by Lisa Cordaro I have a confession to make: I can’t make my mind up about The Doors. Thirty years of listening to their music, from ‘Alive, She Cried’ on a battered cassette to ‘LA Woman’ on pristine re-master – and still I’m undecided. In a recent Rocking Vicar podcast our colleague, Terence Dackombe, declared The Doors a singles band, and in a way I’m inclined to agree. Doors tracks have become part of the wallpaper, and as much a victim of the Morrison myth as they are iconic works.
So it was that I made my annual pilgrimage to the Cambridge Film Festival, to test myself. This year the selection panel had unearthed the only footage in existence of a complete Doors concert, and arguably their greatest: Live at the Bowl ’68. Directed by Ray Manzarek in 1987, the revival of this film is typical of the Festival’s excellent choice of music documentary, and a premiere of its general release to DVD this month. It’s a great opportunity for those who weren’t there – either in spirit or the flesh – to see the band performing live at their best.
The first thing that struck me is how much things have moved on in concert film-making. Shot on 35mm by friends of Morrison and Manzarek at the UCLA Film School, the quality of the restored footage doesn’t disappoint and the soundtrack has been lovingly re-mastered, but the camerawork is very low-tech by today’s standards. Cameramen appear in shot, the audience is shown in the foreground of wide shots, drifting in and out of the auditorium, and hasty cuts are made to avoid the appearance of other things that shouldn’t be there. This kind of production could only have happened back then, in a flourishing culture of do-it-yourself. Put it this way: Peter Gabriel dressed up as a sunflower in the 1970s, but you won’t see this kind of thing on his video of the Secret World tour.
The second notable aspect of the film is its record of a working band. The Hollywood Bowl was a serious gig for The Doors and there’s a great deal of authenticity about it, with little concession to audience entertainment. These days, punters rock up at a vast venue expecting pyrotechnics and a legion of dancers. What we see here is a tightly-knit set-up with little chat between songs. Considering it’s 1968, there’s no psychedelic projection or light show – which you’d have found across the pond at the UFO Club only two years before – just a backcloth with ‘The Doors’ emblazoned across it in red. They use little of the stage, indicative of their close musical connection. We also see Robby Krieger playing with his back to the audience and the lost vagueness of Morrison, while Manzarek punches away at the same riff, hypnotically, for what seems like hours at times. But the real revelation is John Densmore, whose tiny drum kit seems so minimal in comparison with the structures used today. Yet his performance is breathtaking: his intricate fills and relentless beat driving the songs to perfection.
Much of the set is made up of album tracks and songs which never appeared on any studio recordings. Some light arrives in the tunnel with blistering renditions of ‘Light My Fire’, ‘When the Music’s Over’, and ‘The End’. Previously unreleased performances of ‘Hello, I Love You’, ‘Texas Radio and the Big Beat’ and ‘Spanish Caravan’, also make a welcome appearance.
I’m just sorry it wasn’t 1971, as we could have had the magnificent ‘Riders on the Storm’ as well, but it’s probably for the best. By then Morrison had a racked up a serious mountain-man beard and a rap sheet for indecent exposure on stage. Only three months after the release of LA Woman he would be taking up permanent residency at Père Lachaise.
Whatever you think about Morrison, in 1968 the beauty of the man couldn’t be questioned. Snake-hipped in tan leather trousers with an open-necked silk shirt and blue velvet jacket, tousled hair and chiselled features, he is the epitome of the psychedelic rock god. No one can doubt his voice either. It’s astonishing that he could shift back and forth from screams wild enough to ravage the strongest vocal cords, to a crystal clear baritone.
What the concert footage doesn’t reveal is background; this is helpfully filled by an accompanying documentary of short interviews with the surviving members of the band, conducted this year.
Densmore reports that Krieger was in a funk that evening because the band couldn’t achieve the sound they wanted. As Manzarek declares: “The Doors were playing the Hollywood Bowl, and we wanted everyone to know it.’ Faced with a black wall of 50 amplifiers hired especially for the night, the-powers-that-be decided blasting a sports stadium into space wasn’t such a good idea. The band members were restricted to one amplifier each and left with a preposterous bank of hardware stacked behind them. Krieger looks miserable, and we learn that, characteristically, Morrison performed the whole night on acid. The band didn’t know he’d dropped a tab, they had agreed to do the gig clean – but hey, it’s the counterculture, man. Between songs, Jim stops and bends down to marvel at a grasshopper on stage. ‘Oh, it’s a moth!’ he laughs, beaming at the audience, ‘Look, it flew away…’ However, Manzarek reports Morrison was actually tripping very efficiently that night: ‘He never missed a cue – which was remarkable, considering.’
So, after more than an hour in their company, did I finally make up my mind about The Doors? I decided I liked them quite a lot. I’ll never be a moon-eyed fan, but I owe it to myself – and my music collection – to acquire their albums. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a result.
Lisa Cordaro, October 2012