The Doors’ ‘L.A. Woman’: The Story Behind Each Track
L.A. Woman was the final statement from the original incarnation of the Doors, and its grooves contain a little of everything that made this band so engaging then and that continues to feed their legend today.
The album had a troubled beginning. Paul Rothchild, the producer for all their records to that point, abandoned the project in its earliest stages. He claimed boredom with the material, which he termed “cocktail lounge music” after the Doors played him two songs – which happened to be “Love Her Madly” (the biggest hit off the record) and the mind-expanding “Riders on the Storm.”
Shocked by the defection but determined to press on, the Doors dubbed engineer Bruce Botnick coproducer. Then singer Jim Morrison, keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore moved to the band's rehearsal space, inviting second guitarist Marc Benno and Elvis Presley bassist Jerry Scheff to record with them.
The Doors might have had creative highs with individual moments from their previous records – “Light My Fire” and “The End,” perhaps, from their debut; or “Roadhouse Blues” from Morrison Hotel; or “Five to One” from Waiting for the Sun – but L.A. Woman is arguably their best album. A strident, authoritative collection from start to finish, this project is infused with the blues and redolent with the essence of the city for which it is named. And like the best material the Doors released in their short but powerful existence, there’s a story behind each song.
L.A. Woman kicks off with Morrison’s declaration of independence from the music industry’s star factory. “You look at him when I met him, and he looked like Michelangelo's statue of David,” Densmore later told LA Weekly. “When he left, he was overweight with a beard. That was a conscious reaction against the Mick Jagger sex-symbol image.”
“The lyrics are prophetic,” Manzarek added. “I've lived uptown. I've lived downtown, but I've never been so broke that I couldn't leave town.’ He'd lived on the beach and in the hills. He'd had money and been broke. He'd had his L.A. adventure, and he was out.”
Densmore’s and Manzarek’s impressions of Morrison’s lyrical intent are echoed by Morrison’s onetime lover, author and journalist Patricia Kennealy-Morrison. “A lot of people had written Jim off by the summer of ‘68,” she said in Chuck Crissafulli’s book The Doors: When the Music’s Over. “People weren’t really willing to let him grow; they wanted him to be this icon forever. When I heard ‘The Changeling,’ I thought, ‘That’s it. He’s out of here.’ It’s a very autobiographical song, and he was telling us that he was already gone.”
"Love Her Madly"
Contrast the heavy content of “The Changeling” with the lighter-than-air pop move of L.A. Woman’s first single, the Robby Krieger-penned “Love Her Madly.” Krieger’s easy strumming began when he was fiddling around with a new purchase – a Gibson 12-string acoustic guitar.
“I stumbled over a nice riff and some shuffle chords,” he told Classic Rock in 2011, “and ‘Love Her Madly’ started to take shape.” The lyrics were about some rocky arguments with his then-girlfriend (and future wife), but the song coalesced when he took it to the band.
“I came into our workshop on La Cienega and sung them the song,” Krieger recalled. “It was a bluesy, almost folk-rock thing that Arthur Lee and Love could have done. Ray Manzarek put on some great classical harpsichord-style keyboards, and John Densmore added a military drum and a shuffle, so it had a slightly Latin feel. It was an easy-listening song, but Jim [Morrison] loved that; he liked to croon.”
Though Krieger liked the song, he wasn’t crazy about it being the first single off the record. He wound up losing the argument when Elektra Records’ founder and president Jac Holzman insisted on it.
“I thought it was way too commercial,” Krieger told Classic Rock. “But Holzman said, ‘No. FM radio is starting to get big and this will sound terrific.’ He was right. When I first heard it, driving around L.A. in February, it sounded great; it leapt out of the speakers.”
“Love Her Madly” was one of two songs (along with “Riders on the Storm”) that producer Paul Rothchild cited when he left the project in disgust, calling the music the band was making “wall-to-wall boredom” and “fucking awful.”
“I’d go to them and tell them that, hoping it would make them angry enough to do something good,” Rothchild told Chuck Crissafulli. “[I said] This isn’t rock ‘n’ roll! It’s cocktail lounge music! […] ‘Love Her Madly’ is exactly the song I was talking about. That’s the song that drove me out of the studio. That it sold a million copies means nothing to me.”
"Been Down So Long"
The band set aside one full day of the L.A. Woman sessions to play and record nothing but blues material, both covers and originals. “Been Down So Long” is one of the latter, a stripped-down howler on which Morrison bears down on the everyday doom and gloom of life under the thumb of forces both literal and existential. The title comes from a Richard Farina book, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, a countercultural novel Morrison would recommend to anyone who asked. The music Morrison employed in the song was a sound he and his bandmates had embraced from an early age.
“Growing up, we both heard lots of blues on the radio,” Manzarek told L.A. Weekly. “When I turned 12 and found the Chicago Black radio station, I was turned on to Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Jimmy Reed. It was unbelievable.”
The overall feel of the song, though, came from deep within the doomed singer. “It's another retrospectively prophetic song,” Manzarek said of the track. “He was tired and worn out. He needed to be in a quieter, calmer place.”
"Cars Hiss by My Window"
The drama in Morrison’s life certainly seeped into a number of L.A. Woman’s songs. “Cars Hiss By My Window” is a loose blues with a dark streak; the music was certainly recognizable, even if the song’s sentiment was more harrowing than fun.
“That was our Jimmy Reed piece,” Krieger told Guitar World in 2016, referring to the blues singer known for his lazy shuffles. “Jim was really getting into the blues at that time, and he loved it when I would just play straight blues. He’d sit there and make up songs on the spot. He just wanted to play all night.”
Night held deeper concerns for Morrison, as Ray Manzarek noted in his description of the song. “It's a dark Venice Beach song,” he told L.A. Weekly. “Four AM You can't sleep. Your girl's passed out, and who knows what arguments you've been through. She's cold and she'll kill you. Take it out of Venice and stick in Hollywood and it's The Day of the Locust.”
L.A. Woman’s title track follows that nocturnal vein, exploratory drives in the noir-ish “City of Night” that Morrison read about and thrived in. Los Angeles had a hold on all four members of the Doors, but none were more inspired to explore that hold than Morrison, whose lyrics laid bare what the city could do and had done to him.
Guest guitarist Marc Benno remembered Morrison showing him the lyrics to “L.A. Woman,” which he’d written in an enormous, leather-bound notebook he received as a gift. “It was gigantic, like an L.A. phonebook, but it was leather-bound and full of poems, lyrics and drawings,” Benno told Goldmine in 2011. “I remember him showing me ‘L.A. Woman,’ and I thought, ‘That right there will be a great blues tune of sorts.’”
The Doors “were never stupid enough to ask Jim what his lyrics meant. He never would have given a straight answer,” Krieger told L.A. Weekly. “The L.A. woman was the city itself. When he's talking about driving on the freeway, I always think about the intersection of the 405 and the 10. It was actually designed by a woman and it kind of opens up like a pair of legs.”
The lyrics did inspire the band to play “in a state of high excitement” when recording, according to Manzarek. “The Doors jumped in,” he told Classic Rock. “We dug our teeth into that song. It was all about passion and hauling ass. It felt like we were on Route 101, on the road from Bakersfield to San Francisco. You can hear our enthusiasm.”
John Densmore recalled how the famous mid-song breakdown came about, with Morrison writing “Mr. Mojo Risin’” on a board.
“He moves the letters around,” Densmore told L.A. Weekly, “and it was an anagram for his name. I knew that mojo was a sexual term from the blues, and that gave me the idea to go slow and dark with the tempo. It also gave me the idea to slowly speed it up like an orgasm. The difficulty is that it's a seven-minute song, and at the end, I was trying to approximate the same tempo I did seven minutes earlier. I overshot it. It's faster at the end. But you know, sometimes you get excited when you have sex.”
Krieger "always considered this the quintessential Doors song. It's just magical to me, and the way it came about was fantastic.”
“L’America” was actually completed prior to the sessions for L.A. Woman: The song was intended for inclusion in Zabriskie Point, an arthouse film by Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni. The Doors recorded the song and invited the director down to the studio to hear it.
“So we played it for him,” Manzarek recalled, “and it was so loud, it pinned him up against the wall. When it was over, he thanked us and fled.”
Zabriskie Point’s eventual soundtrack was a psychedelic melange of material from the likes of Jerry Garcia, guitarist John Fahey and Pink Floyd.
“[Antonioni] turned to Pink Floyd,” Manzarek remembered, sarcastically, “as European filmmakers tend to do when they want rock ‘n’ roll.”
The chiming guitars and playful organ of “Hyacinth House” are unlike any other sounds on L.A. Woman, and certainly a hundred miles from the heavy-headed blues found elsewhere on the album. Morrison sings the wistful lyrics in a lower-than-usual register, with a higher harmony vocal following throughout.
“One of his saddest songs,” Densmore told L.A. Weekly. “He needs a brand-new friend who won't bother him. He was re-examining but not with regret.”
The drummer thought Morrison’s words portended his demise. “Toward the end, Jim said, ‘Probably next time, I'd be a little solitary Zen gardener working in his garden.’” Densmore remembered. “I don't interpret that as a regret, but he had a hunch.”
Some of the lyrics were apparently more literal than one might think. “The Hyacinth House was my old house in Benedict Canyon,” Krieger explained to L.A. Weekly. “I had a really cute baby bobcat that I kept out in the yard and on the patio. That's the lion Jim talks about. Eventually I had to give her away when she got too big. It was probably highly illegal.”
"Crawling King Snake"
Another of the “Blues Day” recordings was this John Lee Hooker cover, which the Doors had played countless times since their days working in clubs on the Sunset Strip. Elektra’s Jac Holzman later said the song “was a wonderful costume for Jim to wear. He’s playing the part. But he’s also the part.”
Bruce Botnick agreed. “Jim liked to think of himself as an old blues man," the coproducer and engineer said. “He was a big fan of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and all those old blues guys. He loved the truth of the songs and the rawness of it. He related to it. If he had had his choice, he would have done that all the time.”
Densmore said one of Morrison’s more memorable drunken misadventures occurred on the night “Crawling King Snake” was recorded. The singer had rented a cottage at the Chateau Marmont, on L.A.’s Sunset Blvd. ("It wasn't real fancy back then," Densmore later recalled. "It was funky fancy.”) After several drinks, Morrison used a drainpipe to swing down to his rental from the second floor of the hotel, but wound up hitting the roof of a shed instead.
The singer arrived at the next day’s recording session with a profound limp. Densmore recognized the role alcohol played in Morrison's accident, and the realization gave him pause. "Up to then, I sort of thought, 'Well, he's just going to live to 80 like an Irish drunk,'" Densmore said. "When that happened, I thought, 'Oh shit, it's really getting to him now.'"
"The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)"
“Texas Radio and the Big Beat” was a Morrison poem published in the Doors’ first souvenir tour book in 1968. It was also a piece he would recite in concert, typically as an intro to one or another song. It was an example of Morrison’s overarching approach to writing, to incessant exploration and presentation of his art, whether in poetry or song – an approach Manzarek said the band incorporated into their music.
“Jim was always aspiring to be literary and be something above and beyond the mundane and the quotidian,” Manzarek told Artist Direct in 2012. “We were aspiring to a cleaner and purer realm of artistic creation in which you plug into the oneness of all things and create from that space.”
That “oneness” came through in how Morrison’s poem, after years, came together on the record. “I heard a song that was basically only on the radio for one day, but it gave me the feel for ‘Texas Radio,’” Robby Krieger recalled to L.A. Weekly. “I came up with the whole song musically, and [Morrison] had this poem that he had previously written about Texas radio and the Big Beat. I don't think he ever lived in Texas, but I bet he heard Wolfman Jack, broadcasting on XERB in Tijuana.”
Krieger told Classic Rock that “‘The WASP’ was about the new music Jim heard when his family were moving around the Southwest states in the '60s. He got this vision of a huge radio tower spewing out noise. This was when Wolfman Jack was on XERB, out of Rosarito Beach in Mexico, blasting out 250,000 watts of soul power. He saturated the airwaves – you could hear him from Tijuana to Tallahassee up to Chicago where Ray lived. There were no laws about how powerful a radio station could be. That started rock ’n’ roll for my generation.”
The music Morrison heard also contributed to his initial conceptions of being a performer. “My adolescence coincided with rock ’n’ roll although I never went to any concerts,” Morrison was quoted as saying in Classic Rock. “In my head I heard a whole concert, with a band and singing and a large audience. I was taking notes at a fantastic rock concert that only existed inside my head.”
"Riders on the Storm"
Quiet, creepy and incredibly evocative, “Riders on the Storm” blew minds upon its release and has subsequently enabled generations of listeners to lose themselves (with or without chemical accompaniment) in its layers of sound and voice. You can close your eyes and find yourself at night, in the car, driving down a desert highway, rain hitting the windshield in both drizzles and great downpours, the sky the purest black you’ve ever encountered, and the only light coming from the front of your vehicle, some tremendous lightning and the glow from some city, way out on the horizon.
“It’s a cinematic song,” Manzarek told Artist Direct. “The desert can make incredible thunderstorms. Way off in the distance, there's the glow of the lights of Los Angeles, but that person on the road is mad: ‘If you give this man a ride, sweet family will die.’
“However,” he continued, “what I love about the lyrics is in the end Morrison turns it around and makes a song of redemption out of it. He makes the ultimate love song. ‘His world on you depends, your life will never end. Girl, you've got to love your man’ is the last line. It's a hint. It's a foreshadowing. It's Jim's unconscious telling us all and maybe telling him it's the last one. But, your life will never end.”
What’s actually amusing about a song of such curious, spiraling depth, is that it started as a studio jam on a goofy cowboy hit.
“Robby and Jim were playing, jamming something out of ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky,’” Manzarek told Uncut in 2007. “I proposed the bassline and piano part; the jazzy style was my idea. Jim already had the story about a killer hitchhiker on the road. … In essence, it was a very filmic song about a serial killer – way ahead of his time in 1970.”
The cool eeriness of “Riders on the Storm” comes not just from its lyrics but from two sonic flourishes. The first was Morrison’s whispered vocal, mixed under the primary one; this was almost an afterthought, inspired by Densmore. “I had this idea,” the drummer told Uncut, “which I suggested to Bruce Botnick, that Jim went back in and did another vocal that was just whispered, and it’s really subliminal. Unless you know it’s there, you don’t hear it.”
The second flourish was the sound effects Botnick added to the song while mixing it. “We all thought of the idea for the sound effects,” Botnick remembered, “and Jim was the one who first said it out loud: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to add rain and thunder?’ I used the Elektra sound effects recordings and, as we were mixing, I just pressed the button. Serendipity worked so that all the thunder came in at all the right places. It took you somewhere. It was like a mini movie in our heads.”
In the end, “Riders on the Storm” was the last song from the original quartet to be released while Morrison – who died three months after the album came out – was still alive. Manzarek thought it was a fitting end.
“Viewing it from the outside you can put a neat little bow on it and see it as our last performance,” he later said. “But we were just playing our butts off – fast, hard and rocking, but cool and dark. I love the Doors' sound. I can become an outsider now and think to myself 'that is one tight motherfucking band.'"
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