THE DOORS, THE DOORS, 1967
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.
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