“Why idolize dead rock stars.” I felt a bit like an alien typing my search query into Google … as if I had been suddenly dropped onto Earth and tapped into something that I could tell was vital to the earthling’s social psyche, but was at a loss for words to articulate what it could be. Although I can wrap my extraterrestrial brain around the intricacies of a Google search, American pop culture is a snarling, untamed beast, much larger and more powerful than the sum total of people it feeds off. Its mind, if you could call it a mind, is a squirming mass, half-fried by a world indebted to microwave radiation, and propelled by the two-fold thrust of the muscle memory of a decaying nervous system, and roving, universal chaos. It’s maddening enough attempting to confront pop culture as a human living in the midst of it all.
But returning to my initial question: Why do we idolize dead rock stars?
My journey starts with the Doors. It was likely by chance that I landed on the psychedelic band known for ravaging the Sunset Strip. It could easily have been the Beatles or Led Zeppelin, or had I younger parents it could have been Metallica and Slayer, because 2006 was this baffling year when classic rock was “in,” and a trendy teen could claim some street cred by rifling through her parents’ album collection and then by delivering the good news to her sophomore classmates. The Doors just happened to be what I found first.
Maybe that’s not entirely true.
In 2006, I was 14, and until that time I found the music everyone else was listening to either far too poppy, or way too inaccessible for me in my MTV-blocked household. Though in my prolonged search for cool, stumbling across albums like Dark Side of the Moon, and Beggars Banquet there was no band that struck a chord in me as did the Doors. The group sounded like nothing else I had heard, and there was a distinctive darkness that seem to swarm around the band. And maybe more particularly, the Doors had Jim Morrison. Morrison was unlike the David Gilmours, the Paul McCartneys and Keith Richards of the world. Aside from being incredibly charismatic, devious, and a not-delicate yet poetic soul, Morrison had an exceptional quality that inarguably set him apart from the previous mentioned artists—he was dead.
Long dead. Dead over 20 years before I was even born. This, I think, is significant.
Perhaps, this is one of the reasons, if not the only reason, why we remember the Doors, and forget Status Quo, or why we don’t quite push the Kinks to the same upper echelons of rock “god”-ness. Consider, for a moment, the fact that “rock god” has even entered the trite, pop-culture lexicon. Or consider the mystical aura that surrounds the “27 Club”–or even more humorously—the vehement passion of the self-elected gatekeepers, trolling blogs and keen to keep the club “pure” (sorry, Amy Winehouse).
The Doors as a band were certainly good, but it’s not even like everything the band put out became a gilded instant-classic. “Hello, I Love You,” and “Twentieth Century Fox” always sneak their way onto compilation albums, but they seem so fabricated for 1967 AM-radio airwaves that they could have come from another singer’s mouth and no one would have noticed. There’s also more than a handful of tried-and-true stinkers. (“Yes, the River Knows” comes to mind. The “mysticated wine” bit makes my stomach churn every time I hear the line.) If we, and by we I mean the most savage of Doors fans, were to take Jim Morrison’s lyrics and imagine they were penned not by this myth-man, but instead by our freshman-year, college roommate majoring in philosophy, I’d take the bet that the words would be much more difficult to swallow.
But, going back, isn’t it funny that a teen growing up in the late 2000s would even have the chance to stumble on a band that had emerged 40 years prior? At 14, however, it’s easy to buy into the deification of Jim Morrison. You can gloss over the too-indulgent lyrics, (or even hail them as genius) because the teenage experience itself is often over-indulgent. Ironically, the existence of the artist’s mortality is what allows us the space for apotheosis. Because a dead rock star can no longer truly have a say in the matter, society is given the space to write a legacy for the star independently of his wishes or current actions. The more elusive the star—and make no mistake, Morrison, was nearly as cryptic in his daily interactions as he was writing lyrics—the easier it is for fans to craft their own narratives, and use the now-pliable image to bend the star toward whatever needs they are looking to fulfill. A residual of our humanness that has allowed us to maintain our histories through stories is that people like narrative arcs.
In high school especially, the age 27 seems far-off, but not void of a relatable youth. There are no comments to alienate the artist from today’s young circles, and there’s nothing quite like Roger Daltrey’s 60+-year-old abs to contend with. And this is why it’s totally cool to scribble “the streets are fields that never die” onto your teal pair of Converse high tops in sharpie as a teenager, because you’re like, that in-tune with his lyricism, man.
On larger scale however, rock even is, as we now know it, dead. And that’s fine. Rock as we knew it has been dead countless times, and critics have been heralding its death since 1968. But aesthetic life is like a comic book author, eager to kill off beloved characters to drum up sales, only to resurrect them through some sort of cheap deus ex machina plot twist. So rock is cyclic, and as far as my lifetime is concerned, rock is eternal. Like our “rock gods,” immortality is achieved only through death.
Though I’m in no way trying to undercut the band, (the Doors still hold a particularly special place in my heart–even if I’m not engaging with their songs as actively as I used to, and if the shrine to Morrison that was in my room has been–mostly–dismantled), Morrison’s greatest legacy may have been death. His death, along with that of Hendrix, Joplin and few others heralded the beginning of a new musical era, and perhaps cemented the Doors as a near-household name.