Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Muse of Liverpool and L.A.

When the Beatles finished the recording of Sgt. Pepper in late April 1967 (the 21st to be exact), they retired, the mythology goes, to Mama Cass's flat in Chelsea at around 2am. We’ve talked before about the Gertrude Stein of Laurel Canyon, but Cass Elliot’s hand in music was far-reaching. With acetate of the LP in hand, the Beatles piled into the apartment, Cass sprawled across the settee – can you picture it? – the mustachio'd Fab Four sitting cross-legged on the floor. Ringo, I'm speculating the details here, put the LP on the phonograph, opened the windows and the incredible strains of Sgt. Pepper & Co. wafted magically, Peter Maxily down onto the streets of sleepy London. It's one of rock's beautiful vignettes, and maybe it's even true. The Beatles immersed London, and the world at large, in an incredible feat of psychedelic realism. (Indeed, I'm coining the phrase right now.) 

McCartney’s Fixin' a Hole is a psychedelic masterpiece, as is Lennon's Lucy, but the undercurrent in the LP is the realism of a girl leaving home ("She's Leaving Home" so expertly weaving the tale from both sides of the generation gap) and a meter maid and the mundane episodes of the News of the Day. The LP's inspiration, whether stemming from out of dance halls or Lonely Hearts Clubs or Lennon's disassociation from family, are firmly rooted in a British Realism that wouldn't be lost on Emily Bronte. There are naysayers of course. Aimee Mann, you know the "voices carry' girl said, "I'm burnt out on it [that part I'll buy]. Its influence has been so vast and profound, but it lacks emotional depth." She prefers the stylings of Elliot Smith and Fiona Apple. So she’s stupid – hush, hush, Aimee – despite AM's fondness for both Smith and Apple. Mostly though, you and I know, this is the rock masterpiece.

That same year, The Doors followed a different muse. Within the tracks of The Doors, Morrison unleashes Greek tragedy (and the mother thing, no less, from Oedipus Rex), Willie Dixon-styled let's fuck ambiguities, millennial Celtic myths and a psychedelia the challenged us all to break on through to the other side and to read the likes of Artaud, Brecht and Huxley. Of course, The Doors owe even their name to Morrison's muse, a nod to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, which chronicles the author's experience of taking the mind-altering drug mescaline. The literary reference goes even deeper as Huxley's title is taken from a line in William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell": "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: infinite." 

In 1969, Morrison would write (and distribute to concertgoers at the Aquarius Theater in the form of a flyer – July 21st) "Ode to L.A., While Thinking of Brian Jones, Deceased," which, in addition to depicting the first truly publicized death of the rock era, was a throwback to Willy the Shake. Morrison writes, "I'm a resident of a city/ They’ve just picked me to play/ the Prince of Denmark…" The poet feels himself Hamlet – and although in our modern age the idea may seem banal, the existential problem of to-be-or-not-to-be, to exist or not, is one of poetry's essentials. And indeed, death is central in Morrison's poetry. 

Morrison as a true visionary poet foresaw volumes (at least in his own mind) and predicted his own death (or talked about it a lot - how's that for vaguery?). "Ode to L.A.," devoted to Brian Jones, whose mysterious death in a swimming pool influenced Morrison, provoked him into writing a poem languorous with images of water, pools and dead bodies: "…Poor Ophelia/ All those ghosts he never saw/ Floating to doom/ On an iron candle/ Come back, brave warrior/ Do the dive/ On another channel". I make no reference to brilliance here, there is none, only to Morrison's use of the muse.

Another reticent image in Morrison's poetry is the "Far Arden." Far Arden is known to the reader from Shakespeare's As You Like It. In Morrison's poetry Far Arden symbolizes freedom, joy and music, a mystic forest where songs and dances rule: "Ladies & gentlemen:/ please attend carefully to these words & events/ It’s your last chance, our last hope./ In this womb or tomb, we’re free of the swarming streets." Morrison interpreted Shakespeare's images through his own scope of vision as a poet born in the 20th century whose poetic style was worked out in existential philosophy combined with the tradition of visionary poets, Indian religion and the American avant-garde of the 50s. Morrison was worlds away from the Brit Realism of Lennon/McCartney, but equally far away from the naturalist style of the Laurel Canyon set with whom he lived among, often venturing up the canyon to Mama Cass’s house, the two having known one another since high school in Alexandria Virginia. Though not particularly chummy in the Canyon, one can imagine the same muse in Cass that the Beatles encountered.