One item I forgot to mention two days ago when I did my round-up of the past month’s news was the passing, on May 20th, of Ray Manzarek, co-founder of and keyboardist with 1960s rock legends The Doors. In the decades since The Doors’ heyday, much of the attention given to the band has focused on their singer, would-be shaman and (depending on your point-of-view) decadent poetic genius or pretentious head-up-his-own-arse berk, Jim Morrison. For my money, though, Manzarek’s keyboards were more responsible for The Doors’ distinctive sound than Morrison’s vocals, darkly soulful though Morrison was when he was on form.
Maybe I’m just biased. I’ve always had a weakness for a band who weren’t afraid to push their keyboard-sound to the forefront, such as The Stranglers, those baroque old 1970s pub-rockers who finally sneaked into the British charts by pretending to be punks; or the Inspiral Carpets, third-place contenders – very distant third – for the title of Greatest Madchester Band in the late 1980s, after the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays.
When you listen to a Doors song like Riders on the Storm and ignore Morrison’s half-baked lyrics, you realise how much of its drive, atmosphere and all-round eeriness is derived from Manzarek’s keyboard-playing. And it makes you realise that there’s a case to be made for the idea that The Doors were the world’s first Goth band – in fact, Riders on the Storm conjures up more genuine spookiness in a few minutes than any number of later, affirmed Goth bands (see Gene Loves Jezebel, Alien Sex Fiend et al) managed to do in their entire careers.
I’m too young, believe it or not, to remember The Doors when they were together. I suspect like many people my age, I only became properly aware of them in 1991 when Oliver Stone released his much-hyped film about them. Stone did his usual thing when telling the band’s story, i.e. he simplified, omitted, embroidered, exaggerated and at times downright lied. He also added extra Red Indian shamans and – shudder! – Billy Idol. Manzarek was particularly angry about Stone’s take on the band – not so much about the indignity of being portrayed in the film by Kyle MacLachlan in a big blonde wig, but about the unflattering light in which Morrison was presented: “It was not about Jim Morrison. It was about Jimbo Morrison, the drunk. God, where was the sensitive poet and the funny guy?”
Manzarek was no doubt right, and I can understand why Stone upset those people who’d actually been there at the time. But as an interpretation of The Doors the legend, rather than The Doors the real-life band, I always thought Stone’s rumbustious, rollicking and way-over-the-top movie was pretty entertaining. Val Kilmer is, of course, brilliant as Morrison, and – something that the critics seemed to miss – it’s also very funny. No more so than when Morrison finds himself at a party with his long-suffering girlfriend Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan) and his rock-journalist piece on the side Patricia Kennealy (Kathleen Quinlan) and, hoping for the best, tries to introduce them. Courson’s response (“My God, Jim, you actually stick your dick in this thing?”) indicates it isn’t going to work.
Maybe the reason why The Doors-the-movie is so divorced from reality is because Oliver Stone started listening to the band whilst serving amid the chaos and carnage of the Vietnam War – after that experience, he couldn’t give them a conventional biographical treatment. Vietnam has been described as ‘the first rock ‘n’ roll war’ and the Doors, with their trippy on-the-edge sound and vaguely dangerous undercurrents were the perfect Vietnam-War band. No wonder Francis Ford Coppola used The End, their paean to patricide and incest, for the brilliant seven-minute opening sequence of Apocalypse Now (1979). Here it is: