On First Listen
The Doors

on First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.

Joy Division was my first rock and roll love, Ian Curtis my Kurt Cobain and Thomas Hardy rolled into one. So, if you can, imagine my horror when the last pre-suicide camera shot of 24 Hour Party People’s Curtis is our psychically ravaged singer staring down the iconic bare-chested posted of Jim Morrison.

I found myself holding a meaningless grudge against Morrison. He had taken my hero. Worse still, he was about to take a friend.

In my first year working at my college newspaper, I was lucky enough to have two mentors, the music editor, Andrew, and the arts section editor, Alex, take me under their wing. In three months they gave me The Fall, Crooked Fingers, Desire, Saint Dominic’s Preview, and The Modern Lovers. By the start of my sophomore year they were my two closest friends at the newspaper.

Alex published a column about Morrison in March of 2004. It was a witty, sly evisceration of the man he referred to as “bozo Dionysus,” full of stories about Morrison’s childhood and career—all totally unflattering, embarrassing, and destructive.

In November of that year the editors figured out that Alex had plagiarized most, if not all, of his articles. From decades old Rolling Stone reviews to chunks of Lester Bangs pieces, Alex had stolen everything from almost everyone. He was shamed, he dropped out of school, and neither Andrew nor I have seen him since.

The article that did him in? His column on Jim Morrison.

Of course, to that point, the only actual Doors music I had heard were the interfering snippets of “The End” or “Strange Days” seeping under the industrial wooden doors of my college dormitory. So when it came time to finally confront The Doors, I followed the directions of the Doors fans closest to me: I started at the beginning.

Robby Krieger and his fingertips on flamenco-aping guitar. Ray Manzarek (another “classically trained” musician) thumbing along electric pianos and organs. John Densmore apparently playing drums (lots and lots of aimless, on-beat brushing). And the man himself, the apparent American Rimbaud, Jim Morrison.

After living with them now for almost two months—begrudgingly loading them into my discman for a day’s walking commute, consciously putting on Absolutely Live when my closest friends come to my apartment for a night of Maker’s Mark and FIFA 2007, going over Morrison’s lyrics with a concerned close reading (I am a perpetual literature nerd) I usually reserve for Philip Larkin and Ezra Pound, and just trying to absorb their music in all moods (bone-tired, caffeinated, satiated, famished, academically pre-occupied, various other states of consciousness)—I can say a few confident, genuine words.

I am not on the same frequency as The Doors. They give me nothing.

Jim Morrison is not a poet. He is a barely competent lyricist. He isn't even the best songwriter in the band. I’d take the concise phraseology of Krieger’s “Light My Fire” and “Love Me Two Times”—“Love me two time, girl / One for tomorrow, one just for today”—over the Lizard King any day.

What Morrison produces are lines that teeter between glib imperatives (“It hurts to set you free / But you'll never follow me / The end of laughter and soft lies / The end of nights we tried to die”), useless, inert images (“the crystal ship is being filled / a thousand girls, a thousand thrills”) and loathsome, outdated syntax (“do you hope to pluck this dusky jewel?”).

His lyrics jarred me so much, I couldn’t imagine someone adoring The Doors without making frequent concessions for, you know, the actual words. But how can you “concede” what’s so clearly the core of the band’s presentation? In a band with no bass, Morrison’s words act in their stead—they’re the backbone. If the whole aesthetic of The Doors was a scaled-down, approachable synthesis of Black American music, “New World” music (bossa nova, etc…), and academically (read: Classical, European) trained musicians all hanging on the power of Morrison’s words, well, the rest of the band is doomed through little fault of their own. There’s just not much to hold on to.

By removing the bass guitar and having Manzarek play the bassline on organ or electric piano, there’s only faint punctuation to the music. Even on the self-titled debut, my favorite collection of the lot, Densmore is just stroking the drums, cymbals shimmering along like a painfully long sunset. He plays a weak kind of faux-Orientalism, some insipid, languid bossa nova pace here, some diluted “jazz” touches there. It’s not totally castrated drumming (he stays on beat and doesn’t botch a fill), but it’s taken a few shots to the junk.

Ray Manzarek—midnight toker, fizzy Fender Rhodes master—like Krieger and Densmore, fares best on the debut. On it, the sound that would eventually become a half-vaudeville half-opium-den piano act has a knotty, conflicted vitality. Manzarek wields his organ with old world pace tempered with an occasional bleating solo (“Light My Fire”). He’s the only player who effectively counters Morrison’s attempted aesthetic takeover. At their best, Manzarek’s bridges are baroque splashes that refresh songs (“Crystal Ship”) otherwise burdened with grainy Morrison clunkers.

Krieger too has his moments. “Five to One” hooked me most immediately of all the band’s singles (and yes, my first encounter with it was on The Blueprint), Krieger scratching out glassy, sharp riffs over the squelching back beat. He holds “I Looked at You” together by staying just a half-step off the rest of the instruments, the clusters of fingerpicks echoing in the negative space. His simple, ascending blues-rock bridge turns the queasy paranoia of “People Are Strange” into a purgatorial stomp.

Morrison’s songwriting is steeped in Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and symbolist poetry. That means it tends toward a recursive pattern: mildly surreal image-human interaction with image-sweeping, fatal statement about human condition. It was a great rest stop in the arc of European verse, and it’s impossible to figure contemporary verse in almost any Latinate language without it, but Morrison doesn’t just wash himself in the symbolist pool, he swallows gallons of it, pisses it out and goes back in for more.

The closest he gets to lyrical are the drunken, hooted monologues on Absolutely Live: “the snake was pale gold, glazed, and shrunken; we were afraid to touch it.”

It’s a different pang The Doors give me now. I thought they were a dry, trumped-up bar act who coasted on the gimmick of bass-less rock and got far, far too much credit for ripping off William Blake. Now as much as it hurt, I can finally say I know The Doors and they really don’t bother me much. It’s only one man I’ve got a problem with.

The Best of The Doors
Absolutely Live
The Doors
Waiting For The Sun
L.A. Woman

By: Evan McGarvey
Published on: 2006-12-07
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