Jim Morrison never worried about overstating his case, so allow me to follow his lead in saying that what we’re living through right now is a moment weirder than any since the Doors recorded “Strange Days” more than half a century ago. “We linger alone, bodies confused,” Morrison sings with eerie prescience in the swirling psych-rock title track from the second of the band’s two 1967 LPs; elsewhere in the song he describes waiting for a force to “destroy our casual joys,” which pretty well nails my worry about the broadband conking out days into a self-isolation that could last months.
“Strange Days” isn’t the only Doors tune newly relevant to the extraordinary age of COVID-19. In “Riders on the Storm,” Morrison warns that your “sweet family will die” if you let a killer invade your personal space, while “Ship of Fools” opens with a vision of the human race being snuffed out. (I suppose “The End” speaks for itself.) If I didn’t know better, I’d think these apocalyptic vibes were reason to get deep into the Doors over the next few weeks — to look to the music Morrison and his bandmates made as a means of understanding this bleak and unprecedented period in modern history.
Except I do know better: I hate the Doors.
Of all the canonical classic-rock acts, this Los Angeles quartet has always struck me as the worst — corny, dumb, long-winded and crucially without the sense of humor that might have gone some way toward redeeming its shortcomings (as indeed humor did on occasion for every other self-important classic-rock act). Yes, Morrison’s bellow had undeniable sex appeal. But those overheated lyrics! And sure, the band had grooves and hooks. But that rinky-dink organ tone! Somehow the music felt sophomoric and pretentious at the same time — a 14-year-old’s conception of danger and sophistication.
I’ve hardly been alone in my disdain for the Doors, whose endurance on rock’s A-list has raised countless critics’ eyebrows in the decades since Morrison’s death at age 27 in 1971. Even writer Eve Babitz, who carried on a romantic relationship with the dreamy-eyed frontman, called the group “embarrassing” in a 1991 Esquire story pegged to that year’s Oliver Stone biopic. (Especially cringey, in Babitz’s view, was that the band named itself after an Aldous Huxley book: “What an Ojai-geeky-too-L.A.-pottery-glazer kind of uncool idea,” she wrote.)
Yet with hours at home to fill between now and who knows when, perhaps the time has come to try to crack open the assumptions and long-held biases that closed my Gen X ears to these OK Boomer icons. After all, what kind of Angeleno am I if I can’t hear the value in a group that did at least as much as the Beach Boys to establish the myth of Southern California?
Morrison’s interest, of course, lay in the dark extremes of that West Coast fantasy — in the chaos and hedonism beyond Brian Wilson’s promise of fun-in-the-sun satisfaction. And that’s much harder to portray convincingly without tipping over into caricature; I’d say the Byrds and Love got closer than the Doors to managing it, albeit with lead singers unblessed by the looks that made millions more pay attention to the leather-pantsed Lizard King.
Thing is, I don’t generally have a problem with caricature; it certainly hasn’t prevented me from loving Lana Del Rey, who can be just as over the top as Morrison was in her handling of some of the same themes. Does it help that Del Rey is a woman interrogating toxic masculinity as opposed to a guy helping to codify it? For sure. But I’ve also been happily drawn in by Morrissey and Glenn Danzig, to name two transplanted Californians clearly working after Morrison’s chest-beating example.
There’s something specific, then, about the Doors’ frontman — a countercultural figure forever stuck in the ’60s thanks to his premature demise — that I’ll need to get past if I am to come around to the band. Or if not get past then understand in a new way. Maybe I’m wrong about Morrison’s humorlessness, which — my tastes having been shaped by deadpan wits from Kurt Cobain to the Notorious B.I.G. — more or less represents a deal-breaker for me. I can’t say I hear anything in “Light My Fire” or “L.A. Woman” to suggest that Morrison was in on the joke of bad poetry like “Motel, money, murder, madness / Let’s change the mood from glad to sadness.” But there’s definitely a glimmer of comedy in the way he oompahs his way to the next whiskey bar in “Alabama Song.”
The Doors’ spooky-funky version of that Brecht-Weill classic is also one of the few selections in its catalog that uses the band’s unusual instrumentation — Ray Manzarek on keyboards, Robby Krieger on guitar, John Densmore on drums — to its advantage. Most of the time the Doors sound woefully brittle to me, with nowhere near enough bottom end to support Morrison’s outsize vocals; that’s another result, no doubt, of years spent listening to hip-hop and dance music, neither of which has made it any easier to buy into the band’s narrative of transcendent scuzz.
And yet rappers and producers have actually found compelling source material in the Doors’ music, which has hundreds of millions of Spotify streams to go along with the innumerable booze bottles fans have left at Morrison’s grave. In 2001 Jay-Z famously sampled “Five to One” for his throbbing “Takeover”; Skrillex even drafted the group’s surviving members for a 2011 track full of squelchy dubstep bass. As I sit with the band’s core half-dozen studio albums — even I, an avowed Morrison skeptic, am galled that they made a couple of more after the singer died — I’ll try to hear what those younger admirers heard.
As for supplemental material, there’s plenty to keep busy with, including Stone’s polarizing movie, memoirs by Densmore and Manzarek (the latter of whom died in 2013) and critical appraisals by folks who didn’t require a shelter-in-place order to wrestle with this group. In his recent-ish “The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years,” Greil Marcus writes of Morrison, “Here’s this nice-looking person on the stage all but threatening you with a spiritual death penalty and turning you into a jury that convicts yourself.”
As usual with Marcus — and with the Doors — I’m not entirely sure what that means. But the end of the world seems like the right time to figure it out.