ANOTHER DOOR BREAKS THROUGH: RAY MANZAREK

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?

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.

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