The theatrical life of When You're Strange is fading away. I've spent months talking about this film. Sometimes, when I least expect it, I get the strangest feeling that I've actually learned a few things on this crazy trip.
Jim's father was a career Navy officer who retired as an Admiral. The Morrison family moved frequently to different naval bases around the country.
Jim's sister Anne told me me how she, Jim and their younger brother Andy took a navy shuttle bus into the base movie theater one night to watch a John Wayne movie. It was around 1955; Jim was maybe 12. At this time it was a requirement on military bases for audiences to stand while the National Anthem played. Jim, half in joke and half in patriotic fervor, stood and started singing at the top of his lungs. He was the only one singing and he sang the whole song.
I can see him doing this pretty clearly. I rode on those same military buses as a kid. My father was a Colonel in the Marine Corps. When I was 12, in 1965, I'd already moved 6 times.
The buses were driven by enlisted men in fatigues with really short hair. They'd been instructed to enforce complete silence. On the way to school the boys were seated on one side and the girls on the other. If a kid talked they were made to sit on the other side. The idea was that this would be humiliating, primarily for the boys, and would thereby prompt obedience. I can't remember a single instance where a girl showed anything more than annoyonce in being forced to cross the aisle.
In elementary school the same No Talking rule applied during lunch. Boys and girls were permitted to sit together in the lunchroom though very few did. So, the punishment for talking was having your lunch taken away.
Even at 9 years old I suspected there was something absurdly tyrannical about making a room full of kids eat in complete silence. Once, a small, timid girl cried out at a sudden crack of thunder. The teacher, a clumping, thick-legged woman immediately took her lunch away. The girl sat stricken, fighting back tears. As distraught as she was I knew she was also starving.
I got up, walked over and gave her half my sandwich. The teacher glared at me but did nothing.
An equally rigid set of rules existed at home.
My father's word was law. No one ever contradicted him. My mother, though sympathetic, bought into the chain of command and when push came to shove, which it frequently did, she always sided with the commander.
There was no television in the house. C's on report cards and other infractions brought punishment from my father, usually with the belt to his uniform trousers. One of the worst came after I let a screen door slam.
This kind of discipline is designed with a single purpose; to create absolute obedience. It is the essence of the military. Survival depends on orders being obeyed instantly. Any questioning or hesitation from an individual could result in death or defeat for the entire group.
But, for a child this kind of discipline can crush a soul. Questioning is the essence of Life. It is how we learn to see. It is how we determine our own thoughts, how we develop the personality that is totally particular, special and unique to ourselves.
The struggle against a parent inflicting this kind of discipline is really one of life and death. There is no middle ground. To buy into it even a little means keeping a part of yourself subjugated, voiceless and inferior.
To fight it means standing up in the face of it and declaring, "It is either you or me."
Apparently, this is exactly what Jim Morrison did.
There is no evidence that Admiral Morrison included physical abuse in disciplining his children. Anne Morrison recalls her father with great fondness and affection.
But, Jim swung out of the family nucleus very early. He left home to go to college; first in Florida, then in California at UCLA. When he ran into Ray Manzarek a few months after graduating, he had no money, no job and was living on someone's roof a few blocks from Venice Beach.
He was essentially homeless.
A little more than a year later Jim, Ray, John Densmore and Robby Krieger released their first album as the Doors. Jim's separation from his family was already so entrenched they barely knew he was in a band. Andy found out the Doors had made a record only when a friend showed him the album and said one of the guys on the cover looked a little like his brother, Jim.
Although Jim later claimed he was only joking one wonders how Andy and the rest of the family reacted when they read the way he described them in the album's liner notes:
Jim took the name of the band from this line in a poem by William Blake. It not only shows what Morrison was reading as a teenager; it also gives a glimpse into what his mind was turning on to.
Blake is suggesting if we cleared all the obstacles in our vision we would see life as it is; an alternately fascinating and terrifying mystery. Some of the things that keep us from seeing are the institutions we've set up to provide meaning and order; massive social cornerstones like Government, School, Religion and Family.
Although well-intentioned, each of these can become oppressive; serving as walls against any real self-discovery or awareness. The goal is to see things as they are, not as other people tell us they are. This takes courage. It is not easy to see so openly, and so honestly. It is painful, frightening and in some cases it brings complete alienation.
Perhaps this is why the Doors music resonates so deeply with those who've never felt they belonged anywhere.
It is impossible to know what really went on inside the Morrison family but Jim's exit from it was permanent. Whatever he saw there pushed him out into the void with a vengeance. Home for him was someplace else entirely.
As maddening and frustrating as it was to his friends and bandmates, his only responsibility seemed to be total freedom. He plunged headfirst into chaos in every performance. And, having survived, the next night he seemed obligated to go even further.
This commitment seems part of Morrison's DNA. His girlfriend Pam asked him why he exhausted himself at an early show when he knew he had another one to give in an hour. His response was genuine surprise, "Why not? I might not live to the next one."
Ray told me this story: shortly after that fateful meeting on the beach in Venice, Ray invited Jim to move in with him and his girlfriend, Dorothy. It all went pretty well for a while, with the two of them writing music, rehearsing and playing a few gigs. Then one day Ray looked at Jim's hair and suggested he get it cut.
Jim erupted, screaming at Ray, "Don't you ever tell me what to do!" Though they remained close friends Jim moved out, permanently.
The issue of hair in the military is intense. For the first 17 years of my life I had a crew-cut. It was barely tolerable in the early 60's but when the family moved to California in 1968 it was excruciating. My junior high school was in town, outside the Marine base. I was literally the only one in it with short hair. Kids used to walk up to me in the hall and laugh in my face. Every plea to my father to let me grow my hair was refused. In fact, punishment for my brother and me now started with a visit to the military barber who was instructed to shave our heads even closer.
The ban was finally lifted when I went away to college. I've never cut my hair short since.
But, not every child from a military family goes through this kind of trauma. It takes something more than haircuts and discipline.
Before the Doors made their first record Jim approached a wealthy friend of his father for a loan. The friend told Admiral Morrison of the request and asked his advice. In a letter recounting this event Jim's father writes:
There is a lot of subtext in these few lines. I'm struck by both men's concern over the length of Jim's hair. But, even more significant is Admiral Morrison's insistence the friend turn Jim down. He was completely oblivious to Jim's gift. The gulf between them was so great he seemed to have no idea who his son was.
The myth of Family is a powerful one. It proclaims that family connections are sacred and should be maintained at all costs. We all buy into this; understandably. Who wants to be an orphan? But, I think sometimes the cost can be too high. I think sometimes maintaining family connections only perpetuates pain and disappointment.
Jim Morrison chose to cut himself loose from them. It could have been an act of supreme selfishness; a childish cry for attention. Or it could have been a statement: I will be what I am, not what you say I am.
In any case, it took balls.
That's one of the things I learned in making this film.
Thanks for writing. Yes, a little late but I don’t this subject has an expiration date.
Thanks for the tip on the Shiner book. I will check it out.
I also share your admiration for the commenters.
The photo may have come from Jim’s sister Ann. She and the Morrison estate put out a wonderful book full of photos, like a scrap book with things you could pull out and look at; like a copy of the famous letter written by Jim’s father to him telling him he couldn’t lend him any money because “he had no talent whatsoever…”
I don’t have the name of the book unfortunately.
Ms. Ann Onimuss 🙂
Thanks for writing. I get the sense immediately that you appreciated the film on much more than a surface level. Some of your observations are inspiring.
I especially appreciate your take on the anagram. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms but now that you mention it, a whole new meaning comes through.
Great to hear from you after all these years. Glad to hear you are still fighting the furies. I like Pat Conroy but all I can say is that the number my old man laid on me was infinitely more intense than anything I’ve read by Conroy. No disrepect intended. It’s just that the mental abuse deserves as much attention as the physical.
I read your comment at the beginning of the month and was really blown away by it. I’m sincerely sorry it has taken me this long to respond. I guess I’ll have to stop saying that pretty soon.
Un petit wassup de New York. Always a pleasure to hear from you. I think the Emmys came and went and we got nothing but that’s ok because I never expected to be even nominated.
I really love your writing.
Thanks for all these great posts.
Congrats for the Emmy!
You may also eclipse your father’s reputation in the world you have built. I hope that Steve can also do the same. I still have a fondness for you both. I don’t think at this stage in my life that I ever can, but I still fight the furies. As the Italian phrase goes, “sempre la lotta”. Join me on Facebook, where we can share art and ideas. Seems like yesterday you were just learning to shoot a camera. Cio fratello, and say hello to Steve.
A pleasure to read your comment. More than that; a real boost to see how much you got out of Box of Moonlight. You know, I worked on that script for years, adding, rewriting, tweaking, developing as many layers of ideas that I thought the piece could contain without collapsing.
Anyway I couldn’t resist the opportunity to put in a plug for the most joyful movie I have ever watched.
And finally I come to your comment; the last and yet the first posted.
Well, “really thoughtful” right back at you. I always enjoy reading your comments. You manage to find an interesting angle of clarity on things that is new to me.
As you can see I’m working my way up through the comments from the bottom. Which is too bad really because I was blown away by yours when you sent it in a few weeks ago.
Thanks for the support on the Emmy nomination. I certainly didn’t see that one coming.
Thank you for taking the time to write such a meaningful, personal and informative comment. I would have responded sooner but I felt that I needed to just let the post sit and let people reveal their reactions. Yours speaks for itself and like Wayne’s, Jeff’s and several others, sustains several readings.
Great to hear from you. Again, sorry it took so long. I had to let this one settle for a while.
It was incredibly meaningful to see your response.
What the hell, right?
I hope all is well in your immensely productive world.
Great comment. No, that’s not my dad in the photo. That’s a still of Admiral Morrison from the film.
I’m glad you liked those two paragraphs. To me, Blake’s idea is the essence of what makes someone a citizen of the world. You leave nationality, family and religion behind and you say, what are the real connections between people? What is the most honest way to see what is really going on me?
How blind and closed-minded people have become. I have become a regular donor to Help Save The Mama Grizzlies By Feeding Them Sarah Palin relief fund.
(now I know those two words rhyme).
Sorry it took me so long to get back. Don’t worry about anything you’ve written here. Clearly you were moved by something and all the champagne slushy did was give it a little nudge.
I agree. I think Wayne’s adjustment to how he deals with people’s narrow-mindedness is pretty profound.
I’m constantly amazed and deeply impressed by the tiny acts of kindness and connection human beings give to each other. It doesn’t happen all the time and when it does it is very powerful.
Like Les Galantine said, “Equal, right?! Everybody’s equal.”
Thanks for those great photos. Wow, they really blew the poster up huge. But they should have chopped down that tree blocking Jim’s face.
The simplicity and clarity of your comment touches me deeply. I thought about this blog for quite a while. It has taken a while to come back to it.
Thanks so much for writing. I’m really glad you liked the film. I love the comparison to the Sex Pistols in San Antonio. People tend to forget that all this music used to be performed LIVE, with no lip syncing, no computers. I deeply envy those who got to see the Doors live. Everyone I spoke to who had said it was an amazing experience, even when Morrison was less than cogent.
Moral: just because one’s drinking champagne over crushed ice does NOT mean it can be guzzled as if it were soda, even–or maybe especially–when it’s 100 degrees out and too humid for the %$# swamp cooler to work properly.
Boy, did I have a headache this morning…
In a way we all have to “kill” our parents, metaphorically speaking, to fully become ourselves. Their influence and power on us is by nature so overbearing that a defiant, even violent, rupture is often necessary to break free. Jim Morrison said his family was dead out of a desire to protect them, I believe, but also maybe to give himself the distance and freedom he needed in order to become his true self. This rejection of what they are and represent is of course hard on the parents. The choice of words Admiral Morrison made for Jim’s epitaph (“true to his own spirit”) was very moving because it indicates that he at some point accepted and took pride in the fact that his son had had the inner strength to follow his own path. I think most good parents do that eventually, they come to terms with their childrens choices and even become very proud of them (though they may not express it).
The two paragraphs you wrote below the “Infinite” picture are fantastic material for reflection. I happen to agree completely with what you wrote there, but it’s not something very present in my mind usually. I wonder if we keep, or are kept, so busy with bs in our lives so that we can’t or don’t have to face thoughts like those, which ideally should be much more present in our consciousness and actions. I also agree with you that The Doors music resonates with those who never felt they belonged anywhere. Besides any background or personality features that may make us feel strange, in a philosophical sense this is a feeling inherent to the human condition (Where do I come from after all? What the hell I am doing here??), but most people don’t like to face or think about it much. This is something else Jim Morrison was not afraid to do, to seriously consider and face life and death and all the frightening stuff involved in them.
Three things came to mind reading it. First, that Jim never really could settle down. He never did find his “home”. He seemed to be most at home in motels and bars (and on stage of course).
Second, how sad that family situation was. On the WYS blu-ray, Jim’s dad says he never heard any of his son’s music. After all these years and with being the steward of his son’s legacy? I used to kind of resent Jim’s treatment of his family (not that it’s any of my business); I love Jim and his music but that was the black mark against him in my mind. But hearing Morrison Sr.’s comments and what you just wrote, it makes it clearer. That’s one of the bittersweet moments of WYS, when Jim’s dad acknowledges he was proud of his son (through Depp’s narration).
Third, I don’t want to bring up the dreaded Oliver Stone, but that was a line of dialogue from Jim to Ray in his movie: “Don’t ever tell me what to do!” I think Stone kind of got that connection too.
You asked me about the blu-ray. Well, I think it looks and sounds great. I love blu-ray. Even the stuff from poor sources like old TV, obviously it doesn’t look like the latest Hollywood blockbuster but I can still see a difference in quality from the same material on regular DVD. And the “HWY” stuff pops out. You can’t beat “Five To One” in 5.1 sound. I love the menu (from “HWY”). And of course the interviews with the Morrisons alone is worth the price of admission. I even enjoy playing the trailer.
Good luck with the Emmy.