Written by: Paul Gleason
Friedrich Nietzsche – the great nineteenth-century German philosopher whom The Doors loved – wrote a book called The Birth of Tragedy, in which he argued that in classical Athens, the Apollonian and Dionysian elements mixed in a seamless whole in drama, an art form that transcended the pessimism and nihilism of a meaningless world.
Nietzsche’s philosophy was at the center of The Doors’ theatre, so much so that Ray Manzarek, the band’s organist and co-founder who passed away yesterday at the age of 74, and singer Jim Morrison assumed the roles of Apollo and Dionysus.
They even looked their parts. The blond-locked Ray crouched over his organ and barely moved, the epitome of Apollo’s orderly and formal art, and provided a structure for Morrison’s Dionysian revelries. Ray sat stock-still as Jim jumped around, pouring everything he had into The Doors’ melodies in a barbaric yawp that would have made Whitman jealous.
Well aware not only of Nietzsche but also of Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty” and Brecht’s “epic theatre,” The Doors were that rare combination – a thinking person’s band that could also rock your socks off.
And perhaps this is why they haven’t aged well. Sure, you hear many of their iconic songs on classic rock radio, but they remain uncool among today’s Pitchfork-reading hipsters.
The reasons for this dismissal are two-fold and obvious, at least to me. Today’s hipsters – no matter how smart they are – don’t read or watch the films that Ray and Jim pored over when they were students at UCLA. How many of them have anything but a cursory knowledge of Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Freud, Artaud, Brecht, Blake, Huxley, Kerouac, McClure, Céline, Ginsberg, Godard, Truffaut, Mailer, Marcel Camus, McCoy Tyner, Coltrane, and all the other writers, musicians, and filmmakers that you have to know to appreciate fully The Doors’ accomplishment?
The other obvious reason is that The Doors are a hot band in a cool time. In an era that privileges irony and dismisses the pure expression of emotion – see David Foster Wallace’s essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” for the most cogent analysis of the problems of irony of which I’m aware – it makes sense that when hipsters rewrite the history of rock and roll, they include bands like Kraftwerk but leave out The Doors.
Let me break it down for you. It’s risky to make records like The Doors’ eponymous debut, which combines the sexual, Dionysian charge of Willie Dixon’s “Back Door Man” with songs like “Break on Through,” “The Crystal Ship,” “End of the Night, and “The End” – songs that require you to know something about Huxley, Blake, Céline, Freud, and Sophocles. These songs aren’t “psychedelic” – whatever that means – they’re works of art that, like anything that Joyce ever did, demand your participation, demand that you’ve done your homework. To dismiss The Doors as a cheesy psychedelic acid-rock band is to imagine Joyce or Burroughs in a paisley shirt and granny glasses.
It’s Ray’s role – in making The Doors the first band with a sense of theatre that rivaled Artaud’s, in making The Doors the first band that required you to read the visionary poems and see the visionary films, in making The Doors the first band that required that you know who Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel is – that we need to celebrate as he passes to another stage of his existence.
On the Classic Albums documentary on The Doors, Ray’s enthusiasm shines through his smiling face when he describes how he came up with the organ riff for “Break on Through” and how the band honed “The End” through repeated improvisation. It’s this smile that tells me more about the man than where he was born and where he went to school. You can look up all this just by surfing over to Wikipedia.
It really is all in Ray’s smile – and that’s saying a lot for a man who, from “Light My Fire” in 1967 to “Riders on the Storm” in 1971, created some of the most iconic music in rock history with his fingers – that you sense the life spirit behind The Doors.
Married and older than the other guys in the band, Ray was the glue that for a glorious six years, held Morrison, guitarist Robby Krieger, and drummer John Densmore together – an Apollo of the organ who, like the god he so resembles, provided a ray of light that made The Doors’ poetry a possibility.