Rekindling the fire

By Graham Reid

The Doors' final album L.A. Woman gets a 40th anniversary make-over. Graham Reid talks to their drummer John Densmore

The Doors saved some of their best music for last, recording LA Woman in the early 70s, shortly before Jim Morrison's death.
Photo / Supplied
The Doors saved some of their best music for last, recording LA Woman in the early 70s, shortly before Jim Morrison's death. Photo / Supplied

The Doors' final tour at the end of 1970 lasted just two shows. At the second, in New Orleans, the once-charismatic Jim Morrison - increasing a booze addict and unpredictable - smashed his microphone repeatedly on the stage, collapsed and then refused to carry on.

Backstage afterwards, drummer John Densmore, keyboard player Ray Manzarek and guitarist Robby Krieger had a meeting - the air would have been blue - and decided that as a live act the Doors were done.

The previous two years had been chaotic: There was the notorious Miami concert in 1969 where Morrison allegedly exposed himself and the court case and appeal dragged on, he was drinking constantly (and rarely washing by most accounts) and audiences were coming just to see him screw up. Often he would oblige. The albums got worse.

Yet before and after what would become that final concert, Morrison was in the studio with the band recording L.A. Woman, widely regarded as the Doors' return to form. And he was only having, as sportspeople say, "a few beers".

Drummer Densmore - now a 67-year-old grandfather - recalls the sessions as among his favourite, in part because their longtime producer, the perfectionist Paul S. Rothchild, quit at the start so the band and engineer Bruce Botnick took control.

"I knew Jim was going down," says Densmore, "but was very pleased that somehow, despite his self-destruction, when we rehearsed, wrote songs and recorded, he showed up. He pulled it together. When people ask me what are my favourite [Doors] albums are I always say L.A. Woman and [second album] Strange Days. Strange Days because we got more relaxed in the studio and began experimenting and having fun.

"But L.A. Woman we did in our rehearsal garage like the original garage of Ray's parents, and we got back to our essence. [Jim] was empowered by the idea we were co-producing with Bruce. We were thinking we were the bosses and stepping up to the plate."

L.A. Woman - now given a 40th anniversary remaster/reissue with out-takes and unreleased tracks including their jam on the blues standard Rock Me - was mostly blues-based. But it has some of the band's most enduring work including Love Her Madly, Riders on the Storm, the groove-riding title track and Morrison's most successful spoken word piece The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat).

As in the past, the band called in additional musicians, this time bassist Jerry Scheff (from Elvis Presley's touring band) and rhythm guitarist Marc Benno (from Leon Russell's Asylum Choir) to fatten the sound.

In the expanded edition some of the out-takes and extra tracks - which include the two bonus songs on the "40th anniversary mixes" edition of 2007 - are excellent (Manzarek energised on Love Her Madly) but the previously unreleased She Smells So Nice could only charitably be called a minor entry in the Doors catalogue. Morrison is poorly recorded and the lyrics fall far short of the poet he claimed to be.

However some of the rehearsals suggest the sessions were loose and improvised - a run-through of Riders on the Storm is initially delivered as a cowboy song where Morrison sings the theme to the range-riding 60s television show Rawhide at the end - but Densmore says otherwise.

"We rehearsed for a month off and on and the whole thing was done in two weeks.

"Jim's words would tell us what the mood of the sound should be. So if he's singing about 'a killer on the road whose brain is squirming like a toad' then we have some moodiness right there."

And The WASP?: "He had this poem and we loved it, and we had this riff and recorded the track, then put the poem on top and it fit. That part was improvised."

Unbeknown to Densmore and the others, this is exactly what they would controversially do with some of Morrison's poems seven years later for the album American Prayer.

But that was in their unknown future.

When L.A. Woman was released in April 1971, it was met with critical acclaim ... although Rolling Stone's Richard Meltzer - a seriously bad writer - advanced the line the Doors were comedic and "there isn't one serious cut on this album" only to also note "the Doors have never been more together" and there wasn't "one bummer cut on the entire album - a first for them".

Meltzer concluded it was "the Doors' greatest album" which might have made Morrison happy.

But by then he'd checked himself out of rock and had moved to Paris to become either a serious poet or a much more diligent alcoholic.

He succeeded at the latter. Fewer than six weeks after the Stone review he was dead.

The Doors
L.A. Woman, Expanded Edition
Verdict: The final and most impressive flash of Jim Morrison's brief flame gets the expanded treatment

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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