Was ‘The End’ the Beginning?

A Consideration of a Doors Recording as Ghazal

R. W. Watkins is a Canadian poet, essayist and editor. He was creator and publisher of Contemporary Ghazals, the world’s first English-language journal dedicated to the ghazal form. He was also the only Canadian included in Agha Shahid Ali’s Ravishing DisUnities, the world’s first anthology of English-language ghazals. In the 1990s and 2000s, Watkins’s haiku and related verse appeared most prominently in Lynx, RAW NerVZ Haiku and Haiku Canada publications. He has also published five chapbooks of said poetry as volumes in the Poetical Perspectives series, the most recent being Waka-Cola: A Tanka Guide to Pop Art and small flowers crack concrete. Online, he edits The Comics Decoder journal, and has served as an assistant poetry editor at Red Fez. His major works include Trinity, which collects three of his aforementioned chapbooks with bonus material; Direct Lines To Hell, a collection of his early free verse; and The Rites of Summer, a recent experimental novella set amidst the youthful decadence of Eastern Canada in 1980. At present, Watkins continues to edit Eastern Structures, the magazine of Asian poetic forms that he began publishing in 2016. As well, his short fiction, essays, and interviews with cartoonists appear regularly in Pattern Recognition.

In the mid 1960s something relatively unusual was happening within Western pop culture. Spurred on by a decade of Beat literature and lifestyle (namely Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, The Evergreen Review, Gary Snyder’s time in Japan, the constant public presence of Allen Ginsberg, etc.), as well as the Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi’s meditation classes and Yoko Ono’s immigration to London, Eastern elements had suddenly begun going mainstream in this foreign context. By late 1966 Japanese and (especially) Indian religions, political philosophies and fashions were being absorbed considerably or wholeheartedly by their Western counterparts, in many cases completely filling an utter void. It was inevitable that the same cultural osmosis would occur within Western music.

It seems that when one considers 1960s Western music in regards to Indian influence, certain names immediately come to mind: John Coltrane, The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, The Moody Blues, etc. There can be no denying the importance of many of these acts in furthering the cause of Indian music in a Western context. George Harrison studied the sitar under instrumental legend Ravi Shankar, and his subsequent raga-inspired Beatles composition ‘Within You Without You’ remains the highlight of the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Likewise, Eastern philosophical devotee ’Trane took a raga-inspired modal approach to both old standards (‘My Favourite Things’) and his own compositions (‘Om’), creating jazz that, in the words of Nat Hentoff, “drew you into his vortex deeper and deeper and deeper until you began to realise that it was your own self you were excavating”. These and other examples, however, constitute only half the story.

For some unjustifiable reason(s), many of the most vital Indian-influenced Western acts tend to be excluded when considering the subcontinent’s impact upon the West’s music in the 1960s. This is especially true in regards to rock music, where it seems that the one major criterion for qualifying an act as ‘Indianesque’ is its past association with the ‘hippie’, or ‘flower child’, movement. The hardcore hippies embraced traditional Indian clothing, Gandhi’s non-violence, and Hindu philosophies with much genuine enthusiasm. And the two cities which served as the ‘Meccas’ for this counter culture were San Francisco and London. Therefore, as one might expect, the majority of hippie (or ‘psychedelic’, to use the term stolen from Dr. Humphrey Osmond—not Dr. Timothy Leary) groups and artists were found in these centres. As a result, 1960s rock music has been dichotomised stylistically and philosophically to a large degree; i.e.: London and San Francisco = hippie/psychedelic = Indianesque, whereas other major centres = garage rock / proto-punk = non-Indianesque. This is an extremely deceptive stereotype (especially for younger listeners who were not even born in the ’60s), for not only were there non-psychedelic acts based in San Francisco and London who had not been inspired by Indian culture to any detectable degree, but many of those (supposedly) non-psychedelic groups and artists outside the hippie capitals actually made Indianesque recordings which demonstrated considerably more knowledge of Indian arts and culture than that of their average ‘flower-power’ contemporary. One ‘outside’ act that comes to mind is The Byrds, the Los Angeles band whose guitarists added sitar-sounding improvisations to songs such as ‘Eight Miles High’, and to whom the term ‘raga rock’ was first applied (in March of 1966).

Another one of those ‘outside’ acts from L.A. was The Doors, who wrote and recorded what may very well be the earliest example of the musical ghazal—or something closely resembling the musical ghazal—in Western popular music. Recorded in 1966 and released in January of ’67, ‘The End’ from the group’s eponymous debut album is generally regarded as one of the most groundbreaking and important song-poems of all time in the rock genre. Much of this critical praise can be directly attributed to the controversial subject matter and (in the 1979 uncensored remix) scatological lyrics of vocalist Jim Morrison (1943–1971), and the lengthy improvisational middle section (still something of a rock ’n’ roll rarity in 1966-67) over which this surreal, Oedipal narrative is superimposed.

Although this multi-layered, improvisational middle section remains the primary focus of ‘The End’ for most fans and critics alike, it is not of great importance to us musically or lyrically in this particular context. What is important to us is the number’s short opening section, or ‘love song’—as Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek (1939–2013) referred to it—from which this lengthy improv jam evolved.

Musically, the opening section of ‘The End’ closely resembles the first two phases of a Northern Indian raga. Guitarist Robby Krieger—who, shortly after, would study under Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar at the Kinnara School of Music in Los Angeles—begins the number with several impromptu ‘splashes’ of both blunt and sparkling notes, followed by a slow, warbling lead like one might associate with that of a sitar or surbahar. This solo-stringed (solo-stringed, aside from some soft, hissing cymbal crescendos at the very beginning) intro is comparable to the alap, the first phase of a raga. Like the traditional alap, it is gradual, non-rhythmic, improvisational, and preludial (bordering on foreboding); and establishes tonality, mood and setting (‘The End’ is, without a doubt, an early evening raga of autumn). As an alap, the only unconventional aspect of the intro is its brevity – the traditional alap being of a much longer duration, generally. 

As the opening section continues, Krieger is joined by organist / bass keyboardist Manzarek and drummer John Densmore (who would also study under Shankar), and a three-chord melody is established. It is not, however, one’s formulaic three-chord melody of Western pop music. Manzarek’s keyboards take on a subtle drone quality, conceivably on par with that of the pump organ or even the four-string tambura (a.k.a. tanpura) of Indian music. Similarly, Densmore’s percussive style somewhat resembles the most common tala (i.e., rhythm section) in Indian raga—that of the tabla. His high hat’s subtle yet reverberating crashes (which resemble nothing as much as a snake’s rattle) are the Western equivalent of the softer, less conspicuous patter of the left-hand tabla drum. (As the number progresses, his occasional brief runs on the tom-toms are comparable to the harder beats of the tabla’s right-hand drum.) Meanwhile, Krieger modally improvises on his open-tuned guitar. All in all, this stage of ‘The End’ is comparable to another phase of the raga, the one known as sthayl.

It is at this point in the opening section that Morrison begins to sing the initial stanza of verse, and so our attention shifts to the lyrical structure of the number.

It should be pointed out from the start that the singer’s delivery of the lyrics appear differently in the mind than what they appear on paper in various versions in the print world. In this version, for example, published in The Doors Concise Complete in 1984, long after Morrison’s death, the first two lines end with the same word:


                     This is the end, beautiful friend

                     This is the end, my only friend


This is obviously comparable to the matla, or opening couplet, of an Indian (Urdu) ghazal, which is characterised by the presence of radif (i.e., the refrain, in the form of a repeated word or phrase) at the end of both lines. Unlike the traditional matla, though, it lacks a qafia, or monorhyme, immediately preceding each instance of the radif (“friend”).

On paper, in the 1984 version, the third and fourth lines end with a slant rhyme:

                                The end of our elaborate plans

                                The end of ev’rything that stands


In the original recorded version, however, Morrison adds an extra two syllables to the second line by ‘bringing forward’ the first two words of the third line (“The end”) as the time signature changes from 4/4 to 3/2, thus creating an auditory enjambment of sorts:

                     This is the end, beautiful friend

                     This is the end, my only friend / The end


This process appears to have been repeated in his treatment of the third and fourth lines:

                                of our elaborate plans / The end

                                of everything that stands / The end


Upon closer inspection, however, it appears highly unlikely that “the end” has been brought forward from the fifth line and tacked onto the end of the fourth—creating an enjambment in the process—for the supposedly enjambed sentence when reconstructed makes no obvious sense; i.e.: “The end no safety or surprise”.

It is interesting to note that one rarely encounters ‘The End’ printed the same way twice in the publishing world. For example, the lyrics as presented on paper in Homer Hogan’s Poetry of Relevance 1 anthology/textbook (1970) are considerably different from the form that they take in the previously referenced Doors Concise Complete: Music and Lyrics, 1965–1971 (1984), which in turn is considerably different from their presentation in the lyrical verse section of The American Night (1990), the second of two posthumous Morrison collections. Taking this into consideration, one might deem it highly probable that ‘The End’ has never been committed to print as lyricist Morrison would have intended. Bearing this in mind, I propose an arrangement of the opening section’s lyrics that reflects Morrison’s vocal delivery of them:

This is the end, beautiful friend

                     This is the end, my only friend, the end


                                Of our elaborate plans, the end

                                Of everything that stands, the end


No safety or surprise—the end

                     I’ll never look into your eyes again


True, arranged in couplets like this, a radif does not present itself, for the word “friend” is not repeated at the end of all three couplets; nor is “the end” present at the end of the first and sixth lines. But the second couplet ends in a monorhyme with the ‘matla’ (“friend”/“end”), and the third couplet ends in a slant rhyme with the preceding two (“friend”/“end”/“-gain”). In this respect, the couplets are more akin to the earlier Arabic ghazal, which features only qafia (in the form of end rhyme) and no radif.

In regards to the sort of qafia one associates with the traditional Indian ghazal, ‘The End’ does not display the typical internal rhyme across couplets. However, it does display an internal rhyme within couplets. In the case of the first couplet, the internal rhyme is an identical one (“This is the end” / “This is the end”), while in the second and third couplets the internal rhyme is a slant rhyme (“elaborate plans” / “everything that stands” and “surprise” / “your eyes”).

A similar case may be made for a makhta couplet—i.e., one in which the poet/singer references him or herself by name. Although there is no reference to “Morrison” or “Jim” (or “Mr. Mojo Risin” – his anagram nickname of later years), there is a direct reference to the narrator himself in the last of these three couplets: “I’ll never look into your eyes again” (italics mine). I find it rather interesting that Morrison’s only direct reference to himself in the first person singular should take place in the second line of the final couplet.

Upon delivery of these initial lyrics, the number enters a long and meandering section in 4/4 time, with Morrison crooning a sequence of loosely related lyrical stanzas that is comparable to sequences of notes improvised on a sitar or surbahar. These stanzas are complemented by occasional flourishes of guitar and organ notes that are also comparable to the improvised Indian notes in both tone and style. This portion of ‘The End’ can easily be construed as the equivalent of the antara section of a traditional Northern Indian raga. Following the (in)famous spoken-word ‘Oedipal’ phase, the number increases in tempo and intensity, culminating in a loud, throbbing crescendo achieved through (as Peter Lavezzoli has pointed out) Krieger’s use of the Indian jhala technique, which involves rapid strumming alternating with the playing of the basic melody. This portion of ‘The End’ can be interpreted as the equivalent of the sanchari section of a Northern Indian raga. From there, it logically follows that the return to the melody of the initial lyrical section and the number’s conclusion are on par with the abhoga section of the Northern Indian raga.

True, a brief series of English-language couplets sung as part of a longer raga-like composition by American rock musicians performing on electric instruments must sound like a far cry from Begum Akhtar or Jagjit Singh, especially to Indian ears. But one cannot deny the existence of rhyme schemes and repetition in the opening section that almost certainly demonstrate a knowledge (no matter how inexact or inchoate) of the Indian ghazal—particularly when said lyrical attributes are considered in the context of an American attempt at raga. ‘The End’ clearly exhibits elements of something more than ‘raga rock’. I have a hard time believing that Jim Morrison and/or some other member(s) of The Doors had no knowledge of the ghazal whatsoever. One gets the impression that someone had been exposed to something at some point by 1966—whether it was on paper, by word of mouth, or in the form of a performance. It is obvious that the band had an interest in and knowledge of Indian music, with Krieger and Densmore going on to study under Ravi Shankar. As well, Krieger, Densmore and Manzarek were already regularly attending the Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi’s transcendental meditation classes by the time their debut album was being recorded. And, of course, Morrison was a voracious reader of virtually every form, genre and mode. A lover of classic Anglo-Irish literature, for instance, he may have discovered the ‘ghazels’ of early practitioner James Clarence Mangan (1803–1849) at some point leading up to the recording. As I’ve stated in the past, I don’t know how aware The Doors were of the ghazal, but if there was at least one band in North America at the time that could have been aware, then they were it.

It also seems that ‘The End’ proved to be something of a cultural dead end, ultimately; for not only did so-called ‘raga rock’ run out of steam by the end of the 1960s, but any rudiments of the ghazal contained in the opening section would not be duplicated or further developed by subsequent Western musicians. While the ghazal has been adopted relatively successfully as a written poetry form in the West in recent decades, it has never been adopted as an English-language lyrical style in vocal performance. So it appears that ‘The End’ stands alone in its probable derivation from the Urdu ghazal more than half a century later, and its relevance can only be seen in its relation to the form in English on paper. One might say that time has stood still for the musical ghazal in the West. This says a lot about the vision and originality of a band like The Doors—not to mention the provincialism and banality that has crept into English-language songwriting in the post-1960s era.

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