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This is The End: how The Doors made L.A. Woman

The Doors circa 1970
(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 55, in July 2003.

A crisp March morning in Paris, and Classic Rock is visiting Jim Morrison. His address: 6th Division, 2nd Row, Grave 5. The one-time Doors singer and 60s icon has been buried here at Pere Lachaise cemetery for more than 32 years now. On top of Morrison’s headstone there’s an empty wine bottle and some sunflowers; in the sand covering the grave itself, recent visitors have left roses, poems in Italian and French, and some wrapped sweets. There’s also a full pack of Gitanes cigarettes and a canister containing a roll of film. The only sound to be heard is birdsong.

This tranquil scene contrasts sharply with the events of July 3, 1985, when scores of Doors fans assembled here on the 14th anniversary of Morrison’s death. There were acts of desecration that day, and things became rowdy. So rowdy, in fact, that the French National Guard had to be called out to disperse the crowd with tear gas. Musing on this, I take a last look at the replacement headstone that was erected by Morrison’s parents in 1990. Its bronze plaque bears the inscription ‘Kata Ton Daimona Eaytoy’. Translations from the Greek vary. Some say it means ‘To the divine spirit within himself’, others prefer ‘He caused his own demons’…

When Jim Morrison left Los Angeles, bound for Paris, one March day in 1971, the rest of The Doors were putting the finishing touches to L.A. Woman. No one knew it then, but that was to be the singer’s last album with the band. “Jim was not in the best of physical conditions,” Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek recalls now. 

“This guy who’d been a decent swimmer at high-school was drinking way too much and not taking care of himself. I think his record was 27 Mai Tais [a rum-based cocktail] in one sitting. The booze had created a new character, one that in my book, Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors, I give a separate name to: there was Jim, and then there was his homunculus-like alter ego Jimbo. And it was Jimbo that ultimately destroyed Jim in Paris.”

Manzarek is 64 now. All designer threads, California tan and spiky grey hair, he’s a picture of robust good health. We’re sitting in the front room of his Beverly Hills home; the décor, as he says, is “pretty much 1920s Paris”. The man whose Vox Continental organ was so central to The Doors’ sound also has a large library of esoteric books; unsurprising, then, that he sometimes peppers his sentences with references to Eastern spirituality, mythology, psychology and the like. 

I’m here in LA because Manzarek and original Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger are currently promoting a new incarnation of the band. Along with those two, the 21st-century Doors include former Cult vocalist Ian Astbury; finding the right drummer, however, has been more problematic. Naturally I chat with Manzarek at length about the current line-up, as I do with Krieger when I telephone him at home the following evening. For now, though, let’s stay with Manzarek’s views on Morrison’s death.

“I’ve heard so many stories about his death,” he says, “that I can’t begin to separate them. I don’t believe he was shot or stabbed, though, I believe he died of natural causes. You hear stories about heroin, stories about French junkies, stories about Jim dying quietly in the bathtub while Pamela [Courson, Morrison’s girlfriend] was asleep in the bedroom… I mean, where do you start?

"There are also those who say he had a lung infection, and that that led to a coughing-fit which caused his heart-attack. Now that’s a possibility, because Jim was certainly coughing a lot when we were making L.A. Woman. Whatever the scenario,” Manzarek concludes, “I think we have to accept that alcohol was the main culprit. It had weakened his resistance and nervous system so much.”

Coming down, the Doors arrive in London in 1968

Coming down, the Doors arrive in London in 1968 (Image credit: Getty Images)

L.A. Woman was The Doors’ sixth album. Their previous album but one, 1969’s The Soft Parade, had been a somewhat unsuccessful experiment with strings and brass. But 1970’s Morrison Hotel, which marked a return to their Chicago blues roots, had done much to restore the band’s musical credibility. 

Less helpfully, appeals against Morrison’s conviction for crimes of profanity/indecent exposure at a March 1969 concert in Miami were then still ongoing, and this was a source of internal tension. “Basically,” Robbie Krieger says, “the Miami thing meant that nobody would book us to play shows. And that was still the case when we started work on L.A. Woman.” In truth, though, this gig embargo was a blessing in disguise, because Morrison was no longer up to the rigours of a typical Doors performance.

Despite these problems, Manzarek remembers that the band rallied somewhat after writing what they considered to be some excellent new material for L.A. Woman: Riders On The Storm, The Changeling, the title track, and the Krieger-written “obvious hit single” Love Her Madly. In keeping with Doors tradition, the next step was to air and audition the new songs in a rehearsal studio for their established (and now legendary) production team of Paul Rothschild and Bruce Botnick.

“So we played,” Manzarek says. “And I have to say that, for whatever reason, we played without spark or fire. At the end Paul said: ‘Listen, man. I don’t know what to tell you guys, but I don’t think this material has it.’ He said: ‘Quite frankly, I’m bored to death and I’m quitting right now.’ And he did. Just like that. He walked straight out the door.”

Krieger: “To be honest, I don’t know if it was the music or something else. One thing is that he [Rothschild] had just finished producing the last Janis Joplin album [Pearl, released posthumously in February 1971] and Janis had died. It’s possible that he thought Jim was going the same way and just didn’t want to be around for that.”

Unfortunately, Rothschild is no longer around to ask. But as he told journalist Blair Jackson in 1981: “What actually happened was this: The Doors’ career had been going downhill for some time when we started L.A. Woman. Jim was not really interested after about the third album. He wanted to do other things. They only had four or five songs that were even defined enough to play as songs at that point. The most complete were L.A. Woman and Riders On The Storm, both of which I thought were great, great songs. My problem was that I couldn’t get them to play either of them decently. It was like watching an 80-year-old man trying to run the marathon.”

There are differing opinions as to whose idea it was – Rothschild claimed it was his, Manzarek says it was Morrison’s – but as this point Bruce Botnick stepped up to take the producer’s chair. Botnick had already engineered five Doors albums and he and the band were confident that, if needs must, they could co-produce L.A. Woman together.

Rothschild had already booked recording time at Sunset Sound but, as Manzarek remembers it, nobody, least of all Morrison, was particularly keen to return to the pressurised, overly familiar environment in which the band had hatched their first two albums. Botnik and the band then hit upon a mutually pleasing solution: they would set up a makeshift studio at 8512 Santa Monica Boulevard, where The Doors’ office/rehearsal space was situated in a yellow stucco building above an antique shop.

Visit that address today and you’ll find an Italian restaurant called Benvenuto. Back in 1971, though, the herb du jour at number 8512 was marijuana, not basil. At The Doors’ offices, Manzarek recalls, “the vibrations were well-tuned through years of drinking, pot smoking, laughter and philosophising”. All of which made it the ideal place to attempt to prove that, contrary to what Paul Rothschild believed, The Doors could still cut it.

Flag it up, The Doors live in Germany, 1968

Flag it up, The Doors live in Germany, 1968 (Image credit: Getty Images)

Chemically relaxed and pleased to be on home turf, the band made excellent progress, recording the 10 songs for ‘L.A. Woman’ in just 10 days. Botnick had brought in an eight-track recording machine from nearby Elektra Records, and had wired the men’s toilet for sound so that Morrison could get that “authentic bathroom echo” on his vocals – particularly effective on Cars Hiss By My Window, where Morrison ‘sings’ a wonderfully expressive ‘harmonica’ solo.

“What was great,” Krieger says, “was that we had no time constraints; there was no ‘Okay, keep it moving. This is a hundred dollars an hour!’ stuff. Of course, the irony was that we ended up finishing the record a lot quicker because of that.”

“We had an archaic pinball machine in there,” Manzarek recalls, “and Monaco Liquors was right across the street. We liked to drink Mexican beers like Corona, Dos Equis and Tecate. Jim would send little Danny Sugerman [then The Doors’ gofer, later their confidante and manager] over there and Danny would go [impersonates whining voice of insecure teen]: ‘Jim, I can’t buy beer, I’m only 14 years old’. Jim would say: ‘Just tell the guy it’s for me. Get him to put it in a brown paper bag. And make sure you don’t get run over crossing Santa Monica Boulevard.’”

With Morrison on vocals, Krieger on guitar. John Densmore on drums and Manzarek on keyboards, the band was now back on a roll. Jerry Scheff, the session bassist on L.A. Woman, undoubtedly merits a mention, too. Scheff brought groove and solidity to the album at a time when The Doors needed groove and solidity like never before – witness the momentum the bassist provides on the title track, or the way he funks it up on Morrison’s shape-shifting opener The Changeling.

“Yeah, Jerry was great,” Manzarek agrees. “And our muse – that L.A. woman, if you will – was undoubtedly with us. I remember that track was originally a slow blues which Jim and Robbie had put together. It didn’t work, and I said: L.A. woman? That’s the freeway, man! We’re driving on the freeways of Los Angeles and we’re hauling ass. It’s 2 a.m. and we’re really moving. Each of us is in our own car, and we’ve each got our L.A. woman in the front seat beside us.’ I said: ‘Let’s kick this fucking song into gear; let’s take it up to 90 miles per hour!’ And once that idea got into The Doors’ collective consciousness it just exploded.”

Listening to Manzarek reminiscing like this – “Spinning the mental Rolodex”, as he puts it – is fascinating. Sometimes he forgets himself and reminisces with enthusiasm; at other times it’s all too apparent that talking about The Doors’ brief, frenzied existence is an overly familiar chore. The way he keeps it fresh for himself, it seems, is by embarking on lengthy, uninterruptible rants, free-associating here, adopting another character’s voice there, and when the mood takes, referring to himself in the third person. Which is pretty much what happens when you ask him what the L.A. Woman track, Hyacinth House is about.

“Oh yes, Hyacinth House. All writers want to know about that one – something to do with the alliteration, I think. It’s like: [adopts ‘journalist’ voice] ‘It’s got to mean something, Ray! Make something up for me! Anything!’

[As himself] “Well, I was actually gonna tell you about my organ solo, my little Chopin Polonaise… but who gives a fuck about the organ player, right?

[As journalist] “‘No, the organ part’s great, Ray. You did real good there.’

“I don’t know what Hyacinth House is about,” Manzarek says, returning to some kind of normality.

“It’s one of those mysterious songs that we would need Jim to explain. Your keyboard player doesn’t know. Except that people were playing cards, and somebody throws away the jack of hearts, and Jim says that it was the only card in the deck he had left to play.

“There must be some deep and heavy symbolic meaning of a man close to death playing a one-eyed jack. And it’s the jack of hearts, so Jim’s heart charka needed to be opened because the alcohol had closed it. Jimbo had closed off the Native American, the shaman; the cowboy had killed the Indian, and Jim Morrison, the shaman, was almost dead. But he still had a one-eyed jack to play – and One-Eyed Jacks is a Marlon Brando movie that Jim was extremely fond of – he identified with Brando’s character, Rio. So there’s your interpretation. I think it’s a damn good one – as good as anything anybody else has come up with and probably even better.”

Krieger: “Hyacinth House was worked out over at my house. There’s no big mystery to it. We had hyacinths growing in the window. The lions that Jim talks about were actually my cats. I had a domestic cat and a bobcat – you know, a wild cat, like a lynx. He stayed out in the backyard and I had him all fenced in.”

Whatever Hyacinth House was about – and no matter how much Jim Morrison’s health had deteriorated – even Paul Rothschild would have had to admit that, as L.A. Woman neared completion, it looked like The Doors had triumphed again. But Morrison did indeed have one more card to play, and his announcement that he was relocating to Paris, leaving his band-mates and Bruce Botnick to mix L.A. Woman without him, came as a huge, unwelcome surprise.

Manzarek: “We were shocked. It was like someone dropping the napalm. The first question was: ‘How long are you going for?’ And he said: ‘A coupla months, maybe six.’ L.A. Woman fulfilled our six-album contract with Elektra, and Jim felt it was time for some rest and recuperation before we decided what to do next. He was going to compile his notes from the obscenity trial in Miami, maybe write a book about it.”

Krieger: “Why did Jim go? It was partly that we couldn’t play anywhere and partly that he needed to broaden his horizons, get rid of all the hangers-on, and just be with his lady. It was unexpected. But there was nothing we could say. Jim obviously needed some kind of vacation, and eventually we all agreed it was a good idea. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t.”

"Jim needed some kind of vacation, and eventually we all agreed it was a good idea. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t.”

"Jim needed some kind of vacation, and eventually we all agreed it was a good idea. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t.” (Image credit: Getty Images)

Jim Morrison left Los Angeles on March 10, 1971. His girlfriend, Pamela Courson, who famously described Jim as a poet who “shouldn’t be wasting his time in a rock’n’roll band,” had gone to Paris a month earlier to scout out places where she and Jim might live. Their relationship while in Paris was an open one, both of them indulging in affairs and flings. 

In the last few months of Morrison’s life, the couple lived at several addresses including the five-star Hotel George V in Avenue George V, and in an apartment at No. 17 Rue Beautreillis. On May 7, during a brief stay in a hotel at No.13 Rue des Beaux Arts – they had chosen the room in which Oscar Wilde had died – Morrison drunkenly fell from the balcony and landed on a car parked below. He got up, dusted himself down, and went off to continue his drinking spree elsewhere.

On June 14, 1971, Morrison called Doors drummer John Densmore in Los Angeles. Densmore informed the singer that LA. Woman was making steady progress in the US album chart and that the Krieger-written single Love Her Madly was doing equally well. The second single from L.A. Woman was to be Riders On The Storm, a haunting, electric piano-driven gem that was inspired by the old cowboy song Ghost Riders In The Sky.

Speaking today, Manzarek says that he should have recognised Morrison’s performance on Riders… as a portent of the singer’s death: “That whispered voice you hear as an overdub was the last vocal Jim recorded on planet Earth,” he says. “It was the voice of the spirits, and the spirit world was calling the shaman out of his physical form and into the next realm of existence. Had I known that Jim was so close to death I would have seen it as a sign, maybe even a cry for help. But he was only 27-years-old and it was impossible for anyone to believe that Jim was about to die.

“It was my first contact with self-destruction, and it didn’t occur to me that my friend could be destroying himself right before my eyes. As far as I could see, there was no reason for him to do so. I thought we were destined for other things: film-making, and after film-making, politics. I thought we were going to change the destiny of America.”

James Douglas Morrison’s life left him in the early hours of July 3, 1971. Distanced by time and space, Ray Manzarek found the appallingly premature, highly mysterious nature of Jim’s death impossible to accept. He’d known Morrison since they were fellow film students at UCLA in the early 1960s, and in the course of their friendship there had already been several instances when rumours of Jim’s death had proved to be greatly exaggerated. So when The Doors’ manager, Bill Siddons, first called with the tragic news, Manzarek’s initial reaction, he says now was: “Baloney! I don’t believe it.”

“The second phone call I got,” he says, “was to say that Jim was already buried at Pere Lachaise cemetery. [French film-maker] Agnes Varda and [filmmaker/writer/photographer] Alain Ronet had somehow managed to secure him a plot there, which was marvellous of them.

“So I said to Bill Siddons: ‘How did Jim die?’ “He said: ‘His heart stopped.’ “I said: ‘Of course his heart stopped, but what caused it?’ “He said: ‘I don’t know – the death certificate’s all in French.’ “I said: ‘How did he look?’ “He said: ‘I don’t know how he looked, when I got to Paris he was in a sealed coffin.’ “I said: ‘So you’re telling me you’ve buried a coffin without seeing Jim’s body? It could have been 150 pounds of sand and brick in there!’

“So that was the beginning of the rumours. Nobody saw Jim’s body apart from Pam and Agnes Varda and Alain Ronet, and they weren’t talking about it. That’s why there are those that will tell you that Jim Morrison is alive and well to this day.”

There are also those who will tell you that Manzarek himself has never quite let go of Jim. And in the course of his chat with Classic Rock the keyboard player does occasionally refer to an extant Morrison, albeit one who inhabits some kind of spirit world. What is indisputable, however, is that the circumstances of Morrison’s death – assuming he is dead – made it very hard for the remaining Doors to find closure.

Krieger: “It was difficult and weird not to go to Jim’s funeral. I went to Pere Lachaise later on, of course, but that was weird, too – all these hippies around the grave like some circus or something. It wasn’t the kind of environment that could help you deal with your feelings.”

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Nothing increases a rock star’s visibility quite like death, and when Jim Morrison passed on aged 27 (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones and Kurt Cobain all died at that fated age, too) he secured a seat at the top table in the annals of rock tragedy. The Doors tried to continue without him, but 1971’s Other Voices and 1972’s Full Circle were largely ignored; and Paul Rothschild, for one, thought 1978’s An American Prayer (on which the band put new backing tracks to existing recordings of Morrison reading his poetry) a blasphemous exercise.

Fast-forward to 1991, and Manzarek, Krieger and Densmore were Oliver Stone’s consultants when the director filmed The Doors, a biopic in which Val Kilmer played Morrison. It would be another whole decade, however, before the remaining Doors reassembled for an auspicious 2001 performance on the VH1 show Storytellers.

For Storytellers, Manzarek, Krieger and Densmore played a number of Doors classics with various guest vocalists. These included Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots, who tackled Break On Through and Five To One, and Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction who, after expressing his joy at being in the presence of “The Doors! The real Doors!”, sang L.A. Woman. For many critics, though, the undoubted star of the show was The Cult’s Ian Astbury, a long-term Doors aficionado whose takes on Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar) and Back Door Man seemed to capture something of the authentic Morrison spirit.

Current Doors manager Danny Sugerman had been a friend of Astbury’s for some time, and had long wanted to see him teamed with the surviving Doors. And with their Storytellers collaboration going so well, Astbury was first choice to front what the band have called the 21st Century Doors after Harley Davidson asked the band to perform a concert in LA last year celebrating the company’s 100th anniversary. 

“We loved Ian,” says Manzarek, “and serendipity had it that The Cult were taking a long, temporary hiatus. We said: ‘Look, we’re doing this show, and if it goes well we’re going to be playing many more. Would you like to be the lead singer?’ Ian said: ‘Yes, absolutely. Thanks for calling.’”

There is undoubtedly a Stars In Their Eyes element to Astbury filling the role of Jim Morrison. When I watched a 21st Century Doors gig at LA’s Universal Amphitheatre earlier this year, Astbury was dressed like Jim, had his hair cut like Jim’s and – short of calling himself The Lizard King and indecently exposing himself on stage – was basically doing all he could to be Jim. Astbury’s powerful baritone voice certainly equips him for the role.

“The similarities between Ian and Jim are quite amazing,” Manzarek says. “They both have that dark, brooding, shamanistic power. There are only 12 astrological archetypes, and one of them is that Morrison/Astbury, Dionysian, Lord Byron-esque type. I don’t think Ian’s trying to be Jim, but when he gets on stage I think he is slightly possessed by the spirit of Jim Morrison.”

Krieger: “Ian singing with us rubs some people up the wrong way, but I kinda like the idea that if you close your eyes and trip-out a little bit you might just think you’re back in the 60s seeing the original Doors. It’s a little scary sometimes; I’ll catch Ian out of the corner of my eye and it brings it all back for a second.”

Manzarek: “We have a ceremony backstage where we pass around a pipe that has sweet grass in it, and we do a Native American Indian blessing. I think that’s what calls Morrison out of the ether [and] Jim joins us on stage in the persona of Ian Astbury.”

Ian Astbury takes on Morrison for the VH1's Storytellers

Ian Astbury takes on Morrison for the VH1's Storytellers (Image credit: Getty Images)

Disappointingly, one person who has not been joining the band on stage is original Doors drummer John Densmore. Indeed, Densmore has actually filed a lawsuit against Manzarek and Krieger, seeking an injunction and damages in the Los Angeles Superior Court. It does seem a little odd that Densmore would agree to do the Storytellers show but then balk at further Doors performances. And when I raise this point with Manzarek it results in another lengthy rant which somehow manages to take in David Bowie and Hitler.

“What it’s basically all about,” he says, “is Densmore saying we don’t have the right to use the name, and me saying I put the band together with Jim Morrison; Robbie wrote Light My Fire and Love Me Two Times… What do you mean we don’t have the right? It’s ironic, because we said: ‘Come and play with us. Come and enjoy it.’ And John said: [prissily and pettily] ‘Well, I don’t like Ian. And you have no right to do this.’

“When we asked him whom he would work with, he said David Bowie. I said: ‘David Bowie and The Doors? Somehow I cannot see that as a viable entity. I cannot see David Bowie singing Light My Fire or When The Music’s Over, or The Doors doing Ziggy Stardust or Fashion.’ I mean [laughing], ‘Beep-beep, fashion…’ It’s one of my favourite songs, I must say, but I don’t really want to play it.

“So Densmore’s been invited to play and he’s declined. We still welcome his participation, but I’m not even sure he could cut the mustard for two and a half hours. I invited him to come and play percussion on Ghost Song and Riders On The Storm but he took offence to that too. He said: ‘I’m not a sideman.’ I said: ‘What are you talking about? Nobody thinks you’re a sideman!’ You can’t win, because John’s hell-bent on destruction. 

"He will destroy The Doors, ultimately. And that will show the power that he has. I hesitate to use the word ‘fascistic’, but I will. When you destroy something in the name of some kind of ancient purity, that’s a fascistic power. Look at what Hitler did to Germany in the name of an archaic purity. And that’s the same sort of thing that John is doing [to us]. He’s invoking something that will ultimately reduce The Doors to dry bone and rubble, just like Berlin was after the war.”

The Densmore debacle has obviously been a source of great irritation to all concerned. Worse still, Densmore’s lawsuit has not been the only drummer-related problem they have had. Session player Ty Dennis is currently the band’s drummer of choice, but for a handful of gigs Densmore’s replacement was Stewart Copeland, formerly of The Police. Copeland’s involvement was seen as something of a coup for The Doors and many observers reported that he brought a new finesse to the band’s back catalogue. But then things went pear-shaped prior to a gig the band was due to play in Las Vegas at the tail end of last year.

The date of that show, December 8, was an auspicious one: “Jim Morrison’s birthday,” says Manzarek, “and John Lennon’s death day – and the Buddha’s enlightenment day.” As a result they called their forthcoming dates the Birth, Death And Enlightenment Tour. Rehearsals had been going well, but then Copeland flipped over the handlebars of his mountain bike and broke his elbow. The Doors were forced to postpone the tour. They eventually played the Vegas show when Copeland’s elbow had healed, “but then Stewart re-aggravated his injury”, Manzarek says, “and we began to run into scheduling conflicts. It was: ‘Sorry, my friend, you’re fabulous, but this just isn’t working out.’”

Copeland views his parting from The Doors somewhat differently. So differently, in fact, that he is currently trying to sue Manzarek and Krieger for breach of contract. At the time of writing, moreover, the breaking news is that Jim Morrison’s parents, no less, have now filed their own lawsuit against the 21st Century Doors, citing misappropriation of Morrison’s poetry and photographs, and the band’s name and logo. For Manzarek and Krieger, taking The Door’s into the 21st Century is proving very tricky indeed. It may also prove to be very costly.

Amid all this legal turmoil, preparations are nevertheless under way for a new Doors album. Manzarek says it will combine rock’n’roll, electronica, jazz, classical, Latin and African flavours, and that it will be released, “please, God”, before the end of 2003. The idea, he says, is to keep the poetic tradition of The Doors alive. And to that end he and Krieger have already began writing music for new lyrics by Beat poets such as San Francisco’s Michael McLure and New York’s Jim Caroll. Ian Astbury and former X frontman John Doe will also contribute words.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Manzarek’s excitement about the forthcoming album is palpable. Quizzed further on the project, he goes off to another room to fetch something he wants to show me. “Here,” he says, handing me a hand-written poem. “This is Michael McLure’s Eagle And The Whirlpool. I’m hearing it as one of those Latin-flavoured Doors songs. This,” he adds, handing me Jim Caroll’s Street Of Crocodiles, “is probably going to be more Spanish than Latin.”

“We’re not trying to build on Jim’s artistic legacy,” Manzarek says. “Jim’s artistic legacy is already secure, and now he can rest.” There’s a short pause, and then The Doors’ keyboard-player does that slightly unnerving thing where he talks about Morrison as though he were still alive.

“You know, Jim’s in great shape now. He’s swimming in some Caribbean-like place where, amazingly enough, you don’t get a hangover when you drink those Navy Grogs and Mai Tais. He and Pamela are eternally youthful, and they’re doing just great. They’re vacationing in paradise, and they’re very, very happy…”

This article originally appeared in Classic Rock #55, in July 2003.