The Doors at 50: On the Source of Morrison’s Swagger

50 years ago, The Doors were touring in support of the eponymous album that cemented their position amongst rock royalty. The band’s charismatic frontman, Jim Morrison, was undeniably talented and salaciously unpredictable with sex appeal that translated well beyond his early demise. I was so enthralled with him as a pubescent teen that I hung a gigantic charcoal portrait of the lizard king above my bed. He seemed so serpentine and cool, an erratic artist singularly dedicated to the chaos of craft. Oh, how that attraction foreshadowed so many of my adult choices.

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Jim Morrison by Joel Brodsky from the 1967 series that would give The Doors its iconic album art.

As we, residents of the future, well know that chaos drove him to an early grave yet Jim Morrison is still one of the most recognizable musicians in the world. The Doors made great music that epitomized their era–an era that people love to remember–and Morrison made for quite the photogenic sixties poster child. But the truth is that History remembers zealots best, not necessarily the best in any chose field, because zealots have a higher tendency to burn brightest just before they burn out and everyone remembers an explosion.

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The cool thing about being a student and chronicler of History is getting to re-examine things you’ve always loved under a new lens. Over the last six months, I’ve been curating and creating digital content for the California History Society’s commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love. CHS just rolled out a special website last month in partnership with San Francisco Travel, and this is by far and away the most relevant, trippy, mind-blowing historical commemorative in which I’ve ever had the pleasure to participate. One series of articles I’ve been working on is titled “Who Saw the Summer of Love,” and it seeks to dispel the misunderstanding that San Francisco was inundated by a cohesive hoard of hippies; in fact, there were many different groups with their own, sometimes competing and often paralleling, agendas. There were political activists, psychedelic artists, rock and rollers, Hells Angels outlaws, environmentalists, communally conscious merchants and anarchists, and more.

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Jim Morrison, followed by girlfriend Pam, follows Michael McClure around 1969.

In researching a forthcoming article on the Beat poets that formed a bridge between 1950s bohemianism and 1960s counterculture, I learned something about Jim Morrison that I never saw coming. Jim Morrison learned how to be cool from celebrated Beat poet Michael McClure. McClure was probably a large reason why The Doors attended the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park on January 14, 1967–the event that set the tone for 1967, and directly led to the Summer of Love. He also encouraged Morrison’s poetry, and even got it published. And if the picture above doesn’t prove to you that Morrison absorbed McClure’s cool, then the photograph below should do it. This shows McClure standing next to Bob Dylan, with Beat messiah Allen Ginsberg to Dylan’s left, outside City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco’s North Beach. Bob Dylan rightfully worshipped the Beats as the elder statesmen of cool, and he emulated their phonetic cadences in song and their style of dress. He’s also the one who staged this photo shoot, hoping to use it as an album cover. While Ginsberg followed Dylan around like a puppy–a puppy hoping to get laid–McClure kept his cool and that dynamic can totally be read in this legendary snapshot.

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Photo by Larry Keenan. McClure, Dylan and Ginsberg outside City Lights Bookstore, 1966.

In November of last year I had the honor of hearing McClure read from a new volume of his poetry, Mephistos and Other Poems, at City Lights Books. He’s in his 80s now and age is most definitely taking its toll. He walked with a cane and the help of his people, and I’m not so sure it registered when I told him he is one of the greatest influences on my life–that he is the reason this San Francisco historian traveled north to become a San Franciscan. However, he was 100% McClure when reading his own poems: cool, calm, effortlessly suave and sensual as only a poet can be. Gives a girl hope for the future of her mind. And as I looked around the audience that night, I caught the eye of a handsome young fellow wearing a shearling-lined denim jacket and an old fisherman’s cap who stood above a sea of graying spectacles.

Gives a girl hope for the future of her generation.

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Michael McClure reading from Mephistos and Other Poems, November 2016.