Thursday, February 19, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre: A Biography of the Doors


Mick Wall has written several rock biographies over the years, including one that I've reviewed previously (on Led Zeppelin).  While that book was unusual in its structure and the imagined sequences sandwiched between chapters, it was also a solid overall portrait of the band's career. Thus, when I heard that he had written a new biography on The Doors, I was intrigued.  While I hoped he wouldn't repeat the format to his Zeppelin book (it worked once but I don't think it would work again), I wanted to read a comprehensive overview of the Doors' career with some new takes on the band, their music, and especially the Jim Morrison enigma.  Let me assure you off the bat that this book is not set up like Wall's Zeppelin book: no fantasy sequences, so to speak, in between chapters. That doesn't, however, preclude it from being any less interesting or polarizing (if reviews elsewhere on the Internet are anything to go by), but then again, just about everything pertaining to the Doors is controversial...why should a book about them be any different?

***special thanks to Margot at Orion Books for sending me a copy of this to review!***


Right off the bat, the book gets off to a sudden start by taking us to the supposed moment that Jim died, and Wall shows he isn't afraid of stirring up controversy in doing so (we'll come back to this later). After this jarring introductory chapter, he begins telling the story of the Doors with the childhoods and upbringings of the four members, focusing first on Jim, then Ray, their meeting at UCLA, and eventually Robby and John when they enter the picture. Much of the source material for these biographical sketches are previous Doors books, although Wall also conducted numerous interviews with members of the Doors and their entourage over the years; these nuggets of information are vital and very welcome in fleshing out and extrapolating so many of the events over their career that are brought up throughout the book. From the initial meeting of the four Doors through their early formative days, Wall details their career in great detail.  While struggling in the beginning to get steady gigs and the attention of any record label, the band continued to develop and hone their sound, writing material and rehearsing in order to solidify their truly unique guitar/organ/drums/vocals line-up. Indeed, the bulk of their first two albums (and some songs that would spill onto their third, fourth, and even fifth LPs!) were written and worked out during these early years of 1965 and 1966. Eventually becoming the house band first at the London Fog and then the famous Whisky A Go Go, the Doors caught the attention of Elektra Records owner Jac Holzmann, who signed them to his label and would prove instrumental in breaking them. In fact, it was a mutually beneficial relationship as the Doors' massive success led to Elektra going from being a boutique label into one of the major rock record labels in the industry. Their great debut album, 1967's The Doors, served notice that this wasn't your ordinary West Coast rock band, and "Light My Fire" became the #1 single that broke the floodgates open for them. 



Their following two albums, 1967's Strange Days and 1968's Waiting For the Sun would cement their place as the biggest and best band in America, as would another smash single, "Hello, I Love You." Their unpredictable and powerful live performances only bolstered their reputation, as did their image and sound. The Doors were unlike any band in rock music at the time, dressing all in black and with an ethos that was dark, moody, enigmatic, and almost Gothic in presentation.  The fans and critics couldn't get enough of it.  However, all was not well in the band, as internal pressures and Jim Morrison's unstable personality began to tear at the fabric of the brotherhood which had made them so successful. Indeed, Jim began to almost willfully give in to his addictions and demons around this time while their producer, Paul Rothchild, drove the band mad with endless retakes and his quest for new sounds during the recording of their fourth album. The resulting record, 1969's The Soft Parade, was their weakest and most uneven. Even the presence of another hit single, "Touch Me," couldn't save it. The final straw was at the first gig on what was to be their massive 1969 American tour, in Miami. In an uncontrollable situation through no fault of their own (you can readily find the details of this concert elsewhere), the band had to play in front of a wild crowd with a Jim who was drunk and belligerent. What happened during this show is the stuff of legend: accusations that Jim incited a riot (he did, sort of) and that he exposed his genitals (he did not) led to the rest of the tour being cancelled outright while the authorities in Florida decided to blow everything out of proportion and make an example out of Jim and the Doors by trying him for public indecency .  The shadow of this lawsuit would hang over Jim and the Doors for the rest of their career. Two excellent final albums, 1970's Morrison Hotel and 1971's LA Woman, finished off their recording career, while an uneven final tour in 1970 concluded with their somber gig at 1970's Isle of Wight Festival and a disastrous final show in New Orleans in December. Fed up with Jim's out of control behavior, his alcoholism, and the press and authorities dogging them at every turn, the Doors were at a crossroads when Jim decided to move to Paris with his longtime companion Pamela Courson. Leaving in the spring of 1971, he wouldn't survive the year, passing away under mysterious circumstances in July. 





Unlike most Doors books, Wall doesn't end the story here, giving a nice overview of the three post-Morrison Doors albums the band released, as well as their various solo projects. He brings their story up to the present, including the tragic death of Ray Manzarek in 2013. And of course, he delves into the mystery surrounding Jim's death. Before I get to this, I do want to say that Wall makes it clear throughout the book that while he likes and respects Ray as a member of the Doors, he also has no use for Ray's far-out and endless mythologizing of Jim and the Doors. Granted, I agree that Ray could always be quite irritating with how he would go on and on (and on and on...) about the pseudo-mystical aspects of Jim and the Doors, but Wall never conveys this feeling in a mean way and he does concede that Ray was as important as anyone in helping the Doors stay relevant and popular through to the present. He also does show that, deep down, Ray cared deeply for Jim as a human being (as also did Robby, John, Holzmann, manager Bill Siddons, road manager Vince Treanor, and others).  He paints Pamela Courson in a less than stellar light, but again, by most accounts she was very bad for Jim even though they were indeed soulmates; neither could ever be with anyone else, but they were the worst thing for each other (if that makes sense). What's a bit more puzzling is how nice a picture Wall paints of Patricia Kennealy, who by all accounts was despised by everyone in the Doors camp, from Ray (in his own book, even), John, and Robby as well as everyone else who came into contact with her. Obviously, none of us were there and there are two sides to every story, so at the very least it is good of Wall to give us Patricia's side.  However, he seems to give her an unusual amount of credence. This, as well as his citing of notoriously controversial rock biographer Stephen Davis's Doors book and his touching on plausible questions about Morrison's sexuality, among other things, has led to Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre being a hotly contested and debated entry into the Doors bibliography by fans. However, nothing about this band is ever without controversy and it certainly didn't take away from my enjoyment of the book.  While Wall spends the bulk of the book discussing Morrison (which is only natural), it never feels like the other three Doors get short shrift and it is to his credit that their entire story is presented in a very readable, enjoyable, and informative way. This book is a difficult one to put down once you get started and get past the first 75 pages or so of background material.

Now, getting back to Jim's death...(***SPOILER ALERT!***), the accepted story is that he and Pam snorted some heroin, he felt unwell, took a bath, and died in the tub while she was asleep. There have been conspiracy theories that he faked his death, but no one really believes these. The dead-in-the-bathtub-of-an-OD story is the one that has been accepted as fact since 1971. However, over the years bits of info have surfaced that shed a bit more light on Jim's state of mind and body leading up to his death during his time in Paris.  It's generally accepted and confirmed by his friends in Paris (and even in America before he left) that in later years Jim had been suffering from asthma. Also in Paris, he occasionally coughed up blood and would have violent, controllable bouts of hiccups that would last for days. These are not surprising symptoms of a long time alcoholic and drug user. However, there have also been some claims by his Parisian friends and cohorts that Jim did not actually die in his apartment in the bathtub, but that he died in the bathroom, of a heroin overdose, at a Paris nightclub that he was known to have frequented. He was then (supposedly) taken from the club to his apartment, undressed, put in the bathtub, and left there by a friend of his and two drug-dealing henchman of Pam's lover, the Count Jean de Breiteul. They and the club owners threatened everyone in the club that night, as well as Pam, to not say anything about it.  The fact that no one ever saw Jim's body after it was in the casket and that no autopsy was every performed make either theory hard to prove or disprove. What does lend this new theory some credence is the fact that de Breiteul was well known to be a heroin "dealer to the stars" at the time, ensnaring not only Pam Courson but also Talitha Getty and Marianne Faithful in his trap. He promptly hightailed it to Marrakesh after Jim died, and the fact that Getty died days later and that the count himself died later that year give weight to the claims that he was dispensing abnormally strong heroin to his clients. He also supposedly supplied Janis Joplin with the fatal dose of heroin that killed her in October 1970...heroin stronger than any of them were used to.  Marianne Faithful and Sam Bernett (who worked at the club) have both spoken out in recent years with this claim. While I don't know what to fully believe, it certainly seems plausible and both stories make sense. All it really does is add to the mystery surrounding Jim's death and show us that the absolute truth about his demise is unlikely to ever be known.  However, Wall presents the second theory as fact and dismisses the first outright. Whether one agrees with one or the other, or neither, will lead to whether one believes this claim and the book itself are controversial. For me, it just gives me something else to mull over and increases interest in the cryptic nature of his death. With Courson's death from an OD in 1974, the only other person who was there who probably knew the actual truth left us with an enduring mystery.



As for the book itself, it is very well written and is engaging and engrossing. There are several typos scattered throughout the book but these are easy enough to get past (although the editor needs to do a better job next time!). Mick Wall's writing style is enjoyable and his forays into vernacular and "far-out" language are humorous and totally in keeping with the vibe of the band and their times.  My biggest criticisms are with his giving disproportionate and perhaps undeserved weight to the claims made by the aforementioned Davis and Kennealy, but at the same time it's only fair to give both sides of a story and let the reader make up their mind. It seems that even with the conviction Wall writes about many of these matters, especially Morrison's death, he has done just that. I'm not sure there has been a definitive and comprehensive full-band biography of the Doors that has been written; rather, there are several excellent books focusing on various parts of the band, from memoirs (Ray's, and John's, which I plan to review soon) and essays on Jim to various other biographies of Jim and the band.  Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre is a worthy additional to any Doors fan's library, and it just may be the best biography about them yet.

MY RATING: 8.5/10


4 comments:

  1. Enjoyed your review on Wall's book on The Doors. I like Mick Wall's writing in the past and this may be another book of The Doors to check out. Not counting DVDs I have read a number of books on The Doors from the famous No One Gets Out Alive which was my very first book of The Doors. It was good but I found it to be more of a thesis on Greek Mythology. I later read The Lizard King by Jerry Hopkins was more like stories that didn't make No One Gets Out Alive. The last one I read is Jim Morrison Life, Death, Legend by Stephen Davis which was very interesting but in some cases I think Davis threw everything at the wall to see what sticks. So I think you have to figure out what to believe that Davis tells you. I mean when Davis suggest Jim was sexual abused by his father. I think that was just another rumor that he only mentions it in one sentence. So I knew it was just something Davis wanted to ad to his story. Another book I found very interesting was The Lizard King Was Here by Mark Opsasnick who tells of Jim's last 2 years in Virginia George Washington High School. Listening to Jim's classmates and listing the books and influences of Jim during that time. Another book of interest was Wonderland Avenue by Danny Sugarman. Now in that book Pam let's it slip out Jim's death. Danny talks about doing drugs w/ Pam when she came back to L.A. and looked the worse for wear. In the car Pam shouts out to Danny that she killed Jim. She didn't go into detail but I believe she was filled w/ guilt of Jim's OD. She even acts like Jim as she goes into a tirade screaming and throwing Sugerman out of her bed after a night of sex and drugs.

    Enjoyed your site have to go back to read more of your blogs

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    1. Hi Even Spot, thanks for stopping by and for commenting!
      Those are all books I've read about and want to eventually check out, although I am wary of Stephen Davis. His Led Zeppelin book is notorious for being full of falsehoods and innuendo passed off as fact. He seems to write from the school of "someone thinks" or "it seems like" and passes it off as fact, as you said.

      What's your take on how Jim died? Accidental OD? Died in the bathtub or at the club? Murdered? I don't know what to believe any more other than I know he wasn't murdered and I know he didn't fake it.

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  2. Mick Wall's biography of Led Zeppelin was very impressive in its' depth and scope, so I approached his book on The Doors with great interest.

    I have not been disappointed, with his observations about the group
    extremely accurate.

    Jim Morrison comes across as a very unpleasant abusive man who also had a great voice and image,albeit for a short while. It is also good that Mick has challenged the uncritical viewpoint of Morrison as a visionary shaman, when the reality was much more unsavoury. Denis Leary's cruel summary of Jimbo seems very accurate:-"I'm drunk,I'm nobody.I'm drunk,I'm famous.I'm drunk,I'm dead !"
    Easily the best book to date on this remarkable band who managed to make some fine music, despite their self destructive lead
    singer. It is interesting to note that nobody has mentioned if Jim had a decent side to him.

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    1. Hi Rob, I totally agree. Wall's books on LZ and this Doors one are great (although I wasn't a huge fan of the "fantasy sequences" between chapters in that one...if you haven't seen my review of it, it's here --> http://rnrchemist.blogspot.com/2014/06/book-review-when-giants-walked-earth.html). As for the Doors one, you're right, he's not afraid to call Morrison out as the drunken, depressed lout he really was. Talented? Sure. One of the all-time great poets? Probably not. Legendary singer and frontman? Yup. Someone you'd want to be friends with or in a band? The jury is still out. He also takes Ray to task for his endless mythologizing of the Doors and Jim, which is also refreshing if a bit easy as most people either love or hate Ray (again, I reviewed his memoirs here in case you haven't seen --> http://rnrchemist.blogspot.com/2014/09/book-review-light-my-fire-my-life-with.html).

      Finally, there actually is some stuff out there suggesting Jim was a good guy who people didn't really know. I reviewed a book by one of his closest friends in the 1960s, Frank Lisciandro, who compiled stories from many of Jim's closest friends and associates...it was a fascinating read and Frank was an interesting guy himself, whom I spoke to a little bit around that time. Here's my review, if you're interested --> http://rnrchemist.blogspot.com/2014/07/book-review-jim-morrison-friends.html

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