Jim Morrison, An American Prayer, 1978
I’ll always maintain that in terms of poetry, Jim Morrison had a spectacular voice. Maybe not anything special as actual poetic voice – but his spoken-world delivery was superb. He was just mad enough and insecure enough to want to try to believe everything he said. But quite apart from that he had that rich timbre, as with his singing. He was able to signpost seeming cool. And so he got away with it. He got away with, well, a lot actually.
I revisit the poems in book-form now and they are next to meaningless. I bought all the books you could get – biographies and examinations as well as the actual volumes of lyrics and poems.
Everyone has a Doors phase. And mine was basically right through high school – which is when I’m sure it is scheduled for most. I carried on for a bit through uni too. And, hey, weak moments will send me back to their strongest tracks. Months can go by, maybe even years, and I won’t really ever think about The Doors. But I will return to their music. Always. Eventually. I might not go through it all – but I’ll find a way back in. In fact, since first hearing the catalogue it’s been a love/hate thing for me. The documentaries, the biopic, the concert films, the books, it’s like I’m a massive fan. But I’m not sure I was ever quite a massive fan. But I seem to be forever auditioning…
Not sure when An American Prayer came into view for me – but I guess it was absorbed as part of the Doors’ catalogue. I know I had it on cassette tape along with all the other albums. And I played it a lot. And then I bought it on CD. And I’m somewhat gutted to find only recently that I’ve no longer got it on vinyl (and I’m just crazy enough with this shit to probably buy it again one day).
Jim’s poetry is there in the songs of The Doors, some of the lyrics started off as poems – other songs were stretched out live to include his ramblings and there are even some studio renditions of spoken-word passages or tunes that incorporate pieces of poetry within the song frame. And Jim’s poetry was there on the stage – always. It was a feature of any of the live recordings of the band.
But An American Prayer is the spoken-word album he was never able to complete in his lifetime. The recordings were made in 1969/1970 and the remaining members of The Doors reassembled to make up the music and piece together an album of Jim’s words in 1978.
I think it’s always been mostly reviled. And it probably is rather shit, even people that bought it and pretended to like it only did so out of some sort of obligation.
But I’ve loved it from first listen. And I still do.
Oh, don’t get me wrong – I think it’s fucking ridiculous! But that’s precisely why I love it. It sums up the madness of Morrison’s poetic world. The sheer indulgence. It also showcases that magical delivery, the gift of that golden voice.
The Doors didn’t get it right for Jim here – and apparently he never wanted them involved. His plan was to use the film composer Lalo Schifrin. How wonderful that might have been. The only glimpse we really get of his sort of soundscape is on the track, The Movie – which is midway through the album and at the start of Oliver Stone’s confused, confusing and silly but slightly glorious biopic. Arthur Barrow from the Zappa band added synthesizer in behind Jim’s voice and it gives some clue as to what Schifrin might have done. Schifrin created the scores for the Dirty Harry films and Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon – among many other iconic films. So that gives the other clue as to what he might have done in a collaboration with Morrison.
But The Doors panicked. I reckon. They wanted to celebrate the Lizard King as blues singer, as storytelling beatnik, as performance poet and shaman – they wanted to sound modern (in 1978) but reminiscent of themselves; of the old band. And they basically fail and succeed in equal measures. But they don’t really elevate the words in any way.
That said the words aren’t really there to be elevated – they’re a nonsense. Random lines about getting a hard-on carrying books on your lap while riding the school bus. About writing the word C-U-N-T out of dust on the windshield. What does it mean Jim?
It doesn’t actually matter. Because it sounds cool. Or he sounds cool saying it.
And then randomly, right in the middle, there’s a killer liver version of Roadhouse Blues. Which doesn’t really fit I always thought. But is a total ripper.
But An American Prayer always feels earnest to me – and in absolutely the right way. It’s the album that taught me about spoken-word albums too. Got me to celebrate in them, to have the patience to sit with them, to work through them.
He is the lizard king/Even though that doesn’t mean a fucking thing – or however the line (actually) goes…
As the album builds towards the final track, A Feast Of Friends (‘The Severed Garden’) and Robby Krieger plays classical guitar as if it’s a blues, or blues guitar in a classical music style – or whatever it is he actually does – I always (to this day) get a little sad. I guess it’s because this track is used in the final scene of the Stone biopic where Jim’s body is found in the tub. But I’m sure I felt that way when I first heard this (ahead of seeing the film).
Death makes angels of us all/And gives us wings where we had shoulders smooth as ravens claws
Hey, it’s fucking nonsense. Still. But it seemed real to Jim. And it felt like my kind of nonsense then. And still.
I love his voice and the kookiness of his attempt/s.
For all the skill of the three instrumentalists there is no Doors without Jim. And we all found that out the hard way.
Shit That’s Good! Crap Albums I Love is an occasional series here at Off The Tracks