Graded on a Curve:
The Doors,
L.A. Woman

The defining moment on what may well be The Doors’ finest album is not the brilliantly cinematic title track, or the moody and rain-drenched “Riders on the Storm.” It’s not even when Jim “Lizard King” Morrison intones the great words, “Out here on the perimeter there are no stars/Out here we is stoned… immaculate.” No, it’s the moment in the excellent “Hyacinth House” when Morrison sings, “I see the bathroom is clear.”

I love 1971’s L.A. Woman, the last Doors LP before the hard-living Jim Morrison imploded in a Paris bathtub, but have been grappling with the enigmatic words, “I see the bathroom is clear” for years. Was Morrison fucking with the minds of all those people who’d anointed him the second coming of Arthur Rimbaud? Or was he being serious, and by so doing proving beyond a doubt that he was not the second coming of Arthur Rimbaud?

The rock critic Robert Christgau—who once wrote shrewdly that Morrison’s “not the genius he makes himself out to be, so maybe his genius is that he doesn’t let his pretentions cancel out his talent”—shares my interest in the bathroom line, saying it proves that a giggling Lizard King was gleefully pulling our collective leg. (That “stronger than dirt” Morrison tosses off at the end of “Touch Me” is a further clue he was putting us on.)

All of this is just to point out that Morrison’s poetic talents have long been a source of disagreement amongst both fans and detractors. I’m of the opinion that anybody capable of coming up with a lyrical conceit as unconscionably dumb as “Twentieth Century Fox”—get it?—is unlikely to be crowned the finest American Poet since Wallace Stevens. And the phrase “mute nostril agony” doesn’t increase my assessment of his poetic skills much either. Which is not to say I don’t think Morrison had a gift. He did. Unfortunately—and he is very much like Patti Smith in this regard—he possessed the perverse knack for burying some of his best lines beneath a Mr. Ed-sized steaming pile of horseshit.

That said, he shows real promise in the slow blues “Cars Hiss by My Window,” in which he compares said hiss to the “waves down on the beach.” And on the dirty funky “The Changeling” (dig that crazy organ riff, man!) he exercises the kind of poetic restraint that make such songs as “People Are Strange” (which spits in the face of the Summer of Love and portends the paranoia to follow in the wake of Altamont and Manson) so menacingly great.

And he’s at his best on the title track and “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat).” The former is an almost cinematic example of aural noir, what with Morrison tossing off one wonderfully evocative line after another. The words “Motel, money, murder, madness” perfectly encapsulate the post-Manson gestalt of Los Angeles, as do such lines as “Cops in cars/The topless bars.” Why, you might as well be riding through Hollywood in a convertible with Mr. Mojo Risin’ himself. Another lost angel indeed.

Morrison also stretches out on “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat),” a spoken word piece backed by, can you imagine, a big beat. He’s in full shaman mode on this one, tossing off such symbolist gems as, “We have constructed pyramids in honor of our escaping/This is the land where the pharaoh died.” And you’ll rarely hear such lines as “I’ll tell you this/No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn.” I mean, the whole idea of an eternal reward forgiving anybody may be patently nonsensical but you don’t even notice, which is I suppose a point in favor of Morrison the Poet.

“Love Her Madly” is a pleasant enough trifle, and sounds like it was produced in response to a record label demand for a hit single. The only interesting thing about the relatively lackluster “Been Down So Long” is Mr. Morrison’s repeated requests for a blowjob. The excellent “The Changeling” features both Morrison and band at their finest. And while the Doors’ cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling King Snake” is a representative example of the swampy blues, I wish it would crawl a bit faster. “Riders on the Storm” is the best soundtrack to a Spaghetti Western this side of Ennio Morricone.

Morrison had mad skills but didn’t live long enough to rein in his genius and focus. On such songs as “L.A. Woman” and “The End” he proved himself to be as skilled a poet as Bob Dylan, despite the many bad lines he may have tossed off elsewhere. I am thinking of the moment in the great “Roadhouse Blues” when Morrison takes a brief detour from a truly poetic evocation of alcoholic gloom and doom to shout, “Save our cities!/Save our cities!” I mean, what’s that about? The lines shouldn’t be there, and Jim Morrison the poet should have known the lines shouldn’t be there.

No, Jim Morrison was not a great poet. But he had the makings of one. As to whether the line “I see the bathroom is clear” is proof of that, or a proof against it, is beyond me.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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