There is a toxic theory that goes something like this: Jim Morrison was a shaman. The Lizard King. His spirit was inhabited (literally or figuratively) by Indians when he was a young boy. He was a social revolutionary. A genius. A good poet. All of these things are false. Jim Morrison was a rock star. He was the most important member of the Doors. He was also the clown prince of goofy death obsessed show-offs.
Jim Morrison’s legacy makes it easy to forget that the Doors were primarily a pop band. Two of their records end with 12-minute rock epics, but those very same records are chock-full of snappy little pop tunes like “Light My Fire”, “Touch Me”, “Peace Frog”, and “Love Me Two Times”. On stage, Jim Morrison’s theatrics tended to overshadow the rest of the band. After all, who’s noticing the backline when The Lizard King is threatening to expose his penis. Still, despite their tendency to indulge Morrison in ways that seem silly in retrospect, the Doors were a very credible live band. Bootlegs have been available for years that attest to that, as have an EP recorded live at the Hollywood Bowl and an LP called Absolutely Live.
In 1996, while assembling live material for their box set, the three remaining Doors and their former engineer, Bruce Botnick, and manager, Danny Sugerman uncovered a treasure trove of unreleased live material. In deference to fan interest in all things Doors, they decided to forego the editing process and release everything. Over the next six years the band plans to release albums on an Internet-only basis at the rate of three recordings every six months for a staggering grand total of 36 CDs. The Bright Midnight Sampler is a preview of that material, nearly all of it from the band’s 1969 and 1970 tours.
At more than 70 minutes long, The Bright Midnight Sampler is hardly skimpy, but considering the magnitude of the project it’s hard to judge the entirety of the material without hearing it. Still, in and of itself, the Sampler is a very pleasant listen. The band has done a good job of balancing long, meandering Morrison epics with shorter, more accessible songs. The 16-minute version of “The End” which closes the sampler (natch) is probably for die-hard fans and depressed 13-year-olds only, but everything else on the disc sounds fresh and surprisingly current. Sound quality is excellent all the way through and remarkably consistent considering the songs were culled from multiple performances. Still the disc’s greatest asset is that it was recorded early in the Doors career, before Jim Morrison became irredeemably self-indulgent. For this reason alone the Sampler is preferable to the long available Hollywood Bowl disc, which focuses on material from the Door’s final record, LA Woman.
Though I doubt The Bright Midnight Sampler will be of much interest to non Doors fans, it certainly should be. Like most of their albums, it makes a strong case against the characterization of the Doors as mere vehicles for Jim Morrison’s minstrelsy. The time is right to reassess the Doors’ legacy. With the help of Oliver Stone and a variety of breathless paperback biographies, Jim Morrison is sure to remain an antihero to a certain type of disaffected teenager; this recording is another step in making a musical case for the Doors as something more than that.