Foreword written by Carlos Acevedo for Bob Batchelor’s book Roadhouse Blues: Morrison, the Doors, and the Death Days of the Sixties, available from Hamilcar on November 8.
Almost alone among the Flower Power acts along the Sunset Strip or down in Laurel Canyon, the Doors radiated menace. Only the band Love, fronted by the pugnacious Arthur Lee, could compete with Jim Morrison and Co. for atomizing the plastic veneer of a Los Angeles fantasia—that of a West Coast paradise awash in good vibrations.
As Bob Batchelor outlines in Roadhouse Blues, the short but explosive career of the Doors dovetailed almost seamlessly with the rise and fall of the pseudo-utopian Sixties. No matter what the Mamas and the Papas or Jackie De Shannon or the Beach Boys sang, the dark side of the hippie generation loomed like an eclipse and, for a few unruly years, The Doors were there to chronicle the blackening sun. “Their sound thumped and thundered, reflecting their era and projecting it out to audiences that were unnerved by its energy,” writes Batchelor. “Jim knew what people wanted. ‘America was conceived in violence. Americans are attracted to violence,’ he later explained. ‘They attach themselves to processed violence, out of cans. They’re TV-hypnotized . . . they’re emotionally dead.’ The attraction–revulsion theme centering on elemental forces of light, dark, love, hate, life, and death would have been impossible for most bands to implement, but the Doors were staking their future on that principle.”
Even with such idiosyncratic talents as Brian Wilson, Sky Saxon, Captain Beefheart, Dino Valenti, and Arthur Lee as regional contemporaries, Jim Morrison stood out. In Morrison, the Doors had a frontman equal parts Lord Byron, Artaud, and Scott Walker. Inspired by a theater background (before he graduated from UCLA with a degree in cinematography) and the poetry of the Beats, Morrison brought a rare erudition to the mic stand and the lyric sheet.
It was Nietzsche and Rimbaud, however, who drove Morrison to live on the dangerous edge of things. From Nietzsche, Morrison seemed to draw a general way of life from Zarathustra: “One must have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” From Rimbaud, Morrison borrowed much more, including the pre-Surrealist stylings for his verse and the destructive notion of altered states of mind amounting to enlightenment. “A poet makes himself a visionary,” Rimbaud wrote, “through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses.” Also like Rimbaud, who was often flea-bitten and adrift, Morrison adopted vagabondage as a modus vivendi. For the last five or six years of his life, Morrison had no fixed residence. Indeed, when he fortuitously ran into Ray Manzarek on Venice Beach in July 1965, he was essentially homeless. Dropping acid regularly, crashing with friends, reading dog-eared paperbacks, writing poetry with the booming Pacific waves as a soundtrack, Morrison straddled two overlapping eras (both soon to be bygone): the last decades to produce the bohemian litterateur and the hippie dropout as social types.
In Roadhouse Blues, Bob Batchelor chronicles the whirlwind rise and fall of the Doors and how their brief but riotous career paralleled the chaos of the 1960s. Batchelor, a cultural historian who has written about topics as diverse as Mad Men, the Prohibition bootlegger George Remus, and Marvel Comics super-impresario Stan Lee, turns his critical eye to the days when rock and roll (and particularly the Doors) was considered revolutionary. “The notion that music could transform society at the individual level and as a whole permeated the Sixties,” writes Batchelor. “We might see this as trite today, but the idea felt alive then—palpable—and this gives context to how the Doors were formed and the philosophies they embraced.”
Named after an Aldous Huxley memoir (which itself paraphrased William Blake) about a psychedelic experience, “The Doors,” writes Batchelor, “were nothing like the Beatles or the American rock bands that were starting to gain traction at the time.”
Featuring a classically trained pianist playing basslines on a Fender Rhodes bass piano with his left hand and mesmerizing runs on a Vox Continental organ with his right, the Doors were unique from the beginning. Add a guitarist with training in flamenco and a drummer whose idol was Elvin Jones, and you have genuine originals, even during an era as experimental as the Sixties were. At times, the Doors sounded funereal, other times vibrant, still others carnivalesque, and, finally, they bordered on apocalyptic. The hellfire atmosphere the Doors emanated is best represented by “The End,” their epic phantasmagoria that culminates, lyrically, in family annihilation.
With his steady baritone, his gaunt good looks, his skintight leather pants, and his open defiance of all that was wholesome, Morrison became an unlikely sex symbol, even popping up in the pages of Vogue and 16 magazine. The disconnect between Morrison and the teenybopper set who read idealized portraits of the “Lizard King” in 16 led critics to turn against the Doors, especially after they released The Soft Parade, their fourth album, featuring brass horns, saxophones, and a string orchestra. To his detractors (Lester Bangs called him “Bozo Dionysus”), Morrison was a pretentious phony, cribbing from the Living Theater, Brecht, and the Beatniks of the 1950s.
This critique fails on two levels: first, Morrison lived his ideals (no matter how much those ideals were anathema to the armchair set). Like some of his peers, David Crosby, Grace Slick, and Gram Parsons, Morrison abandoned a comfortable upbringing to pursue his personal vision; and when he died in 1971, at the age of twenty-seven, his conscious pursuit of oblivion could hardly be considered insincere. Second, precious few pop acts were infusing their work with avant-garde influences, and to consider that a drawback seems almost parochial.
But critics were not the only ones who eyed the Doors and Morrison suspiciously. To what has been popularly known as “The Establishment,” Morrison was a moving target, with his own FBI file and a series of run-ins with law enforcement based on his amoral pursuit of hedonism and his potential as some sort of revolutionary spark plug. For the love generation, it was business as usual. “The rock-and-roll lifestyle came under fire when tied so closely to drug use, rebellion, and anarchy,” writes Batchelor. “The Rolling Stones were pitched to the world as the anti-Beatles, a group of young hellions who epitomized the wild side. Their mix of loud rock music tinged with rhythm and blues—another trait shared with the Doors—provided the soundtrack for the global counterculture. For those in power, however, their revolution had to be quelled.”
Today it seems almost inconceivable that the lead singer of one of the biggest pop acts in America could be maced by police before a concert, then pummeled after the show and dragged off to jail. But Morrison so embodied the counterculture—and all its nihilism—that his celebrity status offered no immunity from stormtrooper tactics. If anything, his stature as a leather-clad rabble-rouser only made him more of a mark for law-and-order zealots.
In 1969, Morrison, the self-styled shaman/showman, no longer enamored with fame but still drinking and abusing drugs, was hurtling toward self-destruction when he was charged with lewd and lascivious behavior, indecent exposure, profanity, and drunkenness stemming from a shambolic concert in Miami. His subsequent trial and conviction effectively ended the Doors as a live act and left Morrison contemplating poetry and film as alternatives to music. He would never get the chance to reinvent himself.
If the Doors were not the embodiment of revolution during the Age of Aquarius, they were certainly prophets of its failure. In Roadhouse Blues, Bob Batchelor contextualizes the Doors phenomenon with verve and a solid understanding of the electrifying and often contradictory Sixties.