The Doors L.A. Woman – Track-By-Track
The Doors L.A. Woman – Track-By-Track
By Stephanie Hernandez
The Doors 1971 album, L.A. Woman, is a sonic trip through Los Angeles while the listener sits shotgun as Jim Morrison speeds down the city’s serpentine highways. Released fifty years ago, the album still captures the psycho-geography of Los Angeles through The Doors’ blues-tinted lenses.
In an attempt to capture the live feeling of a jam session, they recruited rhythm guitarist, Marc Benno, and Elvis Presley’s bassist, Jerry Scheff. The group recorded at their home-made workshop, set up in their office; 8512 Santa Monica Boulevard.
Bringing together The Doors’ vast set of influences, from the Baroque, to the Blues, L.A. Woman tracks where The Doors have been, and maps out the road the band might have travelled had Morrison returned from his Parisian sojourn.
- The Changeling
The album opens with an infectious funk from the rhythm section. Ray Manzarek’s organ vamp breathes gospel into the music, and Scheff’s bass is immediately felt through the speakers’ vibrations. Morrison’s guttural command to “Get loose!” sets the tone for not only the album, but also the entire decade.
The lyrics depict the highs and lows of life, “I had money / I had none,” and also reveal the importance of a fresh start, “But I never been so broke that I couldn’t leave town.” Complete with a gospel cut-time break, “The Changeling” is a James Brown-esque track that showcases The Doors at their funkiest.
“The Changeling” is the perfect opening song, hinting at what is to come later in the album; the sounds of 1970s, the blues, and of course, Morrison’s soulful baritone singing his biography into the lyrics.
- Love Her Madly
Bruce Botnick says that the second he heard Robby Krieger’s “Love Her Madly,” he knew it was a hit.
Krieger was inspired by the way his girlfriend slammed the door after a fight, directly referencing this in the line, “Don’t you love her as she’s walking out the door?” The music itself is classically Krieger, featuring a peddling rhythm section with a drum shuffle that creates a Latin-folk fusion. Manzarek injected his energy into the song by playing a contrapuntal sequence on a tack-piano, which is a piano with thumbtacks on the hammers (the same one used on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds). Overdubbed onto Manzarek’s Fender Rhodes keys, the tack-piano contributes a unique baroque-honky-tonk sound. Morrison’s vocals swell throughout the song, showing off his inimitable rock ‘n’ roll croon; his blend of Frank Sinatra and Howlin’ Wolf.
“Love Her Madly” is by far the most commercial-sounding track on the album, reaching #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.
- Been Down So Long
The rebellious spirit of The Doors caused controversy everywhere they went. Morrison was keen to test the boundaries of self-expression on the stage, and their concerts would often end in riots. Jim was on his best mischievous behavior in Miami, Florida, resulting in six arrest warrants; including one charge of “simulating masturbation and oral copulation.” While all of this was perfect for his bad-boy image, it was not so good for his mental health as he felt the weight of the American justice system on his shoulders.
The line “Been down so long, and it looks like up to me” appears in Furry Lewis’ 1928 song “I Will Turn Your Money Green.” This was the inspiration behind Richard Fariña’s 1966 novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, which subsequently inspired Morrison’s lyrics.
Between his personal battles, and the American spirit being hardened by the Vietnam War, it is no surprise that Morrison found catharsis in the 12-bar blues.
- Cars Hiss by My Window
“Cars Hiss by My Window” is another standard 12-bar-shuffle blues. It opens with the image of driving through Los Angeles, “The cars hiss by my window / like the waves down on the beach.” And in that classic bitter blues twist, it ends with, “A cold girl will kill you, in a darkened room.”
With minimal instrumentation, the song feels quite vacant. As a makeshift recording booth, Morrison’s vocals for the album were recorded in the bathroom. Since Morrison’s voice is so exposed in this song, you feel immersed in the room with him. It is so stripped-back that at the song’s conclusion, Morrison even uses his own voice to mimic a harmonica.
- L.A. Woman
“L.A Woman” is like an abridged version of the Great American Novel that is brought to life by Manzarek and Morrison’s cinematic background. Morrison’s lyrics unfold the story, while Manzarek’s frenzied keyboards develop the textures and colors of the scenes.
The opening sound of a car accelerating was created by Krieger sliding up his distorted and reverbed guitar. Slurring the line, “Well I just got into town about an hour ago,” Morrison sets the first scene for rediscovering the city that gave him his rock star life. With Benno covering the rhythm guitar, Krieger was free to perform bluesy licks and a call-and-response riff between the lines, “Are you a lucky little lady in the city of light? / Or just another lost angel, city of night?” Manzarek explained that these lyrics reveal Morrison’s inspiration behind the song, John Rechy’s 1963 novel, City of Night; the story of underground homosexuality in American cities. They also evoke the geographical locations; Paris, the “city of light,” where Morrison moved shortly after recording, and Los Angeles, the city where Morrison indulged in the nightlife.
John Densmore’s percussive genius shines while Morrison croons, “I see your hair is burnin’, / hills are filled with fire.” These lines illustrate how Morrison is referring to the city as a woman, painting Los Angeles’ wildfires as a maiden’s hair. He also alludes to “Light My Fire” by singing “If they say I never loved you, / you know they are a liar.”
Responding to Morrison’s words, “let’s change the mood from glad to sadness,” the band drops to a slower tempo, and changes to a minor key. Then follows the most unique aspect of this song: the fragment where Jim Morrison transforms into the anagram, “Mr. Mojo Risin.” In the language of the blues, “mojo” means magic, particularly when it comes to sex appeal; epitomized by Muddy Waters’ “Got my Mojo Workin’.” Correspondingly, Densmore had the idea to slowly accelerate the pace of Morrison’s incantation. From soft and tender, to wild screaming, the group creates a sonic orgasm to recapitulate the first section of the song: arriving into town.
“L.A. Woman” is the ultimate Doors tune, showcasing each member performing at the top of their game. All 7 minutes and 50 seconds of the song act as The Doors’ ode to city that formed them, with Morrison’s contribution acting as his final ride through Los Angeles, and a pre-emptive goodbye.
Written with the intention of being featured in the 1970 Michelangelo Antonioni film, Zabriskie Point, “L’America” is the telling of a quest for gold in South America. Manzarek said, “It was so loud, it pinned him up against the wall,” in other words - it didn’t make the cut.
“L’America” is a confluence of chaotic sounds, an unpredictable guitar, an ominous keyboard, and a militaristic snare drum. Morrison also throws in a misleading couplet; “He’ll change the weather, change your luck / Then he’ll teach you how to… find yourself.” Morrison’s rhyme scheme tricks listeners into expecting a different four-letter word, showing his wicked humor.
The line “To trade some beads for a pint of gold,” is reminiscent of the exploitation of indigenous cultures that occurred in America’s continental history. Densmore, however, explained that it was inspired by a cross-border transaction for a different type of gold - marijuana.
- Hyacinth House
“Hyacinth House” shows Morrison at his most vulnerable on the album, wearing his heart on his sleeve while he sings deeply about his loneliness.
Krieger cites that Morrison wrote the lyrics while visiting him at his Benedict Canyon home. He had hyacinths and a pet bobcat, hence the lyrics, “What are they doing in the hyacinth house / to please the lions this day?”
He may have also drawn on the ancient Greek story of Apollo accidentally killing Hyacinth, where a hyacinth grew from the pool of blood. At the conclusion of “Hyacinth House,” Morrison sings “I need a brand-new friend, the end.” This is a reference to his other song “The End,” which is an Oedipal Greek tragedy. The association may be a complete coincidence, or may have been borne of word-association – you never know with Morrison.
Manzarek (a master of sampling), included an organ solo of Frédéric Chopin’s “Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53, No. 6.” Dubbed the “Polonaise Héroïque,” this piece was regarded as Chopin’s profound expression of spirit during the 1848 French Revolution. Being of Polish descent, Manzarek idolized and culturally identified Chopin.
In a classic twist of Greek tragedy, Morrison was buried in the same resting place as Chopin shortly after recording – the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
- Crawling King Snake
“Crawling King Snake” is a song that emerged from the Mississippi Delta in the 1920s. It was made most famous by John Lee Hooker when his single reached number six on the Billboard R&B Chart in 1949. The “King Snake” itself is an obvious euphemism for sexual virility, emphasized by the sultry way the lyrics are sung.
When performed by The Doors, it takes on a whole new meaning. By the time they recorded this song, Morrison wore his “Lizard King” persona as a second skin. This song combined his two fascinations: reptiles and the blues.
“Crawling King Snake” was recorded along with “Cars Hiss by My Window” and “Been Down So Long,” on The Doors’ fabled “blues day” session for L.A. Woman.
- The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)
Before officially recording this song, Morrison regularly recited this piece as spoken-word poetry.
“Texas Radio” is a reference to the Mexican radio stations that weren’t restricted by American regulations, but could still be picked up on the U.S. side of the border at certain frequencies. Both Morrison and Manzarek recalled hearing legendary DJ Wolfman Jack, who introduced them to a variety of rare music. In a way, the poem is Morrison’s experience of being a WASP archaeologist who digs up the fossils of America’s musical past.
The transcendent lines “Forget the night! / Live with us in forests of azure / Out here on the perimeter there are no stars. / Out here we is stoned, immaculate” secure Jim Morrison as the unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles rock ‘n’ roll.
- Riders on the Storm
“Riders on the Storm” reimagines the old cowboy legend, “Ghost Riders in the Sky” in a sublime manner. The remnants of the country classic can still be heard in Krieger’s guitar, while Manzarek’s Fender Rhodes keyboard develops the musical landscape into a mystifying desert of jazz.
With cracks of thunder and the sound of light rain, the song envelops you in The Doors’ eerie atmosphere. According to Manzarek, it was Krieger’s stroke of genius to add the sound effects, “The song feels like I’m out in the desert…Why don’t we add the sound of thunder and maybe some rain? Put the listener out there too.”
Along with the unsettling sound effects, the lyrics are also deeply unnerving. “There’s a killer on the road” is thought to be derived from Morrison’s screenplay about a murderous hitchhiker, HWY: An American Pastoral. In an interview with The Village Voice in 1970, Morrison cited American spree killer, Billy Cook, as his inspiration for the film – indirectly informing his lyrics “If you give this man a ride / sweet family will die.”
The final bone-chilling factor: Morrison overdubbed his lyrics with ghostly whispers a few months before he died. Being his last recorded contribution to The Doors, these spectral croons in “Riders on the Storm,” will continue to haunt popular music history with each spin of the L.A. Woman album.
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