Published in LIFE Magazine
Written by FRED POWLEDGE
I suppose it was a combination of White Power, being 33 years old, Sergeant Pepper and my 9 year-old daughter Polly that made me want so urgently to understand rock music.
White Power helped because the field of race relations, about which I usually write, is at its most depressing point since the Civil War. I wanted a vacation. Being 33 because that is almost the earliest age at which you can be jealous of people younger than yourself, and they have a music that is a million times better than the music of the 50’s. Sergeant Pepper because the Beatle’s album of that name was the first truly clear indication that the new music was significant—the We Shall Overcome of a musical movement. And Polly because at the age of 9 she is learning to communicate in fantastic ways. The television set has enabled her to become sophisticated about dissent, demonstrations, death, and a camera landing on the moon. The transistor radio and the record player, and the new music that she hears from them, are communicating important ways with her too.
We bought Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band considered it good entertainment, suitable for the whole family. We realized as we played Sergeant Pepper more and more that the album was not just a collection of 13 songs, but a successful attempt at presenting a whole of something , the way a symphony is a totality made up of several movements. But we didn’t exactly know what the totality of Sergeant Pepper was.
Some of its movements were easy to understand. She’s Leaving Home, which is about a couple’s discovery that their daughter has flown the coop, is pure journalism; but other songs in the album, such as Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, were less like photographs and more like abstract paintings. Why was she “a girl with kaleidoscope eyes”? Why were there “plasticine porters with looking-glass ties”?
Before long we were holding family discussions on, say, how much of the record had been perfeeted in the studio echo chambers; therefore, how much of it was impossible to reproduce at live concerts unless it was “lip-synched” and whether “lip-synching” was morally right; and on how much of what the Beatles were saying we just couldn’t understand. Gradually my wife and I found that we were no longer moved by what had been our regular music. We were spending more and more time listening humming Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds to ourselves.
The new music I most wanted to understand was that group called The Doors, who took their name from a line by Poet William Blake about “the doors of perception.” My wife and I heard the first Doors album at a party a year ago, bought it for ourselves and played it a few times.
The sound of the album slowly got inside my head. There was something about The Doors music—most of it electronic but never superficial—and their lyrics—very obscure to me at first, then less obscure but never completely understandable—that convinced me their work was significant. This was at a time when hardly anybody else knew about The Doors. I called Elektra Records and asked if there was a second Doors album on the way. Elektra wasn’t sure.
The Doors’ music, unlike the Beatles’, is satanic, sensual, demented and full of acid when you first hear it, and it becomes even more so when you play it over and over again.
You may have had difficulty hearing The Doors on your transistor radio, both because the music is wicked and because the individual tunes are so lengthy. The AM radio stations which devote themselves to the 40 most popular singles are obligated to blat out pimple-cream and tooth-brightener commercials between two-minute-pulse records, and as a result, few of them ever would play an early Doors tune called Light My Fire, which was on the first album and had all the marks of a commercial success but ran for six minutes and 50 seconds.
Last April, The Doors released an abbreviated, 2:52 version of Light My Fire. By the end of July it was No. 1 on the Billboard “Hot 100” survey. The album, meanwhile, shot through the charts. Then, in October, Elektra Records brought out a second album, Strange Days. Within two weeks it had reached No. 4 on the Billboard survey Then, for a month, both Doors LPs were in the Top 10—a rare feat. Both albums have made far more than $1 million each, and the single version of Light My Fire has sold more than 1.2 million copies. The Doors’ current entry in the Top 40 contest is an apocalyptic song called The Unknown Soldier.
An amplified poet in black leather plants
The most satanic thing about The Doors is Jim Morrison, the lead vocalist and author of most the group’s songs. Morrison is 24 years old, out of U.C.L.A., and he appears—in public and on his records—to be a moody, temperamental, enchanted in the mind and extremely stoned on something. Once you see him perform, you realize that he also seems dangerous, which, for a poet, may be a contradiction in terms.
He wears skin-tight black leather pants, on stage and away from it; and when he sings, he writhes and grinds and is sort of the male equivalent of the late Miss Lilly Christine, the Cat Girl. But with Miss Lilly Christine you had a good idea that the performance was going to stop short of its promised ending-point. You don’t know that with Morrison.
Morrison is a very good actor and a very good poet—one who speaks in short, beautiful bursts, like the Roman Catullus. His lyrics often seems obscure, but their obscurity, instead of making you hurry off to play a Pete Seeger record that you can understand, challenges you to try to interpret. You sense that Morrison is writing about weird scenes he’s been privy to, about which he would rather not be too explicit.
He has devoted one song called The End—which lasts 11 minutes, 35 seconds—to a poem about someone who murders his father and then makes love to his mother, but you may not know this unless you listen to it many times.
The final act—after the narrative of the father’s murder and the killer’s entrance into his mother’s room—is only suggested by Morrison’s anguished screams and the use of double-time by Ray Manzarek, whose talents on the electronic organ and a contraption called the piano bass qualify him as the best craftsman of the group, which includes John Densmore, who plays the drums, and Robby Krieger, the guitarist. The song ends:
This is the end,
This is the end,
my only friend, the end…
It hurts to set you free
but you’ll never follow me.
The end of laughter and soft lies,
The end of nights we tried to die.
This is the end.*
And this is from When the Music’s Over, an 11-minute composition that ends The Doors’ second album:
What have they done to the earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered
and ripped her and bit her
Stuck her with knives
in the side of the dawn
and tied her with fences
and dragged her down.
I hear a very gentle sound,
With your ear down to the ground—
We want the world and we want it NOW!*
The words are not what you’d call simple and straightforward. You can’t listen to the record once or twice and then put it away in the rack. And this is one of the exciting characteristics of the music in general: you really have to listen to it, repeatedly, preferably at high volume in a room that is otherwise quiet and perhaps darkened. You must throw away all those old music-listening habits that you learned courtesy of the Lucky Strike Hit Parade and Mantovani.
You are reminded that the music is a plastic reflection of our plastic world. The wounds are transistorized, sharper than sharp, just as the plastic lettering over a hot dog stand is redder than red. Out of this context the music—even the conventional sounds of the church organ or the street noises—is unreal; in it, it is marvelously effective in reflecting what’s going on in our society. It dances close to disharmony, to insanity; sometimes it does sound insane and disharmonious, but then you listen closer and find a harmony hidden deep within.
On my way to a fuller appreciation of the new music—and, most particularly, The Doors, I talked with three of the people at Elektra who make records. Jac Holzman, 36, is the president of this multimillion-dollar-a-year company whose median employee age is around 25. Paul Rothchild, 32, and Peter Siegel, 23, are two of Elektra’s producers.
The producer of a modern record must be a marvelously sensitive man, with a knowledge of music, an ability to get the most out of a group, and the sense and good taste to know when to use and when not to use—and when, as Rothchild says, to abuse—the complex and tempting machinery that fills the inside of a recording studio. He can tape-record a French horn playing its highest note, then accelerate the take and make them fly an octave higher, then tuck the sound into a record so that it complements or heightens a particular mood.
“The essential function of the producer,” says Rothchild as he fiddled with potentiometers and slide switches at one of Electra’s huge consoles, “is to draw from the creative musician the maximum of his capabilities, to bring out whatever expression he is trying to show in the music. Whatever his theater is. I try to help him stage that.”
I had heard that word “theater” before in talking to record people. What did it mean?
Rothchild explained that the new music was not just music for music’s sake. In live performances, groups try to be just as exciting visually as they are aurally. On records, they will use any sound that helps them get across the mood of their music. Thus the producer becomes more than just a sound-effects man: he is a producer of theatrical presentations.
The songs are really pieces of the theater
“The kind of songs that are being written today are written sometimes specifically to create a mood in the listener” said Peter Siegel. “Even when they are not written with that specific intent, they’re written in such a way that the mood of the listener is essential to the understanding of the song. We’re not dealing with soupy trite lyrics; we’re dealing with things that people are trying to say—statements, dramatic presentations. So, what we’re doing now is trying to take these songs, which are really small dramatic presentations, and giving them a setting which will be meaningful to the music and allow the listener to get himself in the right frame of mind to hear what the song is trying to say.”
Jac Holzman, who had been listening to this, rose from his seat in the Elektra conference room and manipulated a dial on the wall that dimmed the lights down almost to nothing.
“What most of the producers and artists hope for, and what I think Elektra as a company is almost a midwife to, is a stimulation of the imagination. And they’re creating, essentially, scenarios without pictures. They’re creating scenarios and you supply the pictures in your mind; they supply the mood and the words.”
“It’s just this,” said Rothchild. “The photograph record has become a true means of communication. And the basic market today for the kind of music we’re discussing”—he gestured toward the huge console with its treasury of echo, equalizers and limiters, filters, signal clippers and devices for inducing space warps—“is the very young people, because they’re incredibly aware, and aware of lyric content—which is amazing, to be able to follow Kafkaesque lyrics at very early ages. They’re also the late teens and the college graduates from of, the 1950’s on. People who were raised with rock ‘n’ roll, essentially, but who developed out of what the Elvis Presley – Bill Haley rock and who cast that aside because it was trivial.”
He was right, of course. What could be more trivial than the words, “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog”?
But what about the protest songs I was raised on—We shall Overcome and What Have They Done to the Rain? and Where Have All the Flowers Gone? Nobody in rock music was singing those songs.
“Okay” said Rothchild. “A few years ago you had social protest. To the modern ear, that’s become corny. It’s obvious that protest, in itself, is defeating, because it just gets people mad.
“What is significant is social comment. Social commentary is considerably different from social protest. Social comment tries to draw our attention to the problem; it doesn’t draw conclusions, doesn’t say what the solution is. Berlot Breecht. If you will, Gilbert Sullivan…George Fredrick Handel. It’s social comment. Just pointing your finger at a situation and saying, “This is you. So you dig it?” Which is more powerful, much more effective than saying, “That’s wrong, and this is what we’ve got to do about it or else you’re an idiot.” People can only react to that one way.
“Listen to the Beatles’ lyrics. You’ve got lots of social commentary there. And The Doors. You have Jim Morrison in When the Music’s Over, saying things like
What have they done to the earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?*
“I don’t think there’s anybody under 30 who doesn’t understand what that’s all about and doesn’t identify with it. Because I think it’s twice as powerful as Lady Bird Johnson doing her Keep America Beautiful campaign. That’s exactly what he’s talking about, you know; it’s the rape of the world and he’s saying, ‘My God, people, open your eyes to what we’re doing with this beautiful world!’ And then he caps it by saying thing like: Cancel my subscription to the Resurrection.
“He’s saying ‘I can’t give you any answers to this, people; we know it’s wrong, and somehow we’ve got to find solutions to it, but until then I just want to step back a minute and view it. Something’s really wrong, and let’s take a look at it.’
“Now, that’s not the sort of thing that you can’t understand if you’re over 30. Shakespeare was a star in his day, and he was a hit, and why was he a hit? He wrote and spoke in the vulgate. And this is true of many of your really great artists—they spoke in the people’s tongue. These young musicians are doing precisely the same thing. They’re speaking the vulgate. They’re speaking the language of the streets politically, beautifully.”
Ray Manzarek, The Doors’ organist patiently explained to me one day in New York: “Our music has to do with operating in the dark areas within yourself. A lot of people are operating on the love trip, and that’s nice, but there are two sides to this thing. There’s a black, evil side as well as a white, love side. What we’re trying to do is come to grips with that and realize it. Sensual is the word that best fits it.”
Does this devotion to sensuality mean that there is no further need for social comment?
‘The kids just get bammed on the music and words’
John Densmore, the drummer, broke in: “I grew up with Elvis Presley and Frankie Avalon and Fabian and all those guys, too. They were making a social comment, in their way. I mean, their being was a social comment.”
What then about the difficulties that someone over 20 might have in understanding the lyrics? There was, for instance, a line in The End in which the singer asks a girl to …take a chance with us and meet me at the back of the blue bus.”
Was a “blue bus” the slang name for some sort of hallucinatory capsule, or some symbol that people over 30 couldn’t possibly understand?
“I don’t know what the ‘blue bus’ means,” said Densmore. “That’s just one of those Jim poems—the stuff he writes in one of his notebooks. I never tried to think of what in the hell the ‘blue bus’ means. It’s just there.
“See, we’re not the Reading Generation. That’s why the kids…man, the kids—you know why they know how to dig it? Because they just take it, like McLuhan says—the total thing. They don’t say, ‘Hmm, blue bus.’ They get bammed with the music and the lights and the words and they just go ‘Unhhh,’ and they dig it, and they don’t worry about anything. That’s what you’re supposed to do, I suppose.
“I can see where someone who wasn’t familiar with this music would want to say, ‘Now what does that damned “blue bus” thing mean?’ You can tell them that if the guys in the band don’t even know what it means, they don’t have to worry about it.”
He thought a moment, and then added: “I can think of one phrase in one of the songs that you might not get right off. Sometimes, when you’re playing a gig, Jim departs from the lyrics in When the Music’s Over, and he says, ‘You got the guns, but we got the numbers.’ What’s that mean to you?”
I started to explain how it meant that the people over 30 had political control over the country, but that the young people are getting into the majority as far as the population’s concerned.
“Yeah,” said Densmore. “But also, in California, a number is another name for a joint, a marijuana cigarette. Just thought you might want to know that.” I thanked him for the information. I could use it on my friends.
“Yeah.” he said. “For the total thing. I’m not saying that we’re like superliterate, although we are. I mean Jim’s read all the goddamn poetry there is to read. But that’s not what I’m saying.
“I’m just saying that we do it, and it just comes out that way, and people dig it, and so it’s justified. If you do something and it comes out and everybody likes it, then why bother analyzing it? Everybody’s moved, so okay.”
“One more thing,” he said. “It’s true that the 33 1/3 record is totally different now from what is was before. And somebody wrote that our second album was totally different from the first one. All that’s true. But there’s another thing. Our live concerts are totally different from our records. I mean, its theater. You got to see us perform in person. We’re totally different in public from the way we are on records.”
Everybody with whom I talked to The Doors had made the point that the concerts were a lot like Living Theater, a lot like the theater of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Breecht—artistic comments on society that was rushing, pell-mell, toward something it did not understand. I decided to catch The Doors’ next performance at Troy, New York.
Troy is not exactly in the boondocks, but it appeared that night to be in a state of morbidity, in the dead industrial heartland of half a century ago, a place now scarred by dirty rivers, dirty snow, smashed windows of dirty factory buildings that no longer are inhabited. The concert there, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was a bomb, as anybody who listened to the jukebox beforehand at the local collegiate hang-out could have predicted. It was stocked largely with Dean Martin and inspirational music.
Morrison could not light the fire in Troy
Jim Morrison missed his plane and his agent hired a Cadillac limousine to drive him the 150 miles from New York City. The lead singer arrived, late and moody, wearing his skin-tight black leather pants, and swaggered onto the stage in front of six huge amplifier-speakers that pushed out 1,350 watts of audio power into the R.P.I. field house, and he did his best. But the crowd was not ready for music that celebrated the black, evil side. The music was plenty wicked, but the crowd seemed to be treating it as entertainment rather than as an invitation to wallow. To them Morrison wasn’t dangerous; he was just a poet.
He sang for about 45 minutes, and when he came offstage he said to his colleagues, “Let’s see how they liked us.” Rensselaer did not want an encore. The applause quickly died down, people started to leave, and The Doors hurriedly returned to the Cadillac and went to the airport.
Morrison, even moodier now because the crowd hadn’t wanted its fire lit in Troy, decided to skip the plane and ride the 150 miles back to New York City in the Cadillac. There was speculation, on the part of the group’s agent, that the audience would be more appreciative on the following night, when The Doors played New Haven, Connecticut.
I had promised my wife and Polly a trip to New Haven and a pre-concert visit backstage with John Densmore, Polly’s favorite Door. We got to the New Haven Arena early, but getting to the dressing room proved to be a difficult matter. Policeman stood in the corridors, making sure that nobody got backstage.
The only man who apparently had the authority to conduct us to the dressing room was a Lt. James P. Kelly, head of the New Haven Police Department’s Youth Division, and he was busy unblocking a fire exit. We talked to a platform while we waited for Lieutenant Kelly. Polly and I were interested in a black aerosol can the policeman wore on his belt. “Mace,” he said, giving the name of the chemical spray now in use by many police departments; it renders a suspect harmless when it is ejected into his face. I shuddered, looked at my wife, and changed the subject.
“Do you like this kind of music?”
“Yeah,” said the patrolman, who was chubby and young and pleasant enough. “My brother’s in a local rock band.”
Lieutenant Kelly arrived. At first he didn’t want to take us to the dressing room, but he relented when I asked him how to spell his name, K-e-l-l-y or K-e-l-l-e-y?
On the way to the dressing room, we joked about the natural antipathy between cops and reporters, and how each had to give the other a hard time in order to get his job done. Polly saw The Doors, collected their autographs, and as we went to our seats for the concert she started calculating her relative stature in the fourth grade in Brooklyn on the following Monday.
‘The men don’t know, but the little girls understand’
The New Haven audience was much sharper than the college students at Troy had been, and Morrison felt the difference. He stood before the six powerful amplifiers in his black leather pants and gyrated, sang, undulated, jumped, crouched, fondled, jerked, twisted, and projected poetry, at more than 1,300 watts, into the old sports arena. The crowd applauded at the right times.
There were maybe 2,000 people there, and most of them were getting bammed on the music and the words. Morrison bummed a cigarette from someone in the audience, and a little later he threw a microphone stand off the stage. A few policemen moved around in front of the audience, clearing away the little girls who had come down close to the stage with their Instamatics to take Morrison’s picture. On another occasion Morrison spat toward the first row, but it fell short and nobody seemed to care. It was like Marat/Sade. I was in the second row, and I didn’t care.
He was dangerous, but danger was part of the show. I understood now aht Paul Rothchild was talking about when he spoke of the rock musicians’ theater, and all the references to Living Later and Kurt Weill and Bertolt Breecht, and I understood what John Densmore meant when he said you have to see The Doors in concert to really appreciate them. Morrison’s performance had the same elements of carnality as it had in Troy the night before, but here the audience was getting with it—they, too, were part of the music. I knew that, from now on, the music in my head would be a little brighter whenever I heard a Doors record.
You got the guns, but
We got the numbers…
We want the world and we want it
As Morrison shouted that last word from When the Music’s Over, several dozen of the young people in the audience shouted it along with him, and that was what you must call pretty good social comment. He had said the same thing the night before in Troy, and nobody there responded.
I am a back door man…
(That was a line from the last song of the evening)
I am a back door man,
I am a back door man.
Well, the men don’t know
But the little girls understand.
When you come home,
You can eat pork and beans,
I eat more chicken any man seen.
I am a back door man,
I am a back door man,
Well, the men don’t know
But the little girls understand…*
Manzarek continued on the electronic organ, Krieger on the guitar, Densmore on the drums; and Morrison started talking:
“I want to tell you about something that happened just to minutes ago right here in New Haven…this is New Haven, isn’t it, New Haven, Connecticut, United States of America?”
The crowd grew quieter. Morrison started talking about having eaten dinner, and about having had a few drinks, and about somebody’s having asked for his autograph at the restaurant, and about having talked with a waitress about religion, and about coming over to the New Haven Arena for the concert, and going into the dressing room, and about meeting a girl there, and talking with her.
He made you understand he was on the evil side
“We started talking,” he said, still writhing, still keeping the rhythm that Densmore was beating behind him twisting at the microphone, making you understand he was on the black, evil side.
“And we wanted some privacy
And so we went into this shower room
We weren’t doing anything you know,
Just standing there and talking.
And then this little man came in there,
This little man, in a little blue suit
And a blue cap,
And he said,
‘Whatcha doin’ there?’
But he didn’t go ‘way
He stood there
And then he reached ‘round behind him
And he brought out this little black can of somethin’
Looked like shaving cream,
And then he
Sprayed it in my eyes.
I was blinded for about 30 minutes…”
Oh, I am a back door man,
I am a back door man.
Well, the men don’t know,
But the little girls understand…*
The lights came on. Morrison blinked out into the audience. He asked why they were on. There was no reply. Ray Manzarek walked over and whispered something into his ear. Morrison asked they crowd if they wanted more music. The audience screamed “Yes!”
“Well, then turn off the lights. TURN OFF THE LIGHTS!”
It sounded like the beginning of When the Music’s Over:
When the music’s over
Turn out the lights.
The music is your special friend;
Dance on the fire as it intends
Music is your only friend
Until the end.*
A policeman walked onto the stage. Lieutenant Kelly was suddenly there, arresting the singer. Morrison was nonchalant at first; he even pointed the mike at Kelly and said, “Say your thing, man.” But then a policeman snatched the microphone from Morrison’s hand. People scrammed off the stage. Bill Siddons, The Doors’ road manager, a handsome, clean-cut young man who wears a peace button, tried to protect Morrison’s body from the cops with his own. Then they took Morrison away, and Siddons tried to protect the equipment—the six amplifiers and the electronic organ and the drums and guitar, and he thrashed around on the stage as more policemen ran in.
Some of the crowd started to leave; some stayed around and in protest pushed over the folding wooden chairs. Outside, Tim Page, a photographer just back from Vietnam, was taking pictures of several cops arresting a young man. One of the policemen saw him and pushed him out into the street. Tim protested to Lieutenant Kelly; the lieutenant said he was sorry and that he would speak to the patrolman as soon as things calmed down.
Then, as Kelly hurried along, the patrolman came back and arrested Tim, then arrested Yvonne Chabrier, a Life reporter, then arrested Michael Zwerin, the jazz critic for The Village Voice, all for no apparent reason. They had breached the peace, said the police later. An unknown number of teen-agers were hauled off. The charge against Jim Morrison was that he had breached the peace, given an indecent and immoral exhibition and resisted arrest. He was placed under $1,500 bond. His road manager posted the money from the concert receipts.
I sought out Lieutenant Kelly and told him about the arrests. I thought he could undo what was being done. He seemed surprised. “It’s sickening,” he said. “It’s terrible what went on here.”
I saw the chubby policeman who had shown Polly the can of Mace earlier—the cop who had a brother in a local rock band. Did he still like the music? He said “Sure,” as he pushed teen-aged girls and boys toward the exits. His face was hard and strained.
I looked down at Polly. “Why can’t Lieutenant Kelly stop this?” she asked.
She stood there, in the midst of it all, the cops and teen-agers swirling around her, Tim and Yvonne and Michael being led toward a paddy wagon; she was not afraid, as I was. Her little-girl face was angry, her fists were clenched, her eyes pinched but still seeing everything that was happening. And understanding it. She was seeing it live this time.
Not on tape. Not on film. No lip-synch.