Monday, April 19, 2021

The Doors found magic in their powerful final album

For The Doors, the release of the album L.A. Woman 50 years ago, on April 19, 1971, would be a rebirth of their musical power and, sadly, at the same time, their swan song.

A scant three months after the album’s debut, the last studio album for the quartet, Jim Morrison -- poet, rock evangelist and shaman -- would be dead in a bathtub in his Paris apartment, ending the group’s four-year run as one of rock’s most prestigious chroniclers of life’s mysteries, pathos, chaos and transcendent beauty.

This album should have been a disaster. The band’s longtime producer had walked out on them. Morrison was reeling from years of alcoholism and drug usage, and a six-month jail sentence was looming over his head following his conviction for indecent exposure and open profanity stemming from the infamous Dinner Key Auditorium concert in Miami.

But they pulled off a miracle, turning their sixth studio album into a near-masterpiece.

LA Woman was a return to the band’s roots, a ballsy, blues-oriented collection recorded in less than a week (by contrast, The Soft Parade took nine months to complete) and mixed in a second week in The Doors’ private rehearsal studio. And they did it without producer Paul Rothchild, who had been with the band since their first venture into a studio. Rothchild dismissed the proposed tunes as “cocktail music” and walked out of the studio. After an emergency meeting, the band teamed up with engineer Bruce Botnick to co-produce the album. A bad choice for Paul, but a blessing for The Doors.

“Our last record turned out like our first album: raw and simple,” drummer John Densmore wrote in his autobiography. “It was as if we had come full circle. Once again we were a garage band, which is where rock and roll started."

“We just did a couple takes, on everything,” Densmore added in a 2010 interview. “There were some mistakes, and I would say, ‘Remember on Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall … there’s this horrible trumpet error? Miles said he didn’t care, because of the feeling.’ That’s what L.A. Woman is. Just passion – in our rehearsal room, not in a fancy studio. It was the first punk album!”

“Blues. Original blues, if there’s such a thing” was how Morrison described L.A. Woman.

Boosted by tracks like “Riders On The Storm,” the title cut and “Love Her Madly” -- their first Top 40 hit in two years -- this is one of the stronger albums created by The Doors, who emerged in January 1967 with one of the most accomplished and fully realized debut albums of the decade. It was fitting that they would go out on such a high note.

Morrison upon his arrest in Miami

With the album completed, Morrison left for a sabbatical in Paris, with no one realizing that would be the last the world would hear from rock’s enigmatic performer. The lyrics from “Celebration Of The Lizard” came to life: “He went down south and crossed the border/Left the chaos and disorder/Back there over his shoulder.”

There are some eerie warnings of Morrison’s death.

While mixing the album in January 1971, some last-minute additions were made to “Riders On The Storm,” the album's closing song. Thunderstorm sound effects were dubbed in and Morrison added a more subtle, haunting contribution: two ghostly whispers of the song’s title on the fadeout. “That’s the last thing he ever did,” keyboardist Ray Manzarek recalled, “an ephemeral, whispered overdub.”

The song was released as the album’s second single, entering the Billboard charts on July 3, 1971, the day Jim Morrison died.

Also serving as a poignant farewell is a song recorded during the sessions, “Paris Blues,” that was never released. According to Rolling Stone, “the only known copy is a badly damaged cassette, on which portions have been accidentally erased. Lyrical fragments hint at a deeply personal song. ‘Goin’ to the city of love, gonna start my life over again,’ Morrison sings. ‘Once I was young, now I’m gettin’ old/Once I was warm, now I feel cold/Well, I’m goin’ overseas, gonna grab me some of that gold.’”

A bathroom becomes a vocal booth: Recording in their cramped rehearsal studio, Morrison used the bathroom as a vocal booth; the tile made for impressive natural acoustics. He ripped the door off its hinges to interact with his bandmates while recording. The building later became a bar, and a plaque was installed in the bathroom to commemorate the recording sessions.

Inspired by a cowboy song and a serial murder:
During rehearsals, guitarist Robby Krieger was noodling around on the old cowboy song “Ghost Riders In The Sky.” Morrison exclaimed that he had lyrics that would fit that melody, and “Riders On The Storm” was born. Manzarek’s keyboard transported the song to the desert. The song’s “killer on the road” segment was inspired by mass murderer Billy Cook, who murdered six people, including an entire family, while hitchhiking to California in 1950.

Duke Ellington provides the title:
An argument between Krieger and his wife, Lynne, was the basis for the lyrics for “Love Her Madly.” But the title comes from a phrase from Duke Ellington, who ended every concert with the sign-off, “We love you madly.”

Some extra help in the studio: The Doors never had a bass player, relying instead on Manzarek’s keyboard bass. They often overdubbed bass guitars in the studio. For L.A. Woman, they brought in Jerry Scheff, Elvis Presley’s bass player, to record live with them. They also had guitarist Marc Benno, who accompanied Leon Russell, to play on several of the album cuts.

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