Sunday, November 26, 2017

Ladies and Gentlemen, THE doors - Hits of '67

L.A. was The Doors; no city or place defined them more.  Morrison and Manzarek weren't even from California, but no matter. The Doors were the Anti-Beach Boys, the seedier, unseemly side of the city in the smog. The band’s first album was release in January 1967 to great fanfare with one of my father’s billboards the centerpiece of their debut. They scored a minor hit with "Break On Through," a fitting overture, but it wasn't until April that "Light My Fire" hit No. 1 on the charts, catapulting the band to superstardom.

By then you'd find Morrison at the Ondine Discotheque on 59th Street in New York. In a black leather suit, his hair falling in ringlets about his perfect face, Morrison was knocking back shots of whatever anyone was buying. Artist and underground film maker Andy Warhol, by then the most famous artist in the world, stood nearby, hoping to meet the 23 year old rock God. Warhol wanted Morrison to appear in one of his films, naked and surrounded by the Factory Girls; all of them beautiful; not all of them girls.

Warhol was overwhelmed and couldn’t bring himself to approach Morrison. And why? He just wasn't sure what might happen should he interrupt Jim from the attention he was receiving from two equally enthralled female fans, one of whom had the singer's penis in her mouth while the other unbuttoned her gauzy blouse so that Morrison could fondle her breasts. "Oh gee," sighed Warhol, his stock response to any situation in which he found himself reeling. "I guess I’ll talk to Jim later." So goes the mythology, though Morrison was already mightier than the myth. Is the vignette true? Probably.

Morrison was vastly different in April 1967 than he'd been just a few months before when The Doors played L.A.'s London Fog or the Whiskey-A-Go-Go. There instead, Jim would sing with his back to the audience, fearful of his own shadow.  Yet it was this shy, self-effacing incarnation who entered the studio to record The Doors' first iconic L.P. Somehow producer, Paul Rothchild, knew what lay behind the pouty lips and the unfettered anxiety.

Rothchild was just the kind of producer the Doors needed. He was intelligent and well-read, understanding poetry, jazz and rock 'n' roll. While a very strong presence in the studio, he also knew how to give the band room when they needed it. "Things were wonderful in the Sixties because it was an era of intense experimentation," Rothchild said. "Everyone was trying to out-hip each other. With the Doors we tried to strike a very fine line between being very fresh and original and being documentary - making the record sound like it really happened live, which it did, for the most part. I personally always try to focus on longevity and honesty."
Engineer Bruce Botnick came into the Doors sessions with five-year's experience under his belt, working with Buffalo Springfield and Love. He recalls meeting the Doors: "I'd never seen them before in my life. They were just a local bar band. I was impressed with them, but it wasn't like 'Oh my God, this is going to be the heaviest band in the world,' because you just didn't think about that. It was my music also, my genre, they were all my age, we were all growing together. It felt real natural."

According to Rothchild, the entire album was done on a four-track recorder, using only three tracks. He recorded bass and drums on one track, guitar and organ on another, and Morrison's vocals on the third, leaving the fourth track open for a few extras. In a stunning innovation, Rothchild overdubbed Morrison singing harmony to himself on a couple of songs. At that time double voicing was avant-garde and left to more experimental artists, but the arrangement and engineering account for other-worldliness of the LP.

Although "The End" would eventually come off as unique and exciting in the studio as it was performed live, the first night they tried to record it, Jim was high on acid. Rothchild described that night: "We tried, and we just couldn't get it. Jim wanted desperately to do it. His entire being was screaming...he was emotionally very moved. At one point he had tears in his eyes in the session and he shouted in the studio 'Does anybody understand me?' Right then and there we got into a long discussion about this section of the song. But it wasn't working. I have tried several times to record artists on acid and it doesn't work."

The next day was different, however. Due to the complexity of the song, a good portion of the day was spent setting up, but once the tape began rolling, the performance was what Rothchild later called "the most awe-inspiring thing I have ever witnessed in a studio." For the recording, the studio was completely darkened except for the lights on the recording console and a single candle burning next to Jim. "I was totally overwhelmed. Normally, the producer sits there just listening for all the things that are right and anything about to go wrong, but for this take I was completely sucked up into it, absolutely an audience."

"We were about six minutes into it when I turned to Bruce and said 'Do you understand what's happening here? This is one of the most important moments in recorded rock 'n' roll.' It was a magic moment. Jim was doing 'The End,' doing it for all time, and I was pulled off, right on down his road. He said come with me and I did. And it was almost a shock when the song was over - it felt like, yes, it's the end, that's the end, that's the statement, it cannot go any further. When they were done, I felt emotionally washed. I had goose bumps from head to foot. For one of the very first times in rock 'n' roll history, sheer drama had taken place on tape...Bruce was also completely sucked into it. His head was on the console, and he was just absolutely immersed in the take - he became part of the audience, too. So the muse did visit the studio that night, and all of us were audience. The machines knew what to do, I guess. It was magic."

According to Jim, the recording of The End was a turning point in the Doors attitude toward their music. "We didn't start out with such big ideas. We thought we were going to be just another pop group, but then something happened when we recorded 'The End.' We saw that what we were doing was more important than just a hit song. We were writing serious music and performing it in a very dramatic way. 'The End' is like going to see a movie when you already know the plot. It's a timeless piece of was then that we realized we were different from other groups. We were playing music that would last for years, not weeks."

No one will argue the intensity of "Light My Fire," The Doors most endearing and iconic hit, but it was the seedy side of Morrison and The Doors that would create the iconic mythology. The Doors were intimately associated with sexuality in the minds of their audience. A November 1967 article in the New York Times stated that "Jim Morrison considers the Doors as something more than a hit rock 'n' roll group," and that his image was "directed at the same constituency as the Monkees: Those 14-year-old girls of America’s suburbs.... [His] vision is packaged in sex." There was truth in this analysis. Rock journalist Harvey Kubernik recalls the early months of the Doors' popularity while he was in high school: "At first it didn't seem to matter that we boys listened to the Doors, because the girls in homeroom couldn’t care less." After the band's appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show however, "it got to the point where we guys couldn't compete with Jim Morrison.... He was the ultimate beautiful bad boy." This pattern continued to be a significant part of the band's appeal for the rest of their public career. Another New York Times article, from 1970, reported on a concert at Madison Square Garden. "Onstage assaults, where teen-age girls must be pried off the bodies of the performers," writer Mike Jahn opined, "are tributes usually reserved for the best-known rock idols." During the concert, "at least two dozen girls and quite a few boys" were removed from the stage.

Never before or since had male sexuality been more pronounced or more spontaneous. The Doors was recorded "live," essentially, in the studio with all its raw power and emotion and coupled with the unsurpassed musicianship of the other Doors. Morrison, too, was, throughout the band’s career, live, spontaneous, unrehearsed, raw, powerful and ultimately out of control. Critics and fans alike fuss over the AM10 aspects of L.A. Woman, but nowhere was the band more powerful than in those initial studio recordings, 50 years ago.