Rock is Rock: A Discussion of a Doors Song

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This article originally appeared in Issue 9 of Crawdaddy in 1967

Very few people have the balls to talk about “rock ‘n’ roll” anymore. Revolver made it difficult. Between the Buttons, Smile, and the Doors LP are making it impossible. “Pop music” is definable only by pointing at a current chart; the Doors are not “pop,” they are simply “modern music.” The term applies not because rock has achieved the high standards of mainstream music, but conversely because rock has absorbed mainstream music, has become the leader, the arbiter of quality, the music of today. The Doors, Brian Wilson, the Stones are modern music, and contemporary “jazz” and “classical” composers must try to measure up.

The Doors is an album of magnitude. Thanks to the calm surefootedness of the group, the producer, the record company, there are no flaws; the Doors have been delivered to the public full grown (by current standards) and still growing (standards change). Gestation may have been long and painful; no one cares. The birth of the group is in this album, and it’s as good as anything in rock. The awesome fact about the Doors is that they will improve.

So much for the review. This album is too good to be “explained,” note by note, song by song; that sort of thing could only be boring, since the review would be immediately compared to the far-more-than-merely-communicative level of the work of art itself. Knowing that my reader is able to stop after any word I write and listen to all of “Light My Fire” before reading the next word, I should feel pretty foolish offering him a textual description of the buildup of erotic pressure in the performance. Is there really any point in saying something like “The instrumental in ‘Light My Fire’ builds at the end into a truly visual orgasm in sound” when the reader can at any time put the album onto even the crummiest phonograph and experience that orgasm himself? Descriptive criticism is almost a waste of time, where quality is involved. It might be more valid for a reviewer to make a comment like: “the ‘come’ sequence at the end of ‘Light My Fire’ is the most powerfully controlled release of accumulated instrumental kineticism known on record, making even ‘I’m a Man’ by the Yardbirds a mere firecracker”—but where that may make good reading, and even makes pretty good writing under ordinary circumstances, in the context of an album as great and as implicational and as able-to-change-history as this one, comments like that dissatisfy and bore the reviewer, because to him they’re simply obvious. That which can be simply stated is by its nature already known, and therefore not very interesting. To write about the unknown is exciting, unpredictable; to write about what you already know, even if you’ve only consciously known it a few minutes and you’re pretty damn proud of your insight, can in the end be unstintingly boring.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about “Blowin’ in the Wind.” A lot of people misunderstood that song, and it really is Dylan’s fault. He shoved in lines like “How many times will the cannonballs fly,” etc., which must have practically been intended to throw people off the track of what was being said. The line, “The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind” is so perfect that I doubt that anyone could hear it and not feel what is really being said (in fact, it’s impossible to hear any true statement and not feel it correctly, although you may then go ahead and interpret it all wrong). But I’m not suggesting that the verses to “Blowin”‘ builds to a head and causes the creation of a line like “The answer is blowin’ in the wind” (or, as we shall see, “Learn to forget”) could not possibly then sustain the creation of an entire three verses or so of equal genius. Besides, three verses of equal genius would destroy the impact. No, I only say that the public-at-large should not have been maligned by a deliberate attempt to throw them off the track, an attempt made only because Dylan 1962 realized that he could, with delightful ease, present a great truth to the world at large and make it invisible to them at the same time. Like most crimes, it was perpetrated because the criminal knew he could get away with it.

But ignoring for now the clumsy camouflage of the verses, it really is difficult to carefully misinterpret “Blowin’ in the Wind”…its meaningfulness even overshadows its own ambiguity! If we assume that “the answers are blowin’ in the wind” means that the answers are inaccessible, hard to hold onto, out of reach, then the words are saying that we have no answers to work with; they’re unobtainable, and therefore we must reject our need for answers and work without them. If, on the other hand, the listener reacts to the concept of “blowin’ in the wind” as implying accessibility, the total availability of all answers, we interpret the phrase as implying the uselessness of mere answers and availability—toss all top-secret data out the window; we have all the answers, and still haven’t got any truth. These answers, therefore, accessible as they are, are mere truths-in-context, i.e., they are true whenever they are placed within a context in which they are true. They don’t achieve anything. We can’t work with them because they are too all-present and part-of-what-clearly-is, and therefore we must work without them. These two opposite interpretations of “bIowin’ in the wind” as a phrase inevitably lead to the same conclusion because the two are both part of the statement “The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind,” which has only one meaning.

Proof: the subject matter of such a statement must be the availability of knowledge. So Dylan is either saying (i.e., the words are saying) “I know everything,” or “I know nothing,” or he wouldn’t bring up the subject. Since it is highly improbable that one would know everything, and more improbable that one would bother writing a song about it if one did, and anyway unlikely that we would have any trouble recognizing such a song were it written, we can be very certain that the song says: “l (we) know nothing.” Which is the feeling one gets from the line “the answer…wind” before one even starts going through all this reasoning. The vibrations from the line are very strong; you’re probably thinking that I’m fooling around right now, that, as Meltzer says, if l felt like it I could prove anything; that fact, however, does not imply that I would prove anything, since if I tried to prove a falsehood the vibrations—what you “know” to be true about something, in other words—would make my words no matter how clever feel like lies. How much we rely on our instincts! If you think a song is good I could never convince you it’s bad, and that means in effect that though anything can be proven, little if anything can be affected by proofs. And no matter how you hear the image “blowin’ in the wind” (accessibility or inaccessibility), you do not change your assumptions about the full phrase—you merely change your thought process to fit the way you feel. When asked what the words “blowin’ in the wind” meant, Dylan was unable to answer, was in fact amazed at being asked. “They mean: blowin’ in the wind.” In concert in Boston he got the lines to the verses mixed up, but he didn’t seem to think that was very important.

“Soul Kitchen” is nice. It is so reminiscent of “Blowin’ in the Wind” in terms of message that one almost expects Peter, Paul & Mary to make it a Top 40 smash. It’s just a nice little song about desire, a routine drama in which Jim points out that it looks like it’s time for him to go (beautiful posturing: twiddling of thumbs, glance at the clock, well, um, looks like it’s time for me to leave, uh …) but he’d “really like to stay here all night.” And he does stay, and the Doors do their usual “boy gets girl” instrumental routine, and then Jim lampoons his own posturing, repeating, “The clock says it’s time to close now,” but then saying, “I know I’ve got to go now.” “I’d really like to stay here all night” changes from effective plea into bitter irony; the words that meant “let me in” before mean “sorry, baby” after. And that’s almost all there is to it, except that the plea “Let me sleep all night in your soul kitchen” is so fantastically strong. Jim obviously didn’t give that much of a damn about the girl in this case, so something else must have been bothering him. The intensity of that plea could not have been faked. And this leads us to the really stunning revelation that sexual desire is merely the particularization of some more far-reaching dissatisfaction.

The message of “Soul Kitchen” is of course “Learn to forget,” a “message”/phrase at least as powerful as “The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind” and very similar in the sort of implications and emotions it conjures up. The actual words “learn to forget” are repeated four times at the end of the second verse of “Soul Kitchen,” and are never returned to in any way. In fact, the band seems to be unaware of them, and Robbie has been known to say that he considers the song inconsequential! And as compared with the Dylan song, a great deal of the success of this one is due to the fact that the playing, and the words of the song other than “learn to forget,” are almost totally unrelated to the message, and as a result they serve as emphasis rather than confusion. So this truth is totally accessible to anyone listening to the song—and the irony here is that the song is not a single, not a huge airplay hit, not being heard by more than maybe 20,000 people.

“Learn to forget”—-what power that phrase has! It’s possible to get stoned for days by listening to this song…for a while it will seem the one truth available to us. It eventually recedes, of course, into merely a tantalizing command: within the song it’s a posthypnotic suggestion to the girl being seduced, it’s a bitter comment on the necessity of learning to forget in order to get along in this grubby world, it’s a statement of faith in the ability of man to will what he doesn’t want out of existence. Above all, it’s an echo of the Sophoclean section of “The End” (echo because the album is programmed circularly for repeated Iistenings), in which it becomes necessary to kill the father. As Paul Rothchild says in Crawdaddy! #10, “‘Kill the father’ means kill all of those things within yourself that are instilled in you and are not of yourself.” Obviously, “learn to forget,” which comes from the mouth of the same man, could easily have the same meaning to Jim. But “The End,” which is a truly beautiful, perfected, polished intellectual statement, cannot communicate as powerfully as “Soul Kitchen,” since the latter is not on an intellectual level at all. “The End” is great to listen to when you’re high (or any other time), but “Soul Kitchen” will get you high, which is obviously much cruder and more important. “Soul Kitchen,” with its revelation that sexual desire is more complexly motivated than we think (all right, suppose it’s immediately caused by the animal instinct for survival through reproduction of the self; the implications of that are that sexual desire is within each person that individual’s expression of the agony of being and the relationship between man and the future, that is to say, the meaning of life. If I want that girl because deep down I want to assure my own survival through descendants, then that look in my eyes reflects all the pain of the question: why do I want descendants, why does man consider time a rival he must conquer? That makes sexual need [as opposed to lust] the purest form of spiritual pain known to man, and therefore the most beautiful thing around) and its fantastically ambiguous “learn to forget” “Soul Kitchen,” because it conjures up this kind of stuff, is a catalyst with more potential for generating truth—in my opinion—than anything since middle Faulkner.

It is important now to realize that the “the answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind” phrase itself has as much potential for truth generation, within the right context, as “learn to forget.” The greater value of “SouI Kitchen,” which happens to contain the latter, has something to do with the triumph of rock. Rock, which is less cognitive, allows the creator of the vehicle for the phrase more freedom in subject. “Folk” basically demands a relationship between all words and ideas in a song, unless nonsense words are used, whereas rock may be as totally noncognitive without being nonsense as “Hey ninety-eight point six the love that was the medicine that saved me, oh I love my baby.” Rock gave Jim Morrison the freedom to slip “learn to forget” into the middle of a seduction song, which offers no distraction at all, whereas Dylan in order to even say that the answers are blowing in the wind had to provide some representative questions. “Soul Kitchen” has the further advantage, common in rock, that you can’t hear all the words, so you can pretty much contextualize as you like. And the direct appeal to the mind made by “folk” (straightforward words, guitar, voice) cannot compare, it seems to me, with the abilities of rock to move peopIe’s muscles, bodies, caught up and swaying and moving so that a phrase like “learn to forget” can actually become your whole body, can sink into your soul on a more-than-cognitive level. Rock, because of the number of senses it can get to (on a dance floor: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and tactile) and the extent to which it can pervade those senses, is really the most advanced art form we have.