by Kidman J. Williams
May marked the 50-year anniversary of The Doors’ final album, L.A. Woman. July marks the 50-year anniversary of singer Jim Morrison’s death in France. And HERE we all are! We’re still talking about them, still writing about them, and there always seems to be a new documentary about this prolific and timeless group of men that took on the status quo while thumbing their noses at the San Francisco hippie revolution.
The Doors (Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, John Densmore, and Jim Morrison) were a huge influence on numerous generations of teens that smoked pot for the first time with their friend’s cool parents. There is something timeless about the music and mystique. The Doors captured the imagination while teaching us all the importance of living a Dionysian lifestyle. I was no different.
I had a bad haircut, a communication issue because I talked in the native tongue of the teenagers of the day, and I had more testosterone for a kid to properly handle.
My friends and I would drive around the Naperville Riverwalk with my t-tops down in my ’87 Monte Carlo, midnight blue with checkerboard rims while blasting songs like “Break on Through,” “Roadhouse Blues,” and the always epic “L.A. Woman” with the hope of getting the attention of some ladies that would help us keep the good times going. Maybe even get us into some innocent mayhem for the night.
A lot of us teens in the 90’s were introduced to The Doors by Oliver Stone’s wildly inaccurate movie about a bumbling, drunken-drugged-out Morrison played by Val Kilmer. The actors did great in the movie, but the script did nothing but glorify Jim’s destructive behavior that was leading him to his “only friend… the end.”
It refused to touch on the nuances and levels of his personality. It even went so far as to depict Morrison (Kilmer) killing a duck on Thanksgiving, which never happened.
Riding the Storm
One of the things that the movie did get right (it certainly wasn’t the timeline of the Doors or the fact that Mary Werbelow was the inspiration of the first three albums, not Pamela) was the fact that The Doors record L.A. Woman was recorded at The Doors Workshop at 8512 Santa Monica Blvd.
The place has changed hands from bars and restaurants and was most recently a modernized Japanese/Italian cuisine restaurant that closed its doors in 2020 supposedly due to COVID-19 hardships. It also may have been because they were mixing Japanese and Italian food to try to be distinct.
The Doors longtime producer Paul Rothchild was presented with two of the biggest songs on the album, “Love Her Madly” and the ominous ode to a killer on the road, “Riders on the Storm” Rothchild claimed the songs to be “Cocktail lounge music.”
In the popular biography about Jim Morrison “No One Here Gets Out Alive,” by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman, Rothchild said that “Love Her Madly” was the song that drove him out of the studio.
In the book Rothchild said, “The material was bad, the attitude was bad, the performance was bad. After three days of listening I said, ‘That’s It!’ on the talk-back and cancelled the session.”
As told by Rothchild, he left the studio to meet The Doors at a Chinese restaurant nearby and told them exactly what he thought. He told them, “I think it sucks. I don’t think the world wants to hear it. It’s the first time I’ve ever been bored in a recording studio in my life. I want to go to sleep.”
This would be something that you would expect to hear from someone like Simon Cowell to a fresh-faced youngster not four veteran musicians with gold and platinum sales.
This initially left the Doors in an unfamiliar territory. For the first time in their career they didn’t have Rothchild’s demand for perfection looming over them.
Rothchild was a known slave driver in the studio. He left such an impression on the legacy of the Doors that Densmore would talk about how it would take hours to tune his drums right. His strictness would also result in a normal 30 takes to get something exactly the way he thought it should be.
The setback didn’t keep The Doors down for too long. They decided to produce the new album themselves and promote their engineer Bruce Botnick to coproducer on the album. The Doors knew that they could produce it themselves, but they were smart enough to know that they needed Botnick who worked under Rothchild on all of their previous albums.
They had their practice studio to record in. They had the coproducer with Botnick. The final ingredients: they employed Elvis Presley’s bass player Jerry Scheff to add that little bit of extra punch and groove that the songs begged for. Not a lot of people may know this, but Morrison was especially excited about this because he was a huge Elvis Presley fan.
They would also employ guitarist extraordinaire Marc Benno. Benno was playing with the legendary Leon Russell. He added a little stank on songs like “Been Down So Long,” “Cars Hiss By My Window,” and “Crawling King Snake,” which was written by blues legend John Lee Hooker and originally recorded by Big Joe Williams in 1941.
The Doors had all of their ducks in a row and they were ready for the success that would follow after the release of this one, unbeknownst to them this would be their final album together and the second most successful album they put out next to their debut effort The Doors. L.A. Woman would go on to sell 3.77 million in the US in 1971. Global sales would reach over 10 million.
Beginning of ‘The End’
I think that it is common knowledge at this point that Morrison had an extensive amount of issues going on that surrounded the making of this album. There was of course the Miami trial where Morrison was being persecuted for allegedly showing his lizard king to the masses of people in attendance. A little lesser known fact is that he was dealing with serious image issues.
For most people, image issues are a private thing between you and your therapist. This was a fight between him and his record label.
When The Doors debuted Morrison was a black clad leather shaman. He was slender and dark. He was deep and ominous, but beautiful like a Greek God. He was the right amount of beauty and danger.
That was 1966. By the time 1970 hit Morrison’s drinking and Dionysus attitude had taken a toll on his body.
In 1970 Morrison was going through a transformation. No longer was he the sleek leather demon, he was donning a beard that hid the bloating in his face. What he couldn’t hide was the alcohol bloating in his mid-section. Needless to say he was destroying his marketability.
Morrison wanted to be taken seriously as a real artist while the hordes of fans loved to look at him. Their label, Elektra Records was no different.
November of 1970 Elektra released the album 13, it was a greatest hits album titled for how many tracks were included. Elektra decided to use a younger picture of Morrison for the cover art. Well, this twisted the Lizard King’s left testicle pretty good considering that he agreed to shave the beard off for the photoshoot.
The final straw for Morrison is when Elektra released a live album entitled Absolutely Live in 1970. This was a real twist of the knife. It could have been taken as a power move by Jac Holzman and Elektra because not only did they use a young picture of Morrison, but they superimposed it over a current picture of his bandmates on stage.
When it came time to doing the album cover for L.A. Woman Morrison made sure to rebel against everything that Holzman and Elektra really wanted from him. Not only did he don the magnificent beard that he could grow, but he insisted on a group shot of the band. He also sat on the end looking smaller and dare I say, less important or equal to his bandmates.
According to keyboardist, Ray Manzarek, he told the story of what you don’t see in the photo. Morrison was drinking that day (like many days) and just under the frame of the picture Morrison was holding a bottle of Irish whiskey (brand not known).
Morrison knew he was leaving on a jet plane (different band, couldn’t help myself) before he even started recording. The rest of his bandmates knew he was doomed. Manzarek has went on record saying,
“In that photo (L.A. Woman cover art) you can see the impending demise of Jim Morrison. He was sitting down because he was drunk. A psychic would have known that guy is on the way out. There was a great weight on him. He wasn’t the youthful poet I met on the beach at Venice.”
L.A. Woman was an album that showed a much different and familiar side of The Doors and Jim Morrison. Where the album was a return to the blistering brand of blues that The Doors could lay down on vinyl, the vibe of the lyrics were a departure from Morrison’s normal.
There were songs like “The Changeling,” “Been Down So Long,” and “Hyacinth House” that showed a more reflective and contemplative Morrison verse what the poet showed us before. Many of the song’s lyrics read like a farewell letter to the city that nurtured and raised him.
Morrison left for Paris on March 11th of 1971. L.A. Woman was released April 19th of 1971. Just a few month later in July, Morrison would be found dead in bathtub by Pamela Courson.
If you buy into the supernatural stories that Morrison knew when he was going to die or not. Maybe you believe in the weird contrived naked Native that Oliver Stone wrote into his script for The Doors, L.A. Woman was a great farewell to the world and Los Angeles.
The fact is that this album is The Doors at their best. They were having more fun than they had had since recording the first album. It was a collection of music that they got to put together from their experiences while doing the compositions that they really felt in their bones. They went out on their terms and that is always a beautiful thing.