The Beats Influence on Jim Morrison

The Doors (photo by Joel Brodsky/Elektra Records)

“If he (Jack Kerouac) hadn’t written On The Road, The Doors never would have existed.” Ray Manzarek

Some bands wear their Beat influences on their sleeves. Steely Dan is a reference from a William Burroughs book “Naked Lunch” and their song lyrics continued to be influenced by literature. At first glance The Doors don’t seem to be Beat influenced and while The Doors were heavily influenced by literature, they practically released a reading list when they became a national band, they were also obviously influenced by film (Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek were UCLA film students when they met), but theatre was an influence, as well as Blues music. If you delve past surface appearances you will find The Doors, especially Jim Morrison were influenced by The Beats (most of this essay focuses on Jim Morrison because he was The Doors chief lyricist and the most widely read in literature of The Doors).

The first thing The Beats gave Morrison is the most important and overlooked influence, they gave Jim Morrison a reading list. Kerouac’s “On The Road” provides a who’s who of cutting edge writers ranging from William Blake, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Arthur Rimbaud. The most influential in Morrison’s development as a writer with a desire to be a poet was French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. Morrison was influenced by Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell” as well as “Illuminations.” Also important to Morrison was Rimbaud’s biography. Rimbaud is famous for his quote that poetry should be “a systematic disorganization of the senses.” Rimbaud’s poetic career was also a very quick and shambolic tear through the ranks of French poetry of the time. Rimbaud stopped writing at age seventeen and left for Africa to make his fortune as a gun-runner. It’s from this that Morrison developed the romantic idea of writing some memorable poetry and then “split for Africa.” Other writers suggested by The Beats were Nietzsche, Celine, Baudelaire, William Blake, Hart Crane, Weldon Kees whose ideas and Morrison’s paraphrasings of which you can later find in Morrison’s philosophy, Doors lyrics, and poetry.

The first edition of “On The Road”

A more superficial but equally important gift Kerouac gave Morrison was an ideal to look up to, for a shy, introverted, bookish teenager to remake himself into, and later an image Morrison consciously personified. In 1957 Kerouac’s “On The Road” was released and fourteen year old Jim Morrison read the book underlining passages that interested him, some of which would become incorporated into his rock and roll persona. Kerouac’s descriptions of his “On The Road” protagonist Dean Moriarty could well have applied to Jim Morrison. “My first impression of Dean was of a young Gene Autry-trim, thin hipped, blue eyed with a real Oklahoma accent-a side burned hero of the snowy west.” In early photos of The Doors and Morrison, this is exactly how Morrison appears, a lithe build and sideburns.

Jim Morrison in an early performance (photo by KRLA/promotional)

Kerouac’s often quoted,

“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes Awww!”

Morrison paraphrased this to describe himself,

“I see myself as a huge fiery comet, a shooting star. Everyone stops, points up and gasps ‘Oh look at that!’ Then- whoosh, and I’m gone, and they’ll never see anything like it ever again, and they won’t be able to forget me- ever.”

Morrison also actively sought out Beat literary figures, a case of the dreamy-eyed youth seeking out his literary heroes. In the early 60's both Kerouac and Jim Morrison were living in the Clearwater, Florida area, a time in Kerouac’s life that he was hitting local bars with an entourage of teenage admirers. It’s tempting to imagine one of them, a teenage Jim Morrison sharing a beer with Kerouac and talking literature, but no such meeting has ever been mentioned in biographies of either Kerouac or Morrison. At the time Morrison was known to be extremely shy, a few years before when the Morrison’s lived in San Francisco Morrison went to the City Lights Bookstore while poet-owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti was there and Morrison was too shy to approach him. A meeting that may have happened at the height of The Doors fame in 1968 when they appeared in Lowell, Massachusetts, again while Kerouac was living there, Morrison from the stage asked the audience “is Kerouac around tonight?” There’s also a second part of the story, that Morrison showed up on Kerouac’s front porch in Lowell seeking an audience with him, but was denied entry by Kerouac’s mother because of his long hair. If this almost meeting did happen it was shortly before Kerouac’s death and he had become a bitter alcoholic who had no love for hippies, and repudiated his influence on their generation.

More successful and verified meetings were with Beat poets Allen Ginsburg and Michael McClure. Morrison met Ginsburg when they attended a Jefferson Airplane concert, although nothing is known about what they may have talked about and it seems to have been their only meeting. In Beat poet Michael McClure Morrison found a kindred poetic spirit and a productive relationship, but not at first. McClure and Morrison first met in New York while McClure was rehearsing his play “The Beard.” Both men were drinking and wearing leather pants and had an immediate dislike for each other. That hurdle seems to have been overcome by the time The Doors went to play their European tour. Morrison ran into McClure at an agent’s office and they started talking, Morrison invited McClure over to read some of his poetry and McClure was soon encouraging Morrison to get the poetry published even if he self-published it, which he did. By 1969 McClure’s and Morrison’s relationship became a working one. Morrison was impressed by McClure’s novel “The Adept” which had themes and settings in common with Morrison’s. They rented an office in a Hollywood building and worked on a screenplay of “The Adept” but because of its lack of cohesion was rejected by an agent, and the two went on to other projects. Ray Manzarek also befriended McClure and from the 80's on they collaborated on projects like “Love Lion,” “The Third Mind,” “The Piano Poems,” as well as touring together.

Ray Manzarek and Michael McClure “For Jim Morrison”

You can find the influence of The Beats in Morrison’s Doors lyrics from which he borrows from the reading list. The very name The Doors is taken from William Blake

“if the doors of perception were cleansed man would appear to man as it is, infinite”

from Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Songs like “End of the Night” took the title, “Journey to the End of the Night” and imagery from Celine. “End of the Night” also includes the phrase “some are born to sweet delight” again taken from William Blake this time, “Auguries of Innocence.” Such examples can be found by any thorough examination of The Doors catalog from the beginning to the end of their career, Morrison borrowed most of the line “delicate riders on the storm” from Hart Crane’s “Praise for an Urn.” As noted in an earlier Medium article “Weldon Kees: The Lost Literary Influence of Jim Morrison” Morrison also found examples in lesser known members of The Beat circle, although Kees was on the fringes of that circle, Morrison still found inspiration in Kees’ poetry and perhaps consciously used a theme from Kees’ in his own poem “The Movie.”

If you’re looking for a more direct influence of Beat writing on Morrison, the style of Morriso’s poems, what at first seems to be disjointed imagery and as Morrison himself put it “Listen, real poetry doesn’t say anything; it just ticks off the possibilities….” and with all the imagery stacked upon itself paints a picture, sort of like pointillism with words. One of the influences of this style is Allen Ginsburg best exemplified in “Howl.”

“I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection in the starry dynamo in the
machinery of night,…”

Compared to one of Morrison’s poems, “Awake.”

Shake dreams from your hair
My pretty child, my sweet one
Choose the day and choose the sign of your day
The day’s divinity
First thing you see.
A vast radiant beach in a cool jeweled moon
Couples naked race down by its quiet side
And we laugh like soft, mad children…”

The Beats also influenced Morrison’s songwriting, not in borrowed phrasings, or similarities in style but in tone. An excellent example is The Doors “Cars Hiss by My Window” seems very influenced by Kerouac.

The Doors “Car Hiss by my Window” from “L.A. Woman”

From “On The Road”

“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was-I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”

Both of these scenes aptly describe the same sort of existential aphasia or fugue state, and the disorientation of not quite knowing who you are or why you’re there.

Jim Morrison may have been a rock and roll star, but maybe we’ve been too quick to give him that label, maybe even poet doesn’t accurately describe Morrison’s avocation, perhaps a more accurate description is Beat rock and roll star, or maybe rock and roll star should be taken out of the equation and consider him a Beat writer, or more accurately description the last Beat writer.

(The Doors also borrowed heavily from musical sources as well, Ray Manzarek freely admits of taking the opening of “Light My Fire” from Bach, but that’s another article!)

Ray Manzarek talks about how The Doors put together songs.