There has always been a certain amount of truth to the show biz gag that "death makes a great career move." Particularly in rock and roll, where the tradition of adoring dead singers dates back to 1954 and Johnny Ace; from Buddy Holly to Otis Redding to Stevie Ray Vaughan, it's hard to think of a star whose recordings didn't suddenly sell better after his ascent to heaven.
But has there ever been a case of death worship quite like the cult of Jim Morrison and the Doors?
By 1971, when Morrison died at 27 of heart failure, the Doors were pretty much finished as pop idols. It had been two years since the group had last cracked the Top 10, and even that bit of success -- a fatuous, overarranged trifle titled "Touch Me" -- was derided as a pathetic betrayal.
"Riders on the Storm," the last Doors single with Morrison, sold passably after the singer's death, peaking at No. 14 on the pop charts (the album, "L.A. Woman," made it to No. 9). Although the surviving members released two albums of Morrisonless material, it seemed like this was the end for the Doors.
And then a funny thing happened. Slowly, unexpectedly, almost inexplicably, the Doors became hip again. Maybe it had to do with album-rock radio which, as the '70s wore on, began to rely more and more on oldies; maybe it was Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," which used "The End" to frame its tale of death and dissipation in Vietnam. It might even have had to do with keyboardist Ray Manzarek's emergence as a punk rock godfather in Los Angeles, where he put his imprimatur on the first two X albums.
Whatever the reason, it worked. Whereas 1973's "The Best of the Doors" barely even dented the charts, "The Doors Greatest Hits," released seven years later, sold more than two million. A Morrison biography, "Nobody Gets Out of Here Alive" by Danny Sugarman and Jerry Hopkins, screamed into best-sellerdom. Poster and T-shirt sales soared.
As a 1981 Rolling Stone cover put it, "He's hot, he's sexy and he's dead."
And now, yet another round of Morrison mania is on the horizon. Oliver Stone's big-budget film bio, "The Doors," may be the most obvious sign, but there are others. Doors songs are getting covered with astonishing regularity (Billy Idol did "L.A. Woman," the Cure copped "Hello, I Love You"), while the band's sound is an obvious influence on groups like Inspiral Carpets.
It certainly isn't the music. Although the Doors' output had its moments (see accompanying discography), the band's legacy is extremely slight. For one thing, the Doors were quickly dwarfed by imitators such as Iggy Pop, who easily outdid Morrison's onstage excesses, and Alice Cooper, who turned the Doors' confrontational dramatics into genuine rock theater.
For another, the Doors never really sounded like a rock and roll band. Between Morrison's crooning baritone, Manzarek's noodling keyboards and drummer John Densmore's ineffectual flailing, the band more often than not came across as a jumped-up lounge combo.
Unlike other L.A. bands of the era -- the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Love -- the Doors never quite connected with rock's roots. There were a few stabs at the blues, but as its versions of Howlin' Wolf's "Backdoor Man" or John Lee Hooker's "Crawling King Snake" demonstrate, the band learned the vocabulary but had no idea how to apply it. It was almost as if the idea of the blues was more important to the Doors than the music itself.
Overintellectualizing was a Doors trademark, though. This was, after all, not just a band whose singer spouted verse at every opportunity, but whose debut drew both from Bertolt Brecht ("Alabama Song") and the Oedipus legend ("The End"). Rock, as such, seemed too simple for these guys; they wanted something artier, more resonant. They wanted poetry, bacchanalia, catharsis.
Heady stuff, to be sure, and it has endeared the Doors to at least two generations of budding aesthetes. Morrison pictured himself poete maudit, a lost soul flirting with death and willing to be crucified on the excesses of art. He didn't want to be Buddy Holly or Muddy Waters, the way other rockers did. For Morrison, the only fitting models were Blake and Rimbaud, Huxley and Kerouac, writers whose works reached for the heavens even as their lives dragged them to hell.
It's a wonderfully romantic notion of art, and one which appeals strongly to the knowledge-hungry, experience-obsessed adolescent mind. Granted, most of Morrison's poetry was banal in the extreme, filled with easy rhymes and obvious images, and though it grappled with many of life's primal dilemmas, his work did so in a most sophomoric, unsubtle way. Sure, "The End" addressed the Oedipus complex; trouble is, it ends up sounding like a slow-witted summary from Psych 101.
Even so, Morrison understood how to act the part. He knew the myths of Dionysus and the theories of Artaud, the films of Godard and the sound of Coltrane. He was the epitome of the sensitive young intellectual -- only sexier, more vital, more daring.
And more dead.
Nor should we underestimate the extent to which death has improvedMorrison's reputation. Alive, he would likely be a relic, an oldies-circuit embarrassment, "picking up the Lizard King cartoon and wearing it like a bib to keep the drunk drool from rolling down to stain his shirt," as noted rock critic Lester Bangs put it.
Dead, however, Jim Morrison becomes anything his fans want him to be -- a misunderstood poet, a psychedelic prophet, a rock shaman. And it's better than having to deal with a real poet, because there's no reading involved and, besides, you can't dance to "Songs of Innocence and Experience" or "Une Saison en Enfer."
But if Morrison is rock's poete maudit, I'll stick with Kool Moe Dee. It's bad enough that Morrison's drunken debaucheries have been made the stuff of legend, thanks to Sugarman and Stone; the last thing pop music needs is for another generation to grow up thinking that such self-indulgence is the essence of rock.
Because it's not. Rock and roll may occasionally attain the level of art, but its aims are pretty basic, having more to do with real life and gut-level emotion than with some collegiate concept of myth and ritual. Rock is about dealing with others, not living inside your own head.
And if Jim Morrison had only understood that, maybe he'd be alive today.