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L.A. Woman Was the Doors' Bluesy Masterpiece, and Jim Morrison's Kiss-Off to L.A. 

Thursday, Jan 19 2012
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Click here for "L.A. Woman: Track List," by Jeff Weiss

In the winter of 1970-71, the Doors hibernated inside their rehearsal studio in West Hollywood to create L.A. Woman. Recorded and mixed in only two weeks, the album was an instant commercial and critical success upon its release the following April, with three smash singles and Rolling Stone hailing it as the band's bluesiest and best effort. Unbeknownst to everyone, it would be their last as a unit, with Morrison dying under mysterious circumstances in Paris that July.

This month, Rhino Records is issuing a 40th-anniversary edition of L.A. Woman, complete with long-lost outtakes and covers. The Doors' legacy is still hotly debated four decades after Morrison's demise, but the rerelease reaffirms the record's stature as the seminal album from the seminal L.A. band. This is its story.

click to flip through (2) PHOTO BY PAUL FERRARA/COPYRIGHT DMC
  • Photo by Paul Ferrara/copyright DMC
 
 

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December-January, 1970-71

Linger long enough at the corner of La Cienega and Santa Monica and you'll see Jim Morrison. That is, if you can recognize him. The acid-eating Alexander the Great of 1967 has drowned in a deluge of Dos Equis and Jack Daniel's. Barely 27, and already his lion's mane and model-stenciled symmetry have slackened into a brown shag curtain, chipmunk cheeks and an Allen Ginsberg beard.

You might see him smoking Gauloises, slithering out of the Doors Workshop, the epicenter of this intersection of West Hollywood, a bright yellow, two-story Spanish stucco box across the street from the Sandy Koufax Tropicana Motel — the 24-hour orgy owned by the former Dodgers great.

Duke's Coffee Shop is downstairs, and that's where the city's biggest band takes out most meals while recording. Guitarist Robby Krieger, organist/keyboard bassist Ray Manzarek and drummer John Densmore always order Sandy's Special: heaping omelets, hash browns and toast. Their singer always orders something different.

La Cienega translates as "the swamp." Santa Monica's signage stems from the mother of St. Augustine, the sinner-turned-saint known for his Confessions. Your best bet to find Morrison is inside the Phone Booth or the Extension, two titty bars where he and his hangers-on watch time jiggle away while waiting for the band to summon the right riffs. Maybe he's swigging from a bottle of Bushmills bought across the street at Monaco Liquor; maybe he's boozing at the Palm or wandering up the hill to Barney's Beanery, where he once was tossed for pissing on the bar. Sometimes he'll take a stripper back to his monk's cell in the seedy Alta Cienega — or Chateau Marmont, if he's feeling fancy. His girlfriend, Pamela Courson, has already decamped to Paris and shuttered Themis, her La Cienega Age-of-Aquarius boutique with peacock feathers on the ceiling.

The '70s, man. Martin Luther King Jr. is dead. Malcolm X is dead. The Kennedys are dead. Kids at Kent State are getting capped. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix have both gone haint. Nixon's in the Oval Office, and the Manson murders stain the Hills. Morrison and Dennis Wilson once picked up Charles Manson on Sunset and dropped him off at producer Terry "Turn Turn Turn" Melcher's house on Cielo Drive. A few years later, Manson's acolytes would murder Sharon Tate and four others at that house, including celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, who styled Morrison's original king-of-the-jungle coif.

It's been five dizzy years since Manzarek stumbled into his old UCLA film school pal, Morrison, sunbathing on Venice Beach. Morrison had spent a summer starving and warding off sleep with psychedelics on the fifth-story roof of a friend's apartment — a red brick building at the corner of Speedway and Westminster. The beatniks had recently bounced from the boardwalk, leaving vagrants, students and Orthodox Jews. Two-bedroom apartments with ocean views: $75 a month.

Years before the Beatles barnstormed India, Manzarek met Densmore and Krieger in Transcendental Meditation classes taught by the maharishi. They bonded over jazz, blues, Beat lit and all things Eastern — ahead of the curve and 5,000 years behind.

The rest is a taller tale. The Doors snatched the crown from Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds and Love. The latter's Arthur Lee, the scene's golden genius, tipped Elektra head Jac Holzman to the Doors' patricidal fusion of psychedelic rock, cool jazz, Mississippi blues and classical piano. You can imagine their ascent in a cinematic montage of the Sunset Strip: "Light My Fire," the Whisky A Go Go, billboards, Ed Sullivan, No. 1 records, sex, drugs and witchcraft — the occasional lizard celebration or two.

They've already had two major run-ins with the law: New Haven, where the cops Maced and later arrested Morrison onstage, and then Florida, where he was convicted of indecent exposure and open profanity and sentenced to six months in prison — not to ignore unnerving headlines and a ban by the Hall Managers Association of America.

With Morrison out on bail pending appeal, the only legitimate option is to head into the studio to deliver the final record on their Elektra contract. After that, an indefinite hiatus is certain — provided the band can capture something superior to "cocktail jazz," the slander with which their longtime producer Paul Rothchild leaves them before quitting during early L.A. Woman sessions. The Doors return to their rehearsal studio at a crossroads, attempting to invent a new, Western blooz and reimagine a dissolute swamp as the concrete Delta.

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