The Very Best... We Mean It This Time!
Okay, yes, they’re one of the greatest rock bands of all time, but do we really need another repackaging of the Doors? We’ve already got a Greatest Hits and a double-CD set called The Best of the Doors, along with innumerable box sets and live albums—and you can bet a lot of old fans are still hoarding their vinyl copies of 13 and Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine, the original “best of” albums that have sadly gone out of print to make way for the more recent packages. Isn’t this enough for a band that only managed to record six studio albums before its lead singer famously drank himself to death and croaked in a Paris bathtub?
Apparently not. Now, the greedy bastards at Elektra and their mega-corporate parent AOL Time Warner have seen fit to grace classic rock fans with The Very Best of the Doors, the “very” presumably included to distinguish this leaner, single disc set from its double-CD cousin The Best of the Doors, which has been kicking around since the ‘80s and has nearly the same song list. The question is: why? Why did Elektra release this? Did some marketing survey reveal that there are fans out there who simply won’t pay the extra six bucks for a double album? And why couldn’t those fans just go out and buy The Doors’ Greatest Hits? I don’t get it—but maybe that’s why I had such a short-lived career in music marketing and promotions.
But let’s put aside my distaste for corporate rock for a moment and look at whether The Very Best of the Doors is indeed any good. Well, compared to The Doors’ Greatest Hits, it’s excellent—there’s more material here, and “The End” is included in all its sprawling Dionysian glory instead of the pathetic Apocalypse Now edit featured on that earlier release. It’s probably also a little bit better than The Best of the Doors (that’s the double-CD package—stay with me, now). Casual fans can do without several of the tracks on that earlier compilation, like the rambling rock poetry of “When the Music’s Over” (essentially a weaker follow-up to “The End”), as well as such mediocre numbers as “Waiting for the Sun”, “Spanish Caravan”, and their insufferably hokey Vietnam protest song, “The Unknown Soldier”. But then again, this time around the Elektra execs have chosen to include “Twentieth Century Fox”, a psychedelic rock ditty that’s such a throwaway the Doors themselves chose to exclude it from their first greatest hits package, 13.
This is the problem typical of so-called “best of” packages for most great bands, especially the ones who don’t always create radio-friendly material (and despite the popularity of stuff like “Light My Fire”, there are plenty of Doors tunes that you’ll probably never hear on the airwaves). There’s always going to be one or two tracks you could live without, and a lot of material excluded that will have you scratching your head. Where, for example, is the seductive menace of “Moonlight Drive”? The leering cabaret grotesquery of “Whiskey Bar (Alabama Song)”? The swampy swagger of “Five to One”, which featured one of Jim Morrison’s best vocal performances? Where, in particular, is the blues-rock masterpiece “Roadhouse Blues”, one of the Doors’ best studio jams, or even the raucous live version featured on The Doors in Concert? Here we get a different live take on which the band sounds tired, with guitarist Robbie Krieger delivering a sleepy solo and Morrison intoning the words like he’s forgotten what they mean. If you’re familiar with any of these songs, and love them as much as I do, my advice is to go out and buy the Doors’ original albums. Sure, they’re famously uneven affairs—for every blistering “Roadhouse Blues”, there’s a simpering “Blue Sunday”, a pretentious “Queen of the Highway”—but it’s worth it, I think, for any halfway serious fan to own all the songs, in the order in which the band originally put them together.
For everyone else, The Very Best of the Doors is as good an overview as any of the band’s biggest hits and most important songs, all in their original album versions (offending lyrics like “She gets high” on the song “Break on Through”—which still gets truncated to “She get” on most radio stations—are here in all their anti-establishment glory). There’s the pop majesty of Ray Manzarek’s organ on “Light My Fire”, the creepy jazz-rock of “Riders on the Storm”, the raunchy blues of “Back Door Man”, the theatrical raga rock epic “The End” (yes, all eleven minutes of it), and all those great ‘60s pop tunes that classic rock radio just can’t seem to get enough of—“Love Her Madly”, “Love Me Two Times”, “Hello, I Love You”. Even the much-derided “Touch Me”, with its overwrought horns and string section, is back around for another greatest-hits appearance—it was a top ten song, dammit, so it’s gotta turn up here, no matter how much it sucks.
And, of course, there’s the gloomy, riveting “L.A. Woman”, which just may be the Doors signature track, with all the band’s members (including two unsung session men, bassist Jeffy Scheff and rhythm guitarist Marc Benno) jamming together masterfully over the song’s simple three-chord blues riff, propelling Morrison’s oft-repeated lyrical portrait of L.A.‘s dark side (so oft-repeated it’s become a cliché, but still sounds like it could have been written last week—“Are you a lucky little lady in the city of light? / Or just another lost angel / City of night”) down a dark tunnel of echoing barrelhouse piano licks and grinding guitar chords. I find “L.A. Woman” to be a kind of Rorschach test for Doors listeners—most people who love the band rate it among their best songs, and most folks who can’t stand the Doors’ particular brand of rock-god pretension find “L.A. Woman” unlistenable. To me it’s the kind of song only bands like the Doors and U2, so utterly determined to Make a Statement, have ever been able to pull off—a song so pretentious it actually becomes unpretentious, laying forth its message in terms so direct and simple (cryptic “Mr. Mojo Risin’” bridge aside) that it succeeds where many another subtler track has failed.
My other favorite moment on The Very Best of the Doors is an unjustly overlooked track called “Peace Frog” off the band’s fifth and bluesiest album, Morrison Hotel;. Probably not as well-known simply because it’s too intense for rock radio, “Peace Frog” is a masterpiece, with an irresistible rock groove led by Krieger’s scorching guitar and some of the creepiest, most hallucinatory lyrics Morrison ever penned (“Blood screamed the veins as they chopped off her fingers / Blood will be born in the birth of a nation / Blood is the rose of mysterious union”). Kudos to whoever decided to include it on a greatest hits compilation.
It’s also worth mentioning the other track here that doesn’t appear on any other current Doors “best” package: “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)”, a swampy blues-rock jam accompanying some of Morrison’s more interesting spoken word ramblings (“Out here on the perimeter there are no stars / Out here we is stoned / Immaculate”). It’s a cool song, but hardly as essential as “Peace Frog” or the more familiar tracks on this disc. Presumably it was chosen as a good example of the Doors jamming to Morrison’s poetry, and indeed it’s certainly a lot better than, say, the unbearably pretentious “Horse Latitudes”, or the doggerel Morrison’s bandmates posthumously set to dreary jazz-rock fusion on An American Prayer.
So is The Very Best of the Doors worth owning? It probably comes down to “Peace Frog”, actually. If you agree with me that “Peace Frog” ranks right up with there with “L.A. Woman”, “Roadhouse Blues”, “Hello, I Love You” and “Break on Through” as the Doors’ best work, then this is the first time all those tracks have appeared together on a single disc. On the other hand, if you really can’t live without “Five to One” and “The Unknown Soldier” (or the studio version of “Roadhouse Blues”, for that matter), by all means cough up the extra bucks and go get the Best Of double CD. It just depends on which tracks you judge to be more important.
The rest of us can go out and buy the original albums—and mourn the loss of those earlier “best of” packages, 13 and Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine, which for my money were better than any of the current best-of Doors compilations—even better, in some ways, than the original albums themselves. These two early forays into repackaging the Doors catalog went about it in a way that actually made sense of the band’s conflicting impulses toward art and pop. 13, released in 1970 to tide fans over while the band labored over their sixth and final album, L.A. Woman, showcased the Doors as creators of great pop songs, culling all the catchiest tunes from their first five releases. Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine, released shortly after Morrison’s death, flaunted the band’s more experimental, arty side, highlighting poetic epics like “The End” and “When the Music’s Over” as well as some of their weirder, moody little numbers like “The WASP” and “End of the Night”. Compared to these collections, The Very Best of the Doors is as much of a mess as the Doors’ own albums were, although that very messiness may, in the end, better reflect the spirit of this most Dionysian of rock bands. Whether you buy this latest greatest hits collection or not, I encourage anyone who’s not familiar with the Doors outside of their oldies radio classics to hear more of them. Love them or hate them, their wild pretensions and stylistic excesses really did redefine what rock ‘n’ roll was capable of.