by Kyle K. Mann
(Note: A Nov. 15, 2017 update is included at the bottom. This article first appeared in GonzoToday.com on Dec. 30, 2016.)
January 4, 1967: Imagine it. It’s a new year, and there is some amazing music floating around, like nothing we had ever heard before. A million light-years from the teeny bopper music ruling the airwaves. Well, Top 40 airwaves. We had an occasional alternative in the San Francisco Bay Area called KMPX.
Actually, I was already aware of the L.A. band, The Doors, the previous year. Some older kids invited me to play poker, and one had some friend down there who had given him a dub tape of the band’s first album. So while those rascals were cleaning out my wallet, I was getting turned on to some seriously different sounds. It was the best money I’ve ever lost.
So those first few days of the first album’s release, I was ready with my trusty oversized pea coat. Yep, I swiped it! Once safely home with my prize, I examined the dark cardboard cover that encased the precious disc. Cool photo, these guys looked hip. Good back cover too. No phoney grins, just The Look of someone who’d tripped. You could always tell.
I’d taken my first acid trip a few months earlier, and another in December. A new world was dawning in my brain, in our beings, despite teachers, despite Vietnam, despite cops and nagging parents. And here was the soundtrack to the opening months of 1967. I smiled in anticipation, my memory of that poker-game tape still fresh. I put the needle onto the lead-in groove…
Side One, Cut One: Break on Through. This song was too hip then, and almost still is now. Come on. It’s about taking acid! Drummer John Densmore’s opening bossa nova beat simply rocks. It’s authentic and swinging, and then that damn keyboard bass of Ray Manzarek’s kicks in. Different indeed! The song builds fast, adding guitarist Robby Krieger’s riff, and then Jim Morrison’s sturdy, urgent voice, reminding you “The day destroys the night, night divides the day…”
Let the Sixties begin!
The lyrics don’t really advocate taking LSD, because they assume you are already Hip. And it’s a strange new world, with “an island in your arms, country in your eyes” but watch out for the “arms that chain, eyes that lie” because there are those, you see, that don’t get it. And some never would.
The track is “wet” with considerable echo, somehow sounding like they are playing in the dark, with a few candles. The organ solo is spare, clean, more Latin Rocky, Morrison yelling “She gets…” They couldn’t say “high” so Morrison just howls, but we get it. Good clean mix, as always with Paul Rothschild and Bruce Botnick. So why wasn’t this a hit single, released days before the album on the first day of 1967? Again, it’s just too hip. And it still sounds good.
Side One, Cut Two: Soul Kitchen
As opposed to the first track, listeners fifty years ago had no clue what this song meant. Gradually over the decades we discovered it was about Olivia’s, a special Venice Beach hang of the Doors before they were the Doors, when they were low on cash and wanted a big filling home cooked meal. I figured it was about some girlfriend being cajoled into cooking and sex, and indeed, there are some echoes of Morrison’s ex-girlfriend Mary Werbelow in there, with the “learn to forget” repeating lyric. We will get to her later.
Soul Kitchen starts with one of Manzarek’s crazy-making riffs, Densmore’s crashing, spooky rock drums (tuned to within an inch of their lives by Producer Rothschild) and a loopy, freaky guitar solo. Morrison doesn’t kick in with vocals until nearly a half minute of this power trio’s music, underpinned by an actual bassist, Larry Knechtel, who lays down an unspectacular if thoroughly solid funky bass pattern over Manzarek’s Rhodes Piano Bass.
This combination of funk and psychedelic rock, a half century later, still kicks butt. Soul Kitchen is a track I’ve played repeatedly over the decades, and it’s just as good as the first time I heard it. An incredible accomplishment!
Side One, Track Three: The Crystal Ship
Ballad time. More spooky stuff, with Morrison starting the cut alone with the unforgettable message to a lover, most likely Mary Werbelow again. What was it like for her these past 50 years, one wonders? She’s still alive, last I heard. She didn’t like The Doors, and didn’t think the band had a future, and while it’s not clear, it appears that her disbelief in Morrison was at the heart of their breakup around the summer of 1965. She was, of course, colossally wrong, epically mistaken, tragically incorrect… and then to have him turn into the Greek God of the 60’s, then die yet not die, living on and on… that’s Deep Karma.
“The days are bright, and filled with pain…” he sings, working to let her go but still gutted, reminding her that “the time you ran was too insane” and making us wonder what the hell it was that happened that provoked the running. The chords are strange, the mood brittle, yet it all works to perfection. He’ll “drop a line,” when they get back from the ride. Unexpected ending! Another great listen, all these damn years later. Bravo, Doors.
Side One, Cut Four: Twentieth Century Fox
A bit glib, and The Doors knew it, refusing to release it as a single. I don’t doubt it would have hit, but then the band would have been where they wound up with “Touch Me” except earlier. Still a fine listen, with the “nightmare carnival organ” and Krieger’s wacky guitar that rocks sarcastically yet supportively. And again Manzarek with that riff, that freakin’ early Doors organ riff.
The title dates the song, though I suppose it could be sung “Twenty First Century Fox” but, you know, I’m glad it isn’t, that I know of. I can listen now thanks to Densmore and Krieger, but this might be the weakest cut on the record. Which means it’s still pretty darn good.
Side One, Cut Five: Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)
In contrast, this cut is unreservedly stellar. Great tune, one of the few cover tunes the Doors would record, written by the legendary Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill back in the 1920s. Manzarek’s inner oompah takes over, not only on that tuba-like bass keyboard of his but on a truly bizarre instrument called a marxophone, the name of which sounds like something Harpo would play.
I had read about this instrument, which producer Rothschild brought into the studio for the quasi-merry tune, in the various Doors books. With it tinkling sweetly, we go bar-hopping with band, into a land that precedes Lucy in the Sky and is much, much darker, a morphing cross of psychedelia and alcoholism, that cheesy Vox Continental rock organ mixed with the mad son of a hammer dulcimer. Help, let me out, help, I don’t wanna get out.
To write this mad half-century-later review, I looked up “marxophone” on Wikipedia. A few minutes ago, I finally saw pictures of one. A marxophone! Scary looking little thing. Rothschild and Botnick did an impeccable job recording the creature. Nice generous expanded song track, with time to let it tingle along, Densmore’s tubs thumping away, and the entire band, even Rothschild, singing in the background. If childlike joy and Lovecraftian horror exist scrambled in a cosmic blender, this is our portal to that space. Mind-fryingly great, and Doors, I salute you.
Side One, Cut Six: Light My Fire
Ok. All right. Here’s the song that made, and later crushed The Doors. And all because of Paul Rothschild’s edit.
It was a razor blade, actually. There were no computer edits then, so the tape was chopped! See, The Song That Everybody Knows originally was over seven minutes long. Too long for an unknown band’s first hit single. So Rothschild cuts out the long organ and guitar solos and bingo! It’s the biggest hit of 1967.
Later, it came back to bite the band. Morrison was sick to death of singing it. It contributed to the final stage of Morrison performing it reluctantly, and resentfully. But that was then. It’s January 1967, remember, before my obnoxious neighbor Dianne Vitale across the street dreamed of The Doors. Later she’d be singing the song, but 6-7 months later. But I know right now, and I listen.
If anything, there is more echo on Densmore’s drums than any other track, but man does it work, from the opening snare whack on the four beat, and on. The birth of the signature intro is in the movie. Morrison’s slight addition to the tune’s lyrics, ditto. I always liked “funeral pyre” myself, it was different and dark, ironically. Probably another jab at Mary Werbelow. Whatever. Manzarek’s solo, meh. 50 years later, it’s a bit much. But I know what’s coming…
The great Krieger guitar solo. No sonic tricks, no fuzz, no wah, just notes. It’s a story, a cascade, with Densmore making comments and interacting. Magical, mystical. It stands up after 50 years of overplaying… “all right, the long version!” Always that tension hearing it on the radio, waiting to see if it’s cut. Sometimes they play it long. How cool.
Morrison for the win. Shoutingly gnarly delivery on the final lyrics. Good coda, well done. Cymbals crash fade. Silence.
This was where you had to get up and turn the record over. It’s impossible to overstate how important this was. Get up. Trouble is, you were laying on the couch, or the carpet, for the past 25 minutes.
Arrrgh. One of the most fantastic opening sides of any record is over.
Side Two, Track One: Backdoor Man
We managed it, and the ominous beginning of Willie Dixon’s fine writing effort thrums out. Blues rock. I once read an interview with white bluesman Paul Butterfield, who Rothschild also produced, before The Doors. Butter didn’t like the way The Doors handled the blues. But, he was jealous. He broke a lot of ground, and never got the loot. He was a shouter, where Morrison was both a shouter and a crooner. And cuter. Sorry Paul. (He remains my biggest influence on blues harmonica, for what it’s worth.)
Well the track holds up, because Morrison channels his inner “Louie Louie” shouting self. Yah, his first song in front of an audience, according to Manzarek’s book. Ok, cool. It’s so close to parody, but it’s real. Because Morrison was already the Backdoor Man from those gigs at the Fog and the Whisky. Girls? Hell, he was living it for real, which even in the 60’s wasn’t that easy.
Putting this tune on was heavy, because you knew what was coming. “The End.” Were you prepared to hear it in ten minutes? Maybe. Maybe not.
Side Two, Track Two: I Looked at You
Now we get three short cuts, starting with this wonderful throwaway. “I looked at you, you looked at me.” Hmm…rocking track though. As close to bubblegum as The Doors ever got. Densmore’s fills are almost ironic, like the one after the organ solo.
It’s still a good listen, if you accept it for what it is.
Side Two, Track Three: End of the Night
Arg, it’s like foreshadowing the cut that hangs over this side of our very two-sided disc. “Realms of Bliss, Realms of Light” give way to the “endless night.”
Fine guitar solo. Melty.
Side Two, Track Four: Take it as it Comes
Fast cut, sexy, about making love and prolonging it, “Don’t move too fast” stuff, modal organ solo. Great group effort. But it’s a set up.
Side Two, Track Five: The End
Playing-wise, Krieger and Densmore command this epic work. That half-step interval Krieger keeps playing, those unpredictable blasts of perfect percussion from Densmore, both crucial, and that droning bass from Manzarek’s artificial bass player. Honed on the Sunset Strip, developed and expanded on acid, the song that got them a record deal and ejected The Doors from the womb of The Whisky. But more than any Door, a presence looms over this cut.
It’s Mary Werbelow’s tune. One of the most heartbreaking songs of all time, if you listen to the lyrics at the start and ending. It’s a sad world sometimes, and the pain is unbearable, unthinkable. Morrison sings the words he wrote for her, she who rejected him, who mocked him, his efforts, his dreams of their life together. This is pain we can all relate to. “Broken hearts are for assholes” Frank Zappa sang, but the other side of that is the bewildered hideousness of being rejected by a true love. What you thought was a true love, and now your life is ashes and dust.
“My only friend, the end, of our elaborate plans, the end, of everything that stands, the end, no safety or surprise, the end, I’ll never look into your eyes… again.”
Now, that, my friends, is pain forcing its way into poetry. It’s as real as it gets. It’s a big goddamn owy. We have all felt it, some more than others. It’s anger, self pity, some spiritual recognition, and never-ending grief. It’s The End. It hurts your soul beyond words. And yet, Morrison continues in a musical bridge that appears only once in this 11 minute long song.
“Can you picture what will be, so limitless and free, desperately in need, of some… strangers hand, in a… desperate land.”
“Limitless and free.” This is directed to Mary Werbelow, has to be, as she planned to be a model or movie star. No doubt about it, she was a knockout. And she left Morrison in the mire, stunned, angry, and finally homeless, sleeping on a friend’s apartment rooftop, taking acid, writing, writing. The End was not among the first songs rehearsed by the band in its early days, but I believe the words were in a note book. Waiting. Only two people, maybe three, know how that happened: the two surviving Doors, and possibly Manzarek’s wife Dorothy, a crucial component of the early band in terms of support and positive vibes.
The improvised sections, especially the Oedipal story, have been analyzed thoroughly. I’ll spare you, and me. Let’s move to the end of The End. “It hurts to set you free, but you’ll never follow me.” Yes, there it is. She’s turning her back on James Douglas Morrison, who not much later conquered the world, an Icon forever. They would indeed never see each other, and speak on the phone but once as Morrison, post fame, begged for another chance, only to be spurned yet again. (I believe that how it was anyway. Might be wrong.)
“The end of laughter, and soft lies.” Cover your ass, with the “soft,” but it’s ok.
“The end… of… nights… we… tried… to… die. This is the ennnnd.”
That The Doors could continue on after all that, for five more albums of sometimes great recordings that remained popular across generations, is their stupendous triumph.
Update: Mid November now, nearly a year since this article appeared on the Gonzo Today page, becoming one of our most popular articles ever. And 2017, the 50th anniversary of the Doors’ first album, has proved to be quite a year.
We have enjoyed the re-release of The Doors, and the bonus content. And the Strange Days re-release is next. For Doors fans, this is good stuff.
And there was the Jan. 4, 50th anniversary celebration in Venice, featuring John Densmore and Robby Krieger, accepting official honors with the naming of the date “The Day of the Doors” by the City of Los Angeles, and even having the surviving duo performing their version of L.A. Woman in a light rain. A specially-created Doors logo was lit underneath the famous Venice sign. The large diverse crowd loved it all.
I loved that Ray Manzarek’s wife Dorothy was there as well. I wish she had spoken, but for whatever reason she did not. Still, it added to the power of the event to have her on that stage. How very cool indeed.
But there was one person who should have been there, but wasn’t. No, not Electra Records head honcho Jac Holtzman, though that would have been nice.
Mary Werbelow. If she had appeared and said a few words, it would have stopped the show.
Because she knows.
More Gonzo Today Doors articles by Kyle K. Mann: