Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Morrison, not to praise him…
Well, at least the carefully manufactured, sacrilegious icon, fashioned from that most contemptible of forces: the artless imitators who seek to project their own half baked and unrealized rock star fantasies and, of course, the soulless record execs, whose gluttony launched a thousand greatest hits collections. And it hasn’t exactly helped that the people who claim to love him best have done the most to consummate and capitalize on the pseudo-mythology of a man who somehow gets younger every year. Death has been very good to Morrison, but it’s been even better for those who continue to profit from his fleeting but fruitful body of work. Not to mention his body. With that in mind, the following words will be eschewed for the duration of this discussion: Shaman, Dionysus, Rimbaud, God, Satan, and Witchcraft.
When it comes to the Doors, the world generally breaks into two camps: those who hate them and those who do not. Amongst those who do not, there are those who like them, and those who really like them. And then there are the real fans. This is not an uncommon spectrum for any well-known band, but considering the Doors released their last official album in 1971, their continued relevance—and the cult of personality disorder Morrison still enjoys—is impressive and more than a little inscrutable (and, for the haters, more annoying than anything else). Amongst the critics, the so-called experts, there tends to be an increasing dichotomy: those who regard Morrison as a poetic genius (or better still, a poet), a Lord Byron of the late 20th century; and those who actually read some poetry after high school and consider him a clown, a poseur whose laughable lyrics don’t merit a second thought.
The reality, as it often insists on being, remains pretty squarely in the middle. Compared to the Romantic poets, like Shelley or Keats, Morrison ain’t much (then again, who is?); although, compared to the Beats—as he often is—he comes off okay. And if that assessment tends to underscore the observation that the Beats weren’t all that, so be it. The only pertinent criteria should be: when measured against rock musicians who came before and after him, Morrison more than holds his own. The list of articulate wordsmiths who tower above the Lizard King is substantial, but the number of those who cower beneath him is incalculable.
And so, in spite of Oliver Stone’s best efforts to immortalize a few of his favorite things (About Jim Morrison? About the ‘60s? About himself? All of the above?), he mostly achieved—in his inimitably over-the-top way—the opposite of what he ostensibly intended: a hysterically sophomoric parody that celebrated virtually every irritating trait that made Morrison an insufferable man-child much of the time. Suffice it to say, his tantrums as well as the evidence of his untapped potential have been abundantly documented by a variety of individuals who, unlike Stone, had the advantage of actually being there, and being sane.
Morrison, like Hemingway, or (insert-name-of-notoriously-tortured-artist), had periods of productivity that preceded or followed, or happened alongside the drugging, drinking, and debauchery. Not focusing on (or even acknowledging) his more mundane—if lucid—moments is somewhat understandable given the constraints of a two hour movie, but it does any artist a considerable disservice to trivialize the efforts and industry that commonly accompany even the slightest of achievements. To be certain, Morrison was seldom sober in the recording studio, but that’s one reason he wasn’t a novelist. It is also why he is no longer alive. Oliver Stone’s ass-backwards hagiography is a quintessential slab of outsider’s groupie-envy, and despite what he may actually have intended, he turned his hero into a rather uninteresting cartoon character. In the final analysis, Morrison may have cared too little about his life, but he cared a great deal about his work.
Did you know freedom exists in a schoolbook?
Did you know madmen are running our prisons
Within a jail, within a gaol
Within a white free protestant maelstrom?
We’re perched headlong on the edge of boredom.
The Doors: The Complete Illustrated Lyrics is one of the best books that should have been around 20 years or so ago. Today, every compact disc—particularly the classic rock back catalog favorites, which have now been re-remastered for ever-enhanced sound quality and company profits—comes with lyrics, and pictures. In the rare exceptions to this rule, the curious listener can painlessly peruse an entire band’s history online. Back in the mid-‘80s, more money was apparently spent on the elaborate full color cardboard cases that compact discs came in, which most people promptly threw away after tearing open. And the “booklets” inside the actual jewel case were mostly two-sided inserts with a miniature replica of the album cover and song titles. Often, the task of ascertaining the lyrics of an elusive song was a sort of adolescent quest for the Holy Grail. All of which is to say, it’s debatable what makes this kind of book worthwhile in our box set, official and unofficial website, Google-ready moment in time. Fortunately for those on the fence, The Complete Illustrated Lyrics is beefed up with well-intended essays and (mostly insufferable) recollections from many of the unusual suspects, waxing moronic about Mr. Mojo Risin’, that psychedelic seeker, all those clown tears that saved every life but his own, etc. One shudders to be a fly on the wall during a potential tete-a-tete between Oliver Stone and (Doors producer) Paul Rothchild; in fact, I believe Jean Paul Sartre wrote a play about it. Listen: “Insanity of course is a symbolic death ... and the cleansing is a rebirth. And then of course there’s the incredible Oedipal thing ...” If this sample (courtesy of Rothchild) is your cup of treacle, there’s plenty of pleasure to be found in these pages.
Still, all the lyrics are included and should impart sufficient impetus for any lapsed fan to return to the only thing that matters—the songs. The other problem, of course, with presenting the Doors’ albums on the page is that it has the unfortunate effect of isolating the words from the music, which considerably lessens their distinctive force.
Well, I woke up this mornin’ and got myself a beer
The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.
Morrison was not a poet. Then again, Charles Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg were not rock stars. It might be reasonable, if a bit facile, to propose that more than a few poets would kill for the type of audience popular singers have at their disposal. And that is where the music comes into play: crucial as, say, Michael Stipe, David Byrne, and Peter Gabriel’s lyrics are to our collective consciousness, it’s unlikely we’d ever have heard of them if they’d published their work in chap books instead of pop albums. In Morrison’s case, some of the lyrics can stand-alone and do work rather nicely being read:
The cars crawl past all stuffed with eyes
Street lights shed their hollow glow
Your brain seems bruised with numb surprise
Still one place to go, still one place to go.
On the other hand, while “The Crystal Ship” is interesting, if somewhat slight, on the page, one listen elucidates, instantly, why the song remains enigmatic and enchanting four decades on—the mood created by the music (Ray Manzarek’s subtle organ and solemn piano accompaniment; Robby Krieger’s almost ethereal guitar notes and John Densmore’s always intelligent percussion): the rush and remorse inextricable from day-to-day existence; the deadening of the senses through chemical escape; the illusory respite from reality that is more or less Morrison’s epitaph; all the pain and unfulfilled promise of his life, along with much of the glory and redemptory grace, somehow contained in one song (all in all, a pretty impressive use of two minutes and 40 seconds).
There are, to be sure, throwaway moments—at least lyrically speaking—on each of the first two albums, but the group did a great deal of its abiding work in 1967 when the svelte, leather-clad lead singer was at the top of his game. The Doors stands tall as one of the seminal debuts in rock and roll, but the aptly titled Strange Days remains a most righteous second act. Its centerpiece, “When The Music’s Over”, clocking in at over 11 minutes and closing the second side (like “The End” from the first album), supplies the lion’s share of sound bites for any half-serious discussion of the Doors. But it is the succinct “People Are Strange”, an astonishing portrait of alienation (misleadingly merry, due to the carnivalesque music—one of the rare instances where Ray Manzarek did not provide an appropriate backdrop for Morrison’s words) that could work as well, or better, in black and white:
People are strange, when you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly, when you’re alone
Women seem wicked, when you’re unwanted
Streets are uneven, when you’re down.
One can’t help but wonder: if this song featured only the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar with harmonica-embellished choruses, and was sung badly (in other words, if it was a Bob Dylan tune) it would—justifiably—be heralded as a masterpiece.
The third and fourth albums (Waiting for the Sun and The Soft Parade) proved difficult to record, mostly due to the singer’s intransigence, and his antics are not so lovingly rehashed in many of the books’ interviews. Still, each record has more than a few remarkable moments. It is a shame that the trite pop confection “Hello, I Love You” is their most popular song from 1968, when a song that actually articulates the broiling undercurrents of that year as well as any other, “Five To One”, warrants that acclaim:
Five to one baby, one in five
No one here gets out alive…
The old get old and the young get stronger
May take a week and it may take longer.
That sentiment certainly holds up better than most of the peace and love sonic popcorn that permeated the scene. Like Arthur Lee (his LA neighbor and early hero), Morrison should get props for articulating—if not embracing—the sinister elements buried beneath this not-so-soft parade. When he set sober eyes on a target, Morrison was as adept as anyone at cataloging the banal and the exotic, the perverse and the pathetic; when he set his sights on the weird circus of the late ‘60s, some of the images are at once unsettling and splendid:
Large buxom obese queens
Garden hogs and cunt veterans
Quaint cabbage saints
Shit hoarders and individualists
Drag strip officials
Tight-lipped losers and
Lustful fuck salesmen
My militant dandies:
All strange order of monsters
Hot on the trail of the woodbine
We welcome you to our procession.
To his considerable credit, Morrison the artist constantly looked around him for inspiration, and mercifully little naval-gazing made its way into his writing. At the risk of channeling Paul Rothchild, it seems reasonable to suggest that in constantly instigating what could easily have been a safer, static existence (he was rich, after all), Morrison always shattered the display case and did not shy away from the broken glass; in fact, it inspired some of his lasting lyrics:
Can you find me soft asylum
I can’t make it any more
The man is at the door ...
All our lives we sweat and save
Building for a shallow grave.
And, from the same album ( The Soft Parade ), special mention must be made for the short but stunning “Wild Child”, a mini tour de force that truly straddles the line between gibberish and genius. Or, maybe it’s simply the band: at their tightest with the ever reliable Densmore dropping bombs in the background and some sick slide guitar from Krieger, perhaps just about any lyrics would sound cool:
With hunger at her heels, freedom in her eyes
She dances on her knees, pirate prince at her side
Wild child, full of grace
Savior of the human race.
Judge for yourself what that means, but it’s undeniably Jim Morrison.
Coincidentally or not, as Morrison grew a beard (and a gut), and liquor replaced LSD as his preferred source of inspiration (or escape), his lyrics became less surreal and he often wrote with precision and clarity. One of the band’s best moments, from Morrison Hotel, is a blues song that radiates sex, power, and paranoia while still exuding coolness:
I’m a spy in the house of love
I know the dreams that you’re dreaming of
I know the words that you long to hear
I know your deepest, secret fear.
And on their last album, LA Woman , Morrison again gets back to basics of the blues, once more interlacing the bitter with the sweet:
The cars hiss by my window
Like the waves down on the beach
I got this girl beside me
But she’s out of reach.
By the end, Morrison was a million miles from the blue bus and riding the snake to the lake, and if he’d abused his body (he was 27 going on 60 when he finally cancelled his subscription to the resurrection), he had lived and learned along the way. His ultimate statement was a love song about, and for, the city of angels, his adopted hometown that made him immortal:
Drivin’ down your freeway
Midnight alleys roam
Cops in cars, the topless bars
Never saw a woman so alone
Motel money, murder madness
Let’s change the mood from glad to sadness.
The Doors, By The Doors is another in an endless series of collector’s items, and it’s safe to assume that there is a readymade audience for these types of commodities or they would cease to exist. This latest installment, for what it’s worth, is the first such collection featuring only the band and its associates (hence, The Doors by The Doors). It also includes, for the first time, extended commentary from his family, and it is both touching and refreshing to see that his estranged father finally accepted—and acknowledged—his famous son’s legacy. In addition to gorgeous full-page color photos, there are interviews (culled from past and present) that provide useful and often illuminating context for the times and circumstances in which the albums were created.
So: these books are not required reading, even for more-than-casual fans, but isn’t it for the much more than casual fans that coffee table productions with never before seen pictures are assembled? This is not the end, my friends: despite misguided movies and the money-driven marketing machine, the music does endure simply because it continues to resonate with an always expanding audience. Forty years after “Light My Fire” Jim Morrison, to borrow an infamous headline, is still hot, he is still sexy, and he is still dead. But mostly, the Doors are very much alive.