SENSIBILITY SET THE DOORS APART
by Bruce Harris 1991
As a joke I once asked Jim Morrison to name the group he most liked to listen to
besides the Doors. He pondered this question thoughtfully for a few moments, as
though it were the toughest question in the world, and then replied, "You
know the soundtrack from Fellini's '8 1/2'? I really like that."
Morrison's world was the world of film. In sharp contrast to the rest of the
Doors, Jim had no pick-hit top 10 favorites. He was certainly not a "music
fan" in the common manner of the 60': each new Beatles album was not a
revelation for him; the Jefferson Airplane did not carry the message of his day;
the stylistic experiments of the Byrds did not move him. He listened a bit to
Dylan (but only "John Wesley Harding"), and he occasionally mentioned
Elvis. But he much preferred watching Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39
Steps" to hearing anything.
Appropriately enough, one of the Doors only "cover" songs was
"Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)," a Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht musical
theater piece. Originally performed by Lotte Lenya and later recorded by David
Bowie in the 80's, "Alabama Song" was recently sung by Sting in the
Broadway production of "The Threepenny Opera."
The influence of theater and film on the Doors set them apart from their
contemporaries. While the Beatles drew upon Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly, and
the Rolling Stones drew upon Chuck Berry and the R & B music of the 50's,
the Doors forged a completely different lyrical and musical path. And their
apartness is reflected in their lack of descendants. Countless groups have tried
to imitate the Beatles, but there is no Bee Gees or Badfinger or Jellyfish to
compare with the Doors. this is because, for all their tremendous impact and
success, the Doors have always been more of a monument than an influence.
Morrison's image was a cinematic mystique made up of the masculine/feminine
mystery of Marlene Dietrich, the tragic (vaguely psychotic) fragility of Greta
Garbo, and the tough yet sensitive soul of James Dean. Jim was rock's first true
actor. He made recitative a major part of every Doors recording and performance.
He spoke lines and created theater, but the true drama of the Doors lay in the
suspense created by his self-destructive tendencies, evolving at last into a
sort of living theater for the dying. There was a sense at a lot of Doors
concerts that maybe tonight no one would get out of here alive.
It is of note that all this visual communication took place in an era before the
explosion of music video, before MTV, and before the broad media coverage of
rock artists. In their heyday, more people heard the Doors via their albums and
hit records on the radio than ever got to see them past an LP cover.
Hence it is fascinating to consider what might have happened if the Doors,
instead of being a 60's group, had been a new act contending in today's
marketplace. Would they be the masters of the video vehicle of exposure or
victims of it? "The End" would seem like quite a different entity in
heavy rotation on MTV. Every skin pore, every drop of sweat, every
hemidemisemiquaver of a gesture would be under the video microscope. And repetition
in the TV eye can breed, if not contempt, then certainly boredom.
Nevertheless, there is no question that, had the Doors come along later, they
would have been master manipulators of the video image. Like David Bowie,
Michael Jackson, and Madonna, who are among today's leading video performers,
Morrison was a pioneer. Everything from his film-school background to his
outrageous stage antics suggests that, were he breaking on through in the 90's,
he would be a leader in the video field.
Even back in the 60's, Morrison's film for the Doors' single "The Unknown
Soldier" was utterly revolutionary. It told a story with Jim starring as a
Christ-like figure executed by the other Doors members, no less. And it intercut
surreal blood- and-roses religious imagery with harsh TV news realities,
creating a visual Greek chorus to the action.
Oliver Stone's bio-pic "The Doors", really a two-hour long rock video,
shows what the Doors might be doing visually if they were still intact: Their
videos might well look like Stone's movie.
Largely due to their intrinsic cinematic qualities, the Doors' image and music
are still as vital now as they were the day "Light My Fire" went to
"My eyes have seen you," Jim sang, "Free from disguise, gazing on
a city under television skies." He subtitles his first published book of
poetry, "Notes On Vision." He had the vision to become the vision.
Unfortunately, Jim Morrison's life was his first and only video. It is of little
consolation that the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.
April 21, 1991