The Doors - Biography
The Doors arrived on the U.S. scene in the first month of 1967 as something wickedly new. Fronted by a poetry-intoxicated, priapic lead singer whose presence was unlike anything seen since the advent of Elvis Presley, the Los Angeles quartet – which worked without a bass – played music that was lean, jazzy, and improvisational, yet simultaneously pop-friendly. Blasting out of the hip L.A. club underground, they became national stars in the psychedelic summer of ’67, bearing, in vocalist Jim Morrison’s words, “songs of love and songs of death/songs to set men free.” By year’s end, they would be one of the top bands in the U.S. Few who heard them would remain untouched by the seductive power of their unique sound or the feral allure of their darkly inviting lyrics.
Though The Doors were a band in which every member brought something crucial to the table, much of the attention lavished on them during their existence and their long, idolatrous afterlife focused on lead singer Morrison. Born Dec. 8, 1943, in Melbourne, Fla., and the son of a Navy admiral, he lived an itinerant childhood, with his family moving from one military posting to another. As a youth he became a rebel without a pause. As a teenager he fell under poetry’s spell; the influence of the drug-addled French symbolist Arthur Rimbaud would be felt in his lyrics and his shamanic stage pose.
After stays at a St. Petersburg, Fla., community college and Florida State University (where he made an amusingly clean-cut appearance in a school promotional film), Morrison moved to Los Angeles in 1964 and enrolled in UCLA’s prominent film program, where he completed two shorts. At UCLA, he made a fateful acquaintance with Ray Manzarek, a Chicago-born classically-trained keyboardist and fellow film student.
Morrison became a habitué of the post-beatnik arts and poetry scene in the oceanside L.A. community of Venice, and sometime in the spring of 1965 Morrison ran into Manzarek -- then working with his brothers in the frat band Rick and the Ravens -- on Venice Beach. The Floridian had continued working on his poetry; after hearing Morrison recite a work-in-progress called “Moonlight Mile,” he concocted the notion of bringing his onetime schoolmate into his group as a singer and lyricist.
The Ravens had a development deal with World Pacific Records, a jazz imprint run by producer Richard Bock (who had also nurtured an early incarnation of The Byrds), and they recorded six demo sides for the company; the recording session employed the talents of the jazz-trained drummer John Densmore. Some singles went nowhere, and Manzarek’s brothers exited the band. A new lineup was completed in the fall of 1965 when Densmore recruited Robby Krieger, a former flamenco guitarist with whom the drummer had played in The Psychedelic Rangers. With a rechristening in order, Morrison suggested the name The Doors, from a William Blake quote – “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: infinite” – that supplied the title for Aldous Huxley’s book about his experiences with the drug mescaline, The Doors of Perception.
After collectively working out a set of original material, The Doors sallied forth into the Hollywood club scene, then a hotbed of fresh, hit-making bands. In February 1966, they became the house band at the London Fog, a small joint in the heart of the Sunset Strip – and, appropriately enough, doors down from the Strip’s main rock showplace, the Whisky A Go Go. After a few months of gigs, the quartet was purloined as the house unit at the Whisky, where they opened for such prominent local acts as Love, The Turtles, Buffalo Springfield, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, and Johnny Rivers; on one memorable occasion they shared the stage with Them, the Irish blues-rock combo fronted by another Morrison, the stormy Belfast shouter Van.
Looking like a fallen angel in leather pants as he toppled to the stage with a shriek, the theatrical, unrestrained lead vocalist of The Doors quickly gained a rep as a provocateur for both his onstage demeanor and his on-the-edge writing. Morrison’s incest-themed lyrics for The Doors’ “The End” incited the fears of the Whisky’s management, who canned the group in mid-1966. But the die was cast already: On the recommendation of Love’s lead singer Arthur Lee, Jac Holzman, the head of Love’s label Elektra Records, had caught a Whisky performance. Holzman was in the process of transforming Elektra from a contemporary folk label to a rock imprint, and envisioned The Doors as a key component of his roster.
Produced by Paul A. Rothchild and engineered by Bruce Botnick, the team that would work with the band for nearly the entire duration of their career, The Doors’ self-titled debut was released in January 1967. It was as perfect a first album as any ever issued. Crisply recorded and fat-free, it was a sophisticated mix of covers – Howlin’ Wolf’s “Back Door Man” and Bertolt Brecht & Kurt Weill’s “Alabama Song” – and muscular originals, all played with polish and delivered with sultry panache by Morrison. It climaxed with a full-blown 11-minute version of “The End.”
Despite its heady exhortation to “break on through to the other side,” the band’s first 45 “Break On Through” failed to chart. Its successor fared considerably better. “Light My Fire” -- a lubricious seven-minute invitation to sexual self-immolation with a Bach-inspired intro courtesy of Manzarek’s Vox Continental organ, and fluid keyboard and guitar workouts over a vamp based on John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” and “Olé” – began to pick up airplay on album-oriented “underground” FM stations. Elektra released a single version, with large chunks of its solos excised but with its brazenly sexual solicitation intact, in May 1967. “Light My Fire” became the summer’s unavoidable hit, spending No. 1 on the Hot 100 for three weeks during a 29-week run. (It reappeared for six weeks the following year, after José Feliciano’s Latinized folk-pop cover took off).
The Doors rocketed to No. 2 on the pop albums chart. The group was suddenly so hot that even the straight media establishment began paying attention. But the band, neck-deep in the counterculture, refused to give up any ground: Morrison earned The Doors a lifetime ban from The Ed Sullivan Show for declining to change a controversial lyric in “Light My Fire” – “We couldn’t get much higher” – during an appearance on the top-rated TV variety show that fall.
It would not be the last time the lead singer’s intransigent and unpredictable behavior (brought on in no small measure by his ever-growing appetite for alcohol and psychedelic drugs) would create havoc for the band. Morrison’s outrageous performance at a near-riotous New Haven, Conn., concert that December resulted in his arrest for disturbing the peace. He would pay a fine of $25, but worse was to come.
The Doors quickly returned to the studio to commit more of their live repertoire to tape, and Strange Days was released in late 1967. The sophomore set maintained the band’s creative momentum, peaking at No. 3. Its single “People Are Strange” – one of the albums several trippy odes to otherness – reached No. 12, while “Love Me Two Times” made the top 30. Its major statement was another 11-minute magnum opus, “When the Music’s Over,” with its exhortation to “dance on fire ‘til the end.”
The years 1968 and 1969 proved rocky for The Doors in the studio and on the road. The making of their third album Waiting For The Sun (1968) was torturous, despite its eventual ascent as the band’s sole No. 1 album. Morrison’s deepening alcoholism made a shambles of the sessions, leading Densmore to storm out on one occasion. The group was also short on fresh material, and several of the album’s lesser tracks were written solely by guitarist Krieger. The trifling flower-power come-on “Hello, I Love” reached No. 1 as well, but it was a pale reflection of the vision and ambition The Doors had brought to the table just a year earlier. The band’s then-current concert centerpiece “The Celebration of the Lizard” was heard on the album only in a mere snippet, recorded as “Five to One.” (That stomping, incessant track included Morrison’s signature boast: “I am the Lizard King – I can do anything.”)
The band reached their arguable nadir with The Soft Parade (1969). All three of the album’s singles -- “Touch Me” (No. 3), “Wishful Sinful” (No. 44), and “Tell All the People” (No. 57) – were solo Robby Krieger compositions. Though the album attempted to broaden The Doors’ trademark sound with the addition of such players as jazz saxophonist Curtis Amy and bluegrass mandolinist Jesse McReynolds, all it proved was that one of rock’s most creative outfits had reached a point of diminishing artistic returns, despite the LP’s No. 6 chart peak.
An event that nearly paralyzed the band’s career took place at The Doors’ concert at the Dinner Key Auditorium in Miami on March 1, 1969. Morrison, who by now believed in his own “Lizard King” persona, must have imagined he really could do anything, and get away with it. As drunk in Miami as he ever appeared on a stage, he taunted the crowd and – according to a reviewer in the Miami Herald two days later – exposed himself to the audience. A warrant charging the singer with indecent exposure and profanity was issued. (Morrison was convicted at a 1970 jury trial, and an appeal was pending at his death.) Thereafter, touring became a dicey and increasingly rare proposition for The Doors.
With their career on a perceptible downswing, a legal cloud hovering over their future, and their vocalist in questionable physical and mental health, The Doors responded with their penultimate album, the splendid Morrison Hotel (1970), which reached No. 4 on the album chart. Boasting a stripped-to-the-bone, bluesy sound, it was viewed by many contemporary critics as a respectable return to form. The lyrics of “Roadhouse Blues,” the B side of its hard-rocking yet unsuccessful lead-off single, found Morrison gazing prophetically at himself through a glass darkly: “I woke up this morning, I got myself a beer/The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.”
After the holding-pattern release of the two-LP concert set Absolutely Live (1970), The Doors set about work on a new studio album. It would be their first without producer Paul Rothchild, who quit the project, hating the new songs and hating Morrison. Now bearded, bloated, and overweight, the vocalist still had one great album left in him. L.A. Woman (1971) was recorded live at the band’s own studio, co-produced by Bruce Botnick and the group members. Continuing on the track established by Morrison Hotel, it was direct and gutsy; a cover of bluesman John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling King Snake” was among its highlights. Its two longest numbers, both clocking in at over seven minutes, would become rock radio standards: the moody, rain-drenched “Riders On the Storm,” and the title cut, Morrison’s near-cosmic homage to L.A. – and, in the guise of “Mr. Mojo Risin’,” to his own bad, self-mythologizing self.
Morrison was probably unaware that he was in fact close to passing into myth. A month before the release of L.A. Woman, he moved to Paris, to write and contemplate. On July 3, 1971, his common-law wife Pamela Courson found him dead in the bathtub; the cause of death was believed to be a heart attack, though there was no autopsy or conclusive coroner’s report. For decades, Ray Manzarek would slyly imply that Morrison may not have expired, and possibly faked his death. The thousands who have visited his grave at Paris’ Pere Lachaise Cemetary to leave offerings and carve their initials into his tombstone would likely disagree.
Manzarek, Krieger, and Densmore issued two albums under The Doors’ name, Other Voices (1971) and Full Circle (1972), which failed to recapture the old commercial spark. But the coming years would prove that for some rock bands, there is (very lucrative) life after death.
In 1978, the surviving members reconvened to cut instrumental backdrops for unreleased tapes of Morrison reading his poetry; the material was released that year, to interest and no little acclaim, as An American Prayer. Further interest in The Doors’ music was rekindled when director Francis Ford Coppola used “The End” as the key soundtrack motif for his 1979 Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now.
The 1980 publication of the sensational, bestselling Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive by Doors aide-de-camp Danny Sugerman and Jerry Hopkins sparked a full-blown Doors revival that saw The Doors Greatest Hits entering the top 20 of the album charts; the following year, Rolling Stone ran a cover story on Morrison with the headline, “He’s Hot, He’s Sexy, He’s Dead.” In the intervening years, no less than nine Doors collections have reached the pop albums chart; the band’s entire catalog of studio albums was reissued in boxed-set form three times during the CD era. In 1993 – two years after director Oliver Stone’s print-the-legend biopic The Doors, starring Val Kilmer as Morrison – the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
A 2002 attempt by Manzarek and Krieger to launch something called The Doors of the 21st Century with The Cult’s Ian Astbury as a front man and The Police’s Stewart Copeland on drums was met with a lawsuit by Densmore and protests from the Morrison and Courson families.
A future get-together is unlikely: When Rhino Records relaunched The Doors’ catalog in 2006 with an evening of special events at the band’s old Sunset Strip haunts, Manzarek and Krieger appeared at the Whisky A Go Go, while Densmore played his hand drums at a bookstore down the street. The Doors appear to have closed for good, for on May 20, 2013 keyboardist Ray Manzarek died of complications from bile duct cancer. He was 74 years old.