The Doors: Our Star-Spangled American Band (Revisited)

the_doors

If the discussion is going to turn to American rock bands, it would be impossible to avoid R.E.M. Fortunately, I already dealt with their legacy and am on record declaring them the greatest American band, ever. (And if that isn’t enough, I rank their best albums, here.)

But if we are going to discuss the ultimate American band, and all this entails (the hype, the myth, the good/bad/ugly, and mostly the results on record) we could do worse than The Doors. I’ve written about this band in some detail over the years, and below a case is made that The Doors deserve the title as The Star-Spangled American band.

The 4th of July presents an at least two irresistible reasons to talk about The Doors.

One: Jim Morrison took his last bath on July 3, 1971 in Paris. R.I.P. Lizard King.

Two: 4th of July being the most American of holidays, what more appropriate occasion to celebrate the most American band?

(Actually, I would be content to simply consider The Doors as one of a handful of most American bands. There are a handful of others who could fairly lay claim to that title, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Lynyrd Skynyrd, R.E.M., and, of course, the Jonas Brothers.)

What is not debatable, however, is the fact that “Light My Fire” is the seminal American rock anthem. That is the star spangled banner of psychedelia, and it endures.

I wrote, in what most normal people would consider painful detail, about The Doors in late 2006 and early 2007 for PopMatters. The first occasion was to take a stab at the Jim Morrison mythology, from a 21st century perspective; the second occasion was the release of the group’s thrice-remastered back catalog. I’m not sure I have anything else to add to those two detailed, if exhausting analyses, but I’ll cherry pick some of the more salient observations for those who understandably don’t wish to suffer through the original efforts.

Ten days, ten thousand dollars. That is the time and money required to craft one of rock music’s significant debut albums. If the Doors had simply disbanded after their eponymous first effort, they would unquestionably hold a sacrosanct space in the ‘60s canon. Recorded around the same time as Sgt. Pepper (not after, which is noteworthy), The Doors helped establish the possibility that a rock and roll album could—and should—be a complete, fully-formed statement. If, inevitably, this raising of the artistic bar inexorably led to unwelcome excesses, such as the progressive rock “concept album” in the early-to-mid ‘70s, it also elevated the music from the short, fluff-filled releases of the early-to-mid ‘60s.

A propitious way to create a near perfect album is to begin with an indelible opening salvo, and “Break on Through”, the first song and first single, still sounds fresh and essential 40 years later. This song delivers in every way: a signature sound (nothing else, then or now, sounds anything like this) and an urgency that balances aggression and acumen, in under three minutes. In terms of influence, it should suffice to say that the testimonials from bands in subsequent generations are numerous, and from a historical perspective, this dark but dynamic concision anticipates punk rock every bit as much as, say, The Velvet Underground.

Let’s face it, one reason it is so easy, even imperative, to poke fun at the Doors is because Manzarek himself, who has been anything but tongue-tied in interviews over the years, seems entirely too eager to elucidate the ways in which the band consciously emulated John Coltrane while composing their most important song. It might have behooved him a bit to understand that the considerable majority of even the most proficient jazz musicians are wary of drawing any sort of overt comparisons to Coltrane (mostly because the first thing it does is amplify the rather extreme divergence between the very good and the Great). And yet. Robby Krieger, through lessons and discipline, had developed a facility on the flamenco guitar before moving on to amplified blues, then rock; John Densmore received classical training and played in jazz bands for years; Manzarek too had classical training (A lot more on him, here). Nevertheless, there is no shortage of musicians (in rock and even in jazz) who have all the technique and ambition in the world, but cannot craft truly original, irrevocable melodies. Only the most obstreperous haters will deny that, as a tune, “Light My Fire” is irresistible … at least the first million times.

Only the authority and influence of the first album keeps its follow-up somewhat in its shadow. More than a few fans, however, might insist that Strange Days is actually superior. Overall, the sophomore effort (also released in 1967) sounds more tied to its time, but as an artifact of that era, it holds its own all these years later. Not unlike the first album, Strange Days features an extended closing statement, the more straightforward but also more calculated (and less arresting) anthem “When The Music’s Over”. To its credit, the band did not ardently attempt to duplicate the formula that worked so well the first time around (not that this would have been possible anyway), and were willing, even eager, to take some risks. The results are mixed, but mostly very good and occasionally exceptional. For starters, the somewhat overproduced title track (with its dated echo effects on the vocal) might not catch LSD in a bottle like “Break On Through”, but it more than adequately conveys, lyrically and musically, a foreboding menace that anticipates the not-so-loving summer of ’68:

Strange eyes fill strange rooms
Voices will signal their tired end
The hostess is grinning
Her guests sleep from sinning
Hear me talk of sin and you know this is it.

Love (or even tolerance) of the group’s next two albums is what separates the cautious Doors fans from the true believers: each is extremely brief with several throwaways and a handful of the band’s better moments. Waiting For the Sun is the one that almost never got made, discourtesy of Morrison’s now chronic capriciousness; the antics that bolstered his myth, but more often than not derailed the delicate act of making good music. The obvious example of this dynamic is epitomized by the song that is not on the album. An ambitious composition, “The Celebration of the Lizard”, based on a poem by Morrison, was intended to fill up an entire side of the album. For myriad reasons (Morrison’s histrionics in the studio, the inability to record songs when the singer didn’t bother making it to the studio, general lethargy and uninspired musical ideas), the band never came close to a worthwhile take, and fans would have to wait a couple of years to hear a version on Absolutely Live!. A section of the song survived, and based on the quality of “Not To Touch The Earth”, it might have been the group’s masterpiece.

The title track of The Soft Parade, a cut and paste job of previously uncompleted shreds and fragments, manages to be messy, embarrassing and brilliant, sometimes all at once. Take it or leave it, no other band would ever conclude a song with the words, “When all fails we can whip the horse’s eyes / And make them sleep, and cry”. In between accelerated turns in his coffin, Dostoyevsky had to grin at least a little bit. To be certain, this is a trillion light years from “Soul Kitchen” or “People Are Strange”, but the horns and strings and somewhat indulgent envelope-pushing prove that the Doors were anything but a self imitating machine. Like any other group that endures through successive generations, their songs have an authentic, instantly identifiable sound; even when—as is often the case—the actual songs sound nothing alike. Untalented opportunists have sold their souls for much less, and in fact are doing so right now on prime time TV.

Morrison Hotel was, rightly, lauded as a stunning return to form, although that appraisal is only halfway accurate. It was a return to the days when the Doors put out unreservedly great records, but Morrison Hotel is nothing at all like its predecessors. A stripped down, blues-flavored affair, the entire band is on fire, with Krieger continuing to make a case for being perhaps the most under appreciated guitarist in a major rock group. From the moment this sucker hit the streets, one needed only a cursory glance at the revealing band photo spread out across the inside foldout cover (for those who can recall that album covers were minor works of art in their own right; for those who can recall albums): in a bar, sporting casual threads, surrounded by cigarette smoking, unpretentious patrons, this is a group that had lived a little but was still alive.

If the first two Doors albums are drugs, they’d be of the decidedly psychedelic variety; the next couple are a dangerous cocktail of amphetamines and Quaaludes—highs and lows surging in an uneasy rush. Morrison Hotel is beer: authentic, unfiltered, as American as it gets. Plain and simple, some of the band’s most indispensable material appears on this one, and the tone is set with ballsy assurance on the familiar opener, “Roadhouse Blues”. It is the next song, however, that showcases what this new and improved model sounded like. “Waiting for the Sun” is ominous, yet inviting; there are traces of the psychedelic fog, mostly thanks to Manzarek, but it’s Krieger and Densmore (along with raw and refreshingly live-sounding vocals from Morrison) that propel this song into a new decade. Significantly, the band finally had the wherewithal to complete a track intended to appear on the earlier album that bore its name.

If Morrison Hotel served as an unequivocal acknowledgment that the ‘60s were over (on multiple levels, not least of which the literal one), then L.A. Woman is another stride toward the future. It remains more than a little tantalizing to conjecture what, and how much, ammunition the band had up their collective sleeves, but judging solely on the increasing quality of their final two recordings, it is reasonable to lament some spectacular music that never had the opportunity to get made. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Doors album without some drama. This time, producer Paul Rothchild decided the band was a spent force, or, he had done all he could do to wrangle what he felt were acceptable versions of the assembled works in progress. Based solely on the strength of the eventual results, one wonders what he was thinking. In an inspired move based mostly on necessity, the band rallied around longtime engineer Bruce Botnick and decided to record the album pretty much live in the studio. What happened next could be a combination of luck, skill and the innate advantages of a band operating like a family, but whatever it was, the songs recall what worked so well on Morrison Hotel but also go places the band had not come close to approaching thus far. One obvious difference was the group’s employment of an actual bassist (Jerry Scheff) as well as a rhythm guitarist (Marc Benno); where the band had utilized session bassists on and off, it’s no coincidence that the meatier, bluesier sound is directly attributable to these welcome additions.

One of the great one-two punches in the Doors’ catalog concludes side one: “Cars Hiss By My Window” is arguably the band’s best song that no one has heard:

Headlights through my window, shinin’ on the wall
Can’t hear my baby, though I call and call …
Windows started trembling with a sonic boom
A cold girl will kill you, in a darkened room.

If you gave Lightnin’ Hopkins a lot of acid, he might have sounded something like this: lower than mellow, aged way beyond his years, but still seeing the sweetness and the humor and mostly telling it like it is. As straightforward as this song is, it is deceptively deep and reveals the considerable dividends of Scheff and Benno’s presence. Morrison’s human guitar howl at the end of the song sets up a sublime segue into what might be the band’s ultimate song. The title track is not as long or loquacious as the epics that closed out the first two albums, and while it is every bit as dark, it is also accessible and direct, a love letter and farewell note to the city the singer embodied:

I see your hair is burning
Hills are filled with fire
If they say I never loved you
You know they are a liar …
Are you a lucky little lady in the City of Light
Or just another lost angel … City of Night.

Morrison captured L.A. for the ages, and notably, he did not need to status-check at the Chateau Marmont to conjure it up. The city was in his blood: it was the back-alley bars, rat-trap hotels and squalid side streets that he prowled, equal parts inspiration and escape. So much dissipated potential, to be certain, but it’s also reasonable to suggest that his accelerated stretch in the spotlight enabled him to write the songs on L. A. Woman, not unlike Malcolm Lowry’s extended period of self destruction instigated Under the Volcano.

There will always be plenty of speculation about how much more Morrison could have done, what he might have achieved, what other things he had to say. On the other hand, looking back on the way he left things, what more needed to be said?

When it comes to the Doors, the world generally breaks into two camps: those who hate them and those who do not. Amongst those who do not, there are those who like them, and those who really like them. And then there are the real fans. This is not an uncommon spectrum for any well-known band, but considering the Doors released their last official album in 1971, their continued relevance—and the cult of personality disorder Morrison still enjoys—is impressive and more than a little inscrutable (and, for the haters, more annoying than anything else). Amongst the critics, the so-called experts, there tends to be an increasing dichotomy: those who regard Morrison as a poetic genius (or better still, a poet), a Lord Byron of the late 20th century; and those who actually read some poetry after high school and consider him a clown, a poseur whose laughable lyrics don’t merit a second thought.

The reality, as it often insists on being, remains pretty squarely in the middle. Compared to the Romantic poets, like Shelley or Keats, Morrison ain’t much (then again, who is?); although, compared to the Beats—as he often is—he comes off okay. And if that assessment tends to underscore the observation that the Beats weren’t all that, so be it. The only pertinent criteria should be: when measured against rock musicians who came before and after him, Morrison more than holds his own. The list of articulate wordsmiths who tower above the Lizard King is substantial, but the number of those who cower beneath him is incalculable.

And so, in spite of Oliver Stone’s best efforts to immortalize a few of his favorite things (About Jim Morrison? About the ‘60s? About himself? All of the above?), he mostly achieved—in his inimitably over-the-top way—the opposite of what he ostensibly intended: a hysterically sophomoric parody that celebrated virtually every irritating trait that made Morrison an insufferable man-child much of the time. Suffice it to say, his tantrums as well as the evidence of his untapped potential have been abundantly documented by a variety of individuals who, unlike Stone, had the advantage of actually being there, and being sane.

Morrison, like Hemingway, or (insert-name-of-notoriously-tortured-artist), had periods of productivity that preceded or followed, or happened alongside the drugging, drinking, and debauchery. Not focusing on (or even acknowledging) his more mundane—if lucid—moments is somewhat understandable given the constraints of a two hour movie, but it does any artist a considerable disservice to trivialize the efforts and industry that commonly accompany even the slightest of achievements. To be certain, Morrison was seldom sober in the recording studio, but that’s one reason he wasn’t a novelist. It is also why he is no longer alive. Oliver Stone’s ass-backwards hagiography is a quintessential slab of outsider’s groupie-envy, and despite what he may actually have intended, he turned his hero into a rather uninteresting cartoon character. In the final analysis, Morrison may have cared too little about his life, but he cared a great deal about his work.

Did you know freedom exists in a schoolbook?
Did you know madmen are running our prisons
Within a jail, within a gaol
Within a white free protestant maelstrom?
We’re perched headlong on the edge of boredom.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Morrison, not to praise him…

Well, at least the carefully manufactured, sacrilegious icon, fashioned from that most contemptible of forces: the artless imitators who seek to project their own half baked and unrealized rock star fantasies and, of course, the soulless record execs, whose gluttony launched a thousand greatest hits collections. And it hasn’t exactly helped that the people who claim to love him best have done the most to consummate and capitalize on the pseudo-mythology of a man who somehow gets younger every year. Death has been very good to Morrison, but it’s been even better for those who continue to profit from his fleeting but fruitful body of work. Not to mention his body.

This is not the end, my friends: despite misguided movies and the money-driven marketing machine, the music does endure simply because it continues to resonate with an always expanding audience. Forty years after “Light My Fire” Jim Morrison, to borrow an infamous headline, is still hot, he is still sexy, and he is still dead. But mostly, the Doors are very much alive.

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Lou Reed: Rock and Roll’s Dark, Beautiful Heart (Revisited)

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EVERYONE WHO JOINS A ROCK BAND WANTS TO BE HEARD.

The good ones want to be unique, while the pretenders tend to imitate what has already been done. The soulless ones regurgitate musical ideas manufactured by others and served up to them on soiled platters. Sadly, this third group tends to enjoy the greatest success.

And what is success? Financial success certainly is the easiest to measure, with an artist’s influence ranking a close second. What is not so simple is identifying what will endure. In all but the rarest of cases, only the inexorable passage of time can reveal, long after the artist and the initial audience has expired, what has truly mattered to us.

Lou Reed was just such a case. His import and legend were established pretty much from the get-go, and he went wherever he wanted to go: underground, gutter, mainstream, whatever. He was a leather-wearing Whitman for a postmodern America, and his leaves of grass were the kind we used to smoke before, during and after we tuned in. Sweet Lou was inscrutable, elusive and still, somehow, everywhere.

1967 was for rock music what 1959 was for jazz.

Consider both the quantity and quality of ’67?s seminal releases; obviously Sgt. Pepper assumes the spotlight, but those twelve months also yielded a stunning spectrum of halcyon platters from Love’s Forever Changes to the (then, unreleased) SMiLE by Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. How about the debuts? Pink Floyd and The Grateful Dead went on to become two of the biggest bands on the planet. Yet even including the mind-boggling brilliance of the Doors/Hendrix/Captain Beefheart holy trinity, it might not be wrong to suggest that The Velvet Underground’s shot heard ’round the underground remains the most influential.

Hendrix changed the way the guitar was played, and everyone who has picked up a guitar ever since is, in some way, paying homage to the Temple he raised. But Hendrix was not human; Lou Reed was the New Testament Jesus (or Jesus’ son, if you like) compared to the Old Testament God (or at least Moses) of Hendrix. As such, we stand in awe of Hendrix, but we recognize we are not of his kind; no one ever will be. The Velvet Underground on the other hand? Well, since everyone else always invokes the quote, I’ll do my obligatory bit and nod to Brian Eno’s astute assessment: “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

That may well be true, and in fact, it may even be an understatement. But none of those bands — ranging from R.E.M. to David Bowie to The Pixies, just to name a few — ever released anything as strange and ecstatic as the first Velvet Underground offering. Over four decades later, it continues to confront our innate capacity to understand or to assess; it is simple in the way Dylan is “simple”: ostensibly straightforward stories sung by voices that never won any talent shows, which inspires the visceral appeal of the Velvet Underground in general, and Lou Reed, in particular.

Reed was the perfect imperfection rock music needed: neither a naturally brilliant guitarist nor a honey-throated singer, and not always the best lyricist; let’s not let his death sanitize the fact that he wrote a lot of ham-fisted stinkers over his long career, although Lou might have been the first –and best– example than anyone could do this. It’s an illusion, of course: many people have tried, and most of them have failed. But Reed got there first, a darker version of Dylan who combined punk, glam and the paradoxical one-two punch of apathy and self-aggrandizement. Precious are each generation’s artists who can cultivate such a subtle flash of brilliance.

As much as he’s both lionized and lambasted for his poetic pomposity, Jim Morrison tapped into something quite a bit darker than Dionysus For Dummies circa ’67, as songs like “The Crystal Ship” and “The End” evince. Reed was tapping into something even darker and more disturbing (his own veins, for one thing). Setting narcotics, sexual ambiguity and S&M to exotic, surreal soundtracks, like a marching band in Hell, Reed not only wrote like a grown up in what had long been a child-like art form, he wrote –and sang– like no adult anyone had ever known (the same could be said, sort of, for Nico, who functions as an uncertain angel to Reed’s imperious demon on the debut). He still sounds that way to today’s less sanitized sensibilities, and for decades he took his role as reporter and raconteur as a badge of dishonor. Some of those early tracks still sound surreal and exhilarating half a century later: if you ever want evidence of a wholly unique and inimitable vision, stand in awe of “Venus in Furs”.

One way you know you’ve made not merely an indelible impact—itself enough of an achievement in our fifteen-minutes-of-fame-dumb-world-order, and yes I’m invoking Warhol on purpose— is when the accolades come fast, heavy and quickly. Circa 2013, when hipper-than-thou tributes compete for pathos-per-pound –as they have been with Reed—you are likely to remain relevant. Aside from the musical and cultural import that he carried like a piece of tattered luggage, Reed never stopped mattering because he didn’t half-step to anyone else’s beat. He was the drummer of his own perplexing parade, and he was both confident and cool enough to keep the interlopers, imitators and especially the music critics at bay. Well-played, indeed.

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Speaking of cool. It’s easy to attempt when you’re young, since that’s when it matters the most. Reed dodged all appearances of giving a shit for the entirety of his career, and consequently he only became cooler as he aged. Although it happened to become a big hit, it still seems remarkable to consider what Reed pulled off with his signature song “Walk on the Wild Side” (He was a she? The colored girls? Even when she was giving head?). Or the middle finger to everyone in the world, including possibly himself, with the electric drill in the ear assault of Metal Machine Music. Or that he played with musicians ranging from Don Cherry to Metallica and, for lack of a better cliché, did it his way. It didn’t always work, but Reed always did it the way he wanted, and anyone who wasn’t down could hit the bricks. That, in art as well as life, is how cool happens.

More: he carried the cool as neither a burden nor a status to maintain; he was what he was. He did not just live in and sing about New York City, he was in every regard a living seed in that big dirty apple. Most legends don’t live this long or that well when anointed so young. We could all learn a lot from Lou Reed, and our world is a lot less cool, and a great deal colder without the beating of his dark, beautiful heart.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 11/04/2013.

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The Doors: Our Star-Spangled American band (Revisited)

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If the discussion is going to turn to American rock bands, it would be impossible to avoid R.E.M. Fortunately, I already dealt with their legacy and am on record declaring them the greatest American band, ever. (And if that isn’t enough, I rank their best albums, here.)

But if we are going to discuss the ultimate American band, and all this entails (the hype, the myth, the good/bad/ugly, and mostly the results on record) we could do worse than The Doors. I’ve written about this band in some detail over the years, and below a case is made that The Doors deserve the title as The Star-Spangled American band.

The 4th of July presents an at least two irresistible reasons to talk about The Doors.

One: Jim Morrison took his last bath on July 3, 1971 in Paris. R.I.P. Lizard King.

Two: 4th of July being the most American of holidays, what more appropriate occasion to celebrate the most American band?

(Actually, I would be content to simply consider The Doors as one of a handful of most American bands. There are a handful of others who could fairly lay claim to that title, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Lynyrd Skynyrd, R.E.M., and, of course, the Jonas Brothers.)

What is not debatable, however, is the fact that “Light My Fire” is the seminal American rock anthem. That is the star spangled banner of psychedelia, and it endures.

I wrote, in what most normal people would consider painful detail, about The Doors in late 2006 and early 2007 for PopMatters. The first occasion was to take a stab at the Jim Morrison mythology, from a 21st century perspective; the second occasion was the release of the group’s thrice-remastered back catalog. I’m not sure I have anything else to add to those two detailed, if exhausting analyses, but I’ll cherry pick some of the more salient observations for those who understandably don’t wish to suffer through the original efforts.

Ten days, ten thousand dollars. That is the time and money required to craft one of rock music’s significant debut albums. If the Doors had simply disbanded after their eponymous first effort, they would unquestionably hold a sacrosanct space in the ‘60s canon. Recorded around the same time as Sgt. Pepper (not after, which is noteworthy), The Doors helped establish the possibility that a rock and roll album could—and should—be a complete, fully-formed statement. If, inevitably, this raising of the artistic bar inexorably led to unwelcome excesses, such as the progressive rock “concept album” in the early-to-mid ‘70s, it also elevated the music from the short, fluff-filled releases of the early-to-mid ‘60s.

A propitious way to create a near perfect album is to begin with an indelible opening salvo, and “Break on Through”, the first song and first single, still sounds fresh and essential 40 years later. This song delivers in every way: a signature sound (nothing else, then or now, sounds anything like this) and an urgency that balances aggression and acumen, in under three minutes. In terms of influence, it should suffice to say that the testimonials from bands in subsequent generations are numerous, and from a historical perspective, this dark but dynamic concision anticipates punk rock every bit as much as, say, The Velvet Underground.

Let’s face it, one reason it is so easy, even imperative, to poke fun at the Doors is because Manzarek himself, who has been anything but tongue-tied in interviews over the years, seems entirely too eager to elucidate the ways in which the band consciously emulated John Coltrane while composing their most important song. It might have behooved him a bit to understand that the considerable majority of even the most proficient jazz musicians are wary of drawing any sort of overt comparisons to Coltrane (mostly because the first thing it does is amplify the rather extreme divergence between the very good and the Great). And yet. Robby Krieger, through lessons and discipline, had developed a facility on the flamenco guitar before moving on to amplified blues, then rock; John Densmore received classical training and played in jazz bands for years; Manzarek too had classical training (A lot more on him, here). Nevertheless, there is no shortage of musicians (in rock and even in jazz) who have all the technique and ambition in the world, but cannot craft truly original, irrevocable melodies. Only the most obstreperous haters will deny that, as a tune, “Light My Fire” is irresistible … at least the first million times.

Only the authority and influence of the first album keeps its follow-up somewhat in its shadow. More than a few fans, however, might insist that Strange Days is actually superior. Overall, the sophomore effort (also released in 1967) sounds more tied to its time, but as an artifact of that era, it holds its own all these years later. Not unlike the first album, Strange Days features an extended closing statement, the more straightforward but also more calculated (and less arresting) anthem “When The Music’s Over”. To its credit, the band did not ardently attempt to duplicate the formula that worked so well the first time around (not that this would have been possible anyway), and were willing, even eager, to take some risks. The results are mixed, but mostly very good and occasionally exceptional. For starters, the somewhat overproduced title track (with its dated echo effects on the vocal) might not catch LSD in a bottle like “Break On Through”, but it more than adequately conveys, lyrically and musically, a foreboding menace that anticipates the not-so-loving summer of ’68:

Strange eyes fill strange rooms
Voices will signal their tired end
The hostess is grinning
Her guests sleep from sinning
Hear me talk of sin and you know this is it.

Love (or even tolerance) of the group’s next two albums is what separates the cautious Doors fans from the true believers: each is extremely brief with several throwaways and a handful of the band’s better moments. Waiting For the Sun is the one that almost never got made, discourtesy of Morrison’s now chronic capriciousness; the antics that bolstered his myth, but more often than not derailed the delicate act of making good music. The obvious example of this dynamic is epitomized by the song that is not on the album. An ambitious composition, “The Celebration of the Lizard”, based on a poem by Morrison, was intended to fill up an entire side of the album. For myriad reasons (Morrison’s histrionics in the studio, the inability to record songs when the singer didn’t bother making it to the studio, general lethargy and uninspired musical ideas), the band never came close to a worthwhile take, and fans would have to wait a couple of years to hear a version on Absolutely Live!. A section of the song survived, and based on the quality of “Not To Touch The Earth”, it might have been the group’s masterpiece.

The title track of The Soft Parade, a cut and paste job of previously uncompleted shreds and fragments, manages to be messy, embarrassing and brilliant, sometimes all at once. Take it or leave it, no other band would ever conclude a song with the words, “When all fails we can whip the horse’s eyes / And make them sleep, and cry”. In between accelerated turns in his coffin, Dostoyevsky had to grin at least a little bit. To be certain, this is a trillion light years from “Soul Kitchen” or “People Are Strange”, but the horns and strings and somewhat indulgent envelope-pushing prove that the Doors were anything but a self imitating machine. Like any other group that endures through successive generations, their songs have an authentic, instantly identifiable sound; even when—as is often the case—the actual songs sound nothing alike. Untalented opportunists have sold their souls for much less, and in fact are doing so right now on prime time TV.

Morrison Hotel was, rightly, lauded as a stunning return to form, although that appraisal is only halfway accurate. It was a return to the days when the Doors put out unreservedly great records, but Morrison Hotel is nothing at all like its predecessors. A stripped down, blues-flavored affair, the entire band is on fire, with Krieger continuing to make a case for being perhaps the most under appreciated guitarist in a major rock group. From the moment this sucker hit the streets, one needed only a cursory glance at the revealing band photo spread out across the inside foldout cover (for those who can recall that album covers were minor works of art in their own right; for those who can recall albums): in a bar, sporting casual threads, surrounded by cigarette smoking, unpretentious patrons, this is a group that had lived a little but was still alive.

If the first two Doors albums are drugs, they’d be of the decidedly psychedelic variety; the next couple are a dangerous cocktail of amphetamines and Quaaludes—highs and lows surging in an uneasy rush. Morrison Hotel is beer: authentic, unfiltered, as American as it gets. Plain and simple, some of the band’s most indispensable material appears on this one, and the tone is set with ballsy assurance on the familiar opener, “Roadhouse Blues”. It is the next song, however, that showcases what this new and improved model sounded like. “Waiting for the Sun” is ominous, yet inviting; there are traces of the psychedelic fog, mostly thanks to Manzarek, but it’s Krieger and Densmore (along with raw and refreshingly live-sounding vocals from Morrison) that propel this song into a new decade. Significantly, the band finally had the wherewithal to complete a track intended to appear on the earlier album that bore its name.

If Morrison Hotel served as an unequivocal acknowledgment that the ‘60s were over (on multiple levels, not least of which the literal one), then L.A. Woman is another stride toward the future. It remains more than a little tantalizing to conjecture what, and how much, ammunition the band had up their collective sleeves, but judging solely on the increasing quality of their final two recordings, it is reasonable to lament some spectacular music that never had the opportunity to get made. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Doors album without some drama. This time, producer Paul Rothchild decided the band was a spent force, or, he had done all he could do to wrangle what he felt were acceptable versions of the assembled works in progress. Based solely on the strength of the eventual results, one wonders what he was thinking. In an inspired move based mostly on necessity, the band rallied around longtime engineer Bruce Botnick and decided to record the album pretty much live in the studio. What happened next could be a combination of luck, skill and the innate advantages of a band operating like a family, but whatever it was, the songs recall what worked so well on Morrison Hotel but also go places the band had not come close to approaching thus far. One obvious difference was the group’s employment of an actual bassist (Jerry Scheff) as well as a rhythm guitarist (Marc Benno); where the band had utilized session bassists on and off, it’s no coincidence that the meatier, bluesier sound is directly attributable to these welcome additions.

One of the great one-two punches in the Doors’ catalog concludes side one: “Cars Hiss By My Window” is arguably the band’s best song that no one has heard:

Headlights through my window, shinin’ on the wall
Can’t hear my baby, though I call and call …
Windows started trembling with a sonic boom
A cold girl will kill you, in a darkened room.

If you gave Lightnin’ Hopkins a lot of acid, he might have sounded something like this: lower than mellow, aged way beyond his years, but still seeing the sweetness and the humor and mostly telling it like it is. As straightforward as this song is, it is deceptively deep and reveals the considerable dividends of Scheff and Benno’s presence. Morrison’s human guitar howl at the end of the song sets up a sublime segue into what might be the band’s ultimate song. The title track is not as long or loquacious as the epics that closed out the first two albums, and while it is every bit as dark, it is also accessible and direct, a love letter and farewell note to the city the singer embodied:

I see your hair is burning
Hills are filled with fire
If they say I never loved you
You know they are a liar …
Are you a lucky little lady in the City of Light
Or just another lost angel … City of Night.

Morrison captured L.A. for the ages, and notably, he did not need to status-check at the Chateau Marmont to conjure it up. The city was in his blood: it was the back-alley bars, rat-trap hotels and squalid side streets that he prowled, equal parts inspiration and escape. So much dissipated potential, to be certain, but it’s also reasonable to suggest that his accelerated stretch in the spotlight enabled him to write the songs on L. A. Woman, not unlike Malcolm Lowry’s extended period of self destruction instigated Under the Volcano.

There will always be plenty of speculation about how much more Morrison could have done, what he might have achieved, what other things he had to say. On the other hand, looking back on the way he left things, what more needed to be said?

When it comes to the Doors, the world generally breaks into two camps: those who hate them and those who do not. Amongst those who do not, there are those who like them, and those who really like them. And then there are the real fans. This is not an uncommon spectrum for any well-known band, but considering the Doors released their last official album in 1971, their continued relevance—and the cult of personality disorder Morrison still enjoys—is impressive and more than a little inscrutable (and, for the haters, more annoying than anything else). Amongst the critics, the so-called experts, there tends to be an increasing dichotomy: those who regard Morrison as a poetic genius (or better still, a poet), a Lord Byron of the late 20th century; and those who actually read some poetry after high school and consider him a clown, a poseur whose laughable lyrics don’t merit a second thought.

The reality, as it often insists on being, remains pretty squarely in the middle. Compared to the Romantic poets, like Shelley or Keats, Morrison ain’t much (then again, who is?); although, compared to the Beats—as he often is—he comes off okay. And if that assessment tends to underscore the observation that the Beats weren’t all that, so be it. The only pertinent criteria should be: when measured against rock musicians who came before and after him, Morrison more than holds his own. The list of articulate wordsmiths who tower above the Lizard King is substantial, but the number of those who cower beneath him is incalculable.

And so, in spite of Oliver Stone’s best efforts to immortalize a few of his favorite things (About Jim Morrison? About the ‘60s? About himself? All of the above?), he mostly achieved—in his inimitably over-the-top way—the opposite of what he ostensibly intended: a hysterically sophomoric parody that celebrated virtually every irritating trait that made Morrison an insufferable man-child much of the time. Suffice it to say, his tantrums as well as the evidence of his untapped potential have been abundantly documented by a variety of individuals who, unlike Stone, had the advantage of actually being there, and being sane.

Morrison, like Hemingway, or (insert-name-of-notoriously-tortured-artist), had periods of productivity that preceded or followed, or happened alongside the drugging, drinking, and debauchery. Not focusing on (or even acknowledging) his more mundane—if lucid—moments is somewhat understandable given the constraints of a two hour movie, but it does any artist a considerable disservice to trivialize the efforts and industry that commonly accompany even the slightest of achievements. To be certain, Morrison was seldom sober in the recording studio, but that’s one reason he wasn’t a novelist. It is also why he is no longer alive. Oliver Stone’s ass-backwards hagiography is a quintessential slab of outsider’s groupie-envy, and despite what he may actually have intended, he turned his hero into a rather uninteresting cartoon character. In the final analysis, Morrison may have cared too little about his life, but he cared a great deal about his work.

Did you know freedom exists in a schoolbook?
Did you know madmen are running our prisons
Within a jail, within a gaol
Within a white free protestant maelstrom?
We’re perched headlong on the edge of boredom.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Morrison, not to praise him…

Well, at least the carefully manufactured, sacrilegious icon, fashioned from that most contemptible of forces: the artless imitators who seek to project their own half baked and unrealized rock star fantasies and, of course, the soulless record execs, whose gluttony launched a thousand greatest hits collections. And it hasn’t exactly helped that the people who claim to love him best have done the most to consummate and capitalize on the pseudo-mythology of a man who somehow gets younger every year. Death has been very good to Morrison, but it’s been even better for those who continue to profit from his fleeting but fruitful body of work. Not to mention his body.

This is not the end, my friends: despite misguided movies and the money-driven marketing machine, the music does endure simply because it continues to resonate with an always expanding audience. Forty years after “Light My Fire” Jim Morrison, to borrow an infamous headline, is still hot, he is still sexy, and he is still dead. But mostly, the Doors are very much alive.

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Lou Reed: Rock and Roll’s Dark, Beautiful Heart: One Year Later

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EVERYONE WHO JOINS A ROCK BAND WANTS TO BE HEARD.

The good ones want to be unique, while the pretenders tend to imitate what has already been done. The soulless ones regurgitate musical ideas manufactured by others and served up to them on soiled platters. Sadly, this third group tends to enjoy the greatest success.

And what is success? Financial success certainly is the easiest to measure, with an artist’s influence ranking a close second. What is not so simple is identifying what will endure. In all but the rarest of cases, only the inexorable passage of time can reveal, long after the artist and the initial audience has expired, what has truly mattered to us.

Lou Reed was just such a case. His import and legend were established pretty much from the get-go, and he went wherever he wanted to go: underground, gutter, mainstream, whatever. He was a leather-wearing Whitman for a postmodern America, and his leaves of grass were the kind we used to smoke before, during and after we tuned in. Sweet Lou was inscrutable, elusive and still, somehow, everywhere.

 

1967 was for rock music what 1959 was for jazz.

Consider both the quantity and quality of ’67?s seminal releases; obviously Sgt. Pepper assumes the spotlight, but those twelve months also yielded a stunning spectrum of halcyon platters from Love’s Forever Changes to the (then, unreleased) SMiLE by Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. How about the debuts? Pink Floyd and The Grateful Dead went on to become two of the biggest bands on the planet. Yet even including the mind-boggling brilliance of the Doors/Hendrix/Captain Beefheart holy trinity, it might not be wrong to suggest that The Velvet Underground’s shot heard ’round the underground remains the most influential.

Hendrix changed the way the guitar was played, and everyone who has picked up a guitar ever since is, in some way, paying homage to the Temple he raised. But Hendrix was not human; Lou Reed was the New Testament Jesus (or Jesus’ son, if you like) compared to the Old Testament God (or at least Moses) of Hendrix. As such, we stand in awe of Hendrix, but we recognize we are not of his kind; no one ever will be. The Velvet Underground on the other hand? Well, since everyone else always invokes the quote, I’ll do my obligatory bit and nod to Brian Eno’s astute assessment: “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

That may well be true, and in fact, it may even be an understatement. But none of those bands — ranging from R.E.M. to David Bowie to The Pixies, just to name a few — ever released anything as strange and ecstatic as the first Velvet Underground offering. Over four decades later, it continues to confront our innate capacity to understand or to assess; it is simple in the way Dylan is “simple”: ostensibly straightforward stories sung by voices that never won any talent shows, which inspires the visceral appeal of the Velvet Underground in general, and Lou Reed, in particular.

Reed was the perfect imperfection rock music needed: neither a naturally brilliant guitarist nor a honey-throated singer, and not always the best lyricist; let’s not let his death sanitize the fact that he wrote a lot of ham-fisted stinkers over his long career, although Lou might have been the first –and best– example than anyone could do this. It’s an illusion, of course: many people have tried, and most of them have failed. But Reed got there first, a darker version of Dylan who combined punk, glam and the paradoxical one-two punch of apathy and self-aggrandizement. Precious are each generation’s artists who can cultivate such a subtle flash of brilliance.

As much as he’s both lionized and lambasted for his poetic pomposity, Jim Morrison tapped into something quite a bit darker than Dionysus For Dummies circa ’67, as songs like “The Crystal Ship” and “The End” evince. Reed was tapping into something even darker and more disturbing (his own veins, for one thing). Setting narcotics, sexual ambiguity and S&M to exotic, surreal soundtracks, like a marching band in Hell, Reed not only wrote like a grown up in what had long been a child-like art form, he wrote –and sang– like no adult anyone had ever known (the same could be said, sort of, for Nico, who functions as an uncertain angel to Reed’s imperious demon on the debut). He still sounds that way to today’s less sanitized sensibilities, and for decades he took his role as reporter and raconteur as a badge of dishonor. Some of those early tracks still sound surreal and exhilarating half a century later: if you ever want evidence of a wholly unique and inimitable vision, stand in awe of “Venus in Furs”.

One way you know you’ve made not merely an indelible impact—itself enough of an achievement in our fifteen-minutes-of-fame-dumb-world-order, and yes I’m invoking Warhol on purpose— is when the accolades come fast, heavy and quickly. Circa 2013, when hipper-than-thou tributes compete for pathos-per-pound –as they have been with Reed—you are likely to remain relevant. Aside from the musical and cultural import that he carried like a piece of tattered luggage, Reed never stopped mattering because he didn’t half-step to anyone else’s beat. He was the drummer of his own perplexing parade, and he was both confident and cool enough to keep the interlopers, imitators and especially the music critics at bay. Well-played, indeed.

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Speaking of cool. It’s easy to attempt when you’re young, since that’s when it matters the most. Reed dodged all appearances of giving a shit for the entirety of his career, and consequently he only became cooler as he aged. Although it happened to become a big hit, it still seems remarkable to consider what Reed pulled off with his signature song “Walk on the Wild Side” (He was a she? The colored girls? Even when she was giving head?). Or the middle finger to everyone in the world, including possibly himself, with the electric drill in the ear assault of Metal Machine Music. Or that he played with musicians ranging from Don Cherry to Metallica and, for lack of a better cliché, did it his way. It didn’t always work, but Reed always did it the way he wanted, and anyone who wasn’t down could hit the bricks. That, in art as well as life, is how cool happens.

More: he carried the cool as neither a burden nor a status to maintain; he was what he was. He did not just live in and sing about New York City, he was in every regard a living seed in that big dirty apple. Most legends don’t live this long or that well when anointed so young. We could all learn a lot from Lou Reed, and our world is a lot less cool, and a great deal colder without the beating of his dark, beautiful heart.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 11/04/2013.

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A Week of Americana. Part Three: The Doors

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If the discussion is going to turn to American rock bands, it would be impossible to avoid R.E.M. Fortunately, I already dealt with their legacy and am on record declaring them the greatest American band, ever. (And if that isn’t enough, I rank their best albums, here.)

But if we are going to discuss the ultimate American band, and all this entails (the hype, the myth, the good/bad/ugly, and mostly the results on record) we could do worse than The Doors. I’ve written about this band in some detail over the years, and below a case is made that The Doors deserve the title as The Star-Spangled American band.

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The 4th of July presents an at least two irresistible reasons to talk about The Doors.

One: Jim Morrison took his last bath on July 3, 1971 in Paris. R.I.P. Lizard King.

Two: 4th of July being the most American of holidays, what more appropriate occasion to celebrate the most American band?

(Actually, I would be content to simply consider The Doors as one of a handful of most American bands. There are a handful of others who could fairly lay claim to that title, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Lynyrd Skynyrd, R.E.M., and, of course, the Jonas Brothers.)

What is not debatable, however, is the fact that “Light My Fire” is the seminal American rock anthem. That is the star spangled banner of psychedelia, and it endures.

I wrote, in what most normal people would consider painful detail, about The Doors in late 2006 and early 2007 for PopMatters. The first occasion was to take a stab at the Jim Morrison mythology, from a 21st century perspective; the second occasion was the release of the group’s thrice-remastered back catalog. I’m not sure I have anything else to add to those two detailed, if exhausting analyses, but I’ll cherry pick some of the more salient observations for those who understandably don’t wish to suffer through the original efforts.

Ten days, ten thousand dollars. That is the time and money required to craft one of rock music’s significant debut albums. If the Doors had simply disbanded after their eponymous first effort, they would unquestionably hold a sacrosanct space in the ‘60s canon. Recorded around the same time as Sgt. Pepper (not after, which is noteworthy), The Doors helped establish the possibility that a rock and roll album could—and should—be a complete, fully-formed statement. If, inevitably, this raising of the artistic bar inexorably led to unwelcome excesses, such as the progressive rock “concept album” in the early-to-mid ‘70s, it also elevated the music from the short, fluff-filled releases of the early-to-mid ‘60s.

A propitious way to create a near perfect album is to begin with an indelible opening salvo, and “Break on Through”, the first song and first single, still sounds fresh and essential 40 years later. This song delivers in every way: a signature sound (nothing else, then or now, sounds anything like this) and an urgency that balances aggression and acumen, in under three minutes. In terms of influence, it should suffice to say that the testimonials from bands in subsequent generations are numerous, and from a historical perspective, this dark but dynamic concision anticipates punk rock every bit as much as, say, The Velvet Underground.

Let’s face it, one reason it is so easy, even imperative, to poke fun at the Doors is because Manzarek himself, who has been anything but tongue-tied in interviews over the years, seems entirely too eager to elucidate the ways in which the band consciously emulated John Coltrane while composing their most important song. It might have behooved him a bit to understand that the considerable majority of even the most proficient jazz musicians are wary of drawing any sort of overt comparisons to Coltrane (mostly because the first thing it does is amplify the rather extreme divergence between the very good and the Great). And yet. Robby Krieger, through lessons and discipline, had developed a facility on the flamenco guitar before moving on to amplified blues, then rock; John Densmore received classical training and played in jazz bands for years; Manzarek too had classical training (A lot more on him, here). Nevertheless, there is no shortage of musicians (in rock and even in jazz) who have all the technique and ambition in the world, but cannot craft truly original, irrevocable melodies. Only the most obstreperous haters will deny that, as a tune, “Light My Fire” is irresistible … at least the first million times.

Only the authority and influence of the first album keeps its follow-up somewhat in its shadow. More than a few fans, however, might insist that Strange Days is actually superior. Overall, the sophomore effort (also released in 1967) sounds more tied to its time, but as an artifact of that era, it holds its own all these years later. Not unlike the first album, Strange Days features an extended closing statement, the more straightforward but also more calculated (and less arresting) anthem “When The Music’s Over”. To its credit, the band did not ardently attempt to duplicate the formula that worked so well the first time around (not that this would have been possible anyway), and were willing, even eager, to take some risks. The results are mixed, but mostly very good and occasionally exceptional. For starters, the somewhat overproduced title track (with its dated echo effects on the vocal) might not catch LSD in a bottle like “Break On Through”, but it more than adequately conveys, lyrically and musically, a foreboding menace that anticipates the not-so-loving summer of ’68:

Strange eyes fill strange rooms
Voices will signal their tired end
The hostess is grinning
Her guests sleep from sinning
Hear me talk of sin and you know this is it.

Love (or even tolerance) of the group’s next two albums is what separates the cautious Doors fans from the true believers: each is extremely brief with several throwaways and a handful of the band’s better moments. Waiting For the Sun is the one that almost never got made, discourtesy of Morrison’s now chronic capriciousness; the antics that bolstered his myth, but more often than not derailed the delicate act of making good music. The obvious example of this dynamic is epitomized by the song that is not on the album. An ambitious composition, “The Celebration of the Lizard”, based on a poem by Morrison, was intended to fill up an entire side of the album. For myriad reasons (Morrison’s histrionics in the studio, the inability to record songs when the singer didn’t bother making it to the studio, general lethargy and uninspired musical ideas), the band never came close to a worthwhile take, and fans would have to wait a couple of years to hear a version on Absolutely Live!. A section of the song survived, and based on the quality of “Not To Touch The Earth”, it might have been the group’s masterpiece.

The title track of The Soft Parade, a cut and paste job of previously uncompleted shreds and fragments, manages to be messy, embarrassing and brilliant, sometimes all at once. Take it or leave it, no other band would ever conclude a song with the words, “When all fails we can whip the horse’s eyes / And make them sleep, and cry”. In between accelerated turns in his coffin, Dostoyevsky had to grin at least a little bit. To be certain, this is a trillion light years from “Soul Kitchen” or “People Are Strange”, but the horns and strings and somewhat indulgent envelope-pushing prove that the Doors were anything but a self imitating machine. Like any other group that endures through successive generations, their songs have an authentic, instantly identifiable sound; even when—as is often the case—the actual songs sound nothing alike. Untalented opportunists have sold their souls for much less, and in fact are doing so right now on prime time TV.

Morrison Hotel was, rightly, lauded as a stunning return to form, although that appraisal is only halfway accurate. It was a return to the days when the Doors put out unreservedly great records, but Morrison Hotel is nothing at all like its predecessors. A stripped down, blues-flavored affair, the entire band is on fire, with Krieger continuing to make a case for being perhaps the most under appreciated guitarist in a major rock group. From the moment this sucker hit the streets, one needed only a cursory glance at the revealing band photo spread out across the inside foldout cover (for those who can recall that album covers were minor works of art in their own right; for those who can recall albums): in a bar, sporting casual threads, surrounded by cigarette smoking, unpretentious patrons, this is a group that had lived a little but was still alive.

If the first two Doors albums are drugs, they’d be of the decidedly psychedelic variety; the next couple are a dangerous cocktail of amphetamines and Quaaludes—highs and lows surging in an uneasy rush. Morrison Hotel is beer: authentic, unfiltered, as American as it gets. Plain and simple, some of the band’s most indispensable material appears on this one, and the tone is set with ballsy assurance on the familiar opener, “Roadhouse Blues”. It is the next song, however, that showcases what this new and improved model sounded like. “Waiting for the Sun” is ominous, yet inviting; there are traces of the psychedelic fog, mostly thanks to Manzarek, but it’s Krieger and Densmore (along with raw and refreshingly live-sounding vocals from Morrison) that propel this song into a new decade. Significantly, the band finally had the wherewithal to complete a track intended to appear on the earlier album that bore its name.

If Morrison Hotel served as an unequivocal acknowledgment that the ‘60s were over (on multiple levels, not least of which the literal one), then L.A. Woman is another stride toward the future. It remains more than a little tantalizing to conjecture what, and how much, ammunition the band had up their collective sleeves, but judging solely on the increasing quality of their final two recordings, it is reasonable to lament some spectacular music that never had the opportunity to get made. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Doors album without some drama. This time, producer Paul Rothchild decided the band was a spent force, or, he had done all he could do to wrangle what he felt were acceptable versions of the assembled works in progress. Based solely on the strength of the eventual results, one wonders what he was thinking. In an inspired move based mostly on necessity, the band rallied around longtime engineer Bruce Botnick and decided to record the album pretty much live in the studio. What happened next could be a combination of luck, skill and the innate advantages of a band operating like a family, but whatever it was, the songs recall what worked so well on Morrison Hotel but also go places the band had not come close to approaching thus far. One obvious difference was the group’s employment of an actual bassist (Jerry Scheff) as well as a rhythm guitarist (Marc Benno); where the band had utilized session bassists on and off, it’s no coincidence that the meatier, bluesier sound is directly attributable to these welcome additions.

One of the great one-two punches in the Doors’ catalog concludes side one: “Cars Hiss By My Window” is arguably the band’s best song that no one has heard:

Headlights through my window, shinin’ on the wall
Can’t hear my baby, though I call and call …
Windows started trembling with a sonic boom
A cold girl will kill you, in a darkened room.

If you gave Lightnin’ Hopkins a lot of acid, he might have sounded something like this: lower than mellow, aged way beyond his years, but still seeing the sweetness and the humor and mostly telling it like it is. As straightforward as this song is, it is deceptively deep and reveals the considerable dividends of Scheff and Benno’s presence. Morrison’s human guitar howl at the end of the song sets up a sublime segue into what might be the band’s ultimate song. The title track is not as long or loquacious as the epics that closed out the first two albums, and while it is every bit as dark, it is also accessible and direct, a love letter and farewell note to the city the singer embodied:

I see your hair is burning
Hills are filled with fire
If they say I never loved you
You know they are a liar …
Are you a lucky little lady in the City of Light
Or just another lost angel … City of Night.

Morrison captured L.A. for the ages, and notably, he did not need to status-check at the Chateau Marmont to conjure it up. The city was in his blood: it was the back-alley bars, rat-trap hotels and squalid side streets that he prowled, equal parts inspiration and escape. So much dissipated potential, to be certain, but it’s also reasonable to suggest that his accelerated stretch in the spotlight enabled him to write the songs on L. A. Woman, not unlike Malcolm Lowry’s extended period of self destruction instigated Under the Volcano.

There will always be plenty of speculation about how much more Morrison could have done, what he might have achieved, what other things he had to say. On the other hand, looking back on the way he left things, what more needed to be said?

When it comes to the Doors, the world generally breaks into two camps: those who hate them and those who do not. Amongst those who do not, there are those who like them, and those who really like them. And then there are the real fans. This is not an uncommon spectrum for any well-known band, but considering the Doors released their last official album in 1971, their continued relevance—and the cult of personality disorder Morrison still enjoys—is impressive and more than a little inscrutable (and, for the haters, more annoying than anything else). Amongst the critics, the so-called experts, there tends to be an increasing dichotomy: those who regard Morrison as a poetic genius (or better still, a poet), a Lord Byron of the late 20th century; and those who actually read some poetry after high school and consider him a clown, a poseur whose laughable lyrics don’t merit a second thought.

The reality, as it often insists on being, remains pretty squarely in the middle. Compared to the Romantic poets, like Shelley or Keats, Morrison ain’t much (then again, who is?); although, compared to the Beats—as he often is—he comes off okay. And if that assessment tends to underscore the observation that the Beats weren’t all that, so be it. The only pertinent criteria should be: when measured against rock musicians who came before and after him, Morrison more than holds his own. The list of articulate wordsmiths who tower above the Lizard King is substantial, but the number of those who cower beneath him is incalculable.

And so, in spite of Oliver Stone’s best efforts to immortalize a few of his favorite things (About Jim Morrison? About the ‘60s? About himself? All of the above?), he mostly achieved—in his inimitably over-the-top way—the opposite of what he ostensibly intended: a hysterically sophomoric parody that celebrated virtually every irritating trait that made Morrison an insufferable man-child much of the time. Suffice it to say, his tantrums as well as the evidence of his untapped potential have been abundantly documented by a variety of individuals who, unlike Stone, had the advantage of actually being there, and being sane.

Morrison, like Hemingway, or (insert-name-of-notoriously-tortured-artist), had periods of productivity that preceded or followed, or happened alongside the drugging, drinking, and debauchery. Not focusing on (or even acknowledging) his more mundane—if lucid—moments is somewhat understandable given the constraints of a two hour movie, but it does any artist a considerable disservice to trivialize the efforts and industry that commonly accompany even the slightest of achievements. To be certain, Morrison was seldom sober in the recording studio, but that’s one reason he wasn’t a novelist. It is also why he is no longer alive. Oliver Stone’s ass-backwards hagiography is a quintessential slab of outsider’s groupie-envy, and despite what he may actually have intended, he turned his hero into a rather uninteresting cartoon character. In the final analysis, Morrison may have cared too little about his life, but he cared a great deal about his work.

Did you know freedom exists in a schoolbook?
Did you know madmen are running our prisons
Within a jail, within a gaol
Within a white free protestant maelstrom?
We’re perched headlong on the edge of boredom.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Morrison, not to praise him…

Well, at least the carefully manufactured, sacrilegious icon, fashioned from that most contemptible of forces: the artless imitators who seek to project their own half baked and unrealized rock star fantasies and, of course, the soulless record execs, whose gluttony launched a thousand greatest hits collections. And it hasn’t exactly helped that the people who claim to love him best have done the most to consummate and capitalize on the pseudo-mythology of a man who somehow gets younger every year. Death has been very good to Morrison, but it’s been even better for those who continue to profit from his fleeting but fruitful body of work. Not to mention his body.

This is not the end, my friends: despite misguided movies and the money-driven marketing machine, the music does endure simply because it continues to resonate with an always expanding audience. Forty years after “Light My Fire” Jim Morrison, to borrow an infamous headline, is still hot, he is still sexy, and he is still dead. But mostly, the Doors are very much alive.

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Ray Manzarek: The Key to the Doors (Revisited)

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When it comes to this great American band’s legacy, the best thing about the Doors is also the worst thing about the Doors: Jim Morrison.

Blessed with one of the more charismatic and literate frontmen of their—or any—era, it seems inevitable, in hindsight, that the Doors would become icons. Morrison, as leather-legged Lizard King, cut a figure that adorns posters and t-shirts four decades after his death.

Morrison also endures as one of the epic—and tragicomic—tales of rock and roll excess: a bright and beautiful young man who abused his body with drugs and alcohol, becoming a bloated shell of himself by the time he expired, looking like a fat retiree at 27.

Unfortunately, Oliver Stone’s ass-backwards hagiography is a quintessential slab of outsider’s groupie-envy, and his movie reinforced every lazy cliché associated with Morrison (and rock music). Despite what he may actually have intended, he turned his hero into a rather uninteresting cartoon character. In the final analysis, Morrison may have cared too little about his life, but he cared a great deal about his work.

Perhaps it is because of Morrison’s paradoxes (as another American poet put it, he contained multitudes) that he continues to appeal, as a source of both aggrandizement and reproach. And that’s just his lyrics. The ever-growing legend of Mr. Mojo Risin’ helps sell albums and convert young fans every year, but it tends to obscure a single, important fact: The Doors were a first-rate band, period.

The man to whom more credit for their success, and sound, should be attributed is Ray Manzarek, who passed away this week. Manzarek, an accomplished keyboardist who famously handled bass duties on his Fender Rhodes, also played the role of arranger and older brother. It’s obvious why his songwriting and technical abilities were so significant. It’s his role as middleman—and mediator—for Morrison and the band (including drummer John Densmore and guitarist Robby Krieger) that does not get nearly enough consideration. Without Manzarek’s steadying personality and the patience he preached to all involved (Morrison, the band, the fans), it’s debatable if the Doors would have made more than two albums.

For bringing keyboards to the forefront and utilizing his organ as a lead instrument, Manzarek was a pioneer. He was also the chief architect of the dark, distinctly psychedelic sound the band perfected on their first two albums. Whether it’s the Sunset Boulevard funk of “Soul Kitchen”, the Brechtian whimsy of “Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)”, or the eyes-half-shut oblivion of “End of the Night” that’s Manzarek moving things forward, and sometimes sideways.

Equally comfortable playing piano, Manzarek’s contributions were at once front and center and lurking in every corner, adding color, texture, momentum. This versatility is nowhere better represented than on “The Crystal Ship”, where his restrained, often ethereal organ is the water the rest of the band could cook with, while his discerning, almost elegant turn at the piano provides cerebral counterpoint. Manzarek takes what would be a near-perfect pop song and elevates it, imbuing it with a maturity and class that resists age: the rush and remorse inextricable from day-to-day existence; the deadening of the senses through chemical escape; the illusory respite from reality that is more or less Morrison’s epitaph; all the pain and unfulfilled promise of his life, along with much of the glory and redemptory grace, somehow contained in one song (all in all, a pretty impressive use of two minutes and 40 seconds).

One of the reasons the first album remains one of the all-time great debuts is because “The Crystal Ship” (along with “Break on Through” and “Soul Kitchen”) still sound remarkably, almost impossibly fresh; still edgy, still laced with menace, not dark so much as indifferent: immune to taste, fashion and time. And if Strange Days is slightly leaner and less essential than the first album, it has a handful of songs that stand proudly alongside anything the band ever did. The carnivalesque touches on “People Are Strange”, and the employment throughout of harpsichord and marimba reveal a willingness to stretch out and search for the perfect sounds. Still, The Doors were best when they went dark and deep: the surreal title track screams 1967, yet somehow seems as ominous and intact as ever in 2013. Each of these songs sound nothing like what anyone else was doing, and all would be unimaginable with Manzarek’s distinctive imprint.

For the rest of the group’s brief but rewarding time together Manzarek remains the focal point, always the anchor, but occasionally the captain. From the sweet piano of “Love Street” to the sour organ of “Not to Touch the Earth”; from the defiant “Shaman’s Blues” to the kaleidoscopic “Soft Parade”; from the bar-room bonhomie of “You Make Me Real” to the cool blues groove of “The Spy”; from the Ray Charles acid jazz of “The Changeling” to the wistful-to-majestic swells of “Hyacinth House” it’s Manzarek supplying the foundation—and the feeling. Aside from Morrison, it’s that image of Ray most fans associate with the band: hunched over his keyboard, head shaking like he was not only reading a book in his lap, but translating it.

With Morrison gone, Manzarek—so reticent and introspective during the band’s heyday—became a character, perhaps because he felt it was his obligation. In interviews Ray consistently came across as the brilliant but eccentric uncle. He embodied so many excesses we tend to associate with the ‘60s, never reluctant to reminisce about mind expansion, mythology and always prepared to espouse peace, love and understanding. At times a little Manzarek went a long way, particularly when he could not leave well enough alone as it pertained to the band’s influence… and influences.

Several years ago while reviewing the band’s thrice-remastered catalog, I acknowledge that Manzarek invited interest—and occasional ridicule—for so zealously, and loquaciously embracing his role as spokesman for the band’s legacy:

Let’s face it, one reason it is so easy, even imperative, to poke fun at the Doors is because Manzarek himself, who has been anything but tongue-tied in interviews over the years, seems entirely too eager to elucidate the ways in which the band consciously emulated John Coltrane while composing their most important song. It might have behooved him a bit to understand that the considerable majority of even the most proficient jazz musicians are wary of drawing any sort of overt comparisons to Coltrane (mostly because the first thing it does is amplify the rather extreme divergence between the very good and the Great).

And yet. Robby Krieger, through lessons and discipline, had developed a facility on the flamenco guitar before moving on to amplified blues, then rock; John Densmore received classical training and played in jazz bands for years; Manzarek too had classical training. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of musicians (in rock and even in jazz) who have all the technique and ambition in the world, but cannot craft truly original, irrevocable melodies. Only the most obstreperous haters will deny that, as a tune, “Light My Fire” is irresistible … at least the first million times.

To the end, Manzarek remained Morrion’s biggest fan, and defender. He showed both his loyalty and taste on the occasion of Oliver Stone’s idiotic Pop Opera, which he rightly lambasted. He was ebullient, always happy to explain the creative process and offer behind the scenes insight into how the Doors captured so many lightning bolts in so many bottles. He was also self-deprecating, droll and a total original. We are steadily losing, in prototypes like Manzarek, Dennis Hopper and Levon Helm, crucial links to a time we will never see again. As gloomy as it is to watch them go, we can, as always, console ourselves with the work they left behind—all for our enjoyment and edification. Still, Manzarek seemed like a man destined to live a very long time. His ride only lasted 74 years, but he left his handiwork all over several of the more resilient and extraordinary songs from one of the more resilient and extraordinary American bands.

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Howard Sounes’ ’27’ Has That Train Wreck Kind of Appeal

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“You’re drinking with number three,” Jim Morrison allegedly declared, equal parts sardonic and prescient, following the successive deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix in 1970. As it happened, he was correct. In less than a year these superstars were gone, all at the age of 27.

For his new book, 27, Howard Sounes researched the number of musicians who’ve actually died at 27 and discovered the total was 50. But the list of famous, or infamous cases comprising the so-called “27 Club” is much shorter, six to be exact. They are, in chronological order, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.

What ties these six artists together, aside from their obvious ages and occupations, is the fact that some measure of controversy dogs each death, and Sounes sets out to examine the various coincidences and conflicting stories, seeing what they all add up to.

Conclusion: not much. Despite the considerable talent, promise and tragedy we can attribute to each of these artists, they all serve as cautionary tales of excess, poor judgment and wasted potential. In the cases of Morrison and Hendrix, enough material was recorded to ensure a definitive legacy; with Cobain and Winehouse we are left wondering how many years, even decades, of genius they forfeited.

In the cases of Jones and, to a lesser extent Joplin, they seemed hell-bent on self-destruction, and might well have viewed death as a refuge of sorts. And while Joplin arguably did her best work at the end, Jones had ceased to contribute much of anything, and was a bloated, neurotic mess long before his ill-advised midnight swim.

Sounes constructs mini-biographies of each musician, making Winehouse, who receives quite a bit more attention and time, the centerpiece. The author admits that he has more personal interest in Winehouse, particularly as a fellow Londoner, and it was presumably much easier to find family and friends to speak with. For the four who died between 1969 and 1971, he relies on myriad sources, and his bibliography is impressive, if intimidating. Make no mistake, Sounes did heavy lifting to make this book as authoritative as possible.

If you are already familiar with these musicians, there are not a ton of new or especially interesting insights to be found. On the other hand, if you want exhaustive, at times exhausting detail regarding their collective debauchery, 27 may have that kind of perverse train wreck appeal.

Interestingly, or not, while Winehouse gets more than twice as much ink as the others, much of it is spent in the service of depressingly redundant recollections of her binges and outbursts. Not unlike with Joplin, Jones and Morrison, one comes away wondering not why they died so young, but how they managed to live as long as they did.

Indeed, Sounes betrays a soft spot for Winehouse, at times acting like a priest or psychiatrist, where he is mostly content to dismiss Morrison and Jones as burned out buffoons. In the latter’s case, there weren’t too many people willing to say many nice things: Jones comes off as a petulant, abusive bully, a man-child who might have ended up in jail or in a ditch if not for his musical skills and fortuitous association with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
Morrison, on the other hand, warrants more nuance and empathy than Sounes is capable of conjuring. True, the Lizard King was, by most accounts, all too often a braying, inebriated ass. On the other hand, there are plenty of friends and acquaintances who describe him as the proverbial Jekyll and Hyde: when not drunk, he was capable of humor, kindness and generosity. And he was also capable of ethereal brilliance; lost on Sounes are the ways Morrison channeled his vices into unique and affecting visions. A simple assessment of his material dealing with alcohol reveals a trifecta of masterful songs that also work as poetry: “Roadhouse Blues”, “End of the Night” and especially what might rank as rock music’s finest meditation on the irresistible pull of drink, “The Crystal Ship”.

Like Hendrix, Joplin simply seemed to get caught up in the chaos that accompanies life in the spotlight; unlike Hendrix, she had deep-rooted insecurities and a profound self-loathing (like Cobain and Winehouse) that led her to seek solace from miscellaneous chemicals. Hendrix is the only one who seems relatively well-adjusted and mostly in control of his faculties throughout. He enjoyed the party because he could, but he took his life, and his music, very seriously. More, he harbored no apparent desire to harm or annihilate himself, so his death still seems a genuine misadventure, a freak incident that still stings to this day.

Sounes helpfully demolishes any/all conspiracy theories, ranging from the familiar (Morrison lives!) to the far-fetched (Hendrix was murdered), and while we’ll never know exactly what happened to Jones and Joplin, the drugs found in their systems combined with the backstory of their final months in this earthly form leave little to the imagination.

27 also serves as a corrective of sorts for the half-assed mythologizing, particularly of Morrison and Cobain, both of whom have, for a variety of understandable if facile reasons, been posthumously anointed as voices of their generation. Both Cobain and Morrison had upbringings that left them ill-prepared for adulthood, much less celebrity. But there was no shortage of self-indulgence as well, and while anyone with a heart can feel genuine empathy, the record leaves no question these men were surrounded by concerned support systems, and wealth, that might have made a difference.

In a fascinating twist, just about all the maligned parents obtain an odd, non-rock and roll vindication, courtesy of their offspring. In the cases of Joplin, Hendrix and Morrison, all were estranged from their parents, all of whom ended up wealthy beneficiaries of careers they never approved of, but perhaps unintentionally did much to inspire.

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1967 and the Prog-Rock Progenitors* (Revisited)

Progressive rock reached its full potential in the ‘70s, but its roots trace back to the previous decade. While an attempt to determine when and with whom prog-rock formally originated is impossible (not to mention pointless), it is instructive to consider which artists pointed the way.

The official or at least easiest story is that when they released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles ushered in a new era wherein rock music could be appreciated—and appraised—as Art. Of course there is considerable truth to this account, but there were plenty of other bands, circa 1967, edging things in a direction that was at once more evolved, complicated and unclassifiable.

For starters, The Beatles themselves had already made significant strides: Rubber Soul and especially Revolver showcased a facility for experimentation (sitar, string quartets, enriched lyrical import) and restlessness with regard to convention. “Tomorrow Never Knows” could be considered the true opening salvo that foresaw the future; after this song nothing was off the table, and opportunistic acts followed suit.

If 1967 characterizes a high point (famously, if a bit unfairly exemplified solely by Sgt. Pepper), it also initiated an explicit realignment of what was possible in rock music—for better or worse. Two albums that, in their way, illustrate where the art form would go are The Who’s The Who Sell Out and Love’s Forever Changes. In fact, if you combine the various concepts and approaches of both, a rough formula can be gleaned, previewing much of what was to come.

Indeed, both Love and The Who (led by Arthur Lee and Pete Townshend, respectively) had already made advancements on previous albums. The Who’s cheeky mini-opera, “A Quick One, While He’s Away” provided a template that Townshend—and many subsequent imitators—would utilize to greater effect. Love is notable for creating, alongside Dylan, Zappa and The Rolling Stones, one of the first songs to fill an entire album side. Love is not extolled nearly enough for the subtle ways they augmented the possibilities of a standard pop song: incorporating strings, flutes and harpsichords are all elements that make Side One of Da Capo a ceaselessly colorful and engaging listening experience.

Neil Young, not long for Buffalo Springfield, employed strings (with Jack Nitzsche’s supervision) for his elaborate miniature epics “Broken Arrow” and “Expecting to Fly”. The Moody Blues took a definitive leap forward, collaborating with Decca’s house orchestra to embellish their conceptual song-cycle Days of Future Passed. The Moody Blues were also one of the first bands to make prominent use of the mellotron (courtesy of Mike Pinder who, incidentally, is credited with turning John Lennon, pre “Strawberry Fields Forever”, onto the instrument), which would become a fixture in the prog-rock sound.

Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” remain ubiquitous psychedelic anthems from 1967, but it was arguably two lesser known and celebrated (at the time) acts that provided crucial direction for more ambitious artists. The Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart dropped albums that inspired and influenced the way modern music could connect. By turns surreal and cynical, Lou Reed and Don Van Vliet turned a mordant eye upon society and extended the lyrical possibilities Bob Dylan pioneered. Tracks like “Venus in Furs”, “Heroin”, “Drop Out Boogie” and “Electricity” (theremin!) are uncanny blueprints of a kitchen sink sensibility that quickly became commonplace.

Special mention must be made of the inimitable Brian Wilson. Even though his magnum opus SMiLE never saw the light of day (much more on that, here, “The Once and Future King: ‘SMiLE’ and Brian Wilson’s Very American Dream”) he can be—and has been, by none other than Paul McCartney—credited with inspiring if not intimidating the Fab Four to raise their game. Although the world would not hear the ideas and innovations Wilson began to assemble in 1966(!), enough material was salvaged to ultimately surface on 1967’s Smiley Smile, and “Heroes and Villains” could be considered the yin to “A Day in the Life’s” yang.

Two other debuts, both released prior to Sgt. Pepper, contain multiple elements that would be mined throughout the ensuing decade. We will never know what direction(s) Jimi Hendrix may have headed in, but the sources of a very different rock sound are sprinkled liberally throughout Are You Experienced?. His virtuosity alone served notice and opened the floodgates of imitation and indulgence; arguably no one has yet caught up to what Hendrix was achieving between 1967 and 1970. Whatever his merits as a lyricist (never mind poet), there is no question that Jim Morrison introduced a modus operandi that was at once more literate and dark than most of the rock albums that preceded The Doors.

Morrison’s two extended album closers, “The End” and “When The Music’s Over” (from Strange Days, also released in 1967) brought a dramatic, cathartic aspect to songwriting that translated to more theatric live performances: every arena act learned a trick or two from the Lizard King. However effectively (or farcically, depending upon your preference) the organ and guitar solos on “Light My Fire” approximate jazz improvisation, Robbie Krieger and Ray Manzarek did the near-impossible (or unthinkable, depending upon your preference) on the song that helped define the Summer of Love: they turned attention from the singer’s looks (and vocals) to the band mates’ sounds, if even for a few minutes.

Finally, enough can never be said (and much more will be said, before long) about Pink Floyd. Another 1967 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, recorded at the same time in the same studio as Sgt. Pepper, is a fully realized burst of sui generis psychedelic perfection. Lyrically, it ranges from the obligatory astral imagery of the era (“Astronomy Domine”) to the obligatory shout-out to I Ching (“Chapter 24”) to the brain salad surgery of “Bike”, revealing the unique and astonishing mind of a 21-year-old Syd Barrett.

Captivating as Barrett’s words (and voice) is throughout; the real revelation is his songwriting. The tunes, with one notable exception (“Interstellar Overdrive”), are exercises in precision, packing maximal sound and feeling into bite-sized bits. Eccentric, erudite and ebullient, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a happy explosion of creative potential, a template Floyd would expand upon in a stretch of possibly unrivaled masterpieces throughout the ‘70s.

By 1968 it was apparent many artists were paying attention, and a trio of songs signifies some of the ways the prog-rock aesthetic was already in full effect. Perhaps most notoriously, Iron Butterfly went all in, crafting a side-long song that strained for profundity, intensity and inscrutability. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (In The Garden of Eden?) super-sized the instrumental passages from “Light My Fire” (including a drum solo!), and incorporated earnest if overbearing explorations that drew from Country Joe and the Fish’s acid-drenched “Section 43”: over the course of 18 minutes it is psychedelia unbound or pretentious noodling personified (perhaps both).

Eric Burdon, who had found fame mining blues motifs with The Animals, threw his hat into the ring and crafted one of the more successful anti-war ballads, “Sky Pilot”. The band is focused and at just over seven minutes the song still seems just right: neither noodling (musically) or preaching (lyrically), the inclusion of sound effects and bagpipes are novel strategies, albeit ones that would become familiar—and somewhat stale in the next decade.

Lastly, another overlooked artist who deserves more, Arthur Brown, reached incisively into the recent past and did much to predict the future. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown is an early concept album, incorporating mythology, religion and astute sociological insight. Best known for the one-and-done hit single “Fire”, the rest of Brown’s debut holds up well even as it’s unmistakably of its time.

His flair for the dramatic (bounding onto the stage with his metal helmet aflame) and painted face anticipated acts as diverse as Kiss, Alice Cooper and Peter Gabriel. The remarkable “Spontaneous Apple Creation”, which sounds like a mash-up of Sun Ra and Ennio Morricone, with vocals (and lyrics) that undeniably influenced Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, remains a signpost of how far rock music had come in only a couple of years.

*Second installment of new monthly PopMatters column, “The Amazing Pudding” (First installment HERE).

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Lou Reed: Rock and Roll’s Dark, Beautiful Heart

EVERYONE WHO JOINS A ROCK BAND WANTS TO BE HEARD.

The good ones want to be unique, while the pretenders tend to imitate what has already been done. The soulless ones regurgitate musical ideas manufactured by others and served up to them on soiled platters. Sadly, this third group tends to enjoy the greatest success.

And what is success? Financial success certainly is the easiest to measure, with an artist’s influence ranking a close second. What is not so simple is identifying what will endure. In all but the rarest of cases, only the inexorable passage of time can reveal, long after the artist and the initial audience has expired, what has truly mattered to us.

Lou Reed was just such a case. His import and legend were established pretty much from the get-go, and he went wherever he wanted to go: underground, gutter, mainstream, whatever. He was a leather-wearing Whitman for a postmodern America, and his leaves of grass were the kind we used to smoke before, during and after we tuned in. Sweet Lou was inscrutable, elusive and still, somehow, everywhere.

 

 

1967 was for rock music what 1959 was for jazz.

Consider both the quantity and quality of ’67?s seminal releases; obviously Sgt. Pepper assumes the spotlight, but those twelve months also yielded a stunning spectrum of halcyon platters from Love’s Forever Changes to the (then, unreleased) SMiLE by Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. How about the debuts? Pink Floyd and The Grateful Dead went on to become two of the biggest bands on the planet. Yet even including the mind-boggling brilliance of the Doors/Hendrix/Captain Beefheart holy trinity, it might not be wrong to suggest that The Velvet Underground’s shot heard ’round the underground remains the most influential.

Hendrix changed the way the guitar was played, and everyone who has picked up a guitar ever since is, in some way, paying homage to the Temple he raised. But Hendrix was not human; Lou Reed was the New Testament Jesus (or Jesus’ son, if you like) compared to the Old Testament God (or at least Moses) of Hendrix. As such, we stand in awe of Hendrix, but we recognize we are not of his kind; no one ever will be. The Velvet Underground on the other hand? Well, since everyone else always invokes the quote, I’ll do my obligatory bit and nod to Brian Eno’s astute assessment: “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

That may well be true, and in fact, it may even be an understatement. But none of those bands — ranging from R.E.M. to David Bowie to The Pixies, just to name a few — ever released anything as strange and ecstatic as the first Velvet Underground offering. Over four decades later, it continues to confront our innate capacity to understand or to assess; it is simple in the way Dylan is “simple”: ostensibly straightforward stories sung by voices that never won any talent shows, which inspires the visceral appeal of the Velvet Underground in general, and Lou Reed, in particular.

Reed was the perfect imperfection rock music needed: neither a naturally brilliant guitarist nor a honey-throated singer, and not always the best lyricist; let’s not let his death sanitize the fact that he wrote a lot of ham-fisted stinkers over his long career, although Lou might have been the first –and best– example than anyone could do this. It’s an illusion, of course: many people have tried, and most of them have failed. But Reed got there first, a darker version of Dylan who combined punk, glam and the paradoxical one-two punch of apathy and self-aggrandizement. Precious are each generation’s artists who can cultivate such a subtle flash of brilliance.

As much as he’s both lionized and lambasted for his poetic pomposity, Jim Morrison tapped into something quite a bit darker than Dionysus For Dummies circa ’67, as songs like “The Crystal Ship” and “The End” evince. Reed was tapping into something even darker and more disturbing (his own veins, for one thing). Setting narcotics, sexual ambiguity and S&M to exotic, surreal soundtracks, like a marching band in Hell, Reed not only wrote like a grown up in what had long been a child-like art form, he wrote –and sang– like no adult anyone had ever known (the same could be said, sort of, for Nico, who functions as an uncertain angel to Reed’s imperious demon on the debut). He still sounds that way to today’s less sanitized sensibilities, and for decades he took his role as reporter and raconteur as a badge of dishonor. Some of those early tracks still sound surreal and exhilarating half a century later: if you ever want evidence of a wholly unique and inimitable vision, stand in awe of “Venus in Furs”.

One way you know you’ve made not merely an indelible impact—itself enough of an achievement in our fifteen-minutes-of-fame-dumb-world-order, and yes I’m invoking Warhol on purpose— is when the accolades come fast, heavy and quickly. Circa 2013, when hipper-than-thou tributes compete for pathos-per-pound –as they have been with Reed—you are likely to remain relevant. Aside from the musical and cultural import that he carried like a piece of tattered luggage, Reed never stopped mattering because he didn’t half-step to anyone else’s beat. He was the drummer of his own perplexing parade, and he was both confident and cool enough to keep the interlopers, imitators and especially the music critics at bay. Well-played, indeed.

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Speaking of cool. It’s easy to attempt when you’re young, since that’s when it matters the most. Reed dodged all appearances of giving a shit for the entirety of his career, and consequently he only became cooler as he aged. Although it happened to become a big hit, it still seems remarkable to consider what Reed pulled off with his signature song “Walk on the Wild Side” (He was a she? The colored girls? Even when she was giving head?). Or the middle finger to everyone in the world, including possibly himself, with the electric drill in the ear assault of Metal Machine Music. Or that he played with musicians ranging from Don Cherry to Metallica and, for lack of a better cliché, did it his way. It didn’t always work, but Reed always did it the way he wanted, and anyone who wasn’t down could hit the bricks. That, in art as well as life, is how cool happens.

More: he carried the cool as neither a burden nor a status to maintain; he was what he was. He did not just live in and sing about New York City, he was in every regard a living seed in that big dirty apple. Most legends don’t live this long or that well when anointed so young. We could all learn a lot from Lou Reed, and our world is a lot less cool, and a great deal colder without the beating of his dark, beautiful heart.

http://www.theweeklings.com/smurphy/2013/11/04/lou-reed-rock-and-rolls-dark-beautiful-heart/

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A Week of Americana. Part Three: The Doors

If the discussion is going to turn to American rock bands, it would be impossible to avoid R.E.M. Fortunately, I already dealt with their legacy and am on record declaring them the greatest American band, ever. (And if that isn’t enough, I rank their best albums, here.)

But if we are going to discuss the ultimate American band, and all this entails (the hype, the myth, the good/bad/ugly, and mostly the results on record) we could do worse than The Doors. I’ve written about this band in some detail over the years, and below a case is made that The Doors deserve the title as The Star-Spangled American band.

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The 4th of July presents an at least two irresistible reasons to talk about The Doors.

One: Jim Morrison took his last bath on July 3, 1971 in Paris. R.I.P. Lizard King.

Two: 4th of July being the most American of holidays, what more appropriate occasion to celebrate the most American band?

(Actually, I would be content to simply consider The Doors as one of a handful of most American bands. There are a handful of others who could fairly lay claim to that title, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Lynyrd Skynyrd, R.E.M., and, of course, the Jonas Brothers.)

What is not debatable, however, is the fact that “Light My Fire” is the seminal American rock anthem. That is the star spangled banner of psychedelia, and it endures.

I wrote, in what most normal people would consider painful detail, about The Doors in late 2006 and early 2007 for PopMatters. The first occasion was to take a stab at the Jim Morrison mythology, from a 21st century perspective; the second occasion was the release of the group’s thrice-remastered back catalog. I’m not sure I have anything else to add to those two detailed, if exhausting analyses, but I’ll cherry pick some of the more salient observations for those who understandably don’t wish to suffer through the original efforts.

Ten days, ten thousand dollars. That is the time and money required to craft one of rock music’s significant debut albums. If the Doors had simply disbanded after their eponymous first effort, they would unquestionably hold a sacrosanct space in the ‘60s canon. Recorded around the same time as Sgt. Pepper (not after, which is noteworthy), The Doors helped establish the possibility that a rock and roll album could—and should—be a complete, fully-formed statement. If, inevitably, this raising of the artistic bar inexorably led to unwelcome excesses, such as the progressive rock “concept album” in the early-to-mid ‘70s, it also elevated the music from the short, fluff-filled releases of the early-to-mid ‘60s.

A propitious way to create a near perfect album is to begin with an indelible opening salvo, and “Break on Through”, the first song and first single, still sounds fresh and essential 40 years later. This song delivers in every way: a signature sound (nothing else, then or now, sounds anything like this) and an urgency that balances aggression and acumen, in under three minutes. In terms of influence, it should suffice to say that the testimonials from bands in subsequent generations are numerous, and from a historical perspective, this dark but dynamic concision anticipates punk rock every bit as much as, say, The Velvet Underground.

Let’s face it, one reason it is so easy, even imperative, to poke fun at the Doors is because Manzarek himself, who has been anything but tongue-tied in interviews over the years, seems entirely too eager to elucidate the ways in which the band consciously emulated John Coltrane while composing their most important song. It might have behooved him a bit to understand that the considerable majority of even the most proficient jazz musicians are wary of drawing any sort of overt comparisons to Coltrane (mostly because the first thing it does is amplify the rather extreme divergence between the very good and the Great). And yet. Robby Krieger, through lessons and discipline, had developed a facility on the flamenco guitar before moving on to amplified blues, then rock; John Densmore received classical training and played in jazz bands for years; Manzarek too had classical training. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of musicians (in rock and even in jazz) who have all the technique and ambition in the world, but cannot craft truly original, irrevocable melodies. Only the most obstreperous haters will deny that, as a tune, “Light My Fire” is irresistible … at least the first million times.

Only the authority and influence of the first album keeps its follow-up somewhat in its shadow. More than a few fans, however, might insist that Strange Days is actually superior. Overall, the sophomore effort (also released in 1967) sounds more tied to its time, but as an artifact of that era, it holds its own all these years later. Not unlike the first album, Strange Days features an extended closing statement, the more straightforward but also more calculated (and less arresting) anthem “When The Music’s Over”. To its credit, the band did not ardently attempt to duplicate the formula that worked so well the first time around (not that this would have been possible anyway), and were willing, even eager, to take some risks. The results are mixed, but mostly very good and occasionally exceptional. For starters, the somewhat overproduced title track (with its dated echo effects on the vocal) might not catch LSD in a bottle like “Break On Through”, but it more than adequately conveys, lyrically and musically, a foreboding menace that anticipates the not-so-loving summer of ’68:

Strange eyes fill strange rooms
Voices will signal their tired end
The hostess is grinning
Her guests sleep from sinning
Hear me talk of sin and you know this is it.

Love (or even tolerance) of the group’s next two albums is what separates the cautious Doors fans from the true believers: each is extremely brief with several throwaways and a handful of the band’s better moments. Waiting For the Sun is the one that almost never got made, discourtesy of Morrison’s now chronic capriciousness; the antics that bolstered his myth, but more often than not derailed the delicate act of making good music. The obvious example of this dynamic is epitomized by the song that is not on the album. An ambitious composition, “The Celebration of the Lizard”, based on a poem by Morrison, was intended to fill up an entire side of the album. For myriad reasons (Morrison’s histrionics in the studio, the inability to record songs when the singer didn’t bother making it to the studio, general lethargy and uninspired musical ideas), the band never came close to a worthwhile take, and fans would have to wait a couple of years to hear a version on Absolutely Live!. A section of the song survived, and based on the quality of “Not To Touch The Earth”, it might have been the group’s masterpiece.

The title track of The Soft Parade, a cut and paste job of previously uncompleted shreds and fragments, manages to be messy, embarrassing and brilliant, sometimes all at once. Take it or leave it, no other band would ever conclude a song with the words, “When all fails we can whip the horse’s eyes / And make them sleep, and cry”. In between accelerated turns in his coffin, Dostoyevsky had to grin at least a little bit. To be certain, this is a trillion light years from “Soul Kitchen” or “People Are Strange”, but the horns and strings and somewhat indulgent envelope-pushing prove that the Doors were anything but a self imitating machine. Like any other group that endures through successive generations, their songs have an authentic, instantly identifiable sound; even when—as is often the case—the actual songs sound nothing alike. Untalented opportunists have sold their souls for much less, and in fact are doing so right now on prime time TV.

Morrison Hotel was, rightly, lauded as a stunning return to form, although that appraisal is only halfway accurate. It was a return to the days when the Doors put out unreservedly great records, but Morrison Hotel is nothing at all like its predecessors. A stripped down, blues-flavored affair, the entire band is on fire, with Krieger continuing to make a case for being perhaps the most under appreciated guitarist in a major rock group. From the moment this sucker hit the streets, one needed only a cursory glance at the revealing band photo spread out across the inside foldout cover (for those who can recall that album covers were minor works of art in their own right; for those who can recall albums): in a bar, sporting casual threads, surrounded by cigarette smoking, unpretentious patrons, this is a group that had lived a little but was still alive.

If the first two Doors albums are drugs, they’d be of the decidedly psychedelic variety; the next couple are a dangerous cocktail of amphetamines and Quaaludes—highs and lows surging in an uneasy rush. Morrison Hotel is beer: authentic, unfiltered, as American as it gets. Plain and simple, some of the band’s most indispensable material appears on this one, and the tone is set with ballsy assurance on the familiar opener, “Roadhouse Blues”. It is the next song, however, that showcases what this new and improved model sounded like. “Waiting for the Sun” is ominous, yet inviting; there are traces of the psychedelic fog, mostly thanks to Manzarek, but it’s Krieger and Densmore (along with raw and refreshingly live-sounding vocals from Morrison) that propel this song into a new decade. Significantly, the band finally had the wherewithal to complete a track intended to appear on the earlier album that bore its name.

If Morrison Hotel served as an unequivocal acknowledgment that the ‘60s were over (on multiple levels, not least of which the literal one), then L.A. Woman is another stride toward the future. It remains more than a little tantalizing to conjecture what, and how much, ammunition the band had up their collective sleeves, but judging solely on the increasing quality of their final two recordings, it is reasonable to lament some spectacular music that never had the opportunity to get made. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Doors album without some drama. This time, producer Paul Rothchild decided the band was a spent force, or, he had done all he could do to wrangle what he felt were acceptable versions of the assembled works in progress. Based solely on the strength of the eventual results, one wonders what he was thinking. In an inspired move based mostly on necessity, the band rallied around longtime engineer Bruce Botnick and decided to record the album pretty much live in the studio. What happened next could be a combination of luck, skill and the innate advantages of a band operating like a family, but whatever it was, the songs recall what worked so well on Morrison Hotel but also go places the band had not come close to approaching thus far. One obvious difference was the group’s employment of an actual bassist (Jerry Scheff) as well as a rhythm guitarist (Marc Benno); where the band had utilized session bassists on and off, it’s no coincidence that the meatier, bluesier sound is directly attributable to these welcome additions.

One of the great one-two punches in the Doors’ catalog concludes side one: “Cars Hiss By My Window” is arguably the band’s best song that no one has heard:

Headlights through my window, shinin’ on the wall
Can’t hear my baby, though I call and call …
Windows started trembling with a sonic boom
A cold girl will kill you, in a darkened room.

If you gave Lightnin’ Hopkins a lot of acid, he might have sounded something like this: lower than mellow, aged way beyond his years, but still seeing the sweetness and the humor and mostly telling it like it is. As straightforward as this song is, it is deceptively deep and reveals the considerable dividends of Scheff and Benno’s presence. Morrison’s human guitar howl at the end of the song sets up a sublime segue into what might be the band’s ultimate song. The title track is not as long or loquacious as the epics that closed out the first two albums, and while it is every bit as dark, it is also accessible and direct, a love letter and farewell note to the city the singer embodied:

I see your hair is burning
Hills are filled with fire
If they say I never loved you
You know they are a liar …
Are you a lucky little lady in the City of Light
Or just another lost angel … City of Night.

Morrison captured L.A. for the ages, and notably, he did not need to status-check at the Chateau Marmont to conjure it up. The city was in his blood: it was the back-alley bars, rat-trap hotels and squalid side streets that he prowled, equal parts inspiration and escape. So much dissipated potential, to be certain, but it’s also reasonable to suggest that his accelerated stretch in the spotlight enabled him to write the songs on L. A. Woman, not unlike Malcolm Lowry’s extended period of self destruction instigated Under the Volcano.

There will always be plenty of speculation about how much more Morrison could have done, what he might have achieved, what other things he had to say. On the other hand, looking back on the way he left things, what more needed to be said?

When it comes to the Doors, the world generally breaks into two camps: those who hate them and those who do not. Amongst those who do not, there are those who like them, and those who really like them. And then there are the real fans. This is not an uncommon spectrum for any well-known band, but considering the Doors released their last official album in 1971, their continued relevance—and the cult of personality disorder Morrison still enjoys—is impressive and more than a little inscrutable (and, for the haters, more annoying than anything else). Amongst the critics, the so-called experts, there tends to be an increasing dichotomy: those who regard Morrison as a poetic genius (or better still, a poet), a Lord Byron of the late 20th century; and those who actually read some poetry after high school and consider him a clown, a poseur whose laughable lyrics don’t merit a second thought.

The reality, as it often insists on being, remains pretty squarely in the middle. Compared to the Romantic poets, like Shelley or Keats, Morrison ain’t much (then again, who is?); although, compared to the Beats—as he often is—he comes off okay. And if that assessment tends to underscore the observation that the Beats weren’t all that, so be it. The only pertinent criteria should be: when measured against rock musicians who came before and after him, Morrison more than holds his own. The list of articulate wordsmiths who tower above the Lizard King is substantial, but the number of those who cower beneath him is incalculable.

And so, in spite of Oliver Stone’s best efforts to immortalize a few of his favorite things (About Jim Morrison? About the ‘60s? About himself? All of the above?), he mostly achieved—in his inimitably over-the-top way—the opposite of what he ostensibly intended: a hysterically sophomoric parody that celebrated virtually every irritating trait that made Morrison an insufferable man-child much of the time. Suffice it to say, his tantrums as well as the evidence of his untapped potential have been abundantly documented by a variety of individuals who, unlike Stone, had the advantage of actually being there, and being sane.

Morrison, like Hemingway, or (insert-name-of-notoriously-tortured-artist), had periods of productivity that preceded or followed, or happened alongside the drugging, drinking, and debauchery. Not focusing on (or even acknowledging) his more mundane—if lucid—moments is somewhat understandable given the constraints of a two hour movie, but it does any artist a considerable disservice to trivialize the efforts and industry that commonly accompany even the slightest of achievements. To be certain, Morrison was seldom sober in the recording studio, but that’s one reason he wasn’t a novelist. It is also why he is no longer alive. Oliver Stone’s ass-backwards hagiography is a quintessential slab of outsider’s groupie-envy, and despite what he may actually have intended, he turned his hero into a rather uninteresting cartoon character. In the final analysis, Morrison may have cared too little about his life, but he cared a great deal about his work.

Did you know freedom exists in a schoolbook?
Did you know madmen are running our prisons
Within a jail, within a gaol
Within a white free protestant maelstrom?
We’re perched headlong on the edge of boredom.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Morrison, not to praise him…

Well, at least the carefully manufactured, sacrilegious icon, fashioned from that most contemptible of forces: the artless imitators who seek to project their own half baked and unrealized rock star fantasies and, of course, the soulless record execs, whose gluttony launched a thousand greatest hits collections. And it hasn’t exactly helped that the people who claim to love him best have done the most to consummate and capitalize on the pseudo-mythology of a man who somehow gets younger every year. Death has been very good to Morrison, but it’s been even better for those who continue to profit from his fleeting but fruitful body of work. Not to mention his body.

This is not the end, my friends: despite misguided movies and the money-driven marketing machine, the music does endure simply because it continues to resonate with an always expanding audience. Forty years after “Light My Fire” Jim Morrison, to borrow an infamous headline, is still hot, he is still sexy, and he is still dead. But mostly, the Doors are very much alive.

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