Time has been at once kind and cruel to the Doors. It has been generous financially: The three members who survived lead singer Jim Morrison have — along with their record company — watched the band’s stock rise in the 20 years since he died. The Doors sell three quarters of a million records annually, and Morrison remains a popular magazine cover boy, frozen, leonine and lithe, in his long-ago prime.
Yet those two decades have at the same time taken a heavy toll on the band’s music. The Doors were once considered to be quite the avant-garde outfit. Didn’t Morrison fashion himself as an ”erotic politician” who wanted to break down societal mores, a Lizard King prowling the cultural undergrowth? Didn’t he style himself a poet, privately publishing volumes of his verse? Didn’t the band wrap itself in a grand sweep of literary and theatrical influences, ranging from Arthur Rimbaud to Bertolt Brecht?
Well, yes. They did. But today the Doors’ oeuvre says one very straightforward thing: 1968 was a long time ago. Some of their music holds up: ”Light My Fire” (written not by Morrison but by guitarist Robby Krieger) was deservedly a smash single and retains its force — that surge at song’s end, keyboardist Ray Manzarek’s keening, soaring organ lines — to this day. ”Hello, I Love You” is as randily rambunctious as ever; ”Riders on the Storm,” spacious and ghostly, still sounds great through a car radio. There are other moments — the eerie, windswept beginnings of ”L.A. Woman,” the scary lilt of ”People Are Strange” — that summon up the seamy underside of Los Angeles just as the bottom began falling out of the ’60s.
And for a time Morrison did indeed seem to stand for something — he was a walking refutation of the feel-good hippie drippiness prevalent in much of even the relatively serious rock & roll of the time. He was an early embodiment of the vast, dark undercurrents that in the ’70s began to engross a large part of the rock audience.
But most of the Doors’ records don’t live up to the myth. Sure, Jim Morrison was a poet; the problem is that he was such a bad one. Fans all know ”The End,” Morrison’s labored attempt to create Oedipal tension on stage. Leaving aside the triteness of the song’s climax —
”I want to kill you. Mother, I want to —
— we’re still stuck with the transcendentally meaningless literary horrors that make up the bulk of what now seems an endlessly long rant: ”Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain/And all the children are insane/Waiting for the summer rain.”
The band — Krieger on guitar, Manzarek on organ, John Densmore on drums — did do certain things well; Manzarek’s sound was distinctive, and on songs like ”Love Her Madly” and ”L.A. Woman,” the group developed a full-throttle, headlong rush. But apart from Morrison, they had no real identity; they rarely displayed that snap of true musical interplay, the lockstep groove that would have suggested they were born to play together.
Their progress after they released their first album, The Doors, in 1967, was all downward, as, more and more, they concentrated on the erratic and forgot the fun. Fans were fed whatever hoary cliché crept into Morrison’s mind. The other members dabbled in the most rudimentary studio experimentation, making funny noises with keyboards or electronically altering Morrison’s voice. Morrison, meanwhile, had ravaged his singing with extravagant drinking and drug use. While he was still able occasionally to pull off a song — even L.A. Woman, the band’s lame last record with Morrison, has his nice reading of ”Riders on the Storm” — more often he sounded strangled and strained: The Lizard King seemed to be suffering from a reptilian form of constipation.
Which leaves us with the Doors’ surprisingly small legacy: a few good songs that inspired a destructive strain of hard rock; a growing cult fueled by teenagers nostalgic for what they think was a simpler time; an expanding industry of record reissues, books, videos, now Oliver Stone’s feature film.
And — after Morrison succumbed to his excesses, ending up stiff in a Paris bathtub while still in his 20s — just another dead kid.