by Alci Rengifo
The music of The Doors seems to find its place in every era since the band’s stirring debut first appeared fifty years ago. Spawned in the era of Vietnam, revolution and technological innovation, The Doors dived into a dark, literary well that is timeless and always relevant. Jim Morrison alone introduced a manic onstage persona that has influenced every rock genre to emerge since the 60s. He was Dionysus meets Rimbaud, hedonistic jester meets feverish wordsmith. Because the band was fronted by a figure who viewed himself foremost as a poet — the rare rock star who even wrote fan letters to literary scholars — their music endures much the same way the edgiest of classical literature still finds devotees.
There is a special power in the band’s music and Morrison’s persona that goes beyond the debauchery and rebellion associated with rock. This is because the band drew from a rich well that included not only John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon, but Arthur Rimbaud, Bertolt Brecht and William Blake. Half a century later and the band’s self-titled debut pulsates with everything that has made it stay relevant, even as grander peers have been generally relegated to solely being identified with the 1960s. In the same way the Vietnam War revealed the violence of U.S. foreign policy to an entire generation, The Doors provided the soundtrack to the dark undercurrents of the national psyche.
Break on Through
While Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney remain rock n’ roll deities, you will be hard pressed to find volumes written on their connections to Lord Byron and Shelley. It was because of The Doors that as a high schooler I decided to start reading Blake on my own, and self-educated myself on the Romantics well before going to college. Great music can do that.
To commemorate the band’s debut, a new box set has been released by Elektra Records featuring the album in stereo, an original mono mix, and a live disc containing performances from 1967. The album was produced by Paul Rothchild, who had also worked with artists such as Janis Joplin and Love. Rothchild honed The Doors’ sound into a focused, incendiary style that only enhanced Morrison’s poetic power.
From the first, blistering track what captivates is the marriage of ferocious music and visually powerful words. “Break On Through” begins with a burning rhythm as Morrison’s voice croons “you know the day destroys the night/night divides the day/tried to run/tried to hide/break on through to the other side.” There are words in this song that could be the envy of any wordsmith, as when Morrison laments “I found an island in your arms/a country in your eyes/arms that chained us/eyes that lied.” Like Roberto Bolano, Morrison’s words evoked clear images with clear phrases while shading violence with beauty.
It is no wonder that the band’s gestation took place when Morrison met organist Ray Manzarek at UCLA’s film department. Morrison had been obsessed with literature and poetry as a student, and believed cinema could serve as a potent outlet. Friedrich Nietzsche was one of Morrison’s early idols. This was the era of the French New Wave and its overpowering influence on avant garde filmmaking. Poetry and narrative experimentation were not alien to popular films in an era when film societies still thrived on campuses.
Disillusioned with film (or bored), Morrison began writing pages and pages of lyrics to melodies in his head. When he bumped into Manzarek in Venice and shared his material the two set out to form a band. The band’s name, The Doors, is already a literary reference. It was taken from William Blake, when the Romantic prophet wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
The Doors on American Bandstand, July 1967
All of The Doors feels like a grandiose Romantic gesture meant to open emotional depths while commenting on the spirit of the times. The album’s third track, “The Crystal Ship,” is a rich and dreamy ballad evoking a search for touch and contact. “Before you slip into unconsciousness/I’d like to have another kiss/another flashing chance at bliss,” sings Morrison, backed by John Densmore’s elegant drums, Robby Krieger’s milky guitar and Manzarek’s immersive organ. But as with “Break On Through,” questions of freedom and the wider world abound even amidst unrequited love. “Oh tell me where your freedom lies/the streets are fields that never die,” is one of the song’s most evocative lyrical moments. According to the judicious study of The Doors’ catalogue, When the Music’s Over: The Story Behind Every Song by Chuck Crisafulli, the song’s title is taken from a Celtic legend found in Book of the Dun Cow. In the story a Celtic hero is wooed away by a goddess who takes him aboard a ship made of crystal by the sea god Manannan.
Alabama Song, from Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
One of the album’s most direct connections to the literary world is the track Alabama Song, a Bertolt Brecht cover from the Kurt Weill opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. There is a gothic joy in the Doors’ thumping, organ-driven arrangement which evokes Weimar Germany and hedonism anywhere. “For if we don’t find the next whiskey bar/I tell you we must die,” is a fatalistic line appropriate for Morrison- who was obsessed with the subject of death- and for any era full of uncertainty, when the masses seek escape through alcohol or opiates. Like The Doors, Brecht finds a home with readers of any era because the times are always uncertain, with turmoil lurking around the corner. As Brecht warns under a photo of Hitler in his recently re-issued War Primer, “The womb is still fertile from which that crept.”
The album’s most famous track is “Light My Fire,” a swirling seven minute number with very simple, yet direct lyrics. The first verse was written by Krieger as a casual love ballad, “you know that it would be untrue/you know that I would be a liar/if I was to say to you/girl we couldn’t get much higher.” Morrison added a second, more ominous verse, “the time to hesitate is through/no time to wallow in the mire/try now we can only lose/and our love becomes a funeral pyre.” Love and death, romance veiled in a funeral shroud- interesting imagery for a song now associated readily with the Summer of Love. One can imagine such words taken from Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, a favorite work of Morrison’s.
But the album’s most literary track is “End of the Night,” a gothic ballad that dives into deep and dark waters while referencing both William Blake and Louis-Ferdinand Celine. “Take the highway to the end of the night/take a journey to the bright midnight,” is Morrison’s opening coda for a song written under the shadow of Celine’s classic novel Journey to the End of the Night. A phantasmagoric novel about the dark recesses of civilization, Celine is a perfect fit for Morrison. The chorus is a nod to Blake, “some are born to sweet delight/some are born to the endless night.” This is a direct reference to Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” from his Songs of Innocence. Morrison was attuned to the contradictions of an age marked by youth’s innocence but framed with war and unrest in the background. If the 60s began with The Beatles they ended with Charles Manson and Richard Nixon. It was a journey to the end of the night. The melody is quite relevant today, as we transition from the era of “Hope” to the age of Trumpmania.
Few debut albums have carried such a collection of notable work. The closing track, “The End,” is as legendary as any of the preceding songs. A baroque epic that spans nearly 11 minutes, it is a poetic stream of consciousness journey carried along by Krieger’s sitar-like notes and Densmore’s tribal drumming. But Morrison’s words are pure rock literature- a point made at the time by Richard Goldstein in The Village Voice. In this theatrical piece Morrison combines imagery worthy of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land with Greek tragedy- literally. Morrison evokes a crumbling world with words such as “Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain/and all the children are insane/waiting for the summer rain.” This is followed by shamanistic imagery seeking a journey west and riding a snake to the bottom of an ancient lake.
Near the end of the song Morrison then summons Sophocles when he utters the famous line “the killer awoke before dawn/he put his boots on/he took a face from the ancient gallery/and he walked on down the hall.” This was classical theater as never before combined with rock music. Like the Greeks, it still disturbs and challenges because of its fierce range. “Father/Yes son/I want to kill you/Mother/I want to…” Morrison follows the call with a primal growl that’s more effective than uttering anything literally. “The End” can easily be read as a text, one that speaks to the uneasy soul in any place and time. “Desperately in need/of some stranger’s hand/in a desperate land,” again shades of Rimbaud. Oedipus Rex in black leather pants will always be more dangerous than Justin Bieber.
The other tracks in The Doors vibrate with a great energy and even satirical wit, as in “Twentieth Century Fox,” which is still more than apt for an L.A. fueled by cosmetic dreams (“Got the world locked up/inside a plastic box”). “Soul Kitchen” calls on listeners to “speak in secret alphabets” and “Backdoor Man” is a great Willie Dixon cover that is full of sexual winks disguised behind humorous proclamations (“I eat more chicken than any man ever seen”).
The Doors as an album has impacted popular music in the same way In Cold Blood impacted modern, narrative journalism. If Morrison as a performer cast a shadow over Punk, Goth and Heavy Metal, the Doors’ debut album proved that rock n’ roll could have a truly literary spirit. Patti Smith and Jim Carroll were early-acknowledged heirs to Morrison’s legacy. It’s safe to wonder how many listeners were inspired to write by this band as opposed to performing music. This is a special album because it proves that words are always dangerous, illuminating and beautiful, even if accompanied by a roaring wall of sound.
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“L.A. Woman,” from its eponymous release
Alci Rengifo is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.