The Doors were among the most intense and revolutionary bands of the Sixties (or any decade, for that matter). The impact of their meteoric career has resonated far beyond their brief half-decade as a recording and performing entity. Their words and music captured the Sixties zeitgeist with undeniable power. A cult of personality continues to surround Jim Morrison, their tempestuous lead singer. Morrison was a brooding, charismatic frontman in the classic mold of Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger. Yet he was given to more extreme and confrontational forms of behavior than those icons. Morrison pushed himself to the limit with drugs, alcohol and hard living, becoming one of rock’s most celebrated martyrs when his body gave out at the age of 27. Only six years passed from the Doors’ formation in 1966 to Morrison’s death in 1971. During that time, the group released six studio albums and left a smoldering trail of memorable and often controversial concert performances that cemented Morrison’s legend.
The Doors comprised vocalist Jim Morrison, keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore. Their music combined classical elocution with jazzy improvisation and infused heady psychedelic rock with the earthiness of the blues. As Manzarek put it in a 1997 interview: “We just combined the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Dionysian side is the blues, and the Apollonian side is classical music. The proper artist combines Apollonian rigor and correctness with Dionysian frenzy, passion and excitement. You blend those two together, and you have the complete, whole artist.” Quite obviously, the Doors were no ordinary group. Thirty years earlier, in the group’s original bio, Manzarek had listed his “hobbies” as “projecting the feel of the future.”
Morrison’s lyrics, sung in a resonant baritone, evinced the sophistication of a schooled poet and the street-level immediacy of a rock lyricist. Especially on the classic albums The Doors and Strange Days, the group epitomized the sound of “acid rock,” which took psychedelia to its limits.
Morrison’s charged theatricality and the band’s challenging musical flights were suffused with unpredictability and genuine danger. On several occasions, the singer’s erratic behavior, which included baiting audiences and authorities from the stage, put him in legal jeopardy and physical risk. He fearlessly approached Doors performances as a kind of experiment in mass provocation, resulting in scenes of illumination and chaos. It was his way of externalizing a personal philosophy. As he stated in the Doors’ original Elektra Records bio: “I’ve always been attracted to ideas that were about revolt against authority. I like ideas about the breaking away or overthrowing of established order. I am interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos – especially activity that seems to have no meaning. It seems to be to be the road toward freedom...”
What the Doors offered listeners was not just entertainment but an exhortation to “break on through to the other side.” That was, in fact, the title of the Doors’ first single and the opening track of their self-titled debut album from 1967. In addition to “Break On Through (To the Other Side),” The Doors included “Light My Fire.” Penned by guitarist Krieger in his first songwriting attempt, the song catapulted the group to stardom, topping the charts for three weeks during the Summer of Love. (For purposes of AM airplay, the single version of “Light My Fire” was edited from its nearly seven-minute album length to just under three minutes.) Then there was “The End,” a harrowing epic that ambitiously recast elements of the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex in a disturbing, acid-rock frenzy. “The End” ran for more than 11 minutes, making it one of rock’s first long-form compositions.
Over the next four years, The Doors released five more studio albums – Strange Days (1967), Waiting for the Sun (1968), The Soft Parade (1969), Morrison Hotel (1970) and L.A. Woman (1971) – and the concert compendium Absolutely Live (1970). In the 40 years since Morrison’s death, there have been numerous compilations, live releases and box sets. The surviving members even recorded two albums (Other Voices and Full Circle) as a trio. Still, the original studio albums remain the core of the Doors’ still-viable catalog.
More than any other band, the Doors reflected the turbulence of the Sixties and the clash between generations. “We want the world and we want it now,” Morrison screamed in “When the Music’s Over” (from Strange Days). This album-closing masterpiece warned of ecological apocalypse well before the rise of an organized environmental movement that would sound similar alarms. “The Unknown Soldier,” an unlikely Top 40 hit, was the most potent antiwar song of the Vietnam era. Drawing upon Morrison’s and Manzarek’s background in film studies, the Doors further recast the song as a dramatic rock video – one of the first.
The Doors’ outsized personality came largely from Morrison, who projected sexuality (he once described the Doors as “erotic politicians”), a deep interest in shamanism and ritual, and an unsettling preoccupation with death. The source of Morrison’s intensity was addressed early in the group’s existence. “It’s the feeling of a bowstring being pulled back for 22 years and suddenly let go,” he explained.
Much as Bob Dylan raised the bar for lyric-writing in the folk realm, Morrison brought a heightened poetical sensibility to rock lyrics. As keyboardist Manzarek stated in a 2006 interview, “Jim Morrison was a great young American poet working in the genre of rock and roll.” He was well-read and had a keen intellect. His principal literary influences ranged from Beat Generation writers (notably Jack Kerouac) to French symbolist poets (especially Arthur Rimbaud) and English poet-savants including John Keats and William Blake. He derived the Doors’ name from a passage in Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” That same passage inspired the title of Aldous Huxley’s 1954 essay on his first psychedelic experience, "The Doors of Perception," which Morrison had read.
The origins of the Doors date back to the summer of 1965, when Morrison and Manzarek – who’d met as students at UCLA’s film school – first broached the idea of forming a rock band that would marry words and music in provocative new ways. Morrison had come to Southern California after an itinerant childhood. (His father, George Morrison, was a naval officer who attained the rank of admiral.) Young “Jimmy” Morrison lived in Clearwater and Tallahassee, Florida; Alexandria, Virginia; and Alameda, California, among other places. Manzarek hailed from Chicago, growing up in proximity to the blues scene on the city’s Southside.
During a chance meeting between the two on Venice Beach, Morrison sang a few of his songs to Manzarek, including “Moonlight Drive” (which would appear on Strange Days, their second album). Manzarek responded by saying: “Jim, those are the best songs I’ve ever heard... Man, we’ve got to get a band together. We’re going to make a million dollars!” Morrison responded, “Ray, that’s exactly what I had in mind.” Morrison even had the band’s name picked out: The Doors.
Early Doors lineups evolved out of Rick and the Ravens, Manzarek’s bar band, which included his brothers Rick and Jim. Guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore, both of whom were in a meditation group with Manzarek, joined as others fell away, and the group solidified as a four-piece. Krieger could play a variety of styles, including flamenco, blues and psychedelia, and his skill as a slide guitarist became a core ingredient in the group’s sound. As a drummer, Densmore had a creative, dynamic flair that lent itself to the Doors’ surreal, kaleidoscopic music. Notably, the Doors had no bass player. Manzarek filled that role at live shows and on early recordings by playing a Fender keyboard bass with his left hand while playing conventional keyboards (organ and piano) with his right hand. In the studio, they’d occasionally recruit other musicians to play bass. The list of bassists who played on Doors albums included sessionmen Larry Knechtel and Jerry Scheff, Clear Light’s Douglas Lubahn and old-school rocker Lonnie Mack.
Much of the Doors’ original repertoire came together during a series of extended club residencies on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip. For much of 1966 and 1967, the Doors were the house band at the London Fog and then the more prestigious and popular Whisky a Go Go. Their six-song demo, recorded in 1965, had been turned down by nearly every other label. Based largely on their burgeoning popularity as a live band, the Doors were offered a contract by Elektra Records. Among their champions on the local scene was Love, a band of similarly anarchic spirits who were on Elektra.
Having conquered the L.A. club scene, the Doors achieved national success and critical acclaim soon after the release of The Doors, their 1967 debut. Produced by Paul Rothchild – as was every one of the original Doors albums except L.A. Woman – The Doors was a tour de force of literate, visionary acid-rock and one of the major releases of 1967. Its followup, Strange Days, appeared later the same year and drew from the same impressive wellspring of material. Notable tracks included “When the Music’s Over,” “Love Me Two Times” (a raunchy, riff-driven hit) and the haunting title song. For the last of these, Morrison’s vocal received an eerie electronic treatment from Moog synthesizer pioneer Paul Beaver. If any album ever captured the disorienting aura of those conflicted times, steeped in violence-, political- and drug-induced paranoia, it was Strange Days. The album was strange right down to its Fellini-esque cover rendering of a back-street carnival freak show.
Waiting for the Sun - the Doors’ third album, released in 1968 - was their first (and only) album to hit Number One, a position it held for four weeks. Despite its chart success, it had been a difficult album to make, as the group had nearly exhausted its reserve of original material and “hit the third album wall,” in producer Paul Rothchild’s words. Moreover, Morrison’s hedonistic lifestyle was wearing him out and wearying his bandmates as well. The group failed to cut a satisfactory take of Morrison’s magnum opus, a suite of poetic songs and snippets entitled “Celebration of the Lizard,” although lyrics from it were printed inside the album. Still, it had some exceptional moments, including “The Unknown Soldier,” “Hello, I Love You” and “Five to One.” The last of these, a bluesy rant about generational conflict and youthful revolt, contained the often-quoted line “No one here gets out alive.”
The most problematic of the Doors’ albums, The Soft Parade, followed a year later. It was made with relatively less enthusiasm and involvement from Morrison, and the inclusion of strings and horns on many tracks took it far afield from the Doors’ previous work. Tellingly, he insisted that the shared group songwriting credit be abandoned and that each song’s primary writer – either Krieger or Morrison – be identified. The album reached Number Six and spawned four Krieger-penned singles, including the Number Three hit “Touch Me,” which included a jazzy sax solo by hornman Curtis Amy. The eight-minute title track, largely a Morrison creation, was the most notable track and the Doors’ last epic composition.
Morrison reasserted himself on Morrison Hotel, their fifth album, which took a bluesier, more down-to-earth approach. It kicked off with “Roadhouse Blues,” their hardest-charging song and a bonafide anthem on par with Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild.” It also included “Waiting for the Sun” (a song left off the album of the same name), the sublime, jazzy “Queen of the Highway” and “Peace Frog,” an apocalyptic slice of psychedelia revisited.
Away from the studio, Morrison’s ongoing issues with drugs and alcohol – combined with his antiauthoritarian mindset - resulted in ever-unpredictable behavior. He was arrested onstage in New Haven in December 1967. His performances at Doors concerts during the difficult year of 1968 were erratic – often brilliant, sometimes problematic. The tumult engendered by Morrison culminated in Florida. During an infamous concert at Miami’s Dinner Key Auditorium on March 1, 1969, he was alleged to have exposed himself onstage and was subsequently charged with indecent exposure and public profanity.
With the specter and distraction of a court trial – and possible jail time - hanging over his head, Morrison found himself in real trouble. Interestingly, no photographic evidence affirming his exposure has ever surfaced. Prior to the Miami show, Morrison had been attending and even participating in performances by the provocative Living Theatre troupe. While he no doubt meant to challenge the audience in Miami in much the same way, it would appear that he employed suggestion and illusion to do so, stopping short of exposure. Nevertheless, he was found guilty on both charges and sentenced to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. Those convictions were under appeal when Morrison died in 1971. In 2010 he was officially pardoned by the Florida Clemency Board, led by Governor Charlie Crist.
In the wake of the Miami incident and pending trial, Morrison and the Doors rebounded from adversity with renewed focus. They undertook a U.S. concert tour that found them delivering some of the strongest shows of their career. Many were taped for the double album Absolutely Live, which culled the best takes from along the tour. By this point, the Doors were working more bluesy and roots-oriented material – both originals and covers – into their sets. (“The Doors were basically a roadhouse blues band with intellectual pretensions,” Manzarek noted in Keyboard magazine.) Decades later, beginning in 2001, a number of these concerts were released in their entirety on Bright Midnight, the surviving Doors’ label for archival releases. The Doors’ final performance took place in New Orleans, on December 12, 1970, where Morrison appeared creatively spent and mentally and physically exhausted.
All the while, much like such kindred spirits and guiding lights as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg, Morrison nurtured a growing fascination with America in his later song lyrics and the poems he was writing outside the group. Some of Morrison’s readings of his poetry – recorded in a Los Angeles studio on his 27th (and last) birthday - were posthumously issued in 1978, with music overdubbed by the surviving Doors, as An American Prayer.
The Doors sixth and final studio album - L.A. Woman, released in 1971 - harked back to their early years, when they collectively worked out new material in a more casual, workshop-type setting. After Paul Rothchild, the Doors’ long-time producer, walked out in frustration early in the sessions, the Doors decided to self-produce the album with engineer Bruce Botnik. The group rose to the challenge – especially Morrison, who tempered his excesses as best he could during the sessions. Despite all the controversy, including blacklisting by radio stations and concert promoters, the Doors still proved capable of cracking the Top 40, as both “Love Her Madly” and “Riders On the Storm” were sizable hits in 1971. The propulsive, seven-minute title track acutely captured the alluring yin and alienating yang of the City of Angels, becoming one of the group’s best-loved songs.
Before the release of L.A. Woman, Morrison took an open-ended hiatus from the Doors and moved to Paris. There was talk of him returning to tour with the group, based on the resurgent momentum generated by the album’s success, but it was not to be. Jim Morrison died of a heart attack in the Paris apartment he shared with longtime girlfriend Pamela Courson on July 3, 1971.