Monday, July 20, 2015

The Doors, 50 Years Later: An Appreciation

"[Music in the future] might rely heavily on electronics, tapes, I can envision maybe one person with a lot of machines, tapes and electronics set up, singing or speaking and using machines."  -- Jim Morrison, age 25, in 1969

Photo credit: Henry Diltz.

The Doors, 50 Years Later: An Appreciation

By Michael Aushenker

You know that age-old question “Beatles or Stones?” My answer has forever been The Doors.
Of course, there is no right answer. Both question and answer are highly subjective.
And yet, even if you don’t enjoy their music, it’s undeniable that the Venice-formed Doors were one of the most important and influential rock bands in history.
Fifty years ago this summer, a chance encounter on Venice Beach between a pair of freshly graduated UCLA Film School acquaintances—Santa Monica resident Ray Manzarek and enigmatic, avid Nietzsche and Huxley reader Jim Morrison—led to the formation of the biggest band ever to emerge from L.A.’s Westside.
“What about you, Jim? Working on anything?” Manzarek recalled asking Morrison.
“Yeah, I’ve been writing some songs.”
Then Morrison recited the poem that became “Horse Latitudes/Moonlight Drive,” organist Manzarek brought in Psychedelic Rangers drummer John Densmore, Morrison knew guitarist Robby Krieger, and the rest, as they say…
In those early days, Morrison, who crashed at Manzarek’s Dogtown pad, ate soul food at Olivia’s and got around on the Big Blue Bus (supposedly referenced in “Soul Kitchen” and “The End,” respectively).
Across its brief six-year existence with Morrison, The Doors landed 15 singles in Billboard’s top 40, eight of them chart-toppers. Three—"Light My Fire", "Hello, I Love You" and "Touch Me"— were million-selling singles.
Baroque, nihilistic and subversive, front man Morrison, using The Doors as his vessel, not only introduced darkness to the pop charts (let’s just say there wasn’t another band in the epoch singing about patricide and Oedipal complexes), he embodied it during live performances; his writhing, often drunken theatrical antics all but anticipated the stage diving and mosh circles of punk.
Dead by 27 in 1971, Morrison only recorded six studio albums and a live record with The Doors. Yet they covered much ground across a scant six years. Despite the band being categorized as “psychedelic rock,” there are traces of metal in the song “Waiting for the Sun,” touches of disco in “The Soft Parade,” classical strings and a tour de force jazz saxophone solo (courtesy of Curtis Amy) in “Touch Me.”
Then there were the ballads — lush, sensitive, otherworldly—“Hyacinth House,” “Wintertime Love,” “Blue Sunday,” “Indian Summer”; deep album cuts worthy of single-dom.
Thanks to album re-issues, the Doors saw a huge revival in the 1980s—roughly book-ended by a pair of prominent film usages: 1979’s “Apocalypse Now” and a 1991 “Doors” biopic.
“Los Angeles for The Doors is as Liverpool was to the Beatles,” said drummer Lucky Lehrer of first-wave L.A. punk band The Circle Jerks. “The songs were about L.A. and the Doors’ jams were legendary. The Doors motivated legions local groups to break molds and cut their own path.”
In 2001’s “We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk” by Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen, the oral history book’s first chapter is slugged in the table of contents as “a case is made to declare Jim Morrison of Los Angeles, California the godfather of punk.”
Manzarek discusses proto-punk leader Iggy Pop’s Morrison infatuation.
“When Iggy was still Jim Osterberg, he checked us out when we played at the University of Michigan.” Manzarek goes on the describe the mismatch of a bill there during homecoming weekend as the Doors, led by a “drunk as a skunk” Morrison, played “the worst fucking show ever…All they wanted to hear was ‘Light My Fire,’ but Jim kept on hollering freeform.” Morrison insisted on playing the blues, and Manzarek explains how the “huge refrigerator-sized football players” and even the university’s dean turned on the band as a defiant Morrison refused to leave. “Afterward, Iggy said: ‘Holy fuck. True anarchy prevailed. You guys were great. I loved it.’ Who knows what that night did to Iggy’s head, ‘cause he’s been doing that show ever since.”
Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton confirms Manzarek’s narrative: “Iggy watched Morrison and learned how to use and abuse the audience and get them into the act. Morrison wore a pair of brown leather pants, so Iggy had a pair of brown vinyl pants ‘cause he couldn’t quite afford the leather, you know.”
John Doe and Exene Cervenka, leaders of seminal L.A. punk band X, also acknowledge the Doors’ influence. (Manzarek produced X’s first four albums and X did a cover of “Soul Kitchen.”)
 “I was attracted to the Doors as a teen because of the dark imagery,” Doe said.

Photo by Henry Diltz.
The Doors’ influence is not regulated to just music. In 1974, Marvel Comics artist Rich Buckler created his futureshock odyssey “Deathlok the Demolisher” in the pages of “Astonishing Tales,” employing Doors song names and lyrics as story titles. 

From "Astonishing Tales" #28 (1975). "No One Here Gets Out Alive" is a lyrical quote from The Doors' 1968 song "Five to One." Art by Rich Buckler.
The “Deathlok” feature only appeared in a dozen issues but elements of this short-lived sci-fi saga are obvious in such films as “Escape From New York” and the original “Robocop” while last year, a version of Buckler’s character (portrayed by J. August Richards) surfaced on “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”  
Buckler, who in those days at Marvel’s New York offices would plug his headphones into a portable radio while working, loved blues-based rock bands but the Doors, in particular inspired him.
 “It was so emotion-charged and surreal,” Buckler said.
Buckler expressed a deep appreciation for Manzarek’s organ-playing, Krieger's “knife-edged bluesy guitar work” and Densmore’s “soulful” percussion. And then, of course, there was Morrison’s lyrics and phrasing.
“All of those rock n'roll story titles…fit so perfectly, I couldn't resist,” said the artist. “You know, I always thought if Deathlok had a soundtrack, it would definitely be hard rock.” 
Today, Morrison is long gone but he still haunts Venice Beach. His visage stares back at us, not only from hippie-dip T-shirt shops and the canvases of boardwalk artists but from Rip Cronk’s two story-high apartment-building mural at Speedway and 18th Street.


Morrison’s voice, through immortal recordings such as “Light My Fire” and “Break On Through,” floats out to the bicycle path from the inside of the cafes and clothing stores.
Yeah, he was ultimately self-destructive, yet despite some obvious character flaws he succumbed to, Morrison, in life, was an old soul: highly intelligent, shrewd and forward thinking. Morrison was asked in 1969 where he thought music was headed. Prophetically, he responded:
"[Music in the future] might rely heavily on electronics, tapes, I can envision maybe one person with a lot of machines, tapes and electronics set up, singing or speaking and using machines." 
On September 11, 2001, Morrison was posthumously propelled into the 21st century via Jay-Z’s "The Blueprint," specifically on the track in which Jigga escalated his feud with rival Nas. Produced by Kanye West, "The Takeover" sampled a choice morsel from "Five to One:" a slithery reptilian bass line; Morrison yelping "Gonna win, we're takin' over! Come on!"
Who knows how that prescient 25-year-old would have been affected or influenced by the EDM and hip hop he seemingly predicted in 1969 had he come up today. Or perhaps he never would have made it; drowned out by the shambolic state of today’s music industry and the mediocrity produced by today’s YouTube/”American Idol”-era democracy  .
Thankfully, The Doors came along when they did.

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