Lighting Fires in 1967: The First Album by The Doors

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There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception – Aldous Huxley

A year ago today I wrote about the year 1966 in popular music. 1966 was a watershed. Greying, traditional singers and song interpreters were being pushed down the record charts by young rebels sporting Beatle haircuts, paisley shirts, and leather boots, many of whom wrote their own songs. Blues, soul, surf, and folk music were colliding head-on with ringing guitars, creamy vocal harmonies, and an infectious rock backbeat. This musical amalgam was both fresh and exciting. But… just under the surface of this “jangle pop,” unknown forces were bubbling.

The leading lights in rock music – the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones – had sampled hallucinogenic drugs by 1967. In addition to being curious about mind expansion via chemical transport, they also wanted to explore the architecture and limitless tapestry of sound, language, and ideas. Instead of merely an affirmative “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” a lot of probing questions were being raised. Minds were floating downstream, and mothers were now standing in the shadows.

1966 was also the year the Beatles stopped touring to concentrate on recording, and the year of John Lennon’s incendiary (at least, in America) comment “I don’t know which will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”

January 1967 was ripe for revolutionary music like that of the Doors.

I was 9 when I first heard the Doors’ single “Light My Fire” on AM radio. Although a truncated, radio-friendly version of the album cut, this song’s hypnotic rhythms, exotic instrumentation, and potent vocals temporarily pushed the Beatles and Monkees out of my head (and it’s still my favorite song). But not until college, when I scraped some dollars together for the first eponymous Doors album, was I really able to grasp this band’s awesome power.

The Doors were maybe the world’s first “existential” band. They somehow were able to marry rock and blues music with Nietzsche, Blake, Freud, and Eastern mysticism, yet still managed to have hits and make teenage girls swoon… as well as older women. My mother heard me playing that first album one day during summer break:

“Peter, who is that singer?” she yelled down to the basement.

“His name’s Jim Morrison.”

“I love his singing! I haven’t heard a voice like that since Frank Sinatra!”

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Engineer Bruce Botnick, producer Paul Rothchild, singer Jim Morrison.  Botnick and Rothchild had a large role in the making of the first Doors album.

Before long she was joining me in the basement to gaze at the rock god pictured on my album sleeve, as well as listen to the songs – which include the climactic finale “The End.” If you’re familiar with the lyrics to “The End,” you’ll understand how awkward an experience this was for me.

Anyway, I could rattle on and on about the Doors and that first explosive album, a true classic, unleashed to the world on January 4, 1967. But others have reviewed it much better, and I only have so much space here. So here’s merely a quick song-by-song summation:

Break on Through (To the Other Side): the first single, and maybe the definitive Doors song. Beastly, guttural, and relentless, I’ve always thought of it as an aural interpretation of sexual intercourse. But that’s just me.

Soul Kitchen: sneering and funky, and a perfect follow-up to the opener. Something strange is being cooked up in this kitchen. Not sure what it is, but it’s pulling me inside.

The Crystal Ship: a gorgeous song. Drummer John Densmore has said it’s about Morrison’s breakup with a girlfriend, but there are many other interpretations.

Twentieth Century Fox: this song ties in Morrison’s and organist Ray Manzarek’s film studies at UCLA. But I don’t think Morrison is singing about Shirley Temple.

Alabama Song (Whisky Bar): written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, from their satirical opera “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” it’s the song that convinced Elektra founder Jac Holzman to sign the Doors, after seeing them perform it at the Whisky a Go Go in L.A. One of the strangest covers ever chosen for a rock LP, it nonetheless shows how eclectic the band was.

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Elektra Records founder and CEO, Jac Holzman

Light My Fire: written by guitarist Robbie Krieger, the short version of the Doors’ second single climbed to No. 1 in July 1967, and the band never looked back. The album version, with both a keyboard and guitar solo, is far more riveting. José Feliciano later had a No. 3 hit with a Latin-tinged acoustic rendition.

Back Door Man: a lot of old blues songs were covered in the ‘60s, most not very well. One notable exception is Cream’s version of Robert Johnson‘s “Cross Road Blues.” Another is this Willie Dixon song, which the Doors made into their own. Morrison was still in the soul kitchen, only now he was sampling long-legged chicken.

I Looked at You/End of the Night/Take it As It Comes: I lumped these three songs together because they’re similar in tone and structure and seem to comprise three sections of one song, and they also provide a slow glide into the final song. Dark and sinister, the key song/line for me is “Some are born to sweet delight/Some are born to the endless night.” The universe can be a hostile and indifferent place.

Suddenly, we arrive at…

The End: I didn’t know what to make of this 12-minute epic when I first heard it. It’s less a song than a series of short poems set to psychedelic raga. Morrison sounds like he’s intoning a dark sermon, taking the voyeuristic listener on a weird journey into goldmines, riding on snakes and blue buses. The section about the killer walking down the hall is chilling (Truman Capote‘s seminal non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood” was published just before the song was recorded).

Unbelievably, “The End” was recorded in only two takes. According to Holzman, the second half of Take 2 was so intense that, as the closing notes faded, producer Paul Rothchild turned to him in the booth, and with a stunned look said “Jac, this is why we do what we do.”

(Thanks for letting me share one of my favorite albums… stay tuned, because in March I’ll be recognizing the 50-year anniversary of another classic debut: “The Velvet Underground and Nico”).

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Book Talk: Harper Lee and John Densmore

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This is an unlikely pairing of authors, I’ll admit. A Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and a ‘60s rock drummer?? But each has a couple interesting books in the news, so I’d like to talk about them.

First, Harper Lee. She is, of course, the celebrated author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I’d rank this book in the Top 10 of American novels (and the film, starring Gregory Peck, is just as good). It’s a semi-autobiographical tale of how three children lose their innocence during the Jim Crow era in an isolated Alabama town (think moonshine, racial violence, rural poverty and weirdness… classic Southern Gothic stuff). “Mockingbird” was darkly compelling, alternately grotesque and transcendent, and it took America by firestorm when it was published in 1960.mockingbird book

But Lee was never comfortable as a celebrity, and she disappeared from public view long ago – not unlike her ghostly character Arthur “Boo” Radley. She never wrote another book.

However, this week the 88-year-old was pulled into the spotlight when news of a second book by her appeared. It’s called “Go Set a Watchman,” and Lee actually penned it before “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It deals with the main character, Scout. But instead of being a young tomboy, Scout’s a mature woman who revisits her hometown to visit her father, Atticus Finch (the Christ-like hero of “Mockingbird”). Lee intended this book to be her debut, but her editor wisely convinced her to instead focus on a story dealing with flashbacks to Scout’s youth. The result was “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The announcement of the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” has been met with skepticism and criticism. Was Lee pressured to authorize the release? Did the recent death of Lee’s elder sister Alice, who was her firewall against public scrutiny, influence the publication? Will the book, a fledgling attempt by an amateur writer whose editor shelved it, tarnish Lee’s legacy?

Times have changed since 1960. At one time, books – good, bad, or indifferent – were honored upon their release with insightful opinion by knowledgeable literary reviewers. But as one New York Times writer noted, “Internet culture, where a one-star Goodreads review by a 14-year-old can be as persuasive to some as a book critic’s 1,200-word newspaper essay, has leveled the field.”

Harper Lee is from the “old school.” In 2006, she famously emerged from seclusion and wrote a letter to Oprah Winfrey about her fascination with books when she was a child.

Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.

I’m with you, Ms. Lee.

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“To Kill a Mockingbird” came out in 1960. Five years later, two UCLA film students joined two Maharishi adherents and formed a band called The Doors. They released one of the most phenomenal rock music albums in history. This musical debut was just as darkly compelling and powerful as Harper Lee’s literary debut.

I’m a big fan of The Doors. I bought their eponymous first record after my freshman year in college (summer of 1978). It was just before a huge Doors revival, which was ignited by publication of singer Jim Morrison’s sordid biography “No One Here Gets Out Alive,” the spoken poetry album “An American Prayer,” and the movie “Apocalypse Now,” which featured the band’s music.

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I liked everything about the band. Morrison’s looks and voice intrigued me (and to be honest, his mysterious early death). And as an impressionable and introspective English student, his Blake and Nietzsche-inspired song lyrics also appealed to me. But I especially liked the music. Clever, tight arrangements. Moody vocals. Ray Manzarek’s Tin Pan Alley keyboards. John Densmore’s creative jazz percussion. And guitarist Robbie Krieger had penned perhaps my all-time favorite song, “Light My Fire,” a stoned psychedelic classic that sent shivers through my tiny frame when I first heard it on the radio in 1967.

Today, I occasionally jump on the nostalgia train and pull out one of my old Doors records. Only recently I learned that drummer John Densmore had self-published a book in 2013: “The Doors: Unhinged.” Most of the stuff I’d already read about Morrison and the band I considered sensationalized junk. But I did sort of like Densmore’s earlier book, “Riders on the Storm,” a confessional memoir about his rocky relationship with the mercurial Morrison. So I decided to look into “Unhinged.”

The subtitle of the book is “Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial.” And as I soon learned, this legacy literally went on trial, because Densmore actually took his two surviving bandmates to court. These shenanigans are nothing new. unhingedMembers of rock bands have been squabbling in court ever since The Beatles crumbled. But usually it’s a fight over royalty payments. What makes Densmore’s legal battle unique is that he was fighting not to make money. Yes, you heard right.

In 2002, Manzarek and Krieger teamed to form The Doors of the 21st Century, a band devoted to resurrecting old Doors songs. Problem was, all of the advertisements displayed “of the 21st Century” in microscopic print! Also, Morrison’s name was frequently invoked to advertise the band – without his permission, of course.

Densmore contacted Krieger to complain that his and Manzarek’s actions stank of exploitation. But Manzarek and Krieger persisted. Densmore managed to enlist the help of Morrison’s family (including Morrison’s elderly father, George Stephen Morrison, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy), and they filed a lawsuit. This book discusses the long trial, which at one point resorted to the seedy and timeworn tactic of character assassination.

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The short-lived Doors of the 21st Century. L-R: Manzarek, Ian Astbury, Krieger, Stewart Copeland (ex-Police)

But there’s a larger theme to Densmore’s book. Densmore asks “How much money is enough?” for people who are already wealthy. He discusses what he calls the “greed gene,” which propels some individuals and corporations to amass and hoard ungodly amounts of money, while others struggle to eke out a living.

Of course, Densmore’s not a scientist or economist, and he uses the term “greed gene” only in a rhetorical sense. And this book won’t win a Pulitzer Prize. But it’s refreshing because, despite being a wealthy rock musician, Densmore comes across as an “everyman,” and an unlikely crusader. You don’t often hear rock stars turning down easy money to stand on principle. But the man backs up what he says.

Case in point: as the trial progressed, Manzarek and Krieger countersued Densmore for refusing to co-sign a contract with Cadillac, who wanted to use the Doors song “Break on Through” for a TV commercial. Densmore was the only one of the three to balk (“What’s next,” he asks, “’Break on Through’ to a new deodorant??”). He didn’t want to cheapen the band’s legacy, nor the integrity of one of their strongest songs. In the process, he showed how much integrity and strength he has: the Cadillac deal would’ve grossed the band $15 million!

Recent photo of Doors drummer John Densmore

Recent photo of Doors drummer John Densmore

But what does the “legacy” of Jim Morrison have to do with all this? According to Densmore, when Morrison was alive the band was approached by Buick, who wanted to use “Light My Fire” in one of their commercials. The other three were all eager to sign. But the Lizard King nixed the idea. He also insisted the band share equally in the song copyrights, and added a clause to their contract that each of the members had veto power. In true Sixties, hippie counterculture fashion, he wanted the band to be a self-contained democracy. No dictators, no power plays, no selling out to corporate America. The music would take precedence over the money. Sort of a rare thing these days, don’t you think?

One could argue that all this was just pie-in-the-sky idealism. After all, another part of Morrison’s legacy was anarchy and self-destruction. But the fact that Densmore still lives by the band’s original credo is, to me, admirable. Yes, the hippies made mistakes. Many were hangers-on, young hedonists merely latching onto fashion. But Densmore believes the Sixties also planted a lot of seeds, some little and some big, and many of them are now in full bloom… or, if not, they just need a little fertilizing to help them grow. He urges all of us to get out our “watering cans.”

Like Harper Lee, John Densmore is also “old school.” Which is fine by me.

By the way, he won the court case.

 

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