“An American Prayer”: A History

Jim Morrison on An American Prayer

It was Robby’s idea. Jim had been haunting him for a while. Maybe it wasn’t a true haunting in the classic sense or definition but Robby had been having dreams of Jim Morrison reciting his poetry. Robby called engineer John Haeny to see if he knew where the tapes were that Jim had recorded on his 27th birthday on December 8th, 1970.  Haeny still had the tapes and the first step was taken in what would be an album of Jim Morrison’s poetry known as “An American Prayer”.

An American Prayer: The Cover

The Dec. 8th, 1970 recordings were made with an eye towards Jim Morrison recording a solo album of his poetry. Morrison had secured a contract with Elektra founder Jac Holzman for the album and he wanted to start recording it. He invited Frank and Kathy Lisciandro, Alain Ronay, and Florentine Pabst to the studio for the recording. Haeny gave Morrison a bottle of Old Bushmills whiskey (on the “An American Prayer” CD on the bonus track, “Ghost Song”, the tape was still rolling and Morrison says, “one more thing”, then you can hear him take a swig off the bottle; you have to turn the volume up to hear it), and the session lasted approximately four hours. If the scene sounds familiar Oliver Stone used it in his movie “The Doors”. Recordings from the March 1969 recording session were also used but by the 1970 “birthday sessions” Morrison had revised a lot of the previously recorded poems.

The surviving Doors recorded “An American Prayer” using (besides Morrison’s poetry sessions) materials from The Doors catalog, recordings of live Doors shows and sound effects. They recorded new music using much of the poetry, editing and splicing Morrison’s voice in and around the music.

“An American Prayer” was released in November of 1978* and roughly outlines the life of Jim Morrison from birth (‘wake up!’), childhood, teenage years and coming of age, to being a rock star/sex symbol, and the elegiac poem “An American Prayer”. “An American Prayer” was released to generally good reviews.  Although it didn’t get a lot of radio play because of Morrison’s use of expletives, it was the only Doors album nominated for a Grammy and at 250,000 copies sold upon its release makes it the largest selling spoken-word album.

All the members of The Doors ‘family’ thought “An American Prayer” a fitting tribute to Morrison and his wish to be regarded as a poet. The lone exception was longtime Doors producer Paul Rothchild, who called “An American Prayer” “the rape of Jim Morrison” and compared it to “taking a Picasso and cutting it into postage stamp-sized pieces and spreading it across a supermarket wall”. Rothchild also cited Morrison’s intentions of producing a poetry album as a solo project, separate from The Doors, and without rock music using more classical orchestrations or with avant garde orchestrations such as with Lalo Schifrin (who did the soundtrack to 60’s classics “Cool Hand Luke” and “Mission Impossible”). Part of Morrison’s vision for his poetry album was the commissioning of a triptych by artist T.E. Breitenbach, it shows the elements Morrison thought important, a moonlit beach with naked couples running around, a city at noon “insane with activity,” and a desert scene at night seen through the windshield of a car. Though Morrison was never able to bring his poetry album to fruition Breitenbach did create the painting and you can see it and buy a poster of it at his website.

T. E. Breitenbach's Triptych, Commissioned by Jim Morrison
The triptych by T. E. Breitenbach, commissioned by Jim Morrison

*Note: The entry in Wikipedia for “An American Prayer” has the release date as Nov 17, 1978. A timeline I received from Doors researchers lists the release date as Nov 30, 1978. I tried to find further information to verify either date but couldn’t. Additional sources: The Doors FAQ by Rich Weidman.

Part II: John Haeny Recounts “An American Prayer”

“An American Prayer” generated a lot of controversy. Paul Rothchild called it the ‘rape of Jim Morrison’ and others argue that it isn’t what Jim Morrison wanted for his poetry album, namely that it be a project separate from The Doors. John Haeny who produced “An American Prayer” has put up a website that features an insider’s story behind “An American Prayer”.

Haeny was asked by Elektra president Jac Holzman to produce an album of Jim Morrison’s poetry. Haeny agreed, and he met with Morrison to discuss what he wanted in the album and then they went into the studio on two separate occasions too record Morrison and his poetry. Morrison of course died in Paris before he completed his poetry album. One of reasons Morrison gave to Haeny for going to Paris was to clear his head and work out what he wanted for the album, and then Haeny would come to Paris later that summer. Haeny’s essay on the making of “An American Prayer” is a first-hand account that not only reveals the behind the scenes technical details in creating “An American Prayer” but also a look at some of the personalities behind the project.

Part 1 was originally published November 30, 2011, and appears in “The Doors Examined”.

Part 2 was originally published September 29, 2013.

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