for the sun will not speak. and up in the plaza between the terminal annex and the union station the old men sit in a circle and watch the pigeons, sit in a circle for hours and watch the pigeons and watch nothing. frozen, but I could cry. and at night we will sweat through senseless dreams. there’s only one place to go. tra la la la. la la la.