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Why It Mattered: The Doors – ‘Morrison Hotel’

At the end of 1969, The Doors were in disarray. But amidst the dregs of darkness, they crafted a resounding return to form on Morrison Hotel, heralded by the fanfare of hard rock and Jim’s saccharine croon.

A cloud hung over The Doors when, onstage in Miami, Morrison allegedly pulled his penis out and was arrested. The ensuing storm saw several tours canned and when the pseudo-intellectual The Soft Parade hit the shelves it became their worst-selling album yet.

Plus, the shamanic bearded drunkard that was Jim Morrison was becoming increasingly belligerent, bigoted, and just creatively dry. Even still, when the band came back with their 5th album they were leaner, meaner, and more focused than they had been since their 1967 debut.

This is how returning to their roots saved The Doors on their penultimate album, Morrison Hotel. 

Morrison Hotel

50 years ago today, The Doors produced a monumental return to form on Morrison Hotel, just months before Jim himself expired.

Placing the pieces

At the end of 1969, the canyon-wide divide between Jim Morrison and the rest of the Doors had reached a critical level. The self-styled tortured poet always envisioned the band as a ritualistic Dionysian offering, where the other members – the actual musicians –  aspired to virtuosity and cohesion.

Producer Paul Rothchild became the peacekeeper and he recalls his patience wearing thin: “I’d grown tired of dragging The Doors from one album to another, especially Jim [who] had virtually dried up. Jim would either not want to work or would go into the studio drunk. Most of my energies were spent trying to co-ordinate Jim with the group.”

This gulf ultimately led Rothchild to leave the Doors and produce Janis Joplin’s opus Pearl.

Even keyboardist Ray Manzarek, who’d always been Morrison’s biggest fan, was exhausted of pretending the singer’s erratic behaviour was a central component of the band’s artistic expression.

In an effort to salvage the situation, Elektra Records president Jaz Holzman stepped in. “It could have been over after Miami,” Holzman reflects now. “John Densmore was disgusted. They didn’t know what to do. I said: ‘Time to make another record. Go into the studio. Work out your demons in the studio.'”

In the end, it turned out to be a smart move for the band. Although it might not have saved Morrison, it certainly saved The Doors.Morrison Hotel

Morrison’s demons

The Doors’ last show of ’69 was at the Ice Palace in Las Vegas, on Nov 1. The crowd was electric although Morrison, in an inebriated stupor, managed to sleepwalk through the entire concert. A week later he found himself at Dade County Public Safety Dept in Miami, where a trial date for his onstage arrest earlier in the year was set for April 27, 1970, along with a bail bond of $5,000.

Two days later Morrison found himself arrested as he disembarked from a Continental Airlines flight from LA to Phoenix and charged with, “assault, intimidation, threatening a flight attendant, interfering with the flight of an intercontinental aircraft and public drunkenness”.

After fleeing those charges which could have resulted in a $10,000 fine and a 10-year jail sentence, Morrison was back in LA working on Morrison Hotel. But things did not proceed as planned.

Unlike previous efforts, where Morrison came in with the bulk of the lyrics and melodies already written, Manzarek now resorted to plundering the singer’s journals and notebooks for ideas. “Then he’d sit with the other two guys and they’d come up with an arrangement,” recalls engineer Bruce Botnick. “There just wasn’t that block of creativity from Jim.”

During this time, Morrison was more interested in perusing the Sunset Strip for trouble than floating around the studio, sucking on a beer. He had his own corner booth at the Whisky a Go Go where he could get so drunk he’d start yelling about “fucking n*****s”. The girls would whisper into his ear and he would pour beer over their heads before acting sad and sorry.

One of the girls was Pamela Des Barres, who’d known Morrison pre-fame:

“He would climb up on stage with whoever was up there and interrupt their set and pull his pants down… They’d have to drag him off,” Des Barres mentions. “He was funny and he was deep, and things had meaning for him. He cared. But then I watched him fall apart through the years.”

Pamela even recalls leaving the club one night in late 1969 and finding Jim, foetal position in the gutter. “People were stepping over him. That’s what had happened to his mystique.”

Furnishing the hotel

In the studio, work continued at a spasmodic pace. Bill Siddons recalls one session where Morrison drank 36 beers. “The situation was dire,” Manzarek later confessed. “Jim was an alcoholic.”

Morrison’s mental state was even hauntingly captured in the albums most upbeat track, Roadhouse Blues. Under the wailing harmonica of an uncredited John Sebastien, Morrison delivers the faintly disturbing, “Woke up this morning and got myself a beer/ The future’s uncertain and the end is always near”.

Despite this, the track excelled. Lester Bangs called it the, “most convincing raunchy vocals Jim Morrison has ever recorded.”

Admittedly, the real gold was to be found in tracks like Peace Frog, a macabre slice of LA groove. Rothchild had found the lyrics in one of Morrison’s notebooks, a poem titled Abortion Stories. The Doors

Blue Sunday was an endearing love song, and one of Morrison’s finest, along with Indian Summer, constructed from the dying embers of The End. Another, Queen Of The Highway, was the last truly great tune Jim would compose with Robby Krieger: jazz piano, exotic guitar, and exquisite lyrics.

While Rothchild was still putting the final touches of the mixes in December, the band were quietly confident that Morrison Hotel was a resounding return to form and one they all desperately needed. The Doors, musically, never sounded better. It was one of their most focused albums, a punchy collection of bluesy vamps with psychedelic undertones.

When the battered Doors dropped the album in February 1970, the albums feature some of their best-played cuts, with tight production and plenty of ammo for the stage. Morrison Hotel reached No.4 on the US Charts and hit their highest position in the UK yet, 12.

While you’re here, check out Why It Mattered: