Counterbalance 24: The Doors - 'The Doors'

Before you slip into unconsciousness, Counterbalance has put together a few thoughts on the Doors' 1967 debut album. It's number 24 on the Big List.

The Doors
The Doors


4 January 1967

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 heyday 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 years since Jim Morrison lit out for rock 'n' 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 Los Angeles 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. It 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. Its Manzarek's magical fingers that helped define the Doors. Without him, they are just another four-piece roaming the Sunset 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 Republic decadence and Germanic grooves to the Clearasil set, is several shades of awesome.

Mendelsohn: I could do without "Alabama Song". That song always seemed entirely out of place and always conjured 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 record, and you've got a reasonably reliable listening experience. We've dealt with collections 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 that he was a terrible poet). Yes, you will get the whole Dionysus/Shaman imagery. Still, 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 tremendous bait-and-switch tactic. The Doors' highest 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 enjoying The Doors. As long as I picture a hard-working band plying their trade on the LA 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 freakouts 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 undoubtedly a whole school of rock thought that holds 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.

* * *

This article originally published on 11 March 2011.






Zadie Smith's 'Intimations' Essays Pandemic With Erudite Wit and Compassion

Zadie Smith's Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters.


Phil Elverum Sings His Memoir on 'Microphones in 2020'

On his first studio album under the Microphones moniker since 2003, Phil Elverum shows he has been recording the same song since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s. Microphones in 2020 might be his apex as a songwriter.


Washed Out's 'Purple Noon' Supplies Reassurance and Comfort

Washed Out's Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.


'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.


Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".


12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.


Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reinvigorates the Classic "Dust My Broom" (premiere)

Still going strong at 86, blues legend Bobby Rush presents "Dust My Broom" from an upcoming salute to Mississippi blues history, Rawer Than Raw, rendered in his inimitable style.


Folk Rock's the Brevet Give a Glimmer of Hope With "Blue Coast" (premiere)

Dreamy bits of sunshine find their way through the clouds of dreams dashed and lives on the brink of despair on "Blue Coast" from soulful rockers the Brevet.


Michael McArthur's "How to Fall in Love" Isn't a Roadmap (premiere)

In tune with classic 1970s folk, Michael McArthur weaves a spellbinding tale of personal growth and hope for the future with "How to Fall in Love".


Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.


The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.


Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.


Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.


Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.


The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.


Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.


Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.


Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.