On this date in 1971, Jim Morrison, lead vocalist for The Doors, died in Paris. At the time, today’s song, from L. A. Woman, The Doors’ final album with Morrison, was just making its way onto the charts, giving the song—which was eerie enough to begin with—the eerie effect of seeming “beyond the grave.” But it was a song I had to have, and it seemed a shame it was all over for Morrison, though my discovery of all the band's albums wouldn't happen for another seven years. In retrospect, I’d say the first and the last Doors albums are the essential ones, though I also have a place for Strange Days (1967) and Waiting for the Sun (1968).
The view I first heard about The Doors, from an older friend more aware of their career as it developed than I was, was that the first three albums were the best, or true Doors, and from The Soft Parade (1969) on things were questionable. I buy that until we get to L.A. Woman which is a great comeback album and also shows that The Doors, seemingly, had weathered that weird year 1970 and were playing rock as vital as anyone was in what was a great year for rock. At least that’s the view I have now because the more I hear this album, the more impressed I am. I can almost forget about the earlier ‘poet’ Morrison, ramping up his dream-logic sagas as on the first three albums. I prefer Morrison the blues singer, the belter, the rocker. And the band seems very tight on these tracks, mostly recorded live in the studio. They’d lost producer Paul Rothschild and I think that helps. There is a leaner, meaner sound on this album than on the other Doors records—it begins on Morrison Hotel but there’s a lot of filler on that one (released in that weird year 1970), but really comes into its own here.
I don’t know what Morrison would have done had he continued. It seems The Doors had decided against future live performance after Morrison staged something of a “strike” at their last gig and wouldn’t perform. It seems he’d had enough with being “the Lizard King.” And why not, wasn’t it time to knock all that Sixties schtick on the head? Could he have been reborn in another persona? This album leads me to believe that yes he could. From 1972-75 there were some rock classics waiting to be born and I don’t doubt that somewhere in there would’ve been another great Doors creation. But it was not to be.
Before “Riders on the Storm” made the airwaves, all I knew of The Doors was “Light My Fire” from 1967 and “Hello I Love You” from 1968, and then “Love Her Madly,” which preceded “Riders” as a 45 from L.A. Woman, and which I didn’t care for much. Reportedly Rothschild called it “cocktail music,” and he may have a point, but it’s mainly that it’s rather tame. It sits on the album like what it’s supposed to be: the radio tune, a bit incongruous but not awful.
“Riders” was something else, with its opening thunderstorm and waves, with that tinkling droplet played on a Fender Rhodes by keyboardist Ray Manzarek, with the sepulchral intoning of the title and the lines—as starkly beautiful as any Morrison ever came up with—“Into this world we’re thrown / Like a dog without a bone / An actor out on loan / Riders on the storm.” Morrison was a Nietzsche and Rimbaud nut in his youth (hear, hear!) and he may even have been familiar with Heidegger’s notion of being “thrown” into the world (Geworfenheit). The idea underpins an existential sense of “the realities of life” (your vital statistics, status, social connections, family, location, occupation) as simply a “given,” a situation that is not intrinsic to your actual Being, much as the actual past is not deterministic of this present. In any case, Morrison and company gave Top 40 radio in 1971 (and pretty much ever after) a sense of how slippery the present is—it’s like being a rider on a storm. Some of us get to ride longer, some of us ride it better, but there’s going to be slippage, y’know, and spills.
The song includes a couple other verses but none as good as that chorus, and the “girl you gotta love your man” part isn’t too sexist, is it? Rimbaud said that one day “we” might understand women, and chose that as a possible means of improvement for the species—Morrison says women have to make men “understand.” It might still smack of that “earth mother” bit but I always took it in a “return to Eden” sense in which the woman isn’t the betrayer but the means to enlightenment.
Then there’s that bit about “a killer on the road / His brain is squirming like a toad.” I remember hearing that in the car as a kid—“If you give this man a ride / Sweet family will die”—and finding it rather unnerving. And there, on the album cover, was Morrison sporting his big Manson-like beard. Whew. You had to hand it to Morrison for not doing things touchy-feely. There was always a sense of danger, of something that might be smoldering under the surface and that might come to light in a burst of agonistic venting. I think that’s what made the live shows so volatile. But it also, it seems, became a tremendous pain in the ass for the other band members, and for Morrison himself.
Anyway, it’s worth my while to take this post to commemorate James Douglas Morrison because he did cast a shadow over my early verse-making, back when it seemed that poems might really be lyrics and vice versa. That view comes from not knowing very much about poetry, but much can be done in the ferment of imitation in ignorance. At least for awhile. Wallace Fowlie, who made the first translation of Rimbaud I read, actually wrote a book about Morrison and Rimbaud. That seems a bit thin to me, if we’re talking about verse-making, but it makes sense if we’re talking about the kind of ideas they had about what makes a poet a poet. The long, sustained deregulation of the senses, and all that. Morrison certainly had enough of that. I just don’t think much of the idea of “reading Morrison” without Manzarek’s keyboards and Robby Krieger’s guitar. They together made The Doors sound that, most of the time, envelops Morrison’s voice so well. But as a singer/frontman, Morrison knew all about how to sport with “the poetic”—or, as he conceived it, after Nietzsche, the Dionysian. Rare enough in rock, we must admit.
Into this house we’re born.