Two years ago, almost to the day, I was in a cafe in downtown Prague drinking my very first mimosa. It was the tail-end of a six-week study abroad program in the city, so about ten out of the twelve of us from the Fiction Writing Department gathered together for one last brunch and, as it inevitably does in a large group of creative people, we started in on music, which led to The Doors–Jim Morrison, to be exact. My newly-acquired friend, Gibson, who’s like Courtney Love without the heroine, and Matt, the Grad student who used to live in L.A., agreed on their admiration of Morrison’s lyrics.
“Hm,” I cut in, halfway through a mimosa on an empty stomach, “he always came off kinda pretentious to me. He’s kind of an asshole. I mean, if I dropped acid and recorded what I saw, I could sell it as ‘poetry,’ too.”
Gibson sipped her mimosa. Matt took a long slug of coffee.
That’s the day I learned how to alienate an entire table full of people with one thought.
Two years go by and somehow Gibson’s still my friend, though we stick to Fleetwood Mac on vinyl when we’re together. And then, last night, my boyfriend, Travis, and I are walking home from Village Discount on Elston when The Doors come up. I reiterate my opinion, this time tempered with more self-awareness than I had in Prague.
His eyes widen a bit. “Wow, yeah, I have to disagree with you on that.” His smile stays in tact, so I plow ahead.
“I know. Most people do. I don’t really know when my opinion of them sank so low. It’s odd.”
Here’s the thing: I don’t hate The Doors. I’m neutral about The Doors, musically speaking, and that annoys me. They’re boring. Background noise for an acid trip. Glorified elevator music.
I liked them as a teenager, but I was never enamored with Jim Morrison like some of my friends were. Then again, I was the sober one; no booze or pot until senior year of high school, and to this day I’ve never dropped acid or eaten ‘shrooms. So, maybe there’s an element to Morrison’s kaleidoscope of nonsense that I can’t see because I don’t have first-hand experience tripping balls.
I remember embracing “People Are Strange” when I was about fourteen, though:
People are strange when you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly when you’re alone…
As the child of liberal parents in the conservative armpit of Pennsylvania during Part Two of the Dubya Administration, I often felt like an island of open-mindedness adrift in a sea of xenophobia, jingoism, racism, and homophobia. I felt like a phantom.
Faces come out of the rain
When you’re strange
No one remembers your name
When you’re strange…
True, direct, sharpened on the whetstone of teen angst. The song struck a chord with lonely, frustrated, teenage me. Maybe that’s the trouble.
In his 2012 article for L.A. Weekly, Jeff Weiss commemorates the 40th anniversary of The Doors’ L.A. Woman by reconstructing the winter of 1970-71, and more or less resurrecting Morrison in his final year. Though Weiss’ title calls L.A. Woman a “bluesy masterpiece,” the narrative he weaves is a Fear and Loathing-esque love-letter-meets-obituary for a band and a decade marred by self-erosion. He makes a point that might explain what I can’t: “They are the greatest eighth-grade band of all time. Like Holden Caulfield or Jack Kerouac, Morrison artfully conveys the eternal teenage conviction that everything is bullshit.”
I do the math, and my dad was fourteen when “Light My Fire” first rocked the airwaves, just like I was when I realized that his music was full of the unapologetic rock I craved above all things. If the mid-sixties was this country’s adolescence, then the seventies were its early twenties, and that explains a lot.
Maybe I’m disappointed by The Doors as an adult because I’ve graduated, in a way, from “bluesy” rock to shrieking, sexy electric blues. Like jazz, story, and peanut butter, I don’t like my rock and roll smooth. I love a bass line that scampers down the street, doubles back for half a block, then makes a hard left; drums that kick you around their syncopated heartbeat like a pinball master; keys and horns that clamor like competitive church bells. I like layers, multiple perspectives feeding off each other. In this regard, Jack White is my Jesus; Hendrix is John the Baptist; Stevie Ray Vaughan, Clapton, Buddy Guy, and Santana a choir of angels; B.B., Albert, and Freddie my Wise Men. There’s no room in my pantheon for a false prophet.
After all, L.A. Woman is a good album, “Love Her Madly” a good song. But does Morrison’s moan make my marrow quiver? Nope. For me, a distorted, six-string wail is the voice of God.
I’ll let Jim Morrison be Moses. If anyone’s liable to lead a mass of people on an aimless journey through the desert, it’d be him.