Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre: A Biography Of The Doors, by Mick Wall

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It’s now been 44 years since Jim Morrison shuffled off his mortal coil, and the story of his tumultuous life and early death has been told countless times. In books, magazines, interviews, and even a big budget feature film, it’s almost as if Morrison never left.

The band’s influence is still felt today, and that’s especially true of their lead singer, whose stage persona can be seen, in part or in whole, in the stylings of singers ranging from Perry Farrell to Scott Weiland to Eddie Vedder. When the Doors reunited in the late 1990s to perform on VH1’s Storytellers, there was no shortage of alternative rock gods lining up to pull on a pair of leather pants and do their best impressions of the Lizard King.

It’s a fair point, then, to ask if there’s a purpose to yet another Doors biography. Is there anything new that hasn’t been discussed before? Is there a single anecdote that Ray Manzarek, in the seemingly daily interviews he gave to everybody with a microphone or a pen in the years before he died, didn’t pontificate upon? Based on the latest, from British writer Mick Wall, the answer is no. This is the same story that was told (poorly and with a different ending) in No One Here Gets Out Alive, the Big Bang of Morrison biographies. It’s the same story that Stephen Davis told (very well) in Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend. It’s a similar story to the one told (bizarrely and with little regard for reality) by Oliver Stone in the movie The Doors.

This isn’t to say that Mick Wall brings nothing new to the party, but they’re mostly small anecdotes, like George Harrison inviting Morrison to Abbey Road Studios where the Doors singer met the Beatles while they were recording the White Album. But the main thrust of the story is still the same: pudgy young film student and poet discovers LSD, loses weight, starts writing songs, forms a band, becomes a sex god, has great success, and throws it all away (in one of the worst cases of alcoholism ever documented) while his band members fume indignantly (when they’re not making excuses for him).

Morrison was a star that eclipsed everything in his orbit. It’s why he appears on almost every page of this book, subtitled “A Biography of the Doors”, and the rest of the band drifts in an out. Morrison’s talent was, let’s be honest, limited. He couldn’t play an instrument, his voice was beautifully expressive when he sang in his range but that range was also very limited, his poetry was generally awful even as his lyrics, more disciplined, were often excellent. Forget Ray Manzarek’s constant talk of shamanism and Dionysian ecstasy and the fact remains that Morrison became an archetype. He was the tortured artist, doomed from day one, who transcended death and became a legend.

In many ways, Morrison was symbolic of the decade from which he emerged. He was vital and good-looking, filled with promise, bursting with creativity and a desire to challenge the established order. But, like the Sixties that began with JFK and Camelot, all of that potential was squandered with drugs, promiscuity, and alcohol. By the end of his life, Morrison was a burnt out husk. One of the last things he ever wrote was the scrap: “Last words. Last words. Out. Regret for wasted nights & wasted years. I pissed it all away. American music.” It was in his last journal, along several pages where he had written, over and over, “God help me.”

Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre is very good. It doesn’t add much to the story but it does flesh out one crucial aspect of Morrison’s life: how it ended. The story had first been told in Stephen Davis’s book, but there’s considerably more detail here. Since July 3, 1971, the story of Morrison’s death has been this: he went to Paris to get away from the rock and roll craziness and concentrate on his poetry and to be with the love of his life, Pamela Courson. One night they went to the movies and when they went back to their apartment Jim took a bath. He had a heart attack in the bathtub and passed away. That story has always seemed way too trite for me. I believed it because there was no contradicting story, but it never really seemed right somehow.

It’s not. People are talking now, including the ones who carried Morrison’s body out of the bathroom in a Parisian bar and deposited it in that bathtub. There’s far too many corroborating accounts now not to recognize the truth: Jim Morrison died of a heroin overdose while sitting on the toilet in a bar called the Rock and Roll Circus. In order to avoid police involvement and scandal, he was wrapped in a blanket and carried out the back door to a waiting car. His body was driven home at around 3:00 in the morning and carried up to his third floor apartment, dropped several times along the way. Pamela was mostly passed out, strung out on heroin. They stripped Jim, placed him in the tub, told Pamela what to do (get rid of all the drugs in the apartment) and what to tell the police, and left. Pamela did as she was told, and the French police weren’t really interested in pursuing the matter. It’s a more sordid tale than the myth, but far more believable. Morrison didn’t go to Paris to concentrate on poetry; he went because France wouldn’t extradite him back to the United States, where he was due to be sentenced for the infamous Miami concert. In Paris, he admitted that he was barely reading or writing anything. He was drinking an enormous amount, and had recently begun to try heroin. The heroin that killed him was nearly pure, supplied by Count Jean de Breteuil, Marianne Faithfull’s boyfriend (and former lover of Pamela…it was he who hooked Pam).

Mick Wall’s style is fluid and engaging, though perhaps more befitting a blog than a book. There are many asides and sarcastic comments scattered throughout, and Wall especially seems to hold an intense disdain for Ray Manzarek. While he readily acknowledges Manzarek’s musical skill and his gift of gab, he begins the book by telling how Manzarek had insinuated, in an interview with the author, the old trope that maybe Morrison was still alive somewhere. Rather than shrug it off as Ray being Ray, repeating something that he’s been saying to the punters for over 40 years, Mick Wall seems personally offended by the comment, and almost never fails to include snarky comments when he quotes Ray throughout the book. Some of the snark is funny, but not appropriate for what should be a more dispassionate biographical work. In contrast, the author holds John Densmore in very high esteem (deservedly so…Densmore’s autobiography Riders On The Storm is essential reading for Doors fans, and he is unquestionably the most level-headed and clear-eyed analyst of life with Jim Morrison).

Wall is also surprisingly critical of the music. While he thinks that Strange Days and L.A. Woman are complete triumphs, he’s strangely dismissive of a large part of the band’s brilliant first album, The Doors, and their hard-rocking return to basics, Morrison Hotel. He’s unfairly harsh with both Waiting For The Sun and The Soft Parade, admittedly the two weakest Doors albums but still containing many delights. He savages their performance at the Hollywood Bowl, which I’ve always found to be an extraordinary show, and the showcase they did on PBS (to my mind, one of their best performances on tape). But Wall is clearly a fan. As Morrison devolves, and the band starts to crack under the weight of playing with such a loose cannon, Wall finds it hard to disguise a sense of genuine anger that a band with so much talent could lose the thread so completely.

Wall also refuses to take a position on some of the many controversies of Morrison’s life. He shrugs and backs away from the idea that Morrison was bisexual, though the anecdotal evidence is very strong that the singer was, if not sexually attracted to other men, willing to overlook the gender of whoever was pleasuring him. Was he bisexual or just a drug-addled hedonist? It’s true that nobody will ever know but Wall seems to deliberately shy away from a stance. That’s fair enough, but he’s also agnostic on whether Morrison had been sexually abused as a child. Here there seems to be less room for hesitation. Aside from the fact that he exhibits almost all the signs of the abused child (the addictions, the sexual acting out, the violence toward women, etc), Morrison himself told his lawyer that he’d been abused. In No One Here Gets Out Alive, Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman recall the many instances where a pre-teen Morrison had drawn sexually explicit (and often violent) pictures of children with adults in his notebooks. Sugarman, more a hagiographer than a biographer, dismissed these pictures as being wild and precocious, yet another manifestation of Jim’s towering intellect and Dionysian godhood, when they seemed to me to be a real cry for help. The evidence of Morrison’s abuse is all there, and Wall’s dismissal of it strikes me as cowardly (Wall says that the admission to his lawyer was possibly just more myth making, though by all accounts Morrison was in tears as he told the story). Stephen Davis did a much more thorough job of exploring this angle of Morrison’s life and behavior, including the story of the (male) Florida bar owner who would let the teenaged Morrison on stage to read his poetry in exchange for sex.

Throughout Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre, and most other good Doors books, Jim Morrison comes across as a man who is kind and personable, very witty, insecure (he was hesitant about meeting the Beatles—”What if they laugh at me?” he asked), and extremely intelligent. When he was sober. When he wasn’t sober, and he was drunk more often than not in the last few years of his life, a rage-filled monster emerged. In vino veritas. Today he would have managers shipping him off to rehab and therapy, but in 1971 nobody knew what to do with him, and he paid the price with his life.

Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre is a worthy, though ultimately redundant, addition to the story of the Doors. It doesn’t reach the level of Densmore’s Riders on the Storm: My Life With Jim Morrison and The Doors, Manzarek’s autobiography Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors, or Stephen Davis’s Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend, but it is far superior to the original Morrison biography, the grossly distorted, sycophantic No One Here Gets Out Alive. Wall has done fans a service by providing the comprehensive story of Morrison’s death, but there’s little else here that hasn’t been seen before.

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Ray Manzarek, RIP

The story of how I became a Doors fan is probably the most unlikely in all of music fandom.

When I was about 12 years old or so, my sister decided to weed through her LPs and donate several to the local library. I was a budding music geek, so she gave me first crack at them. One of the albums she singled out, and said “This band was very good.” The band was called The Doors. I took the album and listened to it and fell instantly, madly in love with this band. I listened to the album every day, usually more than once. Some songs I kept listening to, lifting the needle at the end and putting it back at the beginning. Over the course of the next several months, I listened to the album constantly.

Several months later, I was talking to my brother about this incredible band I had discovered, how they were unlike anything I’d ever heard. He was aware of what I was listening to and he smirked at me and said, “You know, they were even better with Jim Morrison.”

“Who was that?” I asked.

He explained to me that the album I’d been listening to, Other Voices, was recorded after the death of their original lead singer, and that they were a much better band when Jim Morrison was alive. I was intrigued. Better than “Down On The Farm”? Superior to such surefire classics as “I’m Horny, I’m Stoned” and “Tightrope Ride”? A better singer than Ray Manzarek?!

Later, looking through my brother’s record collection, I discovered Strange Days. I put the record on and lowered the needle on the title track. An odd, squiggly keyboard run and then a voice, dripping in echo and effects: “Strange days have found us/Strange days have tracked us down…”

I hated it. I took it off and put Other Voices back on.

It wasn’t until a year or so later when I saw a brief clip from the Ed Sullivan Show and finally made the connection between “Light My Fire”, a song I had long loved, and The Doors that I took a chance on the band with their earlier singer. I haven’t looked back.

So yes, probably unique among Doors fans, my first allegiance was to Ray, Robbie, and John. For months I was likely the only Doors fan who had never heard of Jim Morrison.

Ray Manzarek could be an absolute blowhard as the self-appointed keeper of the Doors Myth. His endless talk of Dionysos, shamanism, existentialism, and the need to explore the boundaries of reality could be really wearing to heathen ears. But at the same time, Manzarek was a great storyteller. His recounting of meeting Jim Morrison on Venice Beach and having the erstwhile poet cum filmmaker crouch in the sand and sing the songs he’d been writing has been repeated ad nauseam, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that he tells the story so well. You can almost feel the sun on your back and smell the Pacific air; you can almost see the shy young Morrison before the drink and drugs destroyed him, crouching before you and letting the sand run through his fingers as, eyes closed, he nervously sang the words for what would become “Moonlight Drive.” For all of his tendency towards the pompous, I could listen to Manzarek spinning yarns for hours.

He will be remembered, though, for his musicianship. Manzarek was a truly great keyboard player, playing both the haunting organ runs that permeated the Doors while simultaneously playing bass keyboards with his left hand. You can see him in the clips of the Doors and in the Hollywood Bowl performance: head down, shaking vigorously, with a huge smile on his face. The man was totally lost to the music he was playing and hearing. The Doors don’t get anywhere near the credit they deserve as a band. They successfully followed a lead singer who was prone to bursting into poetry or drunken rants at any given moment, but as long as Morrison was semi-coherent, they never lost the thread. It’s not easy. Doors concerts were wildly unpredictable; the result of having a lead singer like Morrison.

What Manzarek brought to the Doors, along with drummer John Densmore, was the sensibility of jazz. For all of their success as a rock band, both Manzarek and Densmore were jazz musicians, while guitarist Robbie Krieger was in love with flamenco, blues, and folk. That odd trio made rock music that sounded like nothing else before it or since. Much like The Who, The Doors shouldn’t have worked. But they did, and were so unique that their sound is almost impossible to imitate. Listen to the lengthy instrumental break in “Light My Fire”. It’s a bizarre combination of John Coltrane and Paco DeLucia. It’s also, as Grace Slick memorably described it, “the closest thing to sex on record.” There’s nothing else like it in the entire rock canon.

But as the final two Doors albums recorded with Morrison proved, Manzarek was equally at home playing barrelhouse piano. Right in the middle of “L.A. Woman”, a song dripping in darkness, mystery, murder, and madness Manzarek launches into a honky-tonk piano solo that was lifted almost verbatim from Blood, Sweat & Tears’s bright, summery “House In The Country”. It’s a truly odd dichotomy that works brilliantly. From the jazz-inspired soloing of “Light My Fire” to the psychedelic strangeness of “Not To Touch The Earth”, from the waltz-time “Wintertime Love” to the sea-shanty organ of “Land Ho!”, from the pounding blues runs of “You Make Me Real” to the elegiac, tinkling rains of “Riders On The Storm”, Ray Manzarek proved that he was a musical polymath. He could do it all, and was endlessly creative on his instrument. Like his musical partners in the Doors, Manzarek’s playing was virtuosic but somehow never showy. Musically, the three of them were incredibly sympathetic players, almost never playing the wrong part. Their music, even on their less successful songs, was always appropriate for the mood and theme of the piece. In an era when musicians spent a lot of time trying to outplay each other, this was a rare gift. Jim Morrison was the voice of the band; he was the brains of the outfit, and the public face. Robbie Krieger was the muscle; John Densmore, the heart. Ray Manzarek was the soul of The Doors. The world of rock music is greatly diminished by his loss.

And I still really like Other Voices.

The Doors: A Lifetime Spent Listening To Five Mean Years, by Greil Marcus

In the Afterword to this slim book, Greil Marcus says that the book was a lot of fun to write. I’m sure it was, but it wasn’t a lot of fun to read.

The book is not an analysis of the music of the Doors, nor is it a biography, nor is it a review. It is a deeply personal examination of a select group of songs or, in some cases, performances.

Sometimes the examination doesn’t even cover the entire song. For example, the chapter on “Strange Days” is about the first seven seconds of the song. Marcus maintains that Ray Manzarek’s brief keyboard introduction holds everything the Doors were striving to do…and that the remaining minutes of the song are psychedelic drivel.

Other chapters are so cryptic they defy a description. From the chapter on “My Eyes Have Seen You”:

Another staircase: Tenochtitlan, to the top, in a sprint, then looking down as the fireworks begin.

That is the entire chapter: a mysterious reference to the Aztec capital and, I assume, the stairs leading to the top of the sacrificial altars. But maybe not. I don’t know. Whatever, the sentence provides no real glimpse into the song.

Then there are chapters that have almost nothing to do with the song. There is a lengthy chapter on “Twentieth Century Fox” that is little more than a reminiscence of Marcus’s time spent at a Pop Art exhibit in Paris.

It’s frequently confusing. Marcus writes in a prose that borders on hallucinatory. The opening chapter about “L.A. Woman” steps to the gates of surreal. And yet, Marcus often succeeds at capturing the spirit of the Doors through his prose. A dry examination of the Doors—focusing on what the keyboards were doing, or how John Densmore modified a salsa beat for a particular song, or how Jim Morrison’s voice was recorded—can be fascinating. Just watch the Classic Albums DVD of The Doors for a really interesting look at how the particulars of the music came together. But what Marcus appears to be shooting for here is to have his prose match the anarchic spirit of the band: this is written language that gets arrested onstage, that exposes itself, that flies so high on LSD you think it can never come down, that stops in the middle of what you’re reading and takes off in a new, different direction. This is not expository prose, this is the textual equivalent of a Doors concert.

Of course, Doors concerts were notoriously iffy affairs. When they were on target, the Doors were incredible. When Morrison wasn’t too drunk and/or high, the Doors made magic. But then there were the nights like in Miami, when Morrison was reduced to a drunken cartoon whipping out Mr. Mojo Fallin’ (or pretending to) and berating his audience as a bunch of slaves. Marcus unfortunately succeeds in approximating those nights, as well.

The chapter on “Twentieth Century Fox” is the longest in the book, and torture to get through. The chapter on “L.A. Woman” is little more than a book review of the Thomas Pynchon novel Inherent Vice. He writes of the “cocktail jazz” version of “Queen Of The Highway” as if he were a Beat writer in a jazz club, imagining an alternate history where the Doors are the Ray Manzarek Quartet, waiting for the opportunity to play with Chet Baker. All very yada-yada-yada, and says nothing about the song. At least, nothing that someone who isn’t Greil Marcus can appreciate.

There are some excellent chapters, though, where the style of writing catches the reader and gives the same sort of head rush that great music can provide. “Take It As It Comes” gives weight to a great, largely forgotten, song. An examination of a performance of “The End” from the Singer Bowl in 1968 clearly shows the tension between band and audience, as the crowd was already trying to reduce the band to the single of “Light My Fire”. There is even a chapter (“The Doors In The So-Called Sixties”) that gives an appreciative view of Oliver Stone’s over-the-top movie, The Doors. My memory of that movie is not a good one—too many naked Indians, too much precious self-referential dialogue—but Marcus makes me want to see it again.

What comes through loud and clear, and what I find the strangest part of the book, is that Marcus doesn’t really seem to like the Doors. He’s clearly a fan of the first album, but little that follows it. He even writes of “the hundreds of times” he listened to the first album and “the few” times he played the others. He shows absolute contempt for Waiting For The Sun and The Soft Parade (whose opening track is ridiculed as “‘Tell All The People’—not to buy this album!”), and finds little good to say about even such classic albums as Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman. The subtitle of the book is “A Lifetime Listening To Five Mean Years” but it’s obvious that most of that lifetime was spent listening to one 11-song album. It makes one wonder why he even wrote the book. Clearly the Doors mean a lot to him, but for all of his rapid-fire non-sequiturs and kaleidoscopic prose, the reader is left wondering why he holds them so close to his life.

When You’re Strange: A (Bad) Film About The Doors

For over 30 years, I’ve been a fan of The Doors. I was knee-deep into the band when the book No One Here Gets Out Alive was released and by the time I’d turned the last page I was well over my head. For a teenager, the wild tales of Jim Morrison’s excesses were like nectar. Morrison wasn’t simply a drug addicted drunk like Janis Joplin, he was a poet, a shaman. Or as the beginning of that first bio put it, “Jim Morrison was a god. At least a lord.”

The book, by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman, became the boilerplate for all future Doors releases. And that’s too bad because now that my teenage years are behind me, I think the book is junk.

The problem is not that the book has errors, but that No One Here Gets Out Alive encased Jim Morrison in a mythology that is, at best, half-true.

From every page of the book, you can hear the authors screaming “Look at the tormented genius!” One doesn’t get the impression that Morrison had a really serious drinking problem; instead Morrison is portrayed as a Dionysian shaman who tests the boundaries of existence through a derangement of the senses. Well, no. He was a drunk and a drug addict, but mainly a drunk. He wasn’t testing boundaries any more than the guy I see on Park Avenue in the morning, staggering down the street with his pants around his knees.

But the book was a moneymaker, and it brought a renewed interest in the band…an interest that greatly profited Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger, and John Densmore.

Since the publication of Alive, there have been a score of books about the Doors, a boxed-set of rarities, remixed reissues, officially released bootlegs, a full-length feature film, concert films, a VH1 Storytellers episode featuring the surviving members and a rotating gaggle of lead singers, and even a tour featuring Ray, Robbie, and Ian Astbury doing his best, most shameless, Morrison impersonation. Most recently there is a 90-minute documentary narrated by none other than Captain Jack Sparrow himself, Johnny Depp.

Some of this material has been great. I’m very partial to the “Doors Collection” DVD that compiles their videos, Hollywood Bowl performance, and their interview/performance at PBS, along with backstage film footage. I also thought Ray Manzarek’s book Light My Fire and John Densmore’s book Riders On The Storm were both excellent. Stephen Davis’s biography of Morrison, Life, Death, Legend is one of his better books.

But for the most part, the Doors remain trapped in the amber that is No One Here Gets Out Alive, and that’s a pity. Somewhere out there, right at this moment, Ray Manzarek is telling the story of meeting Jim on Venice Beach. He is using the words “Dionysos” and “shaman” without the slightest trace of irony. Rather than the story being a celebration of the Lizard King’s lyrics, vocals, humor, and life it is the story of one man’s descent into alcoholic hell. In recent years, Manzarek has been more forthrightly stating that Morrison had a real problem and that drunken Jim was not a pleasant guy to be around. But all too often he couches his criticism in that No One Here Gets Out Alive myth that Morrison was a dark god testing the boundaries of human experience in his endless quest to break on through to the other side.

Which brings me to When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors. Among Doors fans, there was a lot of hype around the Tom DiCillo-directed documentary since it promised lots of unseen footage and the cooperation of the surviving band members. It was all a sham.

The only remotely interesting thing about the documentary is the inclusion of clips from HWY, a short film made by (and starring) Jim Morrison. The footage from this film is pristine and oddly fascinating, but it in no way compensates for the fact that this is an otherwise dreadful documentary.

Clocking in at a paltry 86 minutes, the entire history of the band from formation to inglorious end is given less screen time than their incendiary first album gets in the Classic Albums: The Doors DVD (now, that’s worth watching). There are no interviews with anybody in the band or their extended entourage. Almost all the footage has appeared on other Doors-related DVDs and videos. Events are told out of sequence (the story of July 1969’s Soft Parade album is told before the story of the 1968 New Haven on-stage arrest and the March 1969 Miami incident). The narration by Johnny Depp is breathless and overheated, and the script he’s reading sounds like a first draft that was written in one weekend by someone whose only knowledge of the band came from a cursory reading of No One Here Gets Out Alive. Any Doors fan with a working knowledge of the band will be more than familiar with the story as it is presented here. Like their disappointing coffee table book The Doors By The Doors, this is Doors 101, an introductory class for a band that merits so much more. On the plus side, the footage of a hapless flight attendant asking the Doors if they’re a band “like the Monkees” is priceless.

One of these days, somebody will sit down with the surviving members of the Doors and force them to stop regurgitating the mythology. Yes, Jim Morrison was a drunk and a drug addict, but while he may have gone on stage three sheets to the wind, he wasn’t writing that way. Nobody writes good songs while inebriated. This is the Morrison I want to hear about: the poet, the songwriter, the music fan. I want to hear about the man, his sense of humor, his sober relationship with the other Doors. The Doors came out of an explosive era in rock music, but aside from their infatuation with Arthur Lee’s Love, the Doors seem to exist outside of the music scene. It’s almost impossible to get musicians to stop talking about music, but the Doors seem to talk about everything except music.

There’s a real human story behind this great band. It is not a tale of gods and lords, of shaman or Dionysian ecstasy. The story of the Doors is the story of four friends who were exceptionally good musicians, who wrote great songs, who rehearsed, who laughed together, who toured the world. Yes, the tales of drink and drugs, of arrests and outbursts of violence, are there, but these episodes of excess are not the whole tale, just part of the larger, human story. Hopefully there will be a documentary someday that will tell the whole story, not just the salacious parts.