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.

Ten things you should know about Jerusalem

Once again Blake’s “Jerusalem” is in the news. While the famous hymn is incredibly popular at weddings in particular, it appears that so many ministers are banning it that the Church of England has issued new guidelines stating that it is neither too nationalistic nor too militaristic. This is one that returns every so often, and for the past couple of decades the Church has had a problem with “Jerusalem” – something that is not entirely surprising considering Blake’s own attitude to organised religion and, unfortunately, the hymn’s occasional but pernicious associations with the far right.

While the nation debates (once again) whether it is suitable for banns or only to be banned, here are ten things about the poem to help you make up your own mind:

  1. The stanzas beginning “And did those feet…” were, as is widely known, originally published as part of a Preface to Blake’s epic poem Milton. During his lifetime Blake only printed four copies of this poem – but the Preface only appears in two of the three copies published in 1811 and was omitted in the version from 1818. While it may have become his most famous poem, Blake apparently had other ideas.
  2. The feet in question are widely assumed to be those of Christ, drawing on a legend that Joseph of Arimathea brought him to this country. William of Malmesbury, writing in the twelfth century, was the first to suggest that Joseph was sent as an apostle to the British Isles, and this snowballed into the mythology that he had previously brought the young Jesus with him while trading. It is worth pointing out that while Blake (in Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion in particular) does seem to have thought this at the very least a useful starting point for his own mythology, in his lyric he questions rather than states whether Jesus came here.
  3. The phrase “Chariot of fire” is taken from 2 Kings 6:17 where God protects Elisha from the Syrians: “And Elisha prayed, and said, LORD, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the LORD opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.” Interestingly, when the King of Israel seeks to destroy the Syrians, Elisha replies: “Thou shalt not smite them: wouldest thou smite those whom thou hast taken captive with thy sword and with thy bow? set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink, and go to their master.” (22)
  4. There is a possibility that the “dark Satanic Mills” were inspired by the Albion Flour Mill which employed a steam engine built by James Watt and burnt down in 1791. Milton, however, is full of imagery of mills, as when the Bard who sings the song that opens the epic poem describes how “the Starry Mills of Satan / Are built beneath the Earth” which are used to grind down the souls of Albion’s children.
  5. While Sir Hubert Parry famously set Blake’s words to music in 1916, this version is rarely heard. In 1922, Edward Elgar scored Parry’s simpler melody for orchestra, providing it with a much grander and ostentatious sweep and it is this version that is heard at Last Night of the Proms and elsewhere.
  6. “Jerusalem” was adopted by the National Association of Women’s Institutes in 1924, having been sung by Suffragettes during the 1920s. In the same year as Parry’s composition, Bertrand Russell, a member of the Fabian Society invoked Blake’s vision when describing opposition to conscription during World War I, leading to its popular acceptance by the Labour Party alongside the Red Flag, a campaign slogan of the 1945 election being that Labour would “build a new Jerusalem”.
  7. The hymn seems to have been particularly popular during the 1960s, appearing in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Privilege (1967) and If… (1968), where the tensions between Blake’s revolutionary attitudes and the hymn’s adoption as an anthem of the establishment made it de rigueur as a motif for any director concerned to explore the limitations of a little Englander mindset.
  8. At the other end of the political spectrum, the British National Party has made a concerted effort to adopt “Jerusalem” as its own since 2000, when Nick Griffin sang it alongside former members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Friends of the BNP in Arlington, Virginia. After being charged with incitement to racial hatred in 2005, Griffin led BNP supporters in a rendition of the hymn outside a magistrates court in Leeds.
  9. The CofE’s current problems with ministers banning “Jerusalem” is nothing new: in 1996 the Church of Scotland elected to have it removed from its hymnals because of the content of Blake’s words, and in the same year Canon Donald Gray, chaplain to the Queen, refused to allow it to be sung at a memorial service in St Margaret’s.
  10. In sport, it was adopted as the anthem of the England cricket team after 2004 and is to be used by Team England in the Commonwealth Games from 2010 onwards. Its history as a football song has been somewhat trickier: Fat Les recorded it as the team anthem for the Euro 2000 games, but England’s poor performance and rioting by English fans at Charleroi tarnished its associations.

The Last of England: Jarman’s Blakean vision

Another rather sombre anniversary today: Derek Jarman, artist, writer and film maker, died on February 19, 1994, from an AIDS-related illness aged 52, one of the few openly-gay artists in the UK at the time.

He is most widely known for films such as Jubilee (1977-8) and Caravaggio (1986), and the strongest influences on his style and content were Elizabethan figures such as Shakespeare, Marlowe and the magician, John Dee, yet Jarman also saw himself as a “Blakean leveller” and the leap from Renaissance England to Romantic artist was not such a hard one to make. Contemporaries and early critics of Blake saw his early works such as Poetical Sketches as a revival of Elizabethan poetry in contrast to the then-dominant Augustan style, and Blake himself was immersed in the worlds of Milton and English radicals of the Civil War and Interregnum.

A friend of mine, Mark Douglas, drew my attention to an obituary that appeared in Art Monthly after Jarman’s death, in which Roger Cook wrote:

When I think of Derek I think of William Blake’s fiery youthful giant Albion, incandescent with energy as represented in Blake’s engraving known as Glad Day or The Dance of Albion. Like Blake, he identified the ecstasy of human sexuality with freedom and protested its bondage. It was this that made him so passionate and open.

Jarman had a fascination with England that is perhaps the strongest link between his work and that of Blake’s. In The Last of England, the book published from diaries written at the time he was making the film of that name, Jarman lamented how through the film Chariots of Fire reduced Blake’s vision to “some muscular Christianism and jingo, crypto-faggy Cambridge stuff set to William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ – a minor poet who wrote this popular football hymn”. The sarcasm and bitterness in those words, with their deprecatory reference to Blake as a “minor poet”, are a jaundiced reflection on the success of what he saw as jingoism compared to his own, more complex view of England’s green and pleasant land. His more passionate view about the Romantic artist was summed up in a note to Jubilee:

“all those who secretly work against the tyranny of Marxists fascists trade unionists maoists capitalists socialists etc… who have conspired together to destroy the diversity and holiness of each life in the name of materialism… For William Blake.”

Zoapod 1: Test Dept and Jerusalem (transcript)

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. Welcome to the first in a series of podcasts that will appear on Zoamorphosis.com. The aim of these podcasts is to present short introductions to the various ways in which Blake has been used by artists, writers and musicians since his death in 1827, sometimes drawing on research I am doing, at other times reflections on aspects of Blake’s reception that have attracted my attention.

2. This first podcast will focus on one particular version of Blake’s most famous poem, the stanzas beginning “And did those feet” which is more commonly known as the hymn “Jerusalem”. Blake wrote his verses as part of the epic poem Milton sometime between 1804 and 1811, those words being set to music by Hubert Parry in 1916. Since that time, the hymn has often been invoked for political purposes, both by left and right, but one of the most extraordinary versions was issued by the industrial group Test Dept in 1990.

3. Pax Britannica, the album on which “Jerusalem” appears, was the seventh studio album released by Test Dept and is subtitled “An Oratorio in five movements”. Having formed in London in 1981, Test Dept quickly became part of an experimental industrial music scene that included groups across Britain and Europe such as Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Einstürzende Neubauten and Laibach.

4. Test Dept were overtly committed to music as political event, playing benefit gigs during the miners’ strike of 1984 as well as anti-nuclear events and demonstrations opposing the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. On Pax Britannica Test Dept was accompanied by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Schola Cantorum, Edinburgh Orchestra, with a score provided by John Eacott and conducted by James Macmillan. Part of the soundtrack was performed as a live event at the “Second Coming” show in the St Rollox Railway Works in Glasgow, and live recordings were released the following year on the album Proven in Action.

[music clip]

5. “Jerusalem”, as part of Movement I, is one of the most astonishing versions of the Parry-Blake hymn for a very simple reason. While the opening two verses appear little more than a particularly bombastic rendition of the Elgar arrangement, a crescendo after the line “Among these dark Satanic mills?” announces a radical break in the music. Now the heavy percussion becomes more dominant, and Blake’s words are replaced by the voice of Margaret Thatcher, lines from a speech delivered to the Conservative Party Conference in October 1989.

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6. Delivered at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool, on October 13, the theme of Thatcher’s speech as recorded in the archive of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation was “The Triumph of Freedom”. Dealing with the failure of eastern bloc socialism that was becoming evident everywhere in 1989, Margaret Thatcher contrasted those flaws with a decade of Conservative triumphs in the economy, healthcare, choice and the environment. With the Berlin Wall about to crumble and the tenth anniversary of her election as Prime Minister, it appeared self-evident to Thatcher that the triumph of freedom was synonymous with the victories of the Conservatives, the election of whom in 1979, she declared, was one of the immediate causes of the decline of communism.

7. The transformations across Europe which led to the fall of the Soviet bloc appeared in many ways an endorsement of the policies pursued by Thatcher and other western leaders. In truth, its rapid collapse was also immensely destabilising and the Prime Minister herself was running into difficulties, central to these being the Community Charge: against evident unpopularity facing its introduction into England and Wales in April 1990, Thatcher decided to champion it personally, leading to the formation of a number of Anti Poll Tax Unions which organised protests and demonstrations, the largest of which took place in London on March 31 where more than 200,000 protestors attended and violent rioting and clashes with the police occurred.

[music clip]

8. The threat of widespread unrest was only dispersed by the resignation of Thatcher after a leadership contest in November 1990. Although the Conservatives actually increased their vote in Scotland in 1992, the implementation of the Charge there a year earlier as an experiment had consolidated the view of the party as more interested in England than the rest of the Union, making mainstream demands for devolution inevitable and a mockery of the Prime Minister’s remarks that “Britain needs us”.

9. This is the background to the version of “Jerusalem” included on Pax Britannica. The album had actually been in planning for some time, but when recording began at the Cava Sound Workshops in Glasgow in the winter of 1989-90, the political situation in Britain and Europe had become much more volatile. The decision to record with Scottish orchestras itself became more significant as opposition to the Poll Tax had begun with its introduction in Scotland, adding emphasis to the album’s critique of Tory imperialism within Britain.

10. This was not the only use of the Blake-Parry hymn in such circumstances: in May 1990, Billy Bragg released his album The Internationale which included a version of “Jerusalem” as one of several songs attacking the government of the day. The comparison between the Bragg and Test Dept versions is revealing: Bragg’s is one of the simplest ever to have been recorded, consisting of his voice accompanied by a piano and perhaps the closest to Parry’s original arrangement.

[music clip]

11. The version of “Jerusalem” by Test Dept, by contrast, is an overblown and bombastic treatment of the Elgar arrangement that is most familiar to listeners from Last Night of the Proms, allowing no restraint whatsoever in its deployment of orchestral and choral effects. Without the sample of Margaret Thatcher’s speech, it would be no more than a particularly aggressive rendition of English patriotism. Yet of, course, that single intervention is what transforms the Blake-Parry hymn into a grotesque and particularly fascinating spectacle. Test Dept break the back of “Jerusalem”, split it into two parts so that the embedded nationalism of that hymn, accumulated over decades and intensified in many quarters of British society during the 1980s, is parodied by Thatcher’s triumphalism.

12. Billy Bragg’s aim had been (and continues to be) to recuperate “Jerusalem” as a song of the left. Test Dept’s ambition, by contrast, was to exacerbate the hymn’s totalitarian qualities, committing an act of violence to make explicit the repressive tendencies of the authorities. The combination of the first two verses of “Jerusalem” and the extracts of the Prime Minister’s speech may be read in several ways: it is possible that Blake’s text serves as an implicit contradiction of Margaret Thatcher’s words, a rebuke to her singular vision of post-imperial glory; alternatively, both work in parallel, buttressed by the swagger of Elgar’s arrangement so that the jingoism implicit in “Jerusalem” is made explicit by the Thatcher speech.

13. As the Prime Minister became increasingly unpopular, her moment of triumph a high-point of hubris before the coming fall, so any lingering beauty in the hymn becomes unbearable, splintered by an interruption that for the typical audience of Test Dept at the time would have provoked intensely forceful reactions. In their version of the hymn, the rhetoric of power of the state is symbolically assumed and extravagantly celebrated – taken at face value so that it cannot be ignored and, through ironic deprecation, be allowed to continue. By recasting “Jerusalem” as a nationalist hymn, there is no saving grace in hoping for salvation via an alternative (national) socialism. The atrocity is made manifest, defined as error the more clearly to be accepted or rejected.