Two new doors releases grabbed my attention in the past week.
- The Doors: Live at the Hollywood Bowl, 1968 (shown in worldwide cinemas 04/11/21).
- Set the Night on Fire: Living, Dying and Playing Guitar with the Doors by Robby Krieger.
I’m at a stage in my life where I am not making many plans with my evenings – my first child is due sometime this month. But, at the last minute, and with no sign of the arrival coming last night, I bought a ticket to see a concert screening of The Doors, Live at the Hollywood Bowl. A film I had watched on VHS many, many times.
The film was billed as started at 19:30, but inexplicably didn’t start until around 20:15. But this gave me plenty of time to survey the pretty much sold out cinema, and not a small one. Beside me was a young woman, like me on a solo trip. Aged perhaps 18. To my right, as my eavesdropping let me know, was a couple in recovery from drug addiction. For those who have been members of a “fellowship” it is easy to pick up from certain phrases. The male of the couple made an interesting observation: “most of the people here aren’t Doors fans, not proper ones like I am.”
I allowed myself a wry smile. I was 11 or 12 when my older brother, on the back of a Doors revival on the back of Oliver Stone’s interesting, but problematic, movie very loosely based on the life of Jim Morrison, became interested in the band. The first album I heard was American Nights, a live album of rare quality. It was the start of a 30 year relationship with the band’s music and mythology. Stewart Lee said about the music of the band The Fall that life without them would have been different. Without the Doors, my life would have been different. Maybe not worse, maybe not better, but different. The impact of their first album on me was profound. The power of Break on Through; the beauty of The Crystal Ship. The out of place but entirely appropriate Alabama Song; the overplayed anthem Light my Fire, and the grand, genre defining, lyrically challenging Oedipus Rex The End.
This being pre-internet, I had to try and make sense of the lyrics and their meanings. The Doors, like Pink Floyd, created music that can be a reference point to many points in a person’s life: approaching the teenage years, fascinated by rebellion and drugs. A bit older, and able to appreciate the poetry and artistic spectacle, and then, when you live older than Jim did, you realise that what he left behind was timeless art, a troubling mythology, and, perhaps, a tragedy of immense proportions.
In Robby Krieger’s excellent memoir, he spoke of Jim Morrison’s preference for writing songs about timeless subjects. He seemed to have wanted his music and words to have been around for the long haul. And, whilst we are talking about Jim, “a good ole boy from Florida” as Doors drummer extraordinaire John Densmore described him nice, it has always amused me that the supposed poster boy for the hippie generation was a herculean, kamikaze alcoholic with Scots ancestry and an upper middle class military background. Despite his wishing to write about timeless subjects, songs like The Unknown Soldier and Five to One capture the increasing alienation going on in America.
Back to the concert film. Despite having seen it so many times, there was much I didn’t notice (it has been about 25 years since I last watched it). The choreography of the band was obvious. Jim seemed much shorter than I imagined him. And his waistcoat was frankly fucking ridiculous. But his command of the performance was incredible. 24 years old, and in full knowledge of his charisma, he was humorous, intense, capable of a sophisticated range, and, even to my heterosexual gaze, astonishingly handsome. Robby mentioned in his book (as others have in theirs) that Jim took LSD before the show, and his dilated pupils and random moments of what look like cosmic inner jokes he was having with himself suggest that he probably did.
The concert was, to those familiar with their other, more notorious lives shows, was well organised, good humoured, and technically proficient. It suggested what the band might have been, had their lead singer been less prone to self-destruction. It also lacked a sense of the danger that the Doors lyrics and their front-man were capable of.
Understandably, perhaps, much of the film focused on the lead singer, but intriguing footage of drummer John Densmore shaking his head in what looked like a desperate, but practised, perhaps Maharishi inspired, attempt to either focus himself, or block out what might be ahead of him. His drumming is sparse, yet powerful, and just … exactly what is required. Guitarist Robby Krieger played with the understated, non-showy confidence of someone who simply understands how good they are. Ray Manzarek, a striking, dapper, ex-soldier, provided a peerless sound: playing a traditional, 60s, psych keyboard with one hand, and a bass keyboard with the other. When Manzarek provides back vocals to Unknown Solider, you are treated to musical, political theatre that is simply wonderful to bear witness to.
In short, the band are a group of impressive individuals who together created something far beyond the sum of their parts.
The concert film was a joy to watch. In many ways, it demystified the almost deity status that Jim Morrison achieved in the decades after his death. This mythology, Robby Kreiger said in his excellent memoir, was largely led by Manzarek, and was at least based in the deep love, almost paternal love Manzarek felt for Morrison. At the Hollywood Bowl, he worked with his bandmates, performed to something of a choreographed script, appeared genuinely affectionate to the band and audience, and also seemed, at times, shy.
As Krieger detailed many times in his book, however, Morrison was also violent, cruel, abusive, and also remorseful, embarrassed, and apologetic for his many misdeeds. Krieger reveals many anecdotes that Doors fans will love. The meaning behind the cryptic lyrics of Hyacinth House. What he feels really happed at Miami. What Pam Courson was like. Just how much money Light my Fire did make (“more than the rest of the Doors songs. Combined”).
Krieger talks about his feuds with Manzarek in the decades following Morrison’s death, and with Densmore. In a segment before the Hollywood Bowl, Krieger and Densmore play together, doing Riders on the Storm and LA Woman, and doing them very well. Krieger was wearing a Ray Manzarek T-shirt.
Of particular interest to me, was Kreiger’s heavy addiction to cocaine and heroin in his middle age, and that his non-identical twin brother had serious mental health issues. This is also true of John Densmore. The Doors leader singer died aged 27, and the drummer and guitarist both had siblings who died relatively young, and both deaths were probably linked to their mental health.
I’m speculating, but I think the recovering addict sitting beside me at the cinema considered himself more of a Doors fan than others because of the drugs associated with some of the lyrics, and with the legend of Jim Morrison. If this is the case, he is missing out on so many different perspectives of a timeless body of music.
I don’t think I will ever not listen to The Doors. And I look forward to seeing what it will mean to me in the next stage of my life.
PS – I highly recommend Robby Krieger’s book, and, if you get the chance, go and see the Hollywood Bowl show on the big screen.
⏩ Brandon Sullivan is a middle aged, middle management, centre-left, Doors loving Belfast man. Would prefer people focused on the actual bad guys.