For those under 17 or for those whose knowledge or impressions of the Doors were formed by AM radio play of the band's singles, early hits compilations (especially 13), or the shorter and poppier songs from the band's albums, this four-CD set is probably not something they want to own, or a place that they should go -- not yet, anyway. The Doors Box Set was a long time in coming, promised for years by the surviving bandmembers and Elektra Records, and when it finally arrived in the fall of 1997, it left all but the most serious devotees at something of a loss. As it turned out, this box -- which could be subtitled "The Ultimate Adult Guide to the Doors" (complete with a warning sticker for content) -- was the group's gift not to the tens of millions who knew "Light My Fire" or "Touch Me," but to those more rarefied dedicated fans, the listeners who'd looked beyond the most popular hits and behind the music and the poetry, hung on the stories and the histories, and had usually worn out one or more copies of No One Here Gets Out Alive. In essence, this was the group's own musical story told the bandmembers' way, without regard to technical perfection or record label (or corporate, or middle-brow) sensibilities with regard to taste or mass appeal, a perfect sweep-away-all-the-bullsh*t audio account of who and what they were. In the process, in the sheer power of the music and the presentation here, they not only leaped far beyond the boundaries of any of the video documentaries dealing with their history (aimed, as those were, at the widest possible audience) but also reduced the Oliver Stone movie to a piece of self-indulgent fiction.
Where their singles depicted them as an edgy, aggressive band that sometimes pushed the envelope of what was acceptable pop radio fare, The Doors Box Set has them crossing the line of social acceptability on virtually the first note of its opening track on disc one ("Without a Safety Net"), the raw and raucous version of "Five to One" from the notorious 1969 Miami concert where lead singer Jim Morrison was later arrested and charged with indecent exposure. From the singer's exhortations to the crowd about rebellion and sex (which tells you how on edge he must've had the Miami cops at that show from the get-go), the disc moves on through tracks that cover various components of their sound and songs that reflect aspects of their musical and personal lives: "Queen of the Highway" and amazing demos of "Hyacinth House" and "My Eyes Have Seen You," the Soft Parade outtake "Who Scared You?," and an amazing live cut of "Black Train Song" that takes "Mystery Train" into wholly new psychedelic territory. The latter is almost worth the price of admission by itself, and listeners haven't even gotten to the juxtaposing of the demo and finished versions of "Moonlight Drive" or the 16-and-half-minute jam/rap (including a reference to "Mystery Train") from the Morrison Hotel sessions, entitled "Rock Is Dead," where, fueled on wine and good food, they let the tape roll on this astonishing extended musical moment. Here, Morrison's singing, two years beforehand, gets fully at the raw, bluesy sound it would acquire for the subsequent L.A. Woman album.
Disc two, designated "Live in New York," contains a complete show from New York's Madison Square Garden from 1970 that has to be the best concert document left behind by the group. Despite some technical flaws, the performance and content are the best of any complete show released, with spellbinding renditions of "The Celebration of the Lizard" and "The End," "Roadhouse Blues," "Peace Frog," "Crawling King Snake," and "Money," and performances of "Gloria" and the complete "Build Me a Woman," all containing a few sonic moments that would earn an R or X rating in a movie. Indeed, anyone who might have seen an installment of Donahue circa 1984 (with Tipper Gore a guest on the program) in which a mother unknowingly referred, horror-stricken, to hearing a radio broadcast of the then recently released Doors rendition of "Gloria," complete with Morrison's exhortations to "wrap your legs around my neck," would have to laugh listening to the "Gloria" version here -- he goes a lot further, so much so that the same woman might have blasted her radio with a shotgun on hearing what he says (except that the Congress, run by those God-fearing Republicans, sort of blew any pretensions to censurable material when it held the Clinton impeachment hearings...which then calls to mind the image of Jim Morrison and Bill Clinton high-fiving each other when they meet in the Great Beyond, while the tormented souls of Henry Hyde et al. cringe from their vantage point way, way below). Put simply, this show blows Absolutely Live, Alive, She Cried, etc., right out of the water for relevancy and intensity, and is essential listening.
Disc three, designated "The Future Ain't What It Used to Be," assembles various live performances and demos dating between 1967 and 1970, essentially giving listeners a composite of their best and most honest moments on stage and television (including "The Soft Parade" from WNET-TV in New York in May of 1970); it's the perfect companion to the single live show from the prior disc. The blues numbers, especially Muddy Waters' "Rock Me," are worth the price of the disc, and the authorized tracks from the 1967 Matrix show speak for themselves. What makes all of these live performances vital listening, incidentally, is not just that Morrison is so often "on" and on target with he does, but that the band is amazing -- Robbie Krieger's slide work on "Money" is exceptional, and that's just one place out of two dozen where he shines, and Ray Manzarek and John Densmore are never far behind, if behind at all. Even Manzarek's keyboard bass work deserves at least grudging respect.
Disc four is the one concession to a slightly wider array of fans, on which the surviving members each choose their five favorite Doors tracks for a kind of personal best-of array -- what you end up with is the perfect FM radio profile of the group, with numbers like "Peace Frog" and "Shaman's Blues" replacing pieces like "Touch Me." The mastering was state of the art for 1997 and holds up in the 2000s -- the volume is good and loud, the textures rich and close, and the accompanying booklet, with comments by Manzarek, Densmore, and Krieger, plus essays by Tom Robbins, Michael Ventura, and late producer Paul A. Rothchild, is one of the best of its kind in the box set format, with enough content to be the start of a legitimate freestanding book. And as for the stuff that isn't here, like "People Are Strange" and "Touch Me," they're included on other, somewhat wider-focused collections for those who miss them. That said, this isn't the only Doors release that anyone should own, but it may be the most challenging that can be purchased, and the one essential collection beyond the group's original albums or one of the truly comprehensive best-ofs out there.