Classic Music Review: The Doors

the doors

I put The Doors on the back burner because I knew I couldn’t do them justice without my dad.

After I moved to Paris, my parents had remained in far-off San Francisco for five months readying for their retirement move to Nice. They could have sold the house in about 30 minutes, but my father is one of those people who has a hard time letting go of anything he built or nurtured back to health, be it houses or wounded birds. He did finally manage to pry his psychological fingers from his life’s work with the help of my mother, who told him he wouldn’t get any until he got off his ass and made it happen.

They’re both in their sixties and still fuck like rabbits, the dears.

Anyway, they finally arrived in late August and began setting up house in Nice a few blocks from my grandmother’s house. Thanks to this fucking big important piece of shit job I have, I was stuck on a business trip for what seemed like years and only managed to pop down to Nice late last week, where my partner and I spent a long and lovely weekend with them. I knew two things going in: that the house would be in a general state of disarray with unopened boxes everywhere, and that the first thing my dad would have unpacked would have been his massive music collection.

Sure enough, with the help of more voltage transformers than I knew existed, he was up and running and his entire collection of vinyl and compact discs was neatly lined up in alphabetical order on shelves crafted by his own two hands, covering a good part of three walls from floor to ceiling. Of course, he was still living out of a suitcase and about to run out of clean undies, but this is a man who knows his priorities! Large pillows covered the floor, so the four of us stretched out one lazy Saturday with several bottles of wine while my dad took us through the entire output of The Doors, bootlegs included.

It was a fascinating experience, because even if you don’t care for their music, you have to admit that no one sounds like The Doors. Even when they’re doing old blues numbers they have a singular sound and an undeniable presence. I haven’t decided how many of their albums I’m going to cover, but since they are so intriguing, I’m sure I’ll do more than one. We’ll start with the first and see where we go from there.

The Doors first album almost shouts, “WE HAVE ARRIVED, PEOPLE!” First impressions do count for something, and they couldn’t have picked a better opener than “Break on Through (To the Other Side).” Its disarming bossa nova opening is countered almost immediately by Jim Morrison’s commanding voice; 30 seconds later the band gives you four deep thrusts before ramping up to bash mode in the chorus. With a superb sense of erotic dynamics, they turn down the heat to deliver a few more teasing caresses, then thrust-thrust (breathe) thrust-thrust and they’re slamming it home again.

There’s a reason why they say The Doors invented “orgasmic rock.”

The historically fascinating aspect to the song has to do with censorship. My dad played the original vinyl first where the line after “Everybody loves my baby” is “She get.” He then played a post-90’s CD where the line is magically transformed into “She gets high.”

I looked at my father with a combination of wonder and disgust. “You have to be kidding. They censored that?”

“Oh yeah. The straights were stoked up and paranoid about the drug culture. Druggies were the communists under the bed in the 60’s. Dangerous subversives out to destroy the American way of life.”

That made me laugh, since nearly everyone I know in America today is addicted to one prescription drug or another. I had him play the original again and though I thought the censorship was absurd, I liked the song better with the truncated line. It leaves things ambiguous, allowing the listener to fill in the blank. She get . . . hot. She get . . . fucked.  She get . . .

The song also allows the band to strut their musical stuff. John Densmore is fabulous with the shifts from Brazilian to thrash and Robby Krieger executes a Paul Butterfield-influenced riff with surprising precision. Ray Manzarek is one of the few organists I actually enjoy, for he played with a clipped, rhythmic style that’s so much cleaner than the big organ sound you hear in people like Lee Michaels.

I’m going to resist the temptation to analyze the differences in organist styles from a penile insecurity angle and move on to Morrison.

“Command” is the first descriptive word I used for Jim Morrison, which may seem like an odd word for a person who was unable to control either alcohol or drug addiction. Somehow he generally managed to put all that aside when delivering a performance (at least on record—my dad said he was a wild card when it came to live performances). His melodic range may have been limited, but his dynamic range is unparalleled, as we will see throughout this album. Mastery of dynamics is a tricky thing; often when singers attempt to lower the volume and ramp it back up it can sound contrived. Jim Morrison had the skills of a trained stage actor when it came to dynamics; each line he delivers is often a product of discipline and patience. Given his fairly fucked-up personality as manifested in his private life, I wouldn’t have wanted to fuck the real Morrison, but I don’t mind fantasizing about fucking the guy I hear singing.

It’s also fairly obvious that his singing style influenced Kurt Cobain’s. I wouldn’t have wanted to fuck him either.

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“Soul Kitchen” is an ode to one of Morrison’s favorite restaurants, and here the lyrics come to the fore. The Doors’ lyrics are often full of surprising words and phrases you don’t expect to hear in popular music, and their expressionistic world-view led to some very memorable imagery:

The cars crawl past all stuffed with eyes
Street lights share their hollow glow
Your brain seems bruised with numb surpriseStill one place to go, still one place to go . . .

Well, your fingers weave quick minarets
Speak in secret alphabets
I light another cigarette
Learn to forget, learn to forget . . .

“Soul Kitchen” is one of five tracks that feature a real bass player. The Doors were very unusual in not having a regular bass player; Ray Manzarek handled most of the bottom on the keyboard. I tend to like bass presence, but I noticed very few patches that felt thin to me.

“The Crystal Ship” is probably the most sixties-ish song on the album in terms of its trippy-spacey feel and vague symbolism, but somehow Morrison makes it work with a sensual, deeply romantic delivery. In the quiet verses his voice is that of the enthralled lover, lost in the magic of intimacy as he and his amour drift to a comforting sleep:

Before you slip into unconsciousness
I’d like to have another kiss
Another flashing chance at bliss
Another kiss, another kiss

This was the only song on the record that my dad tried to sing along to and my mother and I demanded that he cease and desist after one verse.

There’s no other word to describe “Twentieth Century Fox” except hot. What makes it hot for me is that in the hands of almost any other band, the lyrics would probably have been throwaways. The Doors make the song so much more enticing by displaying playful wit and clever turns of a phrase—“Well, she’s fashionably lean/And she’s fashionably late” and “No tears, no fears, no ruined years, no clocks.” I love men who play with language . . . I’ve found a direct correlation between language play and sexual play. Men in possession of wit don’t just stick it in and try to show me what big dumb studs they are through repetitive hammering. They vary the dynamics; they play.

This is turning into a very erotic post. Blame The Doors, not me. I’m simply an innocent victim of orgasmic rock.

We will temporarily leave the erotic as The Doors turn the composition duties over to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill for “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar).” My research led me to discover that the unusual instrument in this song is something called a Marxophone, a zither without frets that looks like an alien autoharp. It’s not an instrument for general use, but it’s absolutely perfect here, giving the song a Central European feel that’s very Brechtian indeed. From a therapeutic perspective, this is not the song I would have recommended for a singer with a drinking problem, and listening to it with that knowledge makes it rather sad instead of pleasantly boozy.

Next comes “Light My Fire,” certainly one of the most iconic songs in rock history, and one of the few that deserves that status. From a structural perspective, the piece is brilliant, with a perfect mix of unity and variation. All of the performances by the band are balls-on perfect. Lyrically, it breaks the mold of pop-song limitations . . . which leads me to the subject of mondegreens.

Wikipedia has a decent article on this linguistic phenomenon, quoting from Sylvia Wright, who invented the term to describe the mishearing of a line in a song that results in new meaning:

When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

The actual fourth line is And laid him on the green. Wright explained the need for a new term:

The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.

When we lived in San Francisco, a Chronicle columnist by the name of Jon Carroll wrote frequently about mondegreens, citing various examples from pop music. “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy” is a classic Hendrix mondegreen with intriguing meaning indeed. How it all came up with The Doors is that my dad confessed to a mondegreen he’d been cherishing for years in “Light My Fire.” First, my dad’s mondegreen:

The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire
Try now we can only lose
And I’d love to come with you up higher.

And now the real lyrics:

The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire
Try now we can only lose
And our love become a funeral pyre.

I howled with laughter when he told me this. “But dad, that doesn’t make any fucking sense! Come with you up higher? What the fuck is that?” With a sheepish grin he said, “I don’t know—I thought it was some tricky sex position I didn’t know about.” Here my mother interrupted us. “Is that why you tried to do me while I was doing the bridge pose?” she said, referring to a common yoga position. His face reddened and he muttered, “Probably.”


The bridge pose. It would work because like me, my mother never wears underwear unless physiologically necessary.

I let him off the hook by observing that many mondegreens occur when the songwriter uses unexpected phrases—in this case, “funeral pyre.” We discussed a few more examples before my dad snapped his fingers and said, “You know what—I’ll bet you never heard the single version.” I racked my brain but couldn’t recall. “No, I’ll bet you haven’t because I only played the 45’s when I had a reason to, and I don’t remember playing it for you.” He popped a 45 adapter on the spindle, pulled out the ancient technology from a well-weathered sleeve and popped it on the turntable.

screamed at the part where they cut the long instrumental passage, the kind of scream that a mother would make when she discovered that someone had stolen her baby. That long passage featuring leads from Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger is a musical passage in which I love to lose myself, and I adore how they weave the themes up to the build that returns us to the main riff. Even better, it leads to Jim Morrison’s performance on the final verse and chorus, which is one of my favorite vocal performances ever. He starts by sticking close to the melody, then begins to vary from the line with increasing frequency, moving from slight note changes on the word “fire” to raising the melody to the next higher harmonic, all while gradually building up the tone in his voice from semi-detached to one that is full of passion and desire. Total command, total discipline, totally fucking hot.

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At this point I was ready for a “Back Door Man,” in either the literal meaning (the guy sneaking in at the back door to give the lady of the house some relief from a dull husband) or the oil-it-up inference. Morrison sounds like he’s getting undressed in this one, oiled with liquor and lube and ready to take the first hot bitch that walks into the studio. While I do love Willie Dixon’s more charming original, Morrison’s presence makes for a body-grinding delight.

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Now I was ready to say to hell with my parents and start doing my partner on the living room floor, but The Doors rescued me from excessive taboo-breaking with three filler songs in a row: “I Looked at You,” “End of the Night” and “Take It As It Comes.” All are rather dull and derivative, like they’d run out of gas and started recycling passages from the first seven tracks. They might have been advised to do a 20-minute version of “The End” instead.

“The End” is one of the two very long album-closing epics they used to wrap up their first two albums. My personal preference is for the second, “When the Music’s Over” from Strange Days. This led to a lengthy argument with my father, who violently prefers “The End.” In an attempt to sway me, he played the original vinyl version and two bootleg copies in which Morrison clears up any ambiguity in the line, “Mother . . .  I want to (unintelligible).” “Mother . . . I want to rape/fuck you” is what I heard on the two different bootleg versions.

Unimpressed, I argued that “The End” is an over-extended version of a breakup song with an Oedipal overlay, exaggerating a bit just to piss him off. My dad became rather schoolmasterish and attempted to connect the significance of the song to both the generational divide of the 1960’s and the Jungian process of individuation.

“So, you’re saying that for me to have become who I am, I had to kill you and maman in a symbolic sense,” I remarked with an irritating smirk on my face and in my tone.

“Yes, you did. You would have had to, one way or another,” he argued.

“Well, I didn’t. I grew from the oaks without having to chop them down. So whaddya say to that, buster?”

He narrowed his eyes and said, “Then you must have killed us in a dream sometime—it had to happen. We must kill our parents to move forward.”

My mother stepped in and suggested that there are many paths to growth and that he was being too dogmatic.

“Thank you, maman—and just to clarify—if you weren’t my mother, I would want to fuck you.”

She laughed and said, “I’m so relieved to know that ma chère fille is psychologically normal.”

I don’t mean to diminish the song at all. From a dramatic perspective, it’s a killer performance. Out of all the analyses I’ve read regarding “The End,” the most perceptive came down to a simple comment from Ray Manzarek: “He was re-enacting a bit of Greek drama. It was theatre!” It’s obvious that Morrison’s poetic intentions were successful, since the four of us had a lively debate about the meaning of the song that was very engaging and informative. The point isn’t whether or not you “like” something—it’s more important that art moves you, makes you feel, makes you think. In that sense, “The End” certainly qualifies as a work of art.

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My dad and I did agree on one thing: that the Indian feel of Robby Krieger’s guitar intro on “The End”  was a direct descendant of Mike Bloomfield’s work in “East-West.” I thought it was rather respectful of the master and of Indian influence in general; my dad was more teed off about it because East-West is sacred to him. My beautiful partner, who had been watching us play intellectual tennis all day with intense fascination, saved us from another lengthy debate by saying, “I love how the two of you are such wonderful friends!” We both looked at her in surprise, then laughed, then my dad and I had a good long hug. “I love you, asshole,” I told him. “I love you too, you little bitch,” he replied.

We spent the rest of the day and early evening listening to the rest of the catalog, all of which I found endlessly fascinating even when I didn’t care for what I was hearing. It’s always educational to go back and forth between the beginnings of a band and their later works to see the developmental path, whether it’s moving from Please Please Me to Sgt. Pepper or from This Was to Songs from the Wood. The Doors’ progression was more zig-zaggy than straight ahead, for in many ways, what they accomplished on this first album could never be recaptured: the freedom of creation without expectations. Jim Morrison didn’t have to live up to being Jim Morrison. For that reason, The Doors is their most playful and exuberant album, and certainly one of the best début albums in rock history.

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Independent music reviewer appearing on altrockchick.com and 50thirdand3rd.com. Originally from San Francisco, I am now a French/EU citizen living in Nice. And I look great in leather.

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