Few performers have been so consistently controversial as James Douglas Morrison, the vocalist and songwriter of the Doors. And none has caused so many writers to construct so much gothic imagery in an effort to describe the mystique.
In the Village Voice, for instance, one chronicler said Morrison was the “first major male sex symbol since James Dean died and Marlon Brando got a paunch” and another called him at (different times) a “leather tiger,” a “shaman-serpent king” and “America’s Oedipal nightingale.” In Eye, he was described as a “demonic vision out of a medieval Hellmouth” and the author of a book about the Doors called him “the Sex-death, Acid-Evangelist of Rock, a sort of Hell’s Angel of the groin.” While the Miami Herald tagged him “The King of Orgasmic Rock,” Joyce Haber dubbed him “the swinging Door” and prose-poet Liza Williams said he was a “baby bullfighter” and “the ultimate Barbie doll.”
If writers have been engaged in an inordinate amount of word-weaving, Morrison’s public has gone farther, spinning and spreading outrageous tales as regularly as the Doors have churned out hits. If you believed them all, Morrison was always drunk and/or stoned; both an angelic choirboy in an unfortunate setting and a satyr seeking a continuing debauch; boorish and inarticulate as well as polite, considered and shy; all the above and none of these. New stories — each wilder than the last — were told each week and over a period of two years Jim Morrison came to represent the perfect Super Star — someone far larger than his work or his life.
In truth, many of the extremes were based on more than fairytale. The week I interviewed him, for example, the Doors were being banned from performing in St. Louis and Honolulu because of exhibitionism and drunkeness charges filed against Morrison following a concert in Miami — yet, it was the same week that Morrison finished writing a screenplay with poet Michael McClure and signed a contract with Simon and Schuster for his own first book of poetry.
Another of the “weird scenes inside the goldmine” of the vocalist’s life (the line is Morrison’s, from “The End”) occurred after one of the interview sessions, when we went out for drinks to a topless joint where Morrison is a frequent customer. There Morrison the psychedelic sex-god sat drinking boiler-makers while young bosomy girls watusi’d and pony’d to “Hello, I Love You” and “Love Me Two Times” and other of the several Doors hits. The scene, like so many in Morrison’s drama, might have been captioned “What’s wrong with this picture?”
Unlike the mythology, the music of the Doors remains a constant — a force which has not been so much an “influence” in rock, but a monument. “The music is your special friend,” Morrison sang in “The Music’s Over,” and for millions, the music of the Doors is just that; just as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper renders a generation weak with nostalgia, so does the Doors’ “Light My Fire.” At the group’s peak, in 1967-68, there was also a strident urgency about Morrison’s music. “We want the world and we want it now.”
Morrison was somewhat reluctant to be interviewed by Rolling Stone at first, believing the publication’s coverage of the Miami concert and aftermath had made him seem a clown. Finally he changed his mind and in sessions that rambled over more than a week and several neighborhood drinking spots, he proved his manager Bill Siddons correct when Siddons said, “Jim used to have a lot of little demons inside him … but I don’t think he has so many any more.” In other words, Morrison had mellowed, matured. Still he was playful – “this is really a strange way to make a living, isn’t it? he said one day — but he was also trying to get people to take him seriously. All poets wish to be taken seriously, but many also have acted in a style that would seem to contradict or destroy this wish.
The first session we met at the Doors’ office (which is convenient to both the Elektra office and several topless clubs) and talked in a neighborhood bar called the Palms. The idea was to get some lunch with the beer, but the cook was out for the day so it was just beer — with a small group of regulars scattered along the bar buying each other rounds and telling noisy stories in the background, while we sat at a small table nearby. There was no perceptible notice paid Morrison when he entered and the full beard he had grown since Miami had little to do with it; he was a regular here, too.
When the tape recorder began sorting out Morrison’s voice from others in the bar, we were talking about Oldies But Goodies, and how everyone (like the Beatles) seemed to be shouting to everyone else to get back.
* * *
It’s country and blues, that’s what it is. People have these new wells of information and ideas and that went pretty far and then it stopped. So now people are returning to this basic form of music. Obviously there’ll be a new synthesis — probably in two or three years. It seems to run in cycles that long; that’s the length of a generation now.
You mean a new synthesis between country and blues?
I don’t know, man. That’s what rock and roll was. I don’t know. There’re a lot of other new elements people have become aware of, like Indian music, eastern music, African music and electronic music. It’ll probably be a pretty wild synthesis. I think in this country we keep returning to blues and country because they’re our two indigenous musical forms. I think … you know what might happen? The great musical minds that in the past have gone classical might get into popular areas.
Don’t you think there are some approaching this now? People like Van Dyke Parks and …
I haven’t heard his stuff so I can’t say. I haven’t heard any of us involved in this mass music today … I don’t think there are any minds as heavy as Bach’s, for example. I don’t think there are any real heavy minds at work today in the mass field. We’re all pretty funky. We have beautiful qualities. But I don’t think there’s any great musical genius at work in the popular realm. There are great poets and lyricists and tunesmiths, but no grand concepts.
But, y’know, a lot of people like Mozart were prodigies; they were writing brilliant works at very young ages. That’s probably what’s going to happen: some brilliant kid will come along and be popular. I can see a lone artist with a lot of tapes and electrical … like an extension of the Moog synthesizer — a keyboard with the complexity and richness of a whole orchestra, y’know? There’s somebody out there, working in a basement, just inventing a whole new musical form. We’ll hear about it in a couple years. Whoever it is, though, I’d like him to be really popular, to play at large concerts, not just be on records — at Carnegie Hall, to play at dances …
If it can be danced to …
By dance I mean it wouldn’t be a sitting-down-and-listening-to type show. With milling around, y’know?
Most of the gigs that you do now are sit-down type concerts, aren’t they?
Yeh, but I always try to get them to stand up, to feel free to move around anywhere they want to. It’s not to precipitate a chaos situation. It’s … how can you stand the anchorage of a chair and be bombarded with all this intense rhythm and not want to express it physically in movement? I like people to be free, not chained. [Pause] We haven’t played in a long time.
About three months — just about. Right?
Yeh. The next scheduled gig is in the bull ring in Mexico City. And while we’re down there we’re going to do a UN benefit in one of Mexico City’s big night clubs. So we’ll cut through all levels of society, hopefully. Then after the Mexico City thing, we do Chicago, St. Louis and Minneapolis. In July. Then a thing at the Aquarius Theatre in L.A. Which has been reserved for eight weeks by Elektra for the dark nights, Mondays. We might also be doing some surprise appearances at the Whisky. Unannounced … no billing … just show up and do a set every now and then.
You’ve been quoted often enough, saying you’d like to be back there.
I just remember that some of the best musical trips we ever took were in clubs. Concerts are great but it gets into a crowd phenomenon that really hasn’t that much to do with music. In a club there’s a different atmosphere. They can see you sweat and you can see them. And there’s much less bullshit. In a concert situation, you can’t really lose. You get that many people together and it doesn’t matter so much what you do. In a club you have to turn people on musically. If it doesn’t cut it, everyone knows it.
It’s harder to bomb in concert?
Yeh, it’s almost impossible, because just the sheer excitement of the event, the mass of people mingling together, generates a kind of electricity, and it has to do with music. It’s exciting, but it’s not music. It’s mass hysteria.
I remember your telling me once that in a club, where you’re working night after night, you have a chance to do some in-performance writing and creating which you don’t have a chance to do in an occasional concert situation …
Right. Also, I just enjoy working. There’s nothing more fun than to play music to an audience. You can improvise at rehearsals, but it’s kind of a dead atmosphere. There’s no audience feedback. There’s no tension, really, because in a club with a small audience you’re free to do anything. You still feel an obligation to be good, so you can’t get completely loose; there are people watching. So there is this beautiful tension. There’s freedom and at the same time an obligation to play well. I can put in a full day’s work, go home and take a shower, change clothes, then play two or three sets at the Whisky, man, and I love it. The way an athlete loves to run, to keep in shape.
How did you start this … decide you were going to be a performer?
I think I had a suppressed desire to do something like this ever since I heard … y’see, the birth of rock and roll coincided with my adolescence, my coming into awareness. It was a real turn-on, although at the time I could never allow myself to rationally fantasize about ever doing it myself. I guess all that time I was unconsciously accumulating inclination and listening. So when it finally happened, my subconscious had prepared the whole thing.
I didn’t think about it. It was just there. I never did any singing. I never even conceived it. I thought I was going to be a writer or a sociologist, maybe write plays. I never went to concerts—one or two at most. I saw a few things on TV, but I’d never been a part of it all. But I heard in my head a whole concert situation, with a band and singing and an audience — a large audience. Those first five or six songs I wrote, I was just taking notes at a fantastic rock concert that was going on inside my head. And once I had written the songs, I had to sing them.
When was this?
About three years ago. I wasn’t in a group or anything. I just got out of college and I went down to the beach. I wasn’t doing much of anything. I was free for the first time. I had been going to school, constantly, for 15 years. It was a beautiful hot summer and I just started hearing songs. I think I still have the note book with those songs written it it. This kind of mythic concert that I heard … I’d like to try and reproduce it sometime, either in actuality or on record. I’d like to reproduce what I heard on the beach that day.
Had you ever played any musical instrument?
When I was a kid I tried piano for a while, but I didn’t have the discipline to keep up with it.
How long did you take piano?
Only a few months. I think I got to about the third grade book.
Any desire now to play an instrument?
Not really. I play maracas. I can play a few songs on the piano. Just my own inventions, so it’s not really music; it’s noise. I can play one song. But it’s got only two changes in it, two chords, so it’s pretty basic stuff. I would really like to be able to play guitar, but I don’t have the feeling for it. [Pause] You play any?
I read a book you did — The Hippie Papers. It had some nice articles in it. I’ve thought of writing for the underground press, because I don’t know anywhere else you can have an idea one day and see it in print almost immediately. I’d like to write a column for underground newspapers. Just reporting things I see. Not fiction, but reporting. Just trying to get accurate reports on things I witness — around L.A. especially. I guess I’m afraid of wasting a lot of good ideas on journalism. If I kept them in my head long enough they might really turn into something. Although there’ve been some good people writing as journalists — Dickens, Doesteovsky … and of course Mailer is a contemporary journalist.
Mailer even turned out a novel, a chapter a month under deadline for Esquire …
And it’s brilliant. The American Dream. Probably one of the best novels in the last decade.
It’s interesting … a lot of good stuff is conceived specifically for newspapers and magazines, just as a lot of good music is conceived for records — all of which are disposable items, things which are available to just about anyone for very little money and later thrown away or traded in or gotten rid of pretty quickly. It’s making several art forms very temporary …
Yeh, I love that. Don’t you? That’s what I love about films — they’re so perishable. One big atomic explosion and all the celluloid melts. There’d be no film. There’s a beautiful scene in a book called Only Lovers Left Alive. Have you read it?
Yes, I have. Weren’t the Stones supposed to do it as a film?
Yeh, a long time ago. If they’d have got together, they’d have really done a good thing. Anyway in this scene, this guy’s making a foray in to enemy territory — the kids have inherited the earth; all the adults have committed suicide — and at night he stumbles into this abandoned building and he hears a strange noise. What it is is a gang of little kids between six and 12 years old, huddled around a dead television set, and one of them is imitating the television shows of old. I think that’s beautiful. And that’s why poetry appeals to me so much—because it’s so eternal. As long as there are people, they can remember words and combinations of words. Nothing else can survive a holocaust, but poetry and songs. No one can remember an entire novel. No one can describe a film, a piece of sculpture, a painting. But so long as there are human beings, songs and poetry con continue.
When did you start writing poetry?
Oh, I think around the fifth or sixth grade I wrote a poem called “The Pony Express.” That was the first I can remember. It was one of those ballad type poems. I never could get it together, though. I always wanted to write, but I always figured it’d be no good unless somehow the hand just took the pen and started moving without me really having anything to do with it. Like, automatic writing. But it just never happened. I wrote a few poems, of course.
Like, “Horse Latitudes” I wrote when I was in high school. I kept a lot of note books through high school and college and then when I left school for some dumb reason — maybe it was wise — I threw them all away. There’s nothing I can think of I’d rather have in my possession right now than those two or three lost notebooks. I was thinking of being hypnotized or taking sodium pentathol to try to remember, because I wrote in those books night after night. But maybe if I’d never thrown them away, I’d never have written anything original — because they were mainly accumulations of things that I’d read or heard, like quotes from books. I think if I’d never gotten rid of them I’d never been free.
Do you have songs you like better than others?
I tell you the truth, I don’t listen to the stuff much. There are songs I enjoy doing more in person than others. 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 rather than just a song. You know,just starting on a blues and just seeing where it takes us.
Improvisational trips …
Yeh. We needed another song for this album. We were racking our brains trying to think what song. We were in the studio and so we started throwing out all these old songs. Blues trips. Rock classics. Finally we just started playing and we played for about an hour, and we went through the whole history of rock music—starting with blues, going through rock and roll, surf music, latin, the whole thing. I call it “Rock is Dead.” I doubt if anybody’ll ever hear it.
You were quoted recently as saying you thought rock was dead. Is this something you really believe?
It’s like what we were talking about earlier in the movement back to the roots. The initial flash is over. The thing they call rock, what used to be called rock and roll — it got decadent. And then there was a rock revival sparked by the English. That went very far. It was articulate. Then it became self-conscious, which I think is the death of any moment. It became self-conscious, involuted and kind of incestuous. The energy is gone. There is no longer a belief.
I think that for any generation to assert itself as an aware human entity, it has to break with the past, so obviously the kids that are coming along next are not going to have much in common with what we feel. They’re going to create their own unique sound. Things like wars and monetary cycles get involved, too. Rock and roll probably could be explained by … it was after the Korean War was ended … and there was a psychic purge. There seemed to be a need for an underground explosion, like an eruption. So maybe after the Vietnam War is over — it’ll probably take a couple of years maybe; it’s hard to say — but it’s possible that the deaths will end in a couple of years and there will again be a need for a life force to express itself, to assert itself.
Do you feel you’ll be a part of it?
Yeh, but I’ll probably be doing something else by then. It’s hard to say. Maybe I’ll be a corporation executive …
Have you ever thought of yourself in that role —seriously?
I kinda like the image. Big office. Secretary …
How do you see yourself? Poet? Rock star? What?
I don’t get too much feedback except what I read. I like to read things that are written about it. That’s the only time I get any kind of feedback on the whole thing. Living in L.A., it’s no big deal. It’s an anonymous city and I live an anonymous life. Our group never reached the mass phenomenon stage that some did, either; there never was the mass adulation. So it never really got to me much. I guess I see myself as a conscious artist plugging away from day to day, assimilating information. I’d like to get a theater going of my own. I’m very interested in that now. Although I still enjoy singing.
I have a feeling that many people in rock don’t really have much or any respect for the form — in terms of their never copping to the fact they’re rock singers or rock musicians. Instead, they always say they’re really jazz musicians or cinematographers …
I know what you mean. Actually, I think most rock musicians and singers really do enjoy what they’re doing. It’d be psychically unnerving to do it just for the bread. I think what screws it up is the surrounding bullshit that’s laid on them by the press, the gossip columnists and fan magazines. A person who is a drummer or a singer or a guitar player enjoys what he is doing and then all of a sudden everyone’s laying all this extraneous bullshit on his trip. So he starts to doubt his motivation. There’s always a group that for whatever reasons — these are the adulators — they just jangle the sensibilities. So you feel a little sense of shame and frustration about what you are doing. It’s too bad. It’s really too bad. I wish I could be more specific, but I think you know what I mean.
Have you personally felt this coming down on you?
Yeh, I must admit that I have. Maybe it would be better not to read any criticism. Y’see, a lot of criticism — reviews, that kind of thing — is very helpful. It can really enrich your trip, give you good ideas. But you never know when you start reading something. It may make you look like an idiot. Some of it is an enlightening, ennobling experience, and a lot of it is just … but you don’t know when you start …
How do you react to the stuff that’s been written about you?
For example, is there anything worse than a really bad photograph? A photograph can make any person look like a saint, an angel, a fool, a devil, a nonentity. A lot of it is chance and a lot of it is malice. And a lot of it is idolatry. A bad photograph can give you several moments of real psychic loss. You know that’s not you but somebody has chosen to review you in that way.
I heard you were going to go to New York to campaign for Mailer.
Yeh, well, I suppose really the reason I didn’t go was I … well, the reasons I would have gone are I was interested in the actual mechanics of political organization and also I think the man would be a good mayor. I think the thing that deterred me was that I’m not a resident of New York. Also I don’t know if I’d even have been of any great use in the campaign. I’m sure they need all the help they can get, but I don’t believe it would have helped anybody very much, my being there.
What do you mean by the mechanics of politics?
I don’t know anything about it. You can read a lot and talk to a lot of people, but I think that unless you actually get in and see something in operation, you can’t really comprehend what it’s all about. But I’m not really any more interested in the mechanics of political operation than the space shot or microbiology or anything else. It’s just one thing I know almost nothing about in a practical sense. I would have liked to have helped. I think, over the years, Mailer has come into a more increasingly complex and rich moral stand and I think he has a lot of imagination. I think as a long-time resident of New York, he is probably aware of the things they need. I like his idea of turning it into a city-state. It makes sense for each borough having its owner mayor, because New York is a special place. It’s more than just another city. It should have some sort of political independence.
A question you’ve been asked before, countless times: do you see yourself in a political role? I’m throwing a quote of yours back at you, in which you described the Doors as “erotic politicians.”
It was just that I’ve been aware of the national media while growing up. They were always around the house and so I started reading them. And so I became aware gradually, just by osmosis, of their style, their approach to reality. When I got into the music field, I was interested in securing kind of a place in that world, and so I was turning keys and I just knew instinctively how to do it. They look for catchy phrases and quotes they can use for captions, something to base an article on to give it an immediate response. It’s the kind of term that does mean something, but it’s impossible to explain. If I tried to explain what it means to me, it would lose all its force as a catchword.
Deliberate media manipulation, right? Two questions come to me. Why did you pick that phrase over others? And do you think it’s pretty easy to manipulate the media?
I don’t know if it’s easy, because it can turn on you. But, well, that was just one reporter, y’see. I was just answering his question. Since then a lot of people have picked up on it — that phrase — and have made it pretty heavy, but actually I was just … I knew the guy would use it and I knew what the picture painted would be. I knew that a few key phrases is all anyone ever retains from an article. So I wanted a phrase that would stick in the mind.
I do think it’s more difficult to manipulate TV and film than it is the press. The press has been easy for me in a way, because I am biased toward writing and I understand writing and the mind of writers; we are dealing with the same medium, the printed word. So that’s been fairly easy. But television and films are much more difficult and I’m still learning. Each time I go on TV I get a little more relaxed and a little more able to communicate openly, and control it. It’s an interesting process.
Does this explain your fascination with film?
I’m interested in film because to me it’s the closest approximation in art that we have to the actual flow of consciousness, in both dreamlife and in the everyday perception of the world.
You’re getting more involved in film all the time …
Yeh, but there’s only one we’ve completed — Feast of Friends, which was made at the end of a spiritual, cultural renaissance that’s just about over now. It was like what happened at the end of the plague in Europe that decimated half the population. People danced, they wore colorful clothing. It was a kind of incredible springtime. It’ll happen again, but it’s over and the film was made at the end of it.
Now we’re working on a second film, a feature, which I don’t think will have much commercial potential. I also am working on a screenplay with Michael McClure. Do you know Michael? It’s called The Adept and it’s based on one of Michael’s unpublished novels. He types and we sit there with the novel out and just invent. It’s a contemporary American story. It reminds me of The Treasure of Sierra Madre. It’s about three cats in search of a psychic treasure … a young guy named Nicholas who lives in New York … a friend of his named Rourke who’s a revolutionary turned neo-capitalist, and they both have long hair … they fly to Mexico and meet up with a black cat named Derner. They venture out on the desert to meet a half-breed border guard to make a score. I’m not going to reveal the entire plot. We’re looking for a producer now.
Did you read that book of notes? [The Lords/Notes on Vision, recently published in an edition of 500 and next to be published by Simon & Shuster.]
I’ve read the other book, the poems …
Well, that kind of tells you my position about film. In fact, that’s how that book started — as an essay on film. I wrote it when I was at UCLA.
Can you pull a few lines to illustrate what you mean?
No, I won’t do that. You can pick whatever you want. As for my future involvement, I’d hate to think I’d stop having anything to do with music, but I think that in the future I’ll tend more and more toward an exclusive film movement.
How much in Feast of Friends is you? Aside from what we see. The technical aspects … putting the film together … how much of that did you do?
In conception, it was a very small crew following us around for three or four months in a lot of concerts, culminating in the Hollywood Bowl (summer, 1968). Then the group went to Europe on a short tour and while we were there, Frank Lisciandro and Paul Ferrara, the editor and photographer, started hacking it together. We returned, we looked at the rough cut and showed it to people. No one liked it very much and a lot of people were ready to abandon the project. I was almost of that opinion, too. But Frank and Paul wanted a chance and so we let them. I worked with them in the refining of the editing and I made some good suggestions on the form it should take and after a few more … after paring down the material, I think we got an interesting film out of it.
I’m glad we went through with it. I think it’s a timeless film. I’m glad it exists. I want to look at it through the years from time to time and look back on what we were doing. Y’know, it’s interesting … the first time I saw the film I was rather taken aback, because being on stage and one of the central figures in the film, I only saw it from my point of view. Then, to see a series of events that I thought I had some control over … to see it as it actually was … I suddenly realized in a way I was just a puppet of a lot of forces I only vaguely understood. It was kind of shocking.
What forces do you mean … without getting conspiratorial about it all, of course. [Laughter]
Well, I guess all I mean was there was a lot more … a lot of the activity going on around me that I thought I understood … well, seeing the film I realized I was only aware of a very tiny section of reality, just one lonely little chink in the wall. There was a whole stadium out there.
I think of one part of the film, a performance sequence, in which you’re flat on your back, still singing … which represents how theatrical you’ve gotten in your performance. How did this theatricality develop? Was it a conscious thing?
I think in a club, histrionics would be a little out-of-place, because the room is too small and it would be a little grotesque. In a large concert situation, I think it’s just … necessary, because it gets to be more than just a musical event. It turns into a little bit of a spectacle. And it’s different every time. I don’t think any one performance is like any other. I can’t answer that very well. I’m not too conscious of what’s happening. I don’t like to be too objective about it. I like to let each thing happen — direct it a little consciously, maybe, but just kind of follow the vibrations I get in each particular circumstance. We don’t plan theatrics. We hardly ever know which set we’ll play.
You mentioned that there were certain songs you liked performing over others, those which allow you some room for improvisation. I assume you mean pieces like “The End” and “The Music’s Over” …
Once they got on record, they became very ritualized and static. Those were kind of constantly changing free-form pieces but once we put them on record, they just kind of stopped. They were kind of at the height of their effect anyway, so it didn’t really matter. No … I mean the kind of songs where the musicians just start jamming. It starts off with a rhythm and you don’t know how it’s going to end up or how long it’s going to be or really what it’s about, until it’s over. That sort I enjoy best.
You were referring to instrumental improvisation rather than vocal …
No … both. I guess I’m referring to a blues thing. I get a rhythm, a river of sound rolling along and I can just completely relax and not worry about time or how it’s going to begin or end or what I’m going to say. But not all people enjoy listening to that.
Is that how Celebration of the Lizard started?
I kind of constructed that out of pieces of things that I had. It wasn’t really a natural development. It doesn’t work because it wasn’t created spontaneously. It was pieced together on different occasions out of already existing elements rather than having any generative core from which it grew. I still think there’s hope for it. I just think that if we do it we should go back to the very free concept and start the whole thing over. We can play it in a half-hour version. I think we may still see that thing resurface. It doesn’t really interest me that much, though. It was never pushed through and I kind of lost interest in it.
When you’re writing material, do you consciously differentiate between a poem, something for print … and a song lyric, something to be sung?
To me a song comes with the music, a sound or rhythm first, then I make up words as fast as I can just to hold on to the feel — until actually the music and the lyric come almost simultaneously. With a poem, there’s not necessarily any music …
But usually a sense of rhythm, though …
Right, right. A sense of rhythm and in that sense, a kind of music. But a song is more primitive. Usually has a rhyme and a basic meter, whereas a poem can go anywhere.
Well, who provides this musical line that you hear when you’re writing? The band? Or is this something you hear inside your head?
Well, most songs I’ve written just came. I’m not a very prolific songwriter. Most of the songs I’ve written I wrote in the very beginning, about three years ago. I just had a period when I wrote a lot of songs.
In the first three albums, writer credit in every song goes to the Doors, as opposed to individuals. But I understand that in the next album individual writers will be listed. Why?
In the beginning, I wrote most of the songs, the words and music. On each successive album, Robbie contributed more songs. Until finally on this album it’s almost split between us. We have a very different vision of reality, different points to make. So I felt it was time. We’re a partnership, see? Artistically and financially. We share equally. In the beginning, a lot of it was in the interest of unity, to keep it together. Now that the unity’s not that much in jeopardy, I thought it was time people knew who was saying what. So this will be the first album when we’ll be giving writer credits and I think we’ll just keep doing that.
How does your view of things differ from Robbie’s? Is his more, say, romantic? Or … just what is it?
I’m not sure. You’ll have to figure it out for yourself. I’m just not sure. Musically, as a guitar player, he is more complex — like, chord changes, beautiful melodies and that — and my thing is more in a blues vein: long, rambling, basic and primitive. It’s just the difference between any two poets is very great.
A lot of the songs in the beginning, me or Robbie would come in with a basic idea, words and melody. But then the whole arrangement and actual generation of the piece would happen night after night, day after day, either in rehearsal or in clubs. When we became a concert group, a record group, and when we were contracted to provide so many albums a year, so many singles every six months, that natural, spontaneous, generative process wasn’t given a chance to happen as it had in the beginning. We actually had to create songs in the studio. What started to happen was Robbie or I would just come in with the song and the arrangement already completed in our minds instead of working it out slowly.
Do you think your work has suffered because of this?
Yeh. If we did nothing but record, it probably would be alright. But we do other things, too, so there’s not the time to let things happen as they should. Our first album, which a lot of people like, has a certain unity of mood. It has an intensity about it, because it was the first album we’d recorded. And we did it in a couple of weeks. That’s all it took to get it down. It came after almost a year of almost total performance, every night. We were really fresh and intense and together.
This was at Elektra of course. But you’d been signed to Columbia earlier. What happened there?
Well, it was just … in the beginning I’d written some songs and Ray and his brothers had a band, Rick and the Ravens, and they had a contract with World-Pacific. They’d tried to get a couple singles out and nothing happened. Well, they still had their contract to do a few more sides and we’d gotten together by then and so we went in and cut six sides in about three hours. At that time, Robbie wasn’t with the group. But John was the drummer, Ray was on piano I was singing, and his two brothers … one brother played harp, one played guitar, and there was a girl bass player — I can’t remember her name.
So what we got was an acetate demo and we had three copies pressed, right? I took them around everywhere I could possibly think of … going to the record companies. I hit most of them … just going in the door and telling the secretary what I wanted. Sometimes they’d say leave your number and sometimes they’d let you in to talk to someone else. The reception game. At Columbia they became interested. The first person anyone meets when they come to Columbia is the head of talent research and development. Actually, the first person is his secretary. They liked it.
This was Billy James …
Yeh, and a girl named Joan Wilson was his secretary. She called me a few days later and said he’d like to talk to us. We got a contract with Columbia for six months, during which they were going to produce so many sides. Having that contract was kind of an incentive for us to stay together. It turned out that no one was interested in producing us at that time, though, so we asked to get out of the contract.
Before the six months had elapsed?
Yeh. We knew we were on to something and we didn’t want to get held to some kind of contract at the last moment. By now we’d realized Columbia wasn’t where it was at as far as we were concerned. It was kind of fortunate, really. We’ve had a good relationship with the company we’re with now. They’re good people to work with.
Well, how’d that come about … with Elektra?
Elektra at that time was very new to the rock field … They had Love, and early Butterfield stuff. But Butter-field was still into blues, into the folk bag. Love was their first rock group and actually represented their first singles potential. They had been mainly an album label. After they signed Love, the president of the company heard us play at the Whiskey. I think he told me once he didn’t like it. The second or third night … he kept coming back and finally everyone was convinced we’d be very successful. So he signed us up.
I’ve been told or I read some where that after the Columbia episode, you were somewhat reluctant to sign with anybody else.
I can’t remember exactly. The people said that everyone in town was trying to sign us up, but it wasn’t really true. In fact, Jac Holzman’s may have been the only concrete offer we had. We may have made him come up with the best deal possible, but there was no question but what we weren’t that much in demand.
You said the first LP went easily …
Fast. We started almost immediately, and some of the songs took only a few takes. We’d do several takes just to make sure we couldn’t do a better one. It’s also true that on the first album they don’t want to spend as much. The group doesn’t either, because the groups pay for the production of an album. That’s part of the advance against royalties. You don’t get any royalties until you’ve paid the cost of the record album. So the group and the record company weren’t taking a chance on the cost. So for economic reasons and just because we were ready, it went very fast.
Subsequent albums have been harder?
Harder and cost a lot more. But that’s the natural thing. When we make a million dollars on each album and hit singles come from those albums, we can afford it. It’s not always the best way, though.
Why haven’t you done a live album?
Well … I really don’t think it was time yet. We had other things to do. Because I have an idea that when we do this live album … I can’t really see it in its entirety yet, but I would guess that a lot of the material would be old rock classics … and I mean really old rock classics, from the rock and roll era. Also old blues.
The “Great Balls of Fire” — “Rock Around the Clock” era?
Not particularly those tunes, but yeh. Also, blues. I don’t think it was time to do that, until we’d shown we had a large fund of original material. I think it would have looked like we’d run out of original things to say. But now it would be like, doing it just because that’s the stuff we want to make.
Are there particular artists you really dig from the early days?
It’s like the way I feel about writers. There are so many that I couldn’t really single out. Too numerous to mention. Really. I think we’re an incredibly gifted country in pop music, incredibly rich. Think of the people who in the last 10 to 20 years have come out of America. It’s really going to be interesting to look back on blues and rock. It happened so fast. From a historical vantage point it probably will look like the troubadour period in France. I’m sure it will look incredibly romantic.
Well, look at us. We’re incredible. I guess I mean people who ride motorcycles and have fast cars and interesting clothes, who are saying things, expressing themselves honestly. Young people. Yeh, it seems romantic to me. I’m pleased to be alive at this time. It’s incredible. I think we’re going to look very good to future people, because so many changes are taking place and we’re really handling it with a flair.
I’m hesitant to bring it up, because so bloody much has been made of it, and I guess I want your reaction to that as well as the truth of the matter … the Oedipus section of “The End.” Just what does this song mean to you?
Let’s see … Oedipus is a Greek myth. Sophocles wrote about it. I don’t know who before that. It’s about a man who inadvertently killed his father and married his mother. Yeh, I’d say there was a similarity, definitely. But to tell you the truth, every time I hear that song, it means something else to me. I really don’t know what I was trying to say. It just started out as a simple goodbye song.
Goodbye to whom, or to what?
Probably just to a girl, but I could see how it could be goodbye to a kind of childhood. I really don’t know. I think it’s sufficiently complex and universal in its ima