TESTING If you think the line “Death and my cock are the world” is cool, you’re a Doors head. If not, not.
When it comes to Jim Morrison and the Doors, the image factory went out of business a long time ago. It went out of business, in fact, very soon after it opened: within about a week of the release of The Doors by Elektra in 1966, hacks and hypesters, drunk on the power of this new sound, had bankrupted the critical lexicon for a generation. References to Rimbaud, Artaud, Nietzsche, and Norman O. Brown — snakes, shamans, The Golden Bough — Jungian half-thoughts, leather imaginings — and Oedipus, of course . . . By 1968, even so finicky and feline a prose artist as Joan Didion, profiling the band for the Saturday Evening Post, was reduced to observing that the Doors were “the Norman Mailers of the Top 40, missionaries of apocalyptic sex.” Language drooped before them: in more ways than one, the Doors were wearing America out.
So as we stare at this cardboard-squandering 40th-anniversary box set Perception (Rhino), inches thick, with its silly psychedelic peephole and pictures of locks on the cover, can we get excited all over again? Can we get it up one more time for Jim? We can. We must. Because this stuff is way, way too good to forget. Consider for a moment The Doors, that most shattering of debut albums. It starts with the bossa nova powder trail of “Break On Through” and finishes in a smoking psychic crater: “The End.” Somehow this band, who only weeks before had been clacking and swishing through a jam called “Latin Bullshit #1” while the out-of-it singer wandered barefoot around Venice Beach muttering “killthefatherfuckthemother . . . killthefatherfuckthemother” (“a mantra,” he said later, that “can never become meaningless”), had pulled together a cutting-edge pop sound that seemed to predate psychedelia by about 4000 years. The music swung, all right, but luridly, queasily, and Morrison’s lyrics were cave paintings done at the back of a darkened cocktail lounge: “The West . . . is the best. . . . The West is the best. . . . Get here, and we’ll do the rest.”
Perception is five CDs, five DVDs: the studio albums, impeccably remastered by original engineer Bruce Botnick, plus outtakes, videos, and live footage. It’s a cornucopia for Doors heads, no question. (A quick, infallible test: if — as I do — you think the line “Death and my cock are the world” is cool, you’re a Doors head. If not, not.) The CDs sound beautiful — eerie and expansive, heftier down below, with a new reverb that is as much psychological as acoustic. And “The End” has its Tourette-ish outbursts of “fuck!” and “kill!” satisfyingly restored. Of the outtakes, my favorite is a sequence at the end of the Morrison Hotel CD in which we hear Morrison chanting the trucker’s liturgy of “Roadhouse Blues” — “Keep your eyes on the road, your hand upon the whee-ul!” — with a sort of hard-edged grogginess, through repeated takes. On this album, as on LA Woman, he is somehow audibly bearded. The band are stomping, out of control, and the buzzed engineer wants them to know it: “If the groove is riding, man, let it go! I can always take out what didn’t happen and we can get some amazing shit. . . . C’mon Robbie, start that song. . . . John, come in, man, it feels great. . . . That was solid and righteous! Let’s try it again — take 13. Let’s make it nasty, man!”
Watching the DVDs, one sees again that the Doors were not really a band, in the sense of an ass-kicking brotherhood of rock dudes. The on-stage body language is too dissociated, the sounds too wide apart: these four presences seem remotely and temporarily aligned for some not-quite-musical purpose. There’s Manzarek, face of a Marxist golden retriever, his heartbeat left hand holding down the bass on one keyboard while his right strews those pea-green carousel chords across the other. The vacant Krieger, mouth always open, terrible hair, flamenco talons picking out the guitar lines. Grim-jawed John Densmore on the drums. And then Morrison, way out front, tilted into his death-croon baritone, attentive only to the private bacchanal unreeling behind his closed eyes. Very striking, on the live clips, is the artistic sympathy between Morrison and Densmore — striking because, according to Stephen Davis’s highly enjoyable book Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend, of the three Doorsmen it was Densmore who most steadily loathed and feared his lead singer. The version of “When the Music’s Over” on the Strange Days DVD is almost a duet, the drums syncopating dryly off Morrison’s epic/bathetic prosody: “We’re gettin’ tired of . . . hangin’ around/Waitin’ around . . . with our . . . heads to the ground.” (Densmore, God bless him, maintains an obstinate veto over the other Doors’ attempts to license the music for commercial use.)