The Doors Biography

‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.’ This quote from poet William Blake, via Aldous Huxley, was an inspiration to Jim Morrison (James Douglas Morrison, 8 December 1943, Melbourne, Florida, USA, d. 3 July 1971, Paris, France), a student of theatre arts at the University of California and an aspiring musician. His dream of a rock band entitled ‘the Doors’ was fulfilled in 1965, when he sang a rudimentary composition, ‘Moonlight Drive’, to fellow scholar Ray Manzarek (b. Raymond Daniel Manzarek, 12 February 1939, Chicago, Illinois, USA; keyboards). Impressed, he invited Morrison to join his campus R&B band, Rick And The Ravens, which also included the organist’s two brothers. Ray then recruited drummer John Densmore (b. 1 December 1944, Los Angeles, California, USA), and the reshaped outfit recorded six Morrison songs at the famed World Pacific studios. The session featured several compositions that the band subsequently re-recorded, including ‘Summer’s Almost Gone’ and ‘End Of The Night’. Manzarek’s brothers disliked the new material and later dropped out. They were replaced by Robbie Krieger (b. Robert Alan Krieger, 8 January 1946, Los Angeles, California, USA), an inventive guitarist, whom Densmore met at a meditation centre. Morrison was now established as the vocalist and the quartet began rehearsing in earnest.

The Doors’ first residency was at the London Fog on Sunset Strip, but they later found favour at the prestigious Whisky-A-Go-Go. They were, however, fired from the latter establishment, following a performance of ‘The End’, Morrison’s chilling, oedipal composition. Improvised and partly spoken over a raga/rock framework, it proved too controversial for timid club owners, but the band’s standing within the music fraternity grew. Local rivals Love, already signed to Elektra Records, recommended the Doors to the label’s managing director, Jac Holzman who, despite initial caution, signed them in July 1966. The Doors, produced by Paul Rothchild and released the following year, unveiled many contrasting influences. Manzarek’s thin sounding organ (he also performed the part of bass player with the aid of a separate bass keyboard, although Larry Knechtel helped out on the record) recalled the garage band style omnipresent several months earlier, but Krieger’s liquid guitar playing and Densmore’s imaginative drumming were already clearly evident. Morrison’s striking, dramatic voice added power to the exceptional compositions, which included the pulsating ‘Break On Through’ and an 11-minute version of ‘The End’. Cover versions of material, including Willie Dixon’s ‘Back Door Man’ and Bertolt Brecht / Kurt Weill’s ‘Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)’, exemplified the band’s disparate influences. The best-known track, however, was ‘Light My Fire’, which, when trimmed down from its original seven minutes, became a number 1 single in the USA. Its fiery imagery combined eroticism with death, and the song has since become a standard.

The success of ‘Light My Fire’ created new problems and the Doors, perceived by some as underground heroes, were tarred as teenybop fodder by others. This dichotomy weighed heavily on Morrison who wished to be accepted as a serious artist. A second album, Strange Days, showcased ‘When The Music’s Over’, another extended piece destined to become a tour de force within the band’s canon. The quartet enjoyed further chart success when ‘People Are Strange’ broached the US Top 20, but it was 1968 before they secured another number 1 single with the infectious ‘Hello, I Love You’. The song was also the band’s first major UK hit, although some of this lustre was lost following legal action by Ray Davies of the Kinks, who claimed infringement of his own composition, ‘All Day And All Of The Night’. The action coincided with the Doors’ first European tour in September. A major television documentary, The Doors Are Open, was devoted to the visit and centred on their powerful performance at London’s Chalk Farm Roundhouse. The band showcased several tracks from their third collection, Waiting For The Sun, including the declamatory ‘Five To One’, and a fierce protest song, ‘The Unknown Soldier’, for which they also completed an uncompromising promotional film. However, the follow-up album, The Soft Parade, on which a horn section masked several unremarkable songs, was a major disappointment, although the tongue-in-cheek ‘Touch Me’ became a US Top 3 single and ‘Wishful Sinful’ was a Top 50 hit.

Continued commercial success exacted further pressure on Morrison, whose frustration with his role as a pop idol grew more pronounced. His anti-authoritarian persona combined with a brazen sexuality and notorious alcohol and narcotics consumption to create a character bedevilled by doubt and cynicism. His confrontations with middle America reached an apogee on 1 March 1969 when, following a concert at Miami’s Dinner Key Auditorium, the singer was indicted for indecent exposure, public intoxication and profane, lewd and lascivious conduct. Although Morrison was later acquitted of all but the minor charges (which went to appeal and were never resolved in his lifetime), the incident clouded the band’s career when live dates for the next few months were cancelled. Paradoxically, this furore re-awoke the Doors’ creativity. Morrison Hotel, a tough R&B-based collection, matched the best of their early releases and featured seminal performances in ‘Roadhouse Blues’ and ‘You Make Me Real’. Absolutely Live, an in-concert set edited from a variety of sources, gave the impression of a single performance and exhibited the band’s power and authority.

Morrison, whose poetry had been published in two volumes, The Lords and The New Creatures, now drew greater pleasure from this more personal art form. Having completed sessions at the band’s workshop for a new album, the last owed to Elektra, Morrison escaped to Paris where he hoped to follow a literary career and abandon music altogether. Tragically, years of hedonistic excess had taken its toll and on 3 July 1971, Jim Morrison was found dead in his bathtub, his passing recorded officially as a heart attack. He was buried in Paris’ Père Lachaise cemetery in the esteemed company of Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, and Honore de Balzac. L.A. Woman, his final recording with the Doors, is one of the band’s finest achievements. It was also their first album recorded without producer Paul Rothchild, with engineer Bruce Botnick tackling co-production duties. The album’s simple intimacy resulted in some superb performances, including ‘Riders On The Storm’, whose haunting imagery and stealthy accompaniment created a timeless classic.

The survivors continued to work as the Doors, but while Other Voices showed some promise, Full Circle was severely flawed and the band soon dissolved. Densmore and Krieger formed the Butts Band, with whom they recorded two albums before splitting to pursue different paths. Manzarek undertook several projects as either artist, producer or manager, but the spectre of the Doors refused to die. Interest in the band flourished throughout the decade and in 1978 the remaining trio supplied newly recorded music to a series of poetry recitations, which Morrison had taped during the LA Woman sessions. The resultant album, An American Prayer, was a major success and prompted such archive excursions as Alive, She Cried, a compendium of several concert performances and Live At The Hollywood Bowl. The evocative use of ‘The End’ in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam war movie, Apocalypse Now, also generated renewed interest in the Doors’ legacy, and indeed, it is on those first recordings that the band’s considerable reputation, and influence, rest. Since then their catalogue has never been out of print, and future generations of rock fans will almost certainly use them as a major role model. Director Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie biography The Doors, starring Val Kilmer, helped confirm Morrison as one of the great cultural icons of the 60s.

Manzarek and Krieger reunited in the new millennium, playing live shows as the Doors with the Cult’s Ian Astbury on vocals and Stewart Copeland standing in for a temporarily indisposed Densmore. The latter then took legal action to prevent his former colleagues using the Doors name. With all respect to Astbury, a Morrison-less Doors is like building a new house without one.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.