LA Woman and Les Doors
(or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Wasps)
BY NOW, THEY SAID, I would have outgrown it. When imagining myself plunged deep into the darkest inner recesses of middle age, I, too, once believed that my purportedly more mature self would no longer have his boat rocked by The Doors. No way. After all, The Doors were all about teenage angst and rebellion, an eloquent two-fingered riposte to the way our parents insisted we were supposed to be. Yet here I am, 45 years on from my first encounter with “Light My Fire”, and I’m still thrilling to the intoxicating uniqueness of popular music’s quintessential quartet.
Of course, I fully realise that making that statement ensures that a bucketful of indignation and wrath will be emptied over my head from a vast height. The critical consensus, after all, is summed up in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, my family’s favourite movie, when Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs derides The Doors and plops on Iggy and the Stooges instead: far more authentic.
Even if we disqualify The Stones and The Band on the ground that they were quintets, that still leaves The Who and Zeppelin, let alone the Moptops. Yet while I yield to neither man nor beast in my appreciation of The White Album, Who’s Next, Quadrophenia and Led Zeps IV and V, and will happily make a strident case for Pete Townshend as a superior songwriter to either Jagger/Richards or Page/Plant, none of the Brits have shaken my moneymaker, nor enchanted my ears, the way Messrs Morrison, Densmore, Krieger and Manzarek have done. Or, given that’s the way I introduced my three children to them via the framed Linda Eastman monochrome shot on the hall wall, Jim, John, Robby and Ray. As distancing as Jimbo’s excesses could be, Mr Mojo Risin made intimacy not just possible but irresistible.
Better yet, as the 40th Anniversary reissue of LA Woman has been busy reminding me this past week – along with the spellbinding making-of DVD and Greil Marcus’s latest erudite outpouring, The Doors – A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years – that admiration has actually risen with the passage of time. All the defining qualities, indeed, can be heard on one song: the rough-and-ready, slightly longer and definitely edgier alternate take of the title track, which with the possible exception of “Born To Be Wild” may well be the ultimate in top-down, foot-down drive-jive.
A CHUNKY QUOTA OF THAT ADMIRATION is attributable to the sheer musical quality and inventiveness of the personnel. Jim may have revered Sinatra, but not only was his range infinitely greater, he made you believe he meant every word and felt every syllable – it helps when you write them yourself. If the measure of a singer is the number of successors who seek not merely to emulate but to capture, distil and bottle their essence, no modern carouser has been more influential.
By the time recording began for LA Woman, he’d made up his mind to leave the city for Paris, which probably explains why he sounds more relaxed, even reborn, yet simultaneously bent on getting things right. The bluesier material suits this looser mood, yet, almost as much as his tours de force on “Riders On The Storm” and “LA Woman”, what lingers most indelibly is the calm, almost stately vocal on “Hyacinth House” – which, according to Ray, testified to his desire for “a brand new friend who doesn’t bother me”, for change and, above all, peace. Listen, especially, to that precious early take of “LA Woman” and, just before Robby’s final solo, hear him dig deep into his diaphragm then unleash a slow-motion “Yeeeaahhhooo!” If you can point me in the direction of a more soul-soaring summation of the joy engendered by rock music I would be forever in your debt.
Granted, by his own chuckling admission, Ray shamelessly ripped off Chopin and Rachmaninoff for his solos – the candour he displays on the DVD in citing the former as the unsuspected (by me at least) author of that gorgeous break on “Hyacinth House” is disarmingly noble. All the same, as a key-plunker he was far more imaginative in incorporating classical works than those noted fellow-plunderers Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman. And oh, those soundscapes he painted. LA Woman is his finest outing, from the Russ Conway rinky-tinkiness of “Love Her Madly” and a funky-junky Ramsey Lewis turn on “The Changeling” to the pulsating honky-tonking of the title track and the rippling pianistics that give “Riders On The Storm” its none-more-haunting atmosphere.
With his flamenco-picking style freeing him, somehow, to run the gamut from jazz to blues to radio-friendly raunch, Krieger is as versatile a guitarist as ever seduced these ears (though Mike Campbell runs him close, most vividly on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ latest, Mojo). At once delicate and dynamic, his knack for choosing which style to deploy and when was uncanny, a gift echoed by that ability to dash off head-bobbing tunes, of which “Love Her Madly” stands as the tallest example. Those trills and light-fingered runs on “LA Woman” remain breathtaking; freshly diggable is that outtake on the anniversary release, with its (even more) urgent tone hoisted higher in the mix than Ray’s derring-doodlings: listen, swoon and fall in love all over again with the possibilities of a stringed instrument.
And then there was John, the jazzer who doubtless struck many as a tad pretentious when, in that Granada documentary of the band’s 1968 European tour, The Doors Are Open, he described his job as “percussionist”. If he lacked the maniacal energy of Keith Moon and the funky muscularity of John Bonham, he trumped both for creativity, each beat, as Marcus so exquisitely puts it, “feeling like a choice made, sealed, and left behind”. Without him, The Doors would never have made it beyond Venice Beach. Whatever his bandmates threw at him he was equal to, and more. As clichéd as it sounds, he was the pulse; not just a deft rhythmatist but a punchy punctuater. Listen to him stealthily build up the head of steam that powers the climax of “LA Woman” and hear a master at work. Terry Williams pulled off the same trick on Man’s “C’mon”, another sublime exercise in languid polyrhythmics, but the Welsh maestro would be the first to point you in the direction of the blueprint.
THE WHOLE, NEVERTHELESS, was even greater than the sum of those sublime parts. “There was a seriousness of intent that was thrilling on its own terms,” marvels Marcus in a book as critical as it is adulatory. “There was a sense of consequences: to walk through the dramas being enacted on The Doors [the album] was to take a chance, just a chance, that you might not come out quite the same.”
The dramas were still being enacted during the sessions for LA Woman. Marcus quotes a Thomas Pynchon character, Doc Sportello, to make the point. Sportello has a painting of a Southern California beach on his wall:
“He thought of it as a window to look out of when he couldn’t deal with looking out of the traditional glass-type one in the other room. Sometimes in the shadows the view would light up, usually when he was smoking weed, as if the contrast knob of Creation had been messed with just enough to give everything an underglow, a luminous edge, and promise that the night was about to turn epic somehow.”
Epic is as good a word as any to describe The Doors. There was a sweep, a majesty, about not just the three-reelers (“The End”, “When The Music’s Over” and the aforementioned LA Woman symphonies, even the episodic “Celebration of the Lizard”) but shorts such as “The Unknown Soldier” and LA Woman’s “The Wasp (Texas Radio And The Big Beat)”. Forget the Cinematic Orchestra: this was cinematic rock, founded on that multi-dimensional, all-enveloping sound and Jim’s poetry. The first lines he quoted to Ray on that southern California beach – “Let’s swim to the moon/Let’s climb through the tide/Penetrate the evenin’/That the city sleeps to hide” – led to the band’s formation, and proved anything but a false start. Three years later he came up with “Texas Radio…”, though it took another three to find its musical expression. Even though the author spells “meagre” and “honour” the American way, the words bear relating in full:
I wanna tell you about Texas Radio and the Big Beat
Comes out of the Virginia swamps
Cool and slow with plenty of precision
With a back beat narrow and hard to master
Some call it heavenly in its brilliance
Others, mean and rueful of the Western dream
I love the friends I have gathered together on this thin raft
We have constructed pyramids in honor of our escaping
This is the land where the Pharaoh died
The Negroes in the forest brightly feathered
They are saying, “Forget the night.
Live with us in forests of azure.
Out here on the perimeter there are no stars
Out here we is stoned immaculate.”
Listen to this, and I’ll tell you ’bout the heartache
I’ll tell you ’bout the heartache and the loss of God
I’ll tell you ’bout the hopeless night
The meager food for souls forgot
I’ll tell you ’bout the maiden with wrought iron soul
I’ll tell you this
No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn
I’ll tell you ’bout Texas Radio and the Big Beat
Soft drivin’, slow and mad, like some new language
Now, listen to this, and I’ll tell you ’bout the Texas
I’ll tell you ’bout the Texas Radio
I’ll tell you ’bout the hopeless night
Wandering the Western dream
Tell you ’bout the maiden with wrought-iron soul
Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein may once have done so with nary a concession to average literacy standards, but employing words such as “azure”, “rueful” and “wrought-iron” in a popular song was daringly unfashionable by the Sixties: I can only imagine Tom Waits or Donald Fagen and Walter Becker even trying to use them now. That they managed to engrave themselves on thousands of memories stands testimony to Jim’s purposeful enunciation and penchant for rich and eloquent phrasing. Luxuriate in that declamatory line “No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn”; wallow in the way he stresses “now” and “wasting”, the sense of natural order he brings to each component of the sentence. Immaculately conceived, artfully executed.
As poetry it works, resisting accusations of pretentiousness purely because the words are so instantly memorable, you can’t imagine its author agonising over them. Even if you’re not exactly sure what he’s getting at, “Cancel my subscription to the resurrection”, the cornerstone of “When The Music’s Over”, may strike you as having been hatched in iambic heaven, sired by the satanic bastard offspring of Gerard Manley Hopkins. By the same token, it is the musical clothes, the colours and textures furnished by Ray, Robby and John, that make it palatable for those who simply want to get their rocks off.
AND SO TO THE BOTTOM LINE: why do The Doors still exert such a grip? More pertinently, why do they still press my buttons in a way that my precious Brit rockers seldom do? Can it be traced, being a Londoner, to the sense that Jim, John, Ray and Robby seemed that much more exotic and mysterious than a bunch of guys from Shepherd’s Bush or Birmingham? Entirely possible. Was it – is it – the political sensibility and universality of the lyrics, lyrics that could only have stemmed from the kaleidoscopic if troubled mind of an admiral’s son, one whose horizons were broadened by the Sixties, the decade that gave us teenage angst, the generation gap and the fleeting hope that our next rulers might be sane? Again, quite possible. Ditto all those technicolour crotchets and quavers and crescendos, not to mention the somewhat blushworthy fact that Jim remains this fully qualified hetero male’s notion of feline-masculine beauty (hence, presumably, all those posters in student digs from Tokyo to Torquay).
On reflection, however, it boils down to the fact that The Doors don’t so much bridge that generation gap as saunter across it. I can express my undiminished, unabashed, unbridled enthusiasm to my teenaged children and know not only that I won’t look a berk but that some of it has rubbed off. Much as they adored John, Paul, George and Ringo as pre-pubescents, Jim, John, Robby and Ray have opened their eyes as much as their ears. Music can have no higher ambition.