L.A. Woman, The Doors' Finest Hour?
Updated: May 14, 2022
The Doors had crammed several lifetimes into just five years as band, and by late 1970, the psychic toll of Jim Morrison’s addiction and legal hassles threatened to overwhelm the group. Any attempts at making an album under these conditions should have met with unmitigated disaster, but on L.A. Woman – the final Doors LP released during Morrison’s lifetime – the band succeeded almost in spite of themselves. Self-produced and recorded in their private rehearsal space, the album was a homecoming in both a musical and spiritual sense. “Our last record turned out like our first album: raw and simple,” drummer John Densmore reflected in his autobiography. “It was as if we had come full circle. Once again we were a garage band, which is where rock & roll started.”
Morrison left on an extended trip to Paris as the final mixes were being prepared, hoping to rediscover his muse in the City of Light. He would never return: The singer died there in July 1971.
Here are some surprising facts about the creation of L.A. Woman.
The Doors’ longtime producer quit the sessions, dismissing the songs as “cocktail music.”
L. A. Woman got off to an inauspicious start in November 1970, when the band played their new material for producer Paul Rothchild. They possessed only a handful of semi-complete tunes, and Rothchild was less than impressed. He dismissed “Riders on the Storm” as “cocktail music,” but reserved particular scorn for “Love Her Madly,” which he cited as the song that drove him out of the studio. “The material was bad, the attitude was bad, the performance was bad,” he said in the Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive. “After three days of listening I said, ‘That’s it!’ on the talk-back and cancelled the session.”
They convened for an emergency meeting at a nearby Chinese restaurant, and Rothchild laid his cards on the table. “I said, ‘Look, I think it sucks. I don’t think the world wants to hear it. It’s the first time I’ve ever been bored in a recording studio in my life. I want to go to sleep.'” With that, the so-called “Fifth Door,” who had produced the band since their debut, walked out.
Once the shock had worn off, the Doors turned to engineer Bruce Botnick, whose credits included all of their previous albums, as well as the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed. With his help, the reinvigorated band vowed to coproduce their new album. Gone were the days of Rothchild’s studio strictness, where it was normal to record 30 takes or spend hours on perfecting a drum sound. “Rothchild was gone, which is one reason why we had so much fun,” Robbie Krieger toldGuitar World in 1994. “The warden was gone.”
Eschewing the high tech luxury of Sunset Sound, the Doors decided to record in their unassuming “workshop” at 8512 Santa Monica Boulevard. “It was the room we had rehearsed in forever,” recalled John Densmore in the documentary Mr. Mojo Risin. “Our music was seeped into the walls. We were very comfortable. It was home.”
Like a fraternity common room, the cramped space was littered with empty beer bottles, dog-eared magazines, an endless tangle of cables and assorted instruments – plus a jukebox and pinball machine. “It was tight,” says Botnick, who was ensconced in the upstairs office behind a portable mixing board. “It was like sardines.”
During takes, Morrison would grab his gold Electrovoice 676-G stage mic and sing in the adjoining bathroom, which served as a provisional vocal booth. The room’s tile provided impressive natural acoustics, and he ripped the door off its hinges to better commune with his bandmates. The building has changed hands several times since the Doors recorded there, but its most recent incarnation – a bar, appropriately – paid tribute to the sessions with a plaque in the bathroom stall.
The band called upon Elvis Presley’s bass player to add some extra funk.
The Doors famously lacked a bassist during live sets, instead relying on Ray Manzarek’s Fender Rhodes’ keyboard bass to lock into the rhythm with Densmore. For their studio albums, the band quietly supplemented their core lineup with session pros handling the low end. Some of these contributions were overdubbed separately from the band, but for L.A. Woman, they wanted the live sound of musicians playing together. Botnick suggested Jerry Scheff, fresh from backing Elvis Presley at Las Vegas’ International Hotel. Morrison, a massive Presley fan, was thrilled. So was Densmore. “Jerry was incredible; an in-the-pocket man,” the drummer told Classic Rockmagazine. “He allowed me to communicate rhythmically with Morrison, and he slowed Ray down, when his right hand on the keyboards got too darn fast.”
The band also called upon guitarist Marc Benno, who was making a name for himself playing with Leon Russell. He contributed the percussive James Brown-like rhythm guitar stabs on the title track, as well as “Been Down So Long,” “Cars Hiss By My Window,” and “Crawling King Snake.” Scheff played on all songs except “L’America.”
“L’America” was originally recorded for a Michelangelo Antonioni soundtrack.
The cartwheeling “L’America” predates the L.A. Woman sessions by more than a year. The track had been intended for inclusion in Antonioni’s 1970 psychedelic drama, Zabriskie Point. The Italian auteur had notably tapped the Yardbirds for 1966’s Blow-Up, and it appeared he might do the same this time around with the Doors.
He visited the band in the recording studio, but their intensity – not to mention volume – proved too much for him to handle at close range. “We played it for him, and it was so loud, it pinned him up against the wall,” Manzarek told L.A. Weekly in 2011. “When it was over, he thanked us and fled.” Predictably, the song was not included in the film. The Doors were in good company – Jerry Garcia, John Fahey and Pink Floyd also had work rejected from the soundtrack.
“Riders on the Storm” was inspired by an old cowboy song – and a real-life serial killer. During one of the early rehearsal jams that fueled L.A. Woman, the Doors began riffing on Stan Jones’ galloping 1948 country-western hit “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend,” made famous by Vaughn Monroe. “Robbie was playing his twang guitar,” Ray Manzarek recalled in Mr. Mojo Risin. “And Jim went, ‘I got lyrics for that!’ And he had ‘Riders on the Storm.'” The moody words fit the equally foreboding music, and Manzarek’s driving keyboard figure shifted the melody from a Morricone-esque “yippee ki-yay” to a lonely desert highway.
Characteristically, Morrison’s lyrics drew from a myriad of sources. The title was adapted from a passage in “Praise for an Urn” by poet Hart Crane, and other lines were inspired by his tumultuous relationship with long-term partner Pamela Courson. But the most memorable verse is culled from a self-penned screenplay inspired by the spree killer Billy Cook, who murdered six people – including a family – while hitchhiking to California in 1950. Though executed for his crimes, he is immortalised as the “killer on the road.”
“Love Her Madly” takes its title from a Duke Ellington catchphrase. The lyrics for L.A. Woman‘s lead single – the Doors’ first to crack the Top 40 since “Touch Me” two years earlier – were born out of a particularly noisy fight between Robbie Krieger and his future wife, Lynne. “Every time we had an argument, she used to get pissed off and go out the door and slam the door so loud the house would shake,” he said in Mr. Mojo Risin. But the title borrows a signature phrase from Duke Ellington, who would end every concert with the sign-off, “We love you madly.” Krieger’s bandmates, all well versed in jazz, got the reference.
The album was recorded in less than a week. Aside from “L’America,” which was already in the can, the basic tracks for L.A. Woman came together in just six days spread between December 1970 and January 1971. Mixing took an additional week, but that’s still a blink of an eye compared to the nine months it took to complete the Doors’ cumbersome 1969 work, The Soft Parade. The rapid pace ensured that the mercurial Jim Morrison, whose short attention span often led him towards destructive tendencies, remained focused and on his best behavior. During a single session, which the singer dubbed “blues day,” they enthusiastically tackled “Cars Hiss By My Window,” “Been Down So Long,” “Crawling King Snake” and several other loose jams.
“We just did a couple takes, on everything,” Densmore told Modern Drummer in 2010. “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!”
Jim Morrison used the L.A. Woman cover to get revenge on his record company.
Morrison was always contemptuous of his rock Adonis image, and by 1970 he had ditched his trademark leather pants, gained considerable weight, and obscured his handsome features with a bushy beard in an effort to direct fans away from his appearance and towards his art. But rock is built around image, and Elektra Records preferred the svelte Lizard King of yore. They used a much earlier photo of Morrison on the cover of 1970’s compilation 13, even after he consented to shaving his beard for photo sessions. The message was even more blunt on the cover of that year’s Absolutely Live, which superimposed an older photo of the singer over a contemporary shot of the rest of the band. Morrison was furious.
For L.A. Woman, he would do it his way – beard and all. Fed up with having his image emphasised on album covers, he insisted on a group shot, and crouched to appear even smaller alongside his bandmates. What you can’t see is a bottle of Irish whiskey just out of frame. “In that photo you can see the impending demise of Jim Morrison,” Ray Manzarek later reflected. “He was sitting down because he was drunk. A psychic would have known that guy is on the way out. There was a great weight on him.”
“Riders on the Storm” contains Jim Morrison’s last recorded contribution to the Doors.
When the band gathered at Poppi Studios early January 1971 to mix L.A. Woman with Bruce Botnick, they made some last minute embroideries to their epic album closer. Thunderstorm sound effects were added to “Riders on the Storm,” but Morrison had a more subtle contribution: two ghostly whispers of the song’s title on the fadeout. The eerie send-off is even more haunting in retrospect. “That’s the last thing he ever did,” Ray Manzarek told Uncut. “An ephemeral, whispered overdub.” The song was released as the album’s second single, entering the Billboard charts on July 3rd, 1971 – the day Jim Morrison died.
Additional songs were recorded during the L.A. Woman sessions – and one remains unissued. In addition to the 10 tracks that made up the final album, several additional songs were considered for L.A. Woman. “Orange County Suite,” which Morrison had recorded as a piano demo in early 1969, was ultimately rejected, as it had been from their previous album, 1970’s Morrison Hotel. It eventually was completed by the band posthumously and included in a 1997 box set.
A primitive bluesy medley called “”She Smells So Nice/Rock Me,” recorded early in the sessions and long forgotten, was rediscovered in the tape vault and issued on the expanded 40th-anniversary edition of L.A. Woman in 2012.
But perhaps most intriguing is the song “Paris Blues,” which remains unheard. 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.” Considering Morrison’s fate in Paris, it reads like a poignant farewell.