The Doors DVDs
(About four years ago, plans were afoot to release three Doors-related film projects–No One Here Gets Out Alive, Feast Of Friends, and Soundstage Performances) together on one 3-DVD set. But that never happened. Here are the notes that were intended for that set; sad to report that since they were written, Danny Sugerman, someone I’d known professionally for years, is no longer with us. -–dd)
It is the summer of 2001, and Danny Sugerman—once the Doors’ publicist, but now very much more—sits in his Sunset Strip office preparing for an overseas trip. In this office, overlooking the same Whisky A Go Go in which the band first played 35 years ago, decisions have been made. It’s a full agenda. The newly launched Bright Midnight label, an Internet-only company dealing exclusively in unreleased Doors recordings, is about to make its European bow via Bright Midnight: Live In America, the first in a planned series of limited edition retail offerings. Also soon to come are several new DVD releases, including Feast Of Friends—which you now hold in your hands—and HWY, both to be screened at a small Parisian theatre in the next week. Having just been on the phone to Paris, Sugerman is mildly bemused by all this Doors business.
“They made six albums in four years, and we’re talking about it 30 years later. And now they’re worried about riots for a screening for a film that was panned in Rolling Stone and dismissed as being amateurish. And that the police are worried that 20,000 people are gonna show up in a theatre that holds 600 is phenomenal.”
On Danny Sugerman’s wall is as good an encapsulation of the Story Of The Doors as you’re likely to find. It is the inescapable platinum record display—one, which commands special attention, containing the covers of all of the Doors’ albums, from their 1967 debut to 1971’s LA Woman. In just four years—nowadays about the time it takes to make a new U2 album—the face of Jim Morrison undergoes a transformation that is one of pop music’s most remarkably deliberate. By the time of LA Woman, the eminently studly young buck staring out at potential record buyers—his face vastly larger than those of his bandmates—has become a little, short bearded man, who in fact, if you look carefully, sits lower than anybody else.
It almost seems as if he wished he weren’t there.
There is a reason why director Oliver Stone—or for that matter any discerning film director—would wholeheartedly embrace Jim Morrison and the Doors as the ideal subject for a biopic. Only a handful of artists have led careers so compatible with the simple principles of good movie making. The dramatic rise and fall, the sex, the drugs, the unexpected death—this is the stuff entry-level scriptwriters would craft in their sleep if they had to, but thanks to the Doors, there has been no need. What makes the Doors’ story much more compelling than the standard Hollywood script-by-numbers, though, is the quirky bit that complicates the storytelling. And that is that Jim Morrison was indeed a well-educated man very seriously interested in the arts—literature, poetry, film-making—who just happened to make his mark first in the world of pop music. Had he been an overweight, balding slob with a lisp and made his mark anywhere, it would likely have been in those other fields. But of course, Jim Morrison was the Lizard King in name only.
“I think he regretted taking his shirt off for a photo session,” says Sugerman, referring to Morrison’s infamous early shoot for Gloria Stavers’s 16 magazine, the results of which would become ubiquitous in the band’s press for years to come. “He wanted to be taken seriously as a poet. Having tasted the fame of rock ‘n’ roll stardom—selling out Madison Square Garden—he found it wanting, he found it lacking.”
Taken as a whole, the three DVDs in this package present as complete a story of the Doors—and their tasting of rock ‘n’ roll stardom—as you’re ever likely to find, outside of their actual albums.
No One Here Gets Out Alive, based on the similarly titled 1980 best-selling book penned by Sugerman and former Rolling Stone writer Jerry Hopkins, takes the broad approach. Subtitled A Tribute To Jim Morrison, it was originally released in 1981, during the early days of home video, and is a fine overview of the Doors from their 1965 inception though Morrison’s death in Paris in July 1971. At the time of its initial release, it signaled the crest of the “first” public resurgence of interest in the Doors: Rolling Stone had famously plopped Morrison’s picture on its cover with the legend “He’s young, he’s hot, he’s dead”; Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now had featured the band’s “The End” during an especially harrowing combat scene; and rock magazines like CREEM—where I was then working—devoted special issues to the Doors and found them instant sellouts on the newsstand.
one realized at the time—but the benefit of hindsight surely illustrates—is that what was deemed a “resurgence” of interest in the Doors was in fact the new norm, a settling in of the band’s overall importance in the pop music hierarchy. Or, more accurately, the cultural hierarchy of the late 20th century. In an era when MTV was in its infancy, NOHGOA’s featured clips from The Ed Sullivan Show seemed a mind-blowing blast of personal nostalgia to those who’d actually seen them when they were first broadcast. Now, after the turn of the millenium, “nostalgia” instinctively feels like the wrong word here: these performances are vital, historic, instructive, and—to students of American culture—absolutely invaluable.
With its detailed accounting of Jim Morrison by those who knew him best—fellow Doors Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, John Densmore and producer Paul Rothchild—NOHGOA spells out the story of the Doors in comparatively broad strokes. Book co-writers Sugerman and Hopkins supply the context, but the drama—and there can’t help but be much of it—is fully supplied by the Doors’ career arc. Like the book, it is laid out in linear fashion here, and—ending in a tragic death—is about compelling as this stuff ever gets.
Still, drama alone is not what makes the legacy of the Doors so unique. First and foremost, it is their music—of which there is a wealth in this collection—and, on a broader level, their art. Art? Certainly one of the jewels of this set is the first legitimate commercial release of Feast Of Friends, the Doors-produced film documenting the band on the road in 1968. An eye-opening look behind the scenes of the Doors at their commercial zenith, the rarely seen film was awarded first prize in the documentary category of the Atlanta film Festival in May 1969. To longtime fans of the band, there are scenes to be had here that can only be called remarkable: Morrison backstage comforting a female audience member who’d been hit in the head with a chair; Morrison at the keyboards making up a song/poem as he goes along, and of course, an unforgettable performance of “The End” at the Hollywood Bowl. Contextually, remember two things: First, in the days before MTV, DVD, and music video overload, few artists were ever captured on film thusly. Secondly, those that were, were documented for feature films (ala A Hard Day’s Night) as opposed to actual Art Films, which Feast Of Friends can fairly be called. And the idea of a make-up person trailing after the band members so they’ll “look good” on camera is quite laughable.
Back in the offices of Danny Sugerman again, it is late June, 2001. Sugerman is making references to Paris because within a week, he and Ray Manzarek will be there to observe the 30th anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death. They will attend a ceremony at the Pere-Lachaise cemetery, where the singer’s body rests, and hold a press conference at the Les Bouffes Du Nord theatre, where, among other things, they will screen both Feast Of Friends and HWY, the latter of which Morrison had also written, directed and produced.
Sugerman and I are discussing that critical phase in the Doors’ career, the period in which Jim Morrison saw his role as an artist—a writer, poet, filmmaker, songwriter—being superceded in the public’s eye by his high visibility as a pop star. Not just a pop star, but an extraordinarily good looking one. And one for whom controversy—among fans, critics, and, not least, members of the legal establishment—seemed to grow in direct proportion to the band’s commercial popularity.
“At the same time they graduated from the Fillmore to bigger auditoriums, Jim found it harder to please the audience and harder to please the critics,” Sugerman says. “Because the crowd came expecting a certain show. Because Jim had a reputation: `The record’s great, but you gotta see these guys live.’ And the expectations were impossible for Jim to fulfill. And he was able to do it—for the Fillmores and the Shrine Auditoriums, the 2000-6000 seat halls. But he found it more and more difficult to do as the Doors got bigger. The fall off the stage, the critics said it was fake—so no more falls off the stage, you know? Sexual gyrations had become cliché. Jim was frustrated artistically as a performer. He couldn’t win. If he tried to give the crowd what they wanted, he couldn’t please the critics.”
Sugerman points to a poster on the far wall; on it is a picture of Morrison with a beard, walking in the desert, looking almost studiously workmanlike.
“He never said anything, but in retrospect that was the turning point. That’s when he grew a beard, he worked on getting his poetry published, having copies sent to the rock press—that’s when he started working on HWY. That poster was from a photo session that Jim paid for himself to get rid of the shirtless session. No one was allowed to send out the shirtless session anymore. That was the new PR shot for Jim Morrison. Him in a blue workshirt with a short, nicely trimmed beard and longish hair, out in the desert somewhere.”
And this of course brings us to the third and perhaps most significant part of this collection—the Soundstage Performances. Contained on this disc are three exceptional performances from three different stages of the Doors’ career. Taken as a whole, the collection may be the single best representation of what—from a musical standpoint—the band was capable of playing, live and away from the world of studio overdubs. And all three performances are exceptional.
Starting off with “The End”—and what a place to start—the band plays in front of a studio audience in Toronto in 1967. That the band chose to play that song—the landmark closer of their debut album—is interesting in itself; that they play it relatively straight, without the emotional baggage th
e song has since come to carry with it, is all the more remarkable. In 2003, it is nearly impossible to conceptualize an innocent audience that may likely be hearing that song for the very first time. Though it is not extended, it is as good an indicator as any of the musical places the Doors deliberately wanted to traverse. It also drives home a fact that has occasionally been overlooked by those who write about the Doors as being purely a function of Jim Morrison: the band—Manzarek, Krieger and Densmore—is utterly remarkable. With Jim Morrison up front, mesmerizing at the microphone, the music provided by his bandmates—most especially by organist Ray Manzarek, whose left hand continually provided the bass—is complete, full, and never in the slightest bit spare. Live, it is a remarkable achievement, one a surprising number of music critics have overlooked—and one that this video footage will drive home.
More interesting in a purely voyeuristic way may be the Copenhagen performance, shot in a Danish television studio in 1968, and notable both for its aerial camera style and the complete absence of a studio audience. A substantial part of the Door’s live appeal included Morrison’s onstage banter; without it, the music and the music alone was there to be judged. And here it most certainly measures up. Playing tracks from their first two albums, plus “Unknown Soldier,” the band is maniacally intense, the music tightly played and, as always, singularly expressive. Again highlighting the band’s musicianship: guitarist Robby Krieger, who is the Doors dominant soloist, shines throughout nearly all of these tunes, pulling notes with and without a slide that are unexpected and, always, artful. Looking at these performances from a 2003 vantage point, Robby Krieger’s guitar playing may be the biggest surprise: In rock’s colorful history, he is one of very few musicians with a completely unique sound. No one would deny his influence and impact—but it’s difficult to name another guitarist who even begins to approach his sound on these songs.
That said, it may be the Critique live performance that’s the most valuable bit of footage here. Featuring six songs recorded as part of a public television special for New York’s WNET in 1969, the rarely seen performance fills in a gap that arose from necessity: Following the band’s infamous performance in Miami in 1969, live venues—ones that felt the band would be a safe, non-eventful booking—were few and far between for the band. The resulting studio performance is not only a rarity—it’s the sole chance Doors fans have of seeing a live performance of the band’s extended “The Soft Parade.” It, and the other songs that accompany it, are a missing part of history that we now have a chance to recapture.
Even more interestingly, the accompanying interview with all four members of the band is the closest encounter we’ve yet had with the Doors following their Miami encounter. Morrison, bearded yet still slim, seems thoughtful, almost deliberately restrained, and enigmatic. As Sugerman notes here in his 2002 interview, the singer’s vision of the future—where musicians would craft their own music with machines, perhaps in their basement—is scarily accurate, and perhaps an indication of what Morrison himself might be providing were circumstances different. But they’re not.
In many ways Jim Morrison’s death sealed his fate as rock music’s ultimate romantic figure: the tragic hero, the misunderstood genius, the man ready to throw it all away for art, etc. This is unavoidable; it’s also a cheapening of his memory. While it’s alluring to think of Morrison as the sort who’d refute his past in quest of other, purer art forms, we are talking about a man who saw the beauty of the blues, of covering John Lee Hooker on his final album, LA Woman, who seemed to be nearing a solution that would allow him to extend himself in every artistic direction, not just one.
Taken as a whole, what we see here is a further embellishing of a band that is justly regarded as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s very best. The Doors relied on the basics first—enthralling and entirely unique music—then followed through with a sense of art and beauty that few bands have ever been able to match. We are fortunate that they have been documented, that these discs even exist for us to watch. You are even more fortunate if you have never seen the Doors before. Watch them, and you’ll know why.
–-Dave DiMartino, Los Angeles, 2003