The Doors’ 1967 self-titled debut warrants a one-line B- review in Robert Christgau’s long-running Consumer Guide to music, and it ends as follows: “Jim Morrison sounds like an asshole.” Sounds like is a bit generous, don’t you think, Bob? There have been many arguments over Morrison’s high-on-his-own-arty-machismo legacy, and nearly all of them have been between Boomer white men who wrote about rock ‘n’ roll when it was much more of an outsider profession, reserved almost exclusively for semi-scummy dudes. Beyond the potential sexual partners who actually wanted to see the Lizard King’s dick emerge from his leather pants that fateful Florida night in 1969, these critics are the types most inclined to take Morrison’s art seriously.
There’s a scene in Cameron Crowe’s new-millennium love letter to the early ’70s, Almost Famous, where famed rock critic Lester Bangs (in fictional form, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) denounces Morrison as “a drunken buffoon posing as a poet.”Almost Famous meant something to me as a teenaged girl whose formative years were spent listening to canonized male-led bands spoon-fed to her by a father born in ‘56 and Midwest classic rock radio stuck in ‘76. This narrative is tired among music writers of a certain age, and I’ve come to recognize the film as a frothing nostalgia-fest that glorifies the era’s rock hero-worship and middling music criticism.
Still, I clung to Bangs’ Morrison diss as “the only true thing in this [specific] world,” to steal his character’s phrase. It took the guy who was too much of an outlaw to write for Rolling Stone, the ultimate source of Boomer Rock Blues, to expose Jim Morrison for what he really was. And it was a lie.
In reality — and, specifically, in a 1981 issue of Creem — Bangs breathlessly praised Morrison, attributing Patti Smith’s entire career to ol’ Jimbo, seeing as women in rock and roll are incapable of an original thought without a man being behind it. Bangs started the piece by bashing the most accurate thing Christgau ever wrote about The Doors (the aforementioned asshole line), because rock criticism wasn’t already enough of a circle jerk requiring a secret password.
Well, here’s the truth: Jim Morrison gets too much credit. The so-called sidemen in The Doors — keyboardist/organist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger, and drummer John Densmore — don’t get enough credit for the sound, whereas Morrison gets too much credit for the attitude. Think of “Light My Fire” right this second. Which came to mind first: Manzarek’s opening organ hook inviting you to the swingin’ party, or the drunken stranger who corners you in the kitchen with a sexual proposition you consider for three seconds before walking away?
Some of Morrison’s enduring fame is attributable to the fact that he lived fast and died young. Some of it is because he supposedly changed rock ‘n’ roll history. But if the latter is the case, I would love to see history without him. I mean it. We’ve had too many aimlessly tortured Morrison wannabes in the generations since, wearing tight pants and reading Beat ripoffs without a hint of Mick Jagger’s cheekiness or Lou Reed’s experimental vision.
In their era, The Doors were an American rock ‘n’ roll band, at a time when very few of those were keeping up with British acts who’d found a way to reinvent a distinctly American artform (the blues). Maybe we were a titch butt-hurt, subconsciously, or maybe we were swept up into the dangerous side of West Coast psych that those top-buttoned Brits missed or eschewed while co-opting the blues. We wanted the Easy Rider of rock bands, and we found it in Jim Morrison — not those other nerds in The Doors, not The Byrds or Steppenwolf.
Morrison landed wild women by screeching lines he might as well have found crumpled up in Bukowski’s trashcan (just wondering, how high do you have to be to convince yourself that “people are strange when you’re a stranger” is deep, man?). He made John Lennon look like a domesticated bore while the former Beatle was flashing his penis for art and politics and love on the cover of 1969’s Two Virgins. Morrison got his cock out for nihilistic reasons, a practice that has the distinct luxury of coexisting with Free Love’s rise but operates separately from it. This means The Doors also transcended the counterculture’s fall — a fate not afforded to a band like The Mamas & The Papas, whose history began in the Greenwich Village, not the Haight-Ashbury.
Today, for as legendary as they’ve come to be, The Doors can come across as self-parody more than anything else (if you’ve never seen Oliver Stone’s Doors movie, trust me, you’ll laugh). More than that, they can be a bit of a mystery outside of their greatest hits compilations, where Manzarek and Krieger save Morrison from his incomprehensible self with the boundaries of tight-knit pop hooks. I wouldn’t call them a classic album band — at least not in the way Floyd, Zeppelin, or even Hendrix were — but 1971’s L.A. Woman has been immortalized on enough teenage boys’ t-shirts and Rolling Stone lists that we accept it as a great album. It’s certainly The Doors album that reeks the least of the classic adage about modern art: “‘I could have done that,’ ‘yeah, but you didn’t.'” These blues require a certain swagger, although I could do without Morrison singing a guitar solo on “Car Hiss By My Window” instead of Krieger just playing one.
All this is to say, at his best, Jim Morrison brought something distinct to the table, or at least something that seems distinct because it spawned so many admirers and imitators. But the idolization surrounding him says more about rock culture’s fascination with hard living and easy death, and boomer culture’s rose-colored glasses regarding their rebel heroes. Morrison was a moment in time, a synthesis of trending countercultures (Beat culture, blues-rock, Free Love, psychedelia) with a chiseled jawline, a few pairs of taut leather pants, and an overly sexual stage persona. Soon we’ll be 50 years removed from The Doors. It seems time to cancel our subscription to Morrison’s resurrection.