60s and 70s

Episode - 01
Strange Days - Jim Morrison and the counterculture of the 1960s.

~ Titas De Sarkar

Martin Luther King Jr.,
March to Washington Square
Few centuries in the history of mankind have been as tumultuous as the 20th Century. And in that century, almost no decade had seen such an outburst of creativity, innovations and experimentations as the 60s. It was, in many ways, the beginning of an era – an era of unpredictability, search for a better world and an end to age-old orthodox beliefs.

The morning really showed the day. The ‘subversive’ 60s began with the assassination of the thirty-fifth President of the United States of America – John F. Kennedy. It was November, 1963. Lyndon B. Johnson started from where Kennedy left. The Cold War was on rise and Johnson expanded the Vietnam War further. Politically, this was also the time when, USA and UK in particular, saw significant changes in race-relations, with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, which again reached an anti-climax with yet another assassination – that of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 1968.

Anti-Vietnam War protest march
That the old generation has lost its authority over the young was evident in the Trafalgar square incident in 1958 itself. It was the beginning of the phenomenon that made the 60s stand out in its own unique right – it was the emergence of the Counter Culture Movement that swept away the existing ethics, moralities and social mores. Social Anthropologist Jentri Anders observed that –
      “freedom to explore ones potential, freedom to create one’s self, freedom of personal expression, freedom from scheduling, freedom from rigidly defined roles and hierarchal statuses”…
became the main goals for the youth. Now, those who were under 30 became the heartbeat of the society with an immense potential to transform their surroundings according to the ways they perceived it and not on the whims of their fathers.

Along with the sharp reactions against wars and growth of feminism, the Counter Culture Movement also freed the minds of the youth on sexual relationships, which led to such incidents like the Stonewall Riots. An indifferent attitude towards their ancestry gave rise to the ‘hippy’ culture and in their endeavour to go beyond reality and hypocrisy; they discovered such recreational drugs such as LSD and Marijuana. While pursuing superior enthusiastic qualities, they became the avant-garde of ‘anti-art’, art that was thoroughly conventional and institutionalised and filled with orthodoxy.

However, any ideology without any direction soon tends to become a representation of shallow desires and leaves a culture in bad taste. It is in this regard that the ‘new’ youth steered clear of such crass wish fulfilments and contributed to the cultural scene in a profound way. On one hand rose the ‘French New Wave Cinema’ and on the other such path breaking counterculture personalities like Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol and groups such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Who and many others. One of those off-beat intellectuals, who embodied the whole Counter Culture Movement and singlehandedly, gave it an entirely new identity was Mr. James Douglas “Jim” Morrison. It was in his philosophy that one will find the soul of the youth movement that raged all over the 1960s.

1968, Anti War Protest
It can clearly be said that within the unstable atmosphere of ongoing wars, racial conflicts and resistance by the minorities (in the USA) and the reactions of the younger generation as a result, through fine arts, Jim Morrison was the most unpredictable figure of them all. His father, Admiral Morrison was in charge of commanding a division of aircraft carriers off the coast of Vietnam, during the war. To Jim, obedience was suicide. The father-son represented the wider tension of what USA and UK was going through. Jim was so averse to familial ties that on one occasion, he said that his family was “dead”. He was speaking for hundreds of young men and women who thought similarly.

Jim’s rejection of the code of conduct began right from his long and curly hairs and went down to his tight leather pants and bohemian styled clothing. However, the greatest threat to the existing social norms was in what he believed in, reflected in his all too famous performances on stage. His shows transcended any concert experiences and became a group cleansing and healing ritual. He acted as a shaman, a healer, purifying the soul of the audience through music. They were a tribe, immersed in perpetual trance, always trying to ‘break on through to the other side’ – away from the corruptions and radical patriotism. This led him to oppose the Vietnam War and encourage rebellion and living freely without any concern for the standard social ways. He even called his audience – “slaves”, because of their blind obedience, to society’s expectations. He believed that his audience projected their fantasies unto him and lived them vicariously through him, which made him go deeper into evolving experimental religious forms.

The ‘antics’ and the ‘eccentric’ trance-like behaviour that “The Lizard King” showed on stage was not merely a spectacle. It projected the sacred wheel of life – the cycle of birth, death and rebirth – putting an end to the traditional values and daily sins and resurrecting after being cleansed of such baser instincts. Morrison’s spiritual and metaphysical knowledge was commendable, and his constant strives to reach the next level of a more refined humanity – the fundamental aspect of the ongoing movement. Jim’s outspoken nature and him being vocal about the injustices around him and criticizing the establishment (he once referred to a police as a “little blue man in a little blue suit with a little blue cap”!) was taken as a direct challenge to the authority.

Jim’s sexual adventures, directly conforming to the youth movement, were another instance of breaking away from the conservative fold. He had relationship with multiple women, including a ‘witch’ who was engaged in performing the ancient rituals. Many of his songs also had hidden meanings in a sexual nature. His overuse of drugs and alcohol also rendered fear among the orthodox parents who were afraid that their children would get corrupted by Morrison’s “provocative” acts and views. But alas, this was the time of breaking the age-old shackles and immense liberalism. And considering the standard of music created, paintings produced and lyrics penned down – the emphasis on the youth going astray due to their extreme liberal views and consumption of illegal substance was an exaggeration from the part of the older class, justifying their acts of trying to suppress such ‘disdainful’ tendencies. However, the movement gained strength and became fiercer. As Ray Manzarek, co-founder of ‘The Doors’, said –
     “It was the battle of the conservatives versus the liberals. The people who could tolerate a theatrical performance and the people who wanted decency and purity above all things…that era was the beginning of the culture war – the straight versus the hip, the lovers versus the killers.”

Thus, with his truthful writing, relaxed (although untrained) authentic vocal style and poetic soul, the psychedelic rock-star that was Morrison, had a meteoric rise. He was a product of his times. Nevertheless, whatever he gave back to the movement was far greater than what he had received. His songs created ripples everywhere around the western world, his mannerisms stunned all bar none and his philosophy for attaining excellence over-awed his audience. The counter culture movement got a fresh lease of life under Morrison, who in a short span of six to eight years changed the way the coming generation should think.

Every event has its drawbacks and so did the Counter Culture Movement. It was a desperate attempt and was therefore was filled with many confusions. A string of assassinations and other violent activities was also seen as acts by the youth, gone out of control. However, a change of his this sort cannot come peacefully. A restructuring of social relations is bound to create some kind of a friction. An attempt to transform the base will definitely have its repercussions in the superstructure. And that is what happened in the 1960s too. But in the long term, the Counter Culture Movement was a milestone event that helped in creating a more liberal, peaceful, democratic and cooperative atmosphere and Jim Morrison was one of its strongest pillars without whom it could have been restricted to the cultural sphere only. But he made this anti-establishment, unorthodox rebellion into a socio-political reality. Even today, the grave of this man at Pere Lachaise in Paris, who died at the age of 27 years, is visited by millions dedicated to find an alternative to this cruel world, in search of peace and tranquillity. The Counter Culture Movement lives to this day in the hope of fulfilling the dream of William Blake, who was solely responsible for inspiring Jim Morrison in his journey, who said –
          “If the doors of perception were cleansed,
          Everything would appear to men as it is;


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