Friday, August 5, 2011
Melody Maker, 13 April 1991
by Simon Reynolds
It’s almost impossible to have a natural, unforced response to The Doors' music, to hear it clearly through the encrustation of platitudes left by the 20 year criss-cross of mythologisation and debunking. In recent years, the only pop figure to suffer a similar fate of over-analysis is Prince. This probably explains why, in cooler-than-thou circles, it's hip to argue that both Purple Imp and Lizard King are absurdly overrated; nobody likes the taste that clichés leave in the mouth.
Unlike Prince or other over-explicated phenomenons (The Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Presley), Jim Morrison gave the critics a headstart by providing his own, extremely lucid commentary on what he was trying to do. In The Doors' very first press release, Morrison declared, "I am interested in anything to do with revolt, disorder, chaos, and especially activity that seems to have no meaning". Morrison was remarkably conscious about his quest for unconsciousness, supremely self-possessed in his pursuit of self-loss. Perhaps that's why he drank so much – a crash course in how to ‘learn to forget’, an escape route from self-built cage of having it all worked out in advance.
Jim Morrison was the first pop deity to stage-manage his own self-mythologisation, to have a critical understanding of the mythical dimensions of rock 'n' roll. While that newly born species, the rock critic, was making its first stumbling comparisons between pop and Greek tragedy (Richard Meltzer), and its first paeans to the Dionysian madness of pop (Nik Cohn, Lester Bangs), Morrison was already articulating all that in his songs, in his performance, in his life. He was the prototype of the critically-minded rock deviant (Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, Perry Farrell, et al).
Morrison had a voracious appetite for what Meltzer calls "edge substances" (LSD, peyote, amyl nitrate, dope, alcohol). But more important were the cultural edge substances: Artaud's Theatre Of Cruelty; Blake's "doors of perception"; Celine's "journey to the end of the night"; Rimbaud's "sacred disorder of the mind"; Baudelaire's "perpetual drunkenness". From these Romantic and decadent influences Morrison derived the idea of the artist as a "broker in madness", an explorer of the frontier territories of the human condition.
But the most lethal intoxicant that Jim Morrison ever imbibed was the febrile writings of poet-philosopher Friedrich Nietzche. In his memoir Riders On The Storm, Doors drummer John Densmore goes so far as to say "Nietzche killed Morrison". Nietzche's Birth Of Tragedy has been described as "a philosophical road map to The Doors"; from it, Morrison drew the opposition between Apollonian art versus Dionysian art. Apollonian art promotes contemplation, calms the soul and ultimately serves social stability. Dionysian art, named after the god of drunkenness, incites pagan delirium, derangement of the senses, and the volcanic eruption within man of the untamed forces of Nature.
For Morrison, Dionysian music meant pre-castration Presley, the Stones, the blues. Apollonian pop? Well, he died before he could suffer the socially conscientious pop of The Style Council or Sting. But there was a distinctly Apollonian tenor to the counter culture: a longing to return to the garden of paradise, to a lost tranquility and order. As a Dionysian, Morrison believed that nature wasn't benign but the enemy without and within – a wilderness that was both threatening and alluring, offering an "eclipse of the self". As Densmore puts it: "Jim's message was endarkenment", not the enlightenment sought by the Love Generation. The Doors lay somewhere between the black leather nihilism of the Velvet Underground and the kaleidoscopic bliss-out of West Coast psychedelia. It was fitting that their base was Los Angeles, the city whose vibe lay somewhere between San Francisco (idyllic, temperate, perpetual spring) and New York (vibrant, uptempo, nerve-edged). L.A. is as divorced from nature as New York, but less characterful, more phantasmic: city-as-wilderness, whose endless freeways offered a soulless version of the Beatnik dream of travelling but never arriving.
"Our music is like someone not quite at home," Morrison said. The Doors' version of psychedelic experience was one of the estrangement and disorientation (‘Strange Days’), not blissful communion with the cosmos. The Doors' songs did not sound trippy so much as uncanny. The root meaning of ‘uncanny’ is a feeling of not being at home in the world. Freud used "the uncanny" to refer to when an object or person seems to have an abnormal, ominous aura (literally, a shadow cast by the unconscious). Morrison actively sought out this feeling of disorientation, driven by Baudelaire's ‘Great Malady’ ("horror of one's own home"). As with most rebels, he equated domesticity with domestication, and thus castration. Morrison owned nothing and lived nowhere; he lived like a bum and by all accounts stank like one too.
Morrsion took the phallic model of of rebellion (transgression, penetration into the unknown) to the limit. But the ultimate outcome of that stance (the refusal to accept and affirm limits) ultimately leads nowhere. As Albert Goldman put it: "The flipside of breakthrough is estrangement. Once you've broken away, it's pretty bleak out there. The rebel cuts himself off." Morrison himself expressed regrets that The Doors had never done "a song that's a pure expression of pure unbounded joy... like the coming of spring, or a celebration of existence – a feeling of being totally at home." Instead, he stuck with the ‘dark side’. But as Densmore says: "Look where darkness gets ya!" – the gloom of the tomb.
The Oedipal psychodrama of ‘The End’ still divides opinion, but whether you reckon it an epic or embarrassingly contrived method melodrama, it takes us to the core of Morrison's rebellion. "Kill the father, f*** the mother" was Morrison's catechism. Basically it meant: reject all lawgivers (from the conscience to the State right up to God), accept no limits to desire. But according to Freud, it's the Oedipal complex that makes us human; if you do not go through the Oedipal trauma ie abandon the infant's delusions of omnipotence, you become psychotic. What the edge substances offered Morrison (the extremist art or deranging intoxicants that he indulged in) was a temporary trip into psychosis. And this connected with his ideas about the rock idol as shaman. "Shamans," said Morrison, "are professional hysterics, chosen precisely for their psychotic leaning... heroes who live for us and whom we punish."
Whether he genuinely had such a psychotic leaning, or merely aspired to it, Morrison's behaviour was an amalgam of asshole and visionary. His press officer, Danny Fields, described him as an "adorable monster." His lust to transcend the human condition necessarily meant that he also left behind such prosaic human decencies as punctuality, hygiene, consideration, moderation-in-all-things, and eventually bladder control. All these were the casualties of Morrison's drive to be a poet, rather than simply produce poems.
As for the status-as-poetry of his work, the jury's still out. Some reckon the Doors were best as a pop band – concise, punchy, sexy (‘Hello I Love You’, ‘Light My Fire’). I personally favour the more outrageously pretentious and over-reaching stuff: ‘The Soft Parade’ (nine minutes long, five different sections, intentionally hilarious lyrics like "cobra on my left, leopard on my right") or ‘The Celebration Of The Lizard’ (17-minute song-cycle of mystico-Freudian tosh that still prickles my flesh as it did when I was an impressionable 16-year-old). I can even find some merit in An American Prayer, the poetry album released posthumously, against Jimbo's wishes, with backing supplied by the surviving Doors; an album that is generally regarded as either a calamitous exposure of the singer's poetic pretensions, or as a rape of the poet's original vision.
Which brings us round to the matter of the current necrophiliac frenzy surrounding the dead Door: what would he have make of it? Yet more of the ghoulish voyeurism that drove him in later years to abuse his audiences and test their passivity to the limit? Vicarious living through someone else's exploits is the name of the game in pop; filtered through the lens of nostalgia, the prospect of real liberation seems remoter than ever. But who knows? Nietzche wrote that the effect of great music should be that "the future digs like a spur into the flesh of every present". Despite all the overkill of the present resurrection, maybe something of Jim Morrison's impossible dreams will abide unscathed and spur us to seize the time, not "waste the dawn".
(NB writing this now I would... A/ not sit on the fence quite as much B/ mention the music and the other members of The Doors at least once. Maybe thrice!
so bit more like the review below... but even that could testify a bit more than it does... )
THE DOORS, Perception (40th Anniversary Box)
Blender, 2006 [director's cut]
by Simon Reynolds
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.