50 Years Later: Revisiting The Doors Darkish & Mystic ‘L.A. Woman’ LP

At the time of its release half a century ago, the creative, commercial and cultural success of the Doors’ L.A. Woman (released 4/19/71) gave testament to the surety of the band’s collective instincts. The fact this sixth studio album of theirs turned out to be their last with the original quartet has only lent it additional substance with the passage of time. And while it may or may not have been  intended as such, the record ended up being an accurate summary of the Doors’ milieu as it was first foisted upon an unsuspecting world when “Light My Fire” became popular on a global scale during the1967 ‘Summer of Love.’

But it’s not as if L.A. Woman got off to a smooth start. The earliest sessions conducted with Paul A. Rothschild were not propitious, to the point the band’s long-time producer actually quit working with the group, contending they were not performing at a sufficiently high quality to create an album. As a result, the Doors regrouped to produce themselves along with Bruce Botnick, the engineer who had worked on all their previous releases (including the less-than-stellar Absolutely Live), and with whose assistance the foursome set up a makeshift studio at their private rehearsal space, the Doors’ Workshop.

An integral component of this re-conceived approach included recording basic tracks live and thus avoiding all the but the most minimal overdubbing. As means to the end of allowing free-reign to Robbie Krieger’s scintillating lead guitar work (with his flamenco training so often in evidence), the Doors enlisted Marc Benno to play rhythm guitar: he is credited on “Been Down So Long,” the cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling King Snake” and this title song. Jerry Scheff was also recruited to play bass, a move vocalist/lyricist Jim Morrison vociferously advocated and applauded, almost as much for the man’s membership in Elvis Presley’s band of the era as his musicianship.

The two-compact disc reissue of The Doors’ L.A. Woman (Elektra, 1971) was released to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the original album and, unfortunately, comes sans the die-cut with yellow cellophane the original LP (that was replicated on the entry within The Complete Studio Recordings of 1999). Issued prior to a more recent string of such milestone packages of CD-plus-vinyl, the double CD nevertheless documents how ‘Jimbo’ and company authentically went back to their musical roots and restored their camaraderie as a band. In doing so, the foursome completed a process begun, but only partially brought to fruition on the previous album, Morrison Hotel (due largely to the balladeering on “Indian Summer” and “Blue Sunday”). As such, the American band achieved what The Beatles could not with Let It Be (aka Get Back).

The consistently high quality of material and musicianship becomes readily apparent in hearing the two discs, so much so it doesn’t matter in which order they’re played. There’s certainly a distinction between the two, as the former contains the now-classic, finished product, while the latter consists of outtakes from the sessions, but the internal mechanics of The Doors, in the midst of recording, becomes all the more obvious too in the digitally remastered sound courtesy Botnick: the real-life audio illuminates how the enlistment of those aforementioned additional musicians maximized the spontaneous atmosphere of the relatively small recording space. Photos in the enclosed twelve-page booklet reaffirm the impression left via sonics by showing the musicians mere feet from each other.

Given that intimacy, it’s certainly not surprising there’s such an easygoing give-and-take among the instrumentalists and the vocalist. The catchy, singsong quality of a tune like “Love Her Madly” explicates how the band retained its grip on the commercial mainstream without sounding contrived; the most accessible aspect of their chemistry clearly remained intact after the Doors worked their way through a somewhat fallow phase just prior with 1968’s somewhat formulaic Waiting for the Sun and the lavish production gone slightly awry of the next year’s The Soft Parade. In contrast to those prior projects, here the quartet evinced not a whit of self-consciousness, but a robust self-awareness instead.

Drummer John Densmore, keyboardist Ray Manzarek, and guitarist Robbie Krieger were all tasteful musicians who continued to inspire each other to heights beyond their respective levels of competence. And Jim Morrison’s role isn’t so much diminished as placed back in its proper perspective as one component of The Doors as a four-piece band. For instance, “L’America” and “Hyacinth House” are both as captivating to follow for the musicianship and singing as the lyrics (if not more so); the massive wave of fuzz from Krieger’s instrument on the former is as ear-catching as the tinkling sound of Manzarek’s tack piano on the latter. And Densmore is at his best throughout when he is most unobtrusive, which is not to disparage his technique, but rather recognize the accuracy of his instincts.

Often mistakenly perceived as the group’s creative figurehead, Morrison shared a love of the blues with his loyal comrades, a predilection that comes through loud and clear on “Cars Hiss By My Window” as it revivified their bond as a unit.  The more forthright self-reference in “The Changeling” may be an overstatement but, considering the frontman’s personal and legal travails arising from the Miami incident of 1969, it may well be purposeful. Regardless, it’s clear how comfortable Morrison was with his bandmates, and vice versa; they accepted his ambitions as a poet on tunes like “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat),” and found ways to perform with such dynamism, particularly on stage, their playing could supersede the man’s innate tendency to overshoot his abilities in that realm.

Perhaps as the shock-waves of his celebrity status both positive and negative subsided, Jim Morrison had regained a certain humility in the course of recording L.A. Woman. His loud proclamation of “Mr. Mojo Risin’” on the title song—an anagram for his own name—foreshadows his announcement of a hiatus from the group after the sessions were complete and post-production was underway. The two actions were probably not coincidental: as this icon of the 1960s finally grasped the limitations of his stature, he turned them into the same galvanizing strengths that had originally stirred the musicians around him on albums such as Strange Days. The so-called ‘Lizard King’ was actually at his most potent when he was means to an end.

Accordingly, on what is arguably the most enduring piece of this album,  “Riders On The Storm,” the vocals are as understated as the playing throughout the seven-minutes plus duration. The combination of those elements conjures a foreboding air that is, in turn, rife with as much mystery as a promise. As such, it is vividly reminiscent of the best of The Doors’ early work and thus becomes a fitting final note to their remarkably resilient legacy.

 

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