The last The Doors concert with Jim Morrison took place on December 12th, 1970, bringing a disappointing close to a dominant band in rock music. It’s hard to know when the music’s truly over, but the way lead singer and resident lunatic Jim Morrison finished this show at The Warehouse in New Orleans left little doubt in the rest of the bands’ minds that the end was here. Nothing in life lasts forever, and no one here gets out alive.
When looking for bands to sum up not the spirit but the reality of the sixties, you need look no further than The Doors. They quite literally were the hottest band in the land—psychedelic rockers fronted by a dark poet who railed at the world from his pulpit. Jim Morrison didn’t sing to his audience, he preached sermons of indecipherable meanings with lyrical wordplay and a raw passion that kept listeners spellbound.
The Doors – “The Crystal Ship”/”Light My Fire” – American Bandstand – 1967
Keyboardist Ray Manzarek and UCLA film school classmate Morrison shared a love of music and an ambitious creative spirit. In an all-too-perfect moment, the two famously formed the band on the beaches of Venice, CA, after Manzerek heard some lyrics Morrison had written. Recruiting John Densmore on drums and guitarist Robbie Krieger, The Doors were open for business in a matter of days. After writing music to Morrison’s words and coming up with a few fresh tunes together, the band took the Los Angeles music scene by storm and quickly earned a record deal with Columbia Records.
The band went on to release eight studio albums in just five years, establishing their sound as a mixture of madness-tinged poetry, hushed lulls, and frenzied explosions of cacophony. Their name, The Doors, was taken from an Aldous Huxley book, The Doors Of Perception, written about a mescaline experience. Morrison was interested in writing and art since childhood and had headed to film school to try and find a way to express the roiling passions inside of him. He had long searched for a key to unlock the truth, and through his early use of psychotropic drugs, he found his release.
Jim Morrison – “Shaman Dances” (Live)
The rest of the band joined him at first, making their early shows wild affairs, almost pure hedonistic bacchanals. The staid and uptight atmosphere of the fifties and sixties had been covering up the fear of nuclear annihilation and constant war. The children of the baby boom were coming of age, rejecting the violence and inequality of the world as it was, and looking to change what they saw around them. The flower power generation exploded in the middle of the decade, wanting nothing more than to “Tune In, Turn On and Drop Out” of the roles society had waiting for them. And unto them came a voice telling them there was a way out.
Songs like “Break On Through (To The Other Side)”, “People Are Strange”, and “Strange Days” showcased The Doors’ determination to get people to look at life through fresh eyes and see how it really was. The Free Love movement was also in full swing, and sexy songs like “Light My Fire”, “Love Me Two Times”, and “Twentieth Century Fox” helped create an air of hyper-charged sexuality that made Morrison an international sex symbol. Sadly, tunes like “The End”, “Five To One”, and “When The Music’s Over” also showcased Morrison’s near-obsession with death and finality.
The Doors – “When The Music’s Over” – Hollywood Bowl 1968
The holy trinity of “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll” was joined in the music of The Doors by the ever-present specter of the Grim Reaper. As the sixties progressed, Morrison’s copious drug use greatly affected the band’s live shows. In concert, you were as likely to see a transformative meditation on the deepest subjects of life as you were to see Morrison mutter incomprehensibly into a microphone and howl in pain and confusion for reasons not even the band could truly understand.
This unreliability took its toll on the friendships among the bandmates. Manzarek, Krieger, and Densmore were eager to play to the fans but were hamstrung by the unpredictability of their frontman. Though The Doors featured a stellar collection of instrumentalists, it was Morrison who was the lightning rod of attention. As the sixties wound down, the three found themselves dreading each performance, having no idea which Jim was coming out to play that night.
The band was in Los Angeles finishing what would be their final studio album, L.A. Woman, when they were approached with the idea of doing a small promo tour for the upcoming release. Over the previous two years, Morrison had been arrested onstage during a performance, arrested again after a show for exposing himself, and exited the stage dozens of other times after he was unable or unwilling to continue performing. They reluctantly agreed to book two shows, with thoughts of extending the tour if things went well.
The Doors – L.A. Woman – Full Album
The first night in Texas went off well enough, but the seeds of destruction had long ago been planted in Morrison, and they sprouted fully that fateful night in New Orleans on this date in 1970. Before the show, Morrison spent the day drinking and casually indulging in a cornucopia of drugs, including a strong dose of psychedelics. What was originally intended as a mind-opening religious rite had deteriorated into a way to stay awake long enough to perform.
Cracks appeared early in the set, as Morrison was unhappy with the song selection and continually urged the band to play “St. James Infirmary Blues”, singing that song’s lyrics no matter what song was actually being played. The bearded, overweight, and out of his mind Morrison was prone to collapsing onstage, and their last show proved to be no exception. The band left the stage in disgust, with Manzarek later saying he felt as if he could “See Jim’s spirit leave his body, even though he was still standing right there” in his autobiography.
Whether or not his spirit had left him, the will to perform certainly had. Lying on the stage, he urged concert-goers to cheer and call the band back out when he roused from his stupor. The band, not wanting to deny their fans a show, begrudgingly came back out. Their return was short-lived, however, as just a few songs later, Morrison, like a man possessed, began to hammer the base of his microphone stand into the stage itself. He rained blows down until the boards gave way, and the mic and stand disappeared from his hands for what would be the last time.
Immediately afterward, the other three members voted unanimously to end their live performances, feeling that it was wrong to promise their fans a product that they could not produce. Morrison finished the overdubs for L.A. Woman and retreated to Paris to write and escape the temptations that so easily ensnared him. In a very real way, Morrison had closed the book on his live performance career by breaking on through to the other side, though not in a way his younger self would have imagined outside the worst of bad trips. Morrison was dead less than a year later, and any hopes of a reunion were gone along with him.
America in the sixties rode a wave of budding idealism, breaking down social and sexual taboos in an attempt to be free. Unfortunately for many, that freedom was over-used and abused, and many of the brightest from that generation fell victim to the many forms of self-destruction that arise when limitations are discarded. The Doors had ridden the crest of that wave as well as any band, and like all waves, crashed into the shore and dispersed back to the sea.
[Originally published 12/12/16]