The Doors Suck: Point / Counterpoint
On the 40th anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death, we settle it once and for all.
It was forty years ago this Sunday that Jim Morrison died at the tender age of twenty-seven. When we broached this fact to some friends, we realized that some people think The Doors were iconic pioneers of rock, and others think they totally sucked.
If there’s anything we hate, it’s disunity. And so, we decided to settle the matter once and for all. To help us, we got Stephen Deusner, staff writer at Pitchfork (and lifelong Doors-hater) to take on our own Jason Gilbert.
You may consider the matter settled.
The Doors Rock
Jason Gilbert, hooksexup.com
Some people say that only horny teenage boys like The Doors — that their over-sexed, come-hither stomp is only appealing to sweaty-palmed high-schoolers, as though a constant, nigh-overflowing rush of pent-up sperm were essential for enjoying "Hello, I Love You."
That's nonsense. I have long since left my teens and my horniest years behind (I hope), but I still get a contact high from the propulsion and energy of The Doors' best tracks. It's become embarrassing for music critics to admit to liking The Doors, and I think I know why. So let's get something out of the way right off the bat:
Jim Morrison wrote a lot of poetry, and most of it was shitty, pretentious, regrettable, faux-intellectual diarrhea. Reading Jim Morrison the poet is like watching a shirtless SAE pledge strumming James Blunt on his old acoustic in the university commons during spring break: totally insufferable, uninspiring, and distasteful. I agree.
But Morrison's high-school emo-etry isn't the only reason that The Doors have lost their cred, and some of the posthumous baggage people dump on them seems unfair. Morrison had been dead for twenty years by the time Oliver Stone made a horrible movie about him; it's not like he had a vote. (And for that matter, Oliver Stone made a God-awful movie about Alexander the Great, and there wasn't a huge critical backlash against him.)
Anyway, fuck Oliver Stone; look at The Doors' discography! Look at the broad range of newborn rock genres The Doors nailed on their singles — the hypnotic psychedelia of "Light My Fire," the shit-kicking backroom blues rock of "Alabama Song," the dirty proto-garage propulsion of "Break On Through," the doomsday rock-opera drama of "The End"— and that's just from their debut album. They packed more great songs onto that thing than most bands manage in a career, and they did it not by exploiting a single strength, but by experimenting with different, nascent sounds and blowing the top off them. They recorded a song written by Bertolt Brecht, for God's sake.
Listen: "Light My Fire"
So even if you don't buy into The Doors' evolution into blues rock — and you should, because between Morrison's deep howl and Robby Krieger's guitar licks, L.A. Woman and Morrison Hotel may just be the two greatest albums ever to drink cheap beer out of a bottle to — you have to give them their self-titled debut. The Doors is an LP packed with terrific songs, with varied songs, with exciting and surprising shifts in tone and lyric and tempo and technique, culminating in the eleven-minute apocalypto-shock of "The End." It is quite simply one of the unimpeachably great albums of all time, and if you disagree, then you are thinking too hard.
Listen: "The End"
Try pushing aside the poetry and the posturing and the posthumous commercial appropriation, and just really listen to this stuff. The interplay of Ray Manzarek's organ with Robby Krieger's guitar is one of the great grin-inducing pleasures in all of rock music; Morrison's manic showmanship and vocal expression are affecting and pleasing on the most very basic level. And that's where most of the appeal in The Doors lies — on those basic levels, and in those base, teenage instincts. You don't have to be very smart, or patient, or sober to enjoy The Doors: just a sucker for catchy and mischievous hooks, passionate instrument-playing, and a little bit of pomp and swagger. That is the ongoing appeal of The Doors; that is the real poetry of Jim Morrison and his band.
The Doors Suck
Stephen Deusner, Pitchfork
The Doors represent the worst urges of the 1960s. Nearly fifty years after the release of their self-titled debut album, they remain one of the most over-romanticized and over-mythologized bands of that decade, thanks to innumerable books, reissues, and films like Oliver Stone’s (actually not that bad) biopic and Tom DiCillo’s frankly ridiculous documentary. Even more than The Beatles or The Stones, the Doors are popular because their edginess is easy to read, digest, and comprehend, even though they nod to depth without being deep and sing about breaking through without actually breaking through.
The Doors are, however, arguably more bound to their moment than any of their contemporaries, which is another way of saying their music hasn’t aged particularly well. Morrison is routinely regaled as a generational spokesman, the supreme rock frontman who had one foot in this world and his cock in the next. But for all his shamanistic posturing, Morrison sang in an exaggerated croon modeled on Elvis and Sinatra. Never quite confident in his own vocal talents, he was smart to aim high, but that approach tends to flatten even the horniest tunes into tepid lounge rock. It’s not hard to imagine Tom Jones covering “Touch Me” or Sinatra singing “Light My Fire” at the Sands. And when the Lizard King took on John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling King Snake,” he set the blues back further than Eric Clapton did on his last ten albums.
Listen: "Five to One"
Now, to be fair, rock is full of frontmen who did more with less, and besides, Morrison was more about words. He had poetic ambitions and even published a few volumes before his death. But his songs seem to consist of impersonal proclamations set to strict moon-june-spoon rhyme schemes. “There a killer on the road,” he sings ominously on “Riders of the Storm.” “His brain is squirmin’ like a toad.” There are much worse couplets from the 1960s, but not too many come from the pens of men praised as rock-poet visionaries. It’s worse when Morrison freestyles: “The End,” which got the band fired from a residency at the Whiskey A Go-Go, sounds like Morrison read Freud the day before and didn’t have the time or inclination to do more than regurgitate that part about the Oedipal complex in the simplest language possible: “Father… I want to kill you / Mother… I want to fuck you.” He’s not probing the darkest aspects of the human psyche. He’s giving a book report.
Listen: "Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)"
Watching the archival footage of his onstage antics—especially those from his later years, after he traded acid for alcohol — it’s hard to miss the three guys behind him looking anxious and perhaps a bit angry while they fill the spaces between his hollow conflagrations. Organist Ray Manzarek, guitar player Robby Krieger, and drummer John Densmore were all fine players with distinctive, disparate styles, and when they go for heft and size, The Doors can be commanding. It’s no coincidence that “Five to One,” one of their heaviest songs, is also one of their most exciting. But generally speaking, Morrison, a limited vocalist and unpredictable frontman, severely limited their range and curtailed their power.
There are so many bands from the 1960s that are more deserving of awe and attention: Arthur Lee, the charismatic black frontman of Love, was visiting the decade’s dark side when Morrison was still wearing tighty-whiteys under his leather pants, and the 13th Floor Elevators really did break on through to the other side and found nothing but the Man waiting for them. Their story is a tragedy; The Doors’ more like a parody. Instead of being truly confrontational and transgressive, they sound mediocre and undistinguished from their contemporaries — in other words, safe. Is there anything worse you could say about a rock band?