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A Rebel's Verse : The Doors' Jim Morrison made his mark as a rocker, but 20 years after his death it is his poetry that is attracting new attention.

March 10, 1991|PAT H. BROESKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Since his death in 1971 at age 27, Jim Morrison has come to signify the glory and the decadence of the '60s saga of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. But beyond the hedonism and beyond the music, the Doors' lead singer had another side. Morrison wanted to be a poet--not just the writer of many of the song lyrics that were a Doors signature, but of serious verse.

In a 1969 interview with Jerry Hopkins in Rolling Stone, Morrison called poetry "eternal." "Nothing else can survive a holocaust but poetry and songs," he said. "No one can remember an entire novel. No one can describe a film or a piece of sculpture, a painting. But so long as there are human beings, songs and poetry can continue."

And indeed, Morrison's poetry has continued, although his literary legacy is a small part of the image that is still potent this year, the 20th anniversary of his death: His baritone haunts the airwaves and his pouty image stares from magazine covers, posters, T-shirts--even the side of a three-story building at Venice beach. He is also the subject of the recently released film, "The Doors," directed by Oliver Stone, and of at least half a dozen new books. (See accompanying story.)

Meanwhile, Morrison's poetry has been attracting its own fans, not just a cult following, but a cadre of scholars who have come to regard him as one of the major poets of his generation, even the century.

Some may scoff, but poet Michael McClure--whose own writings linked the '50s "beat" generation with the '60s "flower power" generation, says, Morrison's poetry "will be in the canon of the era."

He was "the major poet of the last quarter of the 20th Century," says Maria Rosa Menocal, an associate professor of Medieval literature at Yale. She is at work on a review of Morrison's posthumously published poetry.

And Wallace Fowlie, an 82-year-old professor emeritus of French at Duke University, lectures on Morrison around the country. He has found parallels between Morrison and 19th-Century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, seeing both as "the rebel as artist."

During his lifetime, some of Morrison's works were published privately, and then in a single commercial volume. After his death, Morrison's common-law wife, Pamela Courson, attempted to get other works published. When she died, her parents inherited the rights to Morrison's works and continued her quest.

As a result, "Wilderness: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison, Volume I," was published in 1989 by Villard Books. There have been three printings, totaling 151,000 copies and 100,000 copies of a 1990 paperback edition from Vintage Press.

"The American Night: The Writings of Jim Morrison, Volume II," was published in 1990 with a first printing of 95,000 copies. "That's an extraordinary number," says Peter Gethers, publisher/editorial director of Villard. He says that a printing of 5,000 to 7,500 copies is considered huge for a poetry volume. As to why Morrison's poetry is the exception, Gethers offers, "Well, he is Jim Morrison. And his writings do seem to define an era."

The son of a Navy rear admiral, Morrison was born in Melbourne, Fla., on Dec. 8, 1943.

As a child, he read exhaustively. He was about 10 when he wrote his first poem, "The Pony Express." "It was one of those ballad type poems," he once recalled, adding, "I never could get it together, though."

Morrison attended UCLA, where he dropped out in 1965 shortly before graduation. That summer he ran into classmate Ray Manzarek at Venice Beach and sang for him the lyrics he'd written for a song called "Moonlight Drive." It was then that the two decided to form a band, which went on to include guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore.

Singled out by the press as the Doors' pretty boy star, Morrison also stood out as an intellectual. He read and quoted the 19th-Century French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire, as well as the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Some say that toward the end of the Doors' four-year rise and fall--around the time of a notorious 1969 concert in Miami during which he was arrested for indecent exposure--Morrison felt he was a poet trapped in his self-created image as the most outrageous, on-the-edge rock star of his time, his behavior fueled by drugs and later alcohol.

Doors fans did not embrace Morrison the poet. Critics and audiences alike accused him of pretentious posturings.

When the Doors performed at the Aquarius Theater on the Sunset Strip in July, 1969, Morrison--bearded, overweight and wearing little orange glasses--read aloud a poem he'd written after the recent death of Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones. Copies of the poem were passed out to the crowd.

When the concert ended, the theater was littered with copies of Morrison's "Ode to LA While Thinking of Brian Jones, Deceased"--many folded into airplanes that were flown across the auditorium.

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