Finn in discussion with Todd Burns on “Celebration Of The Lizard” by The Doors (1968).
This song has quite a special status in the Doors back catalogue, could you elaborate on why you choose this over other of their songs?
“Celebration Of The Lizard” does have a special status in the Doors back catalogue, largely because it was never released. The group ended their first two albums with very long, epic songs—“The End” and “When The Music’s Over”—and, as I understand it, this was supposed to be the song that concluded their third full-length. Unfortunately, for one reason or another, the group couldn’t get a take that they were happy with and had to substitute a few other tunes instead to fill out the record. As someone who is rather fascinated by the history of music, I’ve always been fascinated by failures and coulda-beens. “Death Of A Ladies Man” is my favorite Cohen album, I collected bootlegs of The Beach Boys’ “Smile” sessions but never listened to the one that Brian Wilson eventually released a few years ago. This song from The Doors is in that same vein.
There is plenty to choose from as far as rock history’s classic groups are concerned. What makes The Doors appealing to you?
I have a dark poetic past. And Jim Morrison’s poetry always appealed to a teenager that was prone to such flights of fancy. People often laugh at Morrison’s writing today, but I’d argue that he’s a much more interesting figure than what we have nowadays in popular rock music. Then again, I have my doubts that a group like The Doors would be on a label much bigger than something like Sub Pop in 2009. Also appealing to me was the music. It’s hard to overstate how strange and wonderful some of The Doors music sounded when placed alongside their contemporaries. Organ player, flamenco guitarist and jazz drummer and American Poet over top of all of it? And they even wrote some pop songs along the way? Yes, please.
Since Morrison was so keen to express his poetic side, how do you rate him as a poet?
Pretty poorly, all told. But I’ve listened to enough music, and read enough poetry to know that the two disciplines are very far apart from one another. Things that work on the page have no business being sung aloud over rock guitars; things that work in song would be embarrassing to read printed in liner notes. I remember buying a book called “The Doors: The Complete Lyrics” and even thumbing through some of his poetry in book stores, and both seemed to be the work of someone that required something else to complete them. Like a lot of artists, I think that Morrison didn’t know what made him great, i.e. the rest of the group. But I think that tension is what makes him such a fascinating figure.
In what literary tradition would you place him?
He’s a Romantic, of course. With a hippie-ish ‘60s bent. There’s no denying the influence of Blake on Jim Morrison. But he obviously lived in a time when there were so many other things floating around in the ether that it becomes a bit impossible to completely unpack.
Only one part of the song, “Not To Touch The Earth,” has made it on record. Would this song be as important if it would have been recorded in the studio as an album’s side, as it was originally intended?
It’s hard to say. I equivocate daily on all manner of topics, and I’ll do it here: The song does take on an added importance in the minds of die hard Doors fans that know of its existence. There was once a novel about a time traveller that went back to famous rock moments when an artist couldn’t quite finish that particular song or album that they famously weren’t able to complete. (Rock failures and time travel—an unbeatable combination for a younger version of myself.) And the section on The Doors, of course, focuses on “Celebration Of The Lizard.” For some, that lack of recorded evidence—aside from a few full live performances as far as I know—is the appeal. That said, “Waiting For the Sun”, The Doors’ third album, would have been a far different proposition had it included that song. It probably would have been a much darker album. And it might not have been better. But I could see their career taking a different turn had it come to pass. It might have made the follow-up, the horns-heavy “The Soft Parade”, a very different album, for a start. It’s by far their worst album (needless to say, it’s also my favourite).
There are other epic songs that the group recorded. Why do you think the group could not manage to record this? Does this only function in a live context?
For me, it’s simple: Too many parts. If you listen to the recorded versions on YouTube, I think you get a sense of how disjointed it was. Morrison had a lot of ideas for this thing, and few of them connected well. “Not To Touch the Earth” was able to be recorded and taken out of it because it has little musically to do with anything around it. The previous two epic songs were exercises in one thought and one musical idea stretched out for a very long time. “Celebration Of the Lizard” was something else entirely.
Are there other songs by The Doors you find comparable in content, intention and performance?
There are vague connections musically and content-wise on “Peace Frog” from “Morrison Hotel”. Unlike “Celebration,” it’s funky as anything. “The Soft Parade” from the album of the same name is the epic failure in their catalogue (again, I love it). And, of course, the aforementioned classics that everyone probably knows, “The End” and “When The Music’s Over”.
How much of Morrison’s legend status is based on his fascination with death and his self-destructive behaviour, and then actually dying?
Equivocating again: But I don’t think you can have this music without the antics. Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger and John Densmore…I don’t see these guys coming together without the magnetism of Morrison, a lot of which is wrapped up in his fearlessness/fascination with death/self-destructive behaviour. How much of his “legend status” is wrapped up in it, though? A lot of it. Anyone who becomes that famous and is already fascinated with death will immediately become even more so when they die “too early” (from a purely artistic standpoint, Morrison died at exactly the right moment. They made six albums full of great moments, and he was off in Paris, trying to figure out where to go next—never a good sign).
Is it still possible to be both a bona fide rock star and a serious artist?
Are you asking me how I feel about Bono?
Todd Burns is the editor of Resident Advisor. He is the former editor-in-chief of Stylus Magazine and former deputy editor of eMusic. He has written for The Village Voice and the LA Weekly.