The Doors are part of a very specific category of classic-rock artists: the gateway artists. The bands that — assuming you weren’t around in the ’60s — are amongst the first names you explore when you start digging into pop music’s past. Though keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger, and drummer John Densmore were all crucial to forming the very specific and unique sound of the Doors, the person who pushed them into legendary status was Jim Morrison, the erratic singer and iconic frontman who became lionized after dying in Paris, at 27, in 1971. This inextricably bound the Doors in the narrative of the ’60s and rock history. Morrison is part of the legendary 27 Club, along with fellow ’60s casualties Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, and Jimi Hendrix (and, later, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse) who died at that age. In the specific case of Morrison and the other legendary ’60s artists who died around the same time, it formed one element of the story of how the ’60s failed, how they burned out into moments like the Hell’s Angels at Altamont or the Manson Family murders. By the time you get to the end of the 20th century or the beginning of the 21st century, this means these people are preserved and held up, forever, as tragic icons of their day. Which also means that when you’re 13 or 14 and first discovering the music of your parents’ or grandparents’ generation, you see Jim Morrison’s face on T-shirts in the mall, or you see the millionth biography or the millionth Doors reissue, either with Morrison’s face staring back at you.
In spite of all that, it’s hard to get a handle on what exactly their legacy is. This is a band that was commercially successful when they existed, and have continued to be so as one of those classic artists whose music is always accessible. They received a lot of critical praise at the time, too. This is somewhat anecdotal, but it seems like their ongoing legacy has oscillated in the ensuing decades. They’re an easy historical punchline for music critics; they are the kind of artist you can get obsessed with at 14 and leave behind as you get older. Morrison’s lyrics and poetry seem totally profound when you’re a teenager, and then it’s easy to find yourself questioning that stance at a later age. They are one of the bands that most consistently can be held up as all the follies of rock history. With the remaining members never having done much of note since Morrison’s death, anytime they pop on the radar now it’s an interview that hits the same beats, that glorifies the ’60s and Morrison all over again. There’s something about this that yields dismissiveness. You can get cynical about it: Here’s a relic from a very specific time and place, and here it is being sold to us in new packaging once more, so here we go with ’60s icons telling you one more time that, yes, that era really was as much of an apotheosis or whatever as a few decades of Baby Boomer self-mythologizing has told us it was. Romanticizing past eras or Morrison as a tortured artist aside, though: yeah, of course there is a lot of amazing, formative music from the ’60s, and the Doors’ six album run with Morrison deserves to be counted among it. The snideness that can develop around the Doors and Morrison doesn’t seem totally deserved.
Maybe some of it comes from just how much these guys were of their time and place, even relative to their peers. Morrison was one of the people who created the notion of a rock frontman as we know it. It was only during the Doors’ lifespan that bands started playing to large crowds in venues larger than a club, or in fields full of people. A different breed of performer, within the specific sphere of classic rock, came into being: the Rock God. Morrison is one of the perfect archetypes of that — bombastic, enigmatic in ways, the women, the alcohol. There might be something that comes off as histrionic and over-the-top and illegible about that these days. There are plenty of great and engaging singers at the front of rock bands born in the 21st century, but are there frontmen like Morrison anymore? People as singular and overwhelming, as worshipped as voice-of-a-generation types? I’m not saying this to fall down that rabbit hole of romanticizing past generations of musicians. The point is that while Morrison was one of the best at what he did, his kind of persona wouldn’t scan in the landscape of 2015. If you saw a band with a frontman like Morrison today, he’d probably seem like an asshole. The world has shifted, and the personalities of the musicians we love mostly have with it.
The other lingering question with the Doors is that of influence. They were a massive band and have obviously had lasting impact on the culture, but are there that many artists who sound like they’re overly influenced by the Doors relative to the countless artists who have ripped off the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or Led Zeppelin? Or even the Who? Echo & the Bunnymen covered “People Are Strange,” and took a lot of cues from the Doors, mixing it in with post-punk and New Wave to mostly brilliant results. Eddie Vedder sang with the Doors at their 1993 induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Glenn Danzig sings a hell of a lot like Morrison and apes him in other ways, too. (Look familiar?) Scott Weiland is in the club, too. Ian Astbury of the Cult was massively influenced by Morrison and the Doors, which is audible enough and visible enough in his own performances, but became all the more obvious when he actually replaced Morrison for the ill-advised Doors Of The 21st Century group that Manzarek and Krieger put together. (Sidenote: I actually saw Astbury perform with them at a casino in Atlantic City sometime in the mid-’00s. In hindsight, it was very odd and a little creepy, with the band hawking all sorts of merchandise with only Morrison’s visage or lyrics on it.) There are others, but it’s not the longest list for a band with the profile of the Doors. Aside from Echo & The Bunnymen, you could level the same critique at any of these artists that you could at the Doors: that they are the cartoons of rock history. Weiland and Astbury in particular come off like the kind of guys who are, well, a little out of touch with the world around them and what rock musicians look and act like these days. And this is coming from someone who likes every artist mentioned above, to some extent or another.
Beyond that, you have other major footprints in pop culture. There was Oliver Stone’s 1991 biopic The Doors, a bizarre and inaccurate fever dream account of the band. There was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs character in Almost Famous ranting about the Doors (as Bangs himself did in real life). In Wayne’s World 2, Wayne has a dream where Morrison is his weird spirit guide in the desert. All of these things, similar to the artists who followed the band, exacerbate the matter. Here’s a legendary band, and who knows if we’re supposed to take them seriously. Before writing this, I had hardly returned to their music since high school. I took them very seriously then. And it turns out the catalog holds up. It’s worth taking seriously now.
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