A couple of weeks ago, they inducted a new crop of classic rockers to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame that included Tom Waits, Neil Diamond, and Alice Cooper. Not the most iconic lot, but I’d say they’ve all earned it.
But let’s face it: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is not infallible; The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame makes mistakes. For every Led Zeppelin or Bob Dylan, there’s a Jackson Browne or a Billy Joel or a Crosby, Stills and Nash. Some art does not stand the test of time, and what seems great or original or interesting today can sometimes seem stupid, weak, and overrated down the road. (I don’t really have a problem with Crosby, and Stills is okay from what I can tell, but I cannot stand Nash.)
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a democratic body, voted on by I have no idea who, like Congress. So like Congress, it should be able to make amendments, to repeal bad rulings. I propose that every year when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducts its new members, they should also take someone out. My first nominee: The Doors, inducted in 1993.
I first heard the velvety blathering of Jim Morrison when I was 13 or 14, which puts it about 1986 or ’87, which if you don’t remember was when ’60s nostalgia was at its zenith. I was starting to become an active, semi-discerning music listener, my awakening coinciding with the advent of self-described “classic rock radio.” This, plus the plundering of my dad’s records, formed some musical attachments that I will never shake– Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones in particular.
I also started listening to the Doors, and I liked them a lot. My dad had the “Morrison Hotel” LP and I liked a couple of the songs a lot, though even then I was appalled by the fact that apart from those two tracks, the rest of the record was unlistenable. Now that I’ve grown up and I understand how terrible they were, I wonder what it was about them that made me think they were cool, and I think it comes down to two things:
1) The bad-boy status of singer Jim Morrison. I see this guy as a joke now, but as a 13-year-old kid looking for cool role models, Jim fit the bill. He was good-looking, he liked to take a drink, his lyrics were weird, and he had a good scream. I studied the teen-idol preferences of my female friends likes in hopes of one day tricking one into me, and I saw more than a few Jim Morrison posters on their walls. You know the one: black-and-white, Jim shirtless, arms outstretched, ribs showing, wearing beads? (It’s not like I dressed up like him. They don’t stock leather pants in the boys’ department.)
2) Any postpubescent male human can sing a passable version of a Doors song if they want to. This goes a long way to explaining the band’s lasting appeal: Jim Morrison had such a standard-issue, unremarkable voice that he didn’t sing so much as draw out his words. The only time his singing was at all compelling was when he was screaming. (Admittedly, you could justifiably say the exact same thing about my voice.) Any drunken Phi Delt can bellow his way through “Break On Through” and sound just like the record. This also explains the initial appeal of Pearl Jam; the ladies’ version is Natalie Merchant/10,000 Maniacs.
But I’m an adult now, and as an adult I can clearly see that Jim Morrison is a total buffoon, almost comically untalented, and part of the second-most monotonous-sounding band ever to gain widespread recognition (the first being the execrable Grateful Dead, who by the way, we’ll be expelling next).
Just think of a Doors song. Forget about the vocals; what’s the first thing you think of? That’s right, the organ. The intro to “Light My Fire.” All of “Strange Days.” Ray Manzarek’s ever-present Farfisa organ. Ugh, turn it off! I don’t know about you, but that sound reminds me of the circus. Is the circus cool? Edgy? Is the circus in any way “rockin'”? I think we can agree that it is not. The guitar (Robbie Krieger) and the drums (John Densmore) are both inoffensive, and generally competent, but I cannot take that organ. (That’s what she said!)
Deduct ten more points for not having a bass player. Manzarek played many of the bass parts on Doors records on the organ, but that just means more Manzarek, which is something I cannot support — partly (but not just) because he has spent the last 40 years talking about his deep relationship with Jim Morrison. For those of you scoring at home, that’s roughly 8 times as long as he actually knew Morrison. Enough already! Talk about something else! DO something else! Oh wait, he did: he wrote a novel about a rock singer who faked his own death and came back to visit the organ player from his old band and impart enormous wisdom.
Morrison’s lyrics are the band’s other big trademark, but take a look at some of them and you will quickly see that they are either a) totally insipid (“Hello, I Love You”) b) two or three meaningless lines repeated endlessly (“Break On Through”) or c) ultimately meaningless pseudo-intellectual psychodrama (“The End”). Now, one could argue that I’m being harsh and that Morrison is no worse than any of his contemporaries, or any rock lyricist in general, and that would be a valid argument, except for one thing.
When I was in college, there was a CD store — does that date me? — that had an extensive bootleg section, and I got some great stuff there. (In particular, an XTC bootleg recorded in 1980 by the BBC that I still feel is my favorite-ever live recording.) One day I bought a Jimi Hendrix disc called “Woke Up This Morning And Found Myself Dead.” Its label described the contents as a late-night jam at a club in New York City with Hendrix, guitarist Johnny Winter, and — guess who! — Jim Morrison.
The music on this disc turned out to be totally unmemorable in most respects. The “songs” are formless and apparently improvised. Hendrix just solos while the other guitarist (who, as Internet research would reveal years later, is not in fact Johnny Winter) stays on the same chord changes. The sound quality is bad and the mix is worse. It is almost totally uninteresting — until Jim makes his entrance.
Here it’s worth remembering that that poster I referred to earlier, the black-and-white one with the shirtless Morrison staring into the camera, arms outstretched, had a caption: “Jim Morrison: An American Poet.” At the time I picked up this CD in that store, I was still more or less pro-Doors and pro-Morrison. (I was still a kid.) Holding that disc in the store, I imagined the possibilities of what a Hendrix/Morrison jam might contain. And my imagination ran wild: transcendent improvisations, Morrison howling brilliant Jungian couplets while Hendrix shreds along, breaking down barriers and creating a whole new template for what Rock can mean. Needless to say, I was disappointed.
After taking the stage with a series of confused, obviously drunken shouts and “Oh yeah bay-bah!”-ing into a dead microphone (my guess is the sound guy saw him coming), Hendrix tells Morrison to sing into his live microphone, and the fun begins.
I’d like to keep this blog family-friendly, so I will not fully transcribe Morrison’s totally uncreative, nonmusical hollerings. (You can hear the track in question here. Make sure there are no impressionable ears in the room.) Suffice to say — spoilier alert! — he implores the listener to “(blank) her in the (blank)!” Over and over. Apart from the stray “Eat her little (blank)!” these are the only words he says. And he shouts them, off-key, over and over.
I hope you’re sitting down for the following disclosure: I am no stranger to coarse language of any type. I have no problem at all with profanity or the description of sex acts, be they deviant, unsanitary, or technically imaginary. I do not offend easily. So this is not about that. Here’s what it is about: Presented with an opportunity to jam with Jimi Hendrix — JIMI HENDRIX, who at the time of the recording was the acknowledged master of his instrument and hottest touring act in the world — the best the so-called “American Poet” can come up with is to shout an obscenity more tasteless than most, over and over and over again. In the same recording, before Morrison appears, Hendrix plays “Tomorrow Never Knows,” a well-known Beatles song. When I bought the disc I remember thinking that Morrison singing that song with Hendrix on guitar would be interesting. But, no: Jim just hollered some obscenities and called it a night. I can’t imagine a more spectacular musical failure. I really feel that if more people knew about it, like if it was part of one of those “40 Greatest” VH1 shows, or had been a scene in that Oliver Stone movie that was doomed the moment he didn’t cast Jason Patric, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame voters (whoever they are) would repeal those clowns like Prohibition.
If forced to, I guess I can concede they have a couple of tunes that aren’t that bad. I still kind of like “When The Music’s Over.” The ones with piano rather than organ are tolerable. But nobody — least of all the Doors themselves — ever pretended the Doors were anything without Jim Morrison. That being the case, if the Doors were on trial for artistic lameness, this recording would be the bloody glove in O.J.’s yard. Intro, body, and conclusion. When the music’s over, turn out the light.