Losing Satchmo and Jim Morrison The Same Week


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July 15, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 28

Jim Morrison
By Don Heckman

It was another one of those times, last week. In one day the papers reported the deaths of Louis Armstrong, jazz trumpeter Charlie Shavers, and rock star Jim Morrison.

Only the Morrison death came as a shocker. And even that produced only a peculiar sense of deja vu. Rock has followed closely on the heels of jazz as a highly lethal profession. When one hears of the death of a performer of Morrison’s stature, the reaction is more one of curiosity than surprise. What happened this time? Was it an accident? Was it suicide? And the inevitable: were drugs involved?

In Morrison’s case, the manner in which the announcement was made, nearly a week after his burial in France, aroused predictable suspicions. Add the fact that Morrison was a figure of considerable controversy, and a first class rumor situation has been created.

Ultimately, however, the circumstances are irrelevant. Morrison is gone, and it seems obvious that his particular public significance was as a visible symbol of some ideas whose time had come. His cry, “We
the world and we want it now,” was a rallying point for a generation that had more self-confidence, more arrogance, and more visibility than any which had preceded it. And Morrison’s insistence upon public displays of what always struck me as rather adolescent sexuality were timed right to correspond with the brouhaha over censorship laws. He was no Lenny Bruce, but in his own way, Morrison did his bit.

His music (and the Doors were quintessentially a reflection of his aesthetic profile) was rudimentary and gutsy at a time when audiences wanted rudimentary, gutsy music. His singing, storytelling, and wailing were virtual predecessors of the primal scream, and his stage movements were visible evidence of the new physicality that dominated the pop music of the late ’60s.

But, as with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, Morrison was confronting a new decade, a changing generation, some markedly different musical styles, and — most important — his own aging. In reference to this, I was fascinated by a story in the Times on Sunday about Dr. Herbert L. Klemme at the Menninger Foundation. Dr. Klemme has been formulating a concept of adult development which suggests that “The transition from young adulthood to mature adulthood is equal in difficulty to any other period of transition in the growth and development of people.” The transition from what is called “alloplastic mastery” to “autoplastic mastery” roughly defines the change from “mastery over the external world” to “inward self-mastery.” The difficulty in moving from the outward focus, with its attendant financial and public rewards to the more introspective satisfactions of the stage of “autoplastic mastery” can create genuine crisis conditions. In some people they can result in a reversion to early “safer” behavioral patterns; in other cases they can result in high risk behavior, and such escape mechanisms as drugs and alcohol.

Whether or not all of this applies to Morrison — or Hendrix or Joplin — is a matter which would require a more personal knowledge than I have. But the potential applicability of Klemme’s ideas are, nonetheless, worth considering. The history of American popular arts is littered with the shadows of performers — Rudolph Valentino, Jean Harlow, Larry Hart, Charlie Parker, etc. — who never quite made it past the first rush of public acclaim. Jim Morrison is the most recent example, but you can be he won’t be the last.

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