May 11, 2017

FTV: The Doors at 50


    What were you listening to during the Summer of Love?   Listening to the radio then meant AM Top 40 as FM was just getting to be the next big thing.  At 13 going on 14 years old, I was listening to a lot of pop songs and chumming around with a new piano playing buddy named Jeff Lewis.  We had heard the short version of The Doors Light My Fire and Jeff hatched the bright idea that we should pool our money and share the album.  Jeff was always a bit of a con-man, so my suspicious side thinks that his mother wasn’t keen on him buying the album so I was his excuse.  In the end, I took the sonic leap from the first LP I ever owned (The Monkee’s debut) and found myself neck deep in a very different sound.  Landmark albums usually catch people off guard and in the case of The Doors eponymous album, this is not an understatement.

    The Doors were not your average, normal band.  In fact, they were more like two bands in one.  The four members were all integral parts of their sound, but over time, they became Jim Morrison and the other three Doors.  It was Morrison, however, who insisted that they sign an agreement that gave them all an equal share of the songwriting credits and publishing rights.  No decision could be made about the use of The Doors music without unanimous agreement between the four members, yet the public polarized them as ‘Jim Morrison and those other three guys’.  Add to the mix Morrison’s penchant for being a wild and crazy guy, and one can understand the rest of the band’s frustrations with their career.  As guitarist Robbie Krieger stated, “With Jim, it wasn’t always easy.  It would have been a lot easier if he’d been just a normal genius.”

    The moment that sold Elektra Records owner Jac Holzman on the band came from their version of the 1925 Bertolt Brecht – Kurt Weill song Alabama Song (Whisky Bar) that he heard the fourth night he came to see them perform at the Whisky A Go Go in West Hollywood.  The first three nights he heard the band,  Holzman said, “Morrison made no impression whatsoever.  There was nothing that tagged him as special.”  What Holzman didn’t know that Arthur Lee of Elektra Records recently signed psychedelic rock band Love had clued Morrison that there was a “suit” coming to hear The Doors.  Morrison had no desire to put on a show for some record company executive.  Holzman would never have signed the band to Elektra based on his first impression, but everyone he talked to in LA kept pushing The Doors forward as being the next big thing.  Finally, on the fourth night, when  the band did Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar), Holzman finally heard something from The Doors that he wasn’t hearing from a million other bands at the time.  Holzman later said, “When I heard that fourth night (at the Whisky), I knew this was a great band.”

    The band didn’t jump on the contract Elektra offered, but in truth, they were lucky to have any offer at all.  Columbia Records had let a previous deal expire before they even recorded any music with the band.  Just after meeting Holzman, they were fired from their residency at the Whisky, yet they still played coy with him for several months before signing with the label.  Holzman eventually paired The Doors with producer Paul A.Rothchild and his recording engineer Bruce Botnick.  They knocked out The Doors album in less than a week, but they actually had most of the material that would become their first two albums (the second being Strange Days), in hand when they arrived at the first session.  As Botnick later recalled for Classic Rock Magazine, “They were totally different than anything else I was recording.  I was recording the Beach Boys, The Turtles, The Ventures. . . and The Doors were totally different, it was the beginning of that era of American sixties music.”

    Morrison had his wild and crazy moments, but he wasn’t totally out of touch with reality.  His father was a career Navy man in line to become a Rear Admiral.  Morrison didn’t want to chance messing up his father’s career so he briefly toyed with changing his name to James Phoenix.  The rest of the band hated the idea so he went to plan B:  when asked for biographical information for the record company promotional material, Jim simply told them his family died in a tragic car accident and he was an orphan.  His family was understandably mystified by this turn of events, but it was just another example of the enigmatic Morrison building his own legacy.  The ‘young lion’ photographs taken by Joel Brodsky in 1966 made him a poster boy and fueled the cult of Morrison, but the look was taken directly from Gerard Malanga who Morrison had no doubt seen in several of Andy Warhol’s classic art films.  The photos are how many remember Morrison to this day, but as Brodsky says, “He never really looked that way again.  I photographed Morrison at his peak.”  Malanga was more direct in his appraisal of Morrison’s shirt open to the navel, leather pants wearing persona:  “He stole my look!”

    The music press jumped on anything that Morrison did and the record company paid for the damages because any press was good press if it helped sell records.  The story of Morrison returning to Sunset Sound and trashing it by spraying fire extinguisher foam all over the place was knitted into a tale of the singer as a tortured artist.  The truth is closer to the artist as a casualty of altered reality.  It is true that he returned to the studio after a recording session, but with the intent to record.  The studio had a series of glass block partitions lit from the inside with red light bulbs and in his altered state of mind, Morrison thought the place was on fire.  He not only emptied a fire extinguisher, he also spread the sand from the ashtrays all over the floor.  Rothschild got there in time to spirit Jim back to his place where they spent the rest of the night listening to Stones, Howlin’ Wolf, and Donovan records.  Once he made it home, Rothschild fielded a phone call from the angry studio owner who wanted to know if he knew anything about the vandalism.  He claimed he did not, but he did tell the owner to send the bill to Elektra.

    The band hoped to have the album released before Christmas of 1966, but Holzman talked them into delaying until the new year so they could get the PR campaign rolling first.  Morrison really liked the idea of The Doors being the first rock band to be featured on the giant billboards on Sunset Avenue.  The record company loved the album but knew that the line She gets high (from Break on Through) was going to be a problem so a little creative editing reduced it to She gets . . . She gets . . . She gets . . . which did not make the band happy.  Miming to the edited version of the song in their first television appearance (January 1,1967 on Shebang), an unhappy Morrison made no effort to sell that he was actually singing the song.  In The Doors movie with Val Kilmer in the role as Morrison,  the band is asked to change the line by the producer of the Ed Sullivan Show.  They deliberately sing the banned line and lamely explain, “We are so used to singing it that way that we forgot.”  This enraged Ed Sullivan but added to the myth The Doors were building.  No doubt it also added to the angst of the establishment who were still trying to figure out this renegade band of bad boys.  

    The seven minute version of Light My Fire was getting played in its entirety on FM radio, but the strict AM code of the day (songs could not be less than 2:45 and no longer than 3:00 minutes of needle time) kept it off Top 40 radio.  Holzman set Rothschild to the task of editing out the long solo section in the middle of the song to make the single fit the AM format.  Whether the band liked having nearly five minutes of their opus being hacked off the album track is unclear, but it was this little editing job that made Light My Fire the biggest selling anthem for the Summer of Love.  It no doubt spurred a lot of album sales and that made Elektra a new force in the record industry.

    I wasn’t following all of the wild stories about The Doors.  I was spinning the record endlessly and learning to play a different type of rock and roll drums from John Densmore.  Densmore is a rock drummer with jazz leanings (or vice versa) and his playing made learning The Doors songs a challenge.  It also made me a better musician because I had to really listen to the songs and dissect the arrangements in order to play along.  Densmore has taken a lot of flak in recent years for not yielding to the lure of the big money that could be made licensing The Doors music for commercials.  Does Densmore still harbored some remorse about how things turned out for the band?   When  asked about Morrison in 2012,  he looked back on the band’s heyday of the late 1960s and simply said, “You know, self-destruction and creativity don’t have to come in the same package.  Picasso lived to be ninety-one.  But in Jim they came together so I had to accept it.  We all had to.  That was the card we were dealt as a band.”  

    The Doors album turns fifty this year and Morrison is still the poster boy for the “burn bright, die young” rock star model that has been repeated too many times.  Too bad he isn’t here to celebrate one of the greatest albums of all time. With only Robbie Krieger and John Densmore still standing, we won’t be spinning any new Doors tunes, but we will spin The Doors classic music on WOAS-FM 88.5 and remember them as they were.

Top Piece Video – Gee, you can hardly tell they are lip syncing the sanitized version of Break on Through