Graded on a Curve:
The Doors, (s/t)

What is there left to say about Jim Morrison? Most people have long since pigeon-holed him as either the Dionysian poet/seer in tight leather pants or the poetaster who got fat and died, his perfect male beauty ruined by alcoholic bloat and a beard that would have looked right at home on the faces of any one of my old pig farmer drug buddies. In short, folks tend to be either for or agin’ him, unless, like me, you’re one of those people who think he was all of the above, and more.

Morrison is a strange case, but those were strange days, and I admire his homicidal psychodramas and weird scenes inside the gold mine because they captured what it was like to live in a sunny LA paradise in whose shadows lurked dark predators and very scary cults, one of which happened to be the Manson Family. Morrison was a flower child only in the sense that his taste in florists ran to the French poet Charles “The Flowers of Evil” Baudelaire; as he famously said, “I am interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos–especially activity that seems to have no meaning. It seems to me to be the road toward freedom.” Then again, he’s the same guy who said, “Some of the worst mistakes of my life have been haircuts.”

There are those who argue that the early Morrison got by on his model good looks, but the guy was a far better poet than, say, Patti Smith, and like Smith he was a mesmerizing performer, falling into captivating trances and flinging himself about like a man possessed, at least until demon alcohol really got its claws into him. At which point he fell into booze-soaked rambling, or face first on the stage floor, and got arrested for exposing himself in Florida, where the only thing you’re allowed to expose is the fact that you were dumb enough to move to Florida in the first place. And despite his wisecracks—“Actually I don’t remember being born,” he said, “it must have happened during one of my blackouts”—things weren’t funny any more.

The Doors released six LPs—no one in their right mind would count the two albums the surviving band members released after Morrison’s July 1971 death in a Paris bathtub—between 1967 and 1971, and I’m partial to their first (1967’s The Doors) and last (1971’s L.A. Woman). But if I think the latter may be just a tad bit better than the former, I have a sentimental attachment to the former because my first real exposure to rock music came at the sun-baked Littlestown Swimming Pool, where “Light My Fire” seemed to be the only song played over the pool’s loudspeakers during the summer of 1967. I was nine, a little cretin who wallowed in the shallow end because I couldn’t even swim, but “Light My Fire” spoke to me in an occult language that mesmerized me but eluded translation. There was some dark something in its every note—something that flitted about in my mind like the pool’s ubiquitous population of dragonflies—which I wouldn’t truly understand until I found (Yay!) drugs.

Morrison lays out his Rimbaudian program in the LP’s opening cut. “Break on through to the other side,” he sings, and the urgency in his voice is real. He wants to kick down the doors of perception and transcend the quotidian limitations of this mortal coil, and the band plays with the same intensity as their vocalist. Keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger, and drummer John Densmore keep the tempo frantic as Morrison sings about how everybody loves his baby because “She get high/She get high/She get high/She get high!” Meanwhile, the funky “Soul Kitchen” highlights a slinky keyboard riff by Manzarek while Morrison, a nomadic lush who tended to wash up on whatever shoals the oceans of alcohol he consumed left him, pleads, “Let me sleep all night/In your soul kitchen.” The song has its mysteries; what, for example, does he mean by that “Learn to forget”? And why is Krieger’s solo so lame? But they’re not as mysterious as the slow and lovely “The Crystal Ship,” which highlights Morrison’s moody vocals and Manzarek’s piano. It’s all well and good until Morrison gets to the final verse, when he sings, “The crystal ship is being filled/A thousand girls, a thousand thrills,” which makes him sound like either (take your pick) a horny high-school sophomore or a Muslim suicide bomber contemplating Heaven. In any case it doesn’t exactly speak to Morrison’s emotional maturity, or his desire for “revolt, disorder, chaos.”

Far more embarrassing is “Twentieth Century Fox,” which boasts sophomoric lyrics and is based on a bad pun and would be a total loss if it weren’t for the cool garage rock groove into which the band set the lyrics. Fortunately the band’s next move has them taking a flight through time and space to pre-WWII Germany and Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar).” Set to a good Bavarian oom-pah beat Morrison sings about how he’s either going to find a taproom or croak. Why? You know why, sings Morrison. It’s the same reason he needs to be shown the way to the next little girl. I suspect it has something to do with his ma dying.

As for “Light My Fire,” what can I say? Everybody knows it, and makes fun of the part about wallowing in the mire, and Morrison seems to want to go down in flames but can’t because Manzarek’s goddamn organ solo is so long Morrison can’t strike a match in edgewise. And when Manzarek finally winds things up Krieger takes over, playing over Manzarek and Densmore’s big drum crash. And what makes this song so beguiling is not its hypnotic instrumental section but the fact that, while it seems the epitome of psychedelic rock, Morrison brings no peace and love to the orgy. No, he wants to preside over his own auto-da-fé, or more accurately have his girl set the fire that will make their love a funeral pyre. Talk about being ahead of your time. In 1967 you didn’t have funeral pyres in rock songs, or at least the ones you heard every day while standing waist deep in water at the Littlestown pool.

“Back Door Man” is a great tune, thanks in most part to the Lizard King’s cries, screams, and ejaculations. He’s a sly dog, whose tastes run not to pork and beans but to chicken, the deeper meaning of which eludes me but which the little girls understand. Suffice it to say we’re talking about the kind of chicken that comes without wings. Meanwhile the band keeps the song in the pocket, as Morrison, whose vocals have never been so commanding, commences testifying as the song comes to an end. “I Looked at You” is something different, namely a bona fide perky pop song with lots of furious drumming and Morrison growing more agitated as he goes on, crying it’s too late to turn back, and maybe this isn’t just a normal pop song after all. Instead it leads to a host of questions. Where are they going? And why is it too late to turn back? Is this some kind of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” scenario? Damn you Jim Morrison for kicking the bucket in Paris! Because you could have answered these and many other questions, a fat shadow of your former self, in an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music.

“End of the Night” is a haunting and atmospheric tune, with Krieger and Manzarek keeping things moody, creepy almost, while Morrison leads us down a ghost highway “to the end of the night.” Most likely a reference to Louis Ferdinand Celine’s blackly humorous 1932 novel Voyage au bout de la nuit, it features yet another semi-lame guitar solo by Krieger before the band kicks things up just a notch, while Morrison sings, “Some are born to sweet delight/Some are born to the endless night.” There’s no doubt which class Morrison falls into, although he promptly turns around on the reeling and almost Byrdsian “Take It As It Comes,” which features a cool Manzarek solo and doesn’t have a single doom-obsessed line in it. Why, Morrison even sings, “Take it as it comes/Specialize in having fun.” Is this the dark killer of “The End” talking? Or the Monkees? Whichever, it’ one damned catchy tune.

“The End” is one of rock’s greatest songs; an example of pure Oedipal dread, it’s menacing from beginning to end, and stands in stark contrast to the flower child optimism of the time. Densmore’s kicks up a rumpus on drums and Krieger (a guitarist I don’t usually rate very highly) plays brilliantly haunting figures. Meanwhile Morrison throws out cryptic symbols and phrases: the blue bus, the West is the best, the snake that is seven miles long. “All the children are insane,” he sings, and one can’t help but imagine the Manson Family again.

On this one he truly is a seer; despite what the Who said the kids weren’t alright, and within two years the Age of Aquarius would be on the autopsy table and there would be terror in the canyons. Meanwhile the sound builds and builds while Morrison, in trance mode, sings that there’s danger on the edge of town and weird scenes inside the gold mine. “Driver where you taking us?” he sings from inside the blue bus, before going into the darkest moment in all of rock. It’s a masterpiece in miniature, his depiction of the killer going from room to room, laying waste to his own family. And has there ever been as blood-curdling a moment in rock as the one where Morrison transforms that “fuck” aimed at his mother into a deranged and demonic howl? After that the song takes off, with Morrison shouting “Come on, yeah!” and emitting guttural snarls and “fucks” as the sound builds to a climax, and what a climax! And regardless of whether you consider it brilliant or overcooked, there has rarely been a rock song so ambitious, or nakedly honest; if Morrison isn’t dredging this shit up from the deepest and darkest recesses of his benighted soul, you can call me Mike the Headless Chicken.

Unlike, say, Bob Dylan, Morrison was very much a product and citizen of a specific locale, namely Los Angeles and its environs. Yet he was also the stranger of “People Are Strange,” and his status as a disabused onlooker who possessed the ability to see beyond L.A.’s fabulous and phony façade—he would have undoubtedly agreed with Walter Mizner’s description of Hollywood as “a tour through a sewer in a glass-bottomed boat”—makes him as much the poet laureate of El Lay as Lou Reed was of New York. Sure, the Doors released their fair share of over-baked crap, and Morrison was hit or miss as a poet, and we’ll never know whether he had any more great songs in him—that question was put to rest forever in a Paris bathtub—but songs like “The End” establish him as one of the greats.

Whatever else you say about him, he was pure Id, and it doesn’t matter much whether his self-immolation was the final act in a deliberately Alfred Jarry-like play of absurd contempt for the banality of life or the equally banal demise of a boozer and doper who simply went the way such types are wont to go. As he himself put it, “I see myself as an intelligent, sensitive human, with the soul of a clown which forces me to blow it at the most important moments.” In other words he was a futilist, and a deadly serious jester, and I doubt we’ll see his likes again.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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