Letters @ 3AM
By Michael Ventura
DECEMBER 8, 1997: We played "Light My Fire" too damn many times -- so many that maybe some of us have forgotten how to hear it. We quoted "I am the Lizard King" out of context way too often. We gazed at Jim Morrison's fatally photogenic lushness for too long, and left too many flowers on his grave. "Break on Through" played in bedrooms on too many nights when no one broke through. Books on the Doors spent too much time on bestseller lists. Writers like me all came up with the same adjectives and reached pretty much the same conclusions; the word "shaman," in connection with Morrison, got as worn and soiled as an old dollar bill. Which is to say: Through an understandable but insidious penchant for repetition, the people for whom this music was once new have smudged the thrill we felt when these songs first came out of nowhere and beckoned us to follow their dark and shining call. So we think we know what the Doors are about, just because we've had three decades to muse upon them. We think we can open these doors of magic and close them again at will -- though Morrison died because he couldn't shut those doors behind him.
But now the band has decided to strip us of what we think we know about them. They've decided, in their new box set -- titled, appropriately enough, The Doors Box Set -- to expose us all over again to their raw mojo. For this is a set like no other. But then, the Doors never played by the rules.
Play these CDs, listen (or rather, subject yourself) to the audacious numbers they've selected, and you pass through their door.
Are you sure you really want to?
For it's the door these men went through long ago, when they were still boys, and from which they've never returned, not really, no matter how respectably the surviving Doors live now. See, their door doesn't lead to any Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (though they were "inducted," as we used to say of the draft) -- a museum where the music is treated like some sort of sport and all you need's a good average (high sales figures, juicy legend) to get in. No, their door opens not to a Hall of Fame but to a hall in flames, and why would you want to charge into a burning building?
A burning building of sound. A building that's burned for decades without extinguishing itself, a profane urban version of the Bible's Burning Bush. Not "greatest hits" music, but dancing-around-the Burning-Bush music.
If you're looking for nostalgia, go buy a Beatles box. Nobody's selling nostalgia here. Opening this set is a live recording of "Five to One" done in Miami in 1969. Jim Morrison is a shock: not the soft, throaty, mellifluous tones of the studio recordings, but a bawdy, overbearing, crazed, drunken voice. "Nobody here gonna come up and love me, eh? Alright for you, baby. That's too bad. I'll get somebody else. Yeahhh!" When he hits the line "No one here gets out alive," it's not a metaphorical idea. There's an alcoholic codger screaming through this youth's voice, a creep who's weighed all the reasons people give for digging this music and has found those reasons wanting. He sees through us and stops the music to say so:
"You're all a bunch of fuckin' idiots! Lettin' people tell you what you're gonna do! Lettin' people push you around! How long do you think it's gonna last?! How long are you gonna let it go on?! Maybe you like it! Maybe you like being pushed around! Maybe you love it! Maybe you love gettin' your face stuck in the shit! You love it, dontchya?! You're all a buncha slaves! Whata you gonna do about it, whata you gonna do about it???!!!"
Robbie Krieger's guitar screams along with Morrison's voice, Ray Manzarek's keyboard and John Densmore's drums up the ante, until Jim comes back with something that won't make our No-Smoking-in-the-Family-Values-Nineties happy:
"Now come on, honey, now you go along home and wait for me, sweetheart, I'll be there in just a little while. You see I gotta go out in this car with these people -- and get -- fuuuuuucked uuuuuuuup." Then he swings back into the lyric, Krieger and Manzarek going nuts behind him while Densmore's drum is unforgiving, running you over, leaving no room for doubt.
But they're not done yet. (And remember: This is just the first cut of this box.) Just to make it crystal-ship clear, Morrison rants some more: "Hey, I'm not talking about no revolution! I'm talkin' about havin' some fun! I'm talkin' about love love love love grab your fuckin' friend an' love him come on!"
As if to demonstrate the difference between Doors-up-close-and-dangerous and Doors-snug-in-the-studio, the maddened "Five to One" is followed by a dulcet "Queen of the Highway," an outtake from a 1970 session. The Doors are letting you know they have many faces, many impulses, and they've forgotten none of them. This music is an invitation to take love to the point of madness, and beyond. That's the door that the Doors were and are about.
So maybe you shouldn't listen to this music. Maybe you should stay away from it. Because it's not good for your peace of mind, and was never meant to be. For this was always music about absurdity amidst a quest for meaning, cruelty within a longing for tenderness, erotic ecstasy that threatened to overflow into erotic oblivion -- a demolition derby of impulses and revelations that climaxed, as the Doors stated so plainly, in a little game called go insane.
The version of that tune in this box set is the original demo, Manzarek playing a demented carnival-esque honky-tonk piano riff while Morrison screeches with a voice that seems to come not out of his throat but out of his spinal cord. It's a sound that strips all possible romanticism from insanity, and yet insists on both insanity's truth and its inevitability. If you don't explore this part of yourself, the music says with no let-up, then you don't know yourself. And there isn't a song here that isn't overtly or covertly about exactly that: Go insane, because you already are insane if you'd only admit it, and you won't know yourself if you don't explore it. Stare into the darkness until you can see. The Doors suggest that what you find isn't always pretty but it's better than being blind. Turn out the lights. Now, look.
You may or may not agree with that message, but that's this music. "All the children are insane." A line recognized as truth by a considerable population of young people.
And this stance, if you want to call it that, is why the Doors have remained so present, so current, to the young for 30 years now. Because the Doors weren't saying that the world was insane, or the Sixties were insane, or Vietnam or our parents or history were insane. The Doors said over and over that we were insane. And we've responded because that's how we've felt. Several times in this box Morrison yells, "I ain't talkin' about no revolution." What the Doors' music was about was not revolution but transformation. Revolution was pointless to him; he believed nothing could satisfy our lusts but an utter, uncompromising transformation.
When this music was being played three decades ago, many thought that rock & roll would make that transformation possible, even inevitable. But the Doors had seen through that already. Included in this box is a drunken studio set, which, like most of this material, is released here for the first time. Morrison saying over the music, "Now I didn't wanta be the one to lay it on you, sweetheart... I used to think I had the whole thing sewed up. Then I realized: Rock & roll is dyyyyyyiiiiiing, baby. Rock is dead... Help! Help! Help! I'm dying!"
It was as though the Doors could see the sell-it-down-their-throats slick industrial machine "pop" would become; as though they knew that writers would soon call it "pop" rather than "rock"; as though they knew that rock would inevitably become part of the problem rather than part of the solution -- would become part of the problem no matter how we loved it, part of the problem because we loved it, because our love itself was the whole problem. Beneath it all, love's needs and abysses and extravagances and compromises are what both haunt and drive these songs ("Hitler is alive, I slept with her last night"), so our love and need of rock would eventually kill it. We need look no further for the meaning of Morrison's death.
"I see the world as a great big dream/And all night long you can hear me scream," the Doors stated in one of their last sessions in 1971, pre-dating punk by several years, and there's no point romanticizing any of it. Just look at it, listen to it, feel its truth, feel its lies, decide for yourself, don't be a slave, don't flinch.
"Keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel."
It was always good advice.
A version of this piece is included in the liner notes of The Doors Box Set
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