I find it oddly appropriate that the music of The Doors has been a constant companion for me during the COVID-19 epidemic and lockdown. Their music certainly isn’t a cheery respite from the anxiety of sheltering during a raging pandemic that has claimed just short of 160,000 American lives, most of which could have been spared had the powers that be actually did their jobs. It’s not a distraction from the novel coronavirus: it’s an expression of the chthonic forces that drive it.
There is nothing particularly cheery about the music of The Doors: it is consistently dark. But there is nothing supernatural or preternatural about their underworldly darkness — nothing Ozzy-ish about it, not the stuff of horror or fantasy. The darkness of The Doors points to the ordinary shadows cast by sex, death, and violence. It is dramatic darkness, revealing a kind of everyday dread deep under the facades of ordinary folk living mundane lives. It reveals the skull beneath the skin rather than the disembodied skeletons of gothic fiction. Its ancestors aren’t Lovecraft or Poe, but Sophocles and Freud.
This is not to elevate Jim Morrison to the status of a literary genius. He was an adequate baritone vocalist, and a mediocre poet-lyricist at best (and cringeworthy at worst). But in the context of The Door’s oeuvre, from The Doors to L.A. Woman, it works magnificently. This is due, in key part, to the other three members of The Doors, who are often overlooked as secondary to the charismatic Morrison. They had considerable chops, ingenuity, and passion. Keyboardist Ray Manzarek and drummer John Densmore both cut their teeth on jazz, while Robbie Krieger was a flamenco guitarist before he switched to his trusty Gibson SG. Their overall sound was remarkably consistent. Manzarek’s trademark Vox Continental electronic organ sounded cheesy, but in the context of their limited sonic palette the cheesiness worked to their advantage; he opened up his sound to include electric and acoustic piano and Hammond B3 on occasion, mostly in their later albums, only when it would not detract from The Doors’ mystique. If you were to eliminate Morrison’s vocals from any Doors track, you would still know it was them: Manzarek’s baroque keyboard runs, Krieger’s distinctively Spanish-tinged guitar licks, and Densmore’s crisp, snare-centered drumming are immediately recognizable, and without them, The Doors would have never been what they were.
Still, Morrison was always the key player in the band, its heart, and its lungs. (The two post-Morrison albums, while musically competent, lacked any kind of shine, and it made sense for the remaining three to close shop.) Chalk it up to intangible qualities like “stage presence”, “raw sexuality”, and “charisma” if you will: Morrison owned them all. But it was more important to understand how he had those qualities. They were not those of standard rock gods like Mick Jagger or Robert Plant. Morrison exuded sexual energy, but it was not all fun and games — it was dangerous, because there was a hint of mortality in it. “Come on we can only lose / and our love become a funeral pyre.” You don’t hear that kind of melancholy in “Whole Lotta Love” or “Tumbling Dice.” And his masculinity did not exhibit the kind of macho posturing you’d find in a David Lee Roth or Vince Neil. (God help us!) Morrison was not pretending. In The Doors’ unreleased cover of Van Morrison’s “Gloria”, when he talks dirty, he’s not trying to shock and incite a horny teenage audience. He means it.
But while the sex is visceral, it is not transcendent, an experience of mystical ecstasy or ego-less bliss. It is sweaty, bodily, clumsy, and tinged with the sadness that all flesh is heir to. While it would be ridiculous to claim Morrison himself for feminism — supposedly he tried to grope Janis Joplin, whereupon she hit him on the head with a Southern Comfort bottle and called him an asshole — the women he desires in his lyrics are not abstractions, leaving no emotional trails. They are real bodies and spirits. When they decouple from him, sexually or lovingly, they leave sad reminders of what once was. They are part of a drama. And in Morrison’s drama, death was never far behind.
It’s mortality itself that’s transcendent for The Doors: their music is death-haunted. But it is that very realization — that we are “being unto death” — that opens up Huxley’s “doors of perception” that give a glimpse into the transient glory of life. It’s a dark glory, steeped in the tragic sense of life. But radiance shines only as figure against the ground of darkness.
This is very Greek — Sophoclean, actually. The archetypal Doors epics — “The End”, “When the Music’s Over”, and “Celebration of the Lizard” — are tragedies that conceal hints of future redemption. “The End” is their most obviously Sophoclean epic because most obviously Freudian:
The killer awoke before dawn / He put his boots on / He took a face from the ancient gallery / And he walked on down the hall / He went into the room where his sister lived / And then he paid a visit to his brother / And then he walked on down the hall / And he came to a door / And he looked inside / Father? / Yes son / I want to kill you / Mother, I want to…
The reason Oedipus the King still rattles us is that it tells us something we’d all rather not hear: that even heroes cast shadows, and behind all our noble motivations lurks an “it” that is ineluctably violent and polymorphously perverse. We are able to repress and sublimate all this sub-articulate Eros and Thanatos, and thank goodness for that: it enables us to achieve an integral self that navigates the clashing demands of reality, culture, and desire. But the repressed always returns, and we need to be ready. Morrison himself said of “The End” that he was certainly not saying we should “Fuck . . . fuck . . . kill . . .kill . . .kill”, but that we should acknowledge the capacity to do so, and see it whenever we encounter loss and anticipate the end, any end:
This is the end, beautiful friend / This is the end, my only friend / The end of our elaborate plans / The end of ev’rything that stands / The end / No safety or surprise / The end / I’ll never look into your eyes again
The end is bleak the way Oedipus the King is bleak. But afterwards Sophocles sent us Oedipus at Colonus, which had a different vibe — the redemption of the tragic. “The Celebration of the Lizard” points in this direction. The virtuosic music of Manzarek, Krieger, and Densmore provides a perfect bed for Morrison’s narrative lyrics. The protagonist of the song finds himself in the middle of some occult ritual — the snake of “The End” making a reappearance. He grabs his woman and runs. And, in the end, they arrive at a kind of cathartic safety and warmth ensues, a brighter light and higher wisdom:
And I can tell you / The names of the Kingdom / I can tell you / The things that you know /Listening for a fistful of silence / Climbing valleys into the shade / For seven years, I dwelt / In the loose palace of exile / Playing strange games with the girls of the island / Now, I have come again / To the land of the fair and the strong and the wise / Brothers and sisters of the pale forest / Children of night / Who among you will run with the hunt? / Now night arrives with her purple legion / Retire now to your tents and to your dreams / Tomorrow we enter the town of my birth / I want to be ready
Who among us, now in the time and land of plague, does not wish to sleep in peace and return to the land we know? Perhaps this is why The Doors speak so clearly to me now. Behind anxiety and terror, there is longing. We need to return when dawn arrives. We want to be ready.