Counterbalance No. 24: 'The Doors'

Before you slip into unconsciousness, Counterbalance's Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger have put together a few thoughts on the Doors' 1967 debut album. It's number 24 on the Big List.

Mendelsohn: The Doors' self-titled debut is one of those albums where I understand why it's in the Top 25—they surfaced in the hey-day of rock, they had a different approach to the music and they had a charismatic singer whose legacy overshadowed the music—but I wouldn't have been surprised/upset if it ranked in around the mid-50s or even out of the Top 100. I don't want to use the word 'overrated' by itself so how about the compound adjective 'slightly overrated'?

Klinger: Ah, Mendelsohn, ours is not to question the level of rated-ness. The Acclaimed Music site has mathematically determined the place of The Doors in the canon, and somehow the album has consistently maintained some degree of cachet. But I see what you're saying as far as the Doors as a group are concerned. It seems that their stock has fluctuated wildly in the forty years since Jim Morrison lit out for rock & roll heaven. And that's not altogether surprising to me.

Ever since I went through my brief but obligatory teenage-boy Doors phase, I've vacillated between thinking that the group was a solid L.A. rock combo and a pitiful laughingstock whose sound was one step above a lounge act. "The End" has, to my ears, sounded both chilling and absurd. And we've already established what we think about Jimbo's skills as a poet.

Mendelsohn: I think an album's placement on the list is always fair game. Are we not critiquing the critics' critique? But you are dead on about the Doors. These days my Doors needle is sitting squarely "pitiful laughingstock" red area. It's been stuck there for a while now. I used to love the Doors, but then I also used to be a teenage boy. Seems to me this album may simply be riding the nostalgia vote.

Klinger: I worry that people will critique my critique of the critics' critique, and I'm a tender blossom at heart, Mendelsohn. But you're right in that most rock critics used to be teenage boys, which is a theme that I think we'll be revisiting a lot here. I was all set for this to be a Lizard King-mocking free-for-all, but a funny thing happened on the way to the celebrity roast: I found myself kind of digging this silly, silly record.

It turns out that, aside from "Light My Fire" and "The End", which for me remain as bloated as, well, Jim Morrison circa 1970, The Doors is an album of surprisingly tight little numbers. Small enough doses that even Ray Manzarek's cheesy organ stylings don't get too annoying. Weird scenes, indeed.

Mendelsohn: Just for empirical purposes, please list the tight numbers. Minus "Light My Fire" and "The End", I have four and that's being generous. But I don't think this album suffers from Manzarek's organ. In fact, its Manzarek's magical fingers that helped define the Doors. Without him, they are just another four-piece roaming the Strip trying to keep their impulse-driven lead singer in check. There aren't many bands that have placed so much emphasis on an instrument like an organ and gotten away with it. The only other record I own that predominantly features the organ is an album whose songs are more at home during a baseball game than at a rock concert.

"Light My Fire" may be bloated, but that opening organ riff, for good or bad, is an unmistakable piece of rock history.

Klinger: Oh, I'll give you the fact that the kick-off organ intro to "Light My Fire" is like a splash of cold water—one of the greatest ten seconds in all of rock. But after six minutes of the LP version it gets to be more like an incessant sleety drizzle, especially as the solos continue to wander along.

But OK, for the sake of empiricism, the tight numbers are . . . geez, pretty much everything except the tracks I mentioned. Sure, "The Crystal Ship" sets you up for a ponderous drag, but then you're in and out in two and a half minutes. And the mere fact that they even recorded Brecht-Weill's "Alabama Song", bringing Weimar decadence and Germanic grooves to the Clearasil set, is several shades of awesome.

Mendelsohn: I could do without "Alabama Song". That song always seemed completely out of place and always conjures up a mental image of the Doors wearing lederhosen. The only thing people wearing lederhosen should be allowed to do is dance in a circle and eat sausage. And speaking of unintentional double entendres, my two favorite tight numbers on this record are "Back Door Man" and "Soul Kitchen". I think Jim would appreciate that last sentence. Either that or he'd tell me he'd like to narfle-mumph my mother.

Klinger: I keep my thoughts pure, Mendelsohn, so I have no idea what you're talking about (it's telling, of course, that some of the better bits of lyrical bawdiness come from Willie Dixon and Berthold Brecht). I do know, though, that "lederhosen" is German for "leather breeches". and our Jimbo was well known for his skin-tight cowhide regalia, so maybe it's all falling into place here.

Even so, it's just that sort of imagery—the Lizard King preening about in what his apologists invariably refer to as "shamanistic calls to libertine Bacchanalia" or some such nonsense—that has kept me at arm's length from this album. Separate that myth-making from the actual album and you've got a reasonably solid listening experience. We've dealt with albums where we feel that the music doesn't live up to the myth, but The Doors appears to be an album in which the myth doesn't live up to the music.

Mendelsohn: Au contraire, mon frère. The mythos surrounding Jim Morrison and the Doors may be one of the best in rock and roll history. Morrison went to great lengths to wrap himself inside of a riddle wrapped inside of an enigma. He never gave straight answers and seemed tortured by the need to create an artistic statement beyond what he could accomplish with the Doors (and despite the fact that he was a really bad poet). Yes, you will get the whole Dionysus/Shaman imagery, but in the age of Andy Warhol's disposable plastic pop art, you get a man in Morrison who seemed hell bent on connecting with his audience on a much more primal level. It was done clumsily but it appealed across gender lines: men wanted to be him, women wanted to be with him.

The Doors also weren't selling peace or rebellion like so many other bands were in those days. All Jimbo wanted to do was have a good time in the guise of some quasi-mystic experience and he suckered everyone in with a great bait-and-switch tactic. The Doors' greatest quality was their ability to walk the fine line between subversive rock band and teen pop idols, leading in radio-friendly pop songs but backing them with dirty blues numbers written around thinly-veiled sexual references. Add to that Morrison's mysterious death and a back catalog of better than decent albums and you have a pretty solid rock and roll myth.

Klinger: But in that myth lays his undoing. Once you've been baited and switched, and you realize you've been swindled, you're a lot less keen to let his myth go unchallenged. I think that's why Morrison's stock has declined somewhat, and after settling in with the album for the last couple of weeks I think the myth has proved to be a real impediment to actually enjoying the album. As long as I picture a hard-working band plying their trade on the L.A. scene I'm fine. Hilarious lyrics like "Take it as it comes / specialize in having fun" aren't upsetting, and even the (inadvertent?) absurdism of "The End" is tolerable. But once I get that image of shirtless Morrison gyrating and pontificating, all bets are off.

By the way, Mendelsohn, that's a pretty impassioned defense of the Doors for a guy whose needle is parked in the "pitiful laughingstock” zone. A bit of the teenager bubbling to the surface there?

Mendelsohn: I think the bait and switch worked but only because the lurid blues and psychedelic freak outs that followed the radio fodder were written just as well. The only real impediment to the Doors was probably Oliver Stone. Regardless, I stand by my current "laughingstock" assessment. My defense is merely out of respect for a band I used to love and the hope that many more teenagers will buy into the myth. They could do a lot worse.

Klinger: And I think that explains why this album continues to rate so highly. There's certainly a whole school of rock thought that holds true to the idea that rock is meant to be a young rebel's movement, even when those ideas are presented clumsily or in a way that could prove embarrassing should middle age take hold. You know, technically it's the same impulse that drives people to forgive the nonsense that's been built up around the Sex Pistols.

Mendelsohn: Proving my point that teenagers could do a lot worse.

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