By Michael Aushenker
It’s impossible to imagine Jim Morrison as an old man.
The Doors’ front man is burned into our collective consciousness as the thin, shirtless, 23-year-old with a puka-shell necklace or the black-clad Lizard King reigning over the Hollywood Bowl in 1968.
Wendell Hamick, who photographed The Doors for their 1971 album “L.A. Woman” only months before the singer’s death at age 27, encountered a different Morrison — a man who was quiet and reserved.
Had he lived, Morrison would have turned 70 on Sunday. Hamick took the occasion to reflect on his experience working with The Doors on their final record with Morrison.
‘Waiting for the Sun’
Born in Arkansas in 1939, Hamick was just two months old when his mother died. After bumping around various relatives’ homes, he rejoined his alcoholic father at 16 in West Los Angeles, where he attended Hamilton High. His mechanically inclined father, who had worked as a locksmith and bicycle mechanic, was running a family vending machine company at the time Hamick began losing interest in college.
“I got a lot more interested in the world,” Hamick said.
Before graduating from Cal State Los Angeles, Hamick did take a course that moved him: photography.
“I just got hooked right away,” he recalled. “It gave me a reason to be places and to have something to do when I was there.”
While working as a social worker in East L.A., the budding photographer moved to Venice, where he would quit his day job after a mutual friend introduced him to photographer and mentor figure Bob Lopez.
Lopez, who operated out of his Bel-Air garage, and his assistant Hamick eventually went looking for a studio and found a space at 2411 Main St. in Santa Monica, near where California Heritage Museum stands today.
Back then, Main Street was not the thriving crush of restaurants and tourists it is today.
“There were two bars, everything else was closed [by nightfall],” Hamick recalled.
Hamick eventually left Lopez’s fold to work as an assistant to established photographer Tom Tucker, through whom he met graphic artist Carl Cossick. Assisting Tucker, Hamick took shots for albums by bubbling bands, most notably Canned Heat’s record with Johnny Lee Hooker. When Cossick saw the psychedelic effects Hamick had created with the 3-M color key, a light bulb went off.
“He thought it’d be perfect for Joe Cocker,” Hamick said. “[Cocker’s] agent said, ‘This is great, but I don’t know where Joe is. I think he’s in Big Sur, living with the hippies.’”
Cossick, the persistent half of the duo, shopped around his and Hamick’s graphic services to various entities. One of the places Cossick visited was The Doors’ office at La Cienega and Santa Monica boulevards. Even though The Doors were an internationally known, chart-topping group, anybody could walk up to the door of the small second-floor office. “There was usually some guy out front going, ‘Hey, man! You here to see Jim?’” Hamick remembered.
Cossick approached The Doors at a precarious time when a rift had formed between the rock group and Elektra, the only major label they had worked with since their breakout debut album. By decade’s close, Morrison’s alcoholism and antics, including an infamous 1969 Miami concert during which he allegedly exposed himself, had upset Elektra’s executives.
However, that tension provided just the luck Cossick and Hamick needed to land their next gig.
‘Break on Through’
The recording of The Doors’ sixth album did not go smoothly. Paul A. Rothchild, the producer of the band’s first five albums, walked out mid-production and was replaced by their engineer, Bruce Botnick.
“We’d been dealing completely with The Doors,” Hamick continued. “They made the album on their own and hired us to do the album cover. They were arranging for Carl to oversee the printing. He went to New York.”
However, when Elektra heard the music surfacing from The Doors’ latest recording sessions, they renewed their interest to work with the band.
Meanwhile, Cossick devised a mockup version of the album’s sparse burgundy sleeve, lining up photos of himself and his friends in a Mount Rushmore-esque sequence. The placeholder album name on Cossick’s mockup read “The Doors – Alive!”
“Carl said he and Jim had picked out the burgundy framing the photograph collage of heads superimposed on a pure block of canary yellow,” Hamick said. For the album’s interior, Cossick and Hamick solarized a photo of a naked woman on a cross, based on photos of a nude model Hamick had photographed at his Santa Monica studio.
“We talked to [Elektra], we showed them the mockup,” Hamick recalled. “We wanted to do the color key. [The record company] thought it would be too expensive.”
Eventually, with their concept approved, Cossick and Hamick headed up to a Hollywood recording studio off Melrose Avenue to meet Morrison and his outfit — keyboardist Ray Manzarek (who died on May 20 at 74), guitarist Robbie Krieger and drummer John Densmore.
On the drive up, Cossick hatched the idea to purchase a bottle of cognac, which, during the photo shoot, the alcoholic Morrison in particular really “appreciated.”
“It was The Doors and we were young,” Hamick said of the shoot. “It was about midnight and they wanted to do it at night. No one was in the lobby. As we went into the studio, ‘Riders on the Storm’ [the last track on ‘L.A. Woman’] was playing really loud.”
Hamick shot The Doors for about two hours.
Manzarek was “talkative and funny, but I never really connected with the other three.”
But he liked the quiet and reserved Morrison.
“They were tired,” he said of the band. “The group shots weren’t great. Natural light was really dim. But I got what I needed.”
Hamick and Cossick wound up composing their cover out of four cut-out head shots he had taken of the band.
‘When the Music’s Over’
The Doors would only play two concerts, both in December 1970, in support of their upcoming album. During the second concert in New Orleans, Morrison had a meltdown. According to Densmore’s autobiography “Riders on the Storm,” after Morrison’s rampage, the other Doors decided backstage to stop performing as a live act.
Following the completion of “L.A. Woman,” Morrison took some time off to move to Paris and write poetry.
Released in April 1971, “L.A. Woman” went on to sell nearly four million copies and win the band back some much-needed commercial and critical success. However, three months after the psychedelic blues-rock album hit store shelves, Morrison was found dead in France from drug and alcohol abuse on July 3, 1971.
Hamick, who by the early 1970s had also shot publicity photos of director Sam Peckinpah and composer Jerry Goldsmith for Warner Bros., began taking stills on the sets of low-budget exploitation films.
Hamick was on a movie set in New Mexico when he heard that Morrison had died.
A few months later, the surviving Doors sought Hamick out for another session. The objective was vague.
Hamick recalled Manzarek “seemed like the one in charge.” The band members brought in various props, such as a tuba, to pose with at Hamick’s Santa Monica studio.
“I truly didn’t know what we were doing,” Hamick said.
In hindsight, Hamick believes the remaining Doors were bent on continuing without their charismatic leader, a direction that would prove futile. Hamick said he didn’t seek to benefit from his experience working on the final Doors album.
“I never had that instinct or ambition,” Hamick said. “I never really liked the [music industry] people. I thought it was demeaning” to hustle for work.
After friend Tom Clover hired him to help build a deck, Hamick began making furniture and remodeling houses around West Los Angeles.
His photography fell by the wayside.
Around 1980 he formed Wendell Hamick Construction, which today has two full-time employees and a network of subcontractors. He also works as a factotum at P.S. 1 in downtown Santa Monica.
When not working, Hamick travels with wife Tish and spends time with their three children. Only recently has he resumed photography — this time for pleasure, and with digital equipment.
Hamick looks back with relative bemusement at the time he worked as a professional rock photographer and, unwittingly, an artist helping to create music history.
During an interview at his Ocean Park home, Hamick recalled crossing paths with Morrison one last time after the release of “L.A. Woman” on the staircase at The Doors’ West Hollywood offices.
“He was going to France, but he intended to eventually return. … He wanted to work on a poetry book,” said Hamick, who was already a few images into Morrison’s passion project.
Hamick was coming up the stairs as Morrison was descending. They chatted briefly on the stairwell before Hamick decided to give Morrison a purple rabbit’s foot roach clip the photographer had often carried around.
Hamick pressed it into Morrison’s hand and wished the singer luck on his journey.
Replied Morrison, “I don’t believe in luck.”