LIVE AT THE AQUARIUS THEATRE: THE SECOND PERFORMANCE - The Doors (Bright Midnight/Rhino Handmade)
BOOT YER BUTT (4CD set) - The Doors (Bright Midnight/Rhino Handmade)
Many musical acts manage to shift a shitload of albums over a short span of time, before the bubble bursts and reality comes crashing in on them. Sometimes the music they leave behind turns out to be "perennial" (meaning that the record company finds it can reissue their albums over and over, maybe tweaking the cover art, the liner notes or the tracklist slightly, for a consistently rewarding revenue return), while others are destined for almost instant obscurity, perhaps prized by a small coterie of collectors and loyal (meaning demented) fans but otherwise sparking only bewilderment at how they could ever have made the charts in the first place, no matter how fleetingly.
So rather than rely on the sales figures, gold records and chart positions achieved by a passing act at its brief zenith, I suggest that a more reliable measure of the impact (and worth) of a band might be the size of the "unsatisfied demand" it leaves in its wake; not just nostalgia for the old material from the old fans (pandered to by streams of tribute bands, the most successful being the ones that never depart by even one note from the originals), but the extent to which new material continues to be sought out and devoured after the glory days are over.
If we are talking about individuals then apparently Elvis the Pelvis is still well out in front of the pack as the highest earning dead person in the music business but, except for a couple of remixes, it seems to me that the bulk of his posthumous output has been largely straight repackagings and non-musical "souvenirs" exhibiting varying degrees of tastelessness. Elvis also wins hands down in the imitator stakes, on quantity if not always quality, but I don't think that this is an area that I want to get in to right now, even if Australia has produced some of the world's leading tribute bands over the past decade, in areas of musical endeavour as diverse as Pink Floyd, Abba and yes, the Doors too.
However when it comes to true musical longevity, Jimi Hendrix leaves Elvis for dead [ahem] with all the new concert CDs that have come out over the last few years, not to mention the newly released "Astro Man" 6CD set that I've been in two minds over ever since I heard about it (and the designer suede jackets and chrome plated watches available from the official website do seem to lean more toward opportunistic grave robbery than any attempt at genuine archaeology).
A 6CD set, or even a 7CD set in the case of the legendary Rhino "Funhouse" box, is nothing these days of course. Not when compared with, say, the John McLaughlin complete "Montreux Concerts" 17CD set or (and this is an achievement unlikely to be repeated in a hurry) the Throbbing Gristle 24CD set (titled, appropriately enough, "24 Hours Of Throbbing Gristle").
The Doors have been put through their fair share (and then some) of repackagings as well, not to mention sporadic misguided attempts to soldier on with and without a variety of would be replacements for the clearly irreplaceable Jim Morrison (including as we all know Iggy Pop at one of the lower points of his career, though there were few shows and even fewer recordings with that line up).
Frankly I'd given up paying much attention to Doors' releases after that 4CD set a few years ago, which turned out to have been padded out with an entire CD of "band members' favourites" (e.g. it was a 4CD set where one of the CDs was all old studio stuff everyone's already got), while the Live in New York CD that came with that box was actually a cull from four separate shows at the Felt Forum. Nothing wrong in principle with distilling those four shows down to one set, but why not give us two CDs worth of "new" live tracks from those shows, instead of recycling studio tracks already long available?
"Well that's New York for you - the only people that rush the stage are guys...", or so Mr Mojo Risin opines towards the conclusion of the version of "When The Music's Over" on the "Absolutely Live" album, so we know where that song was recorded. It transpires that those four nights in New York were amongst a dozen concerts in various cities that were recorded for that album. Just so you know, the version of "When The Music's Over" here is a couple of minutes shorter and far more controlled, both in terms of Morrison's performance and the reaction of the audience (though there still weren't too many paid up members of Mensa in the crowd, judging by what you can make of the crowd noise in the quieter spots on the album).
While Doors compilations and repackagings are continuing to appear with monotonous regularity, somewhere along the line the Doors themselves have gotten hold of all those original live tapes and have struck up an arrangement with Rhino Handmade. It's not just those tapes either. For example, the "Live In America" sampler with which they kicked off the Bright Midnight collaboration with Rhino also included a medley from a show in Bakersfield, which was not part of the original run of shows for the live album.
I would have thought that Rhino Handmade still would be kicking themselves for only pressing 3,000 copies of that Stooges "Funhouse" 7CD set a couple of years ago, given how fast it sold out. They could have flogged another couple of thousand copies easily, even at US $159.47 a pop, which is what it cost around these parts after copping an extra kick in the hip pocket for the postage to Australia (although the postage on the package that lobbed here was nowhere near the figure that had been on the invoice...), but that didn't stop them making the "Live In America" sampler a limited edition too. At the time I didn't bother with it (the "Live In America" sampler that is, I grabbed the "Funhouse" set with both hands of course), figuring why bother when all those tracks were destined to become available on other live sets sooner or later. Whether or not that turns out to have been a wise decision, that album has now sold out too, so it's a bit late to do anything about it.
However I do think that we've all learned a valuable lesson from this. Certainly Rhino Handmade has - there is apparently no intention of making any of the subsequent Doors releases into limited editions, numbered or otherwise. In all there's apparently around thirty hours of serviceable live recordings and the surviving Doors are now proposing to release all of this on a regular basis, one show at a time. Or at least they were.
So far they have released three CD sets (each one a double CD) from the Aquarius Theatre in Los Angeles (two separate shows and a closed rehearsal session held there the day after, before the equipment was packed up by the roadies) and another double CD from Detroit, but according to their website the Vancouver set which was to have come next has been shelved for the present. I'm waiting patiently, but I do find that ominous...
In the meantime, I picked up the Aquarius Theatre show with what looked like the most interesting set list. At the time that this was recorded it had been close to four months since the (alleged) dick flashing incident in Miami, after which promoter interest in the band had suddenly and emphatically dried up, so the Doors were a touch off peak match fitness. However the Aquarius Theatre was a lot smaller than the venues they'd been playing prior to the abrupt crash of their blue bus and the combination the band's keenness to get back in front of an audience, the promise of the live album to come and a more intimate venue with better acoustics all contribute to an interesting evening.
They have labelled this the "complete show" and it doesn't take long to realise that they're not kidding. Not only do we get some limp announcer's 30-second intro, we also get the nearly two minutes of tuning up that followed it (and even without any visuals you can easily pick from the audience reaction the moment when Morrison walked onto the stage).
It doesn't end there. There's also nearly a full minute of tuning and noodling after "When The Music's Over", before Morrison's goading "C'mon, let's do it" propels the band into "You Make Me Real". Later, when the venue management asks the audience to move back to their seats, there is close to seven minutes of the sounds of the crowd milling around before the show continues. The beauty of the CD format is that you can program all of this out once you start to get sick of it (e.g. after the first playing) and with running times of 65:32 and 72:23 respectively, there's still plenty of music to be had on each disk.
So why buy any of these sets if you've already got "Absolutely Live"? In fact, if like me you're "of a certain age", then you've probably got it on vinyl as well as CD, though if you're lucky you prevaricated long enough about the CD to take advantage of the later "In Concert" double CD which collects "Absolutely Live", "Alive She Cried", a good chunk of "Live At The Hollywood Bowl" and the version of "Roadhouse Blues" from "An American Prayer". "Absolutely Live" was the first live album I ever got (I was still at school and couldn't afford double albums on my pocket money, but luckily Santa came through for me that year). Why buy more then? Because it's the fuckin' Doors man!
It's true that Morrison did come in for quite a critical re-evaluation (or concerted corpse kicking, depending on your prejudices and pre-conceptions) after his death. Even Lester Bangs got into the act, his otherwise generally positive piece on the Doors for the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll periodically catching the Lizard King curled up on the ground in a foetal position and then proceeding to sink the steel caps into his decaying kidneys with some vigour, particularly when it comes to discussion of the third and fourth albums.
The art guerrillas of TISM weren't far behind either; their "Morrison Hostel" offers a goodly number of swings of the boot at him too (beginning with "Jimbo, boy, you're a crock of shit/You're a boozed, selfish thug..."), though the best of the bile is directed more at his unquestioning fans and shallow imitators.
Yeah, maybe the band did temporarily stray off the fairway and get lost in the thick undergrowth between the third and fourth albums; maybe the poetry did get a tad pretentious and fruity at times; maybe Morrison could be self-centred, arrogant, erratic and even downright unstable, especially towards the end; maybe all that shaman bullshit was just that, bullshit; maybe he wound up committing the only truly unpardonable sin, that of allowing himself to be seduced by his own publicity.
Nevertheless when the planets were all aligned and the inspirational juices were flowing, Morrison was an electrifying and charismatic performer and the Doors were a killer combo and that's what you can hear on a lot of these tracks. It wasn't ever all Morrison of course. Even though the Doors weren't able to continue without him, it's conveniently forgotten that Robby (or Robbie, as he used to be known) Krieger actually wrote some of the songs now popularly misattributed to Morrison, most notably "Light My Fire", of which you get an almost fourteen minute version here.
The other major standouts from the Doors back catalogue that were absent from "Absolutely Live" were "The End" and their cover of that other Morrison's "Gloria". No, there's no version of "The End" here either, but I see that there is one on the Detroit album and according to their website it's two minutes longer than the version on "In Concert".
When it comes to "Gloria", frankly ever since "Horses" I'd always considered that Patti Smith had laid down the definitive interpretation (or rather re-interpretation) and the Doors six and a bit minute version on "Alive She Cried" did not do much to dissuade me from that opinion. However the 10-minute version presented here does weaken my resolve far more, with Jim doing a bit of improvising of his own with the lyrics and the band backing him up with an authority that makes it sound like it was always a Doors song.
At the beginning of the show Morrison announces that the performance is being recorded for a potential live album, so clearly it wasn't ever going to be just "any" show. At the same time, it's just as clearly a representative portrait of the Doors in front of an audience, rather than some faked up for the tape extravaganza, before an invited bunch of friends (or an empty room, with the audience overdubbed later) so beloved by record label marketers and publicists these days.
Indeed, what you get is a warts and all performance - not that there are that many warts, just enough to make it interesting. These shows were recorded on July 21st, 1969 - right at the start of Elektra's attempts to capture the band live. Ray Manzarek tells the audience that it's the first time they've played some of these songs since the Whisky (A Go Go) days and it's easy to believe him when the band loses its way (and he starts to lose his cool) during his rendition of "Close To You". "No that was pretty good Ray, really", Jim quickly consoles him.
The version of "Close To You" that eventually made it on to "Absolutely Live" is tighter and presumably comes from one of the New York shows, since Ray refers to New York in one line. However it lacks the relaxed extemporising (much of it about Los Angeles) that you get here, while the version of "Celebration Of The Lizard" here seems slightly hurried and perfunctory at times compared to the version on the other Aquarius Theatre CD (imaginatively entitled "Live At The Aquarius Theatre: The First Performance"), although the two were recorded on the same day and still clock in within 30 seconds of each other (not bad for a song that runs out at around fifteen minutes). The reason I know anything about the version on the other "Live At The Aquarius Theatre" CD is that that is the version that ended up on "Absolutely Live", while "Universal Mind" and "Soul Kitchen" are the two tracks from this show that ended up on "Absolutely Live", in case you were wondering.
So a lot of these Bright Midnight records would have the same basic set then? Yep, looks like it. I'd assume that there was a list of songs they wanted for the live album, so they did them at most shows and then picked the performances they liked the best. However the Doors were also getting back in touch with their blues roots at this time. Subsequently someone obviously decided that the blues covers should be kept to a minimum as far as the live album went, but here you get them giving "Little Red Rooster", "Mystery Train", "Crossroads" and "Rock Me Baby" extended workouts.
What you also get here is more of "Morrison Hotel". That was their most recent studio album at the time when "Absolutely Live" came out (hmm, when exactly was it actually released - had "Morrison Hotel" even come out at the time of this show, or were these new and previously unheard compositions as far as this audience was concerned?). These songs were deemed too recent by Electra to be included on the live album. After all, the fans had just paid for the studio versions, so who could reasonably expect them to fork out again so soon for more of the same, only live? Oh, how the times do change! Now the major record companies cynically expect the punters to keep shelling out over and over again for exactly the same songs on CD, SACD, DVD, FU, whatever... (and they still can't work out why the hardcore fans turn so readily to bootlegs).
Robby Krieger does understand the attraction of bootlegs though. Apparently this "Boot Yer Butt" box set is the culmination of what has been a pet project of his for some considerable time. Although it honours the long tradition of Doors live albums having singularly uninspired album titles, these recordings have no other "official" connection to the Doors.
The tracks on these four CDs are culled from a variety of live bootlegs capturing an assortment of performances from throughout their career. As with most bootlegs, the interest tends to be more in the novelty or uniqueness of the performance, rather than the actual musical quality of the recording, which in the bootleg world generally differs widely not only from album to album, but often from track to track on a given album (recordings from different venues, different years, even different line ups often strewn indiscriminately across the disk). Indeed this set fully captures the whole "authentic bootleg experience", right down to the initial sinking feeling of "Shit, did I really spend $80.00 (U.S.!!!) on this...?".
If you search the 'net you'll find lots of "unofficial" recordings on offer. Sometimes for straight trade; sometimes for some sort of 2-4-1 or B&P deal; and sometimes for overtly financial consideration. Sometimes it might even look like you're being offered a legitimate release and it's only when you've forked out more than enough money for a professionally recorded and pressed CD that you find you've been dudded with a 50 cent CDR knocked up on a home CD burner in the back room of the premises of Fly-By-Night Records.
"Caveat Emptor" (let the buyer beware) is definitely the order of the day, as the quality ranges from extremely good (like being right there, standing next to the soundman) to absolute sonic turds (to borrow a highly evocative phrase from a long time opponent of live records in general and bootlegs in particular). You'll also see all sorts of rating schemes with seemingly very precise demarcations, but what the fuck is the real qualitative difference between something rated as "8-" and something rated as "7+"?
For my money, it all boils down to four distinct grades; no halves, no quarters, no pluses or minuses:
1. NCQ: Near Commercial Quality (e.g. sounds no worse than a second or third generation cassette of an official studio release - hand this to a bootleg "virgin" and you won't have to provide any explanations or apologies)
2. FEL: For Experienced Listeners (e.g. may be a bit boomy, hissy, reedy, muddy, muffled, sibilant; some audience noise; lack of stereo separation - the audience noise may be in stereo, but the music sounds like mono because the taper was too far away from the stage... but still acceptable to ardent fans of the artist and those already familiar with the nature of such "field recordings")
3. BTN: Better Than Nothing (e.g. for absolute completists/total trainspotters and other, similar maniacs only - generally bad sound, like it was recorded in a public toilet several blocks from the venue; excessive and persistent audience noise; drop outs and bad edits/songs truncated, etc)
4. ODC: Only a Drink Coaster (e.g. abominable/virtually unlistenable, even for the most obsessive fans, but by the time you find out it's usually too late to get your money back)
So what has Robby got for us here then? Firstly it looks exactly like a bootleg, coming in a plain brown cardboard box (like the Who's "Live At Leeds", itself attempting to emulate the bootlegs of its time) with a cover drawing that looks like it was knocked up quickly by some friend of the bootlegger in exchange for a free copy of the boot (and maybe a couple of beers if he struck a really hard bargain). Inside it contains the four CDs in individual cardboard sleeves printed up to look like the old "Trade Mark Of Quality" bootlegs, right down to the cellophane wrapper and coloured paper insert featuring a pilfered black and white band publicity photo and the track list (or rather the bootlegger's best guesses at the song titles). At least for once we can rely on the manufacturer getting the titles of all the songs right!
Each disk runs for over seventy minutes and the 4th disk runs to a whopping 79:33, which is just about the most you're ever likely to get on a CD. There's also an eight-page booklet (not counting the covers and centrespread picture) giving track details, potted history and any interesting factoids that Robby remembers about the gig. Sometimes these are refreshingly brief and candid, like "Jim got into a fight with the promoter. I can't remember why" or "I recently met a guy who claimed to have witnessed this show. He said it was great. I wish I could remember" or simply "Sorry, no memory".
The performances are roughly in chronological order, with a bit of poetic licence applied at the beginning and the end. The first CD opens with 25 seconds of "Bootlegger's Chat", wherein a seemingly clueless novice gets some helpful (but exceedingly basic) advice from a more experienced taper, followed by the announcer's intro from an unrelated show and then two songs from the earliest known recording of a Doors show, at the Avalon Ballroom on March 4, 1967.
From there it's four full disks, but just three-and-a-half short years (well, three years and eight months to be accurate) to the 16-minute version of "L.A. Woman" at the State Fair Music Hall in Dallas in 1970, which is the last Doors concert known to have been recorded, either officially or unofficially (and in fact the gig they played the next day in New Orleans was to be their last ever show with Jim Morrison). However it's not the last track on the CD, that being a version of "The End" from back in 1968 (there's that poetic licence thing happening again). Damn, actually it's three years and nine months from go to whoa, since I've just realised that 12/11/1970 is the 11th of December, not the 12th of November (bloody yanks with their dates the wrong way round).
The first two songs from the Avalon Ballroom are a seven-minute "Moonlight Drive" and a five and a half minute "Back Door Man" and apparently they are the only two songs ever to surface from this show (at least that's what the booklet says). "Back Door Man" is also one of the few live recordings that capture Jim playing harmonica (yep, I'm reading from the booklet again). Doesn't sound too bad at all, especially for a bootleg.
Next up is a muddy and distant "Break On Through" from a few months later on, with some additional vocal gymnastics from Morrison (the "There you sit" improvisation, according to the booklet), which are presumably the reason for its inclusion here. This is followed by a fairly tinny "Light My Fire", but with an interesting instrumental break even if Morrison does sound like he's singing from out in the foyer, and so on... There are 56 tracks in this box set and I'm certainly not going to go through them all one by one, or we'll be here all night.
None of these are professional recordings and overall the sound quality (and volume and occasionally tape speed) fluctuates erratically between FEL (For Experienced Listeners) and BTN (Better Than Nothing). If as claimed these are the "best" versions that they could find, then it must have been a tough slog sitting through all the ones that were rejected. In some cases there was no real choice though, because some songs were only ever performed live once or twice (especially covers like Bo Diddley's "I'm A Man" or a full rendition of "Alabama Song", as opposed to its regular brief appearances as part of a medley) and if only one such performance was captured on tape then it's either that or silence.
The sound does seem to get better as you go along, but maybe that was just my ears tuning themselves down to the audio quality of what they were hearing. Or maybe they were beaten into submission by the likes of the version of "People Are Strange" recorded through the PA system of the Danbury High School auditorium or a version of "Tell All The People" that sounds at times like a Frank Zappa parody of fifties cocktail lounge music, only distant and hollow, but nevertheless taking itself far too seriously.
So why bother? Because for some of us the Doors' studio legacy isn't enough. Even when you chuck in their official live releases, it still isn't enough. Bursting on to the west coast music scene like an over ripe pimple on the hairy rump of hippiedom, the Doors were the antithesis of the chirpy California archetype; anti-Beach Boys sun and fun, anti-hippie peace, love and flower power; darker, driven and dire, even after they'd been cleaned up for commercial radio.
On occasion Morrison may have taken himself very seriously off stage, but on stage the seriousness seems usually to have been reserved for the music, while the unrestrained adulation of the wide eyed fans was more a source of amusement rather than self-aggrandisement. "We're just a little blues band that started out in a place called the Sunset Strip...", Morrison assures the audience at a sold out Madison Square Garden at one point. Indeed the blues, rather than rock or the poetry, was Morrison's true métier and this judgment probably applies equally to the rest of the Doors as well.
You need look no further than the twelve minute version of "Love Me Two Times" from Minneapolis with its lengthy blues interpolations, the second of the two versions of "Back Door Man" (two years further on from the first and over eight minutes in length), the second of the two versions of "Light My Fire", this one from Honolulu and running over twenty minutes with its extended improvisation that incorporates everything from "My Favourite Things" (obviously Robby was a Coltrane fan) to "Fever" and "Summertime", or the version of "Break On Through" from Amsterdam with Ray deputizing on vocals after Morrison had swallowed a lump of hash to evade customs, subsequently collapsed from "unknown causes" and been carted off to hospital just before the Doors were due to go on stage ("He did not feel very well, we don't know why...", according to the deliberately non-committal stage announcement that introduces this performance).
For those born too late or too far away, these tracks provide a belated opportunity to hear the Doors as they were meant to be heard, raw and unrestrained. Some songs are caught prior to being recorded and are clearly still struggling to find what will become their final recorded form, but for Morrison any "final form" was ultimately an illusion. He never stopped tinkering and embroidering, simply using the recorded version as a springboard for whatever inspiration came to him from one moment to the next, while behind him the rest of the Doors provided a musical backdrop that ranged from hard edged acid rock to an authentic blue-collar blues that wasn't the affected, grinin' white boy blues of Mike Bloomfield and Steve Miller, but the rough, raw and desperate blues of dilapidated southern whisky bars and midnight Mississippi crossroads deals with the Devil.
Shaman, visionary or just another would-be Messiah with a pocketful of nails searching for a cross to die on [to appropriate J. G. Ballard's sceptical analysis of Tony Blair], Morrison was, is and always will remain one of the iconic figures of twentieth century music and even though the sound on some of these tracks is pretty shitty, even at their worst they do nothing to diminish the man, the band or the legend. John McPharlin
1/2 - LIVE AT THE AQUARIUS THEATRE 3 1/2 Beers
- BOOT YER BUTT (4CD set) 4 Beers for fans, but I guess only half that if you're just a casual punter
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