Skip to main content

The early days of The Doors

Take an introductory trip into the opening story of The Doors.
 Early Doors (L-R): Robby Krieger, John Densmore, Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Early Doors (L-R): Robby Krieger, John Densmore, Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

By Gillian G. Gaar

Jim Morrison’s girlfriend, Pamela Courson, was found dead of a heroin overdose in her West Hollywood home on April 25, 1974. Her years without Jim had not been easy. She tried to establish that she was actually Jim’s widow, but the two had never been legally married. Jim had named her his soul heir in his will, which resulted in an endless series of legal difficulties for her due to the complexities of his estate. She was forced to close her boutique, Themis; on its closing, she angrily drove her car through the shop’s front window. She lived in the Bay Area for a while, then returned to L.A. To survive, and feed her continuing drug habit, she sold many of her possessions, including items of Jim’s.

All outstanding suits with the estate were settled by 1974. Pamela received an initial disbursement of $20,000, and at the time of her death was going to receive an additional half million, as well as inheriting a quarter of the Doors’ future earnings. Instead, she was interred at Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana, California, the marker identifying her as “Pamela Susan Morrison.” A memorial service was held at Forest Lawn’s Hollywood Hill cemetery; Ray Manzarek played “When the Music’s Over,” “Love Street,” and “Crystal Ship” on the church organ. Pamela’s family inherited her estate, and the Morrison family later filed suit for a share of the Doors’ earnings. Jim’s share was ultimately split between the two families.

Three month’s after Pamela’s death, a “Jim Morrison Memorial Disappearance Party” was held on July 3 at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles. Ray, who was fast becoming the dominant keeper of the Doors’ flame, hosted, and Iggy Pop, who’d been working with Ray, performed a few Doors songs. Whether deliberate or not, the use of the word “disappearance” in the event’s title alluded to a growing perception about Jim Morrison’s ultimate fate; that he hadn’t died, but had simply taken on a new identity to avoid the pressures of being a rock star. The same year of the “Disappearance Party,” Capitol released the album “Phantom’s Divine Comedy Part 1,” with a lead singer who sounded uncannily like Jim. The record had been recorded by a Detroit group called Walpurgis, who adopted pseudonyms for the album; the singer, Tom Carson, was called “Arthur Pendragon” (Carson was also said to have attended the “Disappearance Party”). In 1975, the book, “The Bank of America of Louisiana,” credited to a “Jim Morrison,” was published, purporting to tell the true story of a rock star who fled the public to start a new life as a banker in Louisiana. It was the beginning of what would become a cottage industry around the possibility that Jim Morrison still walked among us.

The real Jim did return — on record — with the release of “An American Prayer” in 1978. In 1976, Robby Krieger started wondering what happened to the tapes of Jim’s poetry sessions and contacted producer John Haeny. Haeny still had the master tapes, and on listening to them, “I knew that we could do something great with it,” Robby said. The other Doors were quick to agree, and they began working on the album the following year. It was like old times, working with Jim again; Ray recalled that hearing his old bandmate’s voice through his headphones in the recording studio made him look over at the vocal booth, expecting Jim to be there. The album’s five sections — “Awake,” “To Come of Age,” “The Poets Dreams,” “World On Fire,�� and “An American Prayer” — traced Jim’s life journey, making the album something of an autobiography. The album also featured a rousing live version of “Roadhouse Blues.”

The album, credited to “Jim Morrison” with “Music by The Doors,” reached No. 54, and sold a quarter of a million on its initial release, respectable figures for a spoken word album; it also received a Grammy nomination. “An American Prayer” even led to a Doors reunion; while promoting the album overseas, the remaining band members gave a brief performance in Paris on what would have been Jim’s 35th birthday, December 8, 1978.

Not everyone was pleased with the album’s appearance. Doors producer Paul Rothchild indignantly referred to “An American Prayer” as “a rape of Jim Morrison — the same as taking a Picasso and cutting it into postage stamp-sized pieces to spread across a supermarket wall.” His main objection was that Jim wouldn’t have had the other Doors provide the backing music, but with his death there was no way to resolve that issue.

But the album’s greater importance is that it was the first in a series of events that led to full-fledge Doors revival. A big factor in the revival was Ray’s feeling that the Doors’, and particularly Jim’s, contributions to rock were being overlooked. He recalled listening to a DJ on an L.A. radio station talking about rock legends who had died and being surprised that Jim wasn’t mentioned at all: “Where’s Jim? Do the Doors even exist? What about ‘Light My Fire’ and all the rest?” He became determined “to make sure that the world knows Jim Morrison. You can like him or dislike him, but you’re going to know who he is.”

 Early GIG: The Doors performing onstage at the Ondine nightclub in New York City, November 1966. Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Early GIG: The Doors performing onstage at the Ondine nightclub in New York City, November 1966. Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

He wouldn’t have long to wait. Frances Ford Coppola’s Vietnam-era war film “Apocalypse Now” featured the Doors’ “The End” in key sequences, reminding people of the nightmarish power of the band (the closing credits even feature a new mix of the track, with Jim’s percussive use of the word “f—k” finally loud enough to hear). The following year, the first major biography of Jim, “No One Here Gets Out Alive” (a line taken from the song “Five to One”), was published and became a worldwide blockbuster. The original manuscript, written by Jerry Hopkins, had been rejected by over thirty publishers. It was then taken up by Danny Sugerman, who had been hanging out at the Doors’ offices since he was a teenager. Jim hired him to answer his fan mail, and Danny then made it his life’s work to promote the band at every opportunity; he would eventually become the band’s manager.

Danny sent the manuscript to Warner Books, who had already twice rejected it. But this time, a sympathetic editor convinced the company to publish it. Danny, with input from Ray, oversaw an edit of the manuscript. The book was published in June 1980, its release celebrated with a party at the Whisky on June 16, with the remaining Doors playing a short set — the last time they would play together for over a decade. The book, featuring one of Joel Brodsky’s “young lion” pictures of Jim on the cover, topped the “New York Times” bestsellers list and became a huge international bestseller. New releases were quickly put out to take advantage of the Doors’ resurging popularity. The band released their first-ever long form video, “No One Here Gets Out Alive: A Tribute to Jim Morrison,” featuring interviews with the remaining band members and rare footage. A new “best of” collection, simply entitled, “Greatest Hits,” was released in 1980 and hit the Top 20; it would go on to sell over five million copies. In a canny marketing decision, Elektra dropped the list price of “The Doors,” “Waiting for the Sun,” and “The Soft Parade” by three dollars; soon, every Doors album doubled its sales over the previous years. “We’ve sold more Doors records this year [1981] than in any year since they were first released,” Elektra publicist Bryn Bridenthal told “Rolling Stone,” which capitalized on interest in the band with a provocative headline on the cover of its September 17, 1981 issue: “Jim Morrison: He’s hot, he’s sexy and he’s dead,” featuring a picture taken in 1967 by “16” magazine editor Gloria Stavers.

At least “Rolling Stone” forthrightly stated that Jim was deceased. For others, that remained an open question. The Hopkins/Sugerman book fanned that particular flame with its ambiguous ending. Hopkins had originally intended for the book to be published with two different endings; one edition would have Jim dying in Paris, the other suggesting that he faked his death. The publisher vetoed that conceit, so the final chapter discussed both theories, planting the idea that Jim could’ve faked his death at the very end, where it would have more of a dramatic impact. And the book’s final line, “Going on a decade now, there’s still no word from Mr. Mojo Risin’,” implied it was possible the world might one day hear from Jim again.

The genie was out of the bottle; subsequent writings about Jim would nearly all mention the rumor that he might have faked his death. And the Doors now became an on going concern; whatever projects Ray, Robby, and John became involved in, their one-time identity as members of the Doors was never far in the background.

In the 21st century, the remaining Doors managed to come together one more time. The location was the picturesquely named Hen House Studios in, appropriately enough, Venice, California, where the Doors’ story had begun all those years ago. Ray, Robby, and John Densmore provided the musical backing on the album “Look Each Other in the Ears,” by their old friend, Michael C. Ford. Michael had attended UCLA with Jim and Ray, and had also known Robby and John before they’d joined the Doors; Michael had even been considered as a possible bass player for the group. In 1969, Jim invited Michael to read at the Norman Mailer benefit, his first public reading. Now, as they had on “American Prayer,” the three former Doors provided a bed for Michael’s readings — light and upbeat, in contrast to the more mysterious sound of “American Prayer.”

The album, released in 2014, was dedicated to Ray, who died on May 20, 2013, of bile duct cancer; he died at the RoMed Clinic in Rosenheim, Germany, where he’d gone to seek treatment. Both Robby and John issued statements about his death. “I was deeply saddened to hear about the passing of my friend and bandmate Ray Manzarek today,” said Robby. “I’m just glad to have been able to have played Doors songs with him for the last decade. Ray was a huge part of my life and I will always miss him.” “There was no keyboard player on the planet more appropriate to support Jim Morrison’s words,” said John, who was on a tour promoting his book, “The Doors Unhinged,” at the time of Ray’s death. “Ray, I felt totally in sync with you musically. It was like we were of one mind, holding down the foundation for Robby and Jim to float on top of. I will miss my musical brother.”

In his memoir, “Light My Fire,” Ray had written about the four Doors being like four points of a diamond, a diamond within “the magic circle of the Doors.” The first time the four had played together, Ray wrote, “The diamond was formed and it was clear and hard and luminous.” Now two of the points were gone, and the circle became smaller. But the loss also helped sweep aside any lingering resentments between the two Doors who remained. On December 5, 2013, Robby and John appeared together on stage for the first time since the 2000 “VH1 Storytellers” show at “An Evening with The Doors.” held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The night included a screening of the documentary, “Mr. Mojo Risin’: The Making of L.A. Woman,” a Q&A, and a surprise set, with the two performing “People Are Strange,” “Love Me Two Times,” “Spanish Caravan” and “Riders on the Storm.” Robby provided lead vocals, inviting the audience to sing along, because “We’re not great vocalists or anything,” a gentle acknowledgement of who was missing.

And there would be other projects to come. As long as people are drawn to the power of the band’s music, interest in the Doors will live on.

Recalling how The Doors broke open