Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Old friends, new perspectives: Revisiting The Doors

An outtake from the Morrison Hotel photo shoot, by Henry Diltz

I hadn't listened to any of The Doors' albums much in several years. I've known them all by heart since I was in high school -- especially the six studio albums from the Morrison years. But in the past 40 years or so, I probably have listened to Absolutely Live, the 1970 double LP that followed Morrison Hotel, significantly more often than any of the other Doors records.

That dry spell was broken a week or two ago when I streamed through The Soft Parade three or four times while working on the first post in this blog. The first couple times through, I got interested in how the album sounded different to me after all these years away.

I don't mean different because of remastering and remixing -- I encountered at least one noticeably altered version as I stumbled across a couple of different anniversary editions. I did focus mostly on listening to the original release version to make sure I was getting as close as possible to the experience I had 50 years ago. What struck me is how I processed some aspects of the album differently through the perspective that comes from a long absence. It was almost like I was hearing it for the first time after decades of reading and learning about its history and significance.

So I thought, let's start at the beginning, with the debut album, and spend a few days going through the whole catalog, start to finish. That might be good fodder for a blog post.

And here we are. I have now listened through all six of The Doors' Morrison-era studio albums a couple times through in the past couple of days. I listened with the idea that I would rank the six not on pure artistic merit -- but according to how likely I would be to choose a particular album on a random day when I felt the urge to listen to a Doors album. I'll start at least likely and work up to most likely, thereby saving the best for last. 

Here we go.

No. 6 (least likely). Strange Days (1967):
I was caught off-guard by how little I enjoyed this one. It was recorded and released in less than nine months after the debut hit stores, and it does now sound like a rush job to me. Most of these songs were in the band's repertoire from the beginning, leftovers that didn't make it onto the first record. With the exception of a few tunes ("People Are Strange," "Moonlight Drive," "I Can't See Your Face In My Mind"), the material doesn't hold up well at all. Some of it I find cringeworthy. I have never been fond of the 11-minute closer, "When The Music's Over," as it's presented here. That song is one of my favorite things about Absolutely Live. The band blows the lid off it in a couple or three live versions I've heard. But this studio version always has and still feels muted and understated to me. I had a hard time getting through it the first time yesterday, and I couldn't bear to listen to it again today. I cut it off at about the three-minute mark. "Moonlight Drive," one of the first songs Morrison wrote and the one that purportedly got Ray Manzarek crushing on him, has always been the highlight of this album for me. It still is.

No. 5. The Soft Parade (1969):
Yes, this is the album that spun my head around and opened my eyes to music discovery as an avenue of personal enrichment. For that, The Soft Parade will always be close to my heart. But the reality is that this record now, in 2020, feels terribly dated. I don't agree with the critics 50 years ago or today who say the experimentation with strings and horns was a failure. I thought it was fine back in the day, and I don't have any real issue with it now. My feeling now, in perspective, is that the underlying material is weak. As with most all the group's albums, this one contains some gems: "Touch Me," "Shaman's Blues" and "Wild Child." But where the title track once was a mind-blowing experience for me, now it seems silly. And the rest of it feels like so much filler.

No. 4. Waiting for the Sun (1968):
The Doors' third album was the first to contain songs written specifically to record. All the songs on the first two albums were created to be performed on stage, sometimes later tweaked to accomodate the recording process. And especially when you give a listen-through in chronological order, the change in tone is obvious. For the most part, these songs do sound more like studio creations than live performance. That's not meant as a criticism, only to point out a subtle but noticeable evolution. We're still swimming in the wild inconsistency that runs through this three-album stretch. I put this one ahead of Strange Days and The Soft Parade because I think the songs here are generally better. I was surprised that "Hello, I Love You" and "Not to Touch the Earth" sound a lot better to me this time around than my memory served. I've always especially liked "Wintertime Love" and "Spanish Caravan," and I still do. The two political statements ("The Unknown Soldier" and "Five to One") have never been favorites -- still aren't.

No. 3. The Doors (1967):
Was 1967 the greatest year ever in the history of recorded music? It certainly might be the most pivotal. Maybe I'll look into that some day. It was the year of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, of course. But that year exploded with landmark albums -- most notably debuts from The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Traffic, Big Brother and the Holding Company. I could list a lot more, but you get the idea. Anyway, on my two listen-throughs of The Doors this week, I was surprised at how much I liked it. I was never a huge fan of this one, always thought the widespread adulation was a little overdone. I expected it to come off embarrassingly dated and quaint. It did in a couple of spots. But this is the first time I ever felt that this is a solid record, with an abundance of peaks and no real valleys. The Doors is a much more fully realized and consistent album than I remembered it. All of the next three albums bombed considerably in my estimation, but this one I now believe deserves all the plaudits it has always received. The album is a product of its time, and a couple of tracks ("Break on Through," "Light My Fire") are a little worse for the wear. But everything held up quite nicely for me. Not a bad track in the bunch. My favorites remain "The Crystal Ship" and "Twentieth Century Fox."

Now onto the cream of the crop. These next two albums are the work of a band hitting on all creative cylinders despite the dark clouds of Morrison's out-of-control substance abuse gathering over their heads. I think what may have happened is that The Doors decided to forego the studio experimentation of the third and fourth albums and get back to being a band, recording at least the basic tracks live. My ranking of these albums now do not surprise me. I've always favored these two. But my listen to them this time around elevated them even further above the pack.

No. 2. L.A. Woman (1971):
I've always loved this one, mostly on the strength of three absolutely killer tracks -- "The Changeling," "Been Down So Long" and "L.A. Woman." But this album was a more consistently great this time around than I expected. Some of the tracks ("Cars Hiss by My Window," "L'America," "Crawling King Snake") improved with time. But my focus drifted with the closing two tracks, ultimately the deciding factor in making L.A. Woman the runner-up. "The WASP" has never been a favorite, and it didn't improve with time. "Riders on the Storm," which I've always liked more than loved, suffers from decades of Classic Rock overplay. The title track, which somehow has been forgotten by the critics and the historians and the radio programmers, is and always has been my absolute favorite Doors song, by a mile.

No. 1 (most likely). Morrison Hotel (1970):
 No surprise here. Going into this project, this is exactly where I thought Morrison Hotel would land. I did find myself considering L.A. Woman for the top as I was listening through. But Morrison Hotel prevailed. It doesn't have the high highs of L.A. Woman. But it has absolutely no lows. I still find this to be simply a great, ass-kicking rock-and-roll album from start to finish. My revisits this week only strengthened my love for this record. Truth be told, I did have a big surprise as I was researching this week. I only now learned that a few of these tracks were not original to Morrison Hotel. I discovered that "Roadhouse Blues" was first recorded during the Soft Parade sessions with Ray Manzarek singing lead. A lounge-jazz version of "Queen of the Highway" also was recorded during the Soft Parade sessions. The recordings here of "Indian Summer" and "Waiting for the Sun" were pulled straight out of the vaults, outtakes from the debut and the third album, respectively. "You Make Me Real," among the bangiest bangers in The Doors' catalog, was one of the first songs Morrison wrote though it was never recorded until the Morrison Hotel sessions. That means that only about half of the songs here were specifically conceived for Morrison Hotel, put together fairly quickly -- The Doors needed product but were burned out from the exhaustive sessions for The Soft Parade and the fallout from the 1969 Miami debacle. Add all that up, and it sure seems like Morrison Hotel should have been a disastrous continuation of the run of inconsistency. Somehow, Paul Rothchild figured out how to make it all work together and pulled off a minor miracle. The icing on the cake: Front to back, one of the greatest album covers ever.

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