Sunday, 14 August 2011

The Doors - Dark Corridors

I've been listening to The Doors for the first time.  Really listening, I mean.  I've known of their music for years, had a tape or two in my collection, had them playing as I drove or read.  In fact it's hard to avoid them if you sometimes listen to the radio, or have neighbours who do.  They're one of those ubiquitous bits of our popular culture.  Yet this is the first time I've really set myself to listen properly.  Let me tell you, it's not for the fainthearted.

The Doors were formed in 1966 and burst onto public consciousness in 1967 with their self-titled first album.  Four years, seven albums and untold quantities of alcohol and narcotics later, it ended with Jim Morrison dead in a Paris hotel room.  The other three band members - keyboard player Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robbie Krieger and drummmer John Densmore - tried to continue but most of the creative spark departed with Morrison, singer, chief lyricist and creator of stage mayhem.

The band's name comes from a book called The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, in which he describes his experiences under the influence of the narcotic mescaline.  Huxley himself took the title from line of William Blake: "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite."  For Huxley, mescaline opened the door onto a wider spiritual experience, a heightened perception of reality which enables him to reflect on and deepen his understanding.  The Doors, however, open out onto a dark corridor, a labyrinth from which it seems impossible to escape.

In the era of the Summer of Love and Woodstock (peace, love and rock'n'roll), The Doors were countercultural even within the counterculture.  While their contemporaries were bringing an end to war and promoting the virtues of free love and equality, they were exploring the dark side of  being human.  Their live shows were unpredictable and dangerous, depending on Morrison's state of mind and blood alcohol level.  Sometimes they were electrifying, at other times shambolic.  Then there were the times when Morrison, bored with performing, would taunt the audience, or the police, into starting a riot.  Or the time in Miami when he allegedly exposed himself on stage, leading to a court case which was still unresolved at the time of his death. 

The closest they came to a peace song was Peace Frog.

Blood in the streets in the town of New Haven
Blood stains the roofs and the palm trees of Venice
Blood in my love in the terrible summer
Bloody red sun of Phantastic L.A.

Blood screams her brain as they chop off her fingers
Blood will be born in the birth of a nation
Blood is the rose of mysterious union.

The love songs are not much more encouraging.  There's the raw, loveless sex of Roadhouse Blues, or for something more sinister, the creepy stalker aleination of The Spy.

I'm a spy in the house of love
I know the dream, that you're dreamin' of
I know the word that you long to hear
I know your deepest, secret fear
I know everything
Everything you do
Everywhere you go
Everyone you know

Then, of course, there's Light My FireTheir most mainstream song and the closest thing they did to a "normal" love song courtesy of Robbie Krieger's lyric, it was nonetheless the centre of one of the more notorious incidents in their career.  They were asked to sing it on the Ed Sullivan Show, a guaranteed audience of millions, but they were also asked to change the lyric.

You know that it would be untrue
you know that I would be a liar
if I were to say to you
that we couldn't get much higher.

Apparently you couldn't say "higher" on national TV because it might be seen as a drug reference.  The Doors are not short on drug references but this doesn't seem to be one of them.  They agreed to the change beforehand, but during the live performance Morrison sang the original lyric anyway, leading to a public snub from Sullivan and widespread outrage which did nothing to harm their edgy outlaw reputation.

If only the CBS censors had looked at the next verse.

The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire.
Try now, we can only lose
and our love become a funeral pyre.

That's something it would have made sense to censor: a dangerous, even deadly love, a passion so risky it could kill you, the dark side of the Summer of Love.

In our more relaxed era, Light My Fire has become a staple of rock radio, its hypnotic keyboard part, growling vocal and skillfull solos standing the test of time.  However, you are not likely to hear The End on mainstream radio any time soon, with its terrifying Freudian spoken section.

The killer awoke before dawn, he put his boots on
He took a face from the ancient gallery
And he walked on down the hall
He went into the room where his sister lived, and...then he
Paid a visit to his brother, and then he
He walked on down the hall, and
And he came to a door...and he looked inside
"Father".  "Yes, son".  "I want to kill you."
"Mother...I want to..."

So why am I telling you all this?   Why would you let yourself be drawn into this dark, dangerous corridor, opening on rooms containing things you would rather not see?  Well, if you're like me you might listen purely for the music, the jazz-tinged instrumental virtuousity a cut above most 60's rock music, and Morrison's gruff baritone a change from the usual rock singer falsetto. 

However, there's another reason.  The public face we present to the world, the face of courtesy, respectability, kindness, peace, love, is only part of who we are.  Hiding behind is this other face, the face of despair and violence, the face of fear and hatred, the face of war and mayhem.  It's dangerous to look into this face.  Morrison died before he reached 30, trying to drown his demons in whisky and heroin.  There but for the grace of God go we.

*You can also check out my review of John Densmore's book Riders on the Storm here.


Anonymous said...

Interesting review charles.......the doors were and are a very influential band in my musical journey.....i first listened to them in the mid seventies when my brother Pat had their albums .....and I continued to be a fan ever since......certainly their sound/vibe was 'other wordly' and I have many adolescent memories associated to their music when I listen to it now... although that may be attributed to my altered state of mind at the time too!@!LOL.....RAT

Luke Isham said...

I like the way you surveyed them thematically and put them in a little context. You should do this again for some other music.