The Doors: the story of Strange Days and the madness of Jim Morrison

The Doors in 1967
Through the looking glass: The Doors in 1967 (Image credit: Mark and Colleen Hayward \/ Getty Images)

New York City, April 1967, Ondine Discotheque on 59th Street. Standing at the bar throwing back double shots of vodka and orange is Jim Morrison, 23-year-old singer of rising stars The Doors, who are halfway into their third residency at the club. In his new black leather suit, his tea-coloured hair falling in angelic ringlets about his face, Morrison looks exactly as he’s remembered now, 45 years later: the iconic rock god in mock crucifixion pose, nailed to the cross of his own imperturbable beauty.

Looking on is pop artist and underground film-maker, Andy Warhol, who has been obsessively in thrall to Morrison since he first clapped eyes on him some months before. Warhol wants Morrison to appear in one of his films, naked and surrounded by Warhol’s Factory ‘girls’, some of whom are not girls at all, nor even good facsimiles; some of whom, like Nico, are so ball-achingly beautiful Morrison will soon begin a brief, hopelessly doomed affair with her.

Warhol, never normally shy about introducing himself to the beautiful and the damned, can’t bring himself to approach Morrison. He’s too scared of what might happen if he interrupts the rock star from the attentions he’s receiving from two equally enthralled female fans, one of whom has the singer’s penis in her mouth while the other unbuttons her cheesecloth blouse so Morrison can drunkenly fondle her breasts.

“Oh gee,” sighs Warhol, his stock response to any situation in which he finds himself reeling. “I guess I’ll talk to Jim later…”

The Doors onstage at Ondine nightclub in November 1966

The Doors onstage at Ondine nightclub in November 1966 (Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

But later never comes, not on this trip anyway. Despite giving some of the most powerful performances of The Doors’ short career, Morrison’s offstage life is going to hell. He may look like a decadent angel, but inside he’s fighting just to keep his head above the dark waters he now finds himself in. He’s caught between his own idealised vision of himself as a hedonistic poet and artist and the earthier expectations of a record company, Elektra, who are about to enjoy the biggest success of their existence with Light My Fire, the second single lifted from The Doors’ self-titled debut album that is on its way to becoming the fluke hit of the summer.

Though no one is saying it – at least not to the faces of the band themselves – Elektra and everyone else in the music business know this is The Doors’ big break, and one they would be fools not to capitalise on by coming up with a convincing follow-up as soon as possible. Within a few weeks, The Doors will be flown back to Los Angeles and bundled into Sunset Sound studio, the featureless four-track bunker where they recorded their first album, and where, under pressure, they will start work on their second album.

These sessions will be abandoned, as Light My Fire overtakes The Beatles to become the defining hit of this most intoxicating of summers, but not before The Doors have recorded two tracks that will become their next single and its B-side: People Are Strange and Unhappy Girl. Everybody is excited about the new songs. What nobody knows yet is that this is just the beginning of what will become much more than a rushed follow-up to a band’s debut hit; that this album, Strange Days, will eventually become The Doors’ unsung masterpiece.

But right now, Morrison is barely aware of his present, let alone his future. He might not know it, but standing at the bar of Ondine, only partly conscious as he throws back the booze, wheedles Quaaludes out of strangers and gets his ego massaged to orgasm, he has already begun his fast track ascent towards rock god status, and along with it, his personal descent into the quagmire.

When he’s not drinking he’s tripping, and when he’s tripping he’s still drinking. Torn apart by the wayward behaviour of his long-term girlfriend, Pamela Courson, who has begun sleeping with one of his drinking buddies back in LA, Morrison is roaming wild but not free. Each night he stays on at the club after The Doors have finished their set, drinking until he blacks out, at which point he is carried to a cab and driven back to the apartment on 45th Street. Most mornings he awakes to find at least one, sometimes two or three groupies sharing his bed: girls whose names he doesn’t know or will ever bother to learn. One night at around 4am, while drunk and tripping, Morrison decides to pay a visit to Jac Holzman, the head of Elektra, pounding on the door to be let in while Jac and his family hide inside, fearing for their lives.

These are bad scenes, even for the anything-goes rock milieu of the late 1960s. Morrison doesn’t care, though. The only thing he gives a fuck about, he says, are his music and his poetry. Meanwhile, the rest of The Doors – keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore – can only look on and wonder ‘what if?’.

“You know, self-destruction and creativity don’t have to come in the same package,” Densmore ruefully remarks now. “Picasso lived to be 90. But in Jim they came together so I had to accept it. We all had to. That was the card we were dealt as a band.”

“With Jim, it wasn’t always easy,” adds Krieger. “It was worth it because of the stuff that we got. But it would have been a lot easier if he’d been just a normal genius.”

Genius or not, Jim Morrison had never been what passed in the mid-20th century for a normal person. The eldest son of Rear Admiral George Morrison of the United States Navy, he grew up a well-educated but self-absorbed child who became a major disappointment to his father when, instead of following in the family footsteps and going to naval college, he plumped instead for a degree course in film studies in Los Angeles. This was where he met the professorial Ray Manzarek, another parental disappointment who’d already tried his hand at forming a rock group with his brothers. In 1965, Morrison sang Manzarek the opening verse to the song that became Moonlight Drive, while tripping on the beach at Venice. Manzarek famously “saw dollar signs” as Morrison crooned him his as-yet musically unaccompanied verse. Morrison, famously, saw only stars.

The band that they formed, The Doors, arrived just as rock was at its most fearsomely individualistic, before the rules of the road had been written. “We would make our own rules,” Manzarek explains, his deep baritone booming down the line from his home in the Napa Valley in Northern California.

“Because we have ingested LSD, we have opened the doors of perception. And we have seen that we are the equal, and perhaps better, of any generation that ever existed – that we could do anything. And we were so fuelled with life and possibilities that we were bursting at the seams, mentally and certainly semen-wise. We were bursting with life.”

By the start of 1967, the first, self-titled Doors album was ready for release. Now acclaimed as a cornerstone moment in the history of rock, it wasn’t until April of that year, when producer Paul Rothchild took the seven-minute Robby Krieger-penned Light My Fire and cut it in half for release as their second single – and their first No.1 – that The Doors became known outside what was then still an almost claustrophobic LA scene. It was also then that Jim Morrison, college dropout and hippy Hollywood maverick, began his transformation into the Lizard King – the alternate, take-noprisoners, no-one-here-gets-out-alive rock-consciousness that would ultimately both build his legend and deprive him of his senses, until all that was left was a bloated body floating in a cold bathtub.

The Doors in London, 1967

The Doors in London, 1967 (Image credit: Chris Walter / Getty Images)

The success of Light My Fire coincided with Morrison’s first public appearances in his new black leather outfit. Just six months before, the band had been depicted in promo shots wearing mod-style suits, their longish hair neatly styled.

Now, with their first album smoking up the charts, they emerged on to the covers of magazines as the epitome of a darker, more mysterious kind of cool. Morrison’s neo Gothic croon and Manzarek’s ghostly, cathedral-like organ spoke of murkier climes than those offered by The Beatles’ brand of polychromatic pop. If Sgt Pepper was the symbol of pop’s raising from gutter-level singsong to symphonic high art, The Doors gave the lie to such positivism, drawing on the growing feeling of ‘us against them’ that pervaded a generation of young Americans in fear of the draft to Vietnam, or in protest against what they saw as the overarching dead hand of a society where long hair was now a symbol of angry defiance.

On the surface then, The Doors seemed to be on-message like no other band of the moment. Yet as Manzarek says, “There really were no plans. We were excited that our record was doing so well but that wasn’t what was driving us forward. It was the thought of what we might do next. Suddenly it felt like we could do anything…”

Strange Days, then, would be aptly named. The first track they recorded, a song Morrison and Krieger had written together called People Are Strange, had been the result of a bad trip Morrison had needed Krieger to talk him down from at five o’clock one morning, at the tiny hilltop villa they shared in Laurel Canyon.

“He was talking about killing himself and all this stuff,” Krieger recalls, his voice fragile as he whispers down the line from a hotel room in Miami, where he’s on a promo tour for a new Doors DVD, Live At The Hollywood Bowl. “And so we decided to take a walk up to the top of Laurel Canyon. Like, ‘Let’s go up and watch the sun come up.’ And when the sun came up he suddenly got this idea about the fact that when you’re strange then people are strange. The whole idea just popped into his head – ‘Oh, I got an idea for a song!’, you know – and half an hour later we had it.”

Not all such occasions ended so harmoniously though. Morrison loved Krieger, yet hated him too for having written Light My Fire. Everywhere the singer went, people slapped his back, thanking him for writing a song he’d struggled to learn the lyrics for and to get the metre right when he recorded it, seeing it as almost a throwaway. Not any more, though. And that fucked with his head, along with all the other things that would fuck with his head from hereon in.

The only way he could deal with it was to let it out, and to hell with the consequences. Arrested for public drunkenness on Sunset Strip one night during the original Strange Days sessions, Morrison begged another of LA’s most famous teenage groupies, Miss P (aka Pamela Des Barres, future acquaintance of Jimmy Page and several others), to believe him when he said his rock star persona was “just a trip” and that really he was a sensitive poet. Janis Joplin didn’t get that impression when Morrison suddenly forced her face into his crotch at another Hollywood party during the same period. When he tried to laugh it off, she broke a bottle of Southern Comfort over his head and called him an asshole. “I am an asshole!” he hollered after her as she stomped off, giving him the finger.

It was a relief when the initial Strange Days sessions were called to a halt while the band returned to the road to promote their big hit. Their young management team, themselves struggling to keep up with the demands brought on by their band’s sudden unforeseen success, booked them gigs anywhere and everywhere. Anywhere and everywhere, that is, except for the biggest concert event of that long, purple-hazed summer: June’s Monterrey Pop. It’s something that still stings in the band’s collective memory. “When Monterrey Pop was happening, we were stuck at the Scene Club in New York for three weeks,” says Krieger offhandedly.

But to miss out on Monterrey, which took place in their own Californian back yard, and is now regarded as one of the most historic events in rock history – with a bill that included Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Ravi Shankar – that must have hurt more than a little?

“Oh yeah,” he says, tremulously. “ We were just… it was all new to us. If I had realised that fact I probably would have really been mad. But we didn’t know Monterrey Pop was gonna become a huge, iconic concert. We had no clue.”

What the band weren’t told until later was that one of Monterrey Pop’s chief organisers, Lou Adler – still apparently angry over the browbeating he’d received the year before from a typically drunk and foul- mouthed Morrison, in the wake of Adler’s dismissal of one of the band’s early demo tapes – was said to have put the block on The Doors getting on the bill.

As a result, despite their burgeoning success, The Doors had spent the Summer Of Love largely in New York, playing the Village Theater on Second Avenue (very soon to be renamed the Fillmore East when legendary promoter Bill Graham bought it) and other smaller venues.

Life magazine’s critic Albert Goldman was so stunned by what he saw in The Doors that he switched overnight from writing about jazz to covering the emerging rock scene. Goldman, who would later become famous for his witheringly salacious biographies of Elvis Presley and John Lennon, wrote down Morrison’s proclamations and presented them in Life as tablets brought down from the mountain of rock by the new Moses of music.

“We’re really politicians,” Morrison told Goldman, straight- faced. “You could call us erotic politicians… a Doors concert is really a public meeting called by us for a special kind of dramatic discussion and entertainment.” The audience, he said, “go home and interact with their reality, then I get it all back by interacting with that reality”.

Back in New York for more shows in July, Morrison, the self-anointed prophet of the Summer Of Love, began an impossible affair with his psychic and spiritual opposite – Nico, Teutonic ice-queen and co-vocalist with New York’s most celebrated yet least famous band, the Velvet Underground. According to rock orthodoxy, the Velvet Underground and their followers – in particular, the Velvets’ vituperative singer Lou Reed – despised everything The Doors stood for. When just four years later Reed heard of Morrison’s death, he sneered: “He died in a bathtub? How fabulous…”

Yet in July 1967, Morrison appeared blissfully unaware of either Reed or his still unknown outfit of, as he would have seen it, Broadway dropouts and Bowery freaks. The Doors were now riding high, selling more records per week than the Velvets would manage in their entire career together, and when Morrison saw Nico he simply had to have her. He loved her platinum-blonde hair and her thick Berlin accent; loved that she was part of Warhol’s coterie; that she’d spent time in Europe with arthouse film-maker Federico Fellini; that she was older than him and in control. Because of her crystal beauty and her metallic accent, others – including a jealous Reed – made fun, said she didn’t have a heart like other women. But Nico now gave her heart to Jim Morrison.

Two inches taller than him, broader shoulders, bigger legs and hips, when Nico sat on Morrison’s face – which is what she liked doing best – he almost suffocated. The singer was used to crazy women, groupies and hangers-on, but Nico was different and Morrison offered to help write her songs, many of which later ended up on her solo album, The Marble Index. Songs with an undeniable Morrison flavour like Lawns Of Dawns, Frozen Warnings and Evening Of Light – none of which she would eventually offer him any credit for, on the record sleeve or in interviews.

When Nico dyed her platinum-white hair red – like Morrison’s girlfriend Pamela Courson’s – he burst into tears. “He was the first man I was in love with,” Nico would later lament. “I wanted to please his taste… like a teenager or something.”

Yet Morrison – who kept notebooks and journals where he routinely wrote down versions of everything that happened to him as poems or just scraps of ideas – never once mentioned Nico’s name in his secret diaries.

It was as if she never really existed outside his own tripped- out fantasies.

In the end, it only lasted a month or so. Pamela Courson knew where Morrison was, and whom he was with. When she started a very public affair of her own with Hollywood actor John Phillip Law, Morrison finally came to his senses. Early one morning, while Nico was still asleep, Morrison got in his car and drove back to LA, and Courson. Nico, utterly distraught, flew back to New York, where she dyed her hair an even darker shade of hell red.

“Despite the pressure, I would say that was our most fun recording,” says Densmore now. “First of all, we had written both albums before we even went in the studio – 30 or 40 songs. But the first album, we were a little intimidated by the studio. It wasn’t our turf. We had to learn how to make records. And I would say by the second album we were more relaxed and we started using the studio as the fifth Door. I think we had an early copy of Sgt. Pepper and we were really turned on to experimenting with the studio and doing backward piano tracks and having a lot of fun.”

Some tracks came easier than others. My Eyes Have Seen You dated back to the original demo that had won them their deal with Elektra the year before, but made more frantic with this telling, sounding more like the Stones, with barrelhouse piano and Tequila Sunset-drenched guitars. The title track came with a suitably disconnected lead vocal, fear and mystery and the chase to catch the new dawn. Moonlight Drive, the very first thing Morrison had ever sung for Manzarek, but never properly captured on tape well enough to make the first album, now came alive in the new studio, helped not a little by a new Moog synthesiser and a far-out new solo from Krieger.

Nevertheless, even Jim Morrison couldn’t ignore the clamour for more success, from both the record company and from inside his own head. As always, alcohol was his preferred stress-buster and now he began to hit the bottle in earnest. All the while they continued gigging, too, adding to the pressure, allowing them no rest, fitting in weekend gigs between late- night sessions in the studio. After one spectacularly bad show opening for Simon & Garfunkel in Queen’s, in August 1967, Morrison got so wasted in an Irish bar he didn’t bother to go home – he just stayed on drinking right through the next day too. Another time he ended up on someone’s couch where he began reciting a new poem he’d been working on for months called Celebration Of The Lizard

Poet Michael McClure, whose latest play The Beard Morrison was a fan of, visited during these sessions. Installed in the latest eight-track facility at Sunset Sound, Rothchild would turn the lights down low, burn incense and light candles, and allow the band to smoke weed and drink freely – anything to capture the right mood for each song. The only thing they actually stopped short of was dropping acid while they worked.

“No, no, no, no, no!” says Manzarek, aghast at the very idea. “LSD was a sacred sacrament that was to be taken on the beach at Venice, under the warmth of the sun, with our father the sun and our mother the ocean close by, and you realised how divine you were. It wasn’t a drug for entertainment. You could smoke a joint and play your music, as most musicians did at the time. But as far as taking LSD,that had to be done in a natural setting.

It was for opening the doors of perception. Perceiving why we’re alive on this planet, where we’ve come from, where we’re going. Answering those basic human questions that all people have asked themselves. Then bringing that information back and getting into your rehearsal studio, getting into the recording studio, creating your music, creating your songs, creating your words. That’s where all of that came out. You didn’t do it on LSD. LSD was your foundation. Psychedelics were your foundation on which to build.

“Each song has its own sound,” Manzarek continues. “The first album was ‘The Doors Live At The Whisky A Go Go’. That’s essentially what it is. The aural spectrum is the same. But on Strange Days, The Doors begin to show their versatility. That’s what it’s all about. My god, I played an entire song backwards! I wrote out the chord changes for Unhappy Girl, then started at the bottom right-hand side of the page and moved to the left and up the page… and I’m thinking, ‘Oh god, let me be on the beat.’ When I’d finished, I went back into the studio to a round of applause. It was a great sound but it was insane. It was totally insane! It was youth having no idea of its limitations…”

And very little idea of its responsibilities either – certainly as far as Jim Morrison was concerned. When it came time to record the album’s pivotal track, the 10-minute eco-anthem, When The Music’s Over, Morrison absolutely insisted the whole track be sung and played live in the studio, rather than broken down into its constituent parts. Live, When The Music’s Over now rivalled The End from the first album as the band’s most climactic moment. First aired publicly during a stint at the Matrix club in San Francisco back in March, Morrison would break the piece up with two different poems, Who Scared You and Everything Will Be Reported (At Night Your Dreams Will Be Recorded). But in the studio, it all depended on the moment. No matter how great the new eight-track equipment was, Morrison wanted this one kept raw and alive.

The band acquiesced, then sat there for more than 12 hours waiting for him to show up. He never did. Instead, he phoned the studio at 3am and spoke to Krieger. “We’re in trouble here,” he told the guitarist. He and Pam Courson were tripping on strong acid and wanted Krieger to drive them to nearby Griffith Park where they could “cool out”. Krieger wearily agreed. When he dropped them off at Courson’s again at daylight, he reminded Morrison he was due back in the studio at noon. Once again, however, Morrison didn’t show up. They sent out people to find him but no go. The band eventually hung on until nearly three o’clock the following morning when they decided they could wait no longer. They recorded the music with Manzarek singing lead.

When Morrison finally showed – at noon the following day, 48 wasted hours after he was supposed to, John Densmore had it out with him. Densmore, who was the hardest of the three surviving Doors to pin down for this interview, was also the band member most likely to question Morrison’s quasi-philosophical standpoint during his lifetime, becoming ever more frustrated at the increasingly over-indulgent antics of the only guy in the band who couldn’t actually play an instrument.

It was never Morrison’s art that Densmore wanted to rein in, simply his self-destructive behaviour. “Musically, I wanted it to go out further on the edge!” he says. “I was a jazz buff before The Doors. I even was a snob about rock. I mean, I knew about Elvis and Little Richard, loved it. But I came from a sort of improvisational, experimental background, so I loved exploring the edge.” Densmore just didn’t want to waste time. “Morrison knew I disapproved of his self- destruction, that’s for sure. More than anyone else in the band.” He denies that they ever had an out- and-out fight, though. “But he could feel my vibe.” Gentle chuckle. “You know?”

Rothchild eventually broke the tension by suggesting they simply get to work. Morrison began whining about having to overdub a vocal that was always a product of his imagination at any given moment. But the track was recorded and Manzarek insisted he would simply cue him in. To everyone’s astonishment and no little relief, a riled- up yet secretly repentant Morrison nailed what would become the album’s finest moment on the second take.

It was Krieger’s turn to need some extra help, however, when it came to recording his solo for You’re Lost Little Girl, the first song the guitarist ever wrote, and one which pre-dated his time in The Doors. Much as he agonised over it, he simply could not get it down. Again, Paul Rothchild provided the remedy when he turned Krieger on to some super-strength black hash, imported from London, then threw everybody else out of the studio and recorded Krieger playing in the dark. When the producer then suggested getting a hooker in to give Morrison a blowjob while he did the vocal, things did not go so well, though. “We went with a later take,” Densmore concludes diplomatically.

A few nights later, Jefferson Airplane singer Grace Slick showed up while the band were recording Horse Latitudes, Morrison’s 16-line poem set to Manzarek’s musique concrète-style keyboard vortex. Recording yet again in pitch darkness, save for the candles, incense and the glowing ends of several joints, and amid an entourage of whooping and screaming freaks and followers, Slick went back to San Francisco saying The Doors had scared the living daylights out of her.

On September 2, The Doors played with a black leather-clad Morrison in Asbury Park, New Jersey, where an 18-year-old Bruce Springsteen was in the audience. When they performed When The Music’s Over at the Village Theater in Manhattan the following night, Albert Goldman again wrote of it as “an incredible moment”. Morrison was already working on new material that would not see the light of day until the following year, like The Unknown Soldier and Five To One, while the band and Elektra did what they could to keep him focused enough to finish the second album first.

With work on Strange Days all but completed, on September 17 The Doors made their fateful appearance performing Light My Fire live on The Ed Sullivan Show. Before the show, Morrison promised Sullivan that he would not sing the line, ‘Girl, we couldn’t much higher.’ When Morrison broke his promise, Sullivan reacted angrily, informing the singer that The Doors would never do the show again, to which Morrison sardonically replied, “Hey man, we just did The Ed Sullivan Show.” With advance orders topping half a million, Elektra rush-released the first single, the delightful People Are Strange, and watched as it skimmed the US Top 10, then vanished without trace. Light My Fire, meanwhile, was still nailed on to the charts more than six months after its release, even returning to No.1 early the following year with the release of the José Feliciano cover version.

The Doors, though, were never seen by their fans, or even their record company, as a singles-reliant act. Unlike The Beatles and the Stones, who’d begun that way then evolved into album-oriented acts, The Doors were always about the albums, recording epic rock suites double-digit minutes long before Zeppelin, Floyd or even Hendrix had given it a shot. The Doors may or may not have been the beginning of rock-as-art, but they were certainly the most successful end product of that idea.

And it was something they brought to bear on all their live performances too. “As Jim once said, ‘We perform a musical séance’ – not to raise the dead, but to palliate the dead, to ease the pain and the suffering of the dead and the living,” explains Manzarek. “And in doing that, we dove into areas that were deeply, deeply Freudian, and psychologically deeply Jungian at the same time. So we were a merging of both Freud and Jung, which might seem impossible but it happened onstage, and it upset the establishment. There was just something about the power in the music, and that insane sexuality of Jim Morrison that drove the establishment right over the edge.”

Determined to ram home the fact that The Doors stood for more than just mere pop stardom, at Morrison’s insistence the band then put its foot down and vetoed the album cover originally suggested for Strange Days – another group shot, similar to the one that adorned The Doors.

“I hated the cover of our first album,” Morrison explained to The LA Free Press. For the new album, he claimed that he’d told Elektra: “Put a chick on it. Let’s have a dandelion…” What he actually told the label was that he wanted the band in a room surrounded by a pack of dogs. When their art director Bill Harvey asked him why, he shrugged: “Because dog is god spelled backwards.”

Trying to keep a straight face, a compromise was finally reached with the now-famous scene of half a dozen carnival freaks, comprising a midget, a juggler, two acrobats, a trumpet-player and a strongman. On the reverse, there was the extraordinary sight of ‘surreal’ fashion icon Zazel Wild, wearing a flowing kaftan, regarding a midget coolly from her doorway at Sniffen Court, off East 38th Street in New York, where the pictures were taken. Elektra thought the shots too weird even for The Doors but Morrison loved them. The only sign that this was the new album from The Doors came with the glancing shot of a Doors poster, placed at a slant on the back of the sleeve, with the strap Strange Days slapped across the foot. Other than that, you either knew what you were looking at, or you were from the wrong planet.

When the album was released at the end of September 1967, it was raved over rapturously by a rock media already primed to receive anything their new favourite group did next. Their audience, however,remained unsure.

With no comparable anthem to Light My Fire to rally the freak flag around, the album tiptoed rather than raced to near the top of the US charts, eventually stopping off at No.3. It would soon be superseded in the public’s imagination by the next album, 1968’s Waiting For The Sun, and that record’s breakout single, Hello, I Love You. In the UK, where the first Doors album had been a minor commercial hit but a major critical success, Strange Days came and went in a flash, without getting anywhere near the charts. Again, it was only Waiting For The Sun that finally introduced The Doors to the UK Top 20, by which time no one could recall anything about Strange Days other than its, well, strange cover.

As if to live up to their somewhat neglected new album’s title, The Doors spent the final weeks of 1967 imprisoned on the road, living out a dream that was already turning into a nightmare . Their tour schedule had grown so out of control that they were often playing auditoriums on the West Coast one night, only to be sent flying across country back to New York to play some club – a hangover from their days before they’d hit it big which their inexperienced management had not had the foresight to renegotiate – leaving all four band members exhausted, disoriented, flat and, in Morrison’s case, all too often simply unconscious.

When John Densmore’s new girlfriend, Julia Brose, asked to be introduced to Morrison, the drummer merely pointed at a figure curled up under a bench at the airport, where he was sleeping off his latest drunken, hell-for-leather binge. Two trashcans had been strategically placed in front of him to discourage the multitude of teenage fans that now routinely followed the band everywhere. “There he is,” Densmore told her with barely concealed loathing. “That’s our famous lead singer.”

On December 9, 1967, the day after his 24th birthday, Jim Morrison drove with the rest of The Doors to a show in New Haven, at the local hockey rink. Just before the start of the show, Morrison was cautioned by a police officer for taking a young girl fan into a shower stall with him, where they had been making out. When Morrison told the cop to “go fuck yourself”, the cop grabbed his can of Chemical Mace and sprayed it straight into Morrison’s face. Morrison fled, screaming and gasping. Onstage later that night, still furious, he launched into the whole story before the packed arena. When the band then launched into When The Music’s Over, Morrison screamed, “We want the whole fucking world and we want it now!”

The crowd surged forward and the cops, fearing a riot, panicked and ran onstage and arrested the singer there and then. They then dragged him, punching and kicking, to a squad car. “That was horrible,” says Krieger. “We didn’t know what the hell was gonna happen. They beat the hell out of him on the way to the car too.”

Morrison became the first singer ever to be arrested by police during an actual concert performance, charged with inciting a riot, indecency and public obscenity. Three writers and photographers from Life magazine who tried to intervene were also arrested. Although all charges were later dropped, the next morning it was national news across America. Thus was born Jim Morrison, rock star martyr, a role he would continue to play right up to and beyond the grave.

One of the final Doors shows of 1967, however, ended on a more surreal note. Having pre-recorded blistering performances of Light My Fire and Moonlight Drive for TV’s The Jonathan Winters Show, The Doors interrupted their second of three shows at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, on December 28, in order to wheel a TV set onstage, so they could watch themselves perform. They had been halfway through Back Door Man when Winters’ show started. They simply stopped playing, downing tools, as it were, and walked over to the side of the stage the set was on and gazed at themselves on TV.

“Yeah, we had the audience watching us, while we watched us – onstage and on TV,” laughs Manzarek. When it was finished, Manzarek simply walked over and switched the TV off, went back to his keyboard and counted them all in again.

Looking back now, all three surviving Doors agree that Strange Days was a watershed moment in the band’s story. That it was, was arguably, their finest, purest moment.

“Well, I’m surprised you think that because very few people realise that,” says Krieger. “But I think you’re right. I think it is one of our best albums. And we thought so too at the time. We loved it. You know, we took our time making it and really, really liked how it came out. The record company did too. Jac Holzman played it for Paul Simon. And Paul Simon, after listening to the record, said: ‘The Doors are the best band in the United States.’ Strange Days was really the four of us working together kind of on the same path. After that, things got kind of…”

He trails off and I remind him of the famous quote from Paul Rothchild about never knowing which Jim Morrison was going to turn up in the studio: the forward-thinking poet determined to create great art, or the monstrous drunk whose ego was so out of control he viewed the rest of the band almost as an appendage. That, though, says Krieger, was a phenomenon that only truly began on their next album, Waiting For The Sun.

“In the Strange Days period, Jim was more interested in psychedelics than, you know, getting wasted. I mean, he still might not show up if he was on too much acid but he was still just one part of this bigger… thing. I always used to joke and say after Light My Fire, it was all downhill from there. But it kind of was. Except for Strange Days. That was probably us at our best, when it was still fun.”

Listening to the album now, it’s easy to see what the drummer means. The band, using the studio for the first time as almost a fifth instrument, have a wonderfully light touch, even as they shift gears through some of the most poignant material of their catalogue: the swirly, candy-coloured organ on the title track; the joyful interplay between Krieger’s spidery guitar on Love Me Two Times; Densmore’s feathery percussion on Moonlight Drive; the sheer youthful exuberance of tracks like Love Me Two Times and My Eyes Have Seen You. Morrison’s young voice still contains its honeyed purr, even as he’s declaiming loudly on Horse Latitudes, or flailing wildly on When The Music’s Over.

The treacly way he softly delivers the deliriously wistful I Can’t See Your Face In My Mind is a far cry from the growling, out-of-control drunk of the final Doors album, LA Woman, which still casts its own tawdry spell but evokes none of the beauty of the voice on Strange Days. Here, you can hear the birth of The Lizard King – but also the death of Jim Morrison.

The final word goes to to Ray Manzarek, the first to grasp Morrison’s potential that hot afternoon on Venice Beach. “That line in When The Music’s Over that Morrison sings: ‘Cancel my subscription to the resurrection/ Send my credentials to the house of detention’ – I think that was almost his way of saying, ‘Okay, I already see what this whole fame trip is about, and I won’t let you make me play by those rules.’”

Manzarek, who has a tendency to speak in italics whenever the subject of his late friend comes up, then goes into overdrive.

“I mean, my god, Jim Morrison should have been up there running for political office. Jim Morrison is the son of the admiral. He is the well-born young man, white Anglo Saxon protestant, who is heir to the throne. He should have been a well-behaved young Republican, except he’s not, he’s in The Doors and he’s totally misbehaving. And proof of that is the captain – Captain Kelly, the classic Irish cop, who arrested him onstage in New Haven – he said to Jim: ‘You’ve gone too far, young man!’ And I thought, it’s perfect. He has broken no law, other than the law of civil restraint – and he had gone too far. Into a land where no so-called rock star had gone before.”

This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 132.

Max Bell

Max Bell worked for the NME during the golden 70s era before running up and down London’s Fleet Street for The Times and all the other hot-metal dailies. A long stint at the Standard and mags like The Face and GQ kept him honest. Later, Record Collector and Classic Rock called.