One of the landmark albums of rock and roll almost died in the recording studio. But today L.A. Woman endures as a lesson on how a change of scenery can unleash creativity. In December 1970, the Doors were floundering as they attempted to make L.A. Woman at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. Lead singer Jim Morrison, lost in the grip of alcoholism, had run out of songs to write, and the band played so poorly that longstanding producer Paul Rothchild quit. So how did the Doors manage to create what is widely regarded as a rock masterpiece? As it turns out, the catalysts for change were the loss of their producer and a casual suggestion by Morrison to find another place to record.
“The filthy, dirty Doors”
As recounted in a recently released documentary, The Doors: Mr. Mojo Risin: The Story of L.A. Woman, the band created L.A. Woman under circumstances that would have killed other groups. Morrison had been recently convicted to six months of hard labor for profanity and indecent exposure in the aftermath of a controversial performance at the Miami Dinner Key Auditorium in 1969 – an incident that had basically shut down the band from touring seriously.
As keyboardist Ray Manzarek recalled in Mr. Mojo Risin, “We had achieved notoriety — the filthy, dirty Doors.”
In fact, the notoriety and legal fallout “almost killed the band,” as former manager Bill Siddons recalled, “And probably killed Jim.”
Increasingly isolated and with few opportunities to tour anymore, the Doors retreated to Elektra Records’s Sunset Sound to record a follow-up album to the band’s critically well regarded 1970 effort, Morrison Hotel. At Sunset Sound, the Doors “played badly – extremely badly,” Manzarek recalled. Rothchild, who had guided the band through the creation of all five of the band’s albums, agreed.
“I went to several rehearsals,” he remembered (in an interview recorded before his death in 1995 and used in Mr. Mojo Risin). “Jim especially was really bored. I thought, This album is going to be a disaster.”
And so he quit the band.
Left on their own, the Doors decided to produce L.A. Woman themselves with the help of sound engineer Bruce Botnick, who remembered Jim asking, “Man, do we have to record here?” When Botnick suggested the Doors move to their rehearsal studio, the band reconfigured the two-story rehearsal space to record music and renamed the building the Doors Workshop.
The decision to relocate to their rehearsal space was crucial. As drummer John Densmore recalled, “It was the room where we had rehearsed forever. Our music was seeped into the walls. It was home.”
From left to right: Marc Benno,
In the Doors Workshop, the Doors retooled itself into a garage band and released a rich, diverse song suite, including a pop hit “Love Her Madly,” blues-drenched material like “Crawling King Snake,” a hybrid poem/song, “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat), a title song described as “rock film noir,” and a brooding, dark piece, “Riders on the Storm,” that revealed the band’s jazz influences. The strong effort resulted from Morrison creating a new persona, the band rediscovering the joys of collaboration, and the band opening itself creatively.
According to Densmore, “Jim got empowered by us producing L.A. Woman ourselves. We all did because we made all the decisions. It was inspiring.”
1. Creating a new persona
By 1970, Jim Morrison was cracking under the pressure of being the world-famous leader of the Doors and a voice of his generation. But by cloistering himself in his own workshop, he successfully isolated himself from the role of rock god that was expected of him. Like the Beatles creating their own personas for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Morrison embraced the dual role of blues singer (in songs like “Been Down So Long” and “The Cars Hiss by My Window”) and poet (most noticeably in “The WASP” and “Hyacinth House”). His lyrics revealed a newfound power and strength, as shown in verses such as “I see your hair is burning/Hills are filled with fire” (describing Los Angeles) and “The cars hiss by my window/Like the waves down on the beach.” His singing, as in “L.A. Woman” and “The Changeling,” was gutsy, rough, guttural, and beautiful.
According to Botnick, “Jim liked to think of himself as an old blues man. He was a big fan of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and all those old blues guys. He loved the truth of the songs and the rawness of it. He related to it. If he had had his choice, he would have done that all the time.”
In the words of Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records, a song like “Crawling King Snake” (written by blues legend Johnny Lee Hooker) “was a wonderful costume for Jim to wear. He’s playing the part. But he’s also the part.”
The change of location gave Morrison the means to break out of a creative rut by reinventing his own voice – something anyone who creates for a living can do. Travel often gives you a chance to experiment with different personas, whether you’re a writer or a web designer – often because exploring new locations allows you to be anonymous and outside the boundaries of how people expect you to be in your home base.
2. Enforced collaboration
It’s often been said that tension breeds creativity. But in the case of L.A. Woman, creativity was a byproduct of collaboration. Whereas the Beatles were recording separately in the studio by the end of their career, the Doors collaborated on L.A. Woman because they worked in a physical environment – a small room where band members literally worked face to face — that fostered group song writing in real time. Each day the band reported to the Doors Workshop and jammed like jazz musicians until songs took shape, with each band member feeding off each other’s suggestions. As recounted in Mojo Risin, one such jam was inspired by a country and western song, “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” As the band basically goofed around with a cowboy song dating back to 1948, guitarist Robby Krieger broke into a vibrato guitar riff and Manzarek added a moody, jazz-infused electric piano. Morrison changed “Ghost Riders in the Sky” to “Riders on the Storm,” and wrote stark, powerful lyrics. The band was on its way to creating a dark masterpiece of foreboding and loneliness.
The band also rediscovered old incomplete song fragments and asked, “What if?” For instance, “The WASP” was a short poem that Morrison was fond of reciting on occasion in concert. In the Doors Workshop, the band started adding music to the already written poem, with Densmore using his snare drum to punctuate Morrison’s spoken parts. In Botnick’s words, “The WASP” was “a song starting as a seed, flowering, and becoming a complete song.”
What’s significant about the collaboration is that the band had patience with itself. Manzarek, Morrison, Krieger, and Densmore all realized that jamming to “Ghost Riders in the Sky” was, in and of itself, not the stuff of rock and roll legend. But they developed their riffs. They gave Morrison room and time to write original lyrics. They gradually took the basic jam session into a new direction with Manzarek’s electric piano.
Collaboration. And patience. Two essential elements to creating as a team – and something to think about if you manage a team of creatives. Next time your team seems to lack a certain spark, you might want to consider paying for a retreat under the condition that they produce something meaningful together. Give your team members permission to say to each other, “I’m not sure that first draft of our ad copy works, but the overall tone feels right, so let’s spend some time developing the tone and the copy until we get it right.” Be patient with each other.
3. Being open to new approaches
Calling their own shots in a workshop of their own creation opened the Doors up to trying new approaches to recording music. Without a producer to tell them what to do, the band decided to experiment with a live, organic sound, meaning fewer polished instrumental overdubs but more energy. The decision had a huge impact on the album.
To achieve a live sound, the band incorporated outside musicians. The band had done so on earlier albums to add polish to their songs, but they’d never allowed outsiders to actually participate in the creation of songs live. The decision paid off handsomely. Jerry Scheff, bass player for Elvis Presley, collaborated with Manzarek to played the moody bassline that creates the undercurrent for “Riders on the Storm” after Manzarek challenged Scheff to play a part that Manzarek had created on his keyboard. By jamming with the Doors, Scheff also added the famous twangy bass that opens up the title track. Meantime, by playing with rhythm guitarist Marc Benno, Krieger was able to create the live sound he wanted from “Love Her Madly,” a song he wrote.
Bringing in outside musicians was by no means an admission of weakness. Rather, the Doors were secure enough in themselves to experiment and grow stronger. The outside musicians inspired the Doors, and the Doors inspired them, too. The group avoided the trap of complacency by opening up their sound.
From left to right: Marc Benno, Jerry Scheff, Ray Manzarek, and Jim Morrison
No artist should become so complacent as to be unwilling to collaborate with others who bring their own talents and perspectives – which is especially true of writers like me who are accustomed to being our own writers, editors, and publishers of independent, self-made blogs. The question is whether you have the courage to share your work with someone outside your comfort zone.
The garage band
L.A. Woman was released 41 years ago, but perhaps because of its live vibe, it still feels like the Doors are right inside my car with me when I play a song like “L.A. Woman” full blast. The stripped-down blues feel probably gives the album a timeless appeal, too. Years after the album’s release, the Rolling Stone Record Guide said this about L.A. Woman: “Arguably the group’s finest album, with two excellent long tracks (the title cut and ‘Riders on the Storm’), it forms a rather detailed composite sketch of everything that helped make the Doors such an intriguing band: blues and rock forged together, poetry mingled with standard rock lyrics, and a solid dose of inquiries into the unexplainable puzzles of life.”
Said Krieger, “You can feel the warmth and the liveness of it. It was really our most spontaneous album.”
“We just did it like a garage band record,” remembered Holzman. “And it worked exquisitely.”