by Danny Sugarman
The question arises repeatedly: Why are the Doors still so popular?
Why the Doors? Why now?
Clearly, it has a lot to do with the unlikely musical elements.
Robby Krieger: not only an excellent songwriter, but a fine flamenco
guitarist as well, who could also play a unique kind of bottleneck
guitar. Ray Manzarek: a classically trained keyboardist with a genuine
love for the blues, who also wrote and played the bass lines, keeping
them melodic and precise. John Densmore: a jazz drummer with an un-
b eatable knack for shamanic rhythm and theatrical timing. Jim Morrison:
the baritone, the electric poet with an inborn compositional ability.
The combination of these diverse traits could have been disastrous,
conflicting and at odds. But it wasn't. Instead it was eerie and magical,
sounding like a cross between a funeral dirge and a Halloween wedding.
During the first rehearsals in Manzarek's beach-front house in Venice,
California, the magic was already evident to the four involved- they
knew. None of them had ever felt like this before. There was more than
a musician's innate sense of musical communication. There was chemistry.
There was beauty, surrealism, and majesty. It worked.
The band's unexpressed goal was nothing short of musical alchemy- they
intended to unite rock music unlike any ever heard before with poetry
and that hybrid with theater and drama. They aimed to unite performer and
audience by plugging directly into the Universal Mind. They would settle
for nothing less. For them that meant no gimmicks, nothing up their
sleeves, no elaborate staging or special effects- only naked, dangerous
reality, piercing the veil of Maya with the music's ability to awaken
man's own dormant eternal powers.
The Doors constantly courted their muse- that is to say, Morrison
courted his muse, and the band followed; the band stayed with him.
Jim always maintained that one cannot simply will the muse; the writer
or artist's power lies in his ability to receive, not invent, and it was
the artist's duty to do everything possible to increase his powers of
reception. To achieve this end the nineteenth-century poet Arthur Rim-
baud had advocated a systematic "rational derangement of all the senses".
Why? "To achieve the unknown."
Jim's fondness for the unknown is well-documented. "There are things
known", Jim would say in a quote often attributed to William Blake but
in fact Jim's own, "and there are things unknown, and in between are the
doors". But Blake did say, in his first Proverb of Hell, "The road of excess
leads to the palace of wisdom." And one line down, "Prudence is a rich
ugly old maid courted by Incapacity." It needn't be added that Jim did
not court the maid and seldom knew incapacity. Jim drank and yelled and
pleaded, cajoled and danced in honor of divine inspiration, and to hell
with the cost, calling on his inspiration to unite the band, to ignite
the audience, to set the night on fire, once and for all, forever.
Manzarek, Krieger, and Densmore's contribution cannot be under-
estimated or overpraised. For it was not only what they gave that
counts for so much, but what they were willing to hold back and what
they graciously sacrificed as well. It was the only way the spell could
be cast, the only possible way for the songs to be born. The musicians
were literally able to anticipate the singer during an improvisation,
and the singer, sensing this, grew in ability and confidence. They became
more daring. The Doors' muscle flexed. They were so strong they were
terrifying. But in that terror was beauty, joy, and hope. Sadly, it was
the Doors' commitment to this standard, set so early in their career,
that finally did them in. Jim Morrison was a man who would not,
could not, and did not know how to compomise himself or his art. And
herein lay his innocence and purity- his summary blessing and curse.
To go all the way or die trying. All or nothing. The ecstatic risk.
Because he would not manufacture or cheapen what he wrote, he could
not fake desperation. He would not merely entertain, or go through the
motions; he was brilliant and desperate, he was driven, he was mad.
Mad to create, mad to be real. And those qualities made him volatile,
dangerous and conflicted. He sought consolation and solace in the same
elements that had initially inspired him and helped him to create: intox-
Jim Morrison was not hooked on any drug so much as he was addicted to
peak experiences, specifically the high of the Doors' functioning at
the pinnacle of their collective strengths, those times when muse and
musician become one and the audience virtually became a part of the band.
It was commitment that made this possible, and it was commitment which
he refused to sacrifice.
The French Surrealist Antonin Artaud's theories regarding confrontation,
as expounded in his thesis "The Theatre and It's Double", were a
significant influence on the group. In one of the book's most powerful
essays, Artaud draws a parallel between the plague and the theatrical
action, maintaining that dramatic activity must be able to effect a cath-
arsis in the spectator in the same way that the plague purified mankind.
The goal? "So they will be terrified and awaken. I want to awaken them.
They do not realize they are already dead."
Jim would, in time, scream "Wake Up!" a thousand times, a thousand
nights, in an effort to shake the audience out of their self-imposed
lethargy and unconsciousness. I can still remember the first Doors
concert I went to, scared to the very depth of my thirteen-year-old soul,
thinking: This guy is dangerous. Someone's gonna get hurt, probably him.
Or me. Or all of us. When you confront that sort of fear- or the unholy
terror a song like "The End" can engender- something inside you shifts.
Confronting the end, eternity blinks. That concert changed my life. I knew:
It doesn't get any better, or more real, than this.
"Mystery festivals should be unforgettable events, casting their shadows
over the whole of one's future life, creating experiences that transform
existence," Aristotle wrote, pointing out that the objective of the
mysterium initiation, learning, was not the end, and that experiencing
was the start.
Plutarch had attempted to describe the process of dying in terms of a
similar initiation: "Wandering astray, down frightening paths in darkness
that lead nowhere; then immediately before the end of all terrible
things, panic and amazement." There are magical sounds and dances and
sacred words passed, and then "the initiate, set free and loose from
all bondage, walks about, celebrating the festival with other sacred and
pure people and he looks down on the initiated...."
Which comes damn close to describing the Doors at the peak of their
powers: riding the snake, the serpent, ancient and archetypal, strange
yet disturbingly familiar, powerfully evocative, sensuous and evil,
strong, forbidding. When Morrison intoned, "The killer awoke before
dawn and put his boots on/ he took a face from the ancient gallery/ and
he walked on down the hall," we were walking down that hall with him,
in dread, paralyzed, powerless to stop, as the music wove a web of
hysteria around us, wrapping us ever tighter in its web, Morrison
enacting the tragedy, the patricide, the horror, unspeakable torment.
WE SAW IT, WE FELT IT, we were there. We were hypnotized. Reality
opened up its gaping abyss and swallowed us whole as we tumbled into
another dimension. And Morrison was the only guide: "And I'm right
here, I'm going to release control, we're breaking through....." and
then we did.
"Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain." It wasn't merely a verse. It
was an epitaph for the moment, a photograph of the collective
unconscious. The symbols were timeless and the words contained
stored-up images and energies thousands of years old, now
Early in the group's career, Jim tried to explain some of this to a
journalist: "A Doors concert is a public meeting called by us for a
special dramatic discussion. When we perform, we're participating in
the creation of a world and we celebrate that with the crowd."
A few days before he flew to Paris, to his death, Jim gave his last
statement ot the press: "For me, it was never really an act, those
so-called performances. It was a life-and-death thing; an attempt to
communicate, to involve many people in a private world of thought."
It was the mid-to-late 1960's and bands were singing of love and peace
and acid was passed out, but with the Doors it was different. The
emerald green night world of Pan, god of music and panic, was never
more resplendent than in the Doors' music: the breathless gallop in
"Not To Touch The Earth", the incipient horror of "Celebration Of The
Lizard", the oedipal nightmare of "The End", the cacophonous torment
of "Horse Latitudes", and the dark, uneasy undertones of "Can't See
Your Face In My Mind", the weary doom impending in "Hyacinth House",
the alluring loss of consciousness found in "Crystal Ship".
When the music was over, there was a stillness, a serenity, a connection
with life and a confirmation of existence. In showing us Hell, the Doors
took us to Heaven. In evoking death, they made us feel alive. By con-
fronting us with horror, we were freed to celebrate with them joy.
By confirming our sense of hopelessness and sorrow, they led us to
freedom, or at least they tried.
An account of initiation into the mysteries of the goddess Isis survives
in only one in-person account, an ancient text that translated reads:
"I approached the frontier of death, I saw the threshold of Persephone,
I journeyed through all the elements and came back, I saw at midnight
the sun, sparkling in white light, I came close to the gods of the upper
and the netherworld and adored them near at hand."
This all happened at night. With music and dance and performance.
The concert as ritual, as initiation. The spell is cast. Extraordinary
elements were loosed that have resided in the ether for hundreds of
thousands of years, dormant within us all, requiring only an
Of course, psychedelic drugs as well as alcohol could encourage the
unfolding of events. A Greek musicologist gives his description of
Bacchic initiation as catharsis: "This is the purpose of Bacchic
initiation, that the depressive anxiety of less educated people,
produced by their state of life, or some misfortune, be cleared
away through the melodies and dances of the ritual".
There is a strange tantalizing fascination evoked by fragments of
ancient pagan mysteries: The darkness and the light, the agony and
the ecstasy, the sacrifice and bliss, the wine and the ear of grain
(hallucinogenic fungi). For the ancients it was enough to know there
were doors to a secret dimension that might open for those who earn-
estly sought them. Such hopes and needs have not gone away with time.
Morrison was the first rock star I know of to speak of the mythic
implications and archetypal powers of rock n roll, about the ritual-
istic properties of the rock concert. For doing so, the press called
him a pretentious asshole: "Don't take yourself so seriously, Morrison,
it's just rock n roll and you're just a rock singer."
Jim knew they were wrong, but he didn't argue. Jim knew that music
is magic, performance is worship, and he knew rhythm can set you free.
Jim was too aware of the historical relevance of music in ritual for
those transforming Doors concerts to have been accidental.
From Friedrich Nietzsche, Jim took solace and encouragement in the
admonition to "say yes to life." I never believed that Jim was on a
death trip, and to this day still find it difficult to judge the way he
chose to live and die. Jim preferred intensity to longevity, to be, as
Nietzsche said, "one who does not negate," who does not just say no,
who dares to create himself.
Jim also must have been braced to read the following Nietzsche quote:
"Saying yes to life even in its strangest and hardest problems; the
will to life rejoicing over its own inexhaustibility even in the very
sacrifice of its highest types- this is what I called Dionysian, that
is what I understood as the bridge to the psychology of the tragic
poet. Not in order to get rid of terror and pity, not in order to
purge oneself of a dangerous effect by its vehement discharge, but
in order to be oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror
and pity." It was Jim's insatiable thirst for life that killed him,
not any love of death.
The band took their name from the poet/visionary/artist William Blake.
Blake had written, "When the doors of perception are cleansed, things
will appear as they truly are, infinite." English author Aldous Huxley
was sufficiently inspired by Blake's quote to title his book on his mesc-
aline experiences "The Doors Of Perception." Morrison was impressed
enough with both sources to propose the monicker to his bandmates.
Everyone agreed that the name, as well as the sources from which it
sprang, were perfect to convey and represent who they were and what
they stood for.
And then there was the first single, "Break On Through (to the Other
Side)", a near-perfect distillation of what this young band was aiming
to do. The imagery read like a surreal invitation to a perpetual night
world with vague promises of the forbidden. The Doors were thrilling:
part joy, part dread.
Nietzche, Van Gogh, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Poe, Blake, Artaud, Cocteau,
Nijinsky, Byron, Coleridge, Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan.....the mad
ones, the doomed ones, the writers, poets, and painters, the artists
stubbornly resistant to authority and insistent on being loyal to their
true nature, at any cost- this was the lineage with whom Jim most
passionately identified, and it was to their standard he aspired. To
be a poet, to be an artist, meant more than writing or painting or
singing; it meant having a vision and the courage to see that vision
through, despite any opposition. What didn't kill you made you stronger,
and if you had what it took, you were rare and wondrous, and if you
didn't it couldn't be faked.
To be a poet meant more than writing poems. It demanded a commitment
to live and die with great style and even greater sadness; to wake each
morning with the fever raging and know it would never be extinguished
except by death. To be a poet meant making a commitment. To embrace
the tragedy fate has chosen for you and fulfill that destiny with gusto
Jim's short, tragic life is the stuff of which our heroes and our gods
of youth and resurrection are made. Like Orpheus, he is forever young,
and like Dionysus, he dies to be born again.
During his lifetime, Morrison had been compared to an angel and called
the devil, and almost everything in between. From Mephistofeles to
the ultimate Barbie doll, from the King of Acid Rock to Mickey Mouse
de Sade. The conflicts raged within. He sought immortality as a poet
only to see those efforts sabotaged by his enormous appeal as a rock
star. Still, Jim got what he wanted. Jim wanted to transubstantiate
the temporal energy and light of life into the lasting immortality
of art. What he hadn't counted on was that the impact he made would
last so long. I think he'd be pleased- I think he'd be proud.
And in the end, after conquering America and the rest of the Western
world, after being shackled by the courts and laws of the land that he
loved, he escaped to Paris, home of so many expatriate artists of the
past, to further his life on his terms, he had reaped the rewards,
and now the bill was due. His spirit was tired. Death was simply
closer and easier than returning to America, or the stage it re-
Jim Morrison is not dead. His spirit lives on, in his music and in
his lyrics, shining with incandescent brilliance, a fusion of light
and dark made diamond bright and eternal.
"Cancel my subscription to the resurrection," he sang.
Not likely, Jim.
This is not the end.
The Doors Complete Illustrated Lyrics
Copyright 1991 Doors Music Co.