It might be safe to say that the most popular debate in American literature over the last 50 years has been this one:

Were the lyrics of Jim Morrison and The Doors good poetry?  Or crap?

Is inspired crap, crap, or inspired?


Good news for Doors fans.

The Doors produced real poetry.

It is common for twenty-somethings to reject feelings they had as adolescents, but when it comes to the Doors, the 16 year old is correct and the 26 year old is wrong. 

The Doors made truly good music tinged with real poetry.

Jim Morrison’s sex god, drug-addled, drunken, reputation, the Doors’ predilection for producing hard rock ‘hits,’ the relative simplicity of their music, all conspire to make one ashamed, as one ages, to hold onto one’s early impression that Doors music was good poetry.  But it was. 

Sometimes we are “shamed” in the wrong direction.

The Doors understood what all poets must understand: less is more.   Okay, lots of people understand this, but few really understand this most important principle, and further, carry it out in practice.  Here’s an example:

You’re Lost Little Girl, from Strange Days

You’re lost little girl,
You’re lost little girl,
You’re lost, tell me who are you

Think that you know what to do,
Impossible yes, but it’s true
I think that you know what to do, yeah,
Sure that you know what to do

You’re lost little girl,
You’re lost little girl,
You’re lost, tell me who are you

These are exquisite lyrics; they are highly suggestive, saying as little as possible. 

“You’re lost little girl” packs an emotional punch, and it does so neatly and swiftly with the assonance of “lost, little” and “little, girl.” 

A “lost little girl” has deep ramifications, like Poe’s “the death of a beautiful woman;” what could be more haunting than a “lost little girl?” 

Now look what this brief lyric does: it takes the overt meaning of the phrase in its sexist, blues context: the woman, or sex object, needs to be ‘saved’ or ‘taught’ by the man: Hey, little girl, you’re lost, and flips it: it’s the girl who teaches the man: “I think that you know what to do, impossible yes, but it’s true…”

Since the music of the song is soft, melodic, and haunting, and not bluesy or raunchy at all, a broader and more interesting scenario is invoked: a girl, maybe an actual “little girl,” wise beyond her years, not a sex object, who is lost, and yet, knows “what to do.”  And so “lost” does not mean helpless, but miraculously knowing. It is the singer/narrator/lover who is “lost,” not the “little girl.”  Yet this is only suggested to the listener.  The song is an understated, swooning, and subtle epiphany of psychological reversal.  There is no clumsy over-explaining.  The song tells us very little—and yet emotionally this song is subtle and powerful.

Here’s another example: Not seeing (less) is better than seeing (more).

I Can’t See Your Face In My Mind, from Strange Days

I can’t see your face in my mind,
I can’t see your face in my mind,
Carnival dogs consume the lines,
Can’t see your face in my mind

Don’t you cry, baby, please don’t cry,
And don’t look at me with your eyes.
I can’t seem to find the right lie,
I can’t seem to find the right lie

Insanity’s horse adorns the sky,
Can’t seem to find the right lie,
I won’t need your picture
until we say good-bye

Does this song reek of morbid, staring-at-the-ground adolescence?  A little, yes.  But there’s also a delicate and haunting quality that partakes of the universal: who hasn’t tried to see one’s beloved in one’s mind—and failed?  The beautiful aspect that we really love always seems mysteriously just out of reach—like the very reason we passionately love someone in the first place.  “I won’t need your picture until we say goodbye” wittily sums up the trope of the poem.  There’s just the right amount of desperate longing, frozen by paradox, expressed throughout: a lie, the “right lie,” is sought, but cannot be found. Not only can’t we see, but we can’t find the right way to lie about what we see (or feel?) either.  And what would “insanity’s horse” do but “adorn the sky,” anyway?  Hinted at in this somewhat hackneyed image is the genitalia hanging over us like the moon or the sun, the overt sexuality which is “insane” due to the inability to “see your face in my mind,” which is spiritual, “face” and “mind” belonging to a place above mere sexuality, and yet, the failure of the lover to see the beloved’s face in his mind provokes a frustration with his mind—or is it with the face? 

Contrast the Doors ‘not seeing’ to the chest-beating, working-class Who: “I can see for miles and miles,” or Dylan, who tends to rhyme just to rhyme, and practices a “eveything but the kitchen sink” brand of poetry. Rhyming to excess can be effective emotionally, and the assertiveness of the crass, unromantic, ‘you, bitch!,’ “I can see for miles and miles” may work due to its fanciful excess (“miles and miles”) for the same reason: excess will travel past “more” and return to “less,” if it’s done well.  But the Doors are simply working in a more poetic element.

The Beatles’ “All you need is love” is preachy, but “She loves you” is poetic, since “she loves you” is a second-hand, lessening of the more direct “I love you.” 

Poetry always triumphs as “less over more” (or second-hand over first-hand) and the Doors are poetic in this important sense.

The tree reflected in the lake is more poetic than the tree.

Ray Manzarek first heard a Morrison song recited, he says, by Morrison when the two of them were sitting on Venice Beach, before the band was formed.  Manzarek heard Morrison’s talent and Manzarek was smart enough (or perhaps it was something of an accident) to fit the Doors sound—hauntingly simple, catchy, direct, moody but not formless or bloated—to the lyrics; the Doors music was, even in its dramatic and Wagnerian guise, less rather than more—the musical solos brief, the instrumentation, simple.

The song Morrison introduced to Manzarek almost 50 years ago was “Moonlight Drive,” whose title says a lot: “moonlight,” impressionistic, haunting atmosphere, plus “drive,” its opposite, providing an aesthetic counter-tension.

Anyone, 16 years old, or 26, or 86, can hear the poetry of

Let’s swim to the moon,
Let’s climb to the tide,
You reach your hand to hold me
But I can’t be your guide,
Even though I love you
As I watch you glide…

The pairing of ‘swim’ with ‘moon’ and ‘climb’ with ‘tide’—one would expect ‘climb’ to match up with ‘moon’ and ‘swim’ with ‘tide’—is nice, not only for a more interesting meaning, but the pairs ‘swim’ and ‘moon’ and ‘climb’ and ‘tide’ are both bound by a closer sound relationship.  It’s just lovely. 

Add the helpless, desperate, letting-go quality (“I can’t be your guide”) to the mood invoked by “moon” and “tide” and “let’s swim,” and one almost has a genuine poetic quality that belongs very strongly to the Doors and makes them unique, because they do it the best.  Sure, this might belong to impressionistic, decadent, modern poetry, and not to strong Homeric poetry, and it may not be as sublime as the great Romantics and it’s not great literature, no; but for its type, it’s very strong, and for rock musicians, it is probably the best around.

Like most figures from the 60s, Manzarek faded into the light of common day as he grew away from that era; defending Jim as a poet and an intellectual and a sensitive soul (which Morrison must have been to a certain degree) was in Ray’s best interest, but it felt genuine when he did so. Manzarek, without a Morrison to play behind, became a preachy, avant-garde, hipster, pedant.  Morrison may have looked old at 27 when the Doors were almost done, but Manzarek had that bespectacled, older look right from the start.

The Doors don’t need pedantic professors to tell anyone they were good.

And the “wise” twenty/thirty-somethings usually get them wrong, too.

So long, Ray.


  1. May 24, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    Reblogged this on THE RESURRECTION WALTZ.

  2. noochinator said,

    May 24, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    Congrats to Ray
    Upon his new birth—
    Has he gone ‘Full Circle’?
    Or no longer touching earth?
    Not to touch the earth
    Not to see the sun
    Nothing left to do, but
    Run, run, run
    Let’s run
    Let’s run

    House upon the hill
    Moon is lying still
    Shadows of the trees
    Witnessing the wild breeze
    Come on baby run with me
    Let’s run

    Run with me
    Run with me
    Run with me
    Let’s run

    The mansion is warm, at the top of the hill
    Rich are the rooms and the comforts there
    Red are the arms of luxuriant chairs
    And you won’t know a thing till you get inside

    Dead president’s corpse in the driver’s car
    The engine runs on glue and tar
    Come on along, not going very far
    To the East to meet the Czar

    Run with me
    Run with me
    Run with me
    Let’s run

    Some outlaws lived by the side of a lake
    The minister’s daughter’s in love with the snake
    Who lives in a well by the side of the road
    Wake up, girl, we’re almost home

    We should see the gates by morning
    We should be inside by evening

    Sun, sun, sun
    Burn, burn, burn
    Soon, soon, soon
    Moon, moon, moon
    I will get you

    I am the Lizard King
    I can do anything

  3. May 28, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    What do you all think of “drug-addled” as a good description of a lot of Beatles music? I’ve been given to understand that a lot of their “lyrics,” such as those of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” were composed under the influence of drugs, and their being high on something seems to me like a good explanation of their making little sense. Then you take a nice little number like Paul McCartney’s song, “Ebony and Ivory”… I would be surprised to learn that Paul was “under the influence” when he wrote that. I admit I’m just an amateur at all these things — music, poetry, etc. — and do not mind correction. David Bittner

  4. thomasbrady said,

    May 28, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    A huge topic, David: music and drugs, etc.

    It depends on the person, where they are in their life, etc.

    Drugs can certainly make the user think they are composing something more profound than it actually is—but this can occur without drugs, too.

    There’s lots of obscure poetry—and I don’t think it’s all because of drugs.

    I’m pretty clear on what “Strawberry Fields Forever” is saying: fields of strawberries going on forever! Isn’t that cool? So I don’t really have trouble “understanding” that song. It’s a good song, I think, for many reasons. Maybe it’s not a great song. How many really ‘great’ songs are there? Are songs supposed to be ‘great?’

    My guess is that study of drug use and how it affects composition would probably show that drugs have the most impact in the long run.

    The Beatles, for instance, wrote brilliant, catchy songs for a 5 year period and then gradually (quickly?) lost their spark. John, Paul and George wrote a host of good songs during a roughly half-decade window and for years afterwards were never able to duplicate that same excellence.

    There could be other reasons for that, however.


    • May 29, 2013 at 1:31 am

      Tom, you asked, “Are there really many great songs? And, “Are songs supposed to be “great” Am I right that you take a view that songs just aren’t that high a form of “literature”? I seem to recall learning as part of my English education that the most highly rated forms of literature are epic poetry, in first place, followed by tragic drama, in second place. Then I think satire — even the greatest satire, like Gulliver’s Travels– was not considered to be as great as either of those, but did come in some position like fourth or fifth on the list. I can’t remember where the novel came on the list, but think it must have come somewhere. Of course I know it was a later “invention.” Well, no matter how much you liked songs, then, I guess you really couldn’t claim too high a place for them on such a list, could you? Not with competition like that, anyway! Maybe you know what “list” I am thinking of and can refresh my memory. I have actually thought of it many times since school. David

      • thomasbrady said,

        May 29, 2013 at 1:51 pm

        David, Paradox is at the heart of everything. All truth is paradoxical. Poe came along and blew that list to pieces when he said, “A long poem doesn’t exist.” The “epic” is a series a songs and is only as good as its best song. Memory gives us the illusion that things continue, that things flow. They don’t. Literary judgement doesn’t exist. Fragments make the only real impression. Tom

  5. noochinator said,

    May 29, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    Jim Morrison

    Somebody always has to disappear,
    and so the myth travels the way a seed
    blazes into a red poppy
    beside the road. Tatters of wind-nagged silk.

    The voice can’t change now. It is posthumous;
    a sixties’ product. I can hear it scream
    out of a wind-tunnel, an underpass,
    it seems to issue from a blueblack dream

    in which the figure standing at the bar
    turns round to find the world has disappeared,
    he stands on the edge of a precipice,
    nothing behind him but the radial star

    his whiskey tumbler smashed in the mirror.
    The bottles are all empty. Jack Daniels,
    White Label, Jim Beam, a drained Cutty Sark.
    The bar-tender walks straight out through the dark

    and floats to nowhere. Unshaven, obese,
    Jim looks for handholds. If he tries to sit
    on the stained counter he’ll have vertigo.
    What he misses is the microphone-stand,

    getting off on stage, fast adrenalin.
    Is this Paris or L.A.? Night or day?
    He suffers from a drugged amnesia.
    A blue snake winds itself around his hand.

    He’ll stay here, drinking like Malcolm Lowry,
    until his vision clarifies. Out there,
    a red mountain pushes for a gold sky.
    He’ll climb there later to meet a black bear.

    Jeremy Reed

  6. May 29, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    Iggy Pop

    Fire-walking, fire-eating contortionist,
    a manic shaman slashing his torso,
    the mike’s a phallus in his Reichstag fist,

    his razored denim’s unzipped, leather belt
    notched for the emphasis of narrow hips,
    this man would have taken a Sadean welt

    and cultivated it as a red snake.
    Launched, and relaunched again, short-circuiting
    on drugs and liquor, crawling in his wake

    to resurrect his body from white ash,
    this is the self-lacerating raw punk,
    binding his gutter scars with a silk sash.

    It’s Berlin, circa 1976,
    the Thin White Duke composing backing tracks,
    an ominous, plangent, funereal mix

    for the elegiac ‘Sister Midnight’.
    A new start in a musical ethos
    scrambling its brains on stage, a red spotlight

    finding a nose pierced by a safety-pin.
    The art’s survival; mangled, right off cue,
    then focused in his rage, his ravaged skin

    manifesting years of seething attack,
    this is the cult effigy, up-ended,
    still singing, spread-eagled, flat on his back.

    Jeremy Reed


    Ray Davies

    The lyric art. Words as they fit a mood
    the way ideas work from a drawing-board
    into a shape and colour, a silk bolt
    finds a ruched contour. What’s in style
    and out? He’s measured the decades

    with gravity, humorous irony,
    a deadpan English wit, a melody
    that tinkles off into a July day
    and keeps returning, turns up years later
    as though it needed to be forgotten
    to prove a durable value.
    It’s done with such facility,
    his reading the small moments in our lives

    and building on them, something that he’s kept
    his own, a human in the world of pop,
    composing on a rainy afternoon,
    a glass, a rose placed on the piano-top.

    Jeremy Reed


    Brian Eno

    The anti-musician; a daylight owl
    withdrawn to Suffolk. It is wide landscape
    he gets into music, tonalities
    suggesting ambient colour, blue, green,
    at times a minimalist white or grey;

    the sound’s chameleonic, it adjusts
    to mood. I might think of two sleepwalkers
    colliding in the middle of a field,
    and neither waking, just continuing
    to float above the ground, or astronauts
    stepping out on the red rubble of Mars.

    Or sometimes it’s the voice attracts,
    as in Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy,
    the lyrics sounding like a joke between
    Tzara and Erik Satie. The background
    composer is a lecturer,
    no longer dressed in boas, fishnet tights,
    that drag-flirtation with Roxy Music
    decades ago, but treating tapes,

    evoking atmospherics. Found music
    expressed with deadly precision.
    Two hares are boxing on the lawn.
    A blank man sits cross-legged in the attic.

    Jeremy Reed


    Michael Jackson

    He wants to be La Toya. It’s her face
    he copies by the line, a geometry
    that eliminates gender, points the way
    to a reconstructed species. He’s high
    on dance, the generated pheromones

    leave him ecstatic, it’s a solitary
    exploration of inner light, the beat
    of an automated android consumed
    by mirror images — he’s reflected
    everywhere in the mansion, and his feet

    won’t walk, they look for rhythm, instate speed.
    Reclusive, air-sealed by security,
    a legend to himself out in L.A.,
    surrounded by pharaonic monuments,
    an emperor’s exotic menagerie,

    Hollywood mannequins, he’s grown into
    the ultimate parody of a star,
    military jackets splashed with braid, his eyes
    shielded by dark glasses, a permanent
    regression back to youth — how can he age

    inside the dream that he’s alive? He sits
    beside a panther. He’s always on stage.
    The world outside is a receding point,
    an abstract notion, and the drum machine
    is on, computing faultless dance-floor hits.

    Jeremy Reed

  7. June 4, 2013 at 11:04 pm

    The Musicians of Bremen

    Music and lyrics by Malcolm Williamson (1931-2003)

    Duba duba duba duba duba duba doo

    Eeaw, eeaw! My master is finished with me;
    Eeaw, eeaw! I am too old for donkey-work;
    And left alone in the field I should starve to death!
    Eeaw, eeaw, eeaw!

    What to do? What to do?

    They say that musicians are much in demand in Bremen’s fair city.
    I shall go and apply; I shall go and apply!
    Eeaw, eeaw, eeaw, eeaw!

    Speed away to Bremen city;
    Life is short but Art is long.
    There shall be sweet music there!
    Speed away! Speed away!

    Duba duba duba duba duba duba doo

    Bow-wow bow-wow!
    My master is finished with me.
    Bow-wow bow-wow! I am too old to be his dogsbody;
    And left alone in the field I shall starve to death.
    Bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow!

    What to do? What to do?

    They say that musicians are much in demand in Bremen’s fair city.
    You should go and apply!

    I shall go and apply!

    Come with me because I love you!

    And, donkey, I love you!

    Eeaw, eeaw, eeaw!

    Bow-wow, bow-wow, bow wow-wow!

    Speed away to Bremen city, etc.

    Duba duba duba duba duba duba doo

    Miaow, miaow! My mistress is finished with me.
    Miaow, miaow! I am too old to catch her mice;
    And all alone in the sack I should simply drown.
    Miaow, miaow, miaow!

    What to do? What to do?

    Donkey and Dog:
    They say that musicians are much in demand in Bremen’s fair city.
    You should go and apply.

    I shall go and apply!

    Donkey and Dog:
    Come with us because we love you!

    And, donkey and dog, I love you!

    Eeaw, eeaw, eeaw!

    Bow-wow, bow-wow, bow wow-wow!

    Miaow, miaow, miaow!

    Speed away to Bremen city, etc.

    Duba duba duba duba duba duba doo

    Cockadoo doodledoo! My mistress is hungry for me.
    Cockadoo doodledoo! I am too old to greet the dawn
    And left alone in the pot I should boil to death.
    Cockadoo, cockadoo doodle doo!

    What to do? What to do?

    Donkey, Dog and Cat:
    They say that musicians are much in demand in Bremen’s fair city.
    You should go and apply, etc.

    Shadows lengthen, night will fall;
    Peace descend upon us all;
    Matthew, John and Luke and Mark,
    Guard us in the night’s deep dark.

    Shrouded in the forest night,
    Let no foe our souls afright;
    Matthew, Mark and Luke and John,
    Guard the leaves we lie upon.

    Ho ho ho ho, he he he he etc.
    Here’s to evil! Here’s to crime! Here’s to ill-gotten riches!
    Here’s to robbing the orphan and the widow! Here’s to larceny!
    Ho ho ho do, he he he he.

    I see a light in the forest!
    I see a light in a cottage in the forest!
    I see a light on a table in a cottage in the forest!
    I see food by the light on the table in the cottage in the forest!
    Let’s investigate!

    Here’s to evil! Here’s to crime! Here’s to ill-gotten riches!
    Here’s to robbing the orphan and the widow! Here’s to larceny!
    Ho ho ho do, he he he he.
    (Animal noises)
    Run for your life! It’s a raid!

    Why did they run away? We wanted to be friends;
    Let’s eat the food and shelter for the night.
    Munch! Peck! Lap! Gnaw!

    We were too easily frightened.
    Let’s go back again.

    Ah! (Yawning noises)
    Blow out the candle! Let’s go to sleep!

    Let’s go back again! Let’s investigage!
    (Animal noises)
    Run for your life!

    1st Robber:
    I entered the house and an evil witch
    came at me with her claw.

    2nd Robber:
    I entered the house and a man with a club
    Battered me down to the floor.

    1st Robber:
    As I ran from the house a steely vice
    Grabbed my leg till it bled.

    2nd Robber:
    As I ran from the house the magistrate cried:
    “Off with his head. Off with his head.”

    Why did they run away? We wanted to be friends.
    Ah! Let’s go to sleep.
    Shrouded in the forest night, etc.
    Tomorrow Bremen! Tonight sleep!
    Tomorrow happiness! Tonight content!
    Eeaw, Bow-wow, Miaow, Cockadoodle-doo!

    Off with his head, off with his head…
    Off with his head!

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