Published in Fusion Magazine
By Mitchell Cohen
The rock world was still staggering from the back-to-back deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin when they were suddenly and mysteriously joined in pop star heaven by Jim Morrison. Lead singer and chief honcho of The Doors.
Hendrix’s aura has been kept financially floating by virtue of many posthumous live albums and filmed tributes, and Joplin is currently hot copy as a result of two recent biographies and a court dispute over the nature of her death. Morrison is barely mentioned, even in the face of the three other Doors’ splintering off into two groups with freshly inked recording contracts. In the near future, we are told, Jerry Hopkin’s book on Morrison will appear in print, but in the meantime a re-evaluation of Morrison’s short career is most certainly in order.
Perhaps the reason for the lack of interest expressed in Jim Morrison is the rapid descent of his public appeal. The Doors peaked early, had on remarkably strong year or so, and then lost it. By the time of his death, Morrison was definitely on the skids. Yet for a while he and his group were one of rock’s premier attractions and in many ways, some fortunate and some not, one of the most influential.
In early 1967 the word on The Doors came from two sources: Crawdadd! And Murray the K’s WOR-FM show, where Buffalo Springfield proclaimed The Doors their favorite L.A. band. And The Doors’ debut album was a singularly special event on a year that was brimming with stellar first efforts (Moby Grape, Country Joe, the Springfield). There was something foreboding about The Doors, something candlelit about the lyrical imagery and entirely sensual about the instrumental interplay. One is tempted to describe them as, from the very first lines of their very first album (“You know the day destroys the night/Night divides the day”), the original dialectial rock band. Morrison the writer, oftem clumsily, self-consciously poetic, dealt in contradiction: light/dark, death/life, water/fire, to a greater extent than any other rock lyricist. In that winter, The Doors was an underground experience of mystery and intrigue.
By summer, of course, it was impossible to avoid “Light My Fire” and everpresent invocation that marks its time as precisely as Sgt. Pepper and that became a part of the general vocabulary. Around the same time, The Doors began appearing in convert on the east coast.
The initial live Doors shows were hardly satisfactory. On one, level, they were one of two prominent bands, along with The Rascals, who lacked an on-stage bass player. Ray Manzarek supplied the bass line on organ, though with less success than Felix for The Rascals and adding little fullness to the overall sound. More crucial, however, were Morrison’s shortcomings. He had yet to accommodate his live approach from what he used in clubs to one suited to the concert hall. The sets were short, 30-45 minutes, and consisted of rehearsed album material that was neither effectively staged nor good-naturedly spontaneous. At Ondine’s, the Village Theatre and Hunter College, The Doors failed to deliver the transcendent electricity promised by their recording. When their second album, Strange Days proved an uneven collection of restated themes and half-baked melodies, many of us had them figured as a burned-out flare.
As it happens, we were not far off the mark, but they still had some reserve life in the,. In March 1968, Bill Graham opened the Fillmore East and on the second weekend, following the Janis Joplin christening, we got to see one the most mesmerizing performances we could have hoped to witness. After dismal sets by Ars Nova and Chrome Syrcus, The Doors came out and spellbound an audience with a show of intensive drama and uncommonly well-played music. Manzarek, Krieger and Densmore locked into a wholly cohesive, responsive unit fronted by a man who appeared – and I know this is a poor word to toss around at the moment – possessed.
Rock theatre was what it was on that practically virginal Fillmore stage, and there had been nothing quite like it before in those days before Alice, David and Iggy. Lit by a single spot and accompanied by a subtle light show, Morrison dove head on into “When the Music’s Over” (an odd opener, we thought), plunging into a two-hour set that included the full-length version of “Celebration of the Lizard” a bizarre mixture of Marat/Sade theatricality, erotic rock and neo-beat poetics. What was remarkable was the absolute control that Morrison had over his material and over the audience. Over the previous summer a mess of marvelous rock was played in New York City by The Who, The Yardbirds, The Dead and many more groups who obviously surpassed The Doors in therms of rock kinetics and energy, but this was different. That was brilliant rock for dancing, shouting and destroying; this was Performance in a way that I don’t think that Jagger knew at the time.
At that concert, The Doors screened a short film cued to promote their newest single, “The Unknown Soldier,” It was a crude work, influenced, I know now, by Godard and Bunuel, and filled with Morrison-as-martyr iconography, simulated vomiting and political montage. And yet it worked. Morrison the U.C.L.A. film student knew how to use Morrison the performer in an effective manner and, as should be evident from his interviews and his book of poetry, he was both highly intuitive and intellectually curious about the theories and possibilities of cinema. It would have been no surprise had he became a competent, if heavy-handed, film-maker. “The Unknown Soldier” brought the crowd to its feet and for an encore The Doors did a new, extended “The End.” About a dozen of us stumbled from the Fillmore at 3:30 AM, went to a friend’s house, put on The Doors, smoked dope and talked about Morrison until sunrise and fatigue knocked us out.
Jim Morrison and The Doors were, at that moment, superstars. It was a very short moment. The follow-up single to “Soldier” was a lame Kink-derivative “Hello, I Love You,” and the third album, Waiting for the Sun, was uninspired. “Celebration of the Lizard” was printed on the inside of the uni-pack, but a mere four minutes of it was on the record (and a not very exciting four minutes at that). In black and white, moreover, it seemed silly, an unstructured tour-de-force by a mediocre poet. Sad. Then, on August 2, 1968 we traveled to Singer Bowl in Flushing to see what promised to be a killer show: The Doors and The Who (and the fine Barbara Keith-D.N. Smart band, Kangaroo). Even on a rotating stage, The Who were able to put over first rate rock and roll, but The Doors were another matter. Morrison, his harid cut and his paunch swelling, seemed not possessed but plastered, a mumbling wreck. The set was a mess and to make things worse, the stage stuck, leaving half the crowd with a view of naught but amplifiers. Morrison took to crawling about on his belly while the obstructed audience began tearing up their wooden seats and flinging them around the stadium. In hindsight, that looks like the beginning of the end for Morrison and The Doors.
They hung on with some minor hit singles- “Wishful, Sinful,” “Touch Me,” and a group of albums ranging from awful (The Soft Parade) to fair (L.A. Woman) to not bad at all (Morrison Hotel). There were some memorable television appearances on Ed Sullivan and Jonathan Winters (on which Morrison tore apart some scenery) and on a PBS special devoted to them that had Richard Goldstein and Al Aaronowitz debating their worth as well as the premiere of “The Soft Parade”, an epic work with all of the pretense and none of the style of their earlier attempts at this form (e.g., “The End). In the midst of this respectable but diminished success, Morrison whipped it out in Florida and the walls came tumbling down.
It wasn’t that the act itself was so outrageous-subsequent rock star activities make it seem restrained — but it represented a last desperate try for attention, for the type of riveted rapture that Morrison was once able to command with more than a microphone stand and a pair of leather pants. When he performed “Celebration” at the Fillmore he created an all-enveloping atmosphere that had the audience holding its collective breath. When that same piece finally appeared on an album, recorded live before another N.Y. audience, the hubbub in the background is so distracting that it throws off Morrison’s timing and reveals the work for the contrived hackery that it is.
The Morrison legacy is one remarkable album that fuses for all time his concern with blues and theatre (Willie Dixon and Brecht/Weill) and a dynamic on-stage persona that he could not sustain. He is also the ancestor of all those rockers with theatrical pretentions that revolve around death, mysticism and evil sexuality, although it is difficult to say what Morrison, with his reptilian brand of machismo, would think of such descendants as Alice Cooper, despite their shared interest in snakes.
Sometime in winter ’70-71 my cousin came east to visit her parents and during her stay she removed from her old bedroom walls a gallery of Jim Morrison photos clipped from Eye and Cheetah. “It’s over,” she said.
A few moths later, at the start of another summer, I was drinking a beer and watching Jailhouse Rock on the Channel 7 afternoon movie. During the last batch of commercials before the conclusion of the film, a promo for the up-coming Eyewitness News came on, telling me that Jim Morrison was dead in Paris. The movie returned, Elvis got his life straightened out, hugged his pretty-bride-to-be and sang happily until the words “The End” flashed on the screen.