L.A. Woman (1971)

The Doors

Written by The Doors
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LA WOMAN MainAn ode to a city? A love poem to any one of three women, or to all of them? An audio adieu to the City of Angels and a bonjour to Paris? Or simply the greatest car song ever recorded?

Although they rightfully boasted of their trio-only musicianship on other albums, for “L.A. Woman” and its namesake album, The Doors brought in a couple of heavy hitters to assist keyboard player Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robbie Kreiger and drummer John Densmore.

Jerry Scheff, a legendary Los Angeles session man came in to play bass. Marc Benno, the overlooked guitar master of Austin and Los Angeles fame (played with Leon Russell, Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn), handled rhythm guitar so Kreiger could concentrate on his lead playing, a move that bore sweet, juicy fruit.

L.A. Woman – a city falling as it was rising

Ultimately rewarding, “L.A. Woman” is long, lyrically complex and broken into a number of musical pieces. Let’s try to put some of the parts together.

Lyrically, Jim Morrison is at heart a devotee of the French Symbolists, a style from the 19th century in which a standard symbol (let’s say “the moon”) stands for something entirely different than we might first assume. Symbolism intends double and triple meanings that often backtrack on themselves in order to mold a large central image. The style also painted pictures and stories impressionistically. Holes in narratives are left open for the reader – or in the case of The Doors, the listener – to fill in for him or herself.

LA Woman Morrison and Pam Courson

Morrison with Pam Courson

Indeed, there are real women that “L.A. Woman” loosely is about: Pam Courson, Morrison’s “wife”; Diane Gardiner, The Doors’ publicist; and Patricia Kennealy-Morrison. The main “inspiration” is Pam Courson, with whom he had the longest and most tightly knit relationship. Her red hair may have given rise to the lyric:

I see your hair is burning
Hills are filled with fire
If they say I never loved you
You know they are a liar 

On another level, though, once the listener adopts the view that this is a car song about driving wildly and freely around L.A. in all the sensuality that implies, it’s easy to interpret the burning hair and blazing hills as representing the grassfires common in southern California. Although the lines are about Courson’s red hair and freckled breasts. The city and the woman elide.

Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek expanded upon the driving theme found in “L.A. Woman” in his autobiography, Light My Fire.

I suppose if Jack Kerouac had never written On the Road, The Doors would never have existed. It opened the floodgates and we read everything we could get our hands on – “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg; “Gasoline,” Gregory Corso; “A Coney Island of the Mind,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti; “Peyote Poem,” Michael McClure…All mind-benders, soul-twisters, heart-openers, foot-tappers, bone-crushers, eye-wideners…

The last comment sums up The Doors on “L.A. Woman” in all their glory. And certainly the “car” revving (a sound effect created on guitar) and taking off into the night heard at the very first moments of the recording point toward an “on-the-road” motif. The excitement begins to build instantly.

LA Woman panorama
The City of Angels, (and quite a few devils), spreads out before us on the I-10, the 405, the 101. Hills spread out covered with lights, drenched in lost-and-found dreams. Los Angeles was the first of America’s “new” cities, diametrically unlike any of the older cities of the East Coast, upper-Midwest or even San Francisco.

It sprawls; it clogs; it leaves rubber. Its suburbs spawn a new kind of isolation and blue feeling.

L.A. Woman, L.A. Woman
L.A. Woman Sunday afternoon
L.A. Woman Sunday afternoon
L.A. Woman Sunday afternoon
Drive through your suburbs
Into your blues, into your Blues, yeah
Into your blue-blue Blues
Into your Blues, oh, yeah

But driving, oh man, driving through and around L.A. – even decades after The Doors first nailed the soul of the city – is as exhilarating a ride as can be taken anywhere in the world.

Chicago is too flat to see in one sweep. New York is too tall, too gigantic, like a fairytale city from Tolkien. Houston is too convoluted. Boston’s a good place to get lost in.

L.A. means mountains to the right, ocean to the left and a giant pool of light in between, all within view at the same time.

As it progresses, except for the “Mr. Mojo Risin’” interlude, (a playful anagram of Jim Morrison’s name), the song puts the pedal to the metal. The “mojo rising” is also a broad allusion to Blues master Robert Johnson’s “Got My Mojo Working,” a song that deeply influenced “L.A. Woman.”

Robert Johnson’s “Got My Mojo Working”

During some sections of the number you can nearly feel the wind on your face. In other sections, it feels as if it’s not a car at all but a horse riding wildly through Zorro’s old Los Angeles of Spanish colonial days.

LA Woman Doors group pose“L.A. Woman” is a song about rhythm – its own, that of a city, that of the sublime moment of attraction to the opposite sex – something far beyond falling in love.

What Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band did for the dense spider web of East Coast turnpikes and highways, Morrison and the doors did a few years earlier for the L.A. freeway system. “Born To Run” and “L.A. Woman” are kissing cousins that grew up on different sides of the country that honor the mega-cities of either coast.

The Doors are more Blues-infused, surely, while Springsteen has dug his iron out of R&B, Doo-Wop and the Philadelphia/Detroit/Cleveland Rock mine. But the feeling is the same. The reaching for the big city and bright lights is the same. The cinematic sense of wonderment at all the flaws and triumphs of the human achievement is in both bands’ works.

Drivin’ down your freeways
Midnight alleys roam
Cops in cars, the topless bars
Never saw a woman…
So alone, so alone
So alone, so alone

LA Woman RhapsodyNot many longer works have captured the sense of a city as well as “L.A. Woman” does. For one that gives it a run for the money, you have to go back to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue,” a 16-1/2 minute instrumental from 1924 that sketches New York in the Jazz Age without a single flaw. We can safely say “Rhapsody” is New York at its roaringest just as we can say “L.A. Woman” is Los Angeles at its most electrifying.

While movies, music, cars and the beach inevitably define the Los Angeles of the ’60s and early-’70s, it was also a magnet for the visual arts.

Artists like Andy Warhol went west. Ed Rochette, John Baldessari, David Hockney and actor/painter/collector Dennis Hopper enlivened a parochial L.A. scene that still thought of Frederick’s Of Hollywood’s peek-a-boo underwear for women as cutting edge fashion. At least in local consciousness, L.A. was the national center of “cool.”

Few comprehended, Morrison and The Doors included, that there was rot in the timbers. There was still blowback from the Watts Riots of 1965 during which 34 people died and more than $350 million in property damage was done. The city was riven by racial divisions, as well as economically and geographically.

Amidst the rolling, running wheels of “L.A. Woman” are flip references ripped from the headlines – the Manson Family murders, the shooting of singer Sam Cooke in a seedy hotel – boiled down to four simple words and the commentary line that follows:

Motel Money Murder Madness
Let’s change the mood from glad to sadness

LA Woman single jacketLos Angeles was radically transforming right around the time The Doors were ending their tenure as the unofficial house band of the city, playing at least weekly at the Whisky A Go Go on Sunset Boulevard. The laid-back city of the West, the one with surf, sun, “the cutest girls in the world,” hot rods and cheery aspirations was breaking up on the rocks of its own grasping hypocrisy. For myriad reasons, the city was not prepared to absorb the hundreds of cultural and social crosscurrents. Time was running out on L.A., and on Morrison.

Are you a lucky little lady in the City of Light
Or just another lost angel…City of Night

His imminent decampment for Paris to be with Courson, who had already moved there, may have inspired the first line above, Paris being known colloquially as the “City of Light.”

Little did Morrison know he was going to Paris to die.

The dislocation and a growing intrusive seediness may account for Morrison’s referencing John Rechy’s 1963 City of Night, a novelistic series of vignettes about aimless, faceless sexual liaisons in cities across America that winds up in L.A., crashing and burning.

For the moment, for better or worse, Los Angeles seemed to be leading a country into the late 20th century. (Not very long after the death of Morrison, New York would begin to snatch the crown back from L.A., as the big town began its second international ascendancy.)

The strange something that is amiss with L.A. shapes its unique appeal – the lonesome-making sprawl itself. Its soul is reckless, unheeding, striving – consummately American.

Drivin’ down your freeways
Midnight alleys roam
Cops in cars, the topless bars
Never saw a woman…
So alone, so alone
So alone, so alone 

For a long moment – actually for seven and a half minutes, give or take – carried along on jump-started, vibrating beats and the absolutely awe-inspiring lead guitar of Robbie Kreiger, you fall for L.A., the woman of our collective urban dreams.

You can feel the city’s mojo rising, rising, rising.

mangoids
  • One of Morrison’s idols – and a man he strove to imitate vocally – Frank Sinatra – would record “L.A. Is My Lady” in 1984. It’s a fairly lame song with one line brilliantly pertinent to “L.A. Woman”: “I brought her my wildest of dreams, and she came up with the answer…”

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