By Dave Thompson
1970 was more than the dawn of a new decade. It was also the end of an era.
The year began with the breakup of the Beatles, wrapped up with the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and was also hallmarked by any number of other musical convolutions. The Rolling Stones did not release a new studio LP, The Who were still struggling to follow up “Tommy,” and rock ’n’ roll itself was on such shaky ground that, when the critics looked around and tried to prophesy what the “Next Big Thing” was going to be, most of them settled upon the crop of singer-songwriters who — let’s be honest here — would barely have gotten a look in a year or two before.
And then The Doors released “Morrison Hotel,” and, for 40 marvelous minutes or so, it was worth waking up in the morning again.
Dave Marsh at Creem called The Doors’ fifth album “the most horrifying rock and roll I have ever heard,” and that was a compliment. “When they’re good, they’re simply unbeatable.” It was the best record he’d heard all year.
Rock Magazine and Circus unanimously agreed that it was The Doors’ best record yet, and while it was maybe a little early to be making such pronouncements (‘Morrison Hotel’ was released in February 1970), Circus described it as “one of the best albums released this decade.”
Which, coming hot on the heels of what had been the most tumultuous year in the band’s career so far, must have been music to their ears. Jim Morrison was still reeling from the ugliness unleashed by the Miami bust for obscenity; the band as a whole was still shaken by the almost unanimously hostile reception that greeted their last album, “Soft Parade.” Indeed, organist Ray Manzarek is still capable of summoning up a considerable quantity of bile when recalling the reaction which that record provoked.
“‘How dare The Doors use horns and strings; who do they think we are? We want them to keep playing songs the way they are. How dare they add something to it because when they do that; they’re not The Doors,” Manzarek says.
“All right, all right, it’s my fault; I take full responsibility. It was my idea to put on some horns and strings, get some jazz players,” Manzarek says.
His voice oozing sarcasm, Manzarek remembers that album’s planning stages. “We’ve done three albums and they’re all exactly the same… there must be something we can do that’s different.”
There was, and they did it. And what happened? “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I don’t like it, ...’” he says
There was just one solution. “OK, we’ll go back to the blues and do something down and dirty and funky. Here’s ‘Morrison Hotel.’ The Doors back to the roots. And that’s what we did. The Doors went back to the roots, the tight roots sound.
“The next leap would have been into synthesizers. We never quite got around to that, to the ARP, the Moog. We didn’t quite get those in, but we definitely would have. And you can bet that had the synth been a little further along, or The Doors been a little further along, all those horns and strings on the ‘Soft Parade would have been done by me. I would have found the horn sound or the string sound. …”
In the meantime, however, “Morrison Hotel” “was just back to basics.” But not, Manzarek insists, as a reaction to the panning that “Soft Parade” received. “Not at all. It was our choice. Quite frankly, we didn’t pay a lot of attention to the critics because, when it comes time for creation, you go into a different space where there’s nothing but you and your music, and how can you make your music as good as it can possibly be at this moment in time?
“We live in our own room, all bands do. Imagine Jimi Hendrix doing anything that Jimi Hendrix didn’t want to do. Whether its horns and strings or synths or back to basics, that’s your decision, and that’s what we did,” Manzarek says. “We looked at one another and said ‘OK, let’s get funky. Let’s get funky, let’s do it’.”
Just two external players were recruited — bassist Lonnie Mack and the mysterious G Puglese, a harmonica wizard who only later turned out to be John Sebastian. Compare that to the small army of auxiliaries who turned out for “Soft Parade;” and compare the relaxed, almost effortless feel of the music, again, with that which preceded it. If you want your Doors dangerous, there’s no comparison.
“Morrison Hotel” is not the sole glimpse into this new-found funkiness around these days. Earlier this year, a staggering six CDs of live material culled from The Doors’ four-show residency at the Felt Forum in New York provided us with the most complete examination yet of The Doors as a working band.
For all the chaos that continued gathering around the band, as the dust from Miami refused to settle; for all the disquieting misbehavior that was becoming more and more a part of the Jim Morrison persona; and for all the audience expectation that now seemed to hinge around the possibility of Morrison getting his penis out once again, the shows catch The Doors firing on every cylinder, a blazing rock ’n’ roll band at the height of its creative and improvisational powers.
Plus, says Manzarek, New York was the Doors’ favorite place to play. “The New York audience was always interesting. London was great, and Los Angeles was good. But New York was the best, and you can feel that in the live show.”
“Morrison Hotel” was still several weeks away from release at the time of the Felt Forum shows, but much of the album was already firmly nestled in the live set, including the song that remains the new record’s definitive track, the opening “Roadhouse Blues.”
“What a telltale lick,” says Manzarek. “What a signature lick. That’s all you have to hear, and you know what that song’s meant to be. And that great last stanza by Morrison… ‘I got up this morning and got myself a beer.’ Is that rock ’n’ roll or what?”
On that evidence alone, Manzarek says, “‘Morrison Hotel’ was definitely back to roots, back to basics. Great songs. In fact, the only thing it lacked was, as we called them, an epic. There was no song over five minutes. We didn’t have a ‘Light My Fire,’ ‘When The Music’s Over’ or ‘The End.’ But so what?”
What The Doors did have, as both the studio album and the live package exemplify, was an album wherein every song had its own epic quality — and that includes one that had been around for almost as long as the Doors themselves.
“Indian Summer” was an outtake that dated back to “the very first day of recording for the first album. We found it in our bin of stuff. There was us, our producer Paul Rothchild and our engineer Bruce Botnik, and we wanted a simple little song so we could get the sound down. So we did ‘Indian Summer’ and then went into ‘Moonlight Mile.’
Revamped and with much of it rerecorded, “Indian Summer” emerged as one of the most unexpected treats on the new album. But pressed to name his favorite, Manzarek has little hesitation in pointing to another song whose genesis dated back a few years, “Waiting For The Sun.”
The song was originally intended as the title track to The Doors’ third album, back in 1968. “We loved the title so much that we called the album ‘Waiting For The Sun,’ the artwork was done, but the song wasn’t ready. It hadn’t come out of the oven yet. Never mind, nobody will know there’s the song called ‘Waiting For The Sun’ as well. So when it did finally come out on ‘Morrison Hotel,’ people went — wait a sec! But I’m glad we waited, because it came out a stunning piece of music.”
So is the rest of the set, an album that drives from the opening punch of “Roadhouse Blues” to the closing grind of “Maggie M’Gill,” and, in between times, launches such future Doors favorites as “The Spy,” “Ship Of Fools” and “Land Ho!”
Maybe, as the history books remind us, “Morrison Hotel” arrived devoid of any of the hit singles that had sent the Doors soaring in the past (and would in the future — their next, and final, album, “L.A. Woman,” was highlighted by the immortal “Riders On The Storm”). But it was Top Four in the U.S. and became their highest-charting album yet in the UK (#12) and elsewhere around the world.
Even better, pick up the 40th anniversary remix (40 years, that is, since the band’s first album) and 10 bonus tracks take your ears even deeper into the sessions, with multiple retakes of “Roadhouse Blues” lining up alongside an alternate take of “The Spy,” a superb “jazz version” of “Queen of the Highway,” and a clutch of false starts and snippets that really do seem to put you in the room with the band.
And if you want to get even closer up and more personal, reach for a copy of “When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors,” the newly released DVD, that, laughs Manzarek, is “Doors 101 for a new generation.”
The Johnny Depp-narrated documentary was built around “all the footage we’ve had in storage for years. An old friend of ours from UCLA shot it all, this beautiful footage of Jim out in the desert, the onstage footage. We’ve had it all in storage, and we put it together into the story of The Doors, and the story of the sixties. The Doors 101: An intro for all the youngsters.”
Because, Manzarek insists, the youngsters need it.
“It’s also a necessary spirituality that the young people are discovering about The Doors — A love of poetry, an interest in literature, an interest in jazz and classical music,” Manzarek says.
Punning on the Aldous Huxley title that gave the band its name in the first place, Manzarek believes, “If we can open the doors of perception, a new generation is going to discover the passion and the commitment to art, the spirituality and an understanding of all those things. I’m very happy about that.”
And as for why release it now, as opposed to at any other time in the past….
“Why not?” Manzarek says. “People ask why now; well, if we’d done it 20 years ago, we wouldn’t have it now, and it’s exciting for us to be talking about it now, because if we’d had it 20 years ago, we’d have nothing to say today.”
Actually, that’s very unlikely. Ever since “American Prayer” came along at the end of the 1970s, with its poetic promise of the first all-new Doors material to be released in almost a decade, there has been no shortage of fresh treats for the fan, the collector or the just plain curious to pick up. And Manzarek laughs when he’s reminded of that fact.
“It’s true,” he says. “There’s always something else with The Doors. ‘Aren’t they finished yet?’”
Thankfully, no. They’re not.