The Ethos of “Cool”: Robert Harrison on Jim Morrison and The Doors


The Doors in 1966: John Densmore, Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek, Jim Morrison.

We know what you’re thinking: Is the high-toned Book Haven, lovers of Brahms, Bach, Beethoven and Byrd, getting into bed with rock ‘n roll? 

Just this once. Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison is a huge rock fan. So the latest podcast on Entitled Opinions’ new channel at the Los Angeles Review of Books features one of his favorite bands. We listened to it, wrote about it, and … well, found it fascinating. You might, too, especially Robert’s exposition of the “ethos of cool.” (Or go straight to the website to listen to it here.)

Here goes:

“Hot is momentary. It quickly turns to ashes. But cool stays cool.”

Fifty years ago, the award-winning album The Doors was released into the world – a landmark debut for what would become L.A.’s biggest band. The Doors and its lead singer Jim Morrison have few champions as articulate and passionate as Entitled Opinions host Robert Pogue Harrison, who interprets the band’s legacy in this podcast.

“The beginning holds sway over the entire unfolding of the story,” he explains, describing how Morrison was “incubating his future on a rooftop,” as he lived for weeks in “a high-perched nest in Venice, California.” He had little more than a blanket, candles, oranges, notebooks, and LSD, which was cheap and legal at the time. He meditated. He filled his notebooks with poems.

Although he’d never studied music, nor played a musical instrument, songs swirled in his head – and eventually “the ghosts became flesh,” says Harrison. Morrison described what happened this way: “I was just taking notes at a fantastic rock concert that was going on inside my head.”

These were most critical weeks of his life. “In little more than a month, Morrison had undergone a metamorphoses,” according to Harrison.

Harrison discusses Morrison’s military family, and how the young man was “raised to military code of order, discipline obedience, and stoical formalism.” He also explores the ethos of “cool.” Although many see Morrison’s music as a Dionysian expression, Harrison points out that “what you never hear is a convulsive maniac in need of an exorcism.” Morrison always returns to form, measure, restraint. “In the final analysis, Apollo always dominated over Dionysius.”

Potent quotes:

“Morrison had one of the great screams in the history of rock.”

“Jim Morrison had a great deal of fire, but it was the cool that prevailed and always called the shots.”

“Cool does not crave. But our age is craven.” 

“Morrison always withheld something, even when he appeared to let it all hang out.”

“The slowness of cool is not lymphatic, it’s the deliberate withholding of speed.”

“Jim Morrison was in a hurry only when it came to finding a way to die.”


Listen to the whole podcast here.


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One Response to “The Ethos of “Cool”: Robert Harrison on Jim Morrison and The Doors”

  1. George Says:

    I think well of Mr. Harrison’s loyalty to an early enthusiasm. But crave/craven? The OED says “etymology obscure” for craven; Skeat traces it back through French terms having to do with “broken” to the Latin “crepo”, “creak, rattle, [etc.]. Both trace “crave” to Germanic roots.