This two-part article focuses on a number of bands hailing from the US West Coast, who all released classic albums in 1970. Our first stop is Los Angeles and an album featuring an iconic cover photograph. We start with the story of that cover.
Keyboardist Ray Manzarek was driving through downtown L.A. with his wife Dorothy when he noticed a window front of a funky hotel offering rooms from $2.50 and up. That would have been a forgettable moment, but the establishment name sign read in large white letters with red shadow: ‘Morrison Hotel’. Upon hearing that story the band wasted no time and returned with photographer Henry Diltz in tow for a photo shoot. Diltz remembers: “We came inside the hotel and I told the guy at the desk, we’re gonna just take a couple pictures, we’ll just be a minute, you know, no problem. He said, ‘Oh no, no, no. You can’t do that unless you have permission from the owner.’ At first I was just going to have them stand in front of the window outside, which wouldn’t have been as good, but as I looked through the window I could see the guy leave the desk, get in the elevator and split. So I said, ‘quick, run in there’ And then they hit their marks – I mean, none of it planned, right – Jim was up in the middle, like that, and then bang, bang, bang… One roll of film and they were outta there.” This guerilla tactic yielded one of the most famous photographs in rock music history, making the front cover of The Doors 1970 album Morrison Hotel.
1969 was a troublesome year for The Doors. On March 1st of that year Jim Morrison was criminally charged with indecent exposure and lewd behavior after the band performed at the Dinner Key Auditorium in the Coconut Grove area of Miami Florida. Morrison was looking at a very serious possibility of facing jail time in a looming trial. The Doors were banned in cities across America and were forced to cancel most of their 1969 tour. Elektra Records head Jac Holzman had a suggestion to the band: “If your shows are being cancelled, we will figure something out about how we’re going to bring you back live. In the meantime, go into the studio. Start writing another album.”
After the orchestral arrangements and heavy use of horns and strings on their previous album The Soft Parade, The Doors wanted to get back to basics. Blues was on their mind, as guitarist Robbie Krieger recalls: “We wanted that garage-band sound, and the album definitely has the rugged feel we were after. It was R&B, but if the Doors played the blues there was always some little hook, some twist; it was never just another blues song.“ Morrison Hotel, the band’s fifth album, was released in February 1970 and its opening track Roadhouse Blues is one of the best blues songs of their career.
Before the first take of Roadhouse Blues, you can hear Jim Morrison setting the scene for the song, as captured in the 50th-anniversary reissue of Morrison Hotel: “Gentlemen, the subject of this song is something all of you have seen one time or another. It’s an old roadhouse down South or in the Midwest, perhaps on the way to Bakersfield, and we’re driving in a 57 Chevy to an old roadhouse –dig it? It’s about 1:30 and we’re not driving too fast but we’re not driving too slow either. We got a six-pack of beer in the car, a few joints and we’re just listening to the radio driving to that old roadhouse.”
Was that roadhouse a real place? Opinions vary. One possibility is a place called Topanga Corral, a windowless nightclub in Topanga Canyon, where Jim Morrison lived. To get to the venue you had to take Topanga Canyon Boulevard, a curved road where you had to “keep your eyes on the road, your hand upon the wheel.” The Topanga Coral is known as the place where many of the area’s artists played in their early career, including Canned Heat, Spirit, Linda Ronstadt and Little Feat. Robbie Krieger could not verify, but had this to say: “I think he was talking about this place that was actually down the street from our studio where we rehearsed. I forget the name of it, but it was down towards the Troubadour. And Jim spent quite a bit of time there with some of his drinking buddies.”
But if the establishment’s name escapes him, that mighty opening riff certainly doesn’t: “Jim was all about the blues at that time. He really, for some reason, was adamant that we do some blues on this album. And ‘Roadhouse’ was just the epitome of that. I just started playing this riff — dum da dum da dum da diddly diddly — and he just came up with those words. I don’t know where from. But he didn’t seem to be groping for words, that’s for sure. I think the words are great.”
In an anterview with Rolling Stone magazine in July 1969 Morrison talked about his love of the blues: “I like singing blues – these free, long blues trips where there’s no specific beginning or end. It just gets into a groove, and I can just keep making up things. And everybody’s soloing. I like that kind of song.”
This is indeed one of Jim Morrison’s best vocal performances on any of the Doors albums. Ray Manzarek had this to say about on Morrison’s singing on the album: “It was a barrelhouse album and barrelhouse singing. He’s smoking cigarettes. ‘Jesus Christ, Jim. Do you have to smoke cigarettes and drink booze?’ He didn’t say it, but it was like, ‘This is what a blues man does.’ Oh fuck. That’s right. You’re an old blues man. He says that in one of his lines. ‘I’ve been singing the blues since the world began.’”
Roadhouse blues is also significant for the contribution of two guest musicians. The Doors have been known to ask guest musicians to play bass on their recordings: Larry Knechtel, Doug Lubahn, Kerry Magness, Leroy Vinnegar, Harvey Brooks. On Morrison Hotel most bass parts are played by Ray Neopolitan, a member of Joe Cocker’s band. As the band was recording Roadhouse Blues, they noticed another Elektra recording musician walking down the hallway. Blues man Lonnie Mack released a number of albums on Elektra since 1965 and he was revered by the band, who quickly asked him to sit in and play bass on the song. Robbie Krieger tells the story: “Lonnie came in and, with hardly any direction, laid down the perfect bass line for Roadhouse Blues. When I open up the chorus on the A and Jim bellows ‘Let it rolllllll…,’ Lonnie’s bass comes at you like a steamroller.” This is indeed a mean bass line right there. Krieger ends the story with a funny bit: “Lonnie took pride in being a guitarist and thought bass was beneath him, so for years I’d kid him by introducing him to people by saying, ‘This is Lonnie Mack, a great bass player.’”
Another fantastic guest appearance is by G. Puglese on harmonica. Who, you ask? That was the credit on the album for none else than John Sebastian of Lovin’ Spoonful. He remembers the session: “I am playing my a** off. Every take that came down, I was really concentrating on Lonnie, and once we had that lick, that sort of charted our path.”
Morrison Hotel did not yield any hits and the only single from it did not make a meaningful dent in the charts. The album however, survived well and is considered a great transition to the Doors’ last album, LA Woman. Ray Manzarek summarized it in a stream of conscious literary context: “The Doors were part of the dark streets and The Day of the Locust, ya know. Miss Lonely Hearts. That’s where the Doors come from. Morrison Hotel was definitely blues. Raymond Chandler. Downtown Los Angeles. Dalton Trumbo. John Fante. City of Night. John Rechy.”
We stay in Los Angeles with one of my favorite bands from that city, albeit much less successful than The Doors. At the age of 15 Randy Craig Wolfe, a native of the city, was in New York City where his stepdad drummer travelled for a number of gigs. While at the Big Apple Randy met Jimmy James and played in his band the Blue Flames. Later that year James moved to London and became Jimi Hendrix. While in New York he christened Randy with the nickname California, to distinguish him from another Randy in his band, nicknamed Texas. Father and son returned to California, where they started a band called Spirits Rebellious, after the mystical writer Kahlil Gibran’s poem. I can think of no other rock band from that period with an age range of 16 to 44. But it was not only rock, for the band had strong credentials in the jazz world, with stepfather Ed Cassidy playing drums for Thelonious Monk, Roland Kirk and other jazz greats. He was a founding member together with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder of the Rising Sons. The band’s keyboardist John Locke also had strong jazz roots. The quintet was completed with bassist Mark Andes and vocalist Jay Ferguson. Soon after they formed, they shortened their name to Spirit.
The band released a fantastic self-titled debut album in 1968 and followed it with two more records before releasing their masterpiece Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus in November 1970. It signaled a change for the band, switching labels from Ode to Epic, and more importantly working with a new producer. Randy California remembers the circumstances of meeting the producer: “One spring morning in 1970, I paid a visit to Neil Young at his mountaintop wooden house in Topanga. The purpose of the visit was to inquire about David Briggs as a possible producer for Spirit’s next album. The recommendation from Neil was 100% yes!” The collaboration between Young and Briggs is now legendary, yielding over 20 albums over the years, many of them classic. Briggs accomplished nothing less with Spirit, as California adds: “During the five months we took recording Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, David became a sixth member of the band. He inspired and guided us to our very best studio performances.”
The album has a loose concept, with each of the twelve tracks representing a vision drawn from twelve actual dreams. Most of the tracks were written by Randy California, who also plays guitar parts to die for on many of them. Mark Andes remembers the gifted guitar player: “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus was Randy’s masterwork. Randy took the lead with John and David and created segues and used special effects and the ‘concept’ began to appear.”
One of the album’s highlights, and possibly Spirit’s best known song, is one of the first songs to tell a cautionary ecological tale:
It’s nature’s way of telling you,
soon we’ll freeze
It’s nature’s way of telling you,
Randy California told this about Nature’s Way: “I wrote this song up in San Francisco while doing a gig at the Fillmore West. Written in the afternoon, I can’t remember another song which flowed out more quickly. The group learned it at sound check, and we played it that evening. Over the years, so many people related stories of how this song helped them through difficult times.”
The album features a unique cover art, courtesy of innovative photographer Ira Cohen, who photographed various artists and subjects at his chamber/studio where he transformed the walls and ceilings with huge sheets of Mylar, a reflective polyester film. Randy California remembers: “The entire session was shot in his New York loft after we had finished recording. His amazing wardrobe room included a replica Chinese face mask, which I picked out to wear on my forehead. Ed Cassidy’s face was painted to match that image.”
Another favorite song on the album is the instrumental Space Child, written by John Locke. Some put Spirit in the category of progressive rock and while most of their material may not have the same esthetic of that genre, this track definitely does. Randy California wrote in the 1996 CD release of the album: “This is John Locke at his finest. Utilizing his masterfully unique piano style, coupled with new synthesizer textures, Space Child seemed to create that other worldly mood which inspired many other experimental efforts at the sessions. Featured on this instrumental is Mark Andes’s fluid lead bass lines, which capture the mood and define the feeling of this beautiful work of art.”
One last bit, coming back to Randy California’s days in New York. Another gifted musician lived in the same building – Walter Becker, a future founder of Steely Dan. He later credited Spirit guitarist’s bluesy style as a major influence, along with the stylings of jazz in Spirit’s music. There are definitely common threads in the music of both groups, and if you listen carefully to the opening of Space Child you may hear similarities to the opening of FM, a Steely Dan hit in 1978.
Categories: A Year in Music