This hand shook the hand of The Doors’ keyboard-player, Ray Manzarek, as I met and talked with him at a trade-show appearance south of Boston in the mid-1990s. For me, by proxy, it shook Jim Morrison’s hand.
I hated to have to wash it later, but that afternoon the steamy film star Traci Lord was promoting her book at the table next to Ray. No matter—My whole body still remembers back to the night when a 15-year-old lapsed catholic, at his first-ever rock ‘n’ roll show, felt that astounding wash of sound and ceremony pouring out of The Doors—live at Boston Arena on Friday night April 17, 1970.
This was not long after Jim’s ridiculous arrest in Florida. The Doors, despite the tight rich power and new range of their latest Morrison Hotel album, were already losing most of their booked gigs to America’s morality-circus. The nation busily napalming Vietnamese villages in order to liberate them was concerned about its children’s spiritual health. Was that why The Doors couldn’t get into the best Boston venue back then, the original funky Boston Garden with its 15,000 seats? At least we were sure to get a down-and-closer show at the half-sized Boston Arena, on St. Botolph Street—though it stood in an area of town that my good ol’ Irish Dad, with his urban roots, considered not the best for a youth already gone astray.
Well, he drove me and a first-band-mate George through spring rain into Boston that night to see these “Four Sad Bastards” (his name for The Doors on seeing their first album-cover). So there we were, working our way down to the floor and into a wide potential riot-ring filled with rows of loose folding chairs. The hall was like a great naked gymnasium hung with Beanpot Hockey banners, and while it had the same rotten-circus-peanuts odor as the Garden, the Arena air was full of a smoke sweetly strange to our clueless nostrils.
An unmemorable blues trio opened the show. Behind their set, John Densmore’s drum-kit (including a pair of skin-drums across his toms), Ray’s lean keyboard and bass piano, and Robbie’s skeletized Fender Bandmaster guitar-head were enough to upstage anybody, and The Doors’ 10-foot-high blue and silver “wall of sound” amp system kept the main act’s promise on show. People were waiting only for that to come alive.
The same fate met the next act, folk singer Gordon Lowe, whose seated set of songs and acoustic guitar faced waves of chants for Doors, Doors, Doors! and bursts of unkind applause that meant “You’re done, get off the stage!” Poor guy. The high moment of Lowe’s show was when he said he felt “Jim’s presence” close behind him. 45 minutes later there was a growing bustle with cameras flashing out of sight below the rickety stage stairs, and the whole place stood up roaring.
You can hear Jim and the band bursting into the light on the CD of this night’s two shows released in 2012. “Alright!” he howls in his warm-ups to the rowdy welcome. “Alright! Why shouldn’t I feel good?”
And off they launched into the lead track of Morrison Hotel, the rolling rhythms of “Roadhouse Blues.” Robbie’s guitar, Ray and John all sounded sharp as a tiger’s tooth, but the only disappointment that night (and on the CD) will ever be the Boston Arena P.A. For Jim sounded most of the time as if he were crooning through a soup-can on a string, except when he really cut loose. Of course, the up-side was that the P.A. was a system separate from their wall of sound, and that was going to crown the second show when The Doors decided to play “all night” and the Boston Police cut the power—to everything except the microphone. It made for a classic cursing Exit-Stage-Whatever for Morrison, whom Ray at last swept into his arms and off the boards as drunk as a boiled Irishman from shooting at least a case of beer through two shows. “Fuck this place!” The lion’s last Boston roar.
Back in that adolescent trance, in the presence of a national-impact band who didn’t give a shit how they looked, who took poetry and sex and art and the Earth and the body and the whole human spirit seriously, I had nothing like a critical eye and ear. Densmore in his tank-top looked lean as a cat and his slash and splash were as electrifying as his studio tracks. The whole building moved with Ray’s big blond lock of hair swaying over the keyboards while his long knuckly fingers bounced and stabbed. Robbie paced, turned and communed with the rafters, slicing his luminescent lines through the songs on his Gibson SG, and Morrison pranced and skittered, jiving along the edge of the stage and giving women’s outstretched hands just enough to hope for one good grab. “Eat me!”
Listening now, it’s clear that Morrison was sloshed getting out of the limo. In the October to come about 6 months after tonight (in their penultimate New Orleans show), Ray would see Morrison’s spirit leaving him altogether, flowing out his head into the ether. For now, the CD’s second song “Ship of Fools” showed him forgetting and mumbling half the words while the band turned it into their best moondance of a jam. But it fetched them only mild applause, and things turned musically worse with their next concert standard, a medley built out of “Alabama Song,” “Back Door Man” and “Five to One.”
Jim hardly bothers to sing “Alabama.” In the studio “Back Door Man,” there’s a particular snake’s tongue flicker of Densmore’s high-hat in each measure, which that night flattened into basic blues, and while Robbie’s guitar-leads stood out in this medley (was he the first to play in two-hand-tap style? For I saw him doing it that night), by “Five to One” it seems that the four of them are losing each other, as if nobody wants to solo while Jim dallies far too long with the ladies in the shadows. “Aah wanna love ya, bay-bay”—whether that meant her or ourselves was unclear while Jim riffed into a list of procreative positions (“Wrap yah legs aroun’ mah head….Gotta go out get fucked uhhhp….”)—all of it met with, again, some modest applause.
Well, that was sure to piss off The Doors, and maybe that was why they came back hard in “When the Music’s Over.” The first half alone was about 15 minutes long with the three instruments pouring out fierce fire. The whole thing seemed to totter in the too-long almost-silence that Jim left through the middle—but then, after his plea for the Earth, the climax was altogether shattering. I still haven’t heard a rock’n’roll singer say it better:
What have they done to the Earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her,
Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn, and
Tied her with fences, and
Dragged her down…
And when will the next shaman riding a wave of new music and politics dare their people to sing it and say it and live it and breathe it: “We want the world, and we want it—-Now!” I haven’t heard one since. But there are plenty still worth Jim’s mockery screaming Save us, Jesus! Save us!
You can hear, on the CD, that The Doors were holding on hard to the still-sharp edge that the music of Morrison Hotel gave to Jim’s sung poetry. I know they considered themselves a blues band, but for this one fan of Doors and blues, their chops stood out on blues ground mainly in studio examples such as “Back Door Man,” “Love Me Two Times,” “Roadhouse,” “You Make Me Real,” and the two late minimal “Been Down So Long” and “Cars Crawl Past My Window.” See if you agree as you hear out the rest of the show, but they didn’t play their new mattress-pounding “Maggie McGill” in either show (although the later crowd got their best new blues with “The Spy,” “Build Me A Woman” and “You Make Me Real”). Here instead began a long plateau of shuffle and Eastern-toned dervish improv that more or less fizzled into some of Jim’s new poetry—until he came bursting out of the dark in a single spotlight and shrieked, Wake up! Truth to tell, it scared the hell out of me.
The Lizard King had arrived and The Doors ripped and screamed and hammered through the central stretches of his “Celebration,” from Waiting for the Sun. And with one long final howl (“the cool, hissing, snakes of raiiiiin….”) and a snare-shot from Densmore, they took off into “Light My Fire,” hammering the first show closed with a pair of long first-rate solos from Ray and Robbie. Again, I saw Krieger blistering through his finger-picked lead in two-hand-tap style, and I don’t know of an example of the technique earlier than that.
What you don’t see with the CD is Morrison shooting beer after beer (after beer) all this time, his lurching staggers to and from the mike, his fighting off the hands that caught his sweater by the shoulder and almost pulled him off the stage, and again Jim laughing at the edge-biting women who kept jumping volleyball-high to grab his crotch (“What do you want? What would you do with it, baby?”). You don’t see Jim sitting down half-slumped against Densmore’s dais to philosophize when he took the level of “Light My Fire’s” middle down (“Plenty a’room, plenty a-room, y’all just get out there and populate….”) And the boy back then did not likely reflect on how those jokey words from a weary star spoke back to the worsening fate of Jim’s fair sister.
But something lit Jim’s fire in the end. For next we knew, he was up and he stumbled his way to the microphone stand, unscrewed the long shaft from its base, and then began to almost-hurl it like a spear straight into the crowd. He faked this move again and again and in the dark middle audience we saw half-rows of chairs get pushed aside by people trying anything to not get speared. Then, Morrison took the steel shaft by one end and started to smash his way right through the stage floor.
He just kept smashing with the shaft, and it was bent like an archer’s bow when he bent back again to shake it high above his head and faked more throws down into his tribe. Green as I was, I knew his alcohol-loosed rage was his anger come to a head, the anger that darkened his words and their music, born and lost in a Roman wilderness of pain. Morrison tossed his lightning-bolt away, and found his mike, but only barely managed to finish, with little of the crescendo the song and show deserved. Musically they had long moved on. But Lord only knows how Jim could come back out and blow the roof off the building with the second show.
Looking back now, no less grateful for their music, it seems this was one of those nights when, as Densmore rued, The Doors just never knew which Jim was going to show up, the incompetent drunkard or the practiced poet of Dionysian inspiration.
George and I came out into the melee of Boston’s St. Botolph Street. It was now a clammy night of April rain and, just across the street, there was a serious fire in the huge apartment building opposite the Arena. Fire engines, turned-out residents, ambulances, news report crews, cops and all were now being inundated with rowdy glassy-eyed Doors fans headed for the next whiskey-bar. It was like a scene produced by Jim and/or that music, like a visual coda saying “See?” to the vibrations still with us.
“Where you been? Let’s get the hell out of here!” my father said.
All in all, Boston Arena got both Jim Morrisons that night—with a band giving everything they had. Jim, Ray, Robbie, and John—Thank You.