The Doors

     The Doors (Elektra, 1967)
     Strange Days (Elektra, 1967)
     Waiting for the Sun (Elektra, 1968)
    The Soft Parade (Elektra, 1969)
      Morrison Hotel (Elektra, 1970)
    Absolutely Live (Elektra, 1970)
     Thirteen (Elektra, 1970)
     L.A. Woman (Elektra, 1971)
    An American Prayer (Elektra, 1978)
     Greatest Hits (Elektra, 1980)
   Alive, She Cried (Elektra, 1983)
     In Concert (Elektra, 1991)
     The Doors/An Oliver Stone Film (Elektra, 1991)
     The Doors Box Set (Elektra, 1997)
      The Very Best of the Doors (Rhino, 2001)
     Bright Midnight: Live in America (Bright Midnight, 2002)
     Live in Hollywood, Aquarius (WEA, 2002)
      Legacy: The Absolute Best (Rhino, 2003)
     Live in Philadelphia '70 (Bright Midnight, 2006)
     Live at the Matrix (Rhino, 2008)

Three great American Sixties bands rendered versions of the California myth. For the Beach Boys, it was sun, surf, and teenage blondes. The Grateful Dead embodied hippie utopianism, the acid love-in, and the endless, mystic jam. The Doors' California was a construct of the darker psyche; it was L.A. crash pads and needle fever, Hollywood bungalows and film-noir threat. At its far limits were the surrounding hills—rich with the threat and promise of Indian burial grounds and natural mysteries—and the ocean, surging deep into oblivion. The Doors were originals—Robbie Krieger, a competent guitarist who sounded best when he kept things either elegant or bluesy; the steady John Densmore on drums; and Ray Manzarek, an organist and electric piano player whose semiclassical turns added a touch of the baroque.

The Doors, ultimately, were Jim Morrison. He was dangerous, raw, beautiful, half-erect in his skintight leather pants, and fatefully self-destructive. By the end of his life, he was tragic and pathetic. It was no wonder that he cited the French Symbolists—especially Rimbaud and Baudelaire—as inspiration. At their best, his suggestive lyrics were clipped and cinematic, either bursts of street talk or snatches at myth. Calling himself an "erotic politician," Morrison was preoccupied with urge, rebellion, and release—if some of his work now sounds melodramatic or forced, his intensity remains compelling, and his acknowledgment of night, pain, and loneliness comes off as riveting and real.

Although the abbreviated, 45 version hit harder, "Light My Fire" neatly introduced the Doors' effect: vocals alternately commanding and stoned, swirling organ and the message that sex could mean deliverance. "Break on Through," however, is the debut album's better song and the essential Doors statement. "The End" attempted an epic—the song served notice that this band was going deep. With the exception of the hard blues "Love Me Two Times" and the rock tango "Moonlight Drive," Strange Days didn't have the power of The Doors; it sounded instead like twilit, ominous carnival music. "People Are Strange," "Strange Days," and "I Can't See Your Face in My Mind" obsessively examined disconnection and the sense of drifting; "Horse Latitudes" was an early example of sheer atmosphere.

Waiting for the Sun featured "Hello, I Love You," a jagged Kinks ripoff in which Morrison comes on like a rapist; "Five to One" was revolutionary sloganeering. The rest of the record was considerably subtler: Krieger's flamenco guitar on "Spanish Caravan" is stirring, "Summer's Almost Gone" is remarkably tender, and the chanted "My Wild Love," with its affecting, cracked-voice vocal, works well at re-creating an air of primitive folk power.

The Door's shakiest album, The Soft Parade, was cluttered with horns and strings. While not at all music for the band's hard-rock followers, Krieger's "Touch Me" and "Tell All the People" are intriguing: They're pop songs, but sifted through the Doors' sensibilities, they take on a surreal quality. "Wild Child" is Morrison parodying himself, and the long concept title song doesn't work.

A return to form, Morrison Hotel was their most cohesive record. Aside from the throwaway grunter "Maggie McGill," every song was masterful—and the band swings tougher and easier than they ever had before. Morrison's voice is almost shot, but its strain lends grit to the rockers ("Roadhouse Blues," "You Make Me Real") and poignancy to the ballads ("Blue Sunday," "Indian Summer"). The lyrics are some of Morrison's finest; "Queen of the Highway," in particular, neatly fuses contemporary reference and myth.

"Riders on the Storm," "Love Her Madly," "L'America," and the title track were the standouts of the final album, L.A. Woman. Inventive playing characterizes every song, but so does a heavy air of psychic exhaustion. Morrison's voice is a ghost of its former glory—doom, heartbreak, and frustration sound in his every note. Difficult and sad, the record has some of the power of Neil Young's Tonight's the Night: It's straining for catharsis.

The Doors are overrepresented by compilations and live albums. Most casual fans will be well served by 2001's single-disc retrospective The Very Best. But the best compilation is 2003's Legacy, a two-CD set that expands the basic greatest-hits format. It features 34 of the Doors' best album tracks in chronological order. Hard-core fans will bemoan the omission of "Love Street," but the span of this collection is wide enough to capture the band in various modifications, yet narrow enough to make most tracks familiar even to casual fans. The previously unreleased "Celebration of the Lizard" renders this an essential set for collectors.

Fanatics will want to find the four-CD box set that came out in 1997; almost every cut had been previously unreleased. The three surviving band members fill one CD with their personal favorites—we can only imagine which songs Jim would have selected. Other, redudant boxes have flooded the market in the years since.

In the 2000s, the band released loads of other live shows, both on their own Bright Midnight label and on Rhino records. One of the best is Live at the Matrix, which catches the pre-fame Doors in an oft-bootlegged club run from 1967. Bright Midnight is the band's odds-and-sods release, material that was left off the box set. The sound quality is fantastic: One can hear the powerhouse live show that was the Doors at their prime. Also noteworthy is Live in Hollywood, which culls 16 songs from two shows at the Aquarius Theatre in July 1969, more evidence that Morrison was a remarkable performer.

There are a number of anomalous Doors releases, including An American Prayer, which belongs in the books-on-tape category. It features Morrison reading his poetry over atmospherics from the band; it's intriguing but suitable mainly for Morrison fanatics.

The band reunited in 2002, with Ian Astbury of the Cult filling in for Morrison. Original drummer John Densmore chose not to reenlist and in 2003 he sued, seeking restrictions on the use of the name "the Doors." Astbury eventually quit, but Manzarek and Krieger continued to tour throughout the decade.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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