Jim Morrison's legendary band staged their final show 26 years ago

By Tom Sinclair
Updated December 13, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

Ray Manzarek remembers the Doors’ last concert well. It was the night singer Jim Morrison’s spirit left his body — though it would return to linger for another few months. The date was December 12, 1970; the Doors were playing a large, dank waterfront venue in New Orleans. Hunched over his keyboard, Manzarek says, he felt Morrison ”leave the stage” — but Morrison’s body was standing stock-still in front of the microphone. When the singer’s ”spirit” returned, it was with a vengeance: He smashed a hole through the stage with a mike stand, ending the concert early and providing a suitably dramatic finish to what turned out to be the Doors’ final performance with Morrison.

Their appeal was perhaps best explained by critic Lester Bangs: ”The Stones were dirty, but the Doors were dread.” Formed in L.A. in 1965, the Doors — Morrison, Manzarek, guitarist Robbie Krieger, and drummer John Densmore — crammed sex and blues and jazz and death into a heady rock & roll stew that was the perfect soundtrack for a generation bent on breaking down the doors of perception. The group’s 1967 ”Light My Fire” was hardly a pie-eyed hippie anthem. It simmered with an implicit threat in Morrison’s half-spoken vocals, an ominous edge to Manzarek’s chilly organ playing; the music’s understated menace hinted that the singer’s love would be incendiary — and possibly soul shattering. No wonder Morrison called the Doors ”erotic politicians.”

Over time, the once-svelte singer developed into a bloated, reckless alcoholic. He was drunk when he exposed himself on stage in Miami in March 1969 (he was arrested but never got to serve his six-month jail sentence). ”Miami was definitely a turning point,” admits Manzarek, 61. ”After that, the audience was coming to see a geek show.” But while police surveillance forced Morrison to control his onstage behavior, off stage he continued to rampage. Finally, in March 1971, Morrison retreated to Paris for a sabbatical; he died there of a heart attack July 3. (The remaining Doors released two lackluster albums, 1971’s Other Voices and 1972’s Full Circle, before calling it quits.)

Still, the singer’s death only increased the group’s mystique — and worth: The Doors sell more records today than when Morrison was alive. Oliver Stone’s 1991 film The Doors boosted their popularity even further. The most recent nod to their following was October’s CD release of 1970’s Absolutely Live, which captures the band’s savagely pristine live sound. In fact, the influence of their best music can be heard throughout rock, from Iggy Pop to Danzig, proving that the fire the Doors lit three decades ago still burns brightly today.

Time Capsule: December 12, 1970
The rerelease of Ben-Hur had audiences racing to theaters, while readers embraced Erich Segal’s Love Story. TV viewers yukked it up with Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, even as Smokey Robinson sang about ”The Tears of a Clown.”