Music Without the Myth
by Paul Williams
Pop music, in and of itself, has no meaning. We put meaning into it. The Doors never equaled their superb first album, but they did create a respectable body of work and, of course, a legend. Leaving the legend aside for a moment, the body of work can be most readily apprehended by looking at four tracks: "Light My Fire," "The End," "When the Music's Over" and "Riders on the Storm." When I was nineteen, I thought this was the greatest stuff I'd ever heard, and I see no reason why any present-day nineteen- or fifteen-year-old shouldn't feel the same enthusiasm for it.
"Strange days have found us." At the time, this seemed the perfect evocation of 1967. It may have been, and it may be perfect in 1981 as well, but it also evokes the way the world feels at a certain moment in any young life. Like so much good pop music, from "At the Hop" to "Double Dutch Bus," the Doors' opus is essentially the work of amateurs. One result is that what's good about it is fresh and actually stays fresh for decades, as long as it's heard with fresh ears.
"Light My Fire" is simple — but quite sophisticated in its simplicity. The closest thing I can think of to its instrumental build-up is the long version of the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again." Certainly, it was an inspiration for Cream's "Spoonful," out of which grew a whole generation of British blues-rock raveups. But no one has ever made it feel so Dionysian, yet look so Apollonian, as the Doors did in this, their signature tune. The place where music and sex come together is explored effectively, thoroughly, joyously; how could such a song fail to be eternally popular with the postpuberty age group?
In its day, "The End" established Jim Morrison as something other than this band's pretty lead singer. Today, Morrison's identity is a priori established — legendary dead famous prophetic crazy man, heard about from somebody whose friend read part of the best-selling book — and "The End" is the song that fulfills the myth. It does so very well. Listened to with fresh ears, and with the knowledge that it is a creation from another place, another time, it seems no more out of date than Baudelaire or Weill. The group functions very much as a unit, and as a result, this is one of the rare instances of recorded rock theatricality that works. A mood is evoked, a soliloquy set in motion and supported, sustained, built upon and carried through. Opportunities for the listener to insert meaning are everywhere. Surely this LSD-soaked confection is as irresistible today as it was the last time we were free to take it seriously. Take your Walkman down to the river, and try not to throw yourself in.
I still like the drums, the organ, the guitar, the vocals very much. Notice how you can hear each instrument. This, plus the pseudo blackness of the themes, ties in well with the punk/New Wave current of reaction against the twenty-four-track sound. But on their successful tracks, the Doors never seem to be taking a stance (whereas they do appear to be posturing on such postsuccess failures as "Five to One" and "The Unknown Soldier"). They assume a total confidence and authority within the mysterious world of their own projection. This is comforting, emboldening, ultimately attractive. And more palatable from a mythical artifact than if attempted by a present-day band.
"When the Music's Over" still sounds best on headphones at extremely high volume — blast away confusion, frustration and loneliness, dance and shout and scream. This song, which seemed like the totality to its admirers back in the Sixties, is at best just a totality now, but there's been a lot of music over the dam since then. For the fastidious, there's probably more dignity and a better illusion of real evil or nihilism in "Gimme Shelter" or "Sister Ray" or "Holidays in the Sun." Love's "Revelation," recorded at the same time, was more outrageous and just as perfect. But just as my sentimentality, a favoring kind of prejudice, probably causes me to continue to rate "When the Music's Over" as high as I do, so also a disfavoring kind of prejudice is operating in those who disdain the song because Morrison seemed so shallow later, a pseudo-pop prince, a buffoon capable of recording empty bombast, not worthy to carry the black flag.
This prejudice for and against will continue to rage as those turned on by the reborn myth and those revolted by it continue to perceive the best and worst even in the respective worst and best of what the Doors actually achieved. Nothing special in this. Rock & roll loves contexts, loves to let its listeners wrap it up tight in meanings created of that moment and then given historical significance by memory, the second most important component of pop after immediacy (so much more important than lyrics, music or a pretty face).
Finally, "Riders on the Storm," dismissible as Muzak and different in sound from anything else the Doors recorded, washes over and touches this listener and offers enduring proof that there always was something real behind the pretense, and that the heart of it lay in the identity of the four as a group, not in the riddle of the charismatic individual. In other words, I like the music here enough to overcome my prejudice against its cocktail-piano roots, and am set free to put into it all kinds of delicious meanings. "Like a dog without a bone, an actor out on loan" sounds stupid to me, but I don't care.
By the time this song came out, I was much, much older, had almost forgotten about the Doors, and, of course, knew that my old hero and sometime acquaintance was dead. But already back in 1968, my projection had died — no chance I'd ever hear them perform "Gloria" as an all-inclusive hymn to the end and beginning of the world again. So by 1971, the sweet oceanic gentle oblivion-hawking and -mocking of "Riders on the Storm" seemed not only appropriate but positively welcome as the acknowledgment and proud banner of the romanticism that had always been the essence of our mutual pretense that none of us would make it out of the concert hall or even to the end of the record alive.
And the legend of Morrison, exaggerated as it is and always was, does not serve to distort the music. If the new Doors fans were really mere seekers of the legend, An American Prayer would be the best-selling Doors album now instead of The Doors. The myth is only a platform for and convenient introduction to the music. The relationship of the listener to the music is completely private. It has no meaning outside its own intensity. No meaning at all.
This story is from the September 17, 1981 issue of Rolling Stone.
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