Jac Holzman Talks ‘The Doors’

DCM: Whose idea was the famous 1967 LA billboard?

Jac: I saw a billboard and decided it was a good idea. Arthur Lee claims that I stole the idea from him which is not true. . .I had a feeling about the group. But here’s the story of the record release delay [The Doors]. When the record was finished and mastered, which was October 1966, I had told them that we’d release the record in November. I began to get cold feet because I was worried about certain records that were coming out toward the end of the year that might take away from the impact I wanted The Doors to make, and also Christmas records had a longer season than they do now. So I was concerned about that. And also the boys wanted it out. I sat down with them and said, “Look guys, let’s come out in January. January 4th when nobody’s going to come out with a record. I won’t release any other album that month so you have a clear shot.”And that’s what we did. That was an immensely important decision and concession on their part.

Paul Rothchild was always my choice to make that record, to work with that band. Paul, at first, didn’t want to do it. There was a band that he saw in New York called The Paupers that he was more interested in. I finally just kind of pushed him into it and said, “You’ve got to do this.” He agreed and he tackled it with the usual Rothchild energy which was total. I also thought he’d be the only guy able to stand up to every member of the band, either individually or collectively. I also thought that they had done a lot of wood-shedding [working with each other to create a unique sound] but their music wasn’t organized for a record yet. And that Paul was the right person to help them give it shape but it had to be done skillfully. He was a terrific technician in the studio and backing him up with Botnick. . .Botnick was my favorite engineer for this kind of stuff and Bruce and I had worked together on Love. So I thought that was the right combination and I insisted that it be that way. It worked out brilliantly. Everybody at the company-people in the business affairs department kept everything going smoothly in our relationship with the band. We had a sense of what we were doing. We had a plan. I wrote every one of our 32 independent distributors that we had at the time in 1967. I said, “This is the best thing we’ve ever had and we need everybody’s help on this one. This is it for us.” And it turned out to be true. We had no hint that this thing was going to explode the way it did. It sold 10,000 a month for the first two or three months which was not an insignificant number of records and then it jumped to 250,000. I would say everybody within the label was important. The distributors caught that we really believed in this and gave some extra special help, so that was important.

DCM: Break On Through wasn’t well received as a first release. Any thoughts in retrospect?

Jac: I’ve been faulted for releasing that single first. In the context of its day and at the time it was the right thing to do because if we were going to learn our way we were not going to learn our way on Light My Fire, rather with Break On Through and get the marketplace prepared. It was just too early to start with Light My Fire. Break On Through was a good tune for that, and we made a video for it. There is a film on that which we shot using our own camera with our own people, in-house, with an optical as well as a magnetic soundtrack, which was sent out to the various TV stations that ran dance shows. Elektra was independent without a lot of money and we couldn’t afford necessarily to tour the band, but what we could afford to do was send this “video” out. And it worked. We sent out a lot of them.

DCM: The story of your signing The Doors after seeing them at The Whisky is well-known. What particular quality about the group made you pursue them over the course of the next few months prior to signing them?

Jac: I didn’t get The Doors when I first saw them. I kept going back and back and back. The reason I saw them at all was because of Arthur Lee. Arthur Lee was the top half of the bill and The Doors were the bottom half. Arthur said to me, “You’ve got to stay around to see this band.” I had come from New York on an airplane to see Arthur, it was 2 o’clock in the morning metabolism-time and I stayed around and was very tired. But I also felt I hadn’t given the group a shot and I had a high regard for Arthur’s opinion; though he was flaky in many respects I thought he was a talent and still do. Because I’d been so tired I went back the next night. It was on the third night that I began to hear some of the classical influence in the material. I also was struck by the simplicity of it. In architectural terms it reminded me of the Bauhaus period-very lean, clean, straight lines-there was nobody on stage who didn’t belong on stage. I was impressed how John understood how his job was not to provide a rhythmic underpinning only, but to provide that as well as to follow Jim because everybody really followed Jim-whatever he was going to do was where they went. Finally, about the fourth night I got it. Jim was not moving at all, but I understood that this was a coiled spring ready to burst forth. I just went on a gut feeling. The Doors had recently been signed to Columbia but not recorded by them. I don’t think they were too happy with record companies at the time. I just pursued them all summer long. When I wasn’t in town, my wife at the time, Nina, would cook them dinner. I just went after and after and after them like a dog with somebody’s trouser cuff in its teeth. I just don’t give up when I decide I’m going to do something.

DCM: Less than a year ago Arthur Lee countered hecklers at a Boston show by telling them Morrison was ‘a nothing’-he’d stolen everything from him (Arthur). He accused Elektra of taking all the money Love had made for them and investing it in The Doors. He was quoted, “I am Elektra-if it hadn’t been for me, they would never have survived.” 

Jac: Arthur has his version. I’d consider that Arthur was sort of rapping. The big difference between Love and The Doors: One was almost destined to be a local band; they would not travel. I once got Arthur to come to New York. He turned around the same day and caught a midnight flight back. He was not in New York for more than 24 hours. Very uncooperative about traveling. He was not willing to seize the moment. The Doors were totally committed to what they were doing. No wonder they succeeded and Love didn’t. Love had incredible success from our standpoint. They were the first real contemporary pop artists with the exception of one or two earlier folk groups in the folk days that hit the charts so we were real happy to have them. Love didn’t make that much money for us. What made the money for us, for the Doors investment, came from Nonesuch Records. That’s where the money came from. Didn’t come from Love. Oh, yes…did we make money with Love? Sure we did. But the real financial underpinning of the label in those days was the classical music line, until we got the pop music line working well.

DCM: What was the Doors’ best performance you ever experienced? What in particular do you remember from that show? 

Jac: The best performance I remember was at the Fillmore East in ’69. It was one of those magic evenings when everything worked absolutely perfectly. The audience was right, the venue was right, they were right and everything built and fed on each other. It was a magical evening.

DCM: The press were always quick to cover Jim’s outrageous behavior. Can you share with us some special moments when you saw Jim at his best?

Jac: My moments with Jim were generally peaceful. In my experience, Jim was a person who would break out in a rash occasionally, and he would do something like chop up a typewriter in the office for which we would just deduct the cost of the typewriter from the next royalty check. That wasn’t a big deal. I found him to be extremely soft and willing to talk. He would try to get me to go drinking with him which I wouldn’t do because I knew I was out-classed. Once when I declined he said, “Jac, you’ve got to get more out there on the edge.” And I said, “Jim, I agree with you, being out there on the edge is important; the trick is not to bleed.” That’s been quoted before.

DCM: Did Jim ever talk about wanting to record his poetry?

Jac: Yes, we talked about that. He wanted to do it. And I agreed so we entered into a separate non-Doors agreement about the poetry. Some people thought that we entered into this as a sop to Jim. I don’t think it was that. There was a willingness to accommodate him. He hadn’t told me that he planned to burn the candle at both ends and die. We did go in on a Sunday and we did record several hours of his poetry. Then I couldn’t get him back into the studio to do any more. I think he was unsure of himself. He liked the idea of electronics and poetry but he had no notion as to how to complete the idea and that’s why the thing lay fallow for awhile until it was resurrected on An American Prayer. Now I think if he’s got a record player wherever he is that he would be pleased with An American Prayer. I think it’s a wonderful record.

DCM: Little is known about Pamela Courson. What do you remember of her and her relationship with Jim? To your knowledge were there other women who affected Jim as much as Pamela?

Jac: Well, the thing that I think the movie [The Doors] missed that was a shame was that Pamela was a pretty good foil for Jim. She could give as good as she got. She would fight back. What they did was dare and double-dare each other constantly. It was interesting to watch, but it was not fun to be around. I’m sure there were great moments of intimacy and closeness which I was never a part of but it was a prickly relationship; a push-pull relationship, for sure. I know that Jim had other women in his life. I think they were as much to taunt Pamela as they were for Jim to get off.

DCM: What do you consider The Doors’ greatest music?

Jac: In terms of the Doors’ albums there are songs that run throughout their catalogue that I think are outstanding, but as complete oeuvres, the first and last albums: The Doors and L.A. Woman, by far. L.A. Woman was an album where they broke away, where by mutual agreement Paul Rothchild was not involved.

DCM: What did you learn from knowing Jim?

Jac: The thing I learned from Jim was an appreciation for appropriate limits. Jim would do everything to excess. I’m a fond lover of excess but not to be done constantly. Jim did it constantly. When you go over the edge you do cut yourself.

DCM: What did you learn by Jim’s death?

Jac: I learned a number of things from Jim’s death. From a personal standpoint, I was in my thirties and it brought me face-to-face with my own mortality as I think it did for everybody. It was a difficult thing to deal with for everyone at the company since we all had greataffection for him. A couple of us knew a few days before the news broke and we were able to handle it appropriately. We’d seen a circus around Jimi Hendrix and that was not going to happen with Jim. Another thing is, in retrospect, I learned something about Jim’smotives. In the Greek classical sense I think Jim was looking for a kind of immortality. If Jim were in his fifties today he would not have the immortality he had by burning the candle at both ends and dying young. For Jim it was the right choice. And I think at some level the poetic death was his choice. I learned to accept that. That’s one of the things I learned. Everybody gets to choose the way they go. And how you live determines, probably, how you may exit. It’s also the thing that everybody does perfectly.

DCM: What do you remember of Ray, Robby and John?

Jac: Of the group, John was probably the most “curmudgeon-est” but he had a very firm sense of what he wanted to do. I think John was in love and out of love with the group. There were moments when he wished the whole thing would go away and moments when he was happy to be part of it. Robby was a surfer dude. And he surfed whatever the wave of The Doors was. The thinking one in terms of conceptualizing and taking it all some place was Ray. He had a sense from the very beginning of what it was that they had, of who Morrison was, of how to put it together, and I think he was a very special kind of glue that held it together. Every time Jim would go off on a tear it was Ray who made the band continue to happen.

DCM: Why did you sell Elektra in 1970?

Jac: I had been running Elektra for 20 years with a system of independent distribution where all the money belonged to me and I was making change out of my own pocket. After a while it became uncomfortable for me. Most importantly, I could see that the kind ofcoalescing of industries that has occurred in everything else, whether it be automobiles or whatever, was going to occur in the music business as well. Even though I thought we had particular advantages in being an independent and spirited small label, very hands-on, everybody easily-reachable, I thought that record-making was going to change. No matter how good we were at that, our inability to distribute in a major way through our own controlled distribution system was going to have a negative effect on our ability to grow. So when the opportunity came to join people that I had a high regard for, there was no twinge of hesitation, I just said yes. It was a very easy negotiation taking less than three weeks. It was a very simple, straightforward deal that I’ve never regretted. Warner Communications at the time came out like bandits because of the things that we signed not only because of the Doors’ catalogue but all the other things that we had-Carly Simon, Bread-which really didn’t happen until after the label was sold. Judy Collins happened big after that. And of course we had accidents like Queen which didn’t hurt. My association is with the Warner Music Group. Discovery, the label which I operate today, is a wholly-owned unit of the Warner Music Group. It functions independently of the other labels, but uses the Warner Music distribution system domestically and in most major countries of the world. In addition I’m the chief technologist of the Warner Music Group.

DCM: How are the Doors’ records selling today?

Jac: When the catalogue was reborn as a result of Apocalypse Now Doors’ records went to another plateau. They’ve never stopped selling. There’s always been a steady stream of Doors’ sales. But they multiplied many-fold after Apocalypse Now. I think one of the reasons was Jim had died, there was a certain sympathy in Coppola’s approach to making the film inherent in the structure, and tension of the film itself, and most especially in the courage with which he made that film and put up all of his own money to do it. He was at great risk and Jim was a great risk in what he did. I think all of that came together. The use of The End in Martin Sheen’s opening scene in the hotel room was, I thought, one of the very best marriages of a piece of existing material to a scene that was created free-form, that was driven by the music. I thought that really had an enormous impact on people’s recognition that The Doors were not just a band from the late 60s up until the time that Jim died in 1971. But were a band with relevance today. I think people understood from hearing the material again that that lean, clean, very spare musical line that they had did not put the music into any time zone. The music was itself timeless. The Oliver Stone movie has increased sales yet three or four-fold again. I have no idea of figures but I understand that the numbers are quite impressive.

DCM: Were you associated with Oliver Stone’s The Doors? What aspects of the movie do you think told their story most truthfully? In what aspects did the movie fall short?

Jac: I was not associated with the film although I did meet with Oliver at one point. He was curious about the Doors’ relationship to the record company which was always cordial even when Abe Somer, their attorney, convinced them to go on strike for higher royalties. I just let them strike. It stopped one day when the boys said, “Jac is waiting for us to make a move, let’s go over and have a chat.” And I said, “You can go back in the studio tomorrow, I’ll make a deal with Abe.” I just don’t like the way this thing was done. I’m always available to talk and I hammered out a deal with the boys which was later ratified by the lawyer. But I don’t think he particularly liked that. John, in his book, makes reference to a time when Abe got me on the phone and was trying to puncture the image of Elektra as being an artist-caring company. The thing that was right about the movie was all the live performances. They were dead on. I sat in the screening theater with some trepidation because I knew that I was being portrayed in the movie by the guy who played the Lieutenant in Platoon. Not a character with a lot of courage in that movie. I had met with him and we spent a few hours together. He looked through some Elektra scrapbooks of the period, none of which I think helped him because he only had one line to say which is a line I never would have uttered. . .”Well guys, if you can do on a record what I saw on that stage we’ll make a lot of money.” It’s a brutish thing to say and not something that would have emanated from my mouth. Putting that aside I have attained a certain immortality as a result of it. They were not originally going to use my name because they couldn’t find the release that I had signed. I was friends with the people at Carolco and I sent it to the president of Carolco and he lost it on his desk. So they were going to use some Jewish-sounding name because their belief was that everybody in the record business was Jewish. There’s some truth to that. Rothchild said, “But everybody knows, if you use another name you’re in trouble….” so I signed another release. But I thought the live sequences, especially at The Whisky were magical. They were chilling. And I thought Val [Kilmer] was terrific. I don’t think you can tell the story of this band. There are just too many things, and they lived very “densely” so a two-hour movie isn’t going to do it. But what you can do and what I think the movie successfully did, besides communicating Stone’s vision of whatever he thought the Doors’ thing was about, is communicate the experience of The Doors. That’s very tough to recreate.

DCM: What have you wished you could say about The Doors but have never had the opportunity to say in print?

Jac: The success of The Doors gave Elektra a very special kind of visibility from which we were able to get other artists as a result. It was one of the luckiest times of my life. I rode the tiger. I spent as much energy hanging on as I did enjoying it. I wish I had enjoyed it more. It was tough. The music of The Doors affected certain people in a very special way. It demonstrated that you could boogie and think at the same time; it’s very, very true. There’s never been a band quite like them or a band that will last as long into the future as I think The Doors will. I think people will always find something of relevance in The Doors. People who function behind the scenes as I do don’t often get an opportunity to know that they’ve contributed something to making it happen. I don’t know that it would have happened without Elektra. I’m not sure that it would have. I think we were the right label at the right time. We gave each other the mutual kick over the goal line. They couldn’t have done it without us I don’t think, and we couldn’t have done it without The Doors.

reprinted from The Doors Collectors Magazine