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The Doors ‘Break on Through’

Read the Listening Notes for our June Essentials Album

On May 26, 2021

It started at the beach. A chance encounter so ingrained into boomer lore that it feels like a fable. Run the faded Kodachrome reel through your mind. The sun, a hothouse July rant bathing the Venice worshippers of Ra. Surf’s up. It’s 1965. The last and only time everything felt like paradise, at least if you were fortunate enough for that to even be a consideration.

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There is Ray Manzarek, recent graduate of UCLA’s MFA film program, Chicago blues junkie, a piano man with an existential bent, smoking a joint and pondering eternity, wondering how he’s going to afford the $75-a-month apartment down the block that he shares with his soon-to-be bride. Or as they say in the Shamanic lingua franca, he was “trusting the energy.” About 40 days prior, Manzarek bid farewell to his classmate James, the sensitive and husky son of a Naval admiral from the Deep South who happened to be the commander of the U.S. fleet that fired on a North Vietnamese torpedo boat that summer, killing four, wounding six. The Gulf of Tonkin incident is credited for escalating the Vietnam War into that body bag holocaust that will sow an irreparable division within the United States. For now, his estranged son is kicking up sand.

To hear Manzarek tell it, it was destiny. His memoir’s description of that serendipitous tête-à-tête with James “Jim” Morrison (surprise) reads like Joseph Campbell crossed with the Bhagavad Gita crossed with a harlequin romance: “He’s like an Indian deity, like Krishna — the Blue God — creating a field of diamonds from his footsteps like Sai Baba, a popular guru of the time, materializing ashes from his fingers, but this human figure is producing glittering, ephemeral, now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t jewels ... I see this guy in semi-silhouette, wearing cutoffs, without a shirt, weighing about 135 pounds. Thin, about 6 feet tall; rail-thin kind of guy with long hair.”

I once asked Manzarek how much credit he gave to acid for shaping the liberation of the ’60s. He responded in his “with great power comes great responsibility” baritone: “It was everything.”

So there you go. Should you have a passing familiarity with the psychedelic exploits of The Doors or the Oliver Stone biopic that mutates them into tragicomic caricature, you know what happened next. Manzarek asked Jim what he was doing in L.A. The future Mr. Mojo Risin had originally planned to decamp to New York to make “poetic films,” but the demands of destiny revolted. Instead, the Florida man with the Mufasa mane camped out on a Venice Beach rooftop, where, under the influence of bewilderingly strong narcotics, he heard an entire concert in his head — the songs that would form the spine of The Doors’ first two albums.

The specifics of these divine hallucinations depend on what source you turn to. In interviews given shortly after the January 1967 release of The Doors’ self-titled classic, Morrison described his epiphanies in the terms of someone who would get a Rimbaud quote inked on the inside of his forearm: “I was living in this abandoned office building, sleeping on the roof. And all of a sudden I threw away most of my notebooks that I’d been keeping since high school and these songs just kept coming to me. This kind of mythic concert ... with a band and singing and a large audience. Those first five or six songs I wrote, I was just taking notes at a fantastic rock concert that was going on inside my head. And once I had written the songs, I had to sing them.”

As you’d expect from a band that took their name from Huxley’s paean to mind-expanding substances, the legend attributed Morrison’s visions to acid. But when I interviewed their guitarist, Robby Krieger, in 2012, he slightly dented the myth of the lysergic poetry.

“He definitely took a lot of acid at the time,” Krieger said. “But those great songs written on the rooftop were actually inspired by this really great pot that he had.”

Nor was Morrison actually squatting in an abandoned office building; the rooftop belonged to a film school friend named Dennis Jakob, who later served as a creative consultant on Apocalypse Now and helped their UCLA comrade, Francis Ford Coppola, figure out the movie’s ending. If you ever wondered why The Godfather director started his Vietnam opus with Martin Sheen melting down to “The End,” the inspiration traces back to Westwood.

This wasn’t the modern-day Venice: a 24-karat slum of computer wizards microdosing in bungalows, blithely living amid the tent cities and human inferno of the starving and dispossessed. 1965 was a perfect time for its rediscovery. The beatniks of Venice West had recently scattered to the wind. There were no tacky souvenir kiosks or predatory real estate speculators — just the winos and the elderly Jewish retirees idling in front of kosher butchers and storefront synagogues. An idyllic perch for semi-lucid revelations realized from strong smoke, atomic sunsets and the endless cold wave nights. The spot to create weird nocturnal symphonies revered over a half-century later.

Picture that rooftop, which now rents for a robber baron ransom: the sleeping bag, an orange crate filled with books, a candle flickering inside a coffee can, the battered, black moleskin notebook, the drugs and the now-quaint belief that if you broke through, there was something waiting on the other side. Maybe there was something in 1965 or 1966 or 1967. Those years when The Doors flung themselves into infinity, as Vietnam turned into a wilderness of pain. Around the time that Morrison snatched “End Of The Night” from the embers of mind, Watts went up in flames. As the drummer John Densmore once claimed: “The Sixties were two years, ’65 to ’67. That was it. That was the pure stuff, the across-the-board renaissance of music, art, films ... before everything got co-opted.”

To even recite the tumult, half-achieved revolution and possibilities unleashed by that era feels like retelling the plot points of Forrest Gump. But if you can somehow separate the decades of petrified rock ’n’ roll sloganeering, it is still possible to hear The Doors anew. Somewhere, there is a 13-year-old doing that right now, their circuits in the process of being permanently rewired.

There is the happy accident of how they formed. First, Manzarek glimpsed Morrison on Venice Beach. Then, in the most Aquarian of plot points, Manzarek met drummer John Densmore at a meditation class affiliated with the Maharishi (then about a year away from becoming a worldwide phenomenon via his Beatles endorsement). To use their doomed parlance, it must’ve been particularly far out for them to exchange secret handshakes between those rare fellow seekers. After the fourth lecture, an acquaintance pointed out Densmore to Manzarek, who approached with a proposition. His bar band, Rick & the Ravens, needed a drummer for their gigs at the Turkey Joint West in Santa Monica. The bond was cemented over listening to more jazz — especially their mutual love of John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Elvin Jones.

Within two months, The Doors had cut their first demo. You can find it on YouTube. As music, it’s only worthwhile in tracking their staggering evolution between the fall of 1965 and the fall of 1966, when they recorded their first studio album. For one, there’s a live bassist, and Manzarek plays blues piano rather than the spooky ecclesiastical organ licks that would define the band’s sound. He does backing vocals, too. Robby Krieger hadn’t yet joined the group, depriving them of the nimble minimalism of his flamenco-inspired fingerpicked riffs. Morrison’s angel of death croon is nearly full-formed, but the band is sloppy and raw. A garage band still finding their sound, closer to The Kingsmen, The Seeds, or a rough-hewn Animals. There is harmonica galore. This is whisky undistilled, weed uncured. The Dionysian rituals feel distant.

Every band, sports team, or functional organization has what’s known as a “glue guy.” They’re usually unheralded, quiet and indispensable. That’s Krieger. In the Pacific Palisades native, The Doors discovered someone preternaturally gifted and unusually agreeable, largely devoid of ego but the self-possessed hitmaker who would write their biggest song, “Light My Fire.” An old high school friend of Densmore, he joined after Manzarek’s brothers dropped out. Following their first jam session with Krieger, Ray claimed in his memoir that it led him to immediately tell Morrison: “You know that section of Kerouac where he said, the guy had ‘it.’ I know what it is now — it’s what we’ve just done.”

But few agreed with Manzarek. The demo got turned down by almost every label in Hollywood. They even got thrown out of a few offices. Somehow, Columbia offered them a deal, but the chief selling point to the young band was a free organ and amplifier that they were able to procure because the label owned Vox at the time. None of the major A&Rs at Columbia had any interest in working with the Venice quartet. So the group bided their time practicing in a garage behind the Santa Monica bus depot. Eventually, Ray rented a large apartment and practice space for them right near the boardwalk. $200 a month; it felt like a fortune.

“You know that section of Kerouac where he said, the guy had ‘it.’ I know what it is now — it’s what we’ve just done.”
Ray Manzarek

Momentum built slowly. All the clubs kept rejecting them because they lacked a bass player, and attempts to audition one similarly went nowhere. It just made them sound too much like The Rolling Stones or one of the million blooz-rawk bands trying to ride the post-Mike Bloomfield and Eric Clapton wave. Finally, Manzarek discovered that he could play the Fender Rhodes keyboard bass with his left hand, supplying the final element of The Doors sound. They landed a residency at a C-list club called the London Fog, shunted into a forgotten corner of West Hollywood, overshadowed by the “tsetse fly” Hamburger Hamlet.

The Doors might have only been a few hundred yards from the Whisky a Go Go, but they were practically gigging in a wasteland. The Whisky was the cultural hub of the Sunset Strip scene, packed with Hollywood starlets, hip record producers and cool acidheads shaking with paisley abandon to bands like The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Love. The London Fog clientele were primarily sex workers and hardcore drunks, bikers, sailors on leave and the occasional businessman willfully stumbling into a den of iniquity. There was a lone go-go dancer, the forlorn Rhonda Lane. But like The Beatles at the Indra Club in Berlin, the London Fog forged the telepathic communion that would eventually define The Doors.

They played six nights a week, five sets a night: $60-a-week split four ways. In order to fill the time, they bashed out raucous covers of “Louie Louie,” “Gloria,” “Little Red Rooster,” “Who Do You Love” and “Crawling King Snake” (which eventually appeared on their final album, 1971’s L.A. Woman). It was here where they incubated what would become the epic studio versions of “Light My Fire” and “The End.” The latter began as a very short long song. Quoth the former lead singer of Rick & the Ravens: “We started extending songs, taking them into areas that we didn’t even know they would go into … and playing stoned every night. It was a great time for acid, and we really got into a lot of improvisation.” You could occasionally catch Morrison popping amyl nitrite onstage and walking into telephone poles outside.

It was a prime era for excess. Their poetic delirium, operatic theatre of cruelty, and Morrison’s Alexander the Great-in-leather aesthetic did wonders for word of mouth. After the Fog fired The Doors for a fight in the bar for which they were blamed, The Whisky famously asked them to be the house band. It was by now the summer of ’66, and The Doors had become the hottest new band in town. Sort of. The Los Angeles Times dropped by The Whisky just to pan them: “The Doors are a hungry looking quartet with an interesting original sound, but with what is possibly the worst stage appearance of any rock ’n’ roll group in captivity. Their lead singer emotes with eyes closed, the electric pianist hunches over his instrument as if reading mysteries from the keyboard, the guitarist drifts about the stage randomly and the drummer seems lost in a separate world.”

Despite the occasionally negative press, Frank Zappa wanted to produce them. So did Terry Melcher, the son of Doris Day, who sat behind the boards on the first two Byrds classics. By now, they’d asked out of their contract with Columbia, which was a formality because Bob Dylan’s label was on the verge of dropping them. But thanks to a tip from Arthur Lee, the eccentric, proto-Hendrix genius at the helm of Love, Jac Holzman, the President of Elektra Records, checked out the fledgling “erotic politicians.”

“I didn’t hear it at first,” said Holzman when I interviewed him in 2012. “But I kept coming back. And by the fourth night, a lot of the songs floated to the surface. Especially ‘Alabama Song.’ And that made a really deep impression on me. Because sometimes when you hear a group, they may sing something from your own frame of reference, but they do it in a way that is totally reimagined. And they did that with ‘Alabama Song.’ Once I heard that, I could then extend it to their repertoire. It filled in all the blank spaces.”

Holzman offered The Doors a standard deal for the time: $5,000 for three albums. The timing couldn’t have been better because the band were about to get fired for saying the quiet part out loud on their Oedipal saga, “The End.” The sessions for The Doors commenced almost immediately thereafter: early September 1966 at the Sunset Sound studios in Hollywood.

Manzarek later described the moment as “four incredibly hungry young men, striving to make it, desperately wanting to put a good record out to the American public and wanting the public to like the record . . . It was a dream come true.” The first night the band was too afraid to play too loudly lest they blow out the lavish equipment.

Recorded in just five days and released in January 1967, The Doors is structured as a story, a musical drama with two acts and an intermission. It begins with “Break On Through,” and you flip it over after the full seven-minute run of “Light My Fire”; it eventually simmers to a conclusion with Morrison riding the snake to the lake on “The End.”

“[Unlike most of their peers], The Doors seemed unconvinced that love was brotherhood and the Kama Sutra. The Doors’ music insisted that love was sex and sex was death and therein lay salvation. The Doors were the Norman Mailers of the Top 40, missionaries of apocalyptic sex.”
Joan Didion

Their producer Paul Rothchild once described their recording approach as “trying to strike a very fine line between being very fresh and original and being documentary — making the record sound like it really happened live — which it did for the most part.” The studio tricks may now seem de rigueur in a half-century-old light, but innovation was crucial to the process. Rothchild overdubbed Morrison singing harmonies to himself, which was practically unheard of at the time. The whole band marches on a wooden platform to get the sound perfect for “Twentieth Century Fox.” The studio itself had an echo chamber, a “small floating room of super hard surfaces.” To add echo to the instruments, they’d pipe the sound through a speaker in the echo chamber and record it to pick up maximum reverberation. This is why it sounds like it was recorded in an abandoned mine shaft haunted by the opiated ghost of Antonin Artaud.

For an album that defined the late ’60s, it deceptively achieved a bent clock timelessness. The cosmic organs and trippy lingo may be suited for the love bead era, but gimmicky flourishes were excised as a rule. At one point, Krieger attempted to use a wah-wah pedal, but Holzman quickly quashed the idea.

“We wanted to keep the architectural line of the music very straightforward and very simple,” Holzman said. “A blues riff never gets old.”

As for Morrison, his singing channels an older tradition. If the hellhound blues vocals aspired towards Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf, the pop psychedelia was filtered through AM radio crooners. The writer Eve Babitz described him as “Bing Crosby from Hell,” but it was more like Sinatra signing a blood oath with Satan. Spiritually aligned with the tenets of “My Way,” Morrison saw Old Blue Eyes’ Neumann U47 microphone at Sunset Sound and immediately knew that’s what he needed.

“When he wasn’t singing or sitting in the studio, he was always sitting right here by me [in the engineer’s booth] writing in his book,” The Doors’ longtime engineer Bruce Botnick told me in 2012. “He was one of the easiest people I’ve ever had to record. He had marvelous microphone technique. He knew how to back off. All the great singers used to back off the mic when they’d sing loud. I remember when B.B. King opened up for The Doors. He was singing and he’d just ‘wooah,’ and he pulled the mic back like that, and it was like he hadn’t even pulled it back. It was just perfect. He knew exactly what to do. And Jim had that thing. Sinatra had it. All the great singers do.”

But the reason for the record’s longevity ultimately lies in the songs, most of which have been enshrined into the classic rock radio canon. They’ve been played so much it’s almost impossible to disassociate yourself from the memories of your dad playing them on road trips, the teenage “let’s try salvia once” self-discovery phase, the fedora-hatted poseurs who misinterpret Jim Morrison as an excuse for pathetic excess — rather than as a sensitive, hyper-literate prodigy ravaged by substance addiction, who simultaneously exploited his fame while being a casualty of it. As the writer Greil Marcus once said, “In Oliver Stone’s movie, and in real life, The Doors made the myths and were instantly their victims.”

Attempt to listen to the songs with ears unburdened by the clichés of the would-be Topanga shamans that you may have encountered. Even if your adolescence was spent locked inside a bedroom with the Morrison-as-Young-Lion poster taped to the wall, you can still hear new things upon close inspection: the little bossa nova break inspired by Stan Getz and João Gilberto that percolates between the verses on “Break On Through”; Densmore’s jazzy octopus drums as the track detonates into the chorus; the serrated razor blades embedded in Morrison’s larynx when he lights into that growl (imagine a 22-year-old able to sing like that today); the breakdown at the end, built for delirious freeway sprints in the dead hours of the a.m. It’s easy to scoff at it in the light of day, where we can see all the wrong turns, but to hear it in 1967 must’ve offered a sense of possibility, the pristine ambition that the world could be remade in a more righteous and equitable way.

There is “Soul Kitchen,” an organ-heavy psychedelic blues workout that captures the sweatbox humidity and dank flavor of its namesake, Olivia’s, a long-defunct Southern home-cooking spot on Ocean Park and Main, always packed with UCLA film students. Morrison used to stay there so long they had to kick him out. Remove the forced intellectualism, and “The Crystal Ship” is a plaintive meditation on drug-induced bliss, one of the most gorgeous piano ballads this side of Sinatra. “The streets are fields that never die” could’ve been written by Jay-Z circa 1997. Instead, he paid tribute by collaborating with Kanye to sample “Five To One” on “Takeover.”

There is “Twentieth Century Fox,” a sleazy-but-charming dedication to a “queen of cool,” which Greil Marcus hailed as “less a song than a Lichtenstein: pop art.” The “Alabama Song” reworks Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera into something that can be played for people doing Wild Turkey shots at a Crimson Tide tailgating party, yet still somehow succeeds in the current moment as a betokening of America’s Weimer decay. It’s the go-to music cue to soundtrack a carnival for the damned.

You can’t begin to ignore “Light My Fire,” the song that catapulted The Doors into the stratosphere and set the timer for their slow immolation. It’s especially worth another listen after knowing that Manzarek was riffing on McCoy Tyner’s piano parts on John Coltrane’s “Olé.” Krieger first wrote it at the piano at his parents’ house after Morrison ordered each member of the band to write a song.

“I had never written a song, really, so I asked Jim, ‘What should I write about?’ ” Krieger told me in 2017. “[Jim] says, ‘Write about something universal,’ so I decided to write about earth, air, fire or water. I picked fire because I liked that song by the Stones, ‘Play With Fire.’ Somehow those three words just came to me, ‘Light My Fire.’”

“[Morrison] was one of the easiest people I’ve ever had to record. He had marvelous microphone technique. He knew how to back off. All the great singers used to back off the mic when they’d sing loud. I remember when B.B. King opened up for The Doors. He was singing and he’d just ‘wooah,’ and he pulled the mic back like that, and it was like he hadn’t even pulled it back. It was just perfect. He knew exactly what to do. And Jim had that thing. Sinatra had it. All the great singers do.”
Bruce Botnick, engineer

The second side leans toward the deeper cuts. “Back Door Man,” a raunchy Chicago blues cover; “End Of The Night,” which derives inspiration from Louis Ferdinand Céline; and “Take It As It Comes,” which, like all of Morrison’s best work, collapses unrestrained carnality with imminent doom. As Joan Didion shrewdly noted, “[Unlike most of their peers], The Doors seemed unconvinced that love was brotherhood and the Kama Sutra. The Doors’ music insisted that love was sex and sex was death and therein lay salvation. The Doors were the Norman Mailers of the Top 40, missionaries of apocalyptic sex.”

“The End” is the last stop. It’s arguably the most polarizing part of The Doors catalog, the moment where you possibly wrote them off as pretentious frauds, or where you marveled at how what was once a simple love song evolved into a chronicle of Grecian patricide that mirrored the generational rupture of the ’60s. The details of the recording will only cement your opinion. The first attempt was a total failure. Morrison was drunk and tripping and broke down in a fit of tears. The following day, they returned to a studio completely darkened, save for a single burning candle. Rothchild later described their second salvo as the most awe-inspiring thing he’d ever witnessed in a studio — no small praise considering he produced Janis Joplin’s Pearl.

“We were about six minutes into it when I turned to Botnick and said, ‘Do you understand what’s happening here?’” Rothchild once said. “This is one of the most important moments in recorded rock ’n’ roll. It felt like, ‘Yes, it’s the end, that’s the end, that’s the statement, it cannot go any further.’ When they were done, I felt emotionally washed. The muse did visit the studio that time and all of us were [in the] audience. It was magic.”

Manzarek described it in the most Manzarek way conceivable: “When it came time to do ‘The End,’ a very different mood took over Jim. He became shamanistic and led the small group on a shamanistic voyage. He put himself in a trance, and through that, put us all into a trance.”

Later that night, Morrison snuck into the studio after all his bandmates had left. He was so high that he sprayed the room with foam from a fire extinguisher, convinced that Sunset Sound was burning. In interviews, the singer described “The End” as “about sex, death and travel. You can also take it the opposite way. The theme is the same as in ‘Light My Fire,’ liberation from the cycle of birth — orgasms — death.”

This notion of liberation has endured, despite a world that feels like all the ends have been discovered and few new outcomes achieved. But that’s not entirely true either. The album’s impact extends far beyond the millions of copies sold and the songs that permanently steer the orbit of boomer rock radio. Every generation gets the Jim Morrison it deserves. Gen X received Perry Farrell and Jane’s Addiction, millennials revered the cult of Lil Wayne, and Zoomers are wallowing in the mire with Post Malone. No less than The Pharcyde took inspiration for their name and their biggest hit (“Passing Me By”) from The Doors. Some of the most influential punk and post-punk artists cribbed from Morrison’s template, including Iggy Pop, Ian Curtis of Joy Division, and Ian McCulloch of Echo & the Bunnymen. Manzarek produced and financed X’s Los Angeles, arguably the most seminal L.A. punk album of the era. Henry Rollins, the frontman of Black Flag, hailed them for “setting his imagination free.”

The Doors now occupy a similar space as their hero, Kerouac, and his hero, Dean Moriarty — Western kinsmen of the sun. They’re often maligned for being something you listen to as a teenager and eventually outgrow. But even if that’s the case, they serve as a gateway to a world of influences, from French surrealism to the sweltering Chicago blues, from the modal genius of John Coltrane to German expressionism, from Sophocles to William Blake. They exist to get you to the starting point, and wherever the path diverges from there is on you.

Profile Picture of Jeff Weiss
Jeff Weiss

Jeff Weiss is the founder of the last rap blog, POW, and the label POW Recordings. He co-edits theLAnd Magazine, as well as regularly freelancing for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Magazine and The Ringer.

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