The Doors Revisited
Looking Back at Jim Morrison and the Six Studio Albums
The question came up on a social media discussion board. The Doors: all-time greats, or overrated blah blah blah? Even by the weak standards of the thumbs up/thumbs-down court of public opinion, it was not a question to be glibly answered. It's complicated, and as the jazz pianist Les McCann asked: "Compared to What?"
You can't compare the Doors to anyone except the Doors: John Densmore, drums; Robbie Krieger, guitar, and Ray Manzarek, keyboards; and Jim Morrison, vocals. The Doors were sui generis, a world onto themselves.
They did not have a bass player; Manzarek would play bass with his organ pedals, or on a Fender Rhodes bass piano with his left hand, which is not the same thing as having a live rhythm section that can swing.
When The Doors album was released in January, 1967, and throughout the spring, the group was still playing clubs such as Ondine's and Steve Paul's The Scene in Manhattan; the Action House in Island Park, Long Island; Gazzarri's on Sunset Strip; and both the American Legion Hall and the Skate Arena in Merced, CA. The band's name was said to be inspired by philosopher and futurist Aldous Huxley's 1954 book The Doors of Perception, about his experiences on mescaline. The first single and opening song of the debut album was an illustration of the idea of using psychedelics to "Break on Through (To the Other Side)" of consciousness.
The single did not break through. But the next single, "Light My Fire," was No. 1 for three weeks in June 1967, and dominated the airwaves during the 1967 "Summer of Love." Weird factoid: I thought The Doors album peaked at No. 2 because Sgt. Pepper blocked it. But Pepper began its 15-week run at No. 1 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart at the end of June. In consultation with Joel Whitburn's statistically definitive books on the Billboard charts, there were two other albums that hit No. 1 in June 1967: The Monkees' Headquarters, and Sounds Like, by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. Before June, one album was No. 1 for 18 straight weeks beginning in February, 1967: More of the Monkees.
We like to remember 1967 as the year everything changed in rock, the proliferaton of great bands, the emergence of the album-as-art. Both are true. But like the elite of the time: the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, the Doors were switch-hitters, able to make thematically coherent albums and release radio-friendly hit singles. They had hit singles for their entire short career, and every studio album had at least one.
This week I listened to all seven Doors studio albums released by Elektra Records between 1967 and 1971. I left out the odd collection 13 from 1970, which is neither a greatest hits nor best of, but a kind of assortment. But 13 is important in another way: it gives the real songwriting credits for each of the songs. It makes plain that the underrated guitarist Robbie Krieger was the sole composer of "Light My Fire," as well as the hits "Touch Me," "Love Me Two Times," and the standout album track "You're Lost Little Girl" from Strange Days. By contrast, the inner sleeve lyric sheet from the original Strange Days album and the back cover declare "all selections written, arranged and performed in their entirety by The Doors. Doug Lubahn, occasional bass. "
There are so many rabbit holes in which to get lost writing about the Doors. Bass player Carol Kaye, one of the only regular session women in L.A. in the 1960s and 1970s, has said that she is the bass player on "Light My Fire." Also, I don't have much to say about Morrison's many arrests for obscenity for exposing himself onstage. But I do not think he was a martyr for free expression and public nudity; I think he was a blackout drunk with some exhibitionist hang-ups.
I'm ignoring the 1991 Oliver Stone's movie The Doors, except to say: the title should have been not The Doors but Oliver Stone's The Doors because it was not a documentary or concerned with an accurate historical record, but a motion picture that belongs in the Marvel Cinematic Universe along with films about Iron Man, Spider-Man, and the Hulk. The Doors singer was played by Val Kilmer, who was believable as Stone's creation, a flawed comic book superhero named Jim Morrison. Now there's a Val Kilmer movie about Val Kilmer. Go figure.
I also left out the concert album, Absolutely Live, although I did see the Doors in their heyday, perhaps a few times. The one I am most certain of is their performance at the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island, a theater in the round, on April 19, 1968. I know I went with Robin Koenig, a girl I had liked very much in high school, and she was still at Herricks H.S., from which I graduated without honor, honors, and with a C average, in 1967.
There is information about that concert on the Doors fan website MildEquator.com. I was as excited as everyone else to be there, but theater in the round with a revolving stage, especially in that era of live performance development, was not the best way to see or hear a rock band at the time. I don't remember much about being there, and have asked Robin, who became a painter and artist, to fill me in on any details I might have missed.
It had been a bad year. I was living at home in Searingtown, Long Island, the academic year of 1967-1968. This was my freshman year of college, occasionally attending classes nearby at C.W. Post College of Long Island University, a year of paralysis by depression, and intermittent connection by writing poems, songs, and going to concerts. Even at concerts, I sometimes went into dark obsessions, but it was better than staying home.
This show was just two weeks after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King; the Vietnam War was accelerating. Yet it was a busy month for concerts, as earlier in April, 1968, my only Post friend, Marvin from Queens, drove us in his VW Bug on the empty Long Island Expressway and deserted Manhattan streets to the Village in the immediate wake of King's killing. Our destination was the club Generation, on West Eighth Street, to see both Arthur Lee and Love, and Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company. Generation became Electric Ladyland studio. I'd already scene Big Brother with Janis at least twice before, as my friend Betty Hillman and I went to see her at the Anderson Theater in February 1968.
At Generation, between sets, I said hello to Janis Joplin at the bar. This is embarrassing, so I might as well spit it out. I was wearing a green paisley Nehru shirt, most likely polyester, (ouch!), testicular-shaped metal beads, and a kind of phallic animal horn around my neck. Hello, Dr. Freud! Sigmund! Your patient is waiting in the primordial ooze!
At the bar, Janis fondled my beads, said she liked them. She did not mock my Nehru shirt. What to say except thank you! I thought about asking what she was doing after the show. ("Heroin," was the likely answer.) But I've had this fantasy ever since, if I had the nerve to ask her, she might've said, "hanging out with you, honey!" And we would take her car and driver, if she had one, or a taxi, to my parents house in Searingtown on the North Shore of Nassau County, spend the night on my single bed in my bedroom, making a ruckus, and in the morning open the door to introduce her to my family. "Hi, Mom? Dad! David! This is Janis Joplin. She's in all the newspapers."
I had been depressed since September when my summer of 1967 girlfriend Paula broke up with me when she went to Goucher, then an elite all-women's college (now co-ed) in Towson, Maryland. It was rough, because even after losing her virginity to a guy from Johns Hopkins who drove a motorcycle (and who became her first husband), she still sent me love letters of a sort.
The Doors were our music, "Light My Fire" our song, or at least my song about us. I had obsessive Paula thoughts, sorrow and dysfunction (PTSD), all year.
What really sets apart the Doors is that I can't think of the album repertory of any musical artist from the rock era which started perfect, and got less great chronologically, until the final album, L.A. Woman in 1971. Which still had a few great songs, but it is not as consistent a farewell as I remembered it. Six albums, a live album, constant tours, in five years. They burned out pretty fast, ran short of ideas in the studio, with great alacrity.
So, in both roughly chronological, and near-descending order of quality, here's what my re-listen re-vealed. All on Elektra Records.
1. The Doors. Still the champ. But its roots aren't in psychedelia or hippie love beads. It's about Weimar, from the brutal Bauhaus rock of "Break On Through (To the Other Side)," to the fascinating and apt cover of Brecht and Weill's 1927 "Alabama Song" (aka "The Whiskey Bar"). If nothing else, it allowed us teenage pseudo-somethings to be able to drop the name "Brecht" without having read his work or seen his plays. “Light My Fire,” by this theory, might have been about the burning of the Reichstag.
"Soul Kitchen," still one of the Doors great songs, is a splendid phrase. It could almost be a Brecht/Weill song, and you can imagine Lotte Lenya, who was still alive, covering it: In fact, what I wouldn't have paid to hear an album, Lotte Lenya Sing the Doors. In German. She could nail the solitary gloom of "Crystal Ship," a gorgeous death trip which perfectly hits its marks. Howlin' Wolf's "Back Door Man" makes no effort to play "da blooz," as the phrase went at the time. Morrison does his seduction shtick, invoking and making believable Wolf's mantra: "The men don't know, but the little girls understand."
The Oedipal psychodrama "The End," which features so prominently in Francis Ford Coppolla's Apocalypse Now, is strange to hear now. The story of a murderous psychopath who slays his sister, brother, and father, before announcing his erotic intentions towards his mother in a lusty howl, was actually considered "psychedelic" or something because of the band's sustained drone over eleven and a half minutes. Listening to "The End" on LSD would have been a big mistake: I suspect this song resulted in more bad trips than all the tainted brown acid at Woodstock in 1969. Some of Morrison's poetic incantations remain potent memes: When he chants "Come on baby, take a chance with us, and meet me in the back of the blue bus," it sounds like he's looking for young runaways to take on a field trip to Spahn Ranch.
2. Strange Days (1967). The album that anticipates or announces the hangover, the emotional crash, coming after the 1967 Summer of Love. Morrison's voice is altered electronically to add some menace and disconnect to the title song. "Strange Days" begins side one, "People Are Strange" side two with dark momentum. Both "People Are Strange" and "Love Me Two Times" were radio hits. In the midst of songs of haunted runaways ("You're Lost Little Girl," "Unhappy Girl"), the Doors could find that pop radio sweetspot. I would have picked "Moonlight Drive" for a hit here, too. Many times driving home from Post via backroads in Old Westbury, I'd hear "People Are Strange" on the radio, and think about accelerating and crashing my car into a tree.
The album ends with The Doors' best longform song, "When the Music's Over." It's part ecological, part politicking, part preaching, part committing alleged acts of poetry in the context of a spiritual death wish.
"Cancel my subscription to the resurrection."
"Before I sink into the Big Sleep."
"What have they done to the Earth?"
"We want the world and we want it now!"
These words of prophet Jim were written on subway walls, and scrawled in collages all over the pages of underground newspapers. The memes of rock lyrics buoyed us, even if they were meaningless, out of context, or untrue.
3. Waiting for the Sun (1968) begins with another of those irresistible hits: "Hello I Love You," which could have been a hit for anyone, from the Lemon Pipers to the Monkees. But here's where the aura and effect of Morrison's voice makes weak material sound muscular: There's something about his thick baritone that can't be imitated, duplicated, or approximated. That's why after Morrison's death, the surviving members really couldn't accomplish much as the Doors. Who could sing these songs with conviction? One minute he's singing suavely about "Love Street," and then goes into a feral wail, a wounded animal cry. My simple answer to who could have replaced Morrison is my simple answer to everything: Elvis Presley. Same baritone, better range. Don't know if the King could cotton to the lyrics, though.
The ideas are getting smaller: "Summer's Almost Gone," "Wintertime Love." In fact, a lot of Doors' filler songs deal with this fear of the cold. No celebration of endless summer here.
Side two of the vinyl album features two political songs: "The Unknown Soldier" (which edged into the top 40), and "Five to One," with the anti-establishment rallying cry, "They got the guns but we got the numbers!" That turned out to be delusional: "The Man," in 1968, had them both.
4. The Soft Parade. (1969). A failure of nerve and imagination. It's full of ideas that are half-baked, or poorly developed. "Runnin' Blue," written by Krieger, could have been one of the great Doors' hits. Morrison (channeling Krieger, channeling Redding) is lost somewhere on the road, and he's missing Otis Redding, who died at the end of 1967 in a plane crash. "I've to find the 'Dock of the Bay'/Maybe I'll find it back on L.A." It's an earworm, a hook, and it's got emotional substance. So whose idea was the reoccurring square dance number interrupting the flow and tone of the song? Supposedly bluegrass, but idiotic square dance music, really. The hit was "Touch Me," the first Doors hit with horns. On most of the other tracks, the horns don't fit. But if they gave the brass players on "Runnin' Blue" a chance to stretch out, and left out the fiddlers, and stretched out the time, they'd have had a great track.
5. Morrison Hotel (1970). Better, bolder production than on previous records, which often suffered from the Doors' not having a bass player. "Roadhouse Blues" is a Doors' classic, a little truer than people probably believed: "I woke up this morning and got myself a beer." The cover photo of a place called Morrison Hotel is a skid row rooming house, and the back cover is a low-aiming, unironic dive bar called the Hard Rock Cafe, before that was a brand. The rest of the album is just weak, probably the Doors' worst.
6. L.A. Woman (1971). The nearly eight-minute title song is brilliant, contrasts of dark and light, the Valley, Hollywood bungalows, the strip bars... It's like Randy Newman ("I Love L.A." but sometimes I don't love L.A.) crashing from amphetamine, the dark side of the L.A. dream of Nathaniel West and Raymond Chandler, except that it rocks. This is the one that sticks because of the invocation of "Mr. Mojo Rising."
As Doors rockers go, "The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)" is pretty great too, Densmore keeping time with panache on that predetermined "beat." But you also have the self-ridiculing "Crawling King Snake," the derivative "Been Down So Long," (from Richard Fariña), the desperate loneliness of "Hyacinth House," the weak funk of "The Changeling" even with musicians Marc Benno on rhythm guitar and Presley-grad Jerry Scheff on bass. And "Cars Hiss by my Window" is as banal as the title. "Riders on the Storm" is also here for more than seven minutes, and you don't for a moment miss the album jam from the three minute radio cut.
But when "Riders" peaked on the charts, Morrison was already dead in Paris, and on some parts of this he already sounds dead. I know Jim's longtime companion Patricia Kennealy-Morrison, died at 75 on July 21. But I have to ask: What was he doing in Paris with then-companion Pam Courson? If they'd gone to Berlin, they could have greeted Bowie, Iggy, and Lou Reed when they arrived. Now that would have been a band to die for.