Song of the Day: Places in Music (Day One). “Just Got Into Town About An Hour Ago …”

Welcome to L.A., as seen through the eyes of Jim Morrison.  L.A. Woman from The Doors’ 1971 album of the same name is a film noir style ride barrelling down the highway surveying L.A. at night.  Think of L.A. Woman and you are immediately put in mind of 1940’s writers such as Raymond Chandler and Nathaniel West, for the L.A in this song is the city that lurks beneath the shiny veneer, the dark and seedy underside, one filled with crime and injustice, sex and passion and complimented beautifully by an intense delivery that may well be the band’s finest.

“Just got into town about an hour ago” sings Jim Morrison on the song’s opening line, setting the scene for his romp through the black underbelly of the city.  “Take a look around, see which way the wind blows”, he continues, like a stranger that the Santa Ana wind blew in.  Incidentally, and linking to the Jim Morrison legend of him witnessing a car accident in the desert in which a family of Native American’s were injured and possibly killed, Joan Didion said of the Santa Ana winds in her 1965 essay Santa Ana Winds:

“I recall being told, when I first moved to Los Angeles and was living on an isolated beach, that the Indians would throw themselves into the sea when the bad wind blew.  I could see why.  The Pacific turned ominously glossy during a Santa Ana period, and one woke in the night troubled not only by the peacocks screaming in the olive trees but by the eerie absence of surf.  The heat was surreal.  The sky had a yellow cast, the kind of light sometimes called “earthquake weather””.

Raymond Chandler also wrote of the Santa Ana winds in Red Wind: A Collection of Short Stories in 1946:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night.  It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch.  On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight.  Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.  Anything can happen.  You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge”.

“Where the little girls in their bungalows” could be considered to be about the murder of Sharon Tate in 1969.  Tate’s home and scene of her brutal murder at the hands of Charles Manson was 10050 Cielo Drive, a bungalow-style property in Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles.  Later in the song, Jim Morrison sings, “Motel, money, murder, madness, Let’s change the mood from glad to sadness”.  Is one of the dark forces at work in L.A. Woman and perhaps the person blown in by the Santa Ana winds, Charles Manson?  Alternatively, or perhaps simultaneously, the line “Where the little girls in their bungalow” could also refer to Jim Morrison’s libido.  At the time of the singer’s death, there were apparently 20 paternity cases directed towards Morrison in L.A.

“Are you a lucky little lady in the City of Light?” continues Jim Morrison, “Or just another lost angel, City of Night”.  Firstly, there is the juxtaposition of “Light” and “Night”, with “Light” referring to the public face of L.A. and “Night” referring to its dark underside.  “City of Night” is a reference to John Rechy’s novel City of Night (1963), a tale of a young man’s homosexual experiences in L.A.  “Lost angel” is a near homonym of “Los Angeles”.  In the documentary Mr Mojo Risin – The Story of L.A. Woman (2012), drummer John Densmore said of the song:

“The metaphor of the city as a woman is brilliant.  “Cops in cars”, “Never saw a woman so alone”, I mean, this is just great stuff.  It’s metaphoric, he’s looking at the physicality of the town and thinking of her and we need to take care of her.  It’s my home town, so let’s nurture the L.A. Woman”.

In the line “L.A. Woman, Sunday Afternoon”, Morrison paints an image of a driver moving through the city in a languorous state, influenced by Charles Aznavour’s Je Hais Les Dimanches (translated as ‘I Hate Sundays’ ).  This would appear to be Jim Morrison telling of his next move, which was of course, to Paris.  Paris, incidentally, is known as “The City of Light”.

The lines “I see your hair is burnin’, Hills are filled with fire” refer to the wildfires which sometimes threaten the Santa Monica mountain region of L.A.  The Santa Ana winds alluded to earlier in the song are a key contributor to these wildfires.  In a song packed with double meanings, these lines could simultaneously be referring to the Watts race riots of 1965.  The use of the words “burnin'” and “fire” also evoke images of a sexual passion for the city.  The following lines “If they say I never loved you, You know they are a liar”, not only tell of Jim Morrison’s love for L.A. but also echo the lines “You know that it would be untrue, You know that I would be a liar” from The Doors’ breakthrough hit Light My Fire, from their debut album The Doors in 1967.  These lines, therefore, could be seen as Jim Morrison tying up loose ends before leaving the city which had been so important to The Doors throughout their career and his own life and moving to Paris.

The bridge of L.A. Woman is arguably the most famous part of the song.  “Mr Mojo Risin” is an anagram of Jim Morrison’s name.  The term ‘Mojo’ was often used by early blues musicians, for example by Muddy Waters on his song I Got My Mojo Workin’ (1957).  Whilst ‘Mojo’ has come to refer to sexual energy, hence Morrison sounding like he is simulating an orgasm in the bridge of L.A. Woman, the term actually derives from an African-American folk belief called hoodoo, in which it is an amulet consisting of a flannel bag containing magical items.  A ‘Mojo’ is a ‘prayer in a bag’, a spell which can be carried with or on the host’s body.   In L.A. Woman, the term ‘Mojo’ is not only used to allude to sexual gratification in the city and sexual attraction to L.A in its metaphorical form of a woman, but also as a homage to the blues sound which influenced the whole of the L.A. Woman album.  It could perhaps also be said to tell of the spell which the city has cast on Morrison.  So strong was The Doors’ dedication to their blues sound on the L.A. Woman album that it prompted a split from long time producer Paul A. Rothschild, who felt that their direction sounded like “cabaret music”.

Three months after the album’s release, on the morning of July 3rd, 1971, Jim Morrison was found dead.  L.A Woman and its parent album are a fitting epitaph to Morrison’s life and career.  The title track is Morrison’s final fond farewell to his beloved L.A., a wonderfully complex song of myriad meanings and interpretations and possibly the greatest song to have ever been written about the city.

The Titanic: A Nautical Nightmare in Ten Songs. The Titanic Hits An Iceberg, This Day in History, 14/04/1912.

1.  Leadbelly ‘The Titanic’

(from the album Leadbelly’s Last Sessions, 1948).

2. The Walker Brothers ‘My Ship Is Coming In’

(from the album Take It Easy With The Walker Brothers, 1965).

3.  Cardiacs ‘Big Ship’

(from the album Big Ship, 1987).

4.  Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds ‘The Ship Song’

(from the album The Good Son, 1990).

5.  Patti Smith Group ‘Citizen Ship’

(from the album Wave, 1979).

6. John Cale ‘Ship of Fools’

(from the album Fear, 1974).

7.  The Beach Boys ‘Sloop John B’

(from the album Pet Sounds, 1966).

8.  The Doors ‘Horse Latitudes’

(from the album Strange Days, 1967).

9.  The Pogues & The Dubliners ‘The Irish Rover’

(Single, 1987).

10. Echo and the Bunnymen ‘Ocean Rain’

(from the album Ocean Rain, 1984).