Lizard Thing

From a big-name tribute to some big-beat remixes, the Doors' catalogue bulges with a soft parade of new releases

Marketing prowess being what it is, the three surviving Doors, along with impresario/hagiographer/leech/keeper of the flame Danny Sugerman, are seasoned pros at polishing the late Lizard King's scales, and a current round of activity offers an unprecedented measure of good news/bad news.

Stoned Immaculate: The Music of the Doors, of course, is a high-profile, platinum artists tribute project that, in more sensitive hands, really should never have happened. Yet as far as tributes go, this one has an irresistible hook: The three surviving Doors not only gave it their blessings, they played on most of the cuts, becoming temporary members of the participants' bands. And to be fair, producer Ralf Sall's idea to have artists who were theoretically influenced by the Doors interpret the music, amid a sequenced sonic narrative that includes some of Jim Morrison's poetry reworked to create quasi-new material (à la An American Prayer), seems sincere in intent, if ultimately flawed in its execution. An accompanying episode of VH1's Storytellers, which first aired on November 26 (and has repeatedly ever since), yielded similar results in which Ray Manzarek, John Densmore and Robby Krieger ably spun tales and performed their most memorable tunes -- the latter with guest vocalists eagerly slumming from/shilling for Stoned Immaculate, also with mixed results.

On the plus side, the unquestioned hero of the whole shebang is Days of the New's Travis Meeks, who absolutely nails Morrison's vibe without aping his mannerisms. On "L.A. Woman," he celebrates the grand old dame's humor and decadence with gritty vigor, while on "The End," his deft grasp of what is admittedly a slippery sonic reptile borders on the astonishing. This was even more obvious on the VH1 broadcast, where at times Meeks seemed to be in a trance; accompanied by the Doors and a pair of percussionists, he deployed an Eastern-tinged arrangement (Krieger adding a cool sitar sound from his guitar) and steered the tune over dynamic crests and emotional plateaus, drawing spontaneous howls and applause and even a few astonished looks from Manzarek. (Meeks, appearing drained at the end, got a well-deserved standing ovation.)

Not counting a pair of reasonably interesting sonic montages that the Doors and Sall assembled behind Morrison's poetry, lyrics and raps ("The Cosmic Movie," "Under Waterfall"), high points of the tribute include Smash Mouth, with an unexpectedly anarchic "Peace Frog"; The Cult doing a sleazily malevolent "Wild Child"; Stone Temple Pilots serving up a ripping "Break On Through" (admittedly, not that hard to do); and crusty old William S. Burroughs, on a "new" track called "Is Everybody In?," sardonically reciting lyric non sequiturs over Morrison backing tracks and assorted riffs and samples courtesy of the Doors and producer Sall. Similarly, the VH1 show was intermittently viewable. As per the Storytellers format, the three Doors took turns introducing songs via anecdotes relating to their origins, even answering a few softball questions from the audience (hey, whattaya know, "Mr. Mojo Risin'" is an anagram for "Jim Morrison"!). Vocally speaking, in addition to Meeks, STP's Scott Weiland and the Cult's Ian Astbury gamely mounted their best bulging-neck-veins-and-dark-glasses Morrison impressions, acquitting themselves quite convincingly.

Creed vocalist Scott Stapp, however, is a troubling study. On the one hand, it's hard to criticize the motives or persona of a "Christian" (Stapp even has the big hair/big boobs evangelist's wife to go with the title), but jeez, he just seems opportunistic, shamelessly copping Morrison's moves and vocal inflections, both on record ("Riders on the Storm" is needlessly cartoonish) and onstage at VH1 (does he wear those leather pants everywhere?).

Other moments on Stoned Immaculateare of the "what were they thinking?" variety, most notably the ad-hoc call-and-response session between John Lee Hooker and a tape of Jim Morrison doing "Roadhouse Blues"; Natalie and Nat King Cole it ain't, and John Lee, buddy, it's time to retire that "you-you-you" shtick. Manzarek, Densmore and Krieger no doubt got a kick out of rerecording "Love Her Madly" with Bo Diddley, but honestly, Bo's Burundi beat doesn't always graft cleanly upon every song in the universe. Oleander doing "Hello I Love You" sounds more like David Cassidy doing "I Think I Love You." Perry "Mr. Screechy" Farrell, Exene Cervenka and Jimbo in a poetry slam called "Children of the Night"? Stop the car, I'm getting out! Aerosmith putting the Steve Tyler lip lock on "Love Me Two Times"? Twice today, baby -- in an elevator, and going down.

Bottom line: a win and lose proposition for Doors fans. If money's tight, get someone to dub you a tape of the VH1 special. The Doors don't need your cash.

Meanwhile, The Best of the Doors, a European release, is aimed directly at your wallet. It comes elaborately packaged, but, as its 17 cuts don't include "When the Music's Over," a better consumer choice would be the 19-track, two-CD U.S. set also titled The Best of the Doors. Or seek out the recent Canadian double-disc collection (again, same name) boasting a whopping 36 tracks plus two bonuses, a Morrison-less Doors trio doing "Mosquito" (from the justly maligned '72 album Full Circle) and an enhanced portion featuring the "Roadhouse Blues" video.

For collectors, though, initial copies of the Euro edition come limited and numbered and include a bonus disc. Against all rational thought appear four dance mixes of "Riders on the Storm." Say what? Check the house/trance version with Morrison's vox sped up to match the bpms, courtesy of the "Baez & Cornell Tunnel Club Mix"; or the pleasantly noodly "SpaceBats Remix" that pits looped-in hip-hop beats and head-scratching sound effects against the song's basic melody and vocals (including vocoder tricks on the voice -- Mr. Roboto meets Mr. Mojo Risin'). Pointless? Absolutely. But in a creepy-cool kind of way. The same can't be said about the tepid "multi-media track" also on the bonus disc: one very sparse photo gallery, one "E-card" that's nothing more than an advertisement for the compilation, and one unenlightening interview with Ray Manzarek, who waxes cosmically on the Doorsian universe.

Most welcome among the plethora of new titles is The Bright Midnight Sampler. The disc is exactly what its title suggests, a 13-song live sampler intended to kick off the Doors' Internet label Bright Midnight, which, if everything goes as scheduled (and taking a cue from both the Grateful Dead "Dick's Picks" series and the Jimi Hendrix Experience archive projects), will issue exclusive Doors artifacts on a regular basis, starting this month with the two-CD Live in Detroit. Based on the selections here, the sound quality promises to be better than most Doors bootlegs. These professional eight-track recordings additionally benefit from recent studio postproduction and remastering from longtime Doors engineer Bruce Botnick.

The two Detroit cuts (Cobo Arena, May 8, 1970) on Bright Midnight are superb; "Been Down So Long" has a brutish elegance, while a 16-minute "The End" features some fantastic Morrison improv. With the exception of "Touch Me" and "The Crystal Ship" from the July 21, 1969, Hollywood concert, all of these previews hail from 1970 gigs. This raises a question about how far back the archive series will delve; it's common knowledge that the Doors have a large vault of tapes, and their former producer Paul Rothchild even produced numerous concerts' set lists for author Greg Shaw when Shaw was researching his '97 travelogue book The Doors on the Road. But will they issue quality early shows?

To date, the band has been well documented by bootleggers; a series of stunning soundboard tapes recorded at San Francisco's Matrix in March 1967 was even the subject of an elaborate boxed-set bootleg. For the time being, however, Bright Midnight's embracing of Frank Zappa's "Beat the Boots" philosophy is commendable. Interested parties can consult www.thedoors.com. Break on through, baby.

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