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

Photo by Paul Ferrara/copyright DMC

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.

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.

Jazz is Beat, but blues is blood. Blues is bruised. Blues is booze. Blues is the boomerang. Blues isn't the hangover; it's the hanging. Jim Morrison jokes to John Densmore: "You're drinking with No. 3." Janis. Jimi. Jim. Blues is when the doors close.

This is not a blues city. L.A. is about the concealment of appearance, but the blues is about its unraveling. The blues is the opposite of bullshit. And the psychic unrest of L.A. Woman is prominently placed on the album cover, which drops in April '71. Morrison is shunted off to the side like a dwarf Russian woodcutter or an American werewolf about to ruin Paris. The border is blood red; the faces of the band, choleric yellow.

"Jim was seduced by the luxury and indulgences of fame," Manzarek says now. Always bespoke and bespectacled, he has a voice as smooth as soy milk. In 1971, he splits time between a two-bedroom near the Whisky and a small penthouse on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. "The more boorish the behavior, the more Morrison's crew liked it. We confronted him, and he said he was trying to quit drinking. But he was a guy who would say, 'I feel lousy. I need a drink.' Conversely, 'I feel great, I need a drink.' "

Densmore, the wiry, West L.A.–raised jazz devotee, had grown fed up with the erratic live performances of the previous year. A graduate of University High, the sarcastic and quick-witted drummer refused to watch the band's mesmerizing stage show erode into tacky spectacle.

"There's no control in front of thousands of people. In a studio, you can go home. At our last show in New Orleans, [Morrison] was a wreck. In the middle of the set, he sat down on my drum stool. I got up, walked around and sat next to him. 'Jim, gosh, what do you want to play? There's a bunch of people here.' His head was down. I said, 'Oh boy, we're done.' "

Afterward, the band cancels the tour and live show for the foreseeable future. "The elephant in the room was shitting everywhere," Densmore jokes.

The Doors return to the Workshop to find form in the bloated "lounge music." Drained by lawsuits and loose monetary policy, Morrison is broke, borrowing from the band's royalties. They're all still recovering from the credibility bloodbath that was their oversalted Sgt. Pepper, The Soft Parade. Their "comeback," 1970's Morrison Hotel, saw brisk sales and critical acclaim, but recording it was a slog, filled with take after soul-snuffing take. It's also the only Doors record to lack a hit single.

L.A. Woman is a return to basics: the primeval floor, the soft angles of the rehearsal room, the ability to unbuckle their belts and belch. Recording takes six days, mixing another week. Their engineer and co-producer Bruce Botnick, who is just 26, has already co-produced Love's masterpiece Forever Changes, engineered every Doors record and the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, and co-engineered the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed.

"My contribution was to allow them to feel free. They knew how to do the Doors better than I did," Botnick says today. "It felt like summer vacation after graduation. The Workshop was their sanctuary. For the first time, Jim got involved and took a leadership role. He wasn't drinking heavily during rehearsals and never left early. It was the first time that there hadn't been an authority figure present."

From recording to writing, the approach is rough but relaxed. No set hours. No working at night. No more than three takes, recorded live on 8-track with minimal overdubs. Desks are shoved to the side. Quilts hang from the walls for higher fidelity. Working from the second floor, out of sight, Botnick hooks up a console speaker and tape recorder. For session work, he recruits Elvis Presley's bassist, Jerry Scheff, and rhythm guitarist Marc Benno, who frees Krieger up for kaleidoscopic solos. A disciple of the King, Morrison is thrilled.

Inspired by the warts-and-all emotion of a trumpet error farted out at the start of Miles Davis' Live at Carnegie Hall, Densmore suggests the band submit to its most raw instincts.

"What makes music good isn't perfection, it's the feeling," he says now. "Fuck the errors. Let's be passionate and quick. Back to the garage and blues and our roots."

Morrison sings in the bathroom, his baritone corroding the high ceilings and warped wood. His Southern roots have never seemed more swamp rat: He shifts from vampire Sinatra croon into diseased hobo growl. They cut a John Lee Hooker cover ("Crawling King Snake") for extra poison.

"We never saw ourselves as a blues band. The Rolling Stones wanted to be a blues band and turned rock & roll. We started doing rock and ended up at the blues on L.A. Woman," Krieger says.

Raised in the Pacific Palisades, the guitarist pens the album's Top 10 single "Love Her Madly." "That's what Jim wanted to do. He loved blues, and it got into his psyche more and more. He always said he felt like an old bluesman."

"Changeling" is a kiss-off to L.A. — Morrison actually departs for the City of Light before the band and Botnick finish mixing the album. "Cars Hiss by My Window" is a Jimmy Reed moan of midnight desolation. "Hyacinth House" is a slice of canyon life, circa 1970 — a prayer to meet someone who doesn't want something. "Riders on the Storm" mirrors the city at its most hermetic and apocalyptic, the powder-enhanced fear that the near future will bring rain and hitchhikers carrying cleavers. The title track is the city's gleaming white underbelly, noir exposed to blown minds on Venice Beach.

Ditching mystic metaphors for sinewy, dirty realism, Morrison sings like a cripple with a cough: wrecked, filthy and flailing at real and imagined demons. All Doors albums court the darkness, but previous efforts burst with the goofball color of a bad acid trip. L.A. Woman is sullen and kidney-colored, full of the mysterious bruises of the diseased and drunk. It's microscopic Americana: hellhound blues, liberated jazz, Hank Williams and the big beat, Ol' Blue Eyes, Bo Diddley. It's a lawless AM radio station manned by a schizo, spinning dive-bar bands for people more damaged than he is — broadcasting live from La Cienega.

January 2012

Rhino Records has decreed 2012 "The Year of the Doors," with a two-disc 40th-anniversary reissue with alternate takes, a few covers and a "revelatory" look inside the Doors Workshop. There's a behind-the-scenes L.A. Woman DVD that does everything but hold a séance. Released this week, it marks exactly 41 years since the band finished their masterpiece. Fuzzy math, apparently, matters little to a failing industry — not when the Doors catalog is one of its last reliable sources of fossil fuel.

Don't confuse the extravaganza with 2010, when an official Doors documentary saw limited theatrical release. Or 1991, when Densmore wryly jabbed at "The Year of the Doors," estimating that it was the band's 10th such resurgence. That year Oliver Stone released his biopic The Doors — with Val Kilmer as an oddly convincing, comic book Morrison. In one scene, Meg Ryan throws a turkey at Kilmer and screams, "Jim Morrison, you ruined Thanksgiving again." Johnny Drama plays John Densmore. It's so unintentionally hilarious and vivid that it dulls the desire to separate fact and fiction.

There's no need for a year of the Doors when there's rarely an hour without them. Classic rock radio constantly offers both hits and deep cuts. And every few years, something else reanimates the catalog. In the late '70s, "The End" scored Martin Sheen's meltdown in Apocalypse Now. During the mid-'90s, The Basketball Diaries and Forrest Gump cemented the cinematic cliché: Nothing says "We're really in the late '60s" like the Doors.

Jim Morrison couldn't exist in the modern world: The Lizard King wouldn't tweet anything, and TMZ would shadow a urine-stained Jimbo stumbling out of Barney's Beanery with Nico in tow. Anyway, he dodged the indignity of being photographed at 45, fat and fluorescent. When Morrison slipped away in a bathtub in Paris in July 1971, there was no Malibu rehab offering alternative salvation. He was buried without an autopsy — circumstances ripe for conspiracy and conjecture. So the Morrison myth metastasizes, no matter how many ill-advised licensing deals or collaborations.

Synonymous as he is with the idea of reckless living, Morrison has captured the imagination of the rap and the punk worlds alike. He's worshipped by everyone from Lil Wayne to Iggy Pop. On Jay-Z's iconic Nas diss "The Takeover," Kanye West slyly acknowledges the ferocity of "Five to One," flipping it to dramatize Roc-A-Fella's march toward victory.

But the Internet offers music snobs unfiltered access to every obscure corner. "Cool" has become intrinsically locked into a fragile sense of scarcity. Cults can rise and fall in clicks. And there's nothing less exclusive than the Doors. They are the greatest eighth-grade band of all time. Like Holden Caulfield or Jack Kerouac, Morrison artfully conveys the eternal teenage conviction that everything is bullshit — and yet, by the time you're a senior in high school, their cover has been blown; they've become the favorite band for those who answer "everything" when asked what music they like. Walk into a sleazy dive in Hollywood, and Morrison's face will be above the bar in slurred watercolor.

The dead should make room for the living, but the Doors won't wither. And that might be why the band is the psych-rock bête noire for the latest generation of critics. Last year, The Village Voice quizzed 15 writers on the names of the four Doors. Nearly half answered with a variation on "I fucking hate the Doors." Idolator deemed them "The Worst Band of All Time." Craig Finn, frontman for acclaimed indie-rock act the Hold Steady, accused the Doors of "giving the green light to generations of pseuds." Even Conan O'Brien admitted on air that he doesn't like them.

During the '90s, the zeitgeist shifted from sincere and psychedelic explorations of self to sardonic, detached cool. To a subculture embodied by the acerbic, flannel-shirted, slacker nonchalance of Pavement, the Doors seemed as played out as paisley. Claiming to be a shaman shrouded by Indian spirits no longer translates, unless you live in a two-story teepee in Topanga Canyon. And while a thousand bands have artfully ripped off Pavement, everyone looks absurd imitating the Doors. They are the rock equivalent of "Don't try this at home."

Last November, the backlash to the backlash began with the publication of Greil Marcus' The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years. The book is a rebuttal of decades of derision: The éminence grise of rock criticism recontextualizes the band amidst Thomas Pynchon, Pump Up the Volume and assemblage artist Wallace Berman. Isolating bootleg performances of the band at its most intense, he illustrates its persistent transcendence over 40 years of intense hate and hagiography.

"Lester Bangs once called [Morrison] the Oafus Laureate, and that was someone who loved the Doors and flipped over L.A. Woman," Marcus says by phone. "There was something ridiculous, pompous, stupid and megalomaniacal about Morrison that puts people off. He would do things to guarantee him trouble. He instinctively recoiled against authority but was smart enough to make his contempt dramatic, funny and challenging."

Indeed, the critics who attack Morrison's self-seriousness ignore the smirk. In a phone interview, the venerable Beat poet Michael McClure calls Morrison "the best poet of his generation." In The White Album, Joan Didion writes that the Doors are the Norman Mailers of the Top 40, praising their music for insisting that "Love was sex and sex was death and therein lay salvation."

With Morrison's death came a different strain of salvation. The passage of time never eroded the myth; the L.A. Woman stays forever young.

Morrison is buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. If he were still alive, he'd be 68 years old. At the close of 2010, Florida governor Charlie Crist finally pardoned him for those misdemeanor convictions, still under appeal at the time of his death.

A decade ago, Ray Manzarek left Los Angeles for a farmhouse in Napa, where he grows heirloom tomatoes and bok choy. Robby Krieger is still in Benedict Canyon, although he no longer owns bobcats. Densmore stays in the Pacific Palisades, not far from the boyhood home that was fatefully bulldozed for a three-way on-ramp at the intersection of the 405 and 10 freeways.

Idle at the intersection of La Cienega and Santa Monica today and you'll see everyone but Jim Morrison. The City of Night has become another gentrified crossroads offering "puppy presents" and frozen yogurt. The Tropicana is deader than Sandy Koufax's left arm, replaced by a Ramada. Duke's is now on Sunset, next to the pay-to-play Whisky. The strip clubs are a flower shop and an Al & Ed's Auto Sound. Monaco Liquor and the Alta Cienega still stand, though; sin never falls out of fashion, and Morrison's old room, #32, has become a shrine.

The Doors Workshop is now Forbidden, a restaurant, bar and lounge that taunts pedestrians with $14 plates of tapas. Should you be looking for it, you'll notice a fake-gold plaque memorializing the place as "the site of the Doors Workshop, where L.A. Woman was recorded and mixed." It's a shallow grave to the moment when the psychedelic era turned sepia — a final barbaric winter before everything got worse. Myths and memories mutate, swamps get drained, but the blues just get older.