Did anyone watch When You’re Strange, the recent documentary about The Doors, on PBS?
An odd question, you might think, especially from someone who rarely watches television, particularly anything to do with rock music.
I’m not even sure why I took the time except that the pre-publicity promised the show would consist mostly of previously unseen footage of the band.
As it turned out every musician I canvassed had tuned in, and all - from pub performer to superstar - agreed it was riveting.
What the creators of When You’re Strange managed to do was place the audience in the midst of the band - both onstage and off - thereby allowing the non-musician to experience the hyper-charged blood, sweat, laughs, tears, drama and boredom of a great band during its rise and eventual demise.
And what a great band The Doors were. One has become used to - and even fatigued with - the polished intensity of the various FM staples such as Light My Fire, Love Her Madly, and LA Woman. But to hear these songs, along with the chilling Riders of the Storm and The End, live and under challenging stage and technical conditions, was a revelation.
And the players! Robbie Krieger will never be ranked with Hendrix, Clapton or Rory but his style takes one’s breath away – a dizzying original melange of finger-picking blues, flamenco, power chords and electric slide.
Drummer John Densmore's jazz influences are more obvious live and yet with all his fluidity he anchored the band much as Keith Moon did The Who.
I’ve had some dealings with Ray Manzarek and found him to be gracious and kind, but what a keyboard player, always willing to stretch and, more importantly, take chances without apparent fear of falling on his face.
But then that’s what the Doors were all about – living on a tightrope like some tipsy ballerina, forever graceful but mere millimeters away from disaster. Not a bass player in sight, none missed either. Jim Morrison's voice filled that aural space with a naked intensity that’s only been hinted at since.
It’s hard to watch rock musicians nowadays without a sense that we’ve seen it all before – even Jagger seems a parody of himself. And then you marvel at this unedited footage of the young Morrison prowling the stage, oftentimes wearing around cops and security, the eyes of his band-mates tracking him, unsure of his next move, charismatic, dangerous and unaware of the chaos he leaves in his wake.
However the documentary also shows the flip side of this life - the drudgery and fatigue of traveling, the sense that little is within your control, and in Morrison's case, the sheer fright when it dawns on him that he may spend years in a Southern jail as a showcase example of Nixon’s new law and order America.
Were drugs and drink involved in the Doors story? Of course, and in accelerated abandon - in fact you get to see Morrison’s handsomeness wilt before your eyes. Raging alcoholism is never pretty.
And yet you can tell that creativity was the be-all and end-all for these four musicians. In fact, Morrison’s alcoholism may have stemmed from the feeling that his poetry was being overlooked in the tidal wave of vacuous celebrity that surrounded him.
But not by Francis Ford Coppola. Was there any other song but The End that could have summed up the American Vietnam experience in Apocalypse Now?
Norman Mailer spent a thousand pages seeking union with the criminal mind of Gary Gilmore in Executioner’s Song. He would have been better employed listening to The Doors. In seven spine-tingling minutes the band had already mined that vein, so much so that it’s a rare person who will not glance uneasily over their shoulder while listening alone to Riders of the Storm.
Despite all the optimism and dynamism in our country, there’s a darkness at the heart of America; Jim Morrison mainlined directly into its main artery. It’s hard to imagine him growing old gracefully, even growing old at all. He was a man of his time – a particular moment when authoritarianism was on the verge of collapse even as creativity peaked.
The genius of When You’re Strange is that it not only exposes us to the raw nerve of human imagination, it allows us an unruly and thoroughly unedited glimpse of what might have been.