A LITTLE UNDER A WEEK after the mass murders at 10050 Cielo Drive, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair: Three Days of Peace and Music began in White Lake, New York. Had the world known then that the butchered bodies of Sharon Tate and her houseguests were the work of a hippie commune, a band that would have been altogether welcome and at home at Woodstock, the press coverage of the 450,000-strong hippie commune that briefly established itself as Woodstockâthere were nearly as many Americans at Woodstock as, in the moment, there were in Vietnamâmight not have been so fulsome. As it was, major dailies gazed in grudging awe at the placidity of the gathering,
magazine rushed out a special edition, and the august solemnizer Max Lerner announced “a turning point in the consciousness generations have of each other and of themselves.” The Woodstock legend remained
inviolate and unspoiled. The Manson connection was never made. Not even the immediate, end of '69 follow-upâoriginally known as Woodstock West, later known as the Rolling Stones' disaster at Altamontâdimmed the magic. By 1970 the movie was playing all over the world. In 1989, demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, before they were massacred, gathered around a replica of the Statue of Liberty and told reporters Tiananmen was “our Woodstock.”
The Doors weren't at Woodstock either. But they were more present at 10050 Cielo Drive, looking back from what they'd already said, trying along with everyone else to outrace the clutch of the present moment.
“End of the Night,”
(Elektra, 1967). A precious, whispery demo version from 1965, all creature-features vocal effects until a big finale, would be forgettable if it weren't for tantalizing harmonica from Ray Manzarek's brother Jim Manzarek, which hints at the song the band, still without Robby Krieger, had yet to find. See “Without a Safety Net,” in
The Doors Box Set
The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion
(New York: Dutton, 1971); soon after publication Sanders was forced to remove a frightening chapter on the Process Church of the Final Judgement. See also the updated
The Family: The Manson Group and Its Aftermath
(New York: New American Library, 1989).
NE DAY IN 2011, ZZ Top's “Sharp Dressed Man” came on the radio. Like the Doors, they get a lot of airplay on a lot of stationsâthough everything you hear is from one year, 1983, and one album,
. It's hard, funny, with Billy Gibbons's guitar as a guide to the network of caves that runs below the entire surface of the earth, even if
didn't have ZZ Top's best single, “My Head's in Mississippi,” from 1990, which you never hear at all. That song seemed to have been conceived and sungâor, if the composer had already passed out, dreamedâwith the singer's head inside a toilet bowl in a bar inevitably called the Longhorn, where the guy whose voice you hear has gone to throw up. Whether he already has or not when he first opens his mouth to get his words out, the room is still spinning, but at least he's spinning now too: he doesn't really want to be anywhere else. A naked
cowgirl drifts across the ceiling of the filthy little room like a cloud. He can't believe how lucky he is.
I switched to another station, right into ZZ Top's “Got Me Under Pressure”âan
number a good ten times tougher than “Sharp Dressed Man.” The ending, Gibbons now leaping rivers, cutting his way through mountains, is so deliriously sucked into its own crossing, cut-up rhythms it took me a moment to realize the radio had followed it without a break into another songâsomething that sounded so much like a ghost version of
I didn't immediately recognize “Roadhouse Blues.”
Everybody sounded as if they were playing in each other's bands. “Roadhouse Blues” came out in 1970, the B-side of the pallid “You Make Me Real,” which never broke the Top 40. Over the next forty years it became a hit, and now as it went on it felt deeper, stronger, new. Against Billy Gibbons, now pounding with his fuzz-tone guitar and fuzz-tone voice against the tin door of the bar the Doors are playing, Jim Morrison sounds hoarse.
As it led off
in 1970, “Roadhouse Blues” was a tornado: fierce, uncompromised, fast, loud, flashy, and most of all big. You didn't have to hear the aesthetic ambition inside of it, or the desperation, the misery, chasing the charging band like a bad conscience. It was thrilling. If you were a Doors fan, you might have said,
Finally they've found their way back to their real music
, even if they'd never cut a stomp like this before. What has sustained the song over more than four decades, what has kept it reaching, is another story.
Waiting for the Sun
, released in June 1968, number one, and
The Soft Parade,
released a year later and stopping at #6, the two albums that preceded
âonce past its
opening blast itself a bland, vague roundelay to nowhereâwere terrible jokes, regardless of who the joke was on.
Waiting for the Sunâ
some mystical sun, perhaps, because in Los Angeles you don't wait for the sun, unless you're waiting for the smog to disappear, in which case you could wait forever.
The Soft Parade
âthere was a wave toward a parade sound at the start, but the ruling word was soft. Both records were filled with words that had no reason to be written, much less sung. The music noodled pointlessly over broken beats, truncated melodies so ungainly most of the time Jim Morrison sounded as if he were giving a speech, and for that matter a speech less addressed to the assembled imaginary hordes of five-to-ones who were taking over than a Rotary club. “Tell All the People” opened
The Soft Parade
â“Tell All the People” not to buy this album! Robby Krieger had written the song; Morrison sounded as if he had a bag over his face, so no one would know who was singing it. There were thick-headed, battering horns all over the album, plus orchestral strings; they didn't make the music better and they didn't make it worse.
The music seemed to recognize its own pointlessness; almost everything strained, almost nothing played. At rehearsals for
The Soft Parade
, the band tumbled into six satisfying minutes circling through a teasing, pleasing melody, with Morrison shouting from far off the mike, mariachi cackling up front, the mood of a cocktail lounge where everyone in the audience is too drunk to care but the band, somehow, finds itself
âlike the bored, tired, disgusted bar band in
suddenly coming to life when a customer sits down at the piano and hits a glissando as if he's Jerry Lee Lewis himself. As it turned out, the Doors were playing “Guantanamera.” But that wasn't on either album; it was just something that surfaced
ages later on a repackaging. The truest tune on either album was “Easy Ride” on
The Soft Parade
, which was nothing if not the Doors' equivalent of Elvis Presley's “Do the Clam,” legendary as the worst record he could make, if only conceptuallyâand who could get past the concept? Could anybody make a worse record? The Doors were trying; you could hear the self-loathing coming out of the songs like sweat, if that was your idea of a good time. Really, what were
Waiting for the Sun
The Soft Parade
but the Doors' versions of Elvis-movie soundtracks like
It Happened at the World's Fair
There was one number that didn't fit, that seemed to exist on some other album. On
Waiting for the Sun
“My Wild Love” was a forest chant, more distant, receding farther into the past, with each wordless, doubled
Huh huh huhn
. It breathed the same pagan smoke as Josef Å kvoreckÃ½'s “EmÃ¶ke,” where at a Czech health resort a man encounters a woman carrying the soul of someone who knows how to worship trees. At three minutes, “My Wild Love” was infinitely more experimental than the seventeen-minute phallic-environmental “Celebration of the Lizard,” recorded as an “experimental work in progress” at the time, performed on stage in 1968, but not released until long after the band was gone. With “My Wild Love” you couldn't place where you were, you didn't know where you were going, but you could feel it was somewhere neither you nor the musicians had been before. Burrowing into itself, into the old European forest, the day darker with each step, this was a hint, like the first page of a fairy tale in a book where the rest of the pages have been torn out, of an untold story, the promise of a journey that might go on indefinitely, the chant revealing its forest, the forest generating its
own chant. Where did this song come from? On these albums, patently nowhere, though you could hear fragments of the tales it didn't tell hiding in “The End” and “When the Music's Over.” Where did it go? Into “Roadhouse Blues.”
Early on during the first day in the studio, on November 4, 1969, with the band trying to cut the song, Krieger's rolling fuzz-tone opening, the bare skeleton of the rhythm, is there for a fragment called “Talking Blues.” “Me and my baby walking down the street,” Morrison drawls, sounding like that's exactly what he's doing. “We's being friendly to every person we meet / Say, hi, neighbor, how you doin'? / Hey, Dylan, how you doin'”âas if they'd just passed each other on the cover of
The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
, one of Morrison's favorite albums. But for the first named take of “Roadhouse Blues” there is again that riff and nothing else. The rhythms are all sprung; as Krieger pushes ahead, with energy, with ambition, he falls behind his own beat. Everything is off, but there's a sense of purpose:
There could be something here if we could find it
. “The point was to work completely in the dark,” George Grosz said of his life as a dadaist in Berlin after the First World War; the challenge was to make the darkness. Stumbling, that's where they're headed.
Perhaps casting back to a night at the Whisky when Them followed the Doors' lurching “Back Door Man” with their own death race through “Baby Please Don't Go,” that's the song Morrison is now singing, or singing around. It's a signpost, a pointer. He falls into nonsense words, syllables bumping into each other, but it's an attempt to find the beat that won't reveal itself, to sucker it into giving them at least the outline of a song. There's a guitar solo, out of place. Morrison begins a verse he has, “Woke up this morning”âbut he backs
off from it, as if he's embarrassed by his own words, or ashamed. It's a purely blackface vocalâ“Well, ah woke up this moanin'”âand he all but hides from it, his voice slurring against itself, the sound of someone singing with his mouth closed. He goes back to words that aren't words, sounds that in the finished song might be
Beep a gunk a chucha
Cronk cronk cronk
You gotta eatch you puna
Eatch ya bop a lula
Bump a kechonk
Ease sum konk
But here the whole, long passage is nothing remotely tran-scribable, a race against language for its own sake: the sake of the race, not language. Speak in secret alphabetsâMorrison was calling himself a poet, but what if he could? Poetry wants to begin from the beginning of language, or before it, to use ordinary words as if no one has heard them before. Is this what was happening in the third take of the song? Whatever it was, the Doors hadn't heard themselves speaking that language before, closer to glossolalia than a device, sound that sings the body, cutting the mind out altogether. As the broken, backwards words unwound like a string of DNA, the band was back in the forest, reaching for its chants.
That first day, they keep hammering at the door of the song. There are times when they sound like a bar band, after hours, no one else around. The rhythm is never of a piece, but there are moments when something that is not quite a song, that might be more than a song, is present, like an apparition; then
it's just another stumble. Every time that last verse, “Woke up this morning,” comes around, Morrison backs away from it; why does he keep singing it?
The next day the setting is different. Lonnie Mack, the great Indiana blues guitarist known for his 1963 version of Chuck Berry's “Memphis”âan all-instrumental pursuit of every shading of rhythm in the song, opening up what in Berry's hands might have seemed a simple if oddly stuttering piece of country music into a labyrinth of dreamy complexityâhad recently signed to Elektra. He was around; the Doors asked him to play bass. The band likely didn't know his soul ballad “Why,” one of the most dramatic and painful American songs ever recordedâby the last verse, a heart attack the singer survives to his regretâbut they knew they were in the studio with a man who, as the Mississippi blues singer Skip James once said to a gushing fan, had been and gone from places they would never get to. But they had been and gone from places Lonnie Mack would never get to, too. They had to live up to each other.