What can you say about The Doors? They were intense and self-indulgent, provocative and lyrical. These oppositions only begin to describe their candle, which burned at both ends and in the middle, too.
That’s why anybody who cares about rock history will love the reissue of this DVD, a precious document of a great performer, a great rock group, and a day—July 5th—in the bloody, traumatic year of 1968. Who better to express that awful time than The Doors? The horrors of that year perfectly suited Jim Morrison’s genius, and this is the best of him that we’ll ever have.
They provocatively begin with “When the Music’s Over,” and Morrison stalks the stage, letting the tension build during the prolonged intro before he steps to the microphone. They stretch out the song, reveling in the freedom that rock and roll enjoyed when released from the constraints of Top 40 radio. Yet that freedom, like the sexual freedom that Morrison embodied, was at the time bound up with death, and death is never far away in these great songs. That is why they begin with “When the Music’s Over,” a paean to suicide, and end with “The End,” Morrison’s reworking of the Oedipal myth. This is the only concert I have ever seen or heard of that both begins and ends with songs about death.
As if that wasn’t enough, in the middle of the concert The Doors do “The Unknown Soldier,” which spoke so deeply to young people in 1968. They stage an execution, in which Robbie Krieger points his guitar at Morrison while Ray Manzarek’s organ repeats low, threatening chords. As with “When the Music’s Over,” their superb sense of drama lets the tension build and build and build, until finally it erupts in a shot-like chord from the guitar, and Morrison collapses onto the stage. It’s still a shocking moment; one can only imagine the effect it must have had in 1968.
Yet this DVD is about so much more than 1968, because it helps us to answer the question, “What fire did The Doors light?” That is to say, what is their place in rock history?
For one thing, it helps us to understand Jim Morrison as a link between Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, who said one time that he heard The Doors live in Asbury Park. Until I watched this concert I didn’t appreciate how much Springsteen and the E Street Band owe to Morrison and the Doors. Surely the crescendos and dramatic changes in volume in the cosmic drama of “Jungleland” owe a lot to crescendos and dramatic changes in the cosmic drama of “The End.” And Dylan would have been proud of one of Morrison’s lines from “The End” — “He took a face from an ancient gallery.”
Of course, we can only speculate about how Morrison would have evolved if he had lived. When he sings the Kurt Weill classic “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar),” you can hear what a fine baritone voice he had. He could have become a crooner if he had wanted to. Morrison is surely the Charles Baudelaire of rock and roll, but would he have outgrown his obsession with death and decadence and moved on to something else? We’ll never know, of course.
There was more to The Doors than Jim Morrison, even if he was an icon of the '60s. Ray Manzarek, as the multi-talented organizer and keyboards man of The Doors, tested the limits of experimental weirdness with his use of atonal riffs and repeated phrases on the organ and synthesizer. He was thus a forerunner of British art rock; Emerson Lake and Palmer couldn’t have done what they did without him. Pink Floyd also owed a certain debt to Manzarek and Morrison.
In short, The Doors Live at the Bowl ‘68 is both a record of its time and also something that transcends it. Like the man said, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and both of those extremes were on display on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl that night.