He’s hot, he’s sexy, he’s undead. This week Elektra is issuing, for the first time on compact disc, Jim Morrison and the Doors’ An American Prayer. Originally released in 1978, seven years after Jimbo’s fatal nod-out in a bathtub, the album set Morrison’s poems, ramblings, and ruminations (even one of his phone calls) to newly recorded backing tracks by the surviving members of the Doors. The new CD comes with three bonus tracks; for one, an extended version of ”The Ghost Song,” the band has re-formed again to provide all-new, 1995 musical accompaniment to Morrison’s wanna-verse (”We need great golden copulations”).
Starting with Hank Williams and continuing through Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix, dead rock and pop stars have occasionally had their work altered posthumously. If you hear any Hank recordings with drums, for instance, be wary — he never had a drummer in his band. Four years ago, the trend was legitimized, if that’s the right word, when Natalie Cole sang along with her father Nat, who had been dead for 25 years.
The difference between the early days of musical grave-robbing and the current wave is that scurrilous producers and cynical record execs aren’t the ones behind it: It’s the musicians themselves. The three surviving Beatles have kept their lawyers at bay long enough to augment at least two unfinished John Lennon songs that will be part of a five-hour Beatles TV special and soundtrack slated for year’s end. Meanwhile, the members of Queen are reportedly compiling a rarities album for which the band is adding new backings for never-released Freddie Mercury vocals. When Bob Seger sang ”rock & roll never forgets,” he never quite envisioned the consequences.
Certainly, the presence of the ex-Beatles or Doors lends a sense of legitimacy to these projects that they wouldn’t otherwise have. And judging from the Doors track, with its smoothly integrated mix of circa-1970 Morrison musings and the band’s well-preserved snake-charmer cabaret rock, they will no doubt be seamless technological wonders. One could also argue that this wizardry of engineering is in keeping with the very illusory nature of the record-making process, which creates the impression that musicians are all playing in the same room at the same time — which is often not the case at all.
But none of those excuses makes the idea any less ghoulish than it was three decades ago. Or any less worthless: Posthumous records are almost always bad or plain unlistenable. Even when it was first released, An American Prayer was a minor footnote to the Doors’ career. The same holds true today; Prayer is primarily for those who place great weight on Jim Morrison intoning couplets like ”Peace on earth/Will you die for me?/Eat me/This way/The end” to the tip-toe-lightly jazzbo noodlings of Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, and Robby Krieger.
Still, this trend opens up a whole new coffin door of possibilities. The record business is eternally cynical and exploitive; in a way, that’s part of its charm. Classic rock has, unfortunately, been the benefactor of much of that cynicism, from Dylan songs used in commercials to over-the-top boxed sets. Yet now that everything’s been reissued and played to death, is reviving our favorite dead stars the next and last step to breathing new, er, life into classic rock? If you thought that hearing the Beatles’ slight Live at the BBC made you moist-eyed, wait until you hear a reincarnated John Lennon! One can only hope for more integrity-driven artists like bluegrass queen Alison Krauss, who recently nixed having her version of the late Keith Whitley’s ”When You Say Nothing at All” spliced together with Whitley’s original recording.
Since the Queen or Beatles ”reunions” won’t be heard for at least a few more months, final judgment will have to wait. I’ll try to listen with open-minded ears, but maybe this is one area where musicians should rest in some sort of musical peace. C