Democracy Dies in Darkness

Music

The Doors defined California cool in the ’60s. How does their legacy stack up 50 years later?

By Jeff Weiss

October 6, 2017 at 10:00 AM

The Doors — from left, singer Jim Morrison, drummer John Densmore, keyboardist Ray Manzarek and lead guitarist Robby Krieger — pose for a publicity photo in the 1960s. Fifty years ago, the band released its self-titled debut album. (Elektra Records/Elektra Records)

LOS ANGELES — The door to the Doors is numbered 420. A quirk of circumstance that feels comically ordained.

Technically, this is the entrance to the Doors Music Co., the licensed legal corporation in a fourth-floor suite of a flavorless glass rectangle in West Hollywood. Should you take 2,000 steps east, you'll find yourself at the world-famous Whisky a Go Go, the nightclub at which the Doors reigned a half-century ago as they became the sinistral emissaries of sex and death at the center of the Summer of Love.

This air-conditioned shrine is consecrated with artifacts of the past and faint reminders of its perpendicular intersections with the present. Platinum and gold plaques occupy almost every square inch of available wall space. Portrait photos depict the Doors at their Aquarian zenith, shaggy and seditious, without time to wallow in the mire. Jim Morrison, now dead 46 years, leers, taunts and preens from every angle.

In the conference room, Robby Krieger remains very much alive. For much of the past year, the lead guitarist has busied himself with the promotional cycle surrounding the self-proclaimed "Year of the Doors," commemorating the semicentennial of the quartet's self-titled debut and follow-up "Strange Days," released a mere nine months apart in 1967. Festivities included Los Angeles proclaiming a "Day of the Doors," Krieger throwing out the first pitch at Dodgers Stadium, and the remastered vinyl reissues and re-packagings that have become pro forma around the anniversaries of iconic boomer bands.

It's been 50 years since the first song Krieger ever wrote, "Light My Fire," topped the Billboard charts, but he still quietly mourns the loss of Morrison, who was interred at Paris's Pére Lachaise cemetery a short four years after the band's career took off.

Ray Manzarek, right, and Robby Krieger light candles at Jim Morrison’s gravesite at Paris’s Pére Lachaise cemetery in 2011. (Jacques Brinon/AP)

"It's pretty tough to get away from it because pretty much every day something reminds you of him," Krieger says, underscoring the sepulchral reality that has shrouded Morrison since 1971.

Krieger, a native of Southern California whose earliest guitar playing was steeped in flamenco, was the band's youngest member and just 25 when Morrison died. Now 71, grandfatherly and silver-haired, he's dedicated almost his entire adult life to burnishing the legacy of his youth and attempting to transcend it. He tried first with a pair of Doors albums, without Morrison, before the band finally split up. In the intervening decades, Krieger has released half a dozen records of jazz-rock fusion, several of which included contributions from Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, who died in 2013, and drummer John Densmore. He still writes most nights.

"It's my dream to write a hit instrumental song that people will always remember," he says.

Adopting a "one for all, all for one" mantra, the Doors split equal songwriting credit among the four members. But when Jim Morrison is your lead singer, it's inevitable that less oxygen exists for the other members. Few know that Krieger wrote three of the band's highest-charting singles ("Love Her Madly," "Touch Me," "Light My Fire").

Even though it's a story he's retold thousands of times, there's a certain simplistic thrill to hear Krieger explain the spark behind the band's biggest hit, inauspiciously composed late one night on the piano bench at his parents' house, where he lived until the band's career became the grist for an Oliver Stone biopic.

"I asked Jim what should I write about and he said, 'Write about something universal,' so I decided to write about earth, air, fire or water," Krieger says.

"I picked fire because I liked that song by the Stones, 'Play With Fire,'" he says. "The words just came to me. I'd never heard anyone say those three words together before."

The Doors in 1967. (Bobby Klein/Doors Property, LLC/Rhino Entertainment)

Krieger was just 20 when he wrote the song that has endured for half a century. This idea of youth is central to the mythology and perpetual vitality of the Doors, a group that sold you on the supernatural dream that permanent enlightenment was a short trip away, in any direction that deranged the senses.

Every generation of eighth-graders is seduced anew by the Doors' autonomic rebelliousness, grandiosity and epic sweep that encompassed French Symbolist poetry, Bavarian beer-hall stomp, Athenian drama, alluvial Southern blues, Iberian guitar and the occasional indecent exposure charge. Merely reciting a list of those influences induces eye rolls from skeptics, flashbacks to acne and regrettable haircuts, insufferable teenage poetry and bootleg T-shirts hawked on the Venice Beach Boardwalk.

For many, the Doors remind us of our worst selves. One pretentious boor in a dorm room convinced that he's the reincarnation of Jim Morrison can ruin the band forever. And they aren't wholly absolved from inspiring thousands of would-be mystics who returned from Burning Man "pretty sure" that they're shamans. In the parlance of our times, they seem basic. When the influential website Pitchfork ranked the 200 best albums of the 1960s, "The Doors" was the lone entrant and it barely cracked the top 100.

Among their canonized peers, the Grateful Dead's long, strange trip ended with the countercultural kings slowly being submerged into the corporate infrastructure they once existed in opposition to; the Velvet Underground turned obscurity in the '60s into post-breakup notoriety as ground zero for the sneering rise of punk and alternative rock; and Jimi Hendrix remained frozen in tie-dye as a psychedelic sage, whose guitar is less easily ridiculed than some of Morrison's more overwrought lyrics.

But this critical revisionism doesn't square with the band's sustained influence. Any artist in thrall to Iggy Pop, Ian Curtis of Joy Division, Nick Cave or Patti Smith owes at least a secondhand debt to the Doors. Lana Del Rey name-checked Jim Morrison on "Gods and Monsters" and once covered "Roadhouse Blues." Marilyn Manson has repeatedly declared the band's formative and continued impact upon him.

Cover art for The Doors' 1967 eponymous debut. (Rhino Entertainment/Rhino Entertainment)
Cover art for The Doors' 1969 album "The Soft Parade." (Rhino Entertainment/Rhino Entertainment)

"The Doors were what made me want to become a rock star," Manson says. "If you separate all the ingredients, the vocals and the guitars and the rhythm, it wouldn't make sense. But together, there's magic in those songs."

Morrison's patrilineal heritage directly extends from Manson to Lil Uzi Vert, a rapper whose emergence this past year has partially redefined the rock-star archetype for a new generation.

The Doors' reputation in rock circles may have declined over the years, but it's in rap where you can see the Doors' modern influence most dramatically. Kanye West famously sampled "Five to One" for Jay-Z's "Takeover." The unhinged showmanship and ­codeine-fueled rampage of Lil Wayne's historic 2005-2008 streak reminded many of Morrison. (During his stint on Rikers Island, Weezy read a Doors biography.)

In Los Angeles, where 2Pac still exists as gangsta rap's patron deity, Morrison levitates just above him in the civic hagiography. The parallels are unmistakable, from the Christ-like poses and books of poetry to the attacks from authorities and preponderance of leather. Snoop Dogg covered "Riders on the Storm." Members of the Pharcyde selected their group name after an afternoon eating mushrooms and watching Stone's "The Doors."

"I got introduced to the Doors by a documentary," says South Central's G Perico, one of Los Angeles's best and fastest-rising new gangsta rappers. "I immediately became a fan of how real Jim Morrison was. Even though he was long gone, I was still drawn to his energy."

It's unquantifiable and orphic energy, one best experienced through vibe than a clinical deconstruction of the band's (impressive) discography. The Doors induce chimerical feelings of ominous sunshine, primordial serpents and peculiar creatures communing in Laurel Canyon. At their best, they conjure moods that language can't label — the interstitial half-remembered transmissions of an acid trip, the deja vu when the bloodshed of the past interferes with the dystopian frequencies of the present.

Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, left, Remo Belli, founder and chief executive of Remo Inc., center, and John Densmore, the drummer of the the Doors, take part in a giant drum circle in 2012. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

"The '60s was only two years: '65 to '67. That was it. That was the pure across-the-board renaissance of music, art and film before it got co-opted, the assassinations started and Vietnam polarized everything," John Densmore says.

If you're searching for the subversive streak that defined the Doors, Densmore is where the journey ends. At 72, he's retained a seeker's curiosity, the poetic spirit that set them apart and the atavistic energy found in most great drummers.

"A lot of the time, I sit around depressed about the current situation with a few maniacs running the world and then I think, 'How . . . did I ever get through seeing a little girl napalmed on television every night?' " he says.

"It was just horrific, but our [generation's] protests helped stop the war, and if we got through that, we can get through Trump. So I try to look at him as the catalyst coalescing everyone who's been semi-asleep — and that assuages my depression."

It's a summer morning at the tribal-art-decorated house in the Pacific Palisades where Densmore lives with his son and a big, white, affable dog named Conch. He wears athletic shorts and a loose black T-shirt. His hair and goatee are entirely gray, but a studded earring exaggerates an ageless trickster glint in his eyes. There is no drum circle he couldn't lead.

Doors lore often wrongly stereotypes Densmore as needlessly contentious. In Stone's mystic caricature, Densmore (played by future "Entourage" star Kevin Dillon) furiously storms out due to Morrison's sodden outlandishness. In 2003, when Cadillac offered $15 million to license "Break on Through (To the Other Side)," Densmore vetoed the commercial. When Manzarek, Krieger, Ian Astbury of the Cult and Police drummer Stewart Copeland formed the Doors of the 21st Century, Densmore successfully sued to keep them from using the band's name.

In the ensuing trial, Densmore claimed that Manzarek and Krieger's legal team depicted him as an eco-terrorist (he once was arrested alongside Bonnie Raitt for protesting corporate clearing of ancient rain forests). Raitt, Neil Young, Eddie Vedder, Tom Petty, Tom Waits and Randy Newman all supported Densmore during the case. But despite this once-seismic rift, Densmore and Krieger, the lone survivors, briefly reunited to play "L.A. Woman" at the Day of the Doors celebration.

Cover art for The Doors' 1971 album "L.A. Woman." (Rhino Entertainment/Rhino Entertainment)

"It's because of the music. We created something together bigger than us," Densmore says. "The muse comes in, and it's not yours, and that's huge. So our differ­ences can go aside. As time goes on, it's easier."

In conversation, Densmore radiates a creative integrity that frequently feels endangered. Royalties have made him a multi­millionaire, but he has also turned down more than most of us will make in this lifetime. There's an engagement and curiosity about the present that feels more palpable than with most of his peers. If the fire still burns, it's partially because he hasn't lost the ability to stay outraged.

"In different stages of life, you do start to see [things] you didn't see before. What makes me so crazy is we're [hurting] the youth," Densmore says. "Can't we not only financially but emotionally invest in the youth? That's what an elder is supposed to do. My friend Michael Mead, the mythologist, said, 'Everybody gets older, but not everybody gets elder.' That's it, which means look around, help the youth, show gratitude, don't just be an old prick."

Accordingly, he's devoted himself to political action, philanthropy and the arts. Since distancing himself from the rock world in the 1980s, he's performed with a touring dancing company, acted in plays and television shows, and written several books. He recently completed the book "Meetings With Remarkable Musicians," which chronicles his interactions with Ravi Shankar, Patti Smith, Gustavo Dudamel and Elvin Jones. As he breaks down the concept and chapters, his excitement builds, his syllables accelerate; you catch that alchemical symphony that buoyed those immemorial songs. And maybe that's all there is. Maybe the simple answer is that you just need to stay true and keep searching.

"I'm still looking for the music in between the sentences," Densmore says, taking a quick quarter note rest, perfectly paced. "Same as you."

This article has been updated to note the musicians who supported Densmore at the the Doors of the 21st Century trial were not, in fact, present for the proceedings.

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