Robby Kreiger and John Densmore of the Doors remember 1970, when the fabled Los Angeles band released Morrison Hotel, played some of its most incendiary shows and began one last, great album together.
As 1970 dawned, The Doors were imploding.
After his arrest in Miami in March 1969 for allegedly exposing himself to an audience, lead singer Jim Morrison was facing a long, sordid trial, and (after an October 1970 guilty verdict) the very real prospect of jail time. The band, a formidable live unit by that time, were effectively banned from performing as a result of the post-Miami fallout, with promoters across the U.S. unwilling to book them, and Morrison was drinking heavily. Tensions within the band were on a razor’s edge.
“I don’t miss Jim’s antics, but I miss his words terribly,” remembers the Doors’ drummer John Densmore. “When it came to making Morrison Hotel, and then L.A. Woman, we’d set aside days to just play the blues, to keep Jim happy. And as far as that goes — his writing and his singing — he was at his best throughout 1970, really.”
There was still magic to be made.
Ray Manzarek, the Doors’ keyboardist, would have turned 81 this month. Krieger and Densmore are reflecting on their time together to help get the word out about a reunion the pair took part in at Los Angeles’ Fonda Theater back in 2016, when they paid tribute to their friend and bandmate. A film of the show – part concert film, part documentary – is out this month.
“The thing about Ray and his playing is that it was such a gift,” says Densmore. “He split his brain into two musicians. He played bass on his left hand, and he was the keyboard player, in a more traditional sense, on the right. That was a miracle, and it was great and affected how we sounded, because we didn’t have a separate bass player, with another mind, doing that. It was just Ray, playing the sort of bass lines that he’d learned in Chicago. It was very important for our sound. So I’ve been thinking about him a lot, and I really miss him, especially musically.”
The band’s driving force from its earliest days, Manzarek was also the key musical ingredient.
“Ray was a little older when we started, so he was probably the most solid of all of us,” says Kreiger, reflecting on Manzarek’s outsized role in the band. “You know, he was playing two instruments — bass and keyboards — but he was the timekeeper, too, because he had the best time of anybody in the band, so we all followed him. So it was a unique situation and we didn’t even realize it. We were like, ‘we’re just playing.’”
“Ray was certainly the professional when we started,” Densmore adds. “Ray had the blues since he was a kid. Robby was just getting going on the electric guitar. But Robbie was way into Flamenco and Salsa. I considered myself a professional at that point. I had played drums all my life. Jim was the magic ingredient. Jim had read every word on the planet so they were in his skull. So when the four of us came together, it happened pretty quick.”
But back in 1970, Morrison, even with all the chaos surrounding the band, was still delivering the goods.
“I certainly sensed immediately that Jim was magic, and so I was going to follow his lead wherever the hell that took us,” Densmore says. “I was influenced by everything that he was doing. We all were. And by Morrison Hotel, his baritone had matured.”
“Ray’s playing on Morrison Hotel was amazing,” recalls Krieger of the band’s back-to-basics classic. “He was always amazing, of course, but that album in particular was right up his alley. You can hear, he was really attacking the piano, which he played more of than on some of the other albums. I think he really enjoyed making that album.”
“It’s amazing,” Krieger adds, clearly still shocked at his bands’ longevity. “We had good songs, and unique combination of styles and sound, a great front man. But still, all these years later, it never ceases to amaze me. It’s incredibly flattering.”
A host of shows from 1970 have been released via the Doors’ Bright Midnight label, and are further evidence that, even with jail time looming over Morrison, and his drinking having reached epic proportions, the Doors were at the peak of their powers.
“We weren’t musicians, we were hypnotists,” contends Densmore. “Our sound was like a trance. Like Ravi Shankar. Like hypnotic vibrations. That’s what we were up to, and that’s why Jim said he was the shaman. Well, he didn’t say it, but that’s what Jim was up to.
“I remember thinking, ‘Hey, wow, maybe this is going to work,’” he adds. “The concert I’d always heard in my head, we were going to make it happen. And boy did we.”
It had started out simply, if confidently, just four years earlier, according to Krieger.
“We knew we had great songs, and that they were a step above anybody else’s that we’d heard,” he recalls of the band’s early days together. “We didn’t know if other people would agree, but we really believed we had these great songs, and that Jim’s lyrics were really cool. And we knew the shit worked, because we played it every night in front of people. So we thought we were as good as anybody, including the Stones and the Beatles, but we never thought anybody else would find out. We hoped. We hoped that it would happen. It did.”
“I thought, if this endeavor will pay the rent for ten years, that would be insane,” adds Densmore with a chuckle. “And here we are, fifty years later, and I have gray hair. Here I am still talking about it.”
Still, it had been a rough start, from a chance meeting between Morrison and Manzarek on Venice Beach after the pair had parted ways at UCLA, to months of hard work, rehearsing at Manzarek’s beachside home. But by late-1966, things were coming together.
“It’s amazing what playing every night will do for you,” Krieger says with a laugh. “Even after six months, it was still a question of getting all the parts to combine correctly, which I think can really only happen when you play in front of people. That’s the way to make a really good recording. So many bands today do it the other way around — making a record and then trying to get gigs — but back then we did the opposite, and I think that served us really well.”
“I had room to improvise with Jim’s poetry,” adds Densmore of his a-typical role in the band. “The drummer’s first job is to keep the beat. If you don’t have a pocket, you suck. But on top of that you can have a lot of technique, and be an accompanist, which is my whole thing, to play musically, in the moment. So I was very happy, because I was a fan of Coltrane and Miles.”
“I never wanted another guitar player in the band, that’s for sure,” recalls Krieger of the Doors’ unusual lineup of guitar, keyboards and drums. “I didn’t really want it to be a guitar band, or even to be a flashy lead guitar player. I just wanted all the parts to fit. I’d only been playing electric guitar for maybe a year before that, so being in the Doors totally developed my style. If I’d been with some other band, I would have turned out to be a totally different kind of guitar player. Still, always, they would complain that I was too loud, that’s for sure. Mostly John and Ray, but I felt like I had to be loud just to fill up the space.”
It was, not surprisingly, also a bumpy ride to the top of the charts.
“Elektra was a small, boutique label,” Densmore recalls of the label that eventually signed the Doors in 1966. “We’d been disappointed when Columbia, Bob Dylan’s label, dropped us. Very disappointed. But ultimately we were on this boutique label with Paul Butterfield, Judy Collins, and cool, cutting edge stuff, and we could talk to Jac Holzman, the president, really easily. So he put us together with producer Paul Rothchild, and Bruce Botnick, who is still our engineer, and who ended up ultimately producing L.A. Woman with us.”
“Having time to get it together made a huge difference for us,” adds Krieger. “So by the time we recorded the first album, we had pretty much been playing that stuff every night in front of people.”
They also had some amazing songs.
“‘Light My Fire’ was the first song Robbie ever wrote,” Densmore recalls of the band’s signature song, which was still bringing the house down during the Doors’ 1970 Roadhouse Blues tour. “He didn’t think, ‘Hey, man, I’m writing the anthem of the 60s,’ but that’s what it became. So you just do your thing, you do the best you can, and then you let the audience tell you how you’re doing.”
“At one point Jim said, ‘Hey, we could use some more original songs,’” recalls Krieger of the origins of “Light My Fire.” “So I figured I’d try, but asked him what I should I write about. And he said, ‘Write about something universal. Write about something that’s not just about a current event, but that could last for a while.’ So I thought I’d write about the earth, air, wind and fire. And so I picked fire for the first one, because I liked the song ‘Play with Fire’ by the Stones. I don’t know where I came up with “Light My Fire,” exactly, but that was first thing I thought of. It took me a couple of days to put the song together, because I put every chord possible in it.
“I think there are fourteen or fifteen chords in the song. It sounds like a simple song, but it’s really not. Then I brought the song in and we worked it up. I’d heard it as kind of a folk rock thing, like ‘Hey Joe,’ but luckily John came up with the idea of the Latin beat, and Ray had those great chords, which were in the middle, and Paul Rothchild suggested putting them at the beginning, and then, of course, we also used them at the very end. But when we first did ‘Light My Fire’ it was short — only maybe three or four minutes long — but as we played it live, and we started adding solos, it made it longer. But really, it’s just a little love song. Or an end of love song.”
But at over seven minutes, “Light My Fire,” now complete with extended solos by both Manzarek and Krieger, wasn’t ever going to cross over and become a mainstream hit.
“A hit record has to be short for AM radio, because they would only play the three minute songs, so they wouldn’t play ‘Light My Fire’ as it was,” Krieger recalls of the Doors’ breakout song. “But there was this one guy named Dave Diamond who played it — he had the first FM station in LA called ABBQ, in the Valley — and he would come to our shows and say, ‘Hey, man, every time I play that song I get a million calls. People love that song. You guys should cut it down and get it on AM radio.’ But we kept resisting. But ‘Break on Through’ only got up to number forty or something, so we realized we’d better do what Dave Diamond had said and cut it down. So we did that, and we also put a wrap on it, which means we sped it up a little bit, to make it sound brighter. And boy that sounded great coming out of the radio.”
“The End,” the band’s Oedipal-tinged epic, also remained a key part of their nightly set in 1970, but had its roots in the Doors’ earliest shows on the L.A. club circuit.
“For some reason Ray never wanted to play ‘The End’ when we were playing together in his last years,” Krieger recalls. “He would say, ‘No, that was Jim’s song.’ But I always loved playing it. Musically, I just love that song, because it’s based on Indian ragas, which I was really into at the time it was written, because I was a real Ravi Shankar fan. The whole song was based on a raga, really, and then Jim came up with the whole middle part, which was as big a surprise to us, as it was to everyone else, at the Whisky one night. He had gotten really messed up on LSD, and he’d missed the opening set. So when he eventually showed up, he said, ‘Okay, I’m good, let’s play “The End,”’ which was always the last song in the set. But he wanted to do it first, and it was the first time he sang the whole ‘walk on down the hall’ section. We were pretty surprised. And the club owners, who were Catholic, took it the wrong way. We got fired that night.”
Krieger also has some interesting insight into the impetus behind Morrison’s ground-breaking lyrics.
“To Jim, that whole Oedipal thing wasn’t just drawing on his knowledge of Shakespeare, he really felt it,” he says. “That was really going through his mind, in a personal way. Most people might read about the Oedipal complex and say, ‘Oh, okay, I get that.’ But to Jim, it was very real. He was living with that everyday, and it came out in ‘The End.’ I mean, he’d take acid and he’d see his mother’s face in the moon if he looked at the moon. He was totally in love with his mother, and he was jealous of his father, because he had his mother. For most people, that would be subliminal. But for him it wasn’t. When we recorded it he took a bunch of acid and he was just ranting and raving about killing his father and fucking his mother. I wouldn’t want to have to think about that kind of stuff everyday. Jim didn’t have a choice. But I think maybe that’s what resonates with people, even if they don’t realize it.”
Always seen as darker — and thus more threatening by adults — than even the Rolling Stones, the Doors lived up to their image, and the authorities began to take notice of Morrison and company after a December 1967 arrest of Morrison onstage during a show in New Haven. By 1970, after four years of headlines, and with Morrison out on appeal after his Miami conviction, the Doors were the poster-children for a culture coming apart at the seams.
Still, if the band was a lightning rod for the late-60s culture wars, Krieger and Densmore contend they tried to steer clear of politics.
“There were a couple of songs, like ‘I’m Not a Soldier’ and ‘Five to One,’ where Jim would say we were commenting on the times, because he felt artists should be like a mirror, reflecting what’s going on without really having an opinion on it,” says Krieger.
“The Vietnam War polarized the whole country and forced us into politics,” Densmore adds. “Jim did not like overt politics. That’s why he didn’t name the Vietnam War in the “Unknown Soldier” lyrics. He felt that one has to work on one’s inner life, and raise that consciousness, so that the outer life naturally unfolds.”
“We were young and rebellious and really thought we could change things,” Krieger laments of a time when he says anything seemed possible. “We really believed that if we had the power things would change. But then Nixon got back in and put a wet blanket on the whole thing. It kind of feels the same way right now. And it gets harder and harder to imagine as time goes on, especially lately. So I think we’d be going crazy right now. But my take on it is that Jim would have had an artist’s eye — a poet’s eye — and would be commenting on what’s going on now, without being overtly political, if he were around today.
“My guess is what he’d be writing about would be more of a caricature of Trump, or whoever he wanted to take down at the moment. It would be more oblique. Of course, you just can’t know.”
“It’s frustrating, this emperor, with his new clothes, that we have at the head of our country right now,” adds Densmore. “But it feels like people are coalescing against him, so for someone who grew up in the 60s, that’s pretty exciting.”
Krieger agrees that things seem to be changing, or at least evolving.
“Ed Sullivan made them shoot Elvis from the hips up, and they insisted we not say ‘get high,’ even though we did,” he recalls. “So I like it when I see artists speaking out today, especially because I know there is a lot more money involved nowadays and it is tougher to take a stand.”
As 1970 wound down, the Doors made an aborted attempt to record a new album with Rothchild. “Bored,” he bowed out of the sessions. With Botnick now at the controls, the band set up a make-shift recording studio in their offices, with Morrison cutting vocals in an adjacent bathroom. The results, L.A. Woman, were perhaps the band’s best work since their sophomore album, Strange Days.
“And it only took a week,” adds Krieger, still clearly in awe at the accomplishment.
Reflecting on his time in the Doors, Densmore is circumspect, and is clear-eyed about how lucky he and his band mates were.
“I have a formula for success, and it’s in three parts,” he says. “First, you’ve got to have luck, because why else are there so many starving talented people, not to mention a lot of famous people who are not so talented. Two, you’ve got to hustle. And third, not to demean talent, but it’s a crap shoot, so you’ve got to be ready if the brass ring comes by.”
He’s also happy to be reunited with Krieger, with whom he hadn’t played for more than fifteen years when they reunited for the Manzarek tribute show in 2016.
“I’m really excited about the tribute for Ray, especially because it was filmed, and because Robby and I got back together,” he says of the new film honoring Manzarek. “Most of all, after years, in two bars, Robby and I were back musically, because these songs are so in our blood. They’re our lifeblood. They’re running through our veins. That’s pretty amazing.”