Perfect Sound Forever

The Doors' "Roadhouse Blues"

Versions of Versions
By Kurt Wildermuth
(April 2023)

Where Do You Stand?

Where do you stand on the Doors? Your answer can depend on so many things. Is the question what you make of the music of this late-sixties Los Angeles classic rock band? If you're talking about their music, do you mean the songwriting, the performing, or both? For example, lots of people like Bob Dylan as a songwriter but not as a performer. If you're looking across the Doors' body of work, do you consider them restless experimenters or a bluesy outfit that sometimes wandered into psychedelia, balladry, or unambiguous bids for pop-chart hits?

Alternatively, is the question what you make of the Doors' image? In that case, the focus shifts decisively from all four members to the frontman: What's your take on the mythology surrounding Jim Morrison--rock god? poet? shaman? lizard king? naked emperor? Was Morrison a gifted singer, a limited vocalist with a handsome showman's wiles, or a hopeless blowhard desperate to seem profound? All of the above? Other?

Of course, your responses depend on the available information. There's a ton of stuff--audio, video, verbal, artifactual--out there related to the band as a musical entity and as a cultural phenomenon. How much of it have you absorbed?

It's one experience to watch Oliver Stone's 1991 biopic The Doors, another to watch vintage live clips on YouTube. It's yet another experience to happen upon one of the Doors' hits--let's say the uncharacteristically poppy and peppy "Touch Me," bursting with love and horns. It's a very different experience to listen deeply to a full album, or all the original albums, or something even deeper in the catalog.

Morrison Hotel Versus An American Prayer

Suppose your first experience of the Doors is the straightforwardly rocking collection of songs Morrison Hotel (1970). This album was a return to streamlined form after the stylistic excursions of the band's previous two albums, Waiting for the Sun (1968) and The Soft Parade(1969).

By contrast, suppose your first experience of the Doors is the album An American Prayer (1978). This assemblage was constructed almost a decade after Morrison's death and the band's demise. The surviving band members--keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger, and drummer John Densmore--joined with producer/engineer John Heaney and producer Frank Lisciandro, neither of whom had previously worked with the Doors, in stringing together Morrison's spoken-word recordings, audio vérité snippets, the band's musical fragments, and music created especially as glue holding the other bits together. A footnote to the rest of the catalog, intended for the diehards, including explicitly sexual material the band could never have released during its lifetime, alternately thrilling and embarrassing but never less than interesting, An American Prayer will leave you with a much different impression of the band and its leader than will Morrison Hotel.

"Roadhouse Blues" in the Studio

Uniting An American Prayer and Morrison Hotel is "Roadhouse Blues." If you know the Doors' music at all, you've probably heard this one. If you've heard it, you probably like it. At least, I've never heard a word against it. Some people have no use for the Doors or limited use for Morrison, or they think any one or more of the three musicians stinks, or they like "L.A. Woman" but can't appreciate its album-mate "Riders on the Storm," but who doesn't start tapping along when the pumping rhythm of "Roadhouse Blues" starts up? The repetitive, seemingly heavy, but surprisingly light bounce of the music provides the perfect bed for Morrison's opening exhortation:

Ah, keep your eyes on the road
Your hands upon the wheel
Keep your eyes on the road
Your hands upon the wheel
Yeah, we're going to the roadhouse
Gonna have a real good time

Profound it ain't. Evocative of being in that situation it could hardly be more so.

When Morrison and Manzarek met, all of four years before recording the original, studio version of "Roadhouse Blues," they were film-school students. Their band always had a knack for putting the listener in a scene, from the spooky, sinuous weirdness drawing you into a tunnel at the start of "The End" (which Francis Ford Coppola drew on so perfectly in Apocalypse Now, whose ending is unimaginable without it) to the different, spattering weirdness placing you on a rainy open road at the start of "Riders on the Storm" (which ended the band's relationship with producer Paul A. Rothchild, who mistook the subtle atmospherics for elevator music).

In "Riders on the Storm," you absorb the desolate scene before, terrifyingly, becoming a driver on that road. In "Roadhouse Blues," by contrast, the band injects the scene into your system before, entertainingly, Morrison puts you in the driver's seat. After that, the song doesn't develop the premise as much as riff on it:

Yeah, back of the roadhouse
They've got some bungalows
Back of the roadhouse
They've got some bungalows
That's for the people
Who like to go down slow
Let it roll, baby, roll
Let it roll, baby, roll
Let it roll all night long

To encourage you to let it roll, Morrison abandons words and scats, many of his noises defying transcription. When he works in a reference to Gene Vincent's rockabilly classic "Be Bop a Lula," this nod adds some fun but no substance--you might say it confirms these blues' lack of substance. And how do the lines about the "ashen lady" giving up her vows relate to any of this?

On the one hand, you might wish Morrison had revised the lyrics one more time. On the other hand, for its four minutes, "Roadhouse Blues" feels perfect. Wishing the lyrics were sharper seems like suggesting that "Wild Thing"--that eternal garage stomp written by Chip Taylor, made famous by the Troggs, and covered by rockers from Jimi Hendrix to the Divinyls--might be less . . . vernacular? dumb? You know, "Wild thing / you make my heart sing / you make everything / groovy" . . . Right on, baby. Dig it.

For "Roadhouse Blues," as for "Wild Thing," you're letting it roll because the rhythm, the feel, the groove, matters more than the lyrics. It's music, damn it, not a philosophical treatise.

For "Roadhouse Blues," the establishing shot carries the rest of this little movie, which becomes all jump cuts and suggestive glimpses. It's as though Bob Dylan had turned "Like a Rolling Stone" into a near-instrumental, leaving you to spin a few phrases into a narrative. Songwriting in the sense of the Great American Songbook it ain't. As rock and roll meant to get your attention at the start of Morrison Hotel, it could hardly be better.

"Roadhouse Blues" Live

It so happens, however, that the Doors bettered the studio version. Just as the live "Free Bird" on Lynyrd Skynyrd's One More from the Road (1976) beats the studio version and the live "No Woman No Cry" on Bob Marley and the Wailers' Live! (1975) is so lively that it, not the studio version, appears on the career-defining collection Legend (1984), so the live version of "Roadhouse Blues" on An American Prayer rolls over the original. This track sounds dramatic enough in the middle of the CD's forty-five minutes, but it sounds even more powerful as the opener of side 2 on the original LP.

In the preceding spoken-word bit, Morrison has proclaimed, "All hail the American night!" Someone bangs on a piano a few times. "What was that?" Morrison asks. "I don't know," he answers, then says, "Sounds like guns . . . thunder." Foreboding. Suddenly an impatient crowd chants and stamps their feet in a concert hall. "Ladies and gentlemen, from Los Angeles, California," an announcer shouts, "the Doors!" At that, the band launches into the driving rhythm you know so well. It sounds even livelier than you remember it, with a sharpness surpassing the slight hollowness of the studio recording. Morrison Hotel sounds amazing--don't get me wrong. It shouldn't have been recorded, mixed, or mastered any other way. Life being sometimes bounteous, you can have it, pump your fist to its "Roadhouse Blues," and listen to this live powerhouse too.

The musicians and Morrison perform this one basically as they did in the studio. They don't run off in different directions, interpolate bits of other blues, jam, or anything like that. Even Morrison's scatting remains the same. This live version rules because the Doors sound like they're having a blast, like they were meant to do this. The tempo remains the same, but it feels like they're accelerating.

Were Manzarek, Densmore, and Krieger good musicians? Was Morrison a good singer? This live version of "Roadhouse Blues" indicates that for at least six minutes they added up, all other tangents aside, to the greatest rock and roll band in the world. Do I hyperbolize? Very well, I hyperbolize.

Cannily, the assemblers of An American Prayer let the live tape keep rolling (or something--more about this assemblage below). Morrison banters about astrology, ultimately telling the audience, "I don't know what's gonna happen, man"--in the world, to the world, he means--"but I wanna have my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames--all right!" That "all right" is pricelessly late-sixties. It's apocalypse now, man. Dig it. What a trip. Rock and roll!

"Roadhouse Blues" Alive Again

Thirteen years later, the Doors' live releases up to that point were collected in a double-CD or triple-LP set, In Concert. The set begins with Absolutely Live (1970), an often thrilling document that we now know consists of edited-together best bits from concerts recorded in several U.S. cities in 1969-70.

Later in the set comes a posthumously released concert album, Alive She Cried (1983), recorded in several U.S. cities in 1968-70. That collection reveals the Doors' different levels of onstage inspiration. For example, Manzarek's singing the blues on "Close to You" is terrible, especially when he improvises.

Between Absolutely Live and Alive She Cried sits the live "Roadhouse Blues" from An American Prayer. The same exuberant announcer revs up the crowd. The same shithouse goes up in flames--all right! Here I should qualify my previous claim about this track's presenting the Doors as the world's greatest rock and roll band. According to Discogs user pungisotu, in a 2013 comment, this recording "is a splicing of 3 performances! 2 for the song and another for the end speech. Pure engineering gold."

Whatever its genesis, why does this version sound so different and less exciting on In Concert than on An American Prayer? It's the same thing! Well, it is and it isn't. Here we enter into the mysteries not of music-making but of converting music into product for appreciation.

More Barn!

If you've heard the Doors' "Roadhouse Blues," the question is whether you've heard the studio version or the live one, right? Not so fast. Whichever version you heard, did you take it in when you were sixteen or seventy-six, on an expensive stereo or on a phone, with bass and treble set at what level, in a good mood or a bad one, sober or wasted, with clear sinuses or congested? If you played it on a turntable, what condition was your stylus in? And so on, through variations ad nauseum. We pretend that a Platonic version of a given recording exists and that listeners have access to it, when in fact each listener is hearing a copy of a copy of a copy.

There's an amusing story about Neil Young listening to Harvest, before its release, while in a rowboat on a lake between his house and his barn. Half the music was coming from speakers in the house, and half was coming from speakers in the barn. "More barn!" Young shouted.

In a sense, each of us shouts some form of "More barn!" each time we adjust a listening experience. Ideally, we set up house and barn to suit our ears.

However, the recording itself, any recording, has come to us with its own specifications for house and barn. These built-in qualities bring us back to the American Prayer "Roadhouse Blues" versus the In Concert "Roadhouse Blues."

An American Prayer Versus In Concert

To my ears, the stark differences arise as soon as the band begins that familiar rhythm. The In Concertversion has a lower volume and cleaner sound. It's less in your face. It also features greater separation between the instruments, so instead of their being united in propulsiveness, the drive to get there, they seem to be playing around each other, exploring the space instead of cutting straight through it. On the American Prayer version, Manzarek's keyboard becomes key just briefly at the start, then becomes absorbed into the whole. It's there--it's such an integral part of the Doors' aesthetic that it has to be there--but you don't notice it so much, because you're captivated by the overall intensity. On In Concert, that unmistakeable swirling sound becomes detectable numerous times. Morrison, meanwhile, sounds like more of the ensemble, still the frontman but not quite as front and center. The drums sound subtler, while the guitar stings less.

How do we explain these differences? As noted above, the production team on An American Prayer included two men who hadn't been involved in the Doors' original recordings: John Heaney and Frank Lisciandro. Missing were two men integral to most of those original recordings: producer Paul Rothchild and engineer/producer Bruce Botnick. For the CD reissue of An American Prayer, Rothchild and Botnick are credited with remastering, so at that point they had returned to the Doors' fold. They seem not to have altered the version of "Roadhouse Blues" there, however. At least, it sounds exactly as I remember it from my long-gone vinyl copy. Mastering and remastering can affect the products of production and engineering, for sure, but each of these is a distinct activity. Here Rothchild and Botnick's remastering hasn't altered the original production.

On In Concert, however, production credit for "Roadhouse Blues" goes to the surviving Doors, John Heaney, and not Frank Lisciandro but Paul Rothchild! We can speculate that Rothchild's involvement in the sonics of this compilation led to different production choices than for An American Prayer. On the earlier assemblage, whose key component--its reason for being--was Morrison's spoken-word recordings, the frontman was supposed to be the star. Perhaps the later rethinking of the music was a team effort. Perhaps Manzarek simply wanted the keyboard more audible.

It's possible, of course, maybe probable, that the In Concertversion of "Roadhouse Blues" is truer to the Doors' sound. If the greater instrumental interplay is on the live tape, presumably someone in the audience, or the sound person, heard the music that way. While accepting the verisimilitude of the In Concertversion, I remain devoted to the American Prayer version. Partly that's because I heard that version at the formative age of thirteen.

Making Decisions

Years ago I had the disorienting experience of buying Waiting for the Sun on CD and having it sound quite different than I remembered from my teenage years, when I owned it on vinyl. Volume levels had changed, instrumental textures were new, vocals were double-tracked, and the whole soundstage seemed more dimensional. Was I misremembering so vastly? Was my old pressing so poor? No, it turned out that I'd bought the 2007 remix of the album, released as part of a series: "All six studio albums are newly mixed, supervised by the Doors and Bruce Botnick." The tiny print on the back of the CD in no way informed my consumption. The thing should have been titled something like The Alternative Waiting for the Sun or Waiting for the Sun: The 2007 Remix. In the booklet, Ray Manzarek explains that "There are background vocals by Jim Morrison, piano parts of mine that weren't used, and guitar stingers and solos by Robby Krieger that never made the original recordings, that can now be heard for the first time." Yippee, and the results are stunning, except who asked for that?

"We invite all our fans to join us in this re-creation of the legendary recording sessions of The Doors," Manzarek goes on. "And to be a part of our original conceptions."

Right, but we aren't there, making decisions. We're handed decisions already made about which aspects of the original tapes were worth presenting. If we could go into the digital files and, say, turn off the remix and revert to the original mix--do a side-by-side or moment-by-moment comparison--that might be interesting, for a while anyway. But each of us has just so much time on Earth, and how much time does anyone want to spend exploring Doors minutiae? How many angels fit on Jim Morrison's head? More to the point: How many times does anyone want to buy the same artist's material, repackaged, remixed, rewhatevered, beefed up with a gazillion extras that weren't necessarily good enough to be released in the first place? How much time has anyone spent poring through, for example, Neil Young's massive archival releases?

I keep that Waiting for the Sun remix for the revealing variations and the bonus tracks, which include a full studio rehearsal of "Celebration of the Lizard," an epic originally released only as the concert version on Absolutely Live. I never play that 2007 CD, though. When I want to hear Waiting for the Sun, I turn to an earlier, unremixed CD. That version sounds pretty much the way I remember the album, which is how I want to hear it.

Along the same lines, when I want to hear the live version of "Roadhouse Blues," I turn to An American Prayer. Over forty years after I first heard the album, I still find that version exciting--much more so than the nuanced one on In Concert. In my dream version of the Doors, their interweaving of textures becomes most important in their subtler and psychedelic moments. It matters less when they rock, and on "Roadhouse Blues" I want them to rock hard.

See Kurt Wildermuth's website

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER