Jim Morrison went by several names. The Lizard King. Mr. Mojo Risin. In low moments, Jimbo the Lout. This summer, fifty years after he was found dead in a bathtub in Paris, we may add a new one: the Prophet of Limits. Perhaps more than any of the other celebrated pop stars of his time, the lead singer of the Doors understood that the Age of Aquarius, the post–World War II economic boom, and even youth itself, would have a beginning and an end. Among Hendrix, Joplin, Dylan, the Beatles, and the Stones, Morrison stands out as the one who sang about the upcoming end of the party. “Don’t move too fast / You want your love to last,” he sings in “Take It as It Comes,” from the Doors’ self-titled 1967 debut album. The cagey and foreboding feeling of that song permeates the band’s whole catalogue.
Consider this verse from “Queen of the Highway,” a song on the Doors’ best album, Morrison Hotel (1970):
American boy, American girl
Most beautiful people in the world
Son of a frontier
Dancing through the midnight whirlpool
Hope it can continue a little while longer
It’s not quite Walt Whitman, but the verse nevertheless does a lot of work. Bearing the ambition of someone striving to become not only a songwriter but a poet, it tries to speak for the people of this country. The poem celebrates their existence and makes a defiant gesture at challenges they will soon face, some of which were unique to mid-century American life. The “whirlpool” and “formlessness,” underwritten by postwar wealth, were both positive and negative, both carnival and stress. Morrison, born in 1943, was poised between the Boomers and their parents. At different points in his life, he looked up to both Frank Sinatra and Lou Reed. But his heart was with the Boomers. He loved them and sang of their social arrival and triumph. Yet the triumph was always laced with a hint of melancholy: “Hope it can continue a little while longer.” Morrison betrays a similar feeling in “Ship of Fools,” from the same album. “Everyone was hanging out / Hanging up and hanging down / Hanging in and holding fast / Hope our little world will last.”
In 1970, the “American boy, American girl” of Morrison’s imagination were likely affluent and white, educated in the then-affordable and turbulent California state university system, dabblers in Eastern mysticism, caught up in (or destroyed by) the counterculture. In my own time of growing college-loan debt, depressed economic prospects, confusing social scripts, and looming war and climate change, the words “formless” and “whirlpool” still resonate—as does the idea that life is beautiful in spite of everything. But do these words mean something to those who did not benefit, or were purposefully excluded, from postwar prosperity? Can they speak to young people who would more than likely find Morrison’s wild onstage gestures to be “cringe” but might hear something true in his unforgettable voice? The concert album Live In New York (2009) proves that Manzarek, Krieger, Densmore, and Morrison were competent at playing the blues (as any decent rock band had to be in those days). But it’s also true that the Doors’ songs, when the hints of Rat Pack and bossa nova crowd out the blues, sometimes sound like cocktail-lounge music with a drunk man shouting over it. A drunk man formed by a curriculum of Nietzsche, Freud, and French poetry, and deformed by some formidable daddy issues. Out of this stew, he invented something recognizably American, sometimes preachy, often beautiful. His best songs have survived five decades now and might survive five more.