June 2024

The Doors seemed to fade in people’s memories in the years following lead singer Jim Morrison’s death in 1971, but returned to popularity in 1980. In his 1979 movie Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola used “The End” from the Doors’ debut album to powerful effect, and the following year the publication of a Jim Morrison biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive, brought Morrison and the band renewed attention. Written by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman, it presented a sensationalistic portrait of Morrison, and its reliability has been questioned. It was a massive seller, however, and its descriptions of rock-star debauchery probably helped solidify Morrison’s place in the pantheon of 1960s heroes.

Jim Morrison’s vocals are central to the Doors, deep-toned and by turns caressing and aggressive. His stage presence and smoldering good looks were keys to the band’s popularity. Much of their unique sound, however, came from Ray Manzarek’s keyboards, and I can’t think of any other musician who plays in his style. Guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore are original, underrated players who have continued to make music over the years, but without matching the fame they achieved with the Doors. They both are essential to the great moments in the Doors’ best music, but it is Morrison and Manzarek who define the group.

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James Douglas Morrison was born on December 8, 1943, in Melbourne, Florida, a small city about 70 miles from Orlando. His father, George, was an officer in the US Navy and would go on to become a rear admiral. His mother was a housewife. Jim and his brother and sister were military kids whose father’s job led to frequent assignments in new towns. The family moved every couple of years, sometimes more frequently, and Morrison attended several schools before graduating in 1961. He was an above-average student, and an avid reader.

Over the years, various stories became part of Jim Morrison’s legend, and he started many of them. He remembered his family driving by a bad accident in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A truck had overturned and there were several injured Native Americans lying on the side of the road. The incident left a strong enough impression on Morrison that he referred to it in the lyrics to “Peace Frog,” from Morrison Hotel (1970), as well as in poems included in the posthumous Doors release An American Prayer (1978). In later interviews, Morrison’s father and sister remembered that Morrison was affected by what he saw, but they don’t remember it being as traumatic as he recalled.

Other legends seemed to simply grow up around Morrison. When his father died in 2008, obituaries in papers across America said the ship he commanded in 1964 was in the Gulf of Tonkin during events that led to increased US involvement in the Vietnam War. Some sources question whether the elder Morrison’s ship was in the Gulf of Tonkin that day, but it did engage in later battles during the war.

Jim Morrison read widely, but he took a particular interest in poets, including Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He moved to Florida after high school to attend college, first at St. Petersburg College, then at Florida State University. He was arrested in 1963 for disturbing the peace and public drunkenness at a Florida State Seminoles football game.

In 1964, Morrison transferred to UCLA to study filmmaking, a major that appealed to him because it was a new academic field and study was loosely structured. He took a class in comparative literature that further broadened his tastes. He began writing poetry at UCLA and completed his degree in film in 1965, mainly because, as he said, “I didn’t want to go into the army, and I didn’t want to work—and that’s the damned truth.”

Morrison moved to Venice Beach, where he lived on the roof of a friend’s apartment building. He started writing lyrics and music that would be used in the songs he and the Doors would later record. He was walking on the beach one day and ran into Ray Manzarek, who he knew from UCLA. He told Manzarek that he had written some songs. Manzarek asked to hear them and Morrison tentatively sang early versions of “Moonlight Drive,” “My Eyes Have Seen You,” and “Summer’s Almost Gone.”

Raymond Daniel Manczarek Jr. was born in Chicago in 1939. His parents, Helena Kolenda and Raymond Manczarek Sr., were first-generation Americans whose parents had left Poland for America in the 1890s. Ray Jr. attended Catholic school in Chicago and graduated in 1956. He went on to DePaul University and received a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1960. He started law school at UCLA about a year later, but soon switched to the university’s film school. He dropped out for a year and served in the US Army Security Agency before returning to UCLA in late 1962.

I could find no reliable sources that state exactly when Ray changed the spelling of his surname by dropping the “c,” but in 1965 he received a master of fine arts degree in cinematography from UCLA. He was playing in a band with his two brothers, Rick and Jim, who had also moved to Los Angeles. It was a few weeks after finishing at UCLA that Manzarek ran into Morrison on Venice Beach.

Manzarek and Morrison decided to form a band. Morrison initially joined Manzarek and his brothers in their band, Rick & the Ravens, and the group recorded some demos that included Morrison’s songs. They needed a drummer for the session and Manzarek brought in a friend he had met recently, John Densmore.

John Densmore was born in Los Angeles in 1944 and attended schools there. He took piano lessons, but moved to drums and percussion when he joined the marching band in high school. After he completed high school, he studied music at Santa Monica City College and California State University, Northridge. His biggest influences were jazz drummers Elvin Jones and Art Blakey.

Densmore and his friend Robby Krieger were in a band called the Psychedelic Rangers when they met Ray Manzarek. Robby Krieger was born in Los Angeles in 1946 and went to the Menlo School, where he took up the guitar. He was a fan of flamenco guitar and learned to play in that style, which uses the fingernails to pluck the strings rather than a plectrum. Krieger retained the use of fingerpicking when he switched from classical to electric guitar. He played in a jug band briefly, and listened to blues and jazz guitarists, including Albert King and Wes Montgomery.

Krieger and Densmore took a course on the music of India at UCLA, and during one of the sessions heard about a class on transcendental meditation. According to Mick Wall’s Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre: A Biography of the Doors (2014), “It was at their second follow-up class, after they’d been given their special Sanskrit words to chant by themselves, that they met Ray.” By the time Krieger joined Manzarek and Densmore in their new group, it had been renamed the Doors.

Mick Wall

According to Wall, Morrison had been thinking of the name for the band for some time and he suggested it to Manzarek, who “just didn’t get it.” Morrison told him the name came from a line in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by poet William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Aldous Huxley took part of the line as the title for his book about his experiences with the psychedelic drug mescaline, The Doors of Perception.

The name appealed to Morrison because he was using another psychedelic drug that was increasingly popular in the mid-’60s in California, and still legal: LSD, which devotees called acid. When Manzarek reconnected with him that day on Venice beach, he noticed Morrison had lost weight. According to Wall, Manzarek could see “. . . how surprisingly handsome [he] actually was.” When Manzarek asked how he’d lost the weight, Morrison told him, “He’d been taking so much acid and getting so high, he’d ‘hardly eaten anything since we graduated.’”

By the time Robby Krieger began rehearsing with the Doors in late 1965, they had been shopping out the demo they made with Manzarek’s brothers, but only Columbia Records showed any interest and fronted them some money. When the contract ended, they hadn’t recorded anything. They had, however, bought some new gear, including a Vox organ. By then, Rick and Jim Manzarek had left the band, which opened the door for Krieger. According to Wall, Manzarek’s brothers thought the addition of Morrison ruined their chances of making it big.

At the Doors’ first rehearsal with Krieger, it was clear to the others that he was a better guitar player than Ray’s brother, Rick. During a run-through of “Moonlight Drive,” Krieger pulled a green bottleneck, cut from a beer bottle, out of his case and began playing slide guitar. He had learned slide from some of the old blues records he’d been listening to. Morrison was so pleased with the sound, he wanted to use slide on every song. The group didn’t have a bass player, so Manzarek played the low notes on a Fender Rhodes piano bass. Krieger told Guitar World in a 2016 interview that “. . . not having a bass player affected my guitar playing a lot. It made me play more bass notes to fill out the bottom.”

The Doors played some private parties, but in February 1966 began a regular gig at a club on LA’s Sunset Strip called the London Fog. They invited friends to come hear them during the audition, but after they got the job, attendance most nights was sparse, mainly because the Galaxy and Whisky a Go Go, two far more popular clubs, were close by. The Doors played four nights a week, Thursday through Sunday, from 9:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. The band became tighter, playing covers as well as their own songs. Morrison developed his stage presence, and the group built its chops.

After three months, the Doors hadn’t really pulled in the following the London Fog had hoped for and the club decided to let them go. Morrison convinced Ronnie Haran (some sources spell it “Harran”), who handled promotion for the Whisky a Go Go, to see them at the London Fog. She caught one of their final gigs there and told the Whisky to give the Doors a shot. The group would do two shows a night, opening for more famous headliners. Among the groups who performed during the Doors’ four months at the Whisky were Van Morrison and Them. Jim Morrison joined Them on their last night at the Whisky for an extended version of “Gloria.”

The Doors continued to sharpen their live skills at the Whisky. They also got more attention, opening for other acts that were better known, including Buffalo Springfield, Love, the Turtles, and Johnny Rivers. The Whisky was where Jim Morrison became more confident as a performer, and it was where he established a pattern of creating a sensation onstage that would often get him in trouble. In the case of the Whisky, it got him and his band fired.

The trouble started, as it often seemed to, with Morrison in an altered state. On August 21, he missed the Doors’ first set and the rest of the band covered for him. They went out to find him before their second set and, as Manzarek told the story in a video about the incident, found him at the Tropicana Hotel, where he kept a room. “And guess what?” Manzarek said. “He’s stoned on LSD.” They brought him back to the Whisky for the second set and at first everything was going well.

As Manzarek recalled, after two or three songs, Morrison suggested performing “The End.” The Doors usually saved “The End” for the close of their set. The song had morphed from a short tune about the end of a love affair into something longer and indefinable. The lyrics were already evocative and open to interpretation, but on that evening, Morrison added a new section to the song.

“We’re going along,” Manzarek continues in the video, “and the song gets soft in the middle of it and Jim does an improvisation, for the first time . . . coming out of some strange acid state.” Morrison began his story with the words, “The killer awoke before dawn. He put his boots on.” He continued with a retelling of the myth of Oedipus, who through a complicated series of circumstances kills his father and marries his mother.

The group had already built the instrumental sections into something atmospheric and otherworldly, with haunting keyboard lines from Manzarek, melody lines on guitar that grew out of Krieger’s study of Indian music, and Densmore’s subtle use of dynamics to punctuate Morrison’s imagery. Everything came to a stop at the Whisky when Morrison got to the Oedipal section of “The End.” He closed his monologue with the words, “Father . . . Yes, son? . . . I want to kill you . . . Mother . . . I want to . . . F*** YOU!”

In Manzarek’s telling, the audience came to life at the end of the song and applauded. Wall’s book says they were still in shock and remained silent. They both agree that Phil Tanzini, who managed the Whisky, rushed backstage afterwards to tell the Doors to take their things and leave immediately—they were fired. By then, the Doors had already signed with Elektra Records.

Elektra Records was primarily a folk label, established in 1950 by Jac Holzman and Paul Rickolt. The label began branching into other music in 1965, when it signed the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. A year later, it moved into rock’n’roll with the LA-based band Love. The group’s leader, Arthur Lee, told Holzman to check out the Doors at the Whisky.

Holzman told Wall that he went to see the Doors several times before he heard anything that made him think they had something unique. “Jim loved to do sets that involved long blues,” Holzman told Wall in Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre. “I had the Butterfield Blues Band to do that. . . . once I heard [their version of] ‘Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)’, I got the rest of it.” The Doors had taken “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)” from Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, a 1930 opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. It was an unusual choice for a rock band, but it made Holzman listen more closely to the rest of the Doors’ music.

Just a few days after the Whisky fired them, the Doors were at Sunset Sound in Hollywood with producer Paul Rothchild producing and Bruce Botnick recording their debut album. Krieger played bass on a couple of tracks and bassist Larry Knechtel played on other tracks. Session bassists would contribute to all the Doors’ recording sessions.

The Doors

Densmore’s cross sticking and ride cymbal on “Break on Through” are the first sounds on The Doors. Manzarek soon enters with a distinctive keyboard bass line, then Krieger echoes it in a slightly higher register on guitar. Jim Morrison’s first words on a record show his poetic leanings:

You know the day destroys the night
Night divides the day
Tried to run
Tried to hide
Break on through to the other side

Morrison clearly had honed his vocal chops during the previous months of performing. His voice is strong and confident, rising to an emphatic growl in portions of the song.

“Soul Kitchen” was Morrison’s tribute to a soul-food restaurant in Venice Beach, where he often stayed past closing time, much to the staff’s annoyance. The lyrics describe how it feels to be an outsider with no place to settle into. The subdued second verse describes the narrator’s alienation and loneliness:

Well, your fingers weave quick minuets
Speak in secret alphabets
I light another cigarette
Learn to forget

That “Learn to forget” gives the narrator and his story the complexity hinted at in the other verses. Since the story is not exactly spelled out, that phrase snaps it together. Morrison’s delivery on the song is as important as the words. He sings the verses calmly, then his voice rises to an aggressive, soulful shout during the chorus.

Holzman was right about “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar).” It shows how pretentious the Doors could be, but also how bracing and how unlike any other rock band they were when their skills and ideas matched their ambitions. It’s hard to imagine a rock singer other than Morrison singing the song, and Manzarek, who suggested it to the band, brings the right cabaret style to the keyboards. The circus- and carnival-music atmosphere integrated into the chorus highlights the absurd fatalism of the lyrics, which fit well with the dark undercurrent that ran through the Doors’ own songs.

“The Crystal Ship” and “End of the Night” showed how well the Doors could create a mood for Morrison’s vivid imagery, and “Twentieth Century Fox,” along with a cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Back Door Man,” demonstrated the band’s blues chops. The songs on The Doors that had the greatest impact, however, were the two longest tracks, “Light My Fire” and “The End.”

As with all the songs on The Doors, “Light My Fire” is credited to the whole band. It was Robby Krieger’s song, but Morrison added the second verse—as if someone else would have written “And our love become a funeral pyre.” Manzarek wrote the baroque-influenced intro, and Densmore suggested a Latin rhythm for the song and the rim shot on the snare that opens the track. Krieger’s arpeggios and Densmore’s firm but fluid drumming form the core of the arrangement.

Just a little over a minute in, after the second verse and chorus, the song moves into a lengthy instrumental section, with Manzarek and Krieger soloing over a two-chord, minor-key vamp. There’s a shift in time during Manzarek’s solo and the keyboardist responds with changes in intensity and volume. Krieger’s feature switches between the Dorian mode and straight A minor. The effect is vaguely eastern-sounding, in contrast to Manzarek’s nod to western classicism. Both solos remain consistent with the tone established in the opening, and both avoid flash, choosing clear melodic statement and resolution instead. Morrison sings two more verses and choruses, closing with an intense, full-throated “Try to set the night on fire!” that leads to an organ outro.

“The End” brings The Doors to a haunting and unsettling close. The track runs nearly 12 minutes and resulted from combining two takes. Its five verses form a disconnected narrative. Morrison told Jerry Hopkins in a Rolling Stone interview that “every time I hear that song, it means something else to me.” It’s a chilling song, and Morrison’s performance creates drama that carries forward its disparate images. But it’s the band’s playing that gives the lyrics and Morrison’s voice a foundation to rest upon.

Krieger plays a D-minor chord and allows it to sustain while he runs a fingernail over the spot above the nut on the guitar neck, which creates an odd harmonic effect. Densmore’s hi-hat filters in, joined soon by a tambourine, giving the song rhythmic form before Manzarek plays a bass line on keyboards. As Morrison sings, Manzarek plays organ lines that help to pull the song together further. Krieger’s solo after the first two verses contains the influence of the Indian music he had studied, successfully merged with the blues.

Krieger inserts more shivering guitar lines into the music on the third verse, and Densmore begins to punch the rhythm up and play stronger accents against Krieger’s guitar that carry that intensity into the long fourth verse. As the song continues, Morrison’s imagery becomes vague, but the rest of the group keeps the tension and sense of danger high. Densmore and Krieger bring the conclusion of the Oedipal story to a dramatic and forceful close—and nearly four minutes of the song remain.

After another verse, the song picks up speed, Krieger hits the chords and arpeggios harder, and Densmore pounds the drums. The group plays at full force while Morrison grunts and chants in the background. Online posts of the lyrics show him uttering the word “fuck” repeatedly as the music comes to a crescendo, but Paul Rothchild told BAM in 1981 that the word does not appear on the original recording. The version used in Apocalypse Now overdubbed it for effect.

Manzarek plays an important role throughout the song by playing sustained chords and a steady bass line, but during the crescendo he adds distortion to his Vox organ and the effect is haunting. The final minute of the song returns to the low-key feel of the opening, which plays against Morrison’s somber images in the closing verse.

The Doors completed recording their debut in five days, but Elektra elected to delay release of the album until early in 1967. In the meantime, the group played live shows, including a New York booking at Ondine’s, a hip discotheque that attracted Andy Warhol and members of his Factory, as well as various well-known rock stars. Warhol had been in Los Angeles months earlier with a stage show that Morrison attended. One of the performers wore a pair of tight black leather pants and a leather jacket, which Morrison soon adopted as his stage attire.

Elektra released “Break On Through (To The Other Side),” the opening track of The Doors, as a single on January 1, 1967. On January 4, the label released The Doors, which featured the band’s name on the cover in a distinctive logo. Jac Holzman decided to advertise the album on a billboard on Sunset Boulevard, a novel idea at the time that soon became a standard promotional tool. The Doors continued to generate buzz with live shows on the West Coast, including some at the Fillmore West. FM rock radio, which was beginning to gain traction, helped move copies of The Doors. Holzman told Mick Wall, “. . . the album [was] selling ten thousand copies a month in Southern California, which was a lot of records back then.”

“Light My Fire” was getting heavy FM airplay and people inside and outside Elektra were telling Holzman it could be a single. He resisted at first, but then told Rothchild to edit the song’s more than seven minutes down to just under three, which would help ensure AM radio play. The single omitted the instrumental break, and when Elektra released it in late April 1967, it went to number one. The single’s success drove sales of the album, which reached number two.

The spring release of the single made it and the album appear in retrospect to be Summer of Love phenomena, but The Doors was not an upbeat, sunshiny record. It was as dark and disquieting in its way as The Velvet Underground & Nico, released in March of that year. The Velvets were grittier and the band’s songwriter, Lou Reed, was a less self-consciously arty lyricist than Jim Morrison, but neither band embodied the peace-and-love hippie ethos.

The Doors appeared on several television shows because of the success of “Light My Fire,” and on September 17, 1967, they performed on The Ed Sullivan Show. Morrison cut an impressive figure onstage in his leather suit, and it was the group’s first significant nationwide exposure, playing “Light My Fire” live. The producers wanted Morrison to refrain from singing “Girl we couldn’t get much higher” because they were convinced it was a drug reference. Morrison sang it anyway. Sullivan promised him the Doors would never again appear on his show.

The group had been in the studio on and off in May through August to record a second album. They were once again at Sunset Sound with Paul Rothchild and Bruce Botnick. The Doors had been recorded on a four-track tape machine, but the studio had just acquired an eight-track recorder and the band was eager to use the additional tracks for experimenting. Elektra released Strange Days on September 25, 1967.

Strange Days

“Moonlight Drive” and “People are Strange” are as good as anything on the previous album, and “Love Me Two Times” is another solid blues tune by the band. The remainder of the album has some good ideas and some outstanding playing, but the songs aren’t as consistently strong as those on The Doors. Krieger and Dunsmore are the best things on “When the Music’s Over,” but aside from Krieger’s multi-tracked solo and Dunsmore’s inventive drum work, the song doesn’t generate enough melodic interest or energy to justify its 11-minute length. The vocal processing on “Strange Days” only serves to heighten the mediocrity of the tune. “Horse Latitudes” is the group’s first attempt at creating a backdrop to Morrison’s reading of one of his poems.

The Doors spent the final months of 1967 playing a grueling schedule of shows in the US. On December 9, they appeared at the New Haven Arena in New Haven, Connecticut. The Hopkins/Sugerman biography of Morrison and Wall’s history of the band both note that as the band became more popular, Morrison’s alcohol use increased. “The binges were now acquiring near epic proportions,” wrote Hopkins and Sugerman.

Morrison was drunk before the New Haven show and was in the band’s dressing room with a young woman when a policeman came into the room and ordered the two to leave. Morrison argued with him, and the cop sprayed mace into Morrison’s face. In Wall’s retelling of the incident, mayhem ensued as the band, promoter, and local police argued backstage.

The policeman’s superiors determined he had overstepped his authority and apologized to Morrison. The show started a half hour later than scheduled, but the police remained standing at the side of the stage. After several songs, Morrison, so drunk he had to ask what city they were in, started to tell the story of what happened to him. The audience had already been irritated at the delay of the show, and they were also part of the growing counterculture that was distrustful of authority figures—especially the police.

As Morrison’s story continued, he became more agitated and started using profanity. The police standing offstage ordered the house lights to be turned on and walked onstage to arrest Morrison. The crowd, now twice disappointed, became angry and began tearing up the hall. A reporter and photographer followed Morrison and the police as they were leaving the hall and witnessed the police roughing up the singer.

“Thus was born Jim Morrison, rock star martyr,” Wall wrote in his Doors bio, “a role he would continue to play right up to and beyond the grave.” Crawdaddy and the then-new publication Rolling Stone picked up the story, and so did the mainstream press. Holzman saw it as an opportunity to “relegitimize the Doors as a counterculture group.” He had been unsure about releasing “Light My Fire” as a single, and the band was opposed to it. While it helped bring the Doors attention, it thrust them into the pop radio spotlight and requests for it at concerts irritated Morrison.

The group had begun work on their third album before the New Haven incident, but now Holzman urged Paul Rothchild to get them back in the studio as soon as he could after Christmas to complete it. Morrison’s drinking created chaos during the sessions. “Jim was actually enjoying his celebrity, I think,” Botnick told Wall, “to the point of getting polluted all the time.” Rothchild confirmed Botnick’s impressions in his interview with BAM: “Jim would come in too drunk to sing decently. Sometimes we’d put together eight different takes of a song to make one good one.

“Every single song from the third album on was done that way,” Rothchild continued. “Every one. I don’t mean a verse at a time, either. Sometimes it was a phrase at a time, from one breath phrase to another.” The group had no new songs. The tunes that formed their stage show had been recorded on the first two albums. “By the time we hit Waiting For The Sun,” Rothchild recalled, “things were getting a little thin.”

The group dredged up songs it had recorded on the Rick & the Ravens demo, including “Hello, I Love You.” The tune owed something to the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night,” and later a UK court would order the Doors to pay royalties to the Kinks’ songwriter, Ray Davies. I hear a vague similarity between the two songs, but “All Day and All of the Night” is far, far better. Elektra released “Hello, I Love You” as a single on June 11, 1968, and it was a massive hit.

Morrison wasn’t happy about recording “Hello, I Love You,” despite how briskly it later sold. It was blatantly commercial, and he had wanted to give over a side of the new LP to “Celebration of the Lizard,” which would combine spoken-word and sung verses. The Doors made several attempts at recording it, but Rothchild told them to pare it down to something manageable. The four-minute-long “Not to Touch the Earth” is taken from “Celebration of the Lizard,” and a full recording of the latter would appear on various compilations later, including Behind Closed Doors: The Rarities (2013). A live performance of the song appeared on Absolutely Live (1970).

Elektra released Waiting for the Sun on July 3, 1968. The gatefold included the full text of “Celebration of the Lizard.” The album has some strong moments, especially from Krieger, whose flamenco guitar on the intro to “Spanish Caravan” and solo on “Five to One” are high points. “Love Street” is an enjoyable venture into the cabaret style the group pulled off well on the first album, and “Not to Touch the Earth” is a convincing slice of avant-garde rock that reinforces Rothchild’s conviction that “Celebration of the Lizard” needed to be pared down.

Waiting for the Sun

The playing is solid enough on Waiting for the Sun to keep some of the weaker tracks, such as “Wintertime Love” and “My Wild Love” from sinking entirely. “The Unknown Soldier” was a strong anti-war statement but it has aged badly. “Five to One” is nearly as good as anything on the group’s first album, but Morrison’s vocals on the song and throughout the album often sound mannered. Despite lukewarm reviews, Waiting for the Sun hit number one on the charts and the group performed well-received shows throughout the rest of the year.

The Doors toured Europe with Jefferson Airplane in September 1968. At a show in Amsterdam, Morrison was drunk and high and took the stage during the Airplane’s set and tried to dance with singer Grace Slick. She pushed him away and he started spinning around and collapsed. Stagehands pulled him off the stage because he had blacked out. When the Doors took the stage for their portion of the show, Morrison wasn’t with them. Manzarek covered the vocals.

Morrison’s unpredictability was wearing on the other Doors. As Densmore told Wall, “How did you adjust to a guy who couldn’t play a note, yet could bring so much good to the cause—yet at the same time increasingly brings all this trouble too?”

Rothchild had the Doors in the studio soon after Elektra released Waiting for the Sun and in December the label released the single “Touch Me,” which the group had recorded the previous month. The song was Krieger’s, and it became another number one for the group, but it’s an overproduced and overwrought example of lounge music—a clear indication that the band was casting about for material and an identity, despite its success. Morrison sells it, but it’s hardly worth the effort.

In March 1969, the band started its biggest tour thus far, which opened with a show at the Dinner Key Auditorium in Coconut Grove, a neighborhood in Miami, Florida. The auditorium was a converted seaplane hangar, and the promoters removed its 7000 seats in order to double the number of tickets sold for the show. It was a hot, humid day outside, and even more uncomfortable inside the badly ventilated building.

Morrison arrived late to the gig and was drunk. The band started to play and he went into the first of several improvised raps. As the group started playing its cover of “Back Door Man,” Morrison began a rambling, nonsensical speech. The rest of the band labored on. Several songs in, Morrison was berating the audience. The other musicians in the band were having trouble figuring out where his spontaneous outbursts during the show might be heading.

Morrison finally let the band play “Light My Fire,” but decided it was a good idea to invite the audience to join him onstage. He began taking off his clothes and encouraged other people to follow his lead. He asked the people standing close to him if they wanted to see his penis. Manzarek yelled to the Doors’ road manager, Vince Treanor, to do something to keep Morrison from exposing himself. Treanor got behind the singer and grabbed the belt loops on his pants to keep him from pulling them down.

Members of the audience were, in fact, stripping down, and a policeman, accompanied by the concert’s two promoters, came onstage. Things got more chaotic and one of the promoters shoved Morrison into the crowd. The stage began to collapse, and the remaining Doors left the stage as Treanor and other crew members grabbed amps and gear. Morrison made his way to a balcony over the stage and waved to the audience. The show ended.

Four days later, the Doors were vacationing in Jamaica when word reached them that the Dade County Sherriff’s office had issued a warrant for Jim Morrison’s arrest on charges of lewd and lascivious behavior, indecent exposure, profanity, and drunkenness. As a result, public performance permits were revoked for their other shows and the rest of the tour was cancelled.

Manzarek, Krieger, and Densmore deny that Morrison had exposed himself. Morrison turned down a plea bargain that would require the Doors to play a free concert. The incident solidified Morrison’s outlaw status.

The Doors had been working on a fourth album since the previous fall and the sessions were even worse than those for Waiting for the Sun. “Touch Me” became a hit, but the rest of the album was coming slowly. “That album took a long time to do,” engineer Bruce Botnick told Wall. “There were serious creative arguments.” Some of the disagreements were between Botnick and Rothchild, who was pushing for a lusher production that included string and horn arrangements.

Rothchild was hoping the production would help cover up the fact that the Doors were having even more difficulty coming up with songs than they’d had with Waiting for the Sun. And, as with that album, the band had to do repeated takes to get things nailed down. Morrison’s drinking accounted for much of the recording time, but many of the overdub and production choices were attempts to cover up songs Rothchild and Botnick thought were weak. “I mean, this was the number one group and we needed an album,” Botnick recalled.

Soft Parade

Elektra released The Soft Parade in July 1969 and it’s certainly the oddest of the Doors’ six studio albums. Two of Morrison’s three songs, “Shaman’s Blues” and “Wild Child,” are strong, blues-based tunes that stand up well alongside the best Doors tracks. The title track, also by Morrison, is a slice of late-’60s psychedelic silliness, with occasional flashes of real meaning in the inscrutable lyrics. Far from the Doors at their best, it still shows them reaching for ideas.

With a little more work and less production over-egging, “Runnin’ Blue” might have turned into the credible Otis Redding tribute Krieger intended it to be. “Wishful Sinful” is another track that with a little more revision and a jettisoning of the strings and horns could have been tolerable. The rest of the album is forgettable, especially the Morrison/Krieger throwaway “Do It.” The album’s hit was “Touch Me,” but the two strongest songs were Morrison’s. His value went beyond his sex appeal and his talent at generating publicity. The Doors seemed to work best when they could flesh out his song ideas.

Morrison’s behavior was so unpredictable by the time of the recording sessions for The Soft Parade that he would disappear without notifying the rest of the band. On one occasion, he was in London and couldn’t be reached and Krieger, Densmore, and Manzarek, encouraged by Jac Holzman, licensed “Light My Fire” to Buick for use in an ad campaign. Morrison was furious at the fact that they had allowed the song to be commercialized, but also that they had made the decision without him. Tensions, already high, became even worse.

A sign of the changing relationships within the Doors was the decision to list each song’s writer individually on The Soft Parade. The first three albums credited the group collectively. Wall’s book says Krieger made the call, while the Hopkins/Sugerman bio says Morrison mandated it because he hated “Tell All the People,” a song by Krieger that opened the album.

The Soft Parade received mixed reviews but reached number six on the album charts. The overproduction and difficulties of recording the album resulted in the desire on the band’s part to do something more straightforward. The Doors were enduring the bad publicity and cancelled gigs stemming from the Miami incident, and Holzman told them to “work out your demons in the studio.”

The Doors, Rothchild, and Botnick began recording in November 1969 and spent the next three months in the studio. Elektra released Morrison Hotel in February 1970 and it was the strongest Doors album since their debut. Krieger brings in “Roadhouse Blues” with a nasty blues riff and is soon joined by sizzling blues harmonica from guest John Sebastian. Morrison sounds strong and confident, and Manzarek plays a terrific barrelhouse piano. Morrison’s opening line, “Keep your eyes ahead, your eyes upon the wheel,” is one of his least overtly poetic, and one of his most iconic.

Morrison Hotel

“Waiting for the Sun,” revisited from the sessions for the album of the same name, is a nod to the Doors as people knew and loved them, but “Peace Frog” finds the band digging even deeper into rock and soul. Krieger’s funky guitar drives the song, with Manzarek filling in behind him. Any questions about Densmore’s importance to the band should be settled by a listen to his deft, understated hi-hat work on this track. A spoken-word interlude in the song includes a description of the accident, referred to earlier, that Morrison witnessed in Albuquerque.

“Blue Sunday” demonstrates Morrison’s abilities as a crooner far more convincingly than “Touch Me” did, and “Ship of Fools” takes the group’s command of cabaret music and gives it a jolt of hard rock. Krieger’s brief, jazz-flavored solo on the song is a high point of the album. “The Spy” is as strange and ominous as any Doors fan could want, with a snaky blues guitar line and rollicking acoustic piano. The lovely “Indian Summer” was a track left over from the first album and helps vary the pace of Morrison Hotel.

Morrison’s voice sounds older and rough at the edges on Morrison Hotel, and perhaps as a result the band is tougher and more forceful than on its previous albums. Even the throwaway tracks “Queen of the Highway” and “Maggie M’Gill” don’t drag the album down because the band plays them with conviction. The Doors often used session bassists to augment their sessions, and on Morrison Hotel blues guitarist Lonnie Mack filled that role and helped emphasize the blues current running through the album.

In July, Elektra released the two-LP Absolutely Live. Rothchild told BAM in 1981 that “there must be 2,000 edits on that album.” The band and Morrison sound a little ragged, which gives the album some needed energy, but the full reading of “Celebration of the Lizard” only confirms Rothchild’s decision to have the group wrestle it into something more usable for Waiting for the Sun. The album was a slow seller and remains so relative to the group’s other recordings.

Absolutely Live

Jim Morrison’s self-destructive streak continued unabated, and he put on weight. He had grown a beard, which he’d shaved at the time Henry Diltz shot the cover for Morrison Hotel because Morrison’s attorney suggested he would look more presentable for his upcoming court cases. The Miami case came to trial in August and Morrison attended it. He was not hopeful about the outcome, and a performance at the Isle of Wight Festival on August 30 was perfunctory, to the disappointment of the fans and the rest of the band.

On September 20, the jury in the Miami trial found Morrison guilty of indecent exposure and using profanity and on October 30, the judge sentenced him to six months in jail and a $500 fine. His attorney soon filed an appeal. The Doors entered the studio in November to work on their follow-up to Morrison Hotel. Paul Rothchild was already worn out by the increasing difficulties of making records with the Doors and was not pleased with what he was hearing. He told the band he would not stay on as producer.

The Doors co-produced L.A. Woman with Bruce Botnick, who had engineered the albums they did with Rothchild. The group worked on the recording through December and into January 1971 at a makeshift recording studio in their rehearsal space in Los Angeles. Botnick chose that space rather than a recording studio to let the sessions be more casual. “Just let them be them, capture the performance,” he told Mick Wall later. “And say, ‘That’s good, come on up the stairs and hear it.’ Do one take, you know, two takes.”

LA Woman

Morrison responded well to the spontaneous feel of the sessions and was more relaxed and cooperative than he had been since the first album. He was also pleased that many of the songs were shaping up to be even more strongly blues-based than those on Morrison Hotel. Morrison’s range is narrower than on the band’s earlier records, but his singing is more expressive and honest. The band sounds looser and more relaxed and the recording has a warts-and-all quality that adds to the emotional power of the music.

Krieger’s funky rhythm guitar sets the tone on “The Changeling,” and Manzarek’s Hammond organ adds just the right amount of grease to the track. Densmore is solidly in the pocket and Morrison sounds like he’s enjoying himself and easing into the flow of the song. He sings with even more force on “Been Down So Long,” a stripped-down blues track, with Manzarek and Marc Benno on rhythm guitar and Jerry Scheff on bass. Krieger fires off a couple of stunning, nasty slide-guitar lines that help emphasize the angry, frazzled edge in Morrison’s voice.

The album continues its excursions into the blues with “Cars Hiss By My Window” and a loose, tongue-in-cheek take on John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling King Snake” with a solo from Krieger that parodies the blues-guitar flash that dominated so much early-’70s rock. “L.A. Woman” continues the album’s blues vein, with Krieger’s bottleneck opening the song with a slowly rising chord and Manzarek strumming the strings inside the piano. Manzarek begins a terrifically funky riff on the electric piano, with Scheff providing a firm, rolling bass line. Krieger plays a series of melodies as the intro rolls on and Densmore sets down a firm, driving beat.

Morrison starts to sing, with Krieger’s blues guitar egging him on, and he’s gruff and big-voiced—a blues shouter, like Joe Turner. He took some of his inspiration for the song from novelist John Rechy, whose stream-of-consciousness novel about LA, City of Night, helps form some of the imagery in the lyrics. Morrison captures the city’s glories and its horrors, the Santa Ana winds and wildfires, the unfulfilled dreams, and more. A slow section leads to Morrison by turns singing, chanting, and yelling “Mr. Mojo Rising.” He seems to be parodying his own status as a sex symbol, as well as the sometimes-overblown attempts at singing the blues by white singers, including himself.

Paul Rothchild told BAM that “Love Her Madly” was the song that “drove me out of the studio.” He thought it was cocktail music. When Holtzman heard it, he knew it was a hit and Elektra released it as a single in March 1971, just ahead of the mid-April release of the LP. It went to number seven on the charts. A second single, “Riders On The Storm,” reached number 11. The second verse opens with the unfortunate couplet, “There’s a killer on the road, his brain is squirmin’ like a toad,” but the rest of the verse is truly frightening:

Take a long holiday, let your children play
If you give this man a ride, sweet family will die
Killer on the road, yeah

The song has a strong jazz feel that gives Manzarek and Krieger room in the album version for some of their most inventive solos. Manzarek’s use of the Fender Rhodes gave the song a more contemporary feel than the Vox organ that had dominated the group’s recordings until Morrison Hotel. There are songs that would fit in well on earlier albums, such as “L’America” and “Hyacinth House,” but the band on L.A. Woman is tougher and ready to move forward into the ’70s.

If the Doors were going to move ahead, though, it would only be on recordings. A disastrous performance in New Orleans in December 1970 culminated in Morrison slamming a mike stand into the stage and then hurling it into the crowd. The rest of the group made the decision at that point that they would no longer appear onstage with Morrison.

Morrison’s continued abuse of drugs and alcohol created tensions with the band, but it also took its toll on him physically. By the time of the sessions for L.A. Woman, he was overweight, and his face was bloated and jowly. The combined pressures of rock stardom and his legal woes pressed in on him. He had made the decision to move to Paris after his attorney told him that France did not have an extradition treaty with the US. Neither he nor his lawyer knew what the outcome of the appeal of the Miami case might be.

On April 15, just a few days before Elektra released L.A. Woman, Jim Morrison arrived in Paris. He moved into an apartment with Pamela Courson, with whom he had an open but longstanding romantic involvement. Recollections of him in Paris invariably involve him being drunk, and his already bad health continued to worsen. He and Courson did some travelling, and Morrison was pleased to find that L.A. Woman was doing well on the charts. On July 3, 1971, Courson woke and found Jim Morrison dead in the bathtub of their apartment. He had been drinking and doing drugs, including heroin.

There has long been speculation that the official explanation for Morrison’s death is not true. Wall believes that Morrison died of a heroin overdose at a nearby club and that his body was carried back to his apartment to avoid the club being shut down. Wall based his assertions on an August 2010 article in Classic Rock Magazine by Max Bell, whose source was a book by the club’s manager, Sam Bernett.

Strange rumors, most of them not worth repeating here, began to grow over the years. The most enduring, often encouraged by Manzarek, was put forward by Danny Sugerman in No One Here Gets Out Alive. The book suggests that Morrison had faked his death to avoid the limelight. However mysterious the circumstances, Morrison died in July 1971 and was buried in Paris. He was 27, the same age as three other important rock musicians of his generation who died tragically: Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, and Jimi Hendrix.

The remaining Doors had already begun recording without Morrison, unsure if his decamping to Paris was a sabbatical or an end to their recording and performing life as a quartet. Elektra released Other Voices, the group’s first album as a trio, in October 1971. The playing is solid throughout, even inspired at points, and the songs show real potential, but Manzarek and Krieger were not strong enough singers. Full Circle, released the following year, confirmed that without Morrison, there was no Doors.

Both albums charted well enough that the Doors could perhaps have carried on, but Manzarek wanted to move more in the direction of jazz, while Densmore and Krieger wanted to play rock’n’roll. Manzarek had left the Doors by the time the group’s contract with Elektra ended in 1973 and the group was finished.

Krieger and Densmore went to England and enlisted the help of three English musicians to form a band. Butts Band signed with Blue Thumb Records, which released an eponymous LP by them in January 1974. A second album, Hear & Now!, followed in 1975. The musicianship on both albums is of a high order, but neither shows the band developing a clear identity.

Manzarek brought together an impressive lineup of musicians to record The Golden Scarab, which Mercury Records released in 1974. Even Tony Williams and Larry Carlton couldn’t rescue an album of forgettable songs with lyrics that sound like parodies of Morrison’s. Things didn’t improve with his second album, The Whole Thing Started with Rock & Roll Now It’s Out of Control, also released in 1974, and turned into silliness with Nite City, the group he started in 1977.

The three surviving Doors gathered in 1978 to create music behind poems Morrison had recorded in the studio in 1969 and 1970. The music on An American Prayer is often interesting, but the worst thing anyone can do to fond memories of the Doors or Morrison is to play it more than once. Morrison was often a memorable, imaginative lyricist, but no poet.

Morrison absorbed the tragic Romantic image of a poet embodied by Rimbaud, but he too often trusted his first drafts, resulting in such lines as “To propagate our lust for life” and “We need great golden copulations”—and I’m only quoting from one poem, “The Ghost Song.” There are moments throughout An American Prayer that suggest a poetic ear, but every piece calls out for revision and cutting. Oliver Stone’s 1991 film bio of the Doors is ridiculously bad, but almost all its awfulness stems from the fact that Stone takes Morrison seriously as a poet and wants us to, as well.

In 1993, the Doors were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder joined them onstage to help perform the group’s songs. In 2000, Manzarek, Densmore, and Krieger appeared on the VH1 television show Storytellers, with a lineup of guest vocalists that included Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction, Ian Astbury of the Cult, and Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots. Two years later, Manzarek and Krieger asked Astbury to join them for a band they were calling the Doors of the 21st Century.

Densmore wasn’t interested, and initially Stewart Copeland of the Police was going to be the drummer. Copeland bowed out after an injury and the group played shows with the drummer from a band Robby Krieger had been fronting. Densmore filed an injunction to stop the Doors of the 21st Century from using the Doors name or logo. Manzarek and Krieger continued to play the Doors’ music with various lineups and under different names while the court case dragged on.

Densmore also blocked attempts to use the Doors’ music in commercials, including a $15-million offer in 2003 from Cadillac to use “Break On Through (To The Other Side)” to sell cars. His legal actions angered his former bandmates, and they didn’t speak again until 2011, when they appeared with producer/DJ Skrillex in the documentary RE: GENERATION. They collaborated on “Breakn’ a Sweat” and Morrison gets a songwriting credit because his voice is sampled.

In 2010, Florida governor Charlie Crist issued a posthumous pardon to Jim Morrison for the actions resulting in his arrest and trial in Miami more than 40 years earlier.

Ray Manzarek appeared on records by a variety of musicians over the years after the Doors, including Echo and the Bunnymen. He produced Los Angeles (1978), the debut album by the great punk band X, and recorded an interesting interpretation of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in 1983. Manzarek kept the Doors legend alive over the years, sharing stories about them with anyone who asked. His enthusiasm for their place in music history and his regard for Morrison never waned. By the time he died in 2013 of cancer, he, Densmore, and Krieger had reconciled.

Robby Krieger has recorded nine albums as a leader since 1977, featuring good musicians and often inspired playing. The last two, The Ritual Begins at Sundown (2020) and Robby Krieger & The Soul Savages (2024), are very convincing jazz-fusion records that demonstrate how versatile Krieger is, and they deserve more attention than they’ve received. It would be foolish, however, to suggest that they approach anything like the power and uniqueness of the best Doors recordings.

John Densmore’s post-Doors career included stints as a dancer, actor, and playwright. He wrote and appeared in plays performed in New York and Los Angeles, and worked in television and film. He produced and wrote the score for the 2015 feature film Window of Opportunity.

There are countless Doors compilations available, but Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine (1972) gives the best overview of the group, taking in both the hits and some strange byways the band explored. The truly committed can also dive into the seemingly endless live performances released on CD over the years. Live at the Matrix 1967 captures them when they’re young and hungry and just gaining fame after releasing their first album. Live in New York documents a strong two-night stand at the Felt Forum in New York in 1970, but it’s six CDs long.

Weird Scenes

Writers often make excuses for Morrison’s self-destruction, attributing it to his dissatisfaction with rock stardom. Wall seems to buy into that excuse, even as he provides evidence that Morrison was self-absorbed and irresponsible before the Doors were signed to a record contract. It’s easy to let the worst parts of the legend overwhelm Morrison’s accomplishments. In an epilogue to the 1995 reprint of No One Here Gets Out Alive, Jerry Hopkins wrote, “. . . when I finished writing the early drafts of the book, I didn’t like Jim Morrison as much as when I started it.”

For all his faults, Morrison was essential to the creativity and impact of the Doors. He was a literate, often effective lyricist, but he also knew how to create melodies the other musicians in the band could arrange into strong tunes. He knew how to breathe life and meaning into their songs, too. “Light My Fire” may have been Krieger’s tune, but only Morrison could have sung it.

He was also the embodiment of 1960s rock stardom. He called himself an “erotic politician,” a typically overblown description, but one that captures the feeling of danger and unpredictability he presented onstage and on record.

The Doors is as essential as any rock album ever released. Without Jim Morrison, it is unthinkable. Without him, there simply could be no Doors.

. . . Joseph Taylor