A Hero’s Welcome
Los Angeles honors Robby Krieger and John Densmore in Venice to commemorate 50 years of The Doors
Exactly 50 years after the Jan. 4, 1967, release of their eponymous debut album, the City of Los Angeles proclaimed Jan. 4, 2017, The Day of The Doors — honoring Venice’s flagship cultural icons on their creative home turf.
“We’re at our roots,” drummer John Densmore declared to more than 1,000 boisterous fans crowded together in the dark and the rain and the cold, most of them younger than the band.
From a small stage in front of the Venice Sign at Pacific and Windward avenues, Densmore and guitarist Robby Krieger briefly shared memories of the late Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek before leading the chanting crowd in a rendition of “L.A. Woman,” with Densmore at the microphone and Krieger on guitar.
The Doors, L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin said during the proclamation, “put Venice on the map forever and transformed rock ’n’ roll around the world.”
Earlier, inside the nearby Hotel Erwin, Densmore and Krieger credited Venice with shaping The Doors.
“We insisted at our first club we ever played, the London Fog in Hollywood, that they put: ‘The Doors, a Band from Venice … ’” Densmore told The Argonaut.
“… Which was kind of cool,” added Krieger, “because most bands were from Hollywood, you know. Venice was almost Outer Mongolia.”
As Manzarek would tell it decades later, The Doors began in the summer of 1965 with a chance meeting of two recent UCLA grads at the end of Fraser Avenue in Ocean Park.
“There I am, sitting on the beach, not knowing what I’m going to do with myself. Walking down the beach is none other than James Douglas Morrison,” Manzarek recounts in a 2003 promo for his film “Love Her Madly.”
Morrison told Manzarek he had been sleeping on the rooftop of 14 Westminster Ave. in Venice (now called the Morrison Apartments), dropping acid, looking out over the Pacific and writing songs. Manzarek asked him to sing one.
The man who would become the spiritual godfather of Venice Beach, then just 21 years old, “dug his hands into the sand,” says Manzarek, “and the sand was just pouring out, and he kind of gritted his teeth and dug into it and said, ‘This one’s called Moonlight Drive.’ And he started to sing those words. And it was haunted.”
Let’s swim to the moon
Let’s climb through the tide
Penetrate the evening that the
City sleeps to hide
Let’s swim out tonight, love
It’s our turn to try
Parked beside the ocean
On a moonlight drive
Morrison moved in with Manzarek and his girlfriend, who were living in a backlot apartment at 147 Fraser Ave., and recruited Venice locals Krieger and Densmore.
On Wednesday, the band’s surviving members confirmed that “Soul Kitchen” was indeed penned in honor of favorite hangout Olivia’s Kitchen, a soul food restaurant on Main Street (now the ZJ Boarding House surf and skate shop).
“Oh, it was great,” said Krieger, 70.
“Loved it,” said Densmore, 72. “But if you were there several nights in a row, you might be in the bathroom a lot, you know.”
“It was greasy,” said Krieger.
“Biscuits and gravy. Ham hocks,” said Densmore. “I remember I was in there with Jim, and Linda Ronstadt came in. She lived on Hart Avenue.And we were like, ‘Whoa!’ Gave her the once over twice.”
Densmore also recalled hanging out with Morrison at the Venice West Café, a long-defunct beatnik hangout on the boardwalk, “because we knew Allen Ginsberg had read there a few years before.”
In late 1966, Venice-based photographer Guy Webster had been shooting rock royalty — The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones — when The Doors had a finished record in need of cover art.
“First thing, I ran into Jim, and it turns out we were at UCLA together, in the philosophy department. He remembered me from those days, because it was the most difficult class we ever had,” Webster recalled.
Out of that bond, Webster worked up an unusual request: to get Morrison to pose topless.
“I could tell he was the lead singer, so I wanted to present him in front,” Webster says, “but he was wearing a godawful shirt! I got him to take it off, because I wanted him bare, kind of like Jesus Christ, and it worked.”
“Worked” is an understatement. Webster created one of the most iconic album covers in rock-and-roll history: a looming bust of Morrison in a Savior-like pose, staring hauntingly into the distance as his smaller bandmates stand in his eyeline. (Webster allowed The Argonaut to use the photo as this week’s cover image.)
The size differential didn’t go over so well at first — not even with Morrison, who had overcome crippling shyness during live performances.
“It wasn’t Jim’s idea,” said Krieger. That’s why the cover of The Doors’ following album, “Strange Days,” featured circus performers instead of the band, said Densmore.
Though the band’s first single, “Break On Through (To the Other Side),” did not chart well, a seven-minute version of the Krieger-penned “Light My Fire” went gold and made The Doors a national sensation.The rest is rock — and Venice — history.
“Robby and I are Venice natives, so we’ve been here a lot. It’s certainly grown in real estate, hasn’t it? Oh my God,” said Densmore.
Asked whether a band like The Doors could spring from the Venice of today, Krieger suggests looking in a lower-profile part of town — “Maybe San Dimas,” he jokes.
Densmore teases that what’s more likely to come out of Venice these days is “a techno band — something to go with condos.”
As for The Doors turning 50 in Venice, “You know, it’s pretty cool,” says Densmore. “How the f*ck did we last this long?”
Connect with The Argonaut on Facebook to watch video of Krieger and Densmore performing “L.A. Woman” under the Venice Sign.