When The Doors entered the studio in December 1970 to record L.A. Woman, the band appeared to be a spent force. Jim Morrison had, in four years, gone from an edgy teen heartthrob to a doughy drunk, his once handsome face hidden behind a thick beard, his lean frame turned pot-bellied and bloated. To make matters worse, Morrison’s onstage antics got him arrested in Florida and he had a criminal trial hanging over his head that would likely result in jail time. The band had difficulty booking gigs because of the unwieldiness of its shows and internal tension included drummer John Densmore’s on-again-off-again threats to quit.
Under these circumstances, when the expectations on the band could not have been lower while the pressure to create good music could not have been higher, The Doors produced a masterpiece that perfectly encapsulated their career, married disparate forms of music and left an indelible mark on the industry. L.A. Woman is a thing I love.
Although The Doors existed for a scant five years, their music did what all great art does - it both reflected and defined its time. Their eponymous debut album was a unique mix of psychedelia, bar-band blues, and musical theater. Morrison’s bad boy cred was cemented during a live appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show when he refused to edit the words “girl we couldn’t get much higher” during the band’s performance of Light My Fire and his leather-clad look became instantly iconic.
But success did not wear well on Morrison or the band. Their live concerts began teetering on a knife’s edge of bedlam, often goaded by their all-too-often inebriated lead singer. Morrison brawled with cops in New Haven and was accused of inciting riots around the country. The temptations of fame resulted in some wobbly musical efforts like The Soft Parade and Waiting For The Sun which, while including hits like Touch Me and Five To One, also had a shabby, lounge-act quality.
Things came to a head on March 1, 1969 at a concert in Miami. Morrison was arrested and charged with indecency for (allegedly) exposing himself on stage and engaging in an act of simulated oral sodomy with guitarist Robby Krieger (technically, his guitar, but who’s counting?) In the Deep South of that time, Morrison was looking at real prison time and the band become persona non grata in many concert venues.
With all of the drama swirling around them, L.A. Woman represents the best of what the band could be. With a sign in the studio giving them “a clean slate,” The Doors produced a complete musical statement that synthesized all they had created. From blues-inflected tracks like Been Down So Long and Crawling King Snake to Krieger’s pop ballad Love Her Madly and the atmospheric closing track, Riders on the Storm, the band was self-assured and strong, bolstered by Jerry Scheff on bass guitar and Marc Benno on rhythm guitar.
The centerpiece of the album is the title track, a near eight-minute love letter to the city that gave the band its fortune but also threatened to tear it apart. Morrison’s evocative lyrics are rich enough to fill a Netflix series about Los Angeles in all its glory and contradiction - lucky little ladies and lost angels in a city of light and darkness. The song’s structure offers a little of everything: Manzarek’s signature organ runs, Scheff’s rolling bass line, Krieger’s flamenco-tinged licks, Densmore’s sturdy backbone of percussion and Morrison, front and center, expressing, as all great writers do, a greater societal truth through his words.
The music hugs the lyrics as listeners are transported through Los Angeles’s concrete jungle and rolling hills. The song begins up tempo, painting its picture of promise and hope before segueing into a bluesy middle section of decay, framed by Morrison’s repeated reference to himself by the pseudonym “Mr. Mojo Risin” before a final coda of catharsis. The song, like the album, is a masterpiece.
The band completed recording L.A. Woman in early 1971 but, to paraphrase a lyric, the future was uncertain and the end was near. The album anticipated the musical shift from San Francisco to Los Angeles that occurred as the last embers of 60s idealism were snuffed out but Morrison would not live to see it. Shortly after recording ended, he alit for Paris with his girlfriend and passed away a few months later. L.A. Woman became a last will and testament to a man and a time and place in musical history.
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Check out 2015’s “Things I Love” series: