When the Doors flew to England for their appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival in the summer of 1970, the band was at one of its lowest points. In the spring of the previous year, Jim Morrison had been arrested at a Miami concert and charged with "lewd and lascivious behavior" when he allegedly exposed himself to an audience; the group canceled its touring plans and the courtroom drama never seemed to end. So when he and his bandmates took the stage, he was in an unusual mood. "He was like a pot of boiling water with a lid on top," drummer John Densmore recalls. "He didn't move a lot, but he sang really strong."
Footage of the concert, which was the band's last gig to be captured on film, will come out as Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 on home video this Friday. It was an unusual show for the group – the Doors played at 2 a.m. in near dark, as they didn't know they needed to bring their own lighting – but its performances of hits like "Break on Through," "Light My Fire" and "Roadhouse Blues" were spot on. Even if Morrison was out of sorts – "Roger Daltrey offered Jim some peppermint schnapps, and he didn't have any," Densmore remembers, "I thought, 'Whoa, that's different'" – the chemistry was there. "Some nights Jim would get a little more, how should I say, possessed," he says with a laugh. "It wasn't like that that night, but there was a feeling."
The clip premiering here, of the Strange Days album's 11-minute closing track "When the Music's Over," shows the group vibing out under a soft red light, as a fully bearded Morrison ("He was incognito," Densmore jokes) clenches his microphone. "Playing that song was intense," the drummer says with a laugh. "I had to take a deep breath before playing it, because it's not a little three-minute pop ditty." Keyboardist Ray Manzarek nods along to the beat while he bangs out the song's hypnotic intro, and then they all hit with one heavy note as Morrison bellows. From there, it's on.
"This was our second epic, after 'The End,'" Densmore says. "'The End' was like a love song and then 'When the Music's Over was a statement. You know, 'We want the world and we want it now.' We developed it over time, vamping in the middle section, as Jim would throw in whatever poetry things he wanted. I'm real proud of it, because I had this impulse to stop the beat in the middle, and Ray kept the bass line going and Jim said, 'What have they done to the Earth? ... They stuck her with knives.' And I started stabbing the cymbals like knives. It was like freeform poetry in music.
"The Who did Tommy that night at the Isle of Wight," he continues. "They did an opera, we did a symphony."
It was a unique moment at a festival that Densmore considers the end of an era. An estimated 600,000 to 700,000 rock fans showed up to the concert, which also featured Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen, Miles David and Joan Baez, among others. In the drummer's opinion, the festival scene had reached critical mass. Joni Mitchell had to kick a hippie offstage when he interrupted her set. "I don't know what was going on with the fans," Densmore says. "I don't know if the tickets were priced too high or there was not enough toilets or what the hell. I wasn't near the stage when Joni Mitchell threw out a fan for being obnoxious, but it was odd. So it's an interesting document. It was like the last pop-concert vibe."
If things were bursting loose around the Doors at the Isle of Wight, it hardly compared to what was going on behind the scenes for the band. Morrison had become more and more unpredictable, due to his alcoholism, and Densmore remembers feeling a sense of relief that they'd had to cancel concerts while the singer awaited trial. "I was lobbying to get off the road for a while," he says. "If he was too drunk in the studio, we could go home."
The Doors only played a handful of shows after the Isle of Wight: a couple of sets in Dallas and what would be their final show with Morrison in New Orleans on December 12th, 1970. The last gig is not an especially fond memory for Densmore.
"Jim knew I loved him and his creativity and hated his self-destruction." –John Densmore
"That was the one that really put the nail in the coffin of our live careers," he says. "The night before in Dallas was pretty good. We had never played 'Riders on the Storm' live and it worked. We thought, 'Wow, maybe we'll be like a jazz group.' And then in New Orleans, Jim was ... I don't know. He wasn't loaded, but he had no energy. No chi. I'd made a set list and we couldn’t agree past four songs. So Jim sat down on the drum riser in the middle of the show, and I walked around and sat next to him. 'What do you want to play, man?' And this is in front of an audience, and he just sighed. There was no energy. We'd stop and start, and Jim told some jokes that weren't funny.
"Ray, Robby and I went out for a drink afterwards – purposely just the three of us – and I said, 'OK, are we done for a while?'" he continues. "And they said, 'Yes, thank you.' Because we were so fucking great live, and I hated seeing it erode."
The band made one more album with Morrison before his death, 1971's L.A. Woman, but the camaraderie within the band was different. "He'd ask me to go drinking with him, and I tended to do it less and less," Densmore says. "You'd get pulled down with him. I knew he was in trouble, but there weren't clinics. There wasn't help. There was AA, but it wasn't cool. It was just kids. Jim knew I loved him and his creativity and hated his self-destruction." Morrison died of heart failure that July in Paris.
Incidentally, Densmore has changed his opinion about how Morrison would have fared had he lived. In the past he said he thought Morrison would have continued to be a drunk, but now he thinks differently. "I used to say he'd never be clean and sober because he was a kamikaze drunk," he says, "but now I've changed my tune. Thinking about Eminem, who's a real creative angry guy like Jim, and Clapton, of course, and maybe he would have. Why not? You know, Ray and Jim went to film school. Maybe he would have sorted it out and would have been making films."