If the title of this seems familiar it is. A couple of years ago I wrote about “L’America” as autobiography. I recently read it again because I wanted to add a little something, most most writers given the chance will never consider anything finished (look at how many times Jim Morrison revised poems) but when I reread the old article I saw that I could make it a more thorough article.
The Doors are best known for their classic hit songs like “Light My Fire,” or “Riders on the Storm” or even their more counter-culturally oriented songs such as “The End” or “When The Music’s Over.” However, deep within the Doors catalog (or any rock band) are songs that are generally underestimated or overlooked. One of these songs is “L’America” off of the “L.A. Woman” album. I thought it would be a good idea to look behind the words and what meaning may be buried in the song.
The 2012 release of “L.A. Woman: The 40th Anniversary Edition” includes an alternate cut or outtake of every song on “L.A. Woman“ with one notable exception; “L‘America.” While “L’America” was included on the album it’s not really a part of the “L.A Woman” period. That’s because “L’America” wasn’t created at the same time as the rest of “L.A. Woman,“ it was written two years before around the time of the “Morrison Hotel“ album with an eye towards being included in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film “Zabriskie Point.” At first glance, “L’America” would seem to be a natural fit for “Zabriskie Point” with its plot of an alienated young man who is dissatisfied with revolutionary talk, steals a plane and heads out to the desert where he meets a young woman. They develop an intense relationship that culminates in sex, death, and violence, all themes and motifs that attracted Jim Morrison. While Antonioni used parts of songs from the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, and even the Youngbloods, he rejected The Doors song.
The Doors thought “L’America” an important enough song to be included on “L.A. Woman” to help carry over the self-reflection Morrison and The Doors were taking at the city around them, the times, and even a look at themselves. The lyrics are very much a Doors song and aren’t reflective of either the plot or action of Antonioni’s film. So what is “L’America” about then? Simply, “L’America” is the autobiography of The Doors in general, and Jim Morrison in particular.
The first line of “L‘America,“ “I took a trip down to “L’America”/To trade some beads for a pint of gold.” gives us a look into Morrison’s head on a couple of different levels. The trading of beads for gold is a reference to Europeans trading glass beads to the American Indians, an item that was cheap and of little value but which they traded with the Indians for land, gold or anything of value they were seeking. By the time Morrison wrote this he was questioning the value of the songs/words he was trading for the gold, the money that Elektra was lavishing them with. To him the songs had become mere beads traded for gold. Perhaps it also describes Morrison’s feeling of coming down off the Venice rooftop with his song poems. Maybe at that juncture he had gold in his notebooks that he would trade for beads. Morrison notoriously didn’t care for money so maybe he thought he could reverse the equation and trade his gold for something he devalued, money, but which he needed to survive. It was only after the initial flash of success that he began to see that maybe the bargain he thought he’d struck wasn’t exactly what he thought it was and he began to question that success. This is more overtly reflected in the lines from his poem “As I Look Back,” “The problem of Money/Guilt/do I deserve it?”
The stanza that contains the lines “Friendly strangers came to town/All the people put them down/But the women loved their ways” is a pretty clear and forthright description of a rock band on tour. The Doors toured cities and towns all across America bringing their music with them, but they were considered outsiders and they looked and acted differently from most of the denizens of the cities or towns they visited. From the very beginning of rock ‘n’ roll, bands were looked upon with distrust and were considered such a threat that some cities tried to outlaw concerts by zoning them out of business. But, of course, the women loved them, literally. Men would bring their girlfriends to the shows and heckle the band all the while their girlfriends were at the front of the stage screaming and every once in a while they would lose their girlfriend to the band for a night or two. Morrison emphasized that point with the inherent innuendo and double entendre in the line “come again some other day.”
“L’America” also shows us that Morrison regarded himself as a transformative figure. Using the American mythology of the rainmaker, a person who would travel from town to town with the promise to make it rain, to change the weather and transform the environment from dry to wet. “L’America” promises a lot more from the rainmaker in “He’ll change your weather/He’ll change your luck/Then he’ll teach yourself how to find yourself.” That line isn’t a band but about an individual, the rainmaker, who is able to teach people something about their condition, or at least through him they’ll be able to find themselves. It should also be remembered in the archetype of the rainmaker there’s also the inference of the charlatan, again reinforcing the idea of getting something for nothing.
“L.A. Woman” as an album has always been regarded as a metaphor for Los Angeles. But it’s more, it’s a look back for The Doors, a look at their existential surroundings. A look not at the events of the times, but the timbre and tone of those times. Within the whole of “L.A. Woman,” “L’America” is the autobiography of The Doors as told by Jim Morrison.
Note on sources: the lyrics for “L’America” are as the appear in “The Doors: The Complete Lyrics” compiled by Danny Sugerman and “As I Look Back” as it appears in “Wilderness: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison, Volume I”
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