The Doors Unhinged: The Soft Parade at 50
A look into the band’s polarizing fourth LP
Jim Morrison may or may not have exposed himself to a Miami audience in March 1969, but whichever the case, the incident resulted in an arrest, a slew of cancelled tour dates, and more journalistic coverage in Rolling Stone than any perhaps-unveiled penis warranted.
Today, there would be thousands of cellphone cameras to capture stills and video; but a half-century ago, things were not as simple as that. So there was a whole lot of fake outrage on one side, and wild comparisons to Lenny Bruce (cultural harassment!) on the other. But what was far more interesting, in 1969, was what a stumbling parody of themselves the Doors had become.
I have never seen a band that was so electrifying and spellbinding one year (at the Village Theater in 1967) and such a train wreck less than a year later (at Singer Bowl in 1968, where the Who, their opening act, made the headliners look like amateurs). It was staggering, and not in a good way. They kept getting more and more popular; Waiting for the Sun, their third album, was their only LP to hit #1. But it felt hurried and slight. Its biggest single, “Hello, I Love You,” was a lazy take on a Kinks riff (they had been playing the song since ’65, but it didn’t make the cut for either of the two earlier albums), and its concluding track, “Five to One,” was often compared, rightly, to the songs of Max Frost and the Troopers in the American International teensploitation classic Wild in the Streets.
There were rumors that Morrison was on a downward spiral (if the show I caught in Queens in August ’68 was any indication, that was pretty evident); that the other band members were getting frustrated. Still, the Doors carried on. In late ’68, they released a new single, “Touch Me,” and there they were on The Smothers Brothers Show, accompanied by a big horn section (it looked like they’d been raided from Doc Severinsen’s Tonight Show band). Keyboard player Ray Manzarek takes a perfunctory solo midway through, then Morrison does a tame little leap into the chorus. “Touch me, babe!” he croons, but was his heart in it? Had he ever seemed so stiff and bellow-y before? At around the three-minute mark, the violins come in, and then Curtis Amy, in by far the best performance, wraps it up with a tacked-on sax solo. You may have wanted Jim Morrison to be any number of things. David Clayton-Thomas is not one of them.
VIDEO: The Doors perform “Touch Me” on The Smothers Brothers Show
On that Smothers Brothers show, the Doors also did the new song “Wild Child,” and that and “Touch Me” (the Doors’ final top 10 single) finally appeared in July 1969 on The Soft Parade. Over the last fifty years, assessments of The Soft Parade have evolved, to the point where fans of the band have affection for it (time has a revisionist bent), but when it was released, it was baffling. It’s a snapshot of a band in disarray. For the first time, the songs were credited to their individual writers—some tracks by Morrison, some by guitarist Robby Krieger, and only one formal collaboration (the throwaway “Do It”)—rather than to “The Doors.” You can sort of respect Morrison for not being eager to share the responsibility for “Tell All the People,” “Wishful Sinful,” and “Runnin’ Blue.” The latter begins, “Poor Otis dead and gone/”Left me here to sing his song,” so let that sink in, and then ponder the fact that “Runnin’ Blue” isn’t so much evocative of the Stax-Volt sound as it is of a drunkard’s hoedown.
Not to let Morrison off the hook, he tossed in something called “Easy Ride,” as well as “Shaman’s Blues” (boy, did he take his most fawning press to heart), and the title track, the album’s “epic” in the vein—or so was the intent—of “The End” and “When the Music’s Over” from albums one and two. This is not that. “When I was back there in seminary school,” Morrison begins, “there was a person there who put forth the proposition that you can petition the Lord with prayer.” Morrison takes emphatic issue with said proposition, and pardon the caps here, but imagine Gilbert Gottfried yelling at Jerry Falwell at a Comedy Central Roast: ‘YOU CANNOT PETITION THE LORD WITH FY_KJGkPRAYER.” If you say so, Jim. But it does seem like the logical recourse: How else, then?
Around the time The Soft Parade (was Morrison not worried about critics calling the album “flaccid,” especially after the whole Miami flap?) was released, PBS stations in the U.S. showed an hour-long program, taped in April, called Critique, devoted to a performance by the Doors, as well as an interview and panel discussion where the band was Taken Seriously. Did no one ever consider that the Doors were actually quite funny? That Morrison’s glamour-god posturing was like a Mad magazine (R.I.P.) caricature of a ’60s rock star? Those shirtless photos by Joel Brodsky, the leather pants, the smoldering looks into the TV camera. … Gloria Stavers, the editor of 16 magazine, got it right off the bat: Morrison was a big-sister pin-up, Davy Jones for the high school senior. Critique was hosted by rock critic Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice, who was quite willing to play up the whole “shaman” business, and lob questions at the Doors about rock concerts being religious experiences. I guess when I saw the Doors at the Village Theater, it was kind of a religious experience: support act the Vagrants, with Leslie West on guitar, did play the theme from Exodus.
VIDEO: The Doors live on PBS’s Critique, 1969
On a PBS soundstage, without an audience, the Doors—Morrison now bearded and bloated, Krieger merely bearded—did a couple of their oldies (“Back Door Man” and “Alabama Song”), and a few songs from the new album, including the title cut, which the band never did play live all that much. People called Morrison a rock poet. Drummer John Densmore, in the interview with Goldstein, speaks of the “straight poetry” of some of their more ambitious works. Some of the lines in “The Soft Parade”:
“Girls with beads around their necks
Kiss the hunter of the green vest”
“When all else fails we can whip the horses’ eyes
And make them sleep and cry”
“The monk bought lunch.”
Even though by the summer of 1969 their rock prominence had been usurped by bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly & the Family Stone, and the Who (how might the Doors have fared if they’d played alongside those artists at Woodstock?), the Doors weren’t to be counted out just yet. They rebounded creatively with Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman, albums that were less ambitious but more focused, before Morrison’s death in July 1971. And since their recorded legacy is relatively scant—only six studio albums while Morrison was alive—there is an impulse among the faithful to give The Soft Parade a soft passing grade. Or to blame the musical ornamentation by producer Paul Rothchild. I’m not sure that argument holds up: even stripped down, the Soft Parade songs on Critique feel half-baked. It was just a rough patch for them, and The Soft Parade is one of those floundering missteps that even the most accomplished of bands have in their catalogs. “Can’t you see me growing, get your guns,” Morrison sings on the opening cut. “The time has come to follow me down.” And down, and down…
STREAMING: The Soft Parade
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