Happy 50th Anniversary to The Doors’ Eponymous Debut Album, originally released January 4, 1967.
Before you slip into, unconsciousness, I’d like for you to, all read this…
Ladies & Gentlemen, from Los Angeles, California, The DOORS!
The Doors as a concept, band, or debut album, should have never existed. There is no father to their style, and so far, there have been no legitimate sons. These four men, along with their first and best work, continue to be an army of one.
The Doors unveiled their debut album fifty years ago today. It is a 44-minute song suite that still sounds, in equal parts, groundbreaking, exhilarating, and deeply disturbing to this day, a half century later.
1967 was the year that the rock “album,” as we know it, truly began. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Velvet Underground & Nico. Are You Experienced?!? Axis: Bold as Love. Piper at The Gates of Dawn. Disraeli Gears. They all dropped in this single, very special year. Unique, not only for the rock album’s evolution, but for the entirety of popular culture as well. In film, it was the year that ushered in the “auteur era” in filmmaking, with Bonnie & Clyde and Easy Rider striking the match that would burn on through the seventies, into Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull at the dawn of the Reagan era. It was the “Summer of Love.” It was the “Season of The Witch.” You had to pick up, every stich. Meanwhile, the spool this time period unraveled, produced a string we’ve been looking to gather up, ever since.
Let’s get back to what we’re really here for: The Doors. This was a debut album, brought to you by a four-piece band, from the land of sun. The guitarist, Robbie Krieger, had only spent six months playing his instrument by the time the group was signed. Their drummer, John Densmore, was principally trained in jazz. Their keyboardist, the late great Ray Manzarek, was a maestro in multiple disciplines, who proved himself proficient on both the Hammond B-3, and Fender Rhodes.
The Doors were also a band, inexplicably, without a bass player. You need bottom? If you were The Doors, you didn’t. While if you were the type of listener who felt them, the bottom was already the environment you and The Doors occupied. The Doors were the darkest dream gone bad you ever had. In the brightest, sunniest spot you could find. When you get back, we’ll drop a line.
Fifty years ago, The Doors dropped a mind-blowing piece of work, in the form of their self-titled debut, which still stands the test of time. If you try to tell me that there’s a rock album made in the last twenty years that can say the same, I will tell you that you’re lying. Never mind the bollocks. Don’t let any recent skinny-jean scene, hyped by Pitchfork, fool you. The Doors, was and still is, some true-blue voodoo.
I haven’t even mentioned the singer yet. For as much as anyone might try to argue otherwise, when it comes to great rock & roll, the singer makes the band. The Doors, for better or worse, lived and died with Jim Morrison. Jim Morrison, only 24 years old when this album dropped, was already a star-crossed, gorgeous, poetic and beautifully doomed mess. You can’t name a rock star who’s mattered in decades, that gives you the same feeling that Morrison did then, fifty years since way-back-when. Like many of the other ill-fated young poets who died too soon, from Arthur Rimbaud to Tupac Shakur, Jim Morrison was doomed. And like them, he recognized it. Sure, that early fate could, in hindsight, be their own doing. But what does that matter to you, when you hear someone reporting live from their own ruin? If for them it was real, to the selfish consumer, it gave us something we could feel.
The pain is great. Deep and wide. Break on through. To the other side. This was a band, ballsy enough, to attempt to break in with their first single, as well as their debut album’s opening song, “Break On Through,” being a bossa nova. Did it work? Depends on who you ask. If you check Billboard, it only ascended to #127 on the charts. If you ask anybody who arrived in the subsequent five decades since its release, you can bet they’ll know it long before they do “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin & Pie” or “Ode to Billie Joe.” There’s time, and there’s timelessness. “Break on Through” checks off the latter box.
Then there’s a single on this album that does both: “Light My Fire.” This song, two years after Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” became one of the most unlikely, smash pop hits of its or any time. Unlike “Rolling Stone,” its length was edited to fit some pop-music formats as a single. Still it was the album version which became the enduring chestnut that most take for granted now on classic-rock radio. When heard in the context of this full album, it remains mind-blowing, particularly the way Krieger’s flamenco guitar weaves couplets alongside Manzarek’s electric-piano riffing, especially once Densmore puts a crushing stop to their fun, in order to usher in Morrison’s perfect farewell croon, around the six-minute mark before its seven-minute conclusion.
Unlike many of the rock records prior to 1967, this was an album that existed for purposes far beyond just its two singles. For my money, “Soul Kitchen,” with its three-and-a-half minutes of organ-stabbing groove, coupled with flirtatious guitar tickle-riffing and carousing lyrical deliverance, is this entire album’s most undeniable cut. The Doors, who famously lifted their name from Aldous Huxley’s 1954 autobiographical essay The Doors of Perception, take Huxley’s inspiration back to its original source material, legendary poet William Blake, deploying Blake’s beautifully apocalyptically Dionysian verbiage on the haunting lilt of “End of The Night.”
Morrison sells Willie Dixon’s blues classic “Back Door Man” in a way that none of the British Invasion blues-rock fetishists, like Clapton or Plant, ever could. He does so not by adoringly imitating a style he could never fully capture, but by using his own unbridled, youthful swaggering menace, plus his urgent bark to the proceedings. The hot, soon-to-be-dead guy is something the men might not know, but the little girls understand.
If we wanted to nitpick The Doors, we could probably quibble a bit over some of its less transcendent tunes. Once you get past its time-period-beholden, sardonic reversal of fellow LA rock band The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Take It As It Comes” is disposable. “I Looked At You” borders on being better suited for cleaner-cut LA-based acts like The Mamas & The Papas, or even The Monkees. Neither relative hiccup, is enough to distort nor distinguish this album’s flame at all.
And then….there’s “The End,” the album’s conclusion, both literally, and figuratively. This song, is damn near twelve minutes of madness, which encapsulates the best of what this band and its singer could do, as well as the best of what their medium has to offer.
It’s a song that means something different each time you hear it. It’s a single song that possesses multiple shape-shifting spirits. Is this song about the end of a relationship? The end of a life? The end of the world? The murder of your father? Is your mother that girl? Does it remind you of Vietnam, or Fallujah? Val Kilmer? The band in the desert in the Oliver Stone film? Martin Sheen in a Hanoi Hotel room?
Who’s to say but you? Even Morrison himself would later marvel that “The End” was (pun-intended) open-ended enough to mean nothing, anything or everything. And that quality is both the synthesis, as well as purpose, of most great poetry or the very best rock & roll. It’s the beautiful ambiguity that stimulates the soul. Every line is a quotable:
Ride The Snake.
Weird Scenes Inside The Gold Mine.
The West Is The Best, Get Out Here, We’ll Do The Rest
Can You Picture What Will Be?
So Limitless and Free.
Desperately In Need, Of Some, Stranger’s Hand, In a…Desperate Land.
Then there’s some seemingly throwaway lines, of which my once-adolescent mind wrote off as some acidhead fever-dream at the time:
The Blue Bus…Is Calling Us….
Driver, Where You Takin’ Us?!?
It wasn’t until moving to Santa Monica, California that I realized that the Blue Bus is the LA Metro Bus taking passengers from the UCLA campus in Westwood, where Morrison famously attended film school before being kicked out, over to the beach-bordering cities like Santa Monica and Venice, where he would sleep on the beach, while scrawling out those seemingly obtuse, metaphorical lyrics.
That is the greatest testament to a classic album’s indomitable spirit is when after a half century later, you can still find all new ways in which you can hear it.