Friday, January 13, 2023

The Next Whiskey Bar: Jim Morrison and “The Doors”

Back in 2008 I had a long, deep conversation with one of my personal music heroes, Ray Manzarek. Yes, Ray was the keyboard master who did amazing things on an orgasmic 1967 rock hit, “Light My Fire.”  A natural leader, Ray in 1965 (then fresh out of UCLA’s film school) encouraged a shy young poet named Jim Morrison to become the lead singer of a new L.A. band called The Doors. It wasn’t long before the four Doors (having, in Manzarek’s words to me, used psychedelics to “open the gates of perception”) found world-wide fame. But Morrison’s excesses became notorious, up until his untimely death in Paris in 1971, at the age of 27.

 Like everyone else, Manzarek was stunned by Morrison’s mysterious demise. Of course he knew that Jim was—thanks to a steady diet of drugs and booze—rapidly going downhill. But he figured that Paris would provide the needed antidote, that this was Jim’s chance to recalibrate himself. As Ray told me, he foresaw Morrison turning into “an American in Paris, a poet, an American poet.  He was gonna be the next in line:  F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, Jim Morrison—that’s what I saw happening. He was gonna go to Paris and rejuvenate himself, and start to write again, not be a rock star but go back to being the poet that he was when we put the band together back in 1965.”

 Of course that’s not what happened, and Morrison’s heart attack in a Paris apartment bathtub became an essential part of the legend. It provided a dramatic conclusion for the biographical film released by writer-director Oliver Stone in 1991, with Val Kilmer playing the Morrison role. The Doors turned out to be only a middling success, with most of the praise going to Kilmer’s all-in performance. Watching it for the first time recently, I found myself frankly bored by the endless scenes of Jim’s bad behavior. In a new book, Roadhouse Blues (subtitled Morrison, The Doors, and the Death Days of the Sixties) pop-culture scholar Bob Batchelor weighs in on the film’s omissions, partly by citing the words of Jim’s former bandmates. He quotes at length guitarist Robby Krieger, who gripes that in Stone’s film Morrison comes off as “a pretentious, obnoxious, stupid drunk who was a dick to everyone around him.” While admitting that Jim could be difficult at times, Krieger points out that “he was funny, and shy, and when he was out of line he knew it, and he was sorry.” Krieger’s biggest regret is that, while “Oliver Stone’s movie is laughable as a historical artifact, . . . parts of it have seeped into the official record.”

 After chronicling the lives of Morrison and his fellow Doors, my colleague Batchelor moves on to appraising the group’s long-term impact. In a smart Afterword called “Jim Morrison in the Twenty-First Century,” he probes the mythic place occupied by Morrison in contemporary culture, quoting Jim’s own self-assessment as a shooting star, a celestial body bound to quickly disappear from view but never be forgotten. This section is followed by some highly personal musings titled “My Doors Memoir,” in which Batchelor explores the impact of Morrison and his fellow Doors on his own youthful life, circa 1986. It is in these pages that he discloses how important the band has been in terms of his own development: “I want to understand Morrison and the Doors because I want to decipher my own life, as well as America writ large across the ages.” Many a Doors fan will surely share this goal.


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