Interview: The Doors’ John Densmore Speaks On LA Woman’s 50th Anniversary

Interview: The Doors’ John Densmore Speaks On LA Woman’s 50th Anniversary

The Doors 1971
The Doors, 1971: Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Robby Krieger, Jim Morrison. Photo by Wendell Hamick.

It’s December 1970, and it’s a make-or-break moment for Los Angeles rock group The Doors. After earning a US number one with third album Waiting For The Sun a little over two years earlier, the band’s stocks have taken a dramatic tumble: as well as recent gigs being either abandoned or cancelled due to lead singer Jim Morrison’s erratic, self-destructive behaviour, the frontman is awaiting an appeal on his profanity and public exposure charges in Florida the year before. 

If Morrison’s volatility and liability have all but slammed shut The Doors’ live career, their recording prospects aren’t looking much better. Long-time producer Paul Rothchild, who has overseen the band from 1967’s eponymous debut through to 1970’s fifth studio album Morrison Hotel, has just quit. Walking out of early sessions, Rothchild has damned his former proteges by calling their latest rambling recordings “cocktail jazz.”

Wounded by Rothchild’s affront, Morrison, guitarist Robby Krieger, keyboardist Ray Manzarek and drummer John Densmore ditch the comfortable studio environs of Sunset Sound on Sunset Boulevard and head three miles west to the band’s cramped rehearsal space on Santa Monica Boulevard. With their engineer Bruce Botnick sharing production duties with the band, it’s in these cramped quarters The Doors rekindle their creative fire with a new batch of songs a focused Morrison describes as “original blues.”

Bearded, bear-like and consciously scuppering his pin-up status, photos of Morrison at these sessions find him singing in front of a small blackboard etched with the maxim ‘A clean slate'. Up against the wall, it is with this mindset The Doors create magic out of mayhem: the quartet’s final studio album, LA Woman

“A clean slate!” John Densmore chuckles when reminded of this studio mantra on the 50th anniversary of LA Woman’s release. “Well, we were feeling empowered by producing it ourselves with Bruce Botnick, our engineer. Paul Rothchild was great and had taught us how to make records, but he had become a perfectionist and was tired of trying to pull vocals out of Jim, who would get so inebriated. Producing it ourselves empowered us. We had more control – Jim included.”

Morrison might have pulled himself out of an alcoholic mire and shown fresh inspiration on the microphone, but Densmore was critical of LA Woman’s direction in his 1990 autobiography Riders On The Storm: My Life With Jim Morrison And The Doors. The memoir’s first chapter featured the drummer stating Morrison’s descent into “monotonous blues” was “boring for a drummer like me.” Speaking to I Like Your Old Stuff three decades on, Densmore recoils at the quote.

“Man, I said that in Riders On The Storm?” Densmore splutters. “Well, I guess that was just a moment in time. I love LA Woman. I am pleased with how we approached it, which was to record it quickly in a couple of weeks and with a couple of takes for each song. We didn’t get hung up in perfectionism like we did for a few albums.”

Densmore might have distanced himself from certain recollections in his Riders On The Storm memoir, but he agrees with the passage where he expresses regret about not having “the balls to say some things to [Jim] back in the ‘60s.” Addiction is one topic the drummer wishes he’d confronted Morrison on.

“We didn’t have substance abuse clinics back in those days,” Densmore says. “We didn’t know Jim had a ‘disease’ called alcoholism. He knew I didn’t approve of his drinking, but it was a different time. People ask me, ‘If Jim was around today, would he be clean and sober?’ and I used to say, ‘Naw, he was a kamikaze drunk.’ In the last few years, I’ve changed my mind: with musicians like Eric Clapton clean these days, I think Jim would have cleaned up his act, but that wasn’t his road.” 

Upon its release in April 1971, LA Woman received rave reviews from outlets such as Rolling Stone (“The Doors’ greatest album”) and the International Times (“rises far above and beyond the limitations of rock music”). First single "Love Her Madly" became one of the band’s biggest successes, reaching #6 in Australia and #11 on the US Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Since Morrison had decamped for Paris in early 1971 before LA Woman was mixed, Densmore relayed details of the band’s latest successes to him during May phone call. What the drummer didn’t disclose to his lead singer was the fact the trio of Densmore, Krieger and Manzarek had commenced work on songs that would form the basis of Other Voices, an album they released a few months after the death of Morrison in July 1971. 

“We were not recording Other Voices, we were jamming on these songs,” Densmore clarifies. “Maybe Jim would do them, maybe not. Was he going to come back from Paris? Well, he wanted to come back when I told him on the phone they were going to put out a second single "Riders On The Storm" because the first single "Love Her Madly" was being so well received. He expressed interest in coming back to the States, only he didn’t. In fact, he left the planet.”

And became an eternal.

“Right, now he’s everywhere!” Densmore laughs. 

In a recent interview with the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame to celebrate the 50th anniversary of LA Woman and discuss the drummer’s new book The Seekers: Meetings With Remarkable Musicians, Densmore admitted Doors fan Iggy Pop was “kind of in the wings as Jim’s replacement…” Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek became close with Pop in the wake of Morrison’s 1971 death and performed with the Stooges frontman in 1974, but how close did Iggy really come to joining The Doors?

“Well, Ray had played with Iggy at the Whisky [A Go Go] and Iggy was wearing a Jim Morrison T-shirt actually – maybe he was auditioning?” Densmore laughs. “Ultimately I think we made a really good decision to not replace Jim. 

“We had Ray and Robby try and sing [on the two follow-up albums, 1971’s Other Voices and 1972’s Full Circle],” he chuckles. “Naw, they did okay. But we avoided the trap of having someone trying to fill Jim’s leather pants. No matter how good the singer was, they would have been compared to Jim, which would have been a very difficult situation. Ray and Robby couldn’t be compared to Jim, they weren’t trying to be the lead singer.”


Iggy Pop 1974
Iggy Pop wearing a Jim Morrison T-shirt performs live on stage in Los Angeles, 1974. Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty Images.

With 1971’s post-Morrison albums Other Voices and 1972’s Full Circle little more than curios, The Doors’ legend realistically ends with LA Woman. From opening track "The Changeling" (Jim’s “favourite number”, according to his studio banter) through to brooding closer "Riders On The Storm", LA Woman showcases a band creating engaging and inspired music in spite of the turmoils threatening to snuff them out. An early take of "Riders On The Storm", which was released as one of the bonus tracks on the 40th-anniversary edition of the album, even contains studio conversation featuring Morrison coming up with the idea of adding thunderclaps to the song. The spur-of-the-moment suggestion became one of the most iconic elements of the album’s second big hit.

“Yeah, we had a lot of fun with that recording,” Densmore says. “We were recording to tape then, not digital, so one recording machine tape was going with continual rain and thunder, then we had two more tape machines cued up with thunderclaps. We could play God and just drop the thunder in after a guitar solo, Jim’s vocal or emphasise elements of the song. We had a lot of fun doing that.”

More than 50 years since the quartet recorded the final notes together in their two-storey office building at 8512 Santa Monica Boulevard, Densmore expresses his pride at LA Woman’s timeless appeal.

“Those songs have seasoned well. I can never get enough of Ray’s piano solo on "Riders On The Storm", and the song "LA Woman" is a great excursion. Who’s ever written a song about a city metaphorically as a woman. ‘Cops in cars, the topless bars, never saw a woman so alone’ – that’s fucking brilliant. Talk about poetry.”

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