The Thanksgiving holiday in the United States is, for some, a time to relax with family and friends. But for others it’s a day that falls unhappily close to the anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.
The Kennedy assassination became to the Baby Boomers what Pearl Harbor had been to the World War II generation and 9/11 would become to the Boomers’ children. Young adults in 1963 remembered exactly where they were when they heard the news, and for many of them it was an awakening of sorts from the postwar optimism of the 1950s and early 1960s. Inevitably, too, their feelings colored the writing, music, and art that followed. Cheerful pop music and surf tunes gave way to more reflective folk rock, more aggressive electric blues and hard rock, somber psychedelic rock — and musical projects that were darker still, like The Doors.
In November 1963, Jim Morrison was a 19 year-old student at Florida State University. Morrison had watched the events of November 22 on TV in the FSU student center, and he was apparently watching again two days later when accused presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was himself shot dead by Jack Ruby. Morrison seemed to have been obsessed with these happenings or at least deeply affected by them, since references to Kennedy’s assassination can be found throughout Morrison’s writings.
“The Lords and The New Creatures” was Morrison’s first volume of poetry. Originally published as two separate long poems in 1969, the book began life as a paper on cinema when Jim was still in college. Many of the verses describe assassins and snipers in a media-saturated culture. A section entitled “Notes on Vision” includes passages such as “The sniper’s rifle is an extension of his eye. He kills with an injurious vision” and “It takes large murder to turn rocks in the shade and expose strange worms beneath. The lives of our discontented madmen are revealed.”
The “discontented madman” Oswald then appears:
Modern circles of Hell: Oswald (?) kills President.
Oswald enters taxi. Oswald stops at rooming house.
Oswald leaves taxi. Oswald kills Officer Tippit.
Oswald sheds jacket. Oswald is captured.
He escaped into a movie house.
These obsessions stayed with Morrison after forming The Doors. When The Doors visited England in 1968, he told an interviewer, “I think that… especially in the States… you have to be a politician or an assassin to really be a superstar.”
Morrison’s most famous reference to the Kennedy assassination appeared in the song “Not to Touch the Earth”:
Dead President’s corpse in the driver’s car
The engine runs on glue and tar
Come on along, not going very far
To the East, to meet the Czar
The “driver’s car” is probably the limousine in which Kennedy rode in Dallas. The “Czar” may have simply been a generic political figure, or Morrison may have been referring to Premier of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev, with whom Kennedy had famously both clashed and collaborated.
Another possibility is that the “driver’s car” was the horse-drawn carriage that transported Kennedy’s body to the original gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on November 25. Jokes about the “glue factory” aside, collagenous tissue like horses’ hooves can be boiled into binding materials like “glue and tar”. The “Czar” could also be a sly dig at the suspicion, held by some in the USA, that Soviet agents — perhaps including Oswald himself — were responsible for the assassination. The prevailing view in the burgeoning antiwar movement, meanwhile, was that the anti-Soviet theories had been invented by lunatics who wanted nuclear war.
Whatever interpretation you prefer, “Not to Touch the Earth” is probably the most vivid use of the JFK assassination in a work of art. The song, of course, had been salvaged from the larger “Celebration of the Lizard” which was a poetic journey across a desolate frontier. In an introduction to “Celebration” during a Doors concert Morrison told the audience to imagine the song as a group of people coming together at night and telling their tales around a campfire. He related a similar interpretation to editor Hank Zevallos of “Poppin’” magazine in 1969:
“The central image of ‘The Celebration’ is a band of youths who leave the city and venture into the desert. Each night after eating they tell stories and sing around the fire. Perhaps they dance. It is for pleasure and to enhance the group spirit.”
For Jim Morrison, the film student, his poems and lyrics were inseparable from the mise en scène of cinema and theater. Did he think that assassination would become an important theme in America, or did he see it as something that would become a recurring event in American politics? Did he think that televised murder would become a sort of performance art, a new form of storytelling? If so, maybe he was prescient, as the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, the Manson Family killings in 1969, the murder of John Lennon in 1980, and the near-assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981 would inspire both horror and fascination in the public mind.
Originally published November 22, 2013 and appears in “The Doors Examined.”