Thursday 13 January 2011

Shaman's Blues

‘The growth of bureaucracy creates an intricate network of personal relations, puts a premium on social skills, and makes the unbridled egotism of the American Adam untenable. Yet at the same time it erodes all forms of patriarchal authority and thus weakens the social superego, formerly represented by fathers, teachers and preachers. The decline of institutionalised authority in an ostensibly permissive society does not, however, lead to a "decline of the superego" in individuals. It encourages instead the development of a harsh, punitive superego that derives most of its psychic energy, in the absence of authoritative social prohibitions, from the destructive, aggressive impulses of the id.’

Christopher Lasch - "The Culture of Narcissism"

"Why did you throw the Jack Of Hearts away?
It was the only card in the deck
That I had left to play."

- The Doors "Hyacinth House"

The Doors are perhaps the most curious group in the history of popular music, and in my personal opinion probably the greatest. Both a product of their era and very much the antithesis of it, they seemed to both stand apart from the spirit of the times, and yet embody the contradictions that characterised it.

The Doors themselves were children of the military-industrial complex. Jim Morrison’s father was Rear Admiral George Stephen Morrison, commander of the United States Navy’s 7th Fleet during the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident that initiated the American military involvement in Vietnam. Guitarist Robby Krieger’s father was a senior executive in the shadowy RAND Corporation, a quasi-private entity that conducts research on behalf of the U.S. military, and is notorious for its use of game theory to produce the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. When Morrison famously declared that his parents were "dead" it was for more pragmatic reasons than the obvious Oedipal symbolism. Just as it would have been awkward for him for it to be known that his father was, perhaps more than any other individual, responsible for starting the Vietnam War, so it would have been equally awkward for his father were it widely known that his son was an avatar of the counter-cultural rebellion against it.

Morrison was a far more complex and sympathetic character than the narcissistic "Lizard King" projected by his record company’s marketing department and the series of lurid, largely fictional biographies that followed his death. Those who were close to him who didn’t feel the need to cash in on his fame generally portray him as a thoughtful individual who was in many ways a reluctant rock star, and who would rather have occupied his time with his poetry or his real love, film-making. His estrangement from his family makes his background biographically sketchy, though it is known that, as is typical for the scion of a military family, his childhood was itinerant, and characterised by his father’s somewhat bizarre disciplinary regime, which eschewed corporal punishment in favour of dressing-downs and bawl-outs, as though the Morrison children were Marine cadets. The one episode in his childhood that Jim Morrison liked to divulge was when his family drove past a car accident that had left a number of Native Americans lying dead by the side of the road. Morrison imagined that he had ingested the soul of one of the dead Indians, granting him shamanic potential.

Although it has been suggested that Morrison greatly exaggerated what he had witnessed at the scene, its importance is that it gave him his first uncanny idea of the possibilities of magic. The enigmatic Freudian psychoanalyst Géza Róheim wrote in "Magic and Schizophrenia" that magic is the counterphobic action, that it gives the weak ego its first opportunity of spontaneous action against the suffocating pressure of the superego. It is this possibility of spontaneity that gives birth to The Individual, within which nests Durkheim’s Homo Duplex - social man and personal man. Fearing the terrible punishment of the social superego for "sticking out" if we say the wrong thing, we all nevertheless possess the magical possibility of using language to bring ourselves to the attention of others, of impressing them or converting them to our cause. With The Doors, Morrison launched perhaps the most spectacular attack on the social superego of the post-war era.

The Doors' self-titled debut album, released in 1967, opens with what was pretty much their manifesto - "Break On Through". The "other side" that Morrison is attempting to break through to is that of the completed shamanic initiation. For all its drama of spiritual possession, what shamanic initiation is really about is the conquering of the superego. The shaman dramatises the social consensus as possessing spirits in order to confront and ultimately control them, doubling his own strength and giving him the power to cure others. The Doors’ sound here is unprecedented - rather than riffing, it pulsates insistently, like the fragile ego declaring its courage to be. The Doors’ sound was spacious but bounded, contained within a periphery, at times almost subterranean. The Doors were not Faustian, but Magian, Spengler’s term for the cultures of the Middle-East, whose primary symbol, the cavern, manifests itself in the domes of the Mosque and the Synagogue, and whose aesthetic was that of magical transmutation, of alchemy - the symbolic conquest of the self.

The follow-up "Strange Days" long player, released the same year, delved into what would be The Doors' ur-theme - loneliness - with songs such as "People Are Strange" and "You’re Lost Little Girl". It’s likely that the continual uprooting of Morrison's childhood was as responsible for his enthrallment to this subject as his father’s disciplinary habits were responsible for his compulsive anti-authoritarianism. Loneliness has long been the essential American experience, and its anguish bore the birth pangs of a rock’n’roll that was so lonely it could die. For Morrison, this endless, anomic vista of loneliness was symptomatic of an America, and by extension a Western civilisation, that was played out, its spiritual fountainheads long since run dry.

Morrison’s uncompromising assault on the superego made The Doors politically and socially indigestible by pretty much all sides. Unlike the rest of the counterculture, they didn’t present a set of demands to be met, whether modest or radical. Their antinomian stance was one of total repudiation. Both this and their generally aloof manner ensured that they would tend to generate trouble even when they weren’t looking for it, and would find few sympathisers when they found it. Their pithily irresistible pop singles would bring them to public attention only for television producers to ban them for minor infringements of etiquette, and for the police to bust Morrison for vague misdemeanors that were permutations of the catch-all euphemism of "lewd behaviour". These fuelled an increasing perception of his general oafishness within a music industry that cared little for him. Indeed Morrison himself had always shown disdain for the music business, always preferring to hang out with bar-flies and street bums than with his fellow musicians. What was clear from his increasing consumption of alcohol, and his decreasing contributions to The Doors records was that his battle against the nomos was one that he was losing. For all this he was still capable of great acuity. After the infamous bust at Dade County, Florida, Morrison, who privately feared the possibility of prison, nevertheless made the observation that the experience had helped him understand the purpose of the U.S. Penal system: to break African-Americans.

In 1970 The Doors somehow emerged from this fiasco with something of a comeback with the "Morrison Hotel", and "L.A. Woman" albums, both of which featured Morrison back at the creative helm, and which returned to a simpler, rocking sound that was both a commercial and critical success. "L.A. Woman" was thematically the most essential Doors record, a heartbreaking document of loneliness and isolation, both felt and observed. It also showcased how subtle and supple the band’s ensemble playing could be, hitting wonderfully tactile grooves without even the barest hint of showiness. The album’s most famous track is undoubtedly "Riders On The Storm", a song, which like Joy Division’s "The Eternal", has an aura of finality that almost suggests precognition.

After "L.A Woman", Morrison’s last studio recording was of his poems, which would be released in the late 70’s as "An American Prayer". Morrison’s poetry was disdained by the critics, although this is largely due to a general misunderstanding of its purpose, which wasn’t an attempt at profundity or beauty, or to create Eng. Lit. Ultimately, it was an attempt to produce a superfluity of meaning. Anthropologists class the shaman phenomenon as a magical medical complex, in that primitive tribes experience disease and illness not as the result of objective biological symptoms, but as a spiritual, which is to say a social, attack. If a tribesman is struck by a mysterious illness then it must be the result of a broken taboo or witchcraft or sorcery. As he cannot know who or what is the origin of the illness, he is defenceless and will quickly succumb. Other members of the tribe are vulnerable to sympathetic symptoms and are also liable to go down. The purpose of the shaman in effecting a cure is to use his surplus symbolism to give the disease a meaning, which gives the tribesman his first foothold in resisting it, and then to draw it out and cast it back on its originator.

Within the confines of a primitive tribe, of course, it is easy for the shaman to identify the source of a social superego attack that initiates disease. In the complex, multi-layered societies of the contemporary West, the sources of superego pressure are as multitudinous as they are nefarious - they leak through society as iatrogenic undercurrents, manifesting themselves in random psychotic acts; as murder, suicide etc. The superego can attack in many ways - through what Ivan Illich called "the irrational consistency of bureaucracy", through the law and security services, via the mass media, or even through the peer-pressure of the hip "alternative media" that claims false fraternity (which is why uncompromising later bands like The Stranglers and Joy Division always had a deep distrust of the music press). Morrison’s poems, which seemed at once both florid and dissociated, were ultimately an attempt to try to give this nebulous force some kind of shape so that it could be handled and resisted.

Ultimately, all transgressive artists who die unnaturally are killed by the superego, whether the mechanism be suicide, drug overdose, or assassination by a deranged fan. Morrison’s death fitted perfectly within this pattern, within Marcel Mauss’s idée de mort suggérée par la collectivité, within voodoo death. Although the ostensible cause of his death was an ingestion of heroin erroneously given to him by his girlfriend Pamela Courson instead of cocaine, the ultimate cause was an ego relentlessly worn down by the pressure of the superego - compare his beaten, exhausted vocals on "L.A. Woman" to the eager yelping on The Doors' debut just four years before. Courson herself would succumb to voodoo death three years later, at the same age of 27 as her famous boyfriend. On the day that Morrison died, on July 3rd 1971, his father, that ultimate superego figure, presided over the decommissioning ceremony for the USS Bon Homme Richard, the aircraft carrier that he had commanded all those years before off the coast of Vietnam.


David K Wayne said...

I wish you'd stop encouraging me to reappraise bands I dismissed decades ago...

David K Wayne said...

OK - you did it. I've found myself listening to the Doors all night!

Adam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam said...

I'd also several years ago dismissed the Doors, a band I liked a lot in high school. Morrison's shtick began to seem a bit hokey as I got older. But a few months ago, I saw an interview the band did in 1969, and Morrison was very thoughtful and prophetic, predicting not only the emergence of punk music around 1974(!), but also (arguably) the rise of the DJ musician. That part starts around 7:40.

Phil Knight said...

Listening to The Doors is more fun than eating chocolate. I'm always amazed that there are people who deny themselves this pleasure.

David K Wayne said...

Films and adverts can have a bad effect on music - that awful Oliver Stone movie, various Viet Nam dramas etc. probably fixed the 'wrong' images in my younger mind (not to mention 'Rolling Stone' mytholigising).

But thanks to this article I've realised they were actually excellent after giving them a listen. Especially the first two albums.

victormanuelcruz said...

yes! so nice to see someone refuting the conventional wisdom (or superego speak) that Adam hints at- that it's okay to like the Doors when you're a teenager, but then, you know, you grow out of it. I'd imagine part of the reason for this is that they're harder than most bands to assimilate into the circuits of consumer culture. tender, terrifying and not without a certain subterranean, black humour, they prefigured and punctured multitudes of good and bad ideas and sound and bands before and since, e.g. their first record, 1967, captures the mood of 1972 perfectly. the band were all amazing individual players that combined to make a sound that has yet to be even closely imitated. to my mind, they embodied the spirit of that period, in all its sublime and ugly and exhausted and silly and bored and restless dimensions, so much more than, say, one bob fucking dylan.

Phil Knight said...

Yeah, I can't stand Dylan either. I think the snobbery around The Doors is that they're quite profound, but for a certain kind of person they're also infuriatingly easy to listen to, whereas Dylan is of course worthy hard work.

Like you say they're great individual players, and the secret of The Doors is simply that they're a great little band when they get together and start their grooving.

David K Wayne said...

i was thinking of doing a post on Dylan but all I could come up with was "I don't get it". It's bizarre how many endless volumes of purple prose have been devoted to him, when I can just about get through half a 'greatest hits'.

Phil Knight said...

It's basically the same instinct that used to drive people to hire themselves away to freezing cold monasteries to spend their days painstakingly illustrating biblical manuscripts between ritual scourgings.

Dylan appeals to the modern iteration of this kind of learned masochist.

David K Wayne said...

LOL - I know what you mean: that voice, that horrible harmonica, the monotonous guitar playing, the ten minute tuneless cut'n'pastes of literary/historical references. He was OK when he was basically frontman for the Hawks, but that's about it. When I read Greil Marcus' 'Invisible Republic' I was miffed that he gave Dylan so much attention compared to all those blues/country singers he ripped off. Pick a random song from Harry Smith's Folk Anthology and its likely to have ten times more mystery and beauty than Bob's entire ouvre.

Even the 'poetry' aspect so many people pore over. Surely there's 1000+ years of far better poets to obsess over?

Greyhoos said...

One key to managing an objective assessment might be to never, never read No One Here Gets Out Alive. Unfortunately, that 's what went a long way for souring the whole thing for me.

Phil Knight said...

Ah, you can get over that by reading this entertaining interview with his minder/sidekick Tony Funches, who says that most of the stories are just nonsense:

David K Wayne said...

Re: Danny Sugarman -

He had strange military associations too:

American rock seems to have so many intimate links with post-WW2 militarism (including how many 50s pioneers were drafted). Not just American - a fair few British punk had military parents. Seems to distinguish it from other American musics more connected with farming (country), manufacturing (soul), or the urban drug trade (hiphop)

I can see where the wilder conspiracy theories about rock'n'roll being the brainchild of some shadowy military think-tank may come from.

Greyhoos said...

Right, Wayne. But I don't know if there any purpose in reaching for a conspiracy theory when the matter might be more easily explained by general stats and demographics. I think it more comes down to the character of American society in the early years of the Cold War.

Yes, there was the conversion of WWII industry over to commercial, post-war/"peace-time" production; but a good portion of that industry kept rolling along on its prior course -- growing and developing to meet the needs of an increasingly tech-reliant military. War had become a big (if not increasingly massive and pervasive) business, hence Eisenhower's words of warning as he exited office.

And at that time, Americans uncritically saw themselves as having helped fight the "Great War," and thus capable protectorates of the "Free World." When the Korean War came round, very few Americans questioned the official rationale behind the action. If you were called, you went -- or you even volunteered out of sheer patriotism. Not such a big deal. But all that started to erode and shift in the 1960s. During the first couple of years of American troops being sent to Vietnam, dissent was a murmur that was limited to the fringes; but after a couple of years, more and more Americans began to question to logic behind the intervention. (Which I suspect was proportionate to the ramp-up of draft notices being issued.)

I expect much of the above is common knowledge. But I find it interesting, how intertwined it is with the topic at hand. Didn't know the bit about the Rand Corp connex. And Fawn Hall?? Now that is truly weird.

David K Wayne said...

There was an article in today's newspaper (the Independent) on Eisenhower's legacy and his prescient warning.

I may be wrong but I think read somewhere that Jimi Hendrix was very proud of his military service and vocally supported the Viet Nam war (until his Band of Gypsies period at least). The whole idea of rock being inherently left-wing may have been overstated, more wishful thinking by 60s/70s fans and music journalists than its performers.

Greyhoos said...

When you bring Hendrix into the equation, you run the risk of venturing into different sociological, different historical terrain. Particularly that of African Americans' service in the armed forces.

As far as the whole supposed "left-wingedness" in rock issue is concerned: Could be. Or it could just be another example of how it is with most other types of celebrities & performers -- that their social/political convictions are rarely, if ever, nuanced or remotely coherent.

David K Wayne said...

Point taken - especially since I've been trying to get some posts together on hiphop and its 'dialectic' relationship to neoliberalism (for the other blogs) and finding myself having to stop and rethink the terrain more than I expected...

breando said...

Wayne, check out this research by David McGowan about 60s rock stars of military families all coincidently gathering in Laurel Canyon.