It’s June 1983. I am at a friends house with some mates from school. One of them is supposed to be in an O level Biology exam but cannot be bothered. We are playing a drinking game called ‘Rabbit’ which involved the usual copying and remembering to avoid drinking or the exact opposite depending upon the volition, mood or level of incompetence. My host friend puts on an album with a beautiful looking man adorning its front cover. From that moment I am hooked.
Thirty three years later and I still tremble at the beginning of The End. I wipe the sweat from my brow at the climax of LA Woman. My soul shines throughout Break on Through. From the eponymous first album in 1967 to An American Prayer (1978) and on to BREAKN’ A SWEAT (2012) in my humble opinion no other band has or will ever come close to their intellectual, aesthetic and tumultuous depth. The fusion of jazz, blues and acid fuelled psychedelic rock can make a person smile and then sob within a few bars. The addiction of the music is entrenched within the addictions of their lead singer from the chemistry of the existential. The breaking down of what we should not be doing via the acceptance of ourselves as intelligent animals who are not supposed to be crushed by the expectations of guilt and silence has kept me interested and enthralled for over three decades.
The reality and the illusion have been mutually fed by band members (Ray in particular) and through biographies spanning much of the time since the band split in the early 1970’s. Beginning with Jerry Hopkins’ and Danny Sugarman’s ‘No One Gets Out Of Here Alive’ a rather, as it turned out, spurious and hyped up reading experience to Mick Wall’s much more appropriately titled ‘Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre’ I have also consumed half a dozen others along the way. Throw in to this mix the monstrosity of Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie (especially the second half) and the existential reality of this band has often remained out of reach and probably always will.
Mick Wall’s attempt at further illuminating the lives of Robbie, John, Ray and Jim unfortunately falls in to the trap of largely ignoring the first three. Most of these biographies should not call themselves ‘a biography of The Doors’ because they are not. They are biographies of James Douglas Morrison with brief excursions in to how the others overlap. This is not to say that this book is not a great read. It is. But I was hoping for more about the rest of the band. There are only so many ways that Jim’s relationship with his parents; his addictions, intellect and his death can be told no matter their influence and effect. This is not to be unduly critical, just honest.
Nevertheless, that apart, the 500 pages were wrapped in three days. It is a genuine page turner. The chapters (named using lyrics or metaphors from the band) are tight and sensible. The balance between the sources provides a good space for those who played major roles in and around the band as a whole and Jim more specifically. It still lacked a personal touch from families but accessing these has always proved difficult. A biography should always be judged on the depth of research and also anything new that it throws up. For example, Jim’s attraction to anal sex with women. Mick Wall makes a significant play on this aspect of Jim’s character and also discusses how it fits into the debate about his sexuality. However, it needed the detailed contributions of those who experienced this – perhaps in quotes. Was it drug induced? Was it because they were just happy with being able to have carnal relations with Jim? Did they ever suspect that they were a substitute for men? If the topic is going to be part of the narrative then break on through. Don’t stand at the door and procrastinate then turn around and walk away. If the topic has been broached and respondents are not prepared to discuss then it should be made clear.
The influence for the songs; the lineage of the relationship with Elektra and Jac Holzman in particular; the production and relationships with Paul Rothchild and Bruce Botnick; the animosity of the rest of the band towards Jim’s ‘friends’; the backlash from New Haven and Miami; Jim’s collapse in to alcoholism; the failure of the band to replace Jim… are all there and much much more. The most intriguing for me is the intellectual elements and specifically ‘Living Theatre’. My daughter is very interested in this openness and honesty in performance and the likes of Brecht, Malina and Beck advocating a non hierachical expressionism also proved exciting and attractive to Jim and many others who were seeking a cultural enlightenment. I myself advocate empowerment across communities and thus this provided me with a very fulfilling read. The commercialism of Ray and Robbie in particular must have been a painful barrier between him and the band and although the inference was that it was John and Jim who were the most different actually their similarities are often underplayed. A shame.
The revelation that the pre Bill Siddons management had tried to coax Jim away from the rest of The Doors was although unsurprisingly quite wonderful. Not because there is any merit in the attempt but that it enabled Wall to reveal how it panned out. “… Jim didn’t dig the idea at all. Jim the new anti establishment hero who had faced down cops in New Haven, who had told Ed Sullivan where to go…, who had stood up on stage night after night telling the people the unvarnished truth, man, who wanted the whole fucking world and wanted it now, nearly shat himself…. Jim was convinced that Sal Bonafede was in with the Mafia, and that if he didn’t behave he world have him rubbed out, you know Mafia style.” Brilliant. The Lizard King scared that his manager was a mafia man and who would organise a hit if he pissed them off. And who is to say that they or another much more powerful group didn’t?
Mick’s book ‘Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre: A Biography of The Doors’ is available in all good bookshops.