Fact Check

Doors Five to One

Does the title of the Doors song 'Five to One' refer to the ratio of Viet Cong to American troops in Vietnam?

Published Sep 22, 2002


Claim:   The title of the Doors song "Five to One" refers to the ratio of Viet Cong to American troops in Vietnam.

Status:   Undetermined.

Origins:   Back when I held a job with my hometown newspaper, we used to receive our share of fractious letters from disgruntled readers who

Waiting for the Sun

disagreed with the paper's editorial stances. Crank letters (usually of the unsigned variety) are a common occurrence at all newspapers, and they were rarely a cause for concern to us unless they contained something beyond the occasional anonymous, vaguely-worded threat.

In the category of "unusual missives," though, nothing during my tenure at the newspaper topped the morning we came into work and found that someone had left a note outside our front door during the night, a note whose most remarkable aspect was that it had arrived attached to the antlers of a moose head. (This being southern California, of course, the delivered moose head was one that had long ago been subject to the taxidermist's art, not a fresh sort one might expect to be placed in a bed at the behest of a Canadian mafia don.) The note read simply: "No one here gets out alive" — a message that caused great consternation among the middle-aged management staff until one of my younger co-workers filled them in that it was line from a Doors song, as well as the title of a recently-published biography of Jim Morrison. Song lyric or not, the message sounded ominous out of context and was taken seriously by the newspaper's management.

It was hard to fault my employers for seemingly attaching too much importance to a fragment of a 1960s' song lyric, because it sounded just as ominous in context, as part of the song "Five to One" from the Doors' third album, 1968's "Waiting for the Sun." The album was cobbled together under pressure when efforts to record Jim Morrison's epic poem "Celebration of the Lizard," which was to have taken up one whole side of the LP, failed to come to fruition. (The poem itself was printed on the inside of the album's gatefold cover, but only a brief fragment appeared on the record itself.) The scramble for suitable material resulted in an album that was far less mysterious, dark, and brooding than the group's first two efforts, resulting in a record with its fair share of gentle, melodic tracks (e.g., "Love Street," "Wintertime Love") that led some critics to complain the Doors had "gone soft."

In this context, then, the harrowing, anthemic "Five to One," sung by an obviously drunk Morrison (his voice cracks, he hiccups in the middle of a line, and he doesn't keep time with the band for much of the song) was particularly disturbing. As one fan later described his first experience with the song:

I remember the first time I heard 'Five to One' right after it came out. I happened to put the record on at 3:00 AM one morning, and that song scared the shit out of me. This was supposed to be the Doors' teenybopper album, but that didn't sound like bubblegum music to me.

What made the song so fearsome? What was it about? Therein lies the mystery. As Jim Morrison sang:

Five to one, baby;
one in five.
No one here
gets out alive.
Now, you get yours, baby;
I'll get mine.
Gonna make it, baby,
if we try.

The old get old,
and the young get stronger;
may take a week,
and it may take longer.
They got the guns,
but we got the numbers.
Gonna win, yeah;
We're takin' over.
Come on!

The Doors are often lumped into a "drugs and politics" category with other bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but although Jim Morrison referred to the group as "erotic politicians," their music was remarkably apolitical. ("The Unknown Soldier," an anti-war song which appeared on the same album as "Five to One," was the only overtly political statement in the band's canon.) Nonetheless, back in 1968 "Five to One" seemed militant in tone, a call for the overthrow of a vastly outnumbered group. But who was to be overthrown, and by whom? What did the five to one ratio of represent?

One of the more common interpretations was that "Five to One" was about the Vietnam War, the title a reference to the oft-repeated statistic that the Viet Cong forces outnumbered American troops by a ratio of five to one:

In November 1965, just months after President Lyndon Johnson had escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam, 450 members of the air cavalry were sent into the la Drang Valley in the Central Highlands to ferret out Viet Cong troops that had retreated to the nearby mountains.

On the ground, [Lt. Col. Hal] Moore and his second-in command, Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley, were soon aware that the Americans were outnumbered five to one.

Others read the song as a call for social revolution, an exhortation to overthrow the establishment inspired by events such as the May 1968 student riots in France. In this version, five to one refers to the bulging proportion of "young people" to "old people" brought about

by the post-WW II baby boom, hence the song's declaration that "the old get old, and the young get stronger." (Similarly, the numbers were sometimes claimed be reflective of the proportion of dope smokers to "straights" in the population.) Another popular reading had "Five to One" as Morrison's sympathetic nod to the mid-1960s Black Power movement, whose constituency was a minority group comprising only one-sixth of the U.S. population and were hence outnumbered by non-blacks by a five-to-one ratio. (Actually, in the mid-1960s the percentage of blacks in the U.S. population was several points lower than one-sixth).

What's the answer? Most likely Morrison selected the song's title not because it echoed a ratio that had any particular referent, but simply because he liked the sound and meter of the phrases "five to one" and "one in five." The mocking final verse of "Five to One" indicates that he probably had no specific group in mind when he wrote the lyrics; that in general, as Doors song explicator Chuck Crisafulli noted, Morrison "seemed to be interested in revolution but at the same time disgusted by the revolutionaries":

Your ballroom days are over, baby;
night is drawing near.
Shadows of the evening
crawl across the years.
Ya walk across the floor
with a flower in your hand,
trying to tell me
no one understands.
Trade in your hours
for a handful dimes;
gonna make it, baby,
in our prime.

The secret of "Five to One" died with Jim Morrison, for the singer never told anyone — not even his bandmates — what he was protesting or what the titular ratio represented. Unless, as rumor has it, Mr. Mojo Risin' faked his death in Paris in 1971 and shed his identity to lead a life incognito, the meaning "Five to One" will forever remain a mystery.

Last updated:   18 May 2007

  Sources Sources:

    Crisafulli, Chuck.  
When the Music's Over: The Stories Behind Every Doors Song

    New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2000.   ISBN 1-56025-266-9   (pp. 72-73).

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.