Rock ‘n’ roll was a big step for Jim Morrison. He wanted to be known as a poet, and he’d hoped to use music to get his poetry out into the world and noticed. But the late ’60s and early ’70s was still an age when rock ‘n’ roll was ‘pop’ music and not taken seriously as a vehicle for poets and serious writers. (This is still largely true, of course.) With the success of The Doors under his belt, on December 31, 1970 Morrison signed a contract with Jac Holzman for Elektra Records to release a spoken word poetry album.
Morrison had already taken steps to bring his poetry album to fruition. He had engaged Elektra Records chief engineer John Haeny to help produce it, and the two met on various occasions to discuss the album and Morrison’s concepts for it. They even produced a sort of demo, taping a reading by Morrison on February 9, 1969.
A second session was recorded, more famously, at Village Recorder studios on December 8, 1970, Morrison’s last birthday. Haeny gave Morrison a bottle of Bushmills whiskey, and as the afternoon turned into evening, more and more people showed up at the studio at Morrison’s invitation, until about ten people were present. The evening ended when Morrison had finished the bottle of whiskey and fell over a couple of music stands.
After Morrison left for Paris the plan was for Haeny was to meet Morrison in Paris a “few months later” for the actual recording sessions of the poetry album. Those plans, of course, were never realized due to Morrison’s death on July 3, 1971.
Morrison had already considered a cover for his poetry album and contacted artist T.E. Breitenbach to commission a painting. In a letter to Breitenbach, Morrison described the three themes he was looking for; it was to be a triptych. The first panel would be a moonlit beach with an endless stream of naked couples and in the center a baby in a crib surrounded by several ancient-looking people. The middle panel would be a city ‘insane with activity’ and the third panel a view of a desert landscape through the windshield of a car.
The video above includes the raw audio of Morrison’s birthday session with John Haeny, and even without music there is something compelling about Morrison’s reading. As the singer of The Doors he learned to use his voice to hold an audience’s attention and he uses his voice in these sessions to the best effect. Also on display in this recording is Jim Morrison‘s creative process at work. If you listen closely sometimes Morrison interjects ideas for sound effects and music to be used on the album.
Based on John Haeny‘s account and T.E. Breitenbach‘s triptych, “An American Prayer” isn’t what Jim Morrison had in mind for his poetry album. Unfortunately Morrison died before he could fully realize this project, but we can catch glimpses of what he was trying to do, and we can only wonder what Morrison’s spoken word poetry album may have been like.
If you would like to read John Haeny’s full account of making a poetry album with Jim Morrison — including copies of the contract Morrison signed with Jac Holzman and pictures — see “The Making of Jim Morrison’s An American Prayer.” You can also read T.E. Brietenbach’s recollections of creating the Morrison triptych at “The Lost Painting from Jim (Morrison’s) Last Project.”
Originally published December 31, 2013.
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