Deconstructing Doors Songs With The Author Of The Doors Examined

by Jeff Suwak

Doors expert Jim Cherry, author of The Doors Examined, talks about some of their defining songs and exposes some Jim Morrison myths.

Jim Cherry has a unique perspective on Jim Morrison and The Doors. Since his teenage years, Cherry has immersed himself in the Doors' music and in Morrison's lyrics and poetry. Along the way, he's authored The Doors Examined, contributed to The Doors Collector magazine, and written the foreword to Rich Weidman's Doors FAQ, among many other literary exploits. Basically, Jim Cherry has established himself as an authority on Jim Morrison and The Doors.

More interesting than Cherry's raw knowledge is the fresh, unique perspective he brings to the subject. Cherry was drawn to Morrison because, as a young man, he felt a kinship with him. It's a sense of connection that's not been lost, and one that allows him to glimpse the landscape of Morrison's thoughts from a different vantage point than other Doors writers. That landscape is familiar country for Cherry, after all.

Cherry's taking a break from Doors stuff for a bit and focusing on writing fiction and running writer's workshops. He was happy to speak with me about The Doors, though. In our conversation, his continued fascination and passion for the subject came through loud and clear.
Jeff Suwak (Songfacts): Let's start with "Peace Frog."

Jim Cherry: I think it's misunderstood. When I first started getting into The Doors, everybody talked about how Jim Morrison's lyrics are all very political and philosophical, and not very autobiographical. But the more I listened to it, the more I found things, and the more I read biographies of Morrison, I saw something else in it.

In "Peace Frog," he mentions three cities: Venice, New Haven, and Chicago. The general assumption was that the song is primarily political, and the Chicago reference is about the 1968 riots. Jim wasn't there, though, when those riots happened in 1968. The other references, though, are clearly about his personal life.

Venice, California, is where he went on the rooftop and dropped all that acid that led to a lot of his poetry and the early Doors music. New Haven, Connecticut, was where he first started getting arrested and experiencing trouble on stage. So that nails the first two as autobiographical references. So why wouldn't Chicago be autobiographical? Well, sure enough, if you look at his biography, May or maybe June of '68 was when Morrison first went on stage with the conscious intention of provoking a riot.

That's why I think Morrison's lyrics in general, and in "Peace Frog" in particular, are more autobiographical than people think.

Morrison had two famous onstage arrests. The first occurred December 9, 1967, in New Haven, Connecticut. Morrison taunted police after a cop mistook him for a trespasser and maced him before the show. The second occurred at the Dinner Key Auditorium in Miami, Florida, on January 29, 1968, after Morrison supposedly exposed himself during a performance. These incidents are dramatized in Oliver Stone's The Doors and are fairly well-known. Contrary to popular opinion, however, those onstage incidents were not the first or only times Morrison was arrested.

Morrison first saw the inside of a jail cell on September 28, 1963, as a student at Florida State University. There, he stole a cop's helmet and umbrella and was charged with petty larceny, disturbing the peace, resisting arrest, and public drunkenness. His second, and arguably strangest, arrest was on January 23, 1966. Morrison had gone out to the desert with friends Felix Venable and Phil O'Leno. Morrison got into an argument with O'Leno, and the latter bailed on the scene. When Morrison got back to Los Angeles, he told people he'd killed O'Leno and buried him in a dry riverbed in the desert. This story got to O'Leno's attorney father, who went looking for his son. The man found a woman who Morrison had given an unwanted kiss and convinced her to file charges. She did, and in the ensuing legal proceedings the truth came out that O'Leno had simply gone to Arizona.
Songfacts: So what else do you think the song is saying?

Cherry: Well, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, and John Densmore had all the music, as an instrumental, and had to find words for it. This was in New York in 1970, when they played four shows over two nights, which is a lot of shows, so Jim's voice was getting kind of stressed. So, I think in a couple of those shows, "Peace Frog" was just an instrumental, so they're going through notebooks and trying to find some words for the music. The song was probably written about when he started to not like fame at all and was getting very disillusioned about it. I think he felt that things were going very wrong, and blood is on the rise: first it's up to my ankles and then my knees. So it's kind of a statement of dissatisfaction of where things were going for him and The Doors.

Songfacts: That definitely changes the way I look at that song. Are there any other songs that are more personal and less philosophical or political than people think they are?

Cherry: Of course "The End." That was written when he broke up with a girl. That's actually where I first started noticing the autobiographical nature of his lyrics.

In the song he pays a visit to his brother, his sister, his father, and his mother. That's the exact way Morrison's nuclear family was constructed, with one brother, one sister, and parents. If you look close enough, you can find all kinds of different things. I think if you know his story and you go through the Doors catalog, you can see where Jim's head is at any given time. For instance, "Take It As It Comes." It has lines like "aim your arrows at the sun," and "specialize in having fun." He was in a good place, then.

Even "Crystal Ship," which sounds like a downer of a song, really isn't. That line, "You'd rather cry, I'd rather fly," I think means he was actually in a pretty good place. But then, with songs like "Peace Frog," his attitude is starting to change.

Look at "Hyacinth House." Jim sings:

I need a brand new friend
Someone who doesn't need me

With fame and all the groupies, and at that point even The Doors themselves being around him all the time, he needs a brand new set of friends that don't want anything from him.

So, if you look at the songs, you can see a measurable change in his attitude towards life in general. Life and fame.

Songfacts: There are a handful of Doors songs that seem peculiarly out of place. I'm thinking of "We Could Be So Good Together," "Take It As It Comes," even "Love Street." They're almost goofily optimistic and happy. What are your thoughts on those?

Cherry: You know, the third album started life being called Celebration Of The Lizard. It was supposed to be an extended performance of a series of Jim's poems, but they couldn't work it out musically. So they had to dump it, and then they needed a whole bunch of other songs. That was when they rolled it into the studio to throw together new material.

I had to drive around a lot this afternoon, which gave me time to think. I was thinking about that whole "Angels fight / Angels cry / Angels dance and angels die" section of "We Could Be So Good Together." Jim Morrison admired the beat writers, who constantly made use of angels and things of that nature in their poetry. Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac talk about angels all the time, and there was at least one autograph I heard about that Morrison signed to some girl, and he used the "angel" thing in a very poetic way. So, I think it was something often on his mind, as a literary device. He also read William Blake as a teenager, and Blake was a visionary who claimed he could literally see angels all around him. So I think that was an influence as well.

But "We Could Be So Good Together" was cobbled together out of necessity, and in that process Jim may have grabbed the low-hanging fruits, including the "angels" thing.

Songfacts: It kind of sounds like that. Not a whole lot of passion.

Cherry: It's a good song.

You know, after their first couple of albums, The Doors burned through most of the poems that Morrison wrote on that Venice rooftop. They also didn't have time to work out songs like they did when they played the London Fog and the Whiskey.

They were playing concerts constantly and everybody wanted to hear them play "Light My Fire," and "Hello, I Love You," all the hits. They really didn't have time to work out songs.

At the London Fog, everybody was so drunk that the band could do just about anything they wanted. The songs often got longer and longer because they had to do two or three shows a night, and most of the people there were drunks and weren't really interested in what was going on on the stage anyway.

They pretty much had a free hand to do what they wanted, and even when they got to the Whiskey, they still had the ability to experiment on stage.

Songfacts: That's an interesting point about how they burned through those early Morrison lyrics in the first couple of albums.

Cherry: When he left UCLA film school, he went to Venice Beach and lived on Dennis Jakob's rooftop. He was really racked on acid there. The ability to write like that is pretty amazing. I don't think he could afford anything else.

His parents were sending him checks, but he was out of contact with them for the most part. He was going around and showing friends his parents' checks and burning them, so he didn't have a whole lot of money laying around.

Songfacts: You suggest an interesting theory in your book about Morrison's fateful meeting with Ray Manzarek - the one that started The Doors. Can you talk about that?

Cherry: Yeah. There's no way Jim Morrison accidentally bumped into Raymond, as the popular legend goes. Jim had been talking about starting a band for a long time, since he first got to UCLA. Jim was in Raymond's film Induction. He knew generally where to find him.

So, when Morrison worked the songs and decided that he wanted to start this band for real, he knew all the UCLA film people and knew Manzarek was playing with Rick & the Ravens. Rick [Manzarek] probably told Morrison that they had a record deal, as minor as that was at the time.

So, I'm sure Jim knew all that, so when he finished those songs and lyrics, he walked down the beach. He was looking for Manzarek that day. Manzarek might even have thought he accidentally bumped into him, but I think Jim purposely arranged it that way. God knows how many times Jim walked up and down the beach searching for Manzarek [laughs].

Songfacts: There's an interesting paradox with Morrison. He worked really hard and took a lot of chances to be a rock star, yet there was that another part of him that was very ill-suited for stardom. There had to be an incredible internal division in the guy.

Cherry: I think fame was totally accidental. At that time, the only person who really had made a living at rock and roll was Elvis. Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, those dudes, they were hits for a short time and then they were gone. So nobody expected to be lifelong rock stars back then. They'd have a couple of hits and then they were gone, back to regular life. I don't think anybody was thinking of it as long term as a career.

I read a biography of Brian Jones or someone from The Stones and he stated they only intended doing it for a couple of years until they had to go get jobs. So I think Jim had that idea.

Everybody knows he wanted to be a poet, and I think maybe he thought of it as a shortcut to becoming a poet. You know, poets then were still like poets today: You don't make a whole lot of money and you don't get a whole lot of recognition. The best poets teach and they write books. And how many people read them? They have to work as teachers to support their poetry habits, like Allen Ginsberg. He was always scrambling around. He had to do a whole lot of different stuff. He had a lot of jobs even into the '60s.

Songfacts: Ginsberg was incredibly driven because the poetry was only a very tiny part of what he actually had to do to make a living.

Cherry: Oh yeah. Definitely. So one was thinking being a rock star was going to be a career, and Morrison may have seen it as more of a quick way to get noticed as a poet. Manzarek always said he wanted to make a million dollars, so the other guys probably had a different idea. But, the original intent was to put together a group that had music and poetry and theater. It was supposed to be like a hybrid of all those.

Listen to a song like "Soul Kitchen," just the images from that. "Cars stuffed with eyes... stumbling in the neon groves." How the hell do you write that at 20 or 21? When they got together, the whole goal was to maybe make a few bucks, and Jim would get noticed for his poetry and move off to wherever that took him. He wanted to do film, so maybe he was shooting for that as a goal too.

But I think the rock stardom was all accidental. Robby [Krieger] came up with "Light My Fire," and Dave Diamond starts playing it on The Diamond Mine [his influential radio show on KFI in Los Angeles], and he calls them and says, "Hey, this song is too long. You guys need to shorten it." And boom.

Songfacts: That's an interesting point, because with the length of the song, they couldn't have really expected it to be a radio hit because radio didn't play songs that long.

Cherry: No, not that long. But you know, FM was still underground. Only cool people, hipsters, were listening to FM at the time. So, if you wanted it to be big, you had to get some AM airplay. "Light My Fire" became a #1 in July of '67. Then in July of '68, they go back to #1 with "Hello, I Love You." I think if not for those songs, Morrison would've had a very theatrical band with some really good music, while doing other things.

Songfacts: It's interesting to think of Jim Morrison as a university professor, with some artistic songs in his background. Maybe that's even the way he intended to go, and the one that would have been better for him.

Cherry: I don't know if many people know this, but when Jim died, he had a screenplay by Oliver Stone about his Vietnam experiences. Maybe a really, really early version of Platoon or something. But Jim Morrison had that screenplay that somehow Oliver Stone had gotten to him.

Songfacts: Interesting. I wanted to ask you about "My Wild Love." I don't know if you have any kind of particular insights into this, but it's one of my favorite Doors songs, and I'm curious about your thoughts on it.

Cherry: That was on Waiting For The Sun. They had to improvise a whole lot of stuff, and "My Wild Love" was another song that they picked up out of Morrison's notebooks.

I think that was kind of a work song. They were just starting out with it, clapping and stuff for the rhythm and everything, and somehow they couldn't work out the music angle to it. So they've just decided to expand on the format of the work song.

There's a song, well not a song, but this thing that came out of something they were working on for Morrison Hotel, or possibly LA Woman. It's called "Whiskey, Mystics, and Men." It's a poem of Morrison's that I think they were working on as a song. It's a work song. It doesn't sound like "My Wild Love," but it has some of the same elements, like the hand clapping to the beat and everything. It's very a capella.

So, that's why I think "My Wild Love" is a kind of a work song that they couldn't work out the music to, so they just decided to go totally experimental.

Songfacts: Let's get into the shaman thing. From what I've read in your book and others, Morrison was quite sincere about his theories of the "spiritual catharsis" of shamanism that can come from musical performance.

Cherry: In The Lords And The New Creatures [an early book of Morrison's poetry], there's a lot of insights into shamanism. In the late '40s when his family was driving through New Mexico and saw a car accident, he believed a soul was just "freaking out" and jumped into him. People have asked his parents about this. They said Morrison was just being dramatic to make a good story, but I think what happened was very subjective. They can't know what happened to him on a metaphysical level, or at least a mystical level. So it might have been nothing to them, but it was something to him.

Actually, I think Jim's mother reinforced it and Jim might not have remembered it at all if she wasn't involved. He was only like four or five years old when it happened, and his mother pounded into his head that it was "just a dream, just a dream." But something happened there for him, and it's a subjective thing.

There's even this recording when Jim was filming HWY. They're out in the desert. A coyote was hit by a car and it was dying on the highway. So, after that day, they went back to Jim's room at the hotel and they were talking about it. That's when Jim kind of retells the tale of the "indians on dawn's highway bleeding." It's on YouTube.

But, Jim retells the tale when the shaman leapt into his soul. The other guys ask him if it's real, they don't believe him and think it's a goof for something. He actually says on the tape that it's something that has real meaning to him. So I believe that he believed he had that experience.

I don't know about you, but when I was younger I had some things happen to me that I believe were mystical experiences, so I don't discount Jim thinking that. I think he intellectualized it later on in life, but that event is what pushed him to go read about that in the first place.
Jim Morrison in HWY: An American PastoralJim Morrison in HWY: An American Pastoral

Songfacts: What do you think is the cause for your particular fascination with Jim Morrison and The Doors?

Cherry: I think there's a lot of self-identification for the shy kid who read all the time. I was reading poetry, I was reading all this weird stuff, so I had that identification with Morrison. I was already taking some classes at a local college, so the identification hit me pretty hard. It's pretty close biography in certain ways.

Songfacts: Fellow seekers. You said when you were younger you had mystical experiences?

Cherry: My mother never believed me, but I told her I remember being born. She never believed me until I was in my 20s and I mentioned an incident that happened where I remember being held by my paternal grandfather and I described being in a rocking chair and all this stuff. But my grandfather died when I was 18 months old, so she started believing that I remembered being born.

Songfacts: In your estimation, what would you say are some of the musical highlights of The Doors post-Morrison?

Cherry: Well, I bought Other Voices and Full Circle. I even had first pressings of them a long time ago that I ran across in some really small record shop. They aren't bad, but you can tell something's missing.

Robby Krieger wrote most of The Doors hit songs, so after Jim Morrison died, Robby Krieger should have been a hit-making machine, but it was more Morrison's influence and pushing them to the edge of their creativity that kept them on track and focused on them. After he died, I think they relaxed a little. They lost something essential after Jim Morrison died.

Songfacts: Something beyond the voice. Something in their spirit.

Cherry: They might have been complaining when Jim was alive about all the weird shit he did, what John Densmore described as being the "demon days," but it was crucial to their music.

If Jim had been more sedate, more like the other guys wanted him to be, they wouldn't have been as big as they were. I think Morrison pushed them and focused them, so when he died I think they were able to step back from the edge and take a breath. Robby Krieger hasn't written a hit song since.

Songfacts: They got sick of sacrificing their happiness for their art.

Cherry: Yeah. Those two albums after Morrison died, Full Circle was a little better than Other Voices, but I still think there's a whole lot missing. I think "Tightrope Ride" is the best thing off of that. They have a whole bunch of weird songs. They went looking to artsy fartsy for inspiration for their songs, and they just kind of lost the edge there.

But Manzarek had an album titled The Whole Thing Started With Rock & Roll Now It's Out Of Control in 1974, and it got really great critical reviews, but the general public never picked up on it.

Songfacts: When Morrison was alive, even though Krieger wrote most the hits, their songwriting process was very communal, right?

Cherry: Yeah. Morrison didn't know anything about music other than a few piano lessons when he was a kid. I think he even said that when he was listening to that great rock concert in his head on the Venice rooftop, he just wrote down words to capture the melody of the song.

They'd work on things musically, with Jim humming or giving them some kind of beat. There was a lot of communal mind in there. "Light my Fire" was totally a communal mind thing, where Jim said, "Everybody go home and write songs because we need more." And the only one who did was Robby, and he wrote "Light My Fire" using Jim's guidance to use something universal with elements in it like earth, wind, air, fire.

Robby gave me an interview one time. He said he wrote "Light My Fire" in like 20 minutes, but the rough drafts changed a lot. The original sounded very much like The Byrds, and it had a very, very folky feeling, so they added a Latin beat. It was very group-oriented.

I think one of the failures of the post-Morrison Doors is that Robby and Ray sang the songs they wrote, which might not have been as coherent or cohesive. Individual members wrote their own songs and then they just did them. They kind of lost that group mind.

Songfacts: It's interesting that Morrison's explosive character actually was binding them together the whole time.

Cherry: Maybe it was Robby, or it was John, but one of them said that when Jim was around, it was always "us against him" and then, when Jim was gone, there was no one for them to push off of, so it all fell apart and they started going after each other, not jiving as well as they used to.

Songfacts: So, what I'm gathering is that Morrison wasn't in it to be a rock star. He was trying to achieve something bigger, more meaningful. Did he create the high-art, shamanic mystical experience he always talked about?

Cherry: Two different times come to mind. The European tour, and '68 after that. When they played those English shows in September of '68, those were some really smoking shows, and listening to them you can understand why people would say The Doors were a really dangerous band. You can see that in shows from the Roundhouse in '68.

Morrison probably felt like he succeeded on that level with those kinds of shows. But I think as a whole, he would have been happy with The Doors being a cult band, having a very underground profile. Fame and all the accoutrements that came with it, all the money and the cars that Jim crashed. You know, crashing those cars has got to be like a subconscious rebellion. One of them was given to him by Jac Holzman, head of Elektra Records. I think Jim's crashing it was a subconscious desire to push back against the fame and everything. He might have liked it at first, but later on, fame was a disappointment to him, and maybe frustrated him.

I think it was August '68 or so when he said he was having a nervous breakdown. Ray convinced him to stay. "Just six more months, Jim, just six more months." And Jim put up with it as much as he could. After the six months was up, Jim didn't see any stop coming, so I think he decided to end it in Miami when he supposedly exposed himself.

He paid a big price for that, too. John Densmore said that everything after Miami was downhill for Jim. The whole vibe for him turned. Up until then, everything had been positive, but everything after Miami turned kind of dark on them. The FBI started a file on Jim.

Songfacts: How about "Shaman's Blues"?

Cherry: That's something worked out in the studio. By that time, they were working on a lot of new stuff because of Jim's drinking and everything. When they did live shows, they got locked into their early songs, like "Back Door Man." You'll start hearing all these songs that sound the same over and over again because of Jim's drinking. They couldn't really get into doing too many different songs because Jim couldn't remember them.

But "Shaman's Blues," I liked the imagery in that. It's borrowing from Jim's persona of himself as a shaman. It's very much a song that's layered. There's a lot of stuff in there that they layered on top of it, but you've got to turn the music up loud or listen to it multitrack. But you can hear a lot of stuff in there.

That's another song that gives an illustration of Jim's mood and worldview at the time. He sings about the whole world being a savior and not being able to ask for more. So I think Morrison at that point had a positive perspective on things.

Songfacts: There's also a great line in there, "You'll be dead and in hell before I'm born." Feels like it connects back to the shamanistic theme of the song.

Cherry: I think you're right. That might be some reference because early on in the Doors' career, Morrison was talking about the whole sex, death, rebirth cycle.

I don't know if Jim Morrison would've called it reincarnation so much as a series of cycles, because he approached it more psychologically. He read Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death, which was very much about the cycles of life, death and rebirth. He read that when he was still at Florida State University. So I think a line like that popping up in "Shaman's Blues" with all the talk of shamanism shows a very cyclical view of life and death and everything like that.

June 20, 2018
Our list of Doors songs
More from Jim Cherry

More Song Writing

Comments: 6

  • Mark from Fort Worth What is the classical/cathedral symphony sounding song on the Doors album using symbols?
  • The Rock Perfessor! from Stockton, CaI never tire of L.A. Woman (greatest rock song ever) or Light My Fire (a true classic). and all the rest. I was fortunate to see Jim Morrison 3 times in S.F. and the post Morrison group with and without Ian Astbury (The Cult). There will never be another Doors! Robbie Krieger is a most underrated guitarist while Manzarek was a genius with the keyboards. (The Golden Scarab...brilliant!)
  • Alicia from Any Town Usa I’d like to hear Morrison’s opinion on the literal generic over produced crap being pumped out today.

  • AnonymousLet me open by saying I am a lifelong and still remain a Doors fan. I can do without another listen of LA Woman or Light My Fire but only because I listened to them (and a few others) hundreds if not thousands of times as an obsessed teen and, quite frankly, they aren’t the boys best work and don’t really merit thousands of listens. There is much in their catalog, however, that DOES merit thousands of listens. It’s just that as a 14-year-old, I wasn’t sophisticated enough to know the difference.

    I can’t remember who the author was but I read a piece several years ago that really hit the nail on the head for me. His thesis was that every teenaged boy goes through a “Doors phase” where their intellectual and social development (or lack thereof), their garden variety teen angst and, of course, sexual frustration align in way that makes every utterance out of Jim’s mouth seem steeped in infinitely-deep wisdom that will unlock the universe if we can just find the key. Then, as we get a bit older and wiser, we realize we can get women quite easily by any number of ways and, in fact, the surest way to drive women away is by memorizing all 140+ lines of “Celebration of the Lizard” and drunkenly reciting them at parties (rumor has it that I may or may not have done this myself... memories from the late 70s are notoriously unreliable so I can neither confirm nor deny theses charges. Lol.).

    At this point, the thesis continues, there is a tendency for the pendulum to swing the other way and for those same previously obsessed Doors’ fans to reject them as silly and sophomoric and of little artistic merit. Finally, with a bit more lift experience and perspective, usually in or near adulthood, you reach the correct conclusion: this is a darn fine band who, in spite of occasional lyrical excesses made some incredible music together, music that was far different from everything else on the market at the time and that was far more influential than people care to admit. No, the Doors’ music probably isn’t going to unlock the keys to the universe like I assumed as an confused 13-year-old, obsessively reading “No One Here Gets Out Alive” and listening to the first incarnation of the “Best of the Doors” on a loop, but it will make for a darn enjoyable ride as you try to find those keys in other, more adult ways.

  • AnonymousJim Cherry rules!
  • Jim Cherry from The PerimeterJeff!
    Thank you for the great write up! Your intro piece I didn't know I did that! The interview was very fun and I think we hit a lot of interesting points. I hope your readers will find it equally interesting! If anyone is interested my books, "The Doors Examined" and "The Last Stage" are available on Amazon
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Rosanne Cash

Rosanne CashSongwriter Interviews

Rosanne talks about the journey that inspired her songs on her album The River & the Thread, including a stop at the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Mike Scott of The Waterboys - "Fisherman's Blues"

Mike Scott of The Waterboys - "Fisherman's Blues"They're Playing My Song

Armed with a childhood spent devouring books, Mike Scott's heart was stolen by the punk rock scene of 1977. Not surprisingly, he would go on to become the most literate of rockers.

Fire On The Stage

Fire On The StageSong Writing

When you have a song called "Fire," it's tempting to set one - these guys did.

Jonathan Edwards - "Sunshine"

Jonathan Edwards - "Sunshine"They're Playing My Song

"How much does it cost? I'll buy it?" Another songwriter told Jonathan to change these lyrics. Good thing he ignored this advice.

Keith Reid of Procol Harum

Keith Reid of Procol HarumSongwriter Interviews

As Procol Harum's lyricist, Keith wrote the words to "A Whiter Shade Of Pale." We delve into that song and find out how you can form a band when you don't sing or play an instrument.

Protest Songs

Protest SongsMusic Quiz

How well do you know your protest songs (including the one that went to #1)?