What was America’s sound in the 1960s? The reveries of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” and the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’”? The sweetness of the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar”? These were, after all, three of the decade’s biggest hits. The now-ubiquitous yellow smiley face, texted by millions every day was created in 1963, and it is perfectly in keeping with what many people still associate with the 1960s: tie-dye, Woodstock, Have A Nice Day. As The Turtles sang in 1967, “To think about the girl you love and hold her tight/ So happy together.”
Amidst it all, the debut of these lyrics: “The end of nights we tried to die/ This is the end.” Then, within a few years: “Dead president’s corpse in the driver’s car/ The engine runs on glue and tar,” and, of course, “No one here gets out alive.”
These provocations were written and sung, of course, by Jim Morrison, recorded with the Doors, taken from songs, “The End”, “Not to Touch the Earth”, and “Five to One”, respectively. Together with Morrison’s public life and prophesied but premature death, these songs represent the smiley face’s flipside, the nightmare just beneath the California dreamin’.
It’s this shadow of the Happy Together decade that Bob Batchelor explores and exposes in his smart, engaging, and at times appropriately gloomy book, Roadhouse Blues: Morrison, The Doors, and the Death Days of the Sixties. Batchelor, a prolific cultural historian and literary critic, has a wide-ranging portfolio that includes Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel, Gatsby: The Cultural History of the Great American Novel, Bob Dylan: A Biography, and many more. I’ve read his books and, in disclosure, collaborated with him on Michael Chabon’s America: Magical Words, Secret Worlds, and Sacred Spaces, and I continue to enjoy his correspondence.
Batchelor has a technique and perspective that runs through his work: paint a vivid description of what happened, but then, more than a mere journalist or biographer, delve into how it happened and then why it happened. The what is documentarian; the how, and especially the why, require the kind of analysis with imagination that Roadhouse Blues provides. Like a film, Roadhouse Blues opens with an action set piece: The Doors’ notorious 1967 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Batchelor narrates it as if in real-time, leading to the part fans know: Morrison sang the line “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher” despite being told to change it for the live performance.
That always seemed to me the quintessential rock star power move—insouciant but defiant. But, digging deeper, Batchelor turns to Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger, who thinks Morrison forgot what he was told and was —“too caught up in the moment—or maybe he wasn’t even paying attention when Sullivan’s producer asked him to [cut that line in the song]”. Batchelor, however, is reluctant to agree with Krieger’s take: “It this were gasoline,” Batchelor concludes, “Jim was willing to pull out his matches.” Light my fire indeed. So how did Morrison and the Doors come to musical arson?
Roadhouse Blues works its way back in the story, seeking, as the next chapter is titled, the “Origin Story”—as one might expect from a writer who has so thoroughly chronicled superheroes and Stan Lee. Part of thinking about the origin story of the Doors includes another staple of the Marvel comic, the “what if?” possibilities. So we learn the details of the semi-mystic, quasi-mythical meeting on a beach in California between Morrison and keyboardist Ray Manzarek.
Or did their meeting happen that way? Batchelor expounds upon the possibilities. With only two first-hand accounts to go on, history can easily become mystery. In the hands of fans, history is reduced to hagiography. With the haze of posterity, when, in retrospect, we know this chance meeting is the beginning of the Doors, and so it has to be special, it mushrooms into mythology. Batchelor maps, explores, and debunks the legends about the Doors in equal parts.
Not surprisingly, a subsequent chapter is called “Create the Myths”, but that’s certainly not all Roadhouse Blues is doing. One of Batchelor’s strengths as a writer, here and elsewhere, is that he uses his subjects’ context to provide insight. Just as often, it’s the other way around: he uses the subject as a way to understand the period. In Roadhouse Blues, Morrison and his bandmates—Manzarek, Krieger, and drummer John Densmore – each of whom plays a significant role in the book even if they’re left out of the title—are treated as real people with feelings and agency. At the same time, it feels the Doors could only have happened when they happened because of when they happened. The tension between the Doors as Destiny versus the Doors as a product of their time fuels much of the narrative.
As anyone familiar with George Lucas’ 1973 film American Graffiti can attest (its story is set in 1962 despite looking like the 1950s), what many people think of as the entirety of the 1960s arguably begins in 1966 or even as late as 1969. As Batchelor puts it, “Although we view the Sixties as an utterly radical age, looking back from a slightly different perspective, the era seems just as conservative as the 1950s.” Yet, despite the still by-and-large old-fashioned moment, the Doors broke through. Or rather, it was because of their cultural moment. They were poised to extend the limits of what was possible.
“We didn’t start out with such big ideas. We thought we were going to be just another pop group, but something happened when we recorded ‘The End’… We were playing music that would last for years, not weeks,” Batchelor quotes Morrison as saying. Further, “Jim’s lyrics, melded with the tight trio behind him, led to songs that could be at once chilling, joyful, mysterious, and dreamlike.” By 1968, two opposing forces seemed to be marshalling: the tie-dyed aftermath of the Summer of Love—exemplified by Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead—and the Doors—dark, brooding, and, as the next year would demonstrate, dangerous—who would became the hottest band in America.
In keeping with a book about a rock star who is at least as famous for his death as his life, less than halfway through Roadhouse Blues, it’s clear that Morrison will not get out alive. In addition to defying Ed Sullivan, Morrison regularly clashed with police, dabbling—and indulging—in hard drugs and drinking morning through night. Morrison was already self-destructing just two years after the Doors’ first album was released.
At a now infamous concert, as if completing the circle begun on Ed Sullivan, with “Light My Fire” playing in the background, Morrison—publicly drunk, openly cursing—urged his crowd to riot. As Batchelor narrates, “While the events leading up to Miami put him on a downward trajectory, it is hard to imagine that Jim realized he’d just lit the fuse that would ultimately destroy him.” Two years later, Jim Morrison, age 27, was dead—and here, Batchelor has no choice but to use the expected phrase—”under mysterious circumstances.”
And yet, as Roadhouse Blues concludes, perhaps thanks to the moodiness and gloominess that pervaded Morrison’s short life and the Doors’ truncated tenure, the Doors live on. The Best of the Doors, released in 1973, flopped, but The Doors Greatest Hits, released in 1980, exploded. The use of the Doors’ song “The End” in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War drama, Apocalypse Now, the publication of the first Doors biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive, a 1980s Rolling Stone cover featuring a smokin’ hot Morrison, and Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 biopic The Doors resurrected Morrison for the next generation, who got to enjoy the doomed poetry and darkness, if not the danger. Batchelor identifies with that group, discussing his motivations and ultimate fandom in Roadhouse Blues‘s Afterward and the personal final chapter. After a life of loving the music, “What still resonates,” Batchelor concludes, “is that a bright, shining flash in a young life filled with heartache and true despair led all these years later to the book you’re reading.”
In this compressed version of the Doors’ story, it becomes clear that what many of us think of as the big decade of the ‘60s was just a blip, a blink—not even a decade, just a handful of bright yet tumultuous years. The Doors’ active fame spanned less than five years, compared with the enormity of the more than five decades since Morrison’s death. For the vast majority of Doors fans, Morrison has always been a ghost, a martyr, or a symbol, never a man. And, even as a man, his life was so short, and his fame just a fraction of that.
Batchelor’s book does not try to fully de-mythologize Morrison, but he can’t quite humanize or contain him. What the author does, then, is attempt to capture “the complexity of the individual life.” This perspective still seems needed after all that’s been written about the Doors. Even as there are plenty of websites with information, Roadhouse Blues accomplishes what only a book-length work of narrative nonfiction can: a framework, a sense of deliberation and organization guided by a curious but knowledgeable host.
In the end, there remains the numinous narrative sense that everything that happened was meant to be. How else to explain the meetings, the lives, and the art? Or, more likely, that’s what it feels like to be pulled into Roadhouse Blues’ arc. It’s neither a happy face nor “Happy Together” but it might be something better: not the death days of the ‘sixties’60s, but an origin story for its long and ongoing afterlife.