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The Doors - The Summer Of '68

In the summer of 1968, the world belonged to The Doors – an art-rock band that singer Jim Morrison had formed three years before with his old UCLA film student pal and wizard keyboard player Ray Manzarek, and later completed with the addition of guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore. 

On July 5, they had headlined their most prestigious concert yet, at the Hollywood Bowl, the coolest outdoor arena in the band’s home state of California. The day before the show had been celebrated as American Independence Day; the day after it The Doors were being hailed by the press as "America’s Rolling Stones!”

In January that year, 24-year-old Jim Morrison had been voted Vocalist of the Year 1967 by the readers of New York’s Village Voice magazine, the band were voted Newcomers of the Year, Ray Manzarek third best Musician of the Year (after Eric Clapton and Ravi Shankar), and the band’s self-titled debut album second only to the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper as Album of the Year. A few months after that a seven-page spread in Life magazine made a case for The Doors as the most important American band of its generation, while Morrison’s name now appeared in Who’s Who in America - an almost unprecedented honour for a mere rock star.

But that was the thing about Morrison and The Doors: for their fans they were always far more than mere rock stars. With the band’s first ever British and European shows coming up and the simultaneous July ’68 release of their third album, Waiting For The Sun, and new single, ‘Hello, I Love You’ (both of which would go straight to No. 1 and sell more than a million copies apiece) The Doors were at their zenith, both creatively and commercially. Featured in Vogue that month in an article about rock theatre, both New York magazine and the Los Angeles Times heralded the new album as their best yet. Admired by the critics and adored by the fans nothing, surely, could go wrong for them in this glorious blood-red summer.

And yet, a few weeks before the band jetted off to London for the first time, Morrison walked into the band’s offices on Sunset Boulevard and announced his decision to quit. "But the band is really rolling now,” protested Ray Manzarek. Jim didn’t care. They hadn’t started the band, he reminded Ray, to become pop stars with their pictures on the covers of magazines. They had wanted to create a fusion between Ray’s music and Jim’s poetry; they had wanted to make Great Art. As Jim had told reporters in his first ever interviews: "There are things known, and there are things unknown. And in between are the Doors…”

He believed that everything was going wrong. Waiting For The Sun had not turned out the way he wanted. After the omission of a 24-minute track titled ‘Celebration Of The Lizard King’ which was supposed to have taken up the whole of side two, but which the band failed to "get right” in the studio he felt the others had lost their nerve and that all they really cared about was that the album went to No. 1. The band tried to argue with him, insisting that they had given it everything they’d got, but for Jim it was a personal thing. Intended to mark the first appearance on vinyl of Morrison’s mythic alter ego, the Lizard King, only a fraction of the track had made the final cut, retitled ‘Not To Touch The Earth’, and even though the full-length Morrison poem had been printed inside the record sleeve, the failure of the band to release the track as originally intended was indicative of the artistic malaise they had all allowed themselves to fall into, and which he now wished to escape from – forever.

"We must not forget,” he would say, "that the lizard and the snake are identified with the unconscious and with the forces of evil. There’s something deep in human memory that responds strongly to snakes, even if you’ve never seen one. I think that a snake just embodies everything that we fear.” His long poem was, he explained, his mission statement: "a kind of an invitation to dark forces.”

Ray sympathetically agreed. He, above all others, knew where Jim was coming from, he said. But, he repeated, the band was on a roll. From nowhere to three hit albums in two years, the world at their feet. They had done all the hard work, now was the time to reap the benefits, not throw in the towel. From here on in Jim and the band could do anything they wanted to, maybe even come back to the ‘Lizard King’ track on a future album (in the event it would be released on the live 1970 album, Absolutely Live) "Six months,” said Ray. "Give it six months. See how the dates in London and Europe work out, and review the situation then.” Jim thought about it. "All right,” he said, eventually. "Six months…” You could pack a lot into half a year and Jim Morrison intended to make the most of every single second.

Thus the scene was set for The Doors’ first – and only – performances outside America. Arriving at Heathrow Airport on September 3, London rolled out the red carpet for them. "Look out, England!” trumpeted Melody Maker. "Jim Morrison is coming to get you… Like Jagger and the Stones, Jim Morrison comes on like a 1950s-style rock idol in skin-tight leather trousers, but is actually a poet of some stature. His audiences know he isn’t kidding.”

Morrison responded with delight to such warm reactions. Gone suddenly was the word-weary, bearded and overweight figure that had prowled American stages all summer, deliberately trying to incite audiences to riot. The clean-shaven, tanned and trim Jim of a year before came back into view. He also had a new leather suit, with wide red lapels and a studded leather belt specially made for the tour. As such, he and The Doors put on some of their best ever shows – some of the last they would ever do, say many Doors experts, in the original, excitingly uninhibited spirit of the band as it was before fame and money – and drink and drugs – had begun eating away at their frontman.

Suddenly, here in Europe, people were treating him first and foremost like the poet he felt he was, not just the rock star. "I think the highest and the lowest points are the important ones,” he was quoted as saying. "All the points in between are, well, in between. I want freedom to try everything – I guess to experience everything at least once.” Yes, he liked to "get wild” on occasion, or as he preferred to see it, "primitive”, but he pointed to work like his poem ‘Texas Radio & the Big Beat (The WASP)’, which he had polished up and had printed in the European tour program, as to the true nature of his character.

A Granada TV crew met them at Heathrow and followed them around filming throughout their stay. Forty-eight hours after their jetlagged arrival, they performed ‘Hello, I Love You’ on Top of the Pops and the night after that, a Friday, they performed the first of what would be two leg¬endary nights at the Roundhouse, in London. Booked to play two sets a night, both nights, the first early evening Friday show went well, the band exiting to long and loud applause. It was the second, much later show that same night however that would confirm their place in British music history.

Origin¬ally scheduled to begin at 10.30pm, it was nearer to one in the morning before they finally came on, a delay partly caused by support act Jefferson Airplane’s own astonishing two-and-a-half-hour set. Amongst the audience waiting to welcome them back onstage were some of England’s rock aristocracy, including Paul McCartney and George Harrison from the Beatles, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones, all of Cream and Traffic, plus Swinging London movie stars Terence Stamp and Julie Christie.

Beginning with an explosive version of ‘Five to One’, one of the most menacing and intense tracks from the new album, it was the start of a 17-song set that would live long in the memories of everyone fortunate enough to have witnessed it. New, politically-motivated material like ‘The Unknown Soldier’ went down particularly well with the large throng of student activists in the crowd, all of whom were staunch opponents of the Ameri¬can war in Vietnam. Mainly, though, the band concentrated on less didactic concerns, deciding which number to play on the spur of the moment, spontaneously going from John Lee Hooker’s ‘Crawlin’ King Snake’ to Willie Dixon’s ‘Back Door Man’, before somehow segueing into a shortened albeit over the top version of their unreleased ‘Celebration of the Lizard’ – a performance of such theatrical intensity that it sparked a standing ovation from the disbelieving crowd.

There was also the simple uncomplicated delight of hearing the band do their hits. After bringing the house down with ‘Hello, I Love You’, they went into a serenely languid version of ‘Moonlight Drive’, the first of Jim’s poems that Ray had ever put to music. Morrison followed that by reciting a more recent poem, ‘Horse Lati¬tudes’, which again drew gasps from the crowd followed by another foot-stamping ovation. By the time the band was buried deep into a lengthy, improvisational jam on another old blues classic, ‘Money’, it was almost dawn, the first weak sunlight of the new day peeping through the Roundhouse’s glass skylights.

After just a few hours sleep it was time for them to face an afternoon press conference at the ICA on the Strand, which was characterised by Jim’s enigmatic insistence on greeting each question with a long thoughtful silence before uttering his whispered answers. Asked about his views on the Vietnam War, he eventually replied that songs like ‘The Unknown Soldier’ answered those questions more eloquently than he ever could. When another rather doltish question came in about how he compared as a performer to Mick Jagger, there was another long pause before he shrugged it off with: "I’ve always thought comparisons were useless and ugly. It’s a shortcut to thinking.” Then someone asked him what advice he might have to offer his growing number of British fans and he perked up a bit. "I get incredible letters,” Jim smiled. "But they teach me how to live rather than me teaching them. My fans are intelli¬gent youngsters. Very sensitive people…”

That night The Doors did another two wildly received sets at the Roundhouse. Supported by Jefferson Airplane, and British artists Terry Reid and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, it was again past dawn before they finished the show with a 30-minutes-plus rendering of the magnum opus from their first album, ‘The End’, during which the crowd sat cross-legged on the floor, some stoned, many tripping, all utterly transfixed - a willing congregation for Morrison’s quasi-religious rock ritual.

Jim felt the same way. Years later, he was still describing that second Roundhouse as The Doors’ "zenith performance.” As he told the NME at the time, "The audience was one of the best we’ve ever had. In the States, they’re there to enjoy themselves as much as they come to hear you. But at the Roundhouse, they were there to listen. It was like going back to the roots. It stimulated us. They took me by surprise, because I expected them to be a little resist¬ant, a little reserved. We’d been cautioned there might be hostility to¬ward an American group. But they were fantastic, is all I can say. It was probably the most informed, receptive audience I’ve ever seen in my life. I think I enjoyed the Roundhouse more than any other date for years.”

So inspired was he by his new surroundings, in fact, that Jim decided to move out of the band’s hotel and rent a flat of his own, with the intention of staying on in London after the European tour was over. He phoned his long-term girlfriend, Pamela Courson, and asked her to fly over from America to be with him. She was so excited she barely packed, just jumped in her Jaguar XKE (a gift from Jim) and drove straight to the airport in LA, where she parked at a one-hour meter and hopped on the first available flight to London. When police towed the car away the following day they found a pound of marijuana in the trunk, for which Pamela would be arrested for when she later went to back claim the car.

Jim and Pamela set up temporary home at a plush apartment on Eaton Square in London’s posh Belgravia, and spent a week together. Jim worked on the newly-typed folder of his poems that Pamela had brought with her from LA while she spent the days visiting Carnaby Street and the King’s Road, buying way-out new clothes for the new boutique she planned to open when they got home to Hollywood. Often, Jim joined her, the two of them clearly enjoying something of a honeymoon in London, seen kissing and cuddling in public, shopping for antiques and knickknacks at Portobello Road market. 

When Jim left with The Doors on September 13 for dates in Germany, Holland, Denmark and Sweden, Pamela stayed behind at the flat, awaiting his return. In Frankfurt the band mimed a performance of ‘Hello, I Love You’ and ‘Light My Fire’ for TV then played two sold-out shows at the local Kongresshalle, where an audience partly comprised of thousands of US servicemen went wild when they did ‘The Unknown Soldier’. Afterwards, the hippy promoters made Jim a "gift” of an attractive young German girl named Francesca and they all went out to an Israeli-owned nightclub called Das Kinky.

The next day it was onto Amsterdam. On the plane, a stewardess asked Jim for his autograph. He wrote on an airsickness bag: "Stewardess / Observe most carefully / Someday you may pour wine / for the tired man…” Spending the afternoon before the show strolling around Amster¬dam’s old town, the band was recognised and kids came up and started giving them blocks of hashish and handfuls of multicoloured pills. The band thanked them and pock¬eted their stash – all except for Jim who simply swallowed everything he was given immediately.

At the gig that night he was so out of it he stumbled onstage began dancing like a lunatic, before tripping over some wires and falling flat on his face. Dragged backstage, he promptly threw up and passed out. When they couldn’t wake him in time for their own show, the band panicked and had him driven to hospital, where doctors kept him in overnight for observation, the band left to carry on as a three-piece, Ray Manzarek taking over the vocals. They were understandably furious but the next day a smiling, relaxed Jim returned, having had "a wonderful night’s sleep.”

The final show of the tour was in Stockholm on Friday, September 20, exactly two weeks after their first shows at the Roundhouse. Those final dates of the tour found a reinvigorated Morrison leading them through what the rest of the band would recall as some of the finest gigs the Doors ever played.

At the end of their explosive three-week tour, John Peel wrote in his Melody Maker column, "The English embraced the Doors as warmly as America did our Beatles.” Back at the flat in London, Jim and Pamela embraced the English lifestyle with renewed gusto. When Ray and Dorothy Manzarek came round for breakfast one morning, Ray was encouraged to see Jim relaxed and more his old, pre-fame self, not drinking or reciting poems wildly, but standing in the kitchen cooking a traditional English breakfast of bacon and eggs, squeezing fresh orange juice and making tea. Manzarek would later write that it was the most grown-up he’d ever seen Jim and Pamela together. "They seemed quite at home and quite happy. It was the calmest and happiest I’d seen Jim…”

On September 23, George Harrison invited Jim to hang out with him at EMI’s Abbey Road studio, where the Beatles were record¬ing The White Album. To this day, some Beatles fans still claim you can hear Morrison’s distinctive voice singing backing vocals on outtakes of ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’, but if so not even the Beatles must have noticed as his name has never appeared on any of the archival credits.

Ten days later, Jim and Pamela settled down on the couch to watch the Granada TV documentary, The Doors Are Open. Along with clips of the final, climactic Roundhouse show, there were also scenes from the ICA press conference and an interview with Jim. The programme also cut in footage of antiwar demonstrations amidst scenes of devastation from Vietnam, using the Doors’ music as a backdrop – something that would be repeated nearly a decade later in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic award-winning movie Apocalypse Now. Pamela thought Jim would be pleased but he later claimed he didn’t really like Granada’s documentary. Maybe he was just expecting too much - he usually did. This was maybe one of the reasons his music and his poetry were so great and his life so eventful – and short.

Mainly, Jim spent his time in London walking around incognito, taking it all in, scribbling in his notebook the names of all the interesting places he came across: Cheyne Walk, Poets’ Cor¬ner, Mayfair… stopping to admire the endless bookstores of Charing Cross Road and the sleazy charms of Soho and Leicester Square. He also enjoyed going out for dinner with Pamela, both of them developing a strong liking for the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding on offer at Simpson’s, where they would sit and talk about how one day they’d like to move to London permanently – or perhaps some other old European city steeped in the arts and culture like Paris; somewhere a long way from America, anyway. They could not have known then what fate had in store for them when they eventually did just that three years later. But that was another story…

The Doors: Summer Of ’68 by Mick Wall (© 2008)


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