In We’re No. 1, A.V. Club music editor Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be “popular” in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers The Doors’ Waiting For The Sun, which went to No. 1 on Sept. 7, 1968, where it stayed for three weeks, and on Oct. 5, where it stayed for one week.
Since age 11, I’ve been pretty deeply invested in geek culture. Not the “cool” geek culture that’s taken over the culture at large in the past several years. No, my corner of geekdom has gotten progressively less cool over the years. Meanwhile, “zombie and/or dragon” geeks have had a field day. Let me give you an example (which is made-up but probably still true): At this very moment, a beautiful actress is conducting an interview with an entertainment news publication about her lifelong love of anything involving zombies and/or dragons. She’ll pretend to be embarrassed by this “confession,” but she’s actually making a calculated career move that—judging by recent history—will almost certainly succeed at ginning up some cheap “Hey, this beautiful actress is kinda cool in a totally nerdy way!”-style publicity. Being obsessed with zombies and/or dragons is the most fashionably unfashionable pastime to be associated with right now.
The same, however, cannot be said about being fixated on classic-rock mythology.
For whatever reason, being an obsessive, uselessly knowledgeable rock geek is still associated with rampant hipsterism in a way that, say, being a person who memorizes every line from the third Harry Potter movie is not. And I honestly do not know why. As far as I can see, the Harry Potter guy has a lot more cultural cachet at the moment. At least there seems to be more people like him. In my 20-plus years as a rock geek, I can count on one hand the number of times my ability to name all five members of the “classic”-era E Street Band has impressed (or even interested) somebody. (Actually, I don’t need any hands, because the answer is “zero.”) Over time, rock geeks have been trained not to parcel out our worthless bits of trivia lest they send our conversation partners into dead-eyed fits of catatonia. Nobody thinks rock geekdom is cute, and nobody thinks it’s endearing. There is nothing “hip” about it whatsoever.
So, I pursue my love of classic-rock mythology alone, in the shadows, where I faithfully read books that recount every detail of Led Zeppelin’s 1975 American tour, and speculate on which backing singers Bob Dylan impregnated in the ’80s and early ’90s. And I listen to The Doors, the band led by the mythical Lizard King himself, Jim Morrison.
I’m not that different from the rest of you geeks. A lizard is sort of like a dragon, and Morrison’s ability to stay on the radio despite being dead for 40 years is definitely zombie-like. But I guess I can’t expect most people to understand why I still like to unwind after a long day with a glass of cheap bourbon and side two of L.A. Woman. After all, Doors fans aren’t made, they’re born.
If you want to be a Doors fan, you can’t just go buy any album. It’s scientific—you gotta buy this: Waiting For The Sun. It’s the departure point. Listen to it every night at around dusk for a month.
Okay, all you comedy geeks probably figured out right away that I was quoting a classic season-two Kids In The Hall sketch starring Bruce McCulloch as a comically grandiose record-store clerk and Doors disciple, and Kevin Macdonald as a willing student and Depeche Mode fan looking to be shown the way to Morrison Hotel. If you’re a Doors fan, like I am, you might be wondering why Waiting For The Sun was singled out as the so-called “departure point”—or what departure point is supposed to mean in this context. Even if you like Waiting For The Sun (I like it okay), it probably doesn’t rank among your favorites by the band. The album is often derided for its abundance of toothless and plain old weak ballads like “Yes, The River Knows,” which is one brassy horn section away from being a Blood, Sweat, And Tears song, and dated, pretentious follies like “The Unknown Soldier,” which might make you retroactively support the Vietnam War.
Waiting For The Sun does include The Doors’ second No. 1 single, the bubblegum-y “Hello, I Love You,” which helped make the album the band’s first and only release to top the Billboard albums chart. It also has “Five To One,” one of the hardest-grooving Doors songs ever. (Jay-Z even sampled it on The Blueprint.) But Waiting For The Sun is hardly the album you’d recommend as a gateway to Doors fandom.
I was talking about Waiting For The Sun recently with my friend and colleague Sean O’Neal, a fellow Doors fan who swears by the first two records, 1967’s The Doors and Strange Days. When explaining why he ranks Waiting For The Sun with 1969’s The Soft Parade in the lower third of Doors albums—just like pretty much every other Doors fan—Sean brought up the “departure point” line from the Kids In The Hall sketch, which for him rings true as a statement about the band’s turn toward messianic self-indulgence.
“It’s the moment when Morrison stopped acting a part and started really believing his own made-up mythology,” Sean said of Waiting For The Sun. “And it’s when Doors fandom kinda turned into this cult worship thing and everything got bogged down in that shit, and it’s why it’s embarrassing for me to admit that I’m a Doors fan to people. It’s a line that runs from Waiting For The Sun through the Oliver Stone movie.”
The “made-up mythology” of Waiting For The Sun relates to a theatrical musical-poetry piece masterminded by Morrison that was supposed to take up one side of the record, but was left off because it was too difficult/misguided/silly to pull off. You can still read the lyrics to this piece, dubbed “Celebration Of The Lizard,” in the liner notes of Waiting For The Sun. (The most musically coherent section of “Lizard” was also salvaged as one of the album’s better tracks, “Not To Touch The Earth.”) Like all poetry, “Celebration Of The Lizard” can be read a number of ways. Some see it as an allegory about self-actualization, empowerment, and youthful vitality; for others, it’s about a guy who leaves home, crashes in a motel, and wakes up looking like a reptile. But as music, even Morrison later admitted that “Celebration Of The Lizard” was made up of disparate fragments that didn’t really work when pieced together. (Not in the studio anyway.)
In his 2005 book Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend, Stephen Davis (who’s like the J.R.R. Tolkien of rock-geek lit thanks to his classic Led Zeppelin biography Hammer Of The Gods, among other books) makes numerous references to Waiting For The Sun being the beginning of the end of The Doors. The unfulfilled ambition of “Celebration Of The Lizard” was part of it, but Morrison’s growing disinterest in being in the band (exacerbated by his Olympian alcohol intake) mostly hampered the making of Waiting For The Sun.
Davis—who has a unique ability to describe harrowing rock ’n’ roll debauchery in journalistic detail while subtly glamorizing that debauchery—writes that Morrison at this time “could put away two dozen shots of whiskey and a couple of six packs of beer without showing it. But then one more drink could suddenly turn him into a stumbling, psychotic drunk, shouting “Nigger!” in the streets, pissing in public, and disgracing himself. It was a scandal, and no one had the faintest idea what to do about it.”
In short, Jim Morrison could be a world-class, grade-A asshole. Writer Joan Didion observed as much when she dropped in on the Waiting For The Sun sessions with her husband, screenwriter-producer John Gregory Dunne, who was interested in casting Morrison for his upcoming film, The Panic In Needle Park. (The part eventually went to Al Pacino.) Morrison rolled in late, drunk, with (in Davis’ words) “a slutty-looking teenager trailing behind him.” Didion hoped to interview Morrison, but instead was left to observe the dreadfully boring things musicians do when they’re in a recording studio and fucked out of their skulls. Didion later wrote about the experience in an essay that appeared in her classic 1979 book, The White Album:
Morrison sits down on the leather couch again and leans back. He lights a match. He studies the flame for a while, and very slowly, very deliberately, lowers it to the fly of his black vinyl pants. [Keyboardist Ray] Manzarek watches him. There is the sense that no one is going to leave this room, ever. It will be some weeks before The Doors finish recording this album.
I know stuff like this should make me like The Doors less, but when you’re fixated on rock mythology, it has the opposite effect. Just as there are smart adults who will insist with a straight face that George Lucas is not a terrible filmmaker because they watched Star Wars 57 times in the early ’80s, stories about Jim Morrison hanging out with slutty teenagers instead of laying down vocal tracks for “Love Street” speak to the 14-year-old nerd that’s still inside of me.
It’s why my favorite Doors albums are the last two (not counting the albums the rest of the band made after Morrison’s death): 1970’s Morrison Hotel and 1971’s L.A. Woman—the drunkest, fattest, most strung-out records of the band’s career. (And also the darkest and the saddest and the most moving.) Even though I’m now seven years older than Jim Morrison was when he died, he still embodies a certain kind of masculine ideal that will always seem awesome to the youngest, dumbest part of me—the part that still likes to pretend that getting stuck in an endless cycle of drug abuse and empty sex is a fun, worthwhile way to live your life.
One of the most remarkable rock memoirs I’ve ever read is Danny Sugerman’s Wonderland Avenue: Tales Of Glamour And Excess. Sugerman, who went on to become The Doors’ manager and biographer, started working in the band’s business office when he was only 12. Probably not coincidentally, Sugerman also developed a pretty serious drug problem at a young age. But as the title of Sugerman’s book suggests, Wonderland Avenue isn’t exactly a cautionary tale about the dangers of youngsters smoking weed and jamming with legendary rock bands. To the contrary, it makes the prospect sound like an excessively glamorous good time.
Sugerman’s depiction of Morrison in Wonderland Avenue is fawning, to put it mildly. (Sample passage: “He felt dangerous. He was still in his black leather pants but with a blue pea coat, collar up. His hair was the longest I’d ever seen. And as much as I was embarrassed to admit it, he was beautiful.”) But Sugerman sees Morrison more like a big brother than a rock star. He writes about how Morrison guided him through one of his first acid trips—and also how he encouraged him to do his homework. When Morrison leaves L.A. for Paris, where he eventually died, he gives Sugerman a copy of his book of poetry, The Lords And The New Creatures, and writes: “See ya at the big rock concert in the sky. Your brother of laughter and freedom, Jim.”
This is a crucial part of the Doors’ appeal: It is a big-brother band for naive teenagers curious about the most dangerous and illicit aspects of adulthood. “The Doors” is an allusion to Aldous Huxley’s famous quote about “the doors of perception”—but when you’re a kid hearing this music for the first time, it might as well stand for the doors that stand between kids and adults. “Hello, I Love You” is a stupid (but good) song about sex, but if you’ve never had sex (or learned that “Hello, I love you, won’t you tell me you name?” will never get you laid), it’s suggestive of a deeper excitement you’re not allowed to experience yet, like lying in a bed in a darkened room and staring at the beams of light coming from a grown-up party on the other side of the door. And in that moment, a drunken man in leather pants who sings in a low, manly croon seems to point the way out.
Coming up: MC Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em