THE DOORS, Perception (40th Anniversary Box)
Blender, 2006 [director's cut]
The Doors are the perfect band for when you’re seventeen, a time when you’re waking up to life’s possibilities, the future’s a wide-open frontier, and ten thousand volts of libido pulse through your flesh. In that highly impressionable and lusty state, a Doors classic like “The End”, with its Oedipal psychodrama and entrancing guitar-as-sitar aura of faux-Oriental mystery, sounds like the most profound and intense thing you’ll ever hear. Factor in the attractive shape of Jim Morrison’s life arc, its mythic surge through reckless hedonism to early death ensuring no embarrassingly twilight-of-the-idol comebacks or je-regrette-everything VH1 confessionals, and it’s easy to see why The Doors endure as the ultimate band for clever teenagers craving music that rocks hard but has some book-learnin’ under its belt.
Yet there are potent arguments in favour of the proposition that nobody much older than seventeen should really have an ounce of time for the man or his band. Wasn’t Morrison a real pig of a human being, a (literally) stinking drunk egomaniac who rampaged over most everybody he had any dealings with? Aren’t his poet-as-prophet pretensions insufferably clunky and self-aggrandising? When he goes into “erotic politician”/ counterculture-revolutionary mode (“Five To One”, “The Unknown Soldier”) doesn’t your skin just crawl off your bones and leave the room in embarrassment? Finally, the music itself--most of it’s kinda dated and overblown, surely? All those epic song-suites like “Celebration of the Lizard”, or worse, the dreary bleary blooze of “Backdoor Man” and “Maggie McGill”?
Yet Morrison is hardly short for company when it comes to rock’n’roll assholes who overdid the liquor, while his psychedelic doggerel is really no more cringe-worthy than John Lennon in LSD mode. People always forget Jimbo’s sense of humor, manifested in his surreal ad-libs-- “cobra to my left, leopard to my right” in “The Soft Parade”--and the sheer zest with which he threw himself into his shaman-as-buffoon persona. As for the music--most it still sounds pretty darn glorious.
It remains an unusual sound, not just because of the lead-instrument prominence of Ray Manzarek’s ornate keyboards but because of the way The Doors combined driving rhythm-and-blues with a cinematic clarity, thanks to spacious, glistening arrangements and production (more vivid than ever in this fabulously remastered incarnation). Robbie Krieger is an under-rated guitarist, his solos elegantly restrained, piercingly poignant, and mercifully succinct, while John Densmore’s drumming is deft enough to make a waltz rhythm swing on “Shaman’s Blues.”
The meat of the sound is hard-funking blues, but the Doors salted in all kinds of unlikely flavours: flamenco on “Spanish Caravan”, musique concrete on “Horse Latitudes”, Weimar-era cabaret with their cover of Brecht & Weill’’s “Alabama Song”, cocktail jazz with “Riders on the Storm”. They even bizarrely anticipate disco with one segment of the audacious song-suite “The Soft Parade”
Perception contains all six studio albums the Doors recorded before Morrison’s death, bolstered with the inevitable out-takes (a highlight of which is the demo prototype of “Celebration of the Lizard”) and partnered with DVDs of performance footage. You can retrace the band’s journey from the bold entrance of The Doors (their best album, if suffering slightly from over-exposure) through Strange Days (their darkest and most psychedelic album), onto Waiting For The Sun (their most confused and least satisfying), The Soft Parade (their funniest and most under-rated) and the alleged return-to-bluesy form of Morrison Hotel (their dreariest and most over-rated, while still containing plenty of gems) before winding up with LA Woman (their most accomplished and poignant). The latter’s title track, a freeway-rolling travelogue across Los Angeles with Morrison imagining their home city as a sad-eyed woman, is a last gasp of ragged glory that--and this is a rare example of the benefits of knowing your rock history--sounds all the more grand and moving because the singer wouldn’t be much longer for this world.
Morrison’s version of “the blues” owed as much to Frank Sinatra as Muddy Waters, and his sonorous majesty of tone and commanding cadences made him one of rock’s true originals as a vocalist. One measure of this eminence is how so many of the legion of Jim-itators are rock greats in their own right. Iggy Pop converted Morrison into the pure sexless monomania of punk rock, while Patti Smith adapted his persona to become the world’s first female rocker-as-shaman. Joy Division’s Ian Curtis translated the baritone-booming doomy side of The Doors into Goth, while Echo & The Bunnymen and Simple Minds conversely picked up on the music’s panoramic grandeur and wonderlust. And Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell updated Morrison’s excess-as-the-road-to-the-palace-of-wisdom shtick.
And is there any wisdom to be found at the end of that highway, or along the way? This is a more pinched era than the Sixties, its sense of adventure and entitlement often seeming impossibly remote. In hindsight, the freedom-chasing can look more like irresponsibility, the lust for “experience” weirdly close to a sort of spiritual greed. Yet in an era when seventeen year olds are confronted by a resurgent Puritanism that seeks to roll back the gains of the Sixties, forces of anti-life looking to constrain the scope for pleasure and adventure, there’s a certain imperishable truth and urgency to Morrison’s warning that “no eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn”. In a strange way, he was a true American patriot, his spirit as large as the land itself.