One glance at the cover of The Doors’ debut album and you knew the summer of love was over and the flower children were headed straight for the sanitarium. These Doors, as drummer John Densmore later quipped, were clearly “unhinged.”
Ray Manzarek carried the stern countenance of a Protestant preacher, hunched over the keyboard driving Jim Morrison into new, uncharted realms as he delivered psychedelic sermons. Manzarek’s studied glare behind his rimless glasses and stiff, formal appearance (preferring suits to the colorful ad-hoc hippie esthetic) gave him the air of a tidy yet maniacal schoolmaster while guitarist Robby Kreiger resembled a frazzled Venice Beach ragamuffin. And Densmore just seemed like that guy in high school you knew you had to keep away from your little sister. Well, they all did, but none more so than the self-proclaimed “Lizard King,” Jim Morrison.
True rock ‘n’ roll seethes with danger, bordering, at times, on madness, whether Jerry Lee Lewis pounding his piano like a man possessed by the devil he feared, or Jimi Hendrix’s feedback melting your face as he nonchalantly asked, “Are you experienced?”
Released on January 4, 1967, The Doors’ self-titled debut presented the peace and love crowd with a strange invitation. Like some crazy stranger you just met, Jim stands on a precarious precipice, arm stretched out beckoning you to leap with him into the great unknown.
In honor of the album’s 50th anniversary, we present you with a song-by-song synopsis of one of rock’s most enduring debut albums.
“Break On Through (To The Other Side)” kicks off with Densmore’s hard-grooving Latin beat and an electric piano vamp reminiscent of Ray Charles’ “What I’d Say.” If one song sums up the Doors’ take-no-prisoners philosophy, its “Break On Through.”
Like Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’ metaphorical manifesto “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” or James Dean’s tortured teenager in Rebel Without A Cause, the song stands as a testament against societal complacency, challenging you to forge your own individual path through life, no matter the risk or how emotionally messy it may get. “I’m interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos,” Jim Morrison once proclaimed, apparently even at the price of his own self-preservation.
From the first notes of Ray’s eerie organ on “Soul Kitchen,” you know something strange is cooking on the other side of that closed door. Robby Kreiger’s guitar moans and sighs as he bends bluesy notes, elastic and slippery, as the beat sneaks up on you, slinky and sleazy while Morrison bellows fragments of surreal poetry as he goes, “Stumblin’ in the neon groves.”
Later in the song Jim repeatedly chants “learn to forget” over and over like a zombie mantra. Years later when Manzarek discovered and produced L.A. punk rockers X, they would reinvent “Soul Kitchen,” giving The Doors’ tune a new, nihilistic edge.
The dreamy atmosphere of “The Crystal Ship” swells like glassy waves, carrying the mythical vessel loaded with its cargo of “a thousand thrills, a thousand girls.” Morrison’s teenage fantasy evokes the amethyst visions of French symbolist poets Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire.
“Twentieth Century Fox” was the Doors’ original “L.A. Woman,” a portrait of a Hollywood bombshell, an ode to the “queen of cool” that Morrison croons over a pumping sexy strut.
“Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)” reflects the grim and decadent era of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin in the 1920s. The music creeps along, staggering and delirious as a clutch of drunks whose only mission is to throw another log on the fire consuming their lives.
Debauched as it may be, the original lyric sung by Lotte Lenya, “show us the way to the next little boy,” proved too much for the aggressively hetero Morrison. (Lou Reed’s sleazy salute to sexual ambiguity, “Walk on the Wild Side,” was still five years in the future.)
The shimmering, exotic sound of “Alabama Song” was created by Ray Manzarek playing a two-octave fretless zither known as a Marxophone. Its haunting tremolo is reminiscent of the gypsy hammer dulcimer known as the cimbalom, which gives the tune a similar sonic texture as Anton Karas’ classic “The Third Man Theme” (title song to the 1949 film The Third Man starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Wells).
“Light My Fire,” The Doors’ first and most successful single, was an intoxicating sonic cocktail blending Ray’s Bach organ fugues with Robby’s Flamenco-style guitar while Jim, the psychedelic Sinatra, crooned, and bellowed such provocative lyrics as “You know that I would be a liar.”
Over seven minutes long, the original track not only contained one of the Door’s most memorable lyric hooks but was the perfect vehicle for Ray Manzarek’s swirling climactic organ work, which gave way to Robby Kreiger’s slinky midnight Arabic tent dance.
“The first thing that impressed me about Ray was that he played organ and bass at the same time, which is no mean feat!” exclaimed legendary organist Al Kooper. “He was unique in that he didn’t play a Hammond organ, which nearly everybody used at the time. But he had played my lick from ‘House in the Country’ in one of their songs [‘L.A. Woman’]. Once we were on a plane when he came down the aisle and I said, ‘Hey, you stole my lick!’ He said, ‘I was paying tribute to you!’ I said, ‘I wish you were paying money!’ Ray was a nice guy. I thought he was very good and appropriate for what the band was doing. Other than stealing my lick he was pretty original.”
The Doors’ seemingly unique instrumentation actually mirrored that of the Rascals, comprised of a lead singer who occasionally jangled a tambourine, organ/keyboard player, guitarist and drums. While both bands hired bassists to beef up their recordings, they performed live without them, relying on their keyboardists (Felix Cavaliere in the Rascals’ case) to provide the bottom end.
Up-and-coming rock singers looking for some cred routinely borrowed the bluster of bluesmen like Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon, as the Doors did with their enthralling cover of “Back Door Man.” (The Rolling Stones’ first hit was the Chicago bassist/songwriter’s “Little Red Rooster,” while the Animals conjured Lead Belly for their covers of “House of the Rising Sun” and John Lee Hooker for “Boom, Boom, Boom”).
When Howlin’ Wolf croaked “I can eat more chicken than any man’s ever seen,” there was no doubting him for a minute. “Three hundred pounds of heavenly joy,” as he described himself, the Wolf was a man of voracious appetite, whether hungering for delectable drumsticks and wings or “the little girls,” who, unlike most men “understand” as he sang in Dixon’s “Back Door Man.”
But The Doors made Willie’s “Back Door Man” their own. Side Two bursts wide open with one of Jim’s best feral screams. Morrison sounds dangerous and unpredictable, like a wild animal suddenly freed from its cage, while Robby Kreiger’s fuzz-tone guitar soars and swoops around Jim’s every word like a maniacal bumblebee.
“I Looked At You” is Jim’s breezy valentine to the eternal yin/yang, girl/boy dance of attraction, a menacing variation on Doris Troy’s R&B hit “Just One Look (That’s All It Took).”
But Morrison’s celebration comes with a warning: “It’s too late,” he moans, knowing all too well that once you trip love’s trigger there’s no turning back, as his bandmates sweep us away on a brief joyride, buoyed by Ray’s keyboards and punctuated Densmore’s riveting drum fills.
“Some are born to sweet delight; some are born to endless night,” wrote the great 18th-century romantic poet/painter William Blake in his classic “Auguries of Innocence,” lyrics Morrison brilliantly lifted for the Doors’ classic “End of the Night.”
You could learn a lot from Jim Morrison, intoxicated as he might have been much of the time. But whenever Jim wasn’t fully igniting his senses, he managed to read—a lot—passing on the inspiration he found in poetry, plays and avant-garde film to his audience.
“Jim Morrison was one of our great poets and unique performers,” Patti Smith told CBS’ On Sunday Morning. “His body of work will always endure.”
Smith wasn’t alone in recognizing Morrison’s enigmatic verse as literature. Following Jim’s death 0n July 3, 1971, Beat poet Michael McClure would collaborate with Manzarek, reading Morrison’s lyrics (and thereby giving them more credence) as Ray improvised on the well-known melodies he once helped forge.
“Take It As It Comes” was a breezy toss off. If any song on the album revealed a formula of the Doors’ sound, it was the 10th track. But in light of what follows it was perhaps just what the album and Doors fans needed.
“The End” opens gently with Robby’s meandering guitar riffs, like a strange dawn rising, until it sweeps us along on a cathartic journey as Morrison leads us down the dark corridors of his psyche, exploring the ultimate taboo, the Oedipal fantasy of killing his father and making love to his mother.
The late Judith Malina of New York’s experimental Living Theater recalled Morrison in an interview shortly before she passed away: “Jimmy used to come to see us. He was so sexy. He picked up a lot of things from us that wound up getting him into trouble, when he started doing them on stage.” (The Living Theater was forced to leave America in 1962, and was later were driven out of Holland, a bastion of progressive/liberal culture at the time, and later Brazil, where many members were arrested and jailed. Jim would later bail the Living Theater out of jail in 1968 after they returned to the U.S. and began performing once more.)
“Yeah, I’d say there was a similarity, definitely,” Morrison said regarding the connection of his song to the Greek myth. “But to tell you the truth, every time I hear that song, it means something else to me. I really don’t know what I was trying to say. It just started out as a simple goodbye song…Probably just to a girl, but I could see how it could be goodbye to a kind of childhood. I really don’t know. I think it’s sufficiently complex and universal in its imagery that it could be almost anything you want it to be.”