Wednesday, January 6, 2010

SONG #21-- Break On Through (To The Other Side)


Surely there has never been a band whose stock has fallen so precipitously as The Doors.  In 1976, when I became aware of rock music and started buying records, Morrison was still a God.  The band's catalog was treated with the same hushed tones as Jimi Hendrix'.  In the early 80s, the sycophantic biography No One Here Gets Out Alive further cemented Morrison as the great lost poet of the 20th century and the sexiest man who had ever lived.  You could count on at least one Doors song a day on any classic rock radio station.  As a keyboardist in a band, I had my Ray Manzarek chops down-- I could play the entire solos of "Light My Fire" and "Riders On The Storm" and "LA Woman."  I thought "Not To Touch The Earth" was truly scary.  As far as I can tell, in 1982, The Doors were an unquestioned giant in the rock landscape.

What happened?  While there are still a few hanger-ons, most of my music friends truly hate The Doors.  It can't all be Oliver Stone's fault for the horrible movie he made in 1991 about the band (personal favorite touches: the recurring mysitcal, imagined shaman that is the co-lead of the movie; the gratutitous shot of Meg Ryan fellating Val Kilmer while he records the lead vocal for... wait for it... "The Soft Parade!" Seriously!  Kills me every time.)  It also can't be that we were all deluded idiots.  When a Doors song comes on my iPod out of context, I usually enjoy it for at least three minutes.  There is almost no chance, though, that I'll ever again put on a Doors album and play it through on purpose.  I haven't changed my opinion about a band more in my lifetime than I have about the Doors.

A friend of mine in college had a three word review for The Doors: cheesy lounge act.  He is so right in so many ways.  The Doors didn't have a bass player, and not in that White Stripes / Flat Duo Jets / Black Keys elemental way.  Kreiger played bass on the albums, but they had Manzarek play bass with his feet on his inexcusably tinny-sounding organ live.  Check out a live Doors album sometime-- woof.  It's a good thing they were a pre-internet group.  Drummer John Densmore was one of the lightest hitters of the 1960s.  The band overpowers him over and over.  Robbie Krieger is a fine guitar player, but he's also more of a finesse guy.  There's no Doors song that puts the foot to the floor; they're much more skittish and floaty in their approach.  Over that, Morrison sings with one of the most aggressive, throat-busting, irony-free approaches in rock.  Maybe that's what hasn't aged well.  Morrison yell-sings on most of their stuff while the band hesitantly plays behind him.  It's an odd combination that grows old pretty fast.

Morrison's myth hasn't aged well either.  His death, along with Janis and Jimi's, slammed the door shut on the 1960s, and woke some people up.  Morrison became the cautionary tale for a generation not paying enough attention to its appetites.  Forty years later, Morrison seems like just the first in a series of young men to get rich, famous, fat and irrelevant.  He's no longer a lost Rimbaud or a tragic figure undone by society's expectations and the weight of his own insights: an American Byron.  Instead, there's a sense that if he were alive, he'd be on a VH-1 reality show called "Light My Fireplace" trying to live in a house with David Crosby and Grace Slick.

Jim in 1967, Jim in 1970.  Greatest commercial never made: Jared and Jim having a weight loss contest sponsored by Subway: Jim: "Hey, Jared; have you seen my five dollar foot long?"  Jared: "Ahhhhh!"  Producers: "CUT!  NO!  Jim-- wait until we give you the sandwich!"

It's hilarious that this song came up on the Pod this morning, as I got into an argument with my Rock History and Performance class Monday about this very topic.  I made the mistake of dismissing the band as cartoonish and cheesy, and they went into open revolt.  Apparently, America's high school kids still love The Doors.  And for these kids, it's not about Morrison; they were defending the band and the sound.  I expect them to worship Cobain, but The Doors?  I was unprepared for their outrage, and I'm still mending fences.  Call it karmic payback that I've been asked to write about them today.

Let's try to put all the cultural baggage aside for a few minutes, then, and focus on some music.  This song is the first song on the Doors' first album.  It has all of the elements of that classic Doors sound.  Say this for the band: they had their whole concept figured out from the jump.

The drums play a samba beat to introduce the song.  It doesn't go to 4/4 until the chorus.  Moreover, the mix is severely panned: the drums are only in the left speaker.  Listen with headphones: it's bizarre not to have the drums dead center.  It adds to the strange weightless quality of the rhythm section.  In the first five seconds, it's clear that the band is trying to sound unlike other groups.

The guitar part is a great little lick in the verse.  In the choruses, it's much bigger, almost over-competing with the vocal.  One thing the Doors do all the time in their songs is layer competing harmony parts: the vocal, keyboard and guitar will solo at the same time, but not the same thing.  When it works, it sounds like a band playing at maximum invention.  It think it works here; in fact, this chorus is my favorite of theirs, and perhaps the band's most successful hard rock moment.  When the dueling solos thing doesn't work, it's an untold mess.  Again, check out some live tapes-- the Doors are sometimes truly tragic and embarrassing, something Morrison's alcoholic ramblings don't help.

Manzarek's playing here introduces his entire sonic palate: his solo is instantly hummable and simple.  For a guy with outstanding chops (say what you want, but this guy can play) Manzarek understood the importance of a solo connecting with an audience.  How many keyboard solos can you sing along to?  Almost all of Ray's are that tuneful.  Gold star, even though he's a nut and the chief operating officer of the Morrison cult.

And that leaves Jim.  I actually think this vocal is one of his best.  He doesn't try to sing a very harmonic vocal, so he's more effective (Morrison is flat on a lot of recordings, and when the vocal has a complicated melody, he's out of his depth.)  The "Everybody loves my baby / She gets high!" no longer shocks and sounds a little silly, but otherwise, it's a convincing performance.  At least he doesn't distract and detract from the tune.

Taken one song at a time, The Doors are an interesting sonic alternative to most of their peers.  At their best, they do invoke the LA seediness that they helped to invent.  That doesn't mean that I take back my criticism or agree with their slow slide into the third tier of rock history; you could give similar compliments to Supertramp.  I need, however, to allow my students their Doors moment without ridicule.  Been there.

I am the blogging king; I can slag anything.


  1. Another classic from the movie:

    Earlier in the movie Morrison and some weird witch woman have a "ceremony" to bond their love. Later in the movie Morrison tries to break it off.

    Witch: "But we made promises and formed bonds of love that can never be broken."

    Fat Morrison: "But I was high."

  2. Note: I uploaded the draft by accident before; here's the version without 25 typos. Sorry about that.

  3. Jeff, I appreciate your perspective, you've made some good points, and your musical chops are clearly much greater than mine. Still, I can't shake the feeling that you are being just a little bit harsh on the Doors.

    You and I grew up in the same era, indeed the same town and school, and our experience with rock gods seems to be very similar. And as I've gotten older, I've had experiences similar to the one you describe with many heroes of my youth, most notably Hemingway: that on revisiting them after many years, I can no longer fathom why I thought they were so great, or anyone did, back in the day. For Whom The Bell Tolls was a huge disappointment to reread, and in the same vein, try rereading Catcher In The Rye.

    I wonder whether you are not blaming the Doors personally, if only to a degree, for the disappointment of no longer being able to see any rock star as a god worthy of blind worship.

    Like you, I don't reach for Doors albums very often, but the same is true for a lot of music that I have really loved at some point in my life. In some cases it hasn't aged well, and in others my taste has simply moved away.

    But viewed in the context of their time, I think they broke some ground and were very influential on those that followed (and they rocked), and I'm glad that today's kids still like the Doors. To me that means that this music still speaks to some aspect of what it means to be young, and at a certain time in one's life, everyone has fun breaking on through to the other side.

  4. Well said-- in addition to what you've articulated above, part of aging for me has been not being able to love music as blindly as I could in my youth. I was just thinking about that earlier today-- will I ever love a song at first listen as much as anything from thirty years ago? It might not be possible. Thanks for writing!

  5. I enjoyed reading this post. Having just blogged about discovering The Doors at about the same time as you I find your perspective really interesting. You are so right about the Doors movie. Apart from Val Kilmer, it was terribly cast. Apparently though, it sold the Doors to a new generation.

    Unlike you, I rediscovered The Doors about 6 years ago and I think they stand the test of time. Like a lot of music though, it was of its time and you have to understand the context to fully appreciate it.

  6. Maybe those high school students are onto something. I think the best way to approach the Doors is to separate the myth from the music and listen to them for what they were: an innovative band that has never really been copied.

    Sure, a lot of things about Morrison's persona are kind of silly when you think about them, but you could also say that about Jagger, Lennon and any number of folks. I think a lot of today's artists will also be a great source of amusement to future generations (paging Trent Reznor...)

    Musically, I think the Doors were top notch. That "skittish and floaty" nature to their music is one of the things that made them great and memorable. I also like Morrison's crooning vocals, which were so unusual for a rock band, although he could also scream with the best of them. Maybe what really killed the Doors' reputation in some circles were just post-grunge attitudes about what a rock band is supposed to sound like.

    By the way, I'm really enjoying this blog. Love the concept and I think you write well. Keep 'em coming.

  7. Hate the band. LOVE the fucking movie.

  8. I'm in the same boat as your Rock Class (still jealous that that's a real thing). I have a feeling it has something to do with the fact that we were not around to experience the Doors as a living, breathing musical group, and so we missed on all of the personality reflected through the band members. All we're left with is what comes out of the music. I don't listen to much of the Doors, but in my opinion there's no better night time driving song than Riders on the Storm. Also, you have to appreciate a rock band that can so successfully utilize the organ. That just doesn't happen very often (um.... Wolfmother seems to be the next one in my mind haha).

  9. Speaking of my rock class, here is the rebuttal from their spokesperson, Natalie Urban. Well done Natalie. :)

    Part One:

    Jim Morrison’s Not Dead

    The first time I heard a Doors song was while watching the movie “Forrest Gump” at about age 10: “Break On Through (To The Other Side),” which fittingly plays during the Vietnam war scene. I wish I could say I experienced an epiphany with that rugged opening organ lick, that it changed my life forever, but no such thing happened. I did find myself drawn in by the intensity of the melody and lyrics, underscored by an electrifying guitar riff, and complemented perfectly by the simple and gut-wrenching organ solo, but it was only years later that I really fell in love with the band. Upon further research, I discovered The Doors had many songs comparable with the first one I had heard, as well as many even better ones (‘Soul Kitchen,’ and ‘The End’ among my favorites). I’ll admit it came as a bit of a shock when I heard a different perspective on this band that has always been one of my favorites, and naturally I was quick to defend them. Part of me feared that upon further listening, I too might find serious flaws in the music I had grown to love so much, but, in fact, the result was the opposite. I have not been shaken from my love of the band, even by your very persuasive essay, and I stand by opinion that The Doors were one of the greatest bands ever to write, play, and record rock music.
    I’m not going to try to defend the Doors movie or Jim Morrison’s questionable lifestyle choice. I stand to defend the music, which, really, is what it’s all about. Without a doubt, the Doors were far from perfect – but what band is? Their ability to fuse raw passion with a crisp, tight sound was what set them apart, creating an auditory experience so powerful that really no band since has been able to compare. This ability is demonstrated in every single song, as tensions between Morrison’s darkly subterranean vocals and the band’s neat, tight energy create a stark and appealing contrast.
    One of the Doors’ greatest strengths is the consistency and confidence in their style. While perhaps not entirely consistent in quality, they were sure of their sound right off the bat, and continued to embody their one of its kind creation. Each band member, sure of his gifts, fully embodied them from track one of album one, leaving nothing to be desired and instantly outlining an image that they would continue to fill over their entire career. No warm-up album, no struggle to find their niche – they knew what they wanted to sound like and were able to achieve their goal right away. This, of course, leaves us with the question of how much more they could have achieved had Morrison lived longer – a question we will never be able to answer.
    Another great strength that sets The Doors’ apart: their songs are instantly recognized as their own; their intense yet concise style is unlike any band before and since. Once they discovered their exceptionally unique sound, they were able to apply it to so many different kinds of songs, not just rock songs, but slower blues and ballads as well, painting a variety of pictures with the new color they had invented.

  10. Part Two:

    While Jim Morrison’s lifestyle choice was not ideal, to say the least, his poetic genius, mysterious charisma, and darkly moving vocals can only be admired. His dark and moody style reflected the mood of the time period in a way that no other artist had been able to; he made his counterparts, such as the Beatles, look like pop. It continues to reflect that exact same mood decades later. There’s no denying that he was a flawed character, but in some ways that makes him all the more heroic – accessible through his emotions yet elevated by his talent. Morrison’s lyrics were the work of a great poet, filled with simple yet powerful and timeless imagery. His passion-filled voice provided the perfect means for delivering these lyrics, soaring from smoky, smooth low notes to energetic and crazed shouts in seconds. His voice had the potential to be haunting, probing, sultry, angry, nonchalant, or some complex combination of all of these. Additionally, he was the first performer of his kind: provocative, confrontational, and gutsy in a way the world had never seen before. His embodiment of a brooding, deeply haunted, emotionally torn young man has molded so many artists since.
    Morrison may have led the band but he did not carry it: Ray Manzarek’s consistency and skill as an organ player provided the solid foundation for The Doors. He gave the band cohesion despite their lack of a bass player, and his solos are often the climax or highlight of the song. His organ solo in “Break On Through” perfectly embodies the powerful simplicity that the band always embraced. Few notes, simple rhythms, no excess, yet it’ll stick in your head for days, not just because it’s catchy but because of its sheer power. Each note carries weight and importance.
    Some say that The Doors were once great, but their music has not aged well. I disagree; I find their music to be as relevant and accessible now as ever. Morrison’s haunting voice never fails to move me, Manzarek’s powerful organ solos never fail to grab my attention. And so I maintain my position in favor of the Doors, a band that was never perfect, but came closer than most bands ever will.

  11. I watched Apocalypse Now again last night and I really noticed how much the Doors fit the mood of that movie. They're so quintessentially American, but there's some alien aspect to their music that makes the listening experience a bit uneasy. The scene at the beginning with Martin Sheen rolling around on the bed naked covered in blood to "The End" gives me the chills every time.

  12. I love the passion and precision of Natalie's take Jeff, but I could not just let this sentence go by without comment: "While Jim Morrison’s lifestyle choice was not ideal, to say the least, his poetic genius, mysterious charisma, and darkly moving vocals can only be admired." All you have to do is put a mental picture of fat Jim Morrison in your mind and a I challenge you not to giggle when reading the above.

  13. For me, The Doors have become a cheap jello shot of nostalgia. I too used to group them in the Hendrix, Cream, Janis presidential suite but they haven't held up. I go back for quick bites on random shuffle but can't take much more. Although I have really enjoyed those Matrix tapes over the years - but that too likely has more to do with seeking nostalgia (in 7th grade my friends' older brother had the vinyl boot and we wore it out). Of all the records, Morrison Hotel is the only one that still gets full-side plays around here...