Loose, spontaneous, just how The Doors should be
Jim Morrison might well have been a complete soak, but he certainly knew how to write a song or two. You have to give him that at least. And whether you love him or hate him, without his Bacchanalian bravado, and shaman theatrics, the likes of Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, or even Ian Curtis, might have found the stage a far lonelier place (you can also throw Michael Hutchence into the mix). And while for all his misshapen poetic tendencies when performing, at least Morrison never resorted to slashing himself publicly with a razor a la Julian Cope in order to garner a mob’s attention (he is rumoured to have flashed his willy in an arena, but this has never been proven). No self harm for him; because old Jimbo loved nothing more than to corral a crowd with poetry and good old fashioned verbal abuse, sometimes even telling the audience that they were nothing but a “bunch of sheep”, obviously aware of the fact that many of his fans saw him as their very own messianic leader. Perhaps such open disdain was Morrison’s own way of getting youth to think for themselves, a sort of Socrates for the ‘60’s, questioning society and all it represented. Why be a part of that flock, or any flock? Just be you, follow your own path, and everything will be alright man. Or will it?
L.A. Woman does not answer this question, or any question, philosophical or otherwise. Here, the Doors are no longer asking us to “break on through”, be it your side, their side, or any other for that matter. This record is a personal experience, from the rebirth of “The Changeling”, the first track, to its last, the existential “Riders on the Storm”. Gone is the preposterous preaching of their early days, supplanted instead with the realisation that in this modern consumer age, where all products are considered equal, that we ourselves have become the products, whether we like it or not. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the 60’s had well and truly come to an end, and rock & roll was a fast sinking ship, where it was every man for himself.
The album hits the ground running with the aforementioned “The Changeling”, an upbeat and bouncy number where Morrison sings “I live uptown/I live downtown/I live all around”, and in the chorus “I’m a Changeling/See me change”. Ray (Charles) Manzarek’s acid-funk keyboards provide athletic support to Morrison’s bluesy growl. Here his voice sounds a little scarred, weathered by all that hard living and life on the road, which is what LA Woman essentially is; a road album.
“Love Her Madly” is the closest to anything resembling a pop song on here. Morrison’s near laconic vocals reveal how rapidly his voice had deteriorated since their last LP. But it doesn’t matter. Gone is the youthful baritone of yore, instead we get a whisky and three pack a day delivery of world weary proportions.
And now we have some blues in the form of “Been Down So Long.” A thumping pessimistic workout, more rehearsed jam than polished gem, whose lyrics are a testament to Morrison’s state of mind around that time.
“Cars Hiss By My Window” finds the band in fine blues form, and one of the most intimate performances of the whole LP. Morrison is in deep reflective mode, and with lines like “Headlights thru my window/Shining on the wall/Can’t hear my baby/Tho’ I call and call”, you know the man has things on his mind. And when he yelps near the end of the song, in imitation of a wailing harmonica, Jim takes the blues back to beyond pre-history.
The title track is one of the best freeway songs ever written, whose momentum just builds and builds, until at any moment you might get booked for speeding, or blow the radiator. Starting with a slow ascending guitar line from Robby Grieger, followed by a pulsating bass by Jerry Scheff, with Manzarek and John Densmore not far behind, all adding kindle to an already burning fire. It’s an absolute tour de force, and a unique landmark on rock’s landscape. To put it simply, there’s nothing else like it.
“L’America”, the first song on side two (yes I’m listening to the vinyl) is probably the strangest animal of the album’s already exotic menagerie. Through Morrison we journey past the Mexican border, “To trade some beads for a pint of gold.” It remains the closest living ancestor to their previous LP “Morrison Hotel.”
“Hyacinth House” is Morrison at his most vulnerable. The band play wistfully behind the singer’s pensive outpouring, where the following lines speak for themselves: “I need a brand new friend who doesn’t bother me/I need a brand new friend who doesn’t trouble me/I need someone/who doesn’t need me.” The italic is mine. But as an understatement of emotional disorder and mental reflection, I’d say this is as good as it gets.
Once you strip away all the mind altering nonsense, and precocious layers of Huxley inspired inner rumination, what you got was a blues band by heart. So it should come as no surprise that they should cover John Lee Hooker’s classic “Crawling King Snake.” Once again, more of a jam than an actual finished masterpiece, it’s an obvious attempt to draw a line between their past and future.
“The Wasp (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)” had existed only in poetic form for some time, where Morrison would recite it while performing. Jim might not have given a shit about his physical state, but he certainly cared about his art. And this is one such example.
All good things must come to an end, as they say, and “Riders on the Storm” is one of the finest endings I’ve ever heard. The first sounds we hear are rain and thunder, then the gentle, meditative rhythm section. Manzarek sprinkles some glistening notes over the top, and we’re off. Morrison’s vocals are soft and deliberate, adding purpose to the already sufficient atmosphere. “Into this house we’re born/Into this world we’re thrown” he sings, while in the second verse, things take on a more malevolent complexion when he tells us that “There’s a killer on the road/His brain is squirming like a toad/Take a long holiday/Let you children play/If you give this man a ride/Sweet family will die/Killer on the road.” In other words, all you hippies can preach peace, love and understanding all you want, but that won’t change the dark side of human behaviour. And when Morrison sings “riders on the storm” towards the end, one can hear the faint whisper of his spirit overhead, while the sepia toned inflection of Manzarek’s shimmering keyboard draws the song to its final rain swept conclusion. This is a song full of ghosts.
LA Woman is an album which never dates, no matter how old it gets. And like the best art, it seems to improve with age. It would be Morrison’s last with the band, and we, naturally, are the poorer for it.