Jim Morrison and the Tabu

How “The End” taps into primal fear.

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Jim Morrison on the Smother’s Brothers Show, 1968. The cherubic face belies Morrison’s bad boy behavior. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

A friend mentions that he saw The Doors in concert. I saw a lot of bands in my concert-going days — and, if only I had an extra thousand, I’d still brave a stadium crowd to see the Rolling Stones. I saw a lot of bands wholesale in those all-day concerts, but I never got to see The Doors.

Oliver Stone’s movie, The Doors (1991), with Val Kilmer as the insouciant Morrison, recreates the band’s first performance of the now completed “The End” at Whiskey A Go Go, where they were the house band. The song had been part of their repertoire for a while, but what had started as Morrison’s farewell song for a girlfriend had long been evolving.

On August 21, 1966, Morrison didn’t show up for the gig. The band made do without him for the first set, but during the break they went to retrieve him from his apartment where they found him tripping on acid. Nevertheless they brought him back to Whiskey A Go Go, and in the part of the song that gave Morrison space for improvisation, he introduced a new verse:

The crowd went wild for the Oedipal and incestuous addition, but club owner Mario Maglieri was screaming, “You want to DO WHAT to your mother?!” He fired them after the show, but it was no great loss for the Doors who now had a recording contract and were on their way to bigger and better things.

Morrison wrote the song the right way: who wants to hear a rock song about mythology or ancient Greek drama? Morrison’s approach puts us directly into the drama as opposed to relaying what Sophocles told us — it’s the difference between first-person narration and epistolary fiction: the first is immediate, the second overly mediated. As Jacques Lacan might see it: the gap between the imaginary (i.e. what we imagine the world to be — The Matrix, in other words) and the real creates fear (“the horror, the horror, the horror” that Marlon Brando mumbles about in Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s movie, which begins with “The End” as a kind of theme song). Many people, especially men, express fear of the imaginary-real gap as rage. No wonder Maglieri the club owner lost it.

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The End: Morrison’s grave in Pére Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. Photo by Márkó Laci (Markolaci at Hungarian Wikipedia), licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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