The Making of Jim Morrison’s
“An American Prayer”
By John Haeny
Everything I tell you will be my truth as I can best remember it. It may conflict with other versions of this story you have heard so I will leave it to you to resolve any conflicts you encounter.
“There are three sides to every story;
Your side, my side and the truth.
And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each differently.”
Truth is a strange animal. I think many people have told, are telling and will continue to tell their personal versions of this story. I understand that for each of them their truth is, well, their truth. We all, in covert ways, even to ourselves, tend to remember things as we want them to be and usually not exactly as they were. I admit to having that fallibility in common with other storytellers.
There are deeply personal reasons that prompt me to tell my story. I understand that there is still a huge Doors and Jim Morrison fan base and that little is known about what went on behind the scenes during the making of their records, especially Jim’s poetry album “An American Prayer”. I have been silent for a very long time on this subject. I am rarely motivated by money so this story is being written for free. You should also be reading this for free. I am no longer motivated by fame or glory. Those of you who know about my career know I have frequently been touched by success. At nearly 72 I’ve already enjoyed enough success for more than one lifetime and I have now relinquished questing for more.
For reasons known only to some of the players in this story, their versions of this story have, over time, changed to suit their own personal, commercial or professional agendas. Sadly, some of them have lived with their ‘facts’ for so long they now believe them to be true. It’s sad, actually. The process of telling the same story over and over, adjusting the facts a little each time to suit yourself creates these distortions and false beliefs. Because I’ve never told this entire story before I hope that I’m not seriously afflicted by that problem.
The Doors App.
Now for some background on the recently released iTunes Doors App. which contains a version of this story that is, in part, attributed to me. Jac Holzman (the founder of Elektra Records and the creator of the new Doors App.) approached me to tell my story about the making of “An American Prayer” for The Doors App he was producing. I agreed with two conditions; that it would be published as I wrote it and that I would own the copyright to my story. Knowing the band, I was cautious about Jac’s agreement to those conditions. Not because Jac would be dishonest, but because I understand some of the realities of The Doors and Jac’s relationship to The Doors.
As I was writing, I did a degree of ‘self censorship’ knowing that certain parts of my story would never see the light of day in the hands of The Doors. So I admit that I embarked on that project with a degree of dishonesty. But once I started writing I was surprised how bottled up this story had become. I also finally realized just how hurt I had been by the all the distortions promoted as the truth by others over the years. So when I started writing “the dam broke”. Jac had never been clear about the word count he wanted. I suppose if he had I would have taken a very different approach. But Jac didn’t make it clear and I didn’t ask any questions I probably didn’t actually want the answers to. After I had a start on the first draft I warned Jac it was going to be big article when my first writing session produced about 3,000 words. Jac responded with “get it all down and we will deal with it later”. When I hit 6,000 words I knew I was creating a problem for both of us. I brought this up to Jac again. His response was, and I quote our email exchange:
John: “Well this damn thing has turned into 6,000 words. I understand that you will be savage in your editing but I wanted to ensure it was complete for another day…”
Jac: “Them’s a lot of words! I need something that’s under 1,000 pithy words but let me see what you’ve done. Don’t bother to edit until I’ve had a look at it and you’ll get a copy of whatever I’ve shrunk it down to. We’ll do the flyspecking there, in relation to the text that we actually use…”
The trouble on the horizon was obvious. I understood that Jac would have no choice but to throw out about 80% of what I wrote. I also understood that when push came to shove, Jac had and would always serve at the pleasure of The Doors – as well he should! When Jac finally showed me his edited copy it had been massively edited, which is what I expected. More disturbing than the editing was that Jac had no choice but to re-write or re-phrase much of my story. The problem was that what remained was no longer my ‘voice’. All I could hear in my head was Jac’s ‘voice’. In all fairness to Jac, given the problem I had created for him, the article he released was quite good, just not what I wanted to say.
Jac and I had a number of exchanges about the writer’s credit. I refused to be credited with writing what was actually Jac’s version of the story. After some back and forth we finally agreed that the credit would read “Written by Jac Holzman from notes provided by John Haeny”. I agreed.
I wanted the story published after being ignored for so long and rarely given full and proper credit as the Producer of “An American Prayer” plus the majority of Jim’s recorded poetry. I’d well and truly had a gut full of the constantly denigration by being called ‘just the engineer’ on one of the proudest achievements of my career. At least Jac was offering me an opportunity to set part of the record straight – and in the public domain. With Jac’s name attached my story acquired a degree of gravitas. Being a pragmatist I agreed knowing full well that I would ultimately set about building my website. That would give me a venue for a full uncensored version of my story. I would publish it there and trust in you, the public, to determine what the truth was.
Setting the Record Straight
To be clear, I was and am the only Producer and Engineer of Jim Morrison’s studio poetry recordings! I was contracted by Elektra Records to fulfill that role for Jim’s poetry album. I was working with Jim as the co-producer of his poetry album from the start until his untimely death.
I fully understand that some people may not be entirely pleased with my version of this story. They are not my problem! Nothing written here is slanderous or malicious. It’s simply my truth! And I’ve waited a very long time to get this story into the public domain.
This is my personal story about the making of Jim Morrison’s “An American Prayer.”
Setting the Scene
In the late 60’s early 70’s I was Chief Engineer of Elektra Records building their West Coast recording facility and working as their Senior Staff Recording Engineer. I also supervised all west coast recording projects and was responsible for quality control of all four Columbia pressing plants spread across America.
At that time Elektra was going through a massive transformation from a highly respected boutique record company to a major global record company brought on by the sudden and stratospheric phenomena of The Doors. Because of my supervision duties, which also included The Doors sessions, I was constantly in and out of various studios including Doors sessions ensuring that Paul Rothchild and Bruce Botnick had tape, Dolby’s, microphones … whatever they needed to function smoothly. On rare occasions when Bruce was unavailable, I would fill in and record The Doors. Paul Rothchild and I had spent hundreds of hours in the studio. Paul had always bounced back and forth between Bruce and myself. From the very start, The Doors were Bruce’s responsibility. Because of my other responsibilities and my experience with Paul, when I filled in for Bruce recording The Doors, it was a natural extension of what I normally did at that time.
The Doors’ office was on Santa Monica Boulevard just west of La Cienega and across the street from the new Elektra studio I had built and was managing. Jim was a frequent resident at the Alta Cienega Motel about a block up the street and his favorite liquor store, Monaco Liquor on Santa Monica Boulevard, was just around the corner from the Alta Cienega Motel (favorite because it was convenient and cheap). This was a micro neighborhood in a vibrant metropolis. Jim spent a fair amount of time hanging around the Elektra office with his friend, the then office manager, Suzanne Helms (RIP). During this time I was in constant contact with Jim. We had what I would call a pleasant, casual relationship.
I would never say that I was especially close to Jim. I actually rather doubt that anyone was truly close to Jim. Jim was always warm and polite around me. From time to time we would sit on the desks at the back office at Elektra and have light social chats. Nothing very deep and I rarely asked invasive questions of Jim. When I saw Jim with others and on his own he always seemed to be somewhat preoccupied and distant, caught up in his own thoughts, always wary of others, especially strangers.
Because of Jim’s fame and his somewhat rowdy reputation, most people were either intimidated or afraid of him. Jim was always suspicious of the people he intimidated. Over a very long career I have never been intimidated by any ‘star’. I always accepted them as normal people, respecting them as artists but never allowing them anymore than that. I think Jim sensed that in me. Odd that this young lad from Minnesota was never ‘star struck’.
I did notice that in really intense situations when Jim and I were in the same room (usually a studio control room) we would exchange brief glances and quiet smiles. There was always some kind of ‘knowing’ between the two of us. Some very basic human connection devoid of whatever the world’s perception was of either of us.
When The Doors filmed “The Unknown Soldier” on the Santa Monica beach for a day, Jim asked to borrow my Silver Siberian Husky, Nikki for the shoot. Nikki was often with me at the studio and even went to New York with me when I had a significant project there. Everyone at Elektra knew Nikki, she was almost a de-facto mascot for Elektra. I could always tell that Nikki captivated Jim. Jim also had a “knowing” with Nikki. The Siberian Husky is closely related to the primitive timber wolf. It was easy to see the wildness of her nature lurking just below the surface. Occasionally I would see them lock eyes for a moment and more than a few times I caught Jim staring intensely at Nikki.
Why would I, without any hesitation, give my beloved Nikki to Jim for the day? Jim certainly didn’t have the best reputation for stability. I think because I never personally witnessed any of his misbehavior I never had any reason to distrust him.
Jim Moves On
The time came when I heard through the grapevine that Jim had left The Doors. I had always known that Jim considered himself firstly a filmmaker and a poet. His Rock and Roll life was an unexpected development that was thrust upon him. Jim went along with it as much out of curiosity as anything else. Did Jim actually leave The Doors forever? Forever is really a long time. Anyone who claims to know one way or the other is only speculating.
Sometime later, when I asked Jim that question directly, he simply said he had left The Doors to focus on his poetry and never elaborated further. Jim seemed exceedingly comfortable with his decision and I never saw any reason to press him further. I figured that the time had come for him to move on, most certainly out of the public eye. Being in the public eye took a tremendous toll on Jim. That was obvious to everyone who knew him. This is one of a few things those of us who knew Jim can agree on.
Shortly after I heard that Jim had left The Doors I was called into the office of the founder, owner and President of Elektra Records, Jac Holzman. It was just Jac and me – no Jim. I was told that Jim had left The Doors (again the word forever was never used) and was going to make a poetry album for Elektra. Jac told me that he and Jim had decided to ask me to co-produce the project with Jim. Jac also made it clear that he had insisted that Jim have a co-producer since he didn’t intend to unleash Jim in the studio without someone they both trusted onboard. I was surprised, but I agreed.
I had always experienced difficulty understanding and relating to poetry. I knew the project presented the potential for personal growth. For that reason I agreed to work on the project. How could I know where the next 10 years would take me? It was impossible to grasp how that singular moment in time was the beginning of a powerful personal and artistic journey that would transform my life.
I’ve frequently wished I could have been a fly on the wall at the meeting between Jac and Jim when that decision was made. I’ve always presumed that the obvious choices of Paul Rothchild or Bruce Botnick were problematic. Paul had quit The Doors during the making of their most recent and last album with Jim, “LA Woman.” Bruce was probably busy on other projects and anyway, I think that both Jac and Jim wanted someone who was qualified, dependable, could bring a fresh perspective and was at arm’s length from The Doors. The poetry album represented a fresh start for Jim.
Jim and Jac signed a contract for Jim’s poetry album on December 31, 1970 and in that contract it is stated that Elektra approved of me as the co-producer along with Jim.
This is that paragraph from the executed contract between Jim Morrison and Elektra Records / Jac Holzman dated January 31st, 1970.
Note my name is misspelled (yet again) and the generous payment of the vast fortune of $1,000.
More to come
Jim and I had about a half dozen meetings at my house in Coldwater Canyon to discuss and plan the project. We discussed Jim’s vision for the album and discussed some of the options we had for the production. Jim was always clear minded, softly spoken and exceedingly polite. Jim also left me his entire collection of notebooks so I could become more familiar with his work at a formative level.
Oddly, as I reflect back on those meetings I don’t remember how Jim got to my house. A car was the only option since my house was quite remote for LA, but for some reason I had never connected Jim with driving a car, although I’m sure he could. I don’t remember seeing a car in my driveway and I don’t remember one arriving or leaving. I had a driveway bell as part of my security system and I don’t remember hearing it ring. Somehow, always right on time, Jim appeared at my front door and when we were finished he said goodbye, was out the door and gone. I’m not implying anything mystical, just reporting my experience.
But of course Jim must have driven himself. There was no driver waiting for him and he made no calls to be picked up. Jim had bought Pam a pretty little Mercedes coupe and it’s my guess Jim borrowed it for those meetings. This may seem like a digression but I continue to struggle to clarify my memories of the enigma I knew called Jim Morrison.
Jim and I produced and recorded two sessions of Jim reading his poetry in a professional studio. According to my dairy the first session was recorded on Sunday afternoon, February 9, 1969 at the Elektra West Coast studio. This session was done at the request of Jac Holzman and was intended to be a demo. It was a sedate affair. Jim had his poetry well organized and seemed to know exactly what he wanted to do including the order he wanted to do it in.
Other than reading, Jim played a bit of piano, accompanying himself on “Orange County Suite” and also giving the piano a good whack from time to time for dramatic punctuation. David Anderle, the Head of Elektra West Coast A& R, and a mutual friend was present and helped with the tape logs. I’m sure David was there because it’s David’s handwriting on the tape box logs. This recording is known as the “Elektra Tapes” or some call them the “Echo Tapes”. Since these recordings were primarily a demo I recorded them in stereo because of the piano and also because I used a bit of live reverberation chamber on Jim’s voice to make things sound a bit more polished.
The second and last session was on Jim’s birthday. My diary indicates that Jim called me on Wednesday the 2nd of December, 1970. Jim told me that the upcoming Tuesday, December 8th was his 27th birthday and he thought it would be a great day to get an official start on his poetry album. I booked a session at The Village Recorder, Studio C for the afternoon and evening of December the 8th in West Los Angeles and proceeded to make all the arrangements necessary for the session.
The studio was booked for 3:30 pm. That afternoon I picked Jim up at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in West Hollywood. On the way to pick Jim up I stopped off at Monaco Liquor and bought Jim a bottle of Old Bushmills Irish Whiskey for his birthday. I had remembered that Paul Rothchild told me that Irish whiskey was the ‘key’ that unlocked the door to the room where Jim kept the crazed Irish poet. Jim seemed pleased with the gift. I drove him to the studio where we got set up to start recording.
This time I was going to record in a much more documentary style – dry and in mono so I could have flexibility to work with the recordings at some future date. I set up two microphones. One was to actually record Jim and whatever else happened in the room and the other was a dummy microphone on a floor stand that looked to Jim like what he would have been familiar with on stage.
Jim had a habit of crowding the microphone and when he got a drunk he would hang on the mike and ‘eat the microphone’. So one microphone was to record Jim and the other was to keep Jim where I wanted him while also helping him feel as comfortable as possible. My approach to the recording was a bit like mounting a black and white film camera on a stand and letting it document whatever happened in front of it.
It was my plan to document Jim reading his poetry from stone cold sober through his journey to that locked room where he kept his drunken Irish poet. Although we never discussed it, I had an overwhelming feeling that Jim knew exactly what I was up to and was happy to go along with me.
Jim had also invited an assortment of friends to his ‘party’. Initially it was just Frank and Kathy Liscandro. Frank and Kathy arrived after we had been recording for a short while. The remainder arrived in a couple of small groups after our dinner break. I was pleased to have them there. They all were familiar to Jim and helped him feel comfortable. Towards the peak of the session there were probably never more than about 7 to 10 of us, as I can best remember. The studio was located in the neighborhood of UCLA, so we took a break midway during the session when Jim announced “Let’s go get a taco”, Frank and Kathy Liscandro, Jim and myself headed for Jim’s favorite college taco joint, a little hole in the wall called The Lucky U.
Kathy, John, Jim and Frank – Luck-U – December 8th, 1970
Photo courtesy of Frank Liscandro
When recording resumed, the rest of the group arrived. As Jim got drunk he encouraged his friends to join in. The session got crazier and crazier the more Jim drank. He may have shared some of that bottle of Old Bushmills, but I recall that he was pretty focused on drinking the entire bottle by himself. It was, after all, ‘his’ Birthday Party.
No matter how crazy and confusing things got, I just kept recording, prodding Jim to keep reading his poetry. (I need to clarify a misunderstand or misquote. This session was not even close to one of the craziest sessions I have attended and mind you, during my many years in studios, I’ve been at some pretty mad affairs. Other than Jim getting a drunk, noting really outrageous happened. Mostly it was just good fun. It was simply Jim’s version of a birthday party. No more, no less … end of story!)
Despite the many times Jim stumbled over his words, I encouraged him to start again or just keep going. I never hinted that we had a problem. Clearly my second engineer was confused by what he saw but I ignored him. I had a plan and didn’t have any time to deal with his reaction to our session. I just wanted him to keep the tape rolling. When Jim fell over the microphones and the music stand for the second time I said to his friends “I presume you guys know how to handle this”. They smiled and nodded “yes”. They went out to the studio, scooped up a thoroughly happy Jim and went off into the night for the rest of the Jim’s birthday celebrations. I shut down the studio, secured the tapes under my arm, headed home and turned in for the night. It was late and it had been an exhausting and memorable evening.
How could I know that in only seven brief months Jim would be dead? Those two sessions that I produced and recorded with Jim are, to this day, the only professional studio recordings ever made of Jim reading his poetry.
What was to become fateful days
On Tuesday the 11th of March, 1971, Jim called me and asked me to return his notebooks to The Doors office. He explained that with all the pressures on him in Los Angeles he was having a hard time getting his mind clear and was going to Paris to work on his poetry. I had given Jim a 71/2 ips copy of the ‘Elektra Session’ on a 7” reel which he took to Paris. These recordings have since surfaced as part of the bootleg ‘Lost Paris Tapes’. The logs on the tapes were dictated by Jim to Pat Farella at Elektra a few days after the session. After Jim had listened to these recordings he told me that he needed do further work on how he read his poetry. Jim said he would call me when he was settled in Paris and ready to go to work. I was to follow him to Paris within a few months. When I arrived in Paris we would start work on his poetry album in earnest. I delivered the Notebooks to Jim at The Doors office in the afternoon of Wednesday the 12th of March, 1971. Once again Jim was clear minded, sober and polite.
Sadly I never made it to Paris and Jim never came home. To this day I regret that I returned those notebooks to Jim, for if I would have had knowledge of the future, I would have come up with some excuse to ship them to Paris in a few days and then kept them with me. After Jim’s death those notebooks were scattered to the four winds. I think there are still some missing, probably sitting in private collections. I would have provided a safe haven for those books as I did the recordings, keeping them together and eventually passing them on to the Estate, intact, once things settled down.
Jim died the evening of Saturday, July 3rd 1971, in Paris. Apparently there had been a three day news blackout following Jim’s death. Somehow I knew about it that weekend. When Jim died it would have been mid-afternoon on Saturday in Los Angeles. I have vague memories of someone appearing at my door with the news that Jim had died. As I remember, they claimed they had just heard the news on L.A Rock Radio. When Bill Siddons returned from Paris I asked him directly how Jim died and he said “peacefully and with a smile on his face”. That was all I needed to make my peace with Jim’s death. Within a few days of Jim’s death I had gathered all the poetry tapes. I had always kept the Village session tapes close to me. Gaining access to the Elektra vaults to retrieve the Elektra poetry sessions was quite easy.
Sadly when Bill returned from Paris he told me that the entire situation was a mess. I had been told that in Paris the coroner didn’t pick up dead bodies during the weekends. Pam had to maintain a deathwatch over Jim, alone in their apartment, that entire weekend. My heart breaks for her when I recall this story. Pam was to eventually return from Paris but she was forever changed.
For over 25 years I resisted every legal, civil and social pressure to give up those recordings, especially during the lawsuits regarding the estate of Jim. The Doors then attorney, Max Fink, threatened to send up the Sheriff to pick up the tapes. I told Max to go ahead and try. If he did I would deliver a pile of ashes and he could figure out if they were the ashes of the real recordings or not. They stayed quiet after that and never challenged me again.
It was somewhat similar during the making of Oliver Stone’s film “The Doors” although with a bit less threat and muscle on display. When Oliver’s people contacted me to ask for access to the poetry tapes I simply said “no”. They quietly went away and Oliver was forced to take Jim’s poetry recording from the released “An American Prayer”. Ultimately that decision resulted in much more exposure for Jim’s poetry album than I could have ever anticipated. It also added an additional layer of security from Oliver Stone’s editing of Jim’s work. In “An American Prayer” much of the poetry was tied to music or sound effects severely limiting how much Oliver could edit it.
In the end all I ever wanted to do was help protect Jim’s legacy. To ensure that when and if the recordings were used, the integrity of Jim’s poetry was preserved along with his memory and his legacy as a poet. Perhaps it was arrogant of me to assume such a roll. But since there was so much conflict surrounding Jim’s Estate, I suddenly found myself tasked with that responsibility. I accepted this and executed it diligently for decades. I personally guarded those tapes providing them ‘safe custody’ for nearly 25 years until, in the mid-ninety’s, when at the request of Jim’s Estate I finally returned the master tapes to them, with a few confidential conditions attached.
“An American Prayer” begins
This portion of timeline of the story has been confused by two different versions of events. As I recall many years had passed since Jim’s death. One day, I think in 1976, I got a call from Robbie Krieger of The Doors. Robbie said that he had heard that I had Jim’s poetry recordings and if that was true, could they (The Doors) listen to them?
In an interview with Ray Manzarek published in “Off the Record” in the Miami News, 6 December, 1978 Ray is quoted as saying “Then after Jim’s death in Paris the next year, the engineer of the sessions, John Haeny, played us the tapes. He had about 20 hours worth. Then about three years ago he called us again and said he had the master tapes and would we like to hear them again. Well, they still sounded really good. And we just looked at one another and figured, hey, we could finally make Jim’s poetry album for him.”
Firstly when Jim died I was living on the valley side of Coldwater Canyon. It was there that Jim and I had our meetings and it was there where I got the news of Jim’s sudden and unexpected death. I don’t recall ever having any of The Doors to that house, let alone playing them the poetry tapes there. What I do remember was a call from Robbie and playing them the tapes for the very first time at my house on the valley side of Laurel Canyon, which would have been quite a few years later than Ray remembers.
Before I would play the tapes there were a few conditions The Doors had to agree to. I would initially play them through once at my home with only The Doors present. There would be no copies made, no stop and start playing or any rewinding done to replay any sections. They also had to agree that if anything was to be done with recordings I would only provide access to the tapes if they were used to finish the poetry album Jim and I had started. I would be involved as a ‘key creative’, most likely Producer and Engineer. The goal for any project we might undertake would be to, as closely as possible, complete what Jim and I had already started and failed to finish. I also brought to the project my personal experience of having spent many hours, one on one, with Jim discussing what he hoped to accomplish with the poetry album. For me to agree to release the tapes I insisted my personal insights into Jim’s vision have fair value during the making of such an album.
Having agreed to these general terms The Doors heard the tapes. They were impressed and immediately saw the potential. Thus began a long process of ensuring ourselves (myself and The Doors) that we did indeed, have an album and a good one at that. Just prior to this time the long legal battle over Jim’s estate had finally been resolved. The estate of James Douglas Morrison was shared between Jim’s parents and the parents of Pam Courson, Jim’s wife. All creative control was vested in the hands of Columbus ‘Corky’ Courson, Pam’s father. The only caveat was that the Admiral (Admiral George Stephen Morrison, Jim’s father) had to approve of anything biographical.
Clearly the Estate had to be on-board if this project was to proceed. I’m reasonably sure that Corky was not at any of those early listening sessions with The Doors. I don’t remember how I was eventually connected to Corky, but when Corky and I first met I played him the tapes and outlined what The Doors and I wanted to accomplish. Corky agreed but he had his own set of conditions.
Clearly Corky harbored some ill feelings towards The Doors. They all centered on how Corky felt The Doors had treated Pam after the death of Jim. Corky told me many times that, after Jim’s death, Pam kept to herself and staying in her room most of the time. Corky told me he would see the lights burning in her room all night long … she never had good nights sleep until she died. As I understood it, at the core of the lawsuit was the claim that Pamela Courson was not legally married to Jim and therefore not Jim’s next of kin. Jim’s last will dated February 12, 1969 was being challenged. If The Doors could prove their claim, part of Jim’s share of The Doors income could revert to the surviving Doors. This entire subject is very murky and I only know what Corky told me face to face. Some might suggest, rightfully, that Corky was a highly biased source.
The challenge to the legitimacy of Pam’s relationship with Jim, in addition to her loss of Jim, devastated Pam. Corky’s view was that The Doors by pursuing that lawsuit, were culpable in Pam’s premature death. Corky was steadfast in his position! I had to respect Corky’s point of view and accept that he profoundly and vehemently refused to be in the same room with the people that he considered had been responsible for the death of his daughter. “Murdered!” was the word he frequently used. That is not my word nor do I hold any personal view on this matter, I’m just reporting what Corky said to me.
The Corky I knew was a exceedingly kind and gentle man – a retired Orange County school principal. As such Corky was an academic and had taken on Jim’s poetry as a personal cause. During his lifetime Corky was a powerful advocate for Jim’s work, collecting, correlating and publishing much of Jim’s poetry. He was both a great friend and wonderful ally to have during the making of “An American Prayer”.
On the other hand, I was never entirely sure how The Doors felt towards Corky, but I suspected ‘resentful’ might be the right word. What I did know is that I was stuck in the middle. During the next two or so years Corky and I were to become very close working together.
Two versions – same story
I need to clarify Frank Liscandro’s order of one event in particular. I only mention it here because Frank has been so outspoken about his involvement in “An American Prayer”, including how he was ‘invited’ to participate by The Doors almost before I was evolved and that I was ‘only the engineer’.
Here are a few simple facts that contradict Franks oft repeated version published over the years. The truth is actually quite simple math. Before Frank was approached to participate in the project it had already been decided that any royalties for “An American Prayer” were to be divided into six equal shares at 16-2/3 percent per share (of course it was just know as ‘The Project’ at that time). The Admiral and Corky each got one share (thus the Estate got two shares), one share each for the surviving Doors and one share for me. Now look at the section of the final executed contract for “An American Prayer” reproduced below.
Notice how I get 10-2/3 percent and Frank gets 6%? So where did Frank’s 6% come from? I had to give Frank 6% of my royalties to ensure he was on-board and fairly compensated because The Doors refused to pay for Frank’s contribution. Over the years I’ve wondered why my representatives didn’t consider the option of everyone one taking 15-2/3% with each party contributing 1% to create Frank’s 6% share. Perhaps it was suggested and knocked back. I really can’t explain how this happened, except to say that I’ve had to learn to live with what I consider a very expensive mistake.
But the fact remains; I wanted Frank as part of the creative team, I fought for him to be part of the team, I even paid for him to be part of the team, but most importantly, I have never had a moment’s regret for bringing Frank into the project (other than that stupid royalty split). His contribution to the project was invaluable.
The Doors and I had been working alone for a very long time to ensure we actually had a viable project. At some point during this process I suggested we bring Frank Liscandro on-board. My argument was that Frank, as Jim’s filmmaker/editor on the film “HWY”, would bring a unique sensibility and point-of-view to the project. I also needed a like-minded colleague working alongside me to help with the ‘grunt’ work. For a very long time I had the idea that we would be making a ‘soundtrack for your mind’ – a soundtrack for a never to be made movie – a movie for your ears and imagination, as it were.
Frank could contribute many of the technical and narrative skills I envisioned necessary for the project. Not everyone was in agreement when I first made this suggestion. It took quite a bit of discussion – some of it fairly heated and over a bit of time as well. Eventually everyone agreed and Frank was approached. Perhaps the approach was made by one of The Doors, which, in defense of Frank is perhaps where he gets his story from. He is, however, lacking the backstory about how that invitation came about. Fortunately for us and the project Frank agreed and our team grew from five to six.
After many months of gathering and reviewing all the materials we were finally confident that we not only had an album, but a very good one. Robbie Krieger mentioned the project to Joe Smith, the then president of Elektra Records. Joe Smith and Elektra jumped at the opportunity to be part of the project. After Elektra committed to the project everyone saddled up their respective lawyers and we were all told to go on hiatus until the contract was negotiated and signed.
“Time Out” for the Lawyers
In the background I introduced Corky to my attorney, John T. Frankenheimer. John was a good friend and my legal representative. I had produced a band that John had managed while in law school. At that time John was an up-and-coming entertainment and music attorney with Loeb and Loeb. John was to ultimately become one of the most highly awarded and respected attorneys it the entertainment industry, including becoming Chairman of the Board of Loeb and Loeb.
My feeling was that Corky’s current attorneys would have been out of their depth with Elektra and The Doors. They would be swimming with sharks and I wanted Corky and the estate protected. I knew in advance the contract was going to be exceedingly complicated given all the divergent personalities and agendas in play. The introduction was made and an alliance was formed between the Estate and Loeb and Loeb.
Individually I always found The Doors both charming and reasonable, even warm and funny. But collectively there emerged what I called “The Doors Mentality”. They would become aggressive, greedy, extremely distrustful and could easily become litigious. We had many discussions about what the album was going to be titled. There was no shortage of suggestions floated. Some of the ideas put forward by The Doors were titles that tended to make the focus of the album The Doors and reduce the focus on Jim to that of a sideman. As I recall they put forward the title (perhaps in jest, although I had no sense of humor on this subject at that time) “THE DOORS play Jim Morrison”. For that reason, the final executed contact with Elektra Records has this paragraph inserted:
As part of the contract negotiations I knew we needed a way to resolve creative differences. I believe it was at my suggestion that we resolve all differences unanimously. It was clear to me that majority rule would never work. I was confident that would only create factions constantly juggling for position which would distract us from the task at hand. Majority rule in creative matters can frequently result in mediocrity. So we all eventually agreed to work under M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction). Every single member of the team could stop the project and block its release if there was any aspect of the project that they disagreed with strongly enough to exercise this option. It sometimes made decision making quite tender, but it also gave everyone sufficient motivation to consider all sides of any issue and find a fair balance.
And to work
That hiatus for the lawyers ended up lasting 9 months. After the contracts were signed we began the massive task of gathering, cataloguing and sorting all of Jim’s recorded material. We had collected every inch of audio tape we could find including piles of 7” and 5” Nagra production tapes from Jim’s film “HWY.” There was so much more than we had expected we had to resort to having verbatim transcripts made of everything. We of course had the “The Elektra Sessions” and “The Village Sessions” (Jim’s Birthday). But it was on these production tapes from “HWY” where we found the recording of Jim making a prank phone call, I think to his friend Michael McClure, about hitchhiking in the desert and having killed the guy who picked him up. We used that recording in “The Hitchhiker” section of “An American Prayer” along with “Riders on the Storm”.
There were also a big stack of tapes known as “The Endless Night Tapes” recorded during an all night drinking session between Jim and a few of his friends in a motel room in Palm Springs. Those tapes yielded Jim’s story about his childhood memory of being in the back seat of his parents car and coming upon the aftermath of a horrific accident on the highway outside Palm Springs. The highway was littered with dead Indians and Jim said that he believed the soul of one of those Indians entered his body, possessing him. That was at the foundation of Jim’s belief that he was a Shaman. This story is key to the formation of Jim both as a man and as an artist. It was the start of, and ultimately the core of Jim’s mystical beliefs. The story is used in “Dawn’s Highway” and is the basis of “The Ghost Song”, one of the most remembered and played tracks from “An American Prayer”.
But, we had a problem. Jim’s voice was buried in the roar of a cheap air conditioner in that Palm Springs motel room. We had to reclaim Jim’s story from those tapes. This was going to ultimately involve a trip to Salt Lake City, Utah. The brilliant and highly advanced work of Dr. Thomas Stockham of Soundstream, Inc. helped us salvage that recording. Dr. Stockham is known by many as the father of the first practical application of digital audio. He had also created a highly complex digital restoration process called ‘Blind De-Convolution’ which he had used to restore the earliest recordings of Enrico Caruso. I had heard the technology demonstrated during an AES convention (Audio Engineering Society). I approached Dr. Stockham with our problem and he agreed to allow us access to this highly advanced and complex technology to restore Jim’s “Dead Indians” story from the “Endless Night Tapes”.
Eventually we had all our materials sorted. Jim only occasionally titled his poetry and never dated them, creating a huge dilemma for us. We had to discover a way to make order out of seemingly chaos. This was the single biggest challenge we faced during the making of the album. We had Frank’s then wife, Kathy Liscandro, transcribe every word from every tape. Kathy had frequently acted as Jim’s typist and helped Jim with the publishing of his poetry during his lifetime, so she was well acquainted with Jim’s work and was the perfect person for this task.
Once we had the transcripts we named all the poems. Since so much was unnamed, the names we used were often just the first line of the poem, a formal convention used by many poets. Next we put each poem or snippet of Jim talking on a 3×5 card along with a key piece of text. We bought a massive cork board, a bunch of push pins and rented a room in a hotel in West Los Angeles month by month. As I recall we gathered for a few days each week wading through the material, struggling to find a shape for the project.
Because of the settlement of the Estate we were prohibited from doing anything biographical without Admiral Morrison’s approval. We finally discovered that there was only one inferred order to the poetry and that it aligned with Jim’s life. So ultimately “An American Prayer” became, in fact, Jim’s biography. Perhaps it was a good thing that, as I have heard, the Admiral never listened to or read any of Jim’s music or poetry. The Arc of the album was going to be from Jim’s pre-birth to his death.
Holding the right of creative control of the poetry, we needed Corky working closely with us to move forward. A portion of our material included a large amount of poetry that had never been released. Because of how Corky felt towards The Doors, he refused to be a physical part of the process with The Doors. One of the roles I performed during the making of “An American Prayer” was to be the conduit between the Estate and The Doors. Our core team would create or agree on something and I then would take it to Corky. Corky and I would privately discuss it. I would present the team’s thinking behind what we had done and then Corky would consider his position. Once Corky and I had worked through any issues, if something needed to be changed I would take it back to The Doors and Frank. I would explain Corky’s views and his reasoning and we would explore our options. These were not always the most pleasant meetings.
The biographical arc of the story created perhaps the most intense example of juggling the creative process and being the middle man between The Doors and Corky. The team wanted to use an unreleased live track as part of the section of the album we called “The Public Life” (opening of side two of the original release on vinyl). We had selected “Gloria” which had been recorded during a sound check at the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood prior to the recording of a Doors concert. Corky felt very strongly that “Gloria” was sexist. Because of his issues around the loss of his daughter Pam, Corky refused to let “Gloria” be used. I understood Corky and respected his position. But Corky was so steadfast in his position that I knew he would enforce M.A.D. if pressed hard enough. Then Jim’s album would be dead in the water. This had the potential to leave us with an unfinished, unreleased album.
Needless to say Corky’s position caused an uproar from The Doors and Frank. So on a quest for an alternative to “Gloria” and to keep the peace and move the project forward, I went into the Elektra vaults at Bekins Van and Storage in Hollywood and gathered together every tape from the live recordings used to make The Doors “Absolutely Live” album.
I was hoping I would find an overlooked gem. It was during this search that I discovered that “Roadhouse Blues” had never been included in The Doors first live album. I tracked down every take of “Roadhouse Blues”, made rough mixes of each and then presented them to The Doors. We reviewed what we had and with a few simple edits we discovered that we had an outrageously good live version of “Roadhouse Blues”. I was happy, The Doors and Frank were happy, Corky was happy and in the end, the album was far better for it.
I have read some speculation about the editing of “Roadhouse Blues-Live”. I can assure you it was very simple and very clean. One of the secrets of good music editing is keeping it simple, trying the easiest edits first and only getting tricky when you are backed into a corner. As I recall we used one city for the intro, a different city for the first two verses and then back to the original city from the first chorus starting with “Roll Baby Roll…” through to the end of the track. The only other editing was some condensing of Jim’s extended ‘rap’ in the middle of the song to keep the energy up and remaining cohesive. There was no overdubbing on the track what-so-ever and I only did a bit of ‘sweetening’ with the crowd to enhance the excitement and drive the energy of the performance. What you hear is what The Doors actually played live except for the few minor changes I have outlined above. “Roadhouse Blues-Live” was recorded at a time when The Doors were at the peak of their powers, which sadly, as a live band, was not destined to last much longer.
It turned out that “Roadhouse Blues-Live” is one of the most popular and frequently downloaded tracks of all of The Doors’ catalog and has been included in virtually every compilation of The Doors’ hits. This just proves that when your first idea becomes impossible, if you keep pushing and never give up, you can sometimes end up with a much better result than you initially imagined.
Around this point we changed our schedule to every fortnight or so. I had all of the candidate materials transferred to 16mm magnetic film. At that time, well before digital audio workstations were invented, only film gave us the ability to shift and juxtapose materials and time reasonably easily. We needed this ability desperately as we struggled to find the story and interplay hidden deep within the core of our materials.
K.E.M 16mm Flatbed Film Editing Table
With everything on 16mm magnetic film, we slowly refined our work through discussion and the continual shifting of cards. We rented a K.E.M. flatbed film editing table for use in the hotel room. Frank, manning the K.E.M, tried edits in real-time to help us understand what would and what wouldn’t work. When we had a larger sequence or section we wanted to try, Frank would trek back to his home in Santa Barbara where he also had a K.E.M. The K.E.M. was to be the core technology that enabled our project. Frank would edit and order the materials according to our plan created with the cards. Once he was finished, he would output what we called ‘overviews’ onto ¼” tape. The overviews were extraordinarily crude at the beginning, but as work progressed they became increasingly sophisticated. Copies were provided to each of us. In preparation for the upcoming meeting each of us would listen to the most current overview and make notes. At the next meeting we would discuss our comments and the cards would start moving again. Frank would slave away at the K.E.M. until a new or modified order emerged. That process of ‘to-and-fro’ went on for what seemed like forever (in reality I would guess it was actually four to six months). After each meeting Frank would trudge back to Santa Barbara with a new plan in hand and after a week or so a new overview would emerge and the process would start all over again.
During this process we also discovered that with the juxtaposition of Jim reading his poetry against existing Doors recordings we could illustrate how Jim’s poetry evolved into The Doors songs. “The Hitchhiker / Riders On The Storm” and our use of “WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)” are excellent examples of some of this sub-text in “An American Prayer”.
As the album began to take shape it was apparent to me that we needed new original music. Jim had a number of composers in mind for the album he and I were making, but the problem was, without Jim’s input to direct the composer it was impossible to know what he had envisioned. I had suggested to The Doors a number of times that they provide original new music for the album. I was a bit surprised when they initially resisted my suggestion. I wondered why they were so hesitant, but I presumed that it had been such a long time since they had played together that they were understandably apprehensive about going back into the studio again.
Personally, I had a number of reasons for wanting The Doors to provide new music for “An American Prayer”. I put my case forward and eventually convinced The Doors of the validly of my point of view. The case was simple, the surviving Doors knew better than anyone how to put music to Jim’s poetry and it would be a marvelous way for them to create a lasting musical tribute for their friend Jim.
I also admit I had another ulterior motive. Having new Doors music for the album would add a certain commercial cache’ to the project. It was important for me to bring Jim’s poetry to as large an audience as possible and new Doors music would assist in that task. Ultimately they agreed and it became clear that we were going to have new music by The Doors for the Jim’s album. Needless to say I was pleased. This would of course mean that I would have to produce and record The Doors and do justice to the great work Paul Rothchild and Bruce Botnick had done with them all those years ago. In the end I decided that I had to do what I do best and not worry about the past. “An American Prayer” was my project and I was, as always, going to do the very best I could.
As The Doors started composing new music for the album, we went into a small studio in West Los Angeles that The Doors had in the past used periodically for demos. We recorded demos of the new music and then used film’s ability to move the music and poetry against each other. We discovered better pacing for both the music and Jim’s poetry reading. The Doors continued to refine their music during this process. Jim had never finished formulating how he was going read his poetry – that’s what that ill-fated trip to Paris was all about. If anyone was going to polish the pacing of Jim’s poetry, who better than the team that along with Jim, made rock and roll history
The Doors continued to do demos as Frank continued to labor on the order and pacing of the materials, especially the interplay between the music and Jim’s poetry. Eventually all the all pieces of the project finally fell into place. It was like safe-cracking. You keep twirling the dial until the tumblers fall into place. It was actually like that. In one moment ‘cachunk’ and we knew we were done!
Having arrived at the final form of the project we outputted final overviews in a variety of formats. These were to serve as the ‘bible’ for me and my associate Paul Black in the studio as we exactingly reconstructed the album from the original materials. I was not prepared to subject the original masters to the wear and tear and extensive editing that final production involved so I created the highest quality duplicates of the masters that I could, and worked with them.
At the peak of their career The Doors had recorded what is popularly known as the “Adagio in G minor by Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni.” As I recall that was around the time of “The Soft Parade” and was recorded in the huge room at TTG Recorders in Hollywood using a large string orchestra. I had heard it when they first recorded it and thought it was wonderful. We all knew that Jim was inordinately found of the work but The Doors had never found a place for the orchestral only recording on an album so it was never released. For “An American Prayer” the remaining Doors arranged and performed the “Albinoni Adagio” as a setting for Jim’s reading of “An American Prayer” which ends the album. To this day it still gives me the chills.
I produced and recorded the new music at Hollywood Sound Recorders. The Doors performed live to Jim’s carefully conformed poetry. As they themselves have said, it was all really quite ‘spooky’. After so many years the band were again playing live with Jim in the studio – quite moving for everyone.
Paul and I spent many months of hard, precise work getting the project ready for mixing. It has to be remembered that we didn’t have any digital audio workstations nor did we use time code. I had to replicate everyone of Frank’s 16mm magnetic film edits of Jim’s poetry with the original ¼”master recordings and then synchronize them to the final overview. I had put the final overview on a guide track on one track of a 24 track machine. The work was done line by line by line. I was flying by the seat of my pants all the way! The only equipment I had was 24 track tape, the ¼” poetry masters which I transferred to 30ips for protection, quality and ease of editing. Leader tape, grease pencils, razor blades, splicing tape, good reaction times and endless patience.
Following is the process that we repeated over and over and over, seemingly ad infinitum. Once we identified the line or phrase of poetry we needed we located the original source tape using our ‘home-brew’ database system. Then we marked the entry point for the poetry on the 24 track guide track with a grease pencil and wound back the 2” tape, as I recall, four seconds, placing a large white grease pencil ‘start mark’ on the tape. Then the start of the poetry on the poetry master was separated with leader and with it’s own four second start mark before the audio started. The 2” was backed up a further 4 seconds for a pre-roll start mark. Then the 2” 24 track was rolled and when the start mark for the ¼” start passed the head gate on the 24 track, I rolled the poetry master and quickly punched into record on the poetry track on the 24 track. If the punches were too close together I resorted to working between ‘A’ and ‘B’ poetry tracks. All the time I was listening for the relationship of the 16mm guide track and the original material as it was being re-conformed. Sometimes it worked great the first or second time. But more often than not, the process had to be repeated over and over until the relationship between the guide track and the original master was perfect. The vast majority of this work was done in private between Paul and myself.
Of course the entire team had final approval of our efforts. From time to time they would come in to listen to our work and sign-off on the results. They were all invited to attend the process, but watching, compared to doing was a bit like watching paint dry. For the sake of everyone’s sanity they all learned to trust Paul and me. Corky had, by this point, also learned that the team was always working in Jim’s best interest and he graciously let us have the latitude we needed to complete the finishing stages of the project.
The project had been broken down into many smaller sections, much like the scenes in a movie. Once the multi-track reconstruction was completed, the master 2” tapes went to Cherokee Studios in Los Angles where, over a number of weeks each section or ‘scene’ was mixed. It was also at Cherokee where, after all the individual mixes had been signed off, the various elements were brought together with an additional stage of cross rolling and cross-fading to create transitions between each section.
For the first time we finally started hearing our project come together as each section was woven into the next creating one continuous piece … a seamless whole. This final finishing process was a huge leap of faith as had been the entire project going back to day one. That said, we had been so diligent in constructing the ‘bible’ or the ‘backbone’ of the album we were confident we were on the right path. Ultimately what really changed during this end stage was the addition of the final new music and a massive lift in the overall sonic quality. The bare bones of the project remained untouched from the final ‘overviews’ Frank assembled on 16mm film.
One more hurdle
For me their remained one more personal hurdle to overcome before we could release the album. As the project had progressed The Doors and Frank became unsettled with the credits they had contracted to accept. The didn’t feel that ‘co-producer’ was enough for the amount of time and creative equity they had invested. The group called a meeting at The Beverly Hills Hotel. I was to meet with them to approve the artwork for the LP package, not knowing that they had an secret agenda for the meeting. I was blindsided! As you can see from this excerpt of the contract, we had all agreed to very specific credits:
After we had finished the business at hand they announced that they wanted more credit than what they had originally agreed to. I considered my position and quite frankly, with the window and three story drop behind me and the other four between me and the door I felt trapped. To be entirely clear, that reaction had more to do with my emotional response to the situation – they would have never resorted to any form of violence or physical intimidation. But I did feel out-numbered and a bit overwhelmed. It was at this point that the “Directed by” credit was suggested by, I don’t remember who. It did appear that they had discussed and agreed to this change in advance of the meeting. The truth is, their point was fair enough. But I did so much more than just push the buttons and The Doors weren’t exactly sitting in high chairs directing me with a wand and a megaphone. It had been a true and equal collaboration and I didn’t want my credit diluted. Anyway, I agreed and got out of there as fast as I could.
I realized later that I could have easily told them that they had signed a contract and the credits were the credits or the album could be shelved. I could have enforced M.A.D. and Corky, who was not there, would surely have supported me. The Doors have always had an inclination towards being litigious and I saw no point in getting into a fight after we had coexisted with each other under exceedingly trying circumstances for such a long time. It was time to move on and get the record released.
I made the best decision I could under the circumstances and within a fairly short time I accepted my decision. Any resentment I carry about that night is more about my reaction to the situation, not The Doors’ and Frank’s behavior. I understand why they did what they did, but personally … it was not my proudest moment.
So what started out as a small personal story ended up as the completed poetry album Jim and I had started but not finished during his lifetime. In the end it took his death and nearly a decade to complete.
A personal footnote
“An American Prayer” has attracted much comment, including some significant controversy. I want people to understand that this album was made by those people who were closest to Jim, both personally and artistically. Everyone had the best intentions. Whenever we were stuck or not in full agreement one of my jobs as Producer was to ask “What would Jim have done?” Everyone got pretty sick of hearing me pose that question, but I never tired of reminding everyone what our core mission was. It was my responsibilities to keep the project on track, which at times was very challenging. There was much push and pull during the making of this album and I shared in that struggle. But to give credit where credit is due, The Doors loved and admired Jim and “An American Prayer” was their final gift to their departed band member.
I also felt that we had to be pragmatic and accept that time had passed and we had to consider circumstances that Jim would never have had to confront in his lifetime. It was many years later and the world had changed. The public’s taste and level of sophistication had matured. No one could have predicted that as time passed Jim’s star would grow brighter. We always had the option to make the slightly dry, esoteric poetry album that Jim and I started out to make (the contractual budget for the original project was $5,000). But we all understood and were in agreement that we needed to make a high profile, commercially viable album that was right for ‘our’ time. Only this approach provided the fitting pathway to celebrate and memorialize our Jim Morrison, The Poet.
Some purists have disagreed with our approach. If we didn’t all believed we were on the right path we would have changed direction simply out of respect for Jim. We considered many different paths. This was not a casual project! Every member of our team dedicated the better part of two years of their lives to craft this album for Jim. And I put it to you … who better could have made “An American Prayer”?
“An American Prayer” is one of a very select group of spoken word albums to sell in excess of one million copies. I believe Jim would be pleased. Jim would have understood our motivation and appreciated our dedication and heartfelt handling of his work.
Controversial? Yes! Successful? That too! After a personal career spanning over 50 years, “An American Prayer” remains one of my proudest achievements. For me, and hopefully for Jim … that is enough!
I hope you have enjoyed reading this story. Perhaps it has cleared up some of the myths and questions surrounding the making of Jim Morrison’s mysterious “An American Prayer”.
John Haeny, Tuesday, July 23, 2013