L. A. Woman, A City Yet a Woman: Blake, Jim Morrison, and Prophecy

Morrison, ‘An American Poet’, and ‘English Blake’ are popularly espoused as voices of their nations. Both saw themselves as prophets, claiming at least to comment on and at most to influence the political and cultural events surrounding them. As part of their prophetic personae, they both invented new lineages for themselves, mystically adopting chosen ancestors that would tie them tightly to the kind of historical and creative inheritance they wanted for themselves and their countries.

Morrison tells a powerful memory of childhood trauma in ‘Dawn’s Highway’, one of the poems he recorded on his last birthday (it was put to music by the surviving Doors on An American Prayer):

Me and my – ah – mother and father – and a grandmother and a grandfather – were driving through the desert, at dawn, and a truckload of Indian workers had either hit another car, or just – I don’t know what happened – but there were Indians scattered all over the highway, bleeding to death.
So the car pulls up and stops. That was the first time I tasted fear. I musta been about four – like a child is like a flower, his head is just floating in the breeze, man.
The reaction I get now thinking about it, looking back – is that the souls of the ghosts of those dead Indians… maybe one or two of ’em… were just running around freaking out, and just leaped into my soul. And they’re still in there.

Morrison’s personal mythology here is an attempt to attach himself to the shamanic traditions of native Americans, and also to opt for a more ‘authentic’ American identity than the one of oppressive white power that his biological lineage dictates (considering his father was an admiral in the US Navy, and very much involved in Vietnam).

In Milton, Blake describes becoming one with John Milton, Britain’s most imposing national poet:

The first I saw him in the Zenith as a falling star,
Descending perpendicular, swift as the swallow or swift;
And on my left foot falling on the tarsus enterd there;
But from my left foot a black cloud redounding spread over Europe
(Milton 15[17]:47-50)

Milton had used his writing talents to support the English Revolution (including defending the regicide), and suffered for holding to his beliefs in the Restoration. Blake is asserting radical political authority as well as literary prowess by identifying with Milton.

Blake’s possession by Milton apparently has wide repercussions (‘spread over Europe’ – like Morrison, Blake is writing in wartime). The most conspicuous appearance of Morrison’s recurring lines, ‘Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding / Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind’, is in ‘Peace Frog’ on Morrison Hotel, a prophetic, apocalyptic song with its own specific geography: ‘Blood on the streets / in the town of New Haven’, where Morrison had become the first rock star to be arrested on stage (as Fong-Torres notes, p. 112). Like Blake, he takes elements from his own biography and mythologizes them on a global and cosmic scale. And like Blake he creates catalogues of places to illustrate the national reach of his prophecy: ‘Blood in the streets / of the town of Chicago’, ‘Blood stains the roofs / and the palm trees of Venice’, ‘The Bloody red sun / of phantastic L.A.’. In such a visionary city, he combines literal and figurative geography: ‘blood on the streets / runs a river of sadness’, and most remarkably, ‘The river runs red down / the legs of the city’, recalling Blake’s imagery of birth trauma and miscarriage (in Morrison’s notebook these verses were titled ‘Abortion Stories’, according to Jerry Hopkins in The Lizard King, p. 129). Compare also the ‘unborn living living dead’ of ‘The Unknown Soldier’, and

Catacombs
Nursery bones
Winter women
growing stones
Carrying babies
to the river

in ‘The Soft Parade’. However, the lines could also suggest loss of virginity (which has revolutionary force in the case of Orc and the Nameless Shadowy Female in the Preludium to America); or menstruation as the simultaneous potential of fertility and infertility, life and death; or indeed human sacrifice as practiced by women in Jerusalem. ‘Blood hath staind her fair side beneath her bosom’ (Jerusalem 67:43) in the extended narrative of the Daughters of Albion ‘drunk with blood’ (Jerusalem 68:12), while for Morrison the blood is also the woman’s as victim:

Blood! screams her brain
as they chop off her fingers
Blood will be born
in the birth of a Nation

These lyrics are juxtaposed with a parallel set dominated by the repeated line ‘She came’: female orgasm is apocalyptic and violent for Morrison as it is for Blake at the end of The Song of Los, where

The Grave shrieks with delight, & shakes
Her hollow womb, & clasps the solid stem:
Her bosom swells with wild desire:
And milk & blood & glandous wine
In rivers rush & shout & dance,
On mountain, dale and plain (7:35-40)

In ‘Peace Frog’, and more clearly in ‘L. A. Woman’, Morrison also creates ‘a City yet a Woman’ (Four Zoas, Night IX:223) as Blake does in the figure of Jerusalem, with a kind personification which perceives both simultaneously – ‘I see your hair is burning / Hills are filled with fire’ – and mixes both, blurring external and internal – ‘Drive through your suburbs / Into your blues’. (Note how personification is used toward social commentary: the suburbs are a direct route to depression.) They draw on a collective origin in Biblical prophecy, and partake of its depiction of Israel as a combination of innocent wife and abandoned harlot: ‘Are you a lucky little lady in the city of light? / Or just another lost angel’. Like Blake’s persecuted Jerusalem, ‘Never saw a woman so alone’. (Oothoon also, as rejected but righteous harlot / wife, and as ‘the soft soul of America’ (Visions of the Daughters of Albion 1:3), is a precursor of ‘L. A. Woman’.)

Both Blake and Morrison proceed from this kind of imagery to imagery of male power: as in Blake the call, ‘Awake! Awake Jerusalem! O lovely Emanation of Albion / Awake and overspread all Nations as in Ancient Time’ (Jerusalem 97:1) leads to the predominantly phallic imagery of Albion’s awakening and reuniting with the Zoas, Morrison also moves from the L. A. Woman to the combination of resurrection and erection in his anagram, ‘Mr. Mojo Risin / Got to keep on risin’ / Risin’, risin”. Morrison sings, ‘L. A. Woman, you’re my woman’, while for Blake Albion’s rising also is catalyzed by union with the feminine personification of nation: ‘England who is Brittannia’, who is also Jerusalem, ‘enterd Albions bosom rejoicing’ (Jerusalem 95:22, 32:28). Morrison once said, ‘Los Angeles is a city looking for a ritual to join its fragments, and the Doors are looking for a ritual also. A kind of electric wedding’ (quoted by Federica Pudva, p. 133), like the ones evoked by Blake at the end of Jerusalem, and in the title of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

In her essay on Morrison and Blake, Federica Pudva points out that ‘London was for Blake a real city and at the same time a spiritual and symbolic reality, part of a broad divine vision’ while in Morrison’s vision, Los Angeles was ‘the umbilicus of the world’ and a microcosm of fragmented modern society (p. 132-3, my translation). Morrison called Los Angeles a ‘”genetic blue-print” for the United States’ (Lizard King p. 301). In a poem, ‘The Guided Tour’, he writes,

“I am a guide to the labyrinth”
city is inside of body made manifest
meat organs & electrical
power plants (American Night p. 143)

reminiscent, in reverse, of Los searching ‘the interiors of Albions / Bosom’, which involves coming ‘down from Highgate thro Hackney & Holloway towards London’ (Jerusalem 45[31]:3-4,14). Though the alienated modern city in Morrison owes much to Baudelaire and, as William Cook examines in detail, T. S. Eliot, Pudva finds that Morrison’s flâneur-like observation of prostitution in the city in his poem The Lords – ‘a ring of death with sex at its centre’ – is rooted in Blake’s ‘midnight streets’ and ‘Harlot’s curse’ in ‘London’ (p. 127-8).

We might see Morrison grasping more than content in the Songs if we take ‘People are Strange’ as commenting on the contingent voice of Songs of Experience and playing with the use of persona it offers.

People are strange
When you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly
When you’re alone

emphasizes the kind of interior realities which may contribute to the compulsion of the speaker in ‘London’ to ‘mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe’. ‘Women seem wicked / When you’re unwanted’ distils the combination of blame and pity in the ‘Harlot’s curse’ seen as infecting the city and blighting both birth and marriage with death. ‘Faces come out of the rain / When you’re strange’ is like the fragmentation of faces and voices without bodies in ‘London’, and ‘Streets are uneven / When you’re down’ is a direct statement on psychogeography. If the song was inspired by an enlightening Laurel Canyon sunrise, as Robby Krieger narrates (in Fong-Torres 95-6), then it is located (or projected) on Morrison’s home territory as ‘London’ is on Blake’s.

secondary sources:

Cook, William. ‘Jim Morrison: A “Serious Poet”?’ Literary Kicks: Opinions, Observations and Research. 12 July 2003. http://www.litkicks.com/JamesDouglasMorrison

Fong-Torres, Ben, and the Doors. The Doors. New York: Hyperion, 2006.

Hopkins, Jerry. The Lizard King: The Essential Jim Morrison. Revised and Updated. London: Plexus, 2006.

Pudva, Federica. ‘The Devil’s Party: Jim Morrison e William Blake’ Anglistica Pisana 2:1 (2005) 119-37.

M & J Jarc – Earth’s Answer

Musical rendering of William Blake’s Earth’s Answer from the Song’s of Exeprience, music by Matjaž Jarc, arrangement, instruments and voice: Jaka Jarc, photos and photo arrangement, J. Jarc. The music is part of the upcoming publication of a Slovenian translation of the Songs of Experience “Pesmi Izkušenosti”. It will contain original poems with Blake’s Illustrations and a Slovenian rendering with original Slovenian Illustrations as well as two sets of music, an English one and a Slovenian one.

Go to the next video from the William Blake Jukebox:

Jeff Gillett’s Songs

My attention has just been brought to Jeff Gillett’s setting to music of the forty-six poems from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (including “A Divine Image”). The Songs have, of course, been a popular source for many musicians, and you can read about a few versions in articles by Keri Davies on Benjamin Britten and John Sykes, as well as a more recent entry by me on Fernand Péna. These particular versions offer renditions accompanied by guitar, cello and other stringed instruments that draw strongly on folk traditions.

Jeff Gillett himself has performed in folk clubs around the UK, working in particular with Ron Taylor on releases such as Take Off Your Old Coat (1992), Fair Length and Share (1995) and Both Shine as One (2006). Some of Jeff’s work has also provided inspiration for the ceilidh group The Downfielders. Performers on William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience include violinist Cathy Brown, pianist/cellist Alison Gregory, and Jeff’s partner Elaine.

The starting point for this particular CD was initially an educational one (as a teacher, Jeff wanted to help his students prepare for an examination and so use music to help them remember the poems). As such, the project is as much a pedagogical one as musical, but plenty of the tracks that be heard at www.myspace.com/blakesettings demonstrate the sensitivity of accompaniment for which he is best known. Jeff’s voice in particular is especially suited for creating sympathetic renditions, his version of “The Sick Rose” being a favourite of mine.

You can buy the CD, as well as read Jeff’s comments on the poems, view videos (and even book him for a performance) at www.blakesongsettings.co.uk.

Fernand Péna’s Ode to William Blake

This month sees the release of a two-year project by Fernand Péna, a privately released CD based on Blake’s poetry and titled Ode to William Blake.

Péna, who has been a musician and singer since 1968 in bands such as ETC and Climats Sonores, released his last album – Rien à comprendre (Nothing to understand) – five years ago. This also included two tracks inspired by Blake: “The Mother Said” (drawn from Blake’s lyric “I saw a monk of Charlemagne”) and “Get thee away” (from “I rose up at the dawn of day” in the Rossetti manuscript). Ode to William Blake, however, is – with regard to Blake – a much more extensive and  ambitious work, including some sixteen songs taken from Blake’s poetry.

Many of these take their inspiration from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, but others come from other Blakean lyrics such as “William Bond”. You can hear these, as well as the earlier Blake inspired tracks, at http://www.myspace.com/fernandpna/music. The CD also comes with a selection of Blake’s poetry in the form of a booklet, some samples of which can also be seen on his MySpace page. As Péna remarks of his latest release:

The songs on this disc have been made very spontaneously, therefore very quickly. [Yet] working-out, registering, programming and mixing asked for hundreds of hours. Each song, each note (even the wrong ones!) were only kept after many rejected versions. The respect toward Blake’s ideas was always there. I chose, most of the time, this rasping voice, that is for me the best way to fit with what I feel toward Blake. But this was not systematic or conceptual. As I do it for yoga I avoided overthinking and looked for the most difficult thing: conscience in the instant. I do not pretend to have succeeded in it.

Péna worked previously with David Tootill, artistic director of Southbank Mosaics, whose Project Blake (to install Blake-inspired mosaics in Lambeth) led the singer to compose music for the project. He will also be singing at Tate Britain on November 28 at the invitation of the Blake Society.

The nation’s favourite poem? Blake’s “The Tyger”

Yesterday (October 7) was the UK National Poetry Day. Among a few of the more pleasant surprises was the choice of Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, the short song “Eternity”:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise

One that also came high on various lists was Blake’s “The Tyger”. In particular, the radio channel BBC 7 repeated a programme first broadcast in 1996 to find the nation’s favourite poem. The selection of fifty poems was published as a book and CD at the time, and you can hear part of that selection at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007jrcf (only available to UK listeners, I’m afraid, and only for the next six days – so hurry if you want to listen again).

Of particular interest to me is that while it is an intense pleasure to listen to readers such as John Nettles and Emma Fielding read aloud such treasures as Andrew Marvel’s “To his Coy Mistress” and The Lady of Shalott, it is Blake’s “The Tyger” that is used to advertise the programme (it starts about 5:27 minutes into the broadcast for those short of time). While it was not necessarily the nation’s favourite, Blake’s powerful lyric from Songs of Experience has, I feel, a special place in readers’ appreciation that goes far beyond many other poems.

Some work that I have been doing recently indicates just how prevalent “The Tyger” goes into our consciousness. Roger Whitson has written on this site about the influence of Blake’s poem on the artist Korshi Dosoo, while the phrases “fearful symmetry” and “burning bright” alone are the titles of more than a dozen books, films, television episodes and comic books, while “Tyger, Tyger”, or “Tiger, Tiger”, is the name of anything from coffee bars and restaurants to karaoke booths and retailers of Buddhist charms and pendants.

The following is a by-no-means-comprehensive list of some of the works influenced by this poem, to indicate the range of its impact over the past few decades: in terms of the written word it provides the title to Tracy Chevalier’s Burning Bright (2007), as well as a section in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953 – see also Bradbury’s 1951 short story, “Here be Tygers”, which also echoes the chapter “Tiger! Tiger!” Kipling’s The Jungle Book), and Adrian Mitchell’s plays Tyger (1971) and Tyger Two (1994). The poem is referenced in Ed Bemand’s Beheld (2006), is alluded to in the tiger scene in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon (1986), lies behind the tigers that appear in Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972), is cited by Mina in David Almond’s Skellig (1998), is one of the creatures in Nancy Willard’s A Visit to William Blake’s Inn (1982) and is also the inspiration for Roger Zelazny’s short story “The Burning” in the Blakean anthology, Sparks of Fire (1982).

Graphic novels have drawn upon it, notably Chapter V of Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986-1987), which ends with a quotation of the first chapter, and in a 2006 edition of Garth Ennis and John Severin’s The Punisher the young Frank Castle hears the poem as describing the type of creature he will become. Of these (and many more) versions, perhaps my personal favourite remains John Cotton’s 1969 poem, “Tiger Caged”:

The tiger treads his cage.
400 lbs of muscle, bone
And thwarted purpose rage.

The sun shines through cage bars
On his barred coat the sun,
His tiger sun,
Shines through.

He does not look
At those who look at him.
They are without
The cage he treads within.

From what the bars divide
The side you are depends.
Each has his bars,
His limits and his ends.

The tiger treads his cage.
400 lbs of muscle, bone
And thwarted purpose rage.

There are many musical settings and adaptations of “The Tyger”, both classical and popular, and it is probably only second to “Jerusalem” in terms of the number of versions that have been released in the last century. The first arrangement was (I believe) composed by Sir Graville Ransome Bantock in 1908, followed in 1909 by a piece for voice and piano by Alan Gray. In 1913, Clarence S. Hill set Blake’s words to music as part of his cycle Three Songs by
Blake
, and other arrangements where “The Tyger” forms part of a more extensive treatment of Blake’s verse include Solomon Pimsleur’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1922), Benjamin Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake (1965), Theodor Hoffman’s The Lamb and the Tyger (1965), John Mitchell’s Visions from the Flame (1977), Hayg Boyadjian’s Song Cycle on Poems of William Blake (1978), William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1984), and Dmitry Smirnov’s Fearful Symmetry (1981, revised 2003), as well as many more occasional pieces by various composers including Sir John Tavener, Trevor Jones, and Giles Swayne.

In popular music, “The Tyger” has been at least, if not more, prevalent, with variants covering genres as diverse as country/folk (Greg Brown, Songs of Innocence and of Experience [1992], Nick Harper, Smithereens [1998]), progressive/experimental rock (Tangerine Dream, Tyger [1987], Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, Sonic Geology [1988]), Goth (Mephisto Waltz, Immersion [1998]), techno/electronica (Dead Nine, I Believe in Magic [2008]), and black/death metal (Thelema, Fearful Symmetry [2008]). Several bands have also taken their name from Blake’s poem, such as the Adelaide-based indie group Tyger, Tyger, and The Lamb and The Tyger from Gettysburg.

As such, while Blake’s lyric may not – in the end – be the nation’s favourite poem (at least not yet), I would argue that it is perhaps the most influential, certainly in the diversity of responses that it has inspired over the past century.