Classical tragedy and Southern blues, all mixed with a healthy dose of hedonism
On the inside of the original gatefold is the following statement: “This album was compiled from live performances recorded in cities throughout the United States between August 1969 and June 1970. Aside from the editing necessary to assemble the music into album form, the recording is an organic documentary and absolutely live!”
However according to Paul Rothchild, the band’s long time producer, the album had to be virtually stitched together from numerous performances, simply because he couldn’t get complete takes of any of the songs, and therefore had to do a lot of splicing and editing to create a necessary master. Yet when the surviving band members eventually began opening the vaults, releasing these shows in far more complete form, they would prove to utterly contradict Rothchild’s claim that “There must have been 2000 edits on that album”. In fact it turns out that not only was each performance left relatively intact, but that the majority of songs selected were recorded over two nights at The Felt Forum, in January 1970.
We begin with the emcee imploring the crowd, who are chanting “we want The Doors”, to “sit down and go back to your seats”, lest the local fire authorities decide to cancel the show. It’s a terrific way to draw the listener in, creating a sense of actually being in the audience, capturing that sense of excitement and anticipation which must have been rippling through those in attendance.
Instead of “Roadhouse Blues” or some other popular number, they choose to open the set with a powerful and particularly psychedelic cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love”, thanks mainly to Robby Krieger’s hallucinatory slide guitar and Manzarek’s acid-Baroque keyboards. Next is a tune that I’m sure was close to Jim Morrison’s heart, “Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)”, before seamlessly segueing into a raw and dirty “Back Door Man”, during which Morrison slips in a few verses of “Love Hides”, a song the band never recorded much less attempted to complete based on what we have here. The medley concludes with an urgent, almost primordial reading of “Five to One”, a call to arms if there ever was, although something tells me that by 1970 Jim had become weary of the whole ‘rock prophet’ phenomenon.
The bluesy “Build Me A Woman” portends the sort of style of song writing the band would go on to explore further with L.A. Woman, the band’s final LP with Morrison. Now if you need to go to the toilet, I recommend that the listener do so immediately before the epic, majestically dark and twisted “When the Music’s Over” kicks off. Through headphones one can discern the odd subtle edit here and there, no doubt due to the limits of vinyl. Well, either that or Rothchild made an executive decision in cutting out a minute or two of music he felt was superfluous to a piece that already runs for nearly fifteen minutes.
The band perform a rather perfunctory rendition of Willie Dixon’s “Close to You”, with Ray Manzarek on lead vocals (for better or worse), followed by “Universal Mind”, a sort of pop-jazz number, on which Morrison expresses the lyrics in seemingly half-interested fashion. Jim manages to offend half the Catholic diocese with his introduction to “Break On Through (to the Other Side)”, and while the band are playing at full tilt, apart from the poetry and theatrics, I somehow get the feeling Jim just wasn’t into it anywhere near as much as he was a couple years earlier. Still, it remains an exciting example of rock at its atavistic best.
Whether the listener can sit through the entirety of “Celebration of the Lizard” obviously depends on the extent of one’s devotion to all things Doors, not to mention level of tolerance, because at more than fourteen minutes in length, you’re going to need a lot of it (either that or a lot of drugs). A studio version was attempted though discarded during the making of Waiting For The Sun, and probably for good reason. Most of it is little more than poetry as performance art, and the sort of ‘poetry-meets-music’ experimentation that would ultimately inspire Patti Smith, another rebel poet of rock. Manzarek himself put it rather pointedly in his autobiography: “(Jim) loved his confrontational theatre. And then the idea struck him. He was going to confront his audiences with these cries for freedom.”
Morrison’s vocals are a touch shaky (disinterested?) on “Soul Kitchen”, the album’s final song, although no less engaging for it. Obviously the scotch and ciggies had by then begun to take their toll, or maybe it was a symptom of Jim’s very soul, or overall state of mind.
Apart from the odd dodgy bootleg, until the 1990’s live albums by the Doors were something of a rarity. There was The Hollywood Bowl (all fifteen minutes of it), and the excellent Alive She Cried, released in 1983, but that was about it – meaning that Absolutely Live was for many years the most authoritative document of what it was like to be at one of their concerts, and about the closest someone of my generation was ever going to get.