I was very moved to hear of Ray Manzarek’s passing in May, and I was inspired to listen again to my favorite Doors album, Waiting for the Sun. I hadn’t heard it in about 40 years, and time had made the listening fresher.
Two things struck me this time. One, Morrison was not a very good singer, unless it was a kind of dramatic performance, as in "Not To Touch the Earth," "The Unknown Soldier," or "Five To One," on all of which he excelled. He was a master of the whisper-to-a-scream thing, building up tension and releasing it in eruptions. There are some beautiful songs, written by Robby Krieger, such as "Wintertime Love", and "Yes the River Knows," where Morrison’s performance is monotonous and glum, as if it were simply a guide track that was supposed to be redone but never was. In the documentary When You’re Strange, Morrison’s father maintains his opinion that his son was not a good singer, but admits that he must have been a charismatic performer. When I was 12, I thought Morrison was a fantastic singer. Forty-five years later, I have to agree with the admiral.
The other thing that struck me was the imaginativeness of the arrangements. The band put so much creative energy into their parts, very few barre or block chords here. Instead, Ray and Robby wrote parts for themselves that enhance these tunes with vivid color, subtlety, and impressive musicianship. Robby played with a brilliant display of guitaristic styles: some jazzy phrasing, flamenco, fuzzed-out leads, and luscious slide work. Ray composed incredible material for organ, piano, and lots of harpsichord. Manzarek’s contributions on this album seem to be the most sophisticated of any that he made to a Doors record. This time around, I noticed that Ray quotes Monk's "Straight No Chaser" during a pause in "We Could Be So Good Together." I wonder how many kids identified that reference at the time, I certainly didn't. It’s a shame that the most interesting music on this record was probably only created for this album, and was unlikely to have been performed live. Densmore's drumming, as usual, was nothing less than brilliant.
"Hello I Love You" may sound a little dated now, but "The Unknown Soldier" stands up today as fascinating piece of work, spooky and still powerful. There was really nothing ever quite like it, by them or anyone else.
My two favorite Doors albums are Strange Days (1967) and Waiting for the Sun. I consider these to be part of their “gothic paisley” period. They are eerie, dark, and mysterious, but not untouched by psychedelic flourishes common to those years. After the overly ambitious Soft Parade album (1969), they declared a return to their roots as a blues band with Morrison Hotel (1969). This always puzzled me, because here’s a band with a jazz drummer, a flamenco guitarist, and two arty film students. I was suspicious of their claim to the lineage of Muddy Waters. And I found it unsettling that these famous, affluent, rock stars were posing on the album with Skid Row derelicts who wouldn't know Jim Morrison from Jim Henson. The slumming effect was off-putting:
Then LA Woman (1971). If Jim hadn’t passed they certainly would have continued to record, but the final track, "Riders On the Storm," really sounds like a farewell. Despite having one of Morrison’s classic clunkers (“his brain is squirming like a toad”), the band’s performance is mesmerizing. As those last delicate phrases on the Rhodes beautifully fade away, it sounds like a spirit being released from the world.