The Doors: Madison Square Garden – 24 January 1969

New York, January 23, 1969           
The day before Madison Square Garden.

It would be our first really big concert in New York. Sal Bonafette, our manager, had described our career as a big wave about to break. But there was a fatal flaw: Our singer was nuts. Sal had an idea. Because of Jim’s increasing intake of alcohol, Sal’s partner, Ash should challenge Jim to a drinking contest the night before the concert. That way he’d be completely burned out on booze and be too weak to do it again and in great shape for the performance the next night! What a concept! I was willing to try anything….We all went to Max’s Kansas City and then to Steve Paul’s The Scene on West 46th Street and Eighth Avenue. Jim was well on his way.
It was a long walk, but I decided to hoof it back to the hotel in hopes that it would cool me out from worrying about the next night, our biggest and possibility most important gig yet. Walking up Eighth to 57th and across to the Manger Windsor Hotel on Sixth, I prayed all the way for Jim’s sobriety.
The next morning I ran into Robby in the hotel’s coffee shop.
“Jim call me last night at four AM!” Robby exclaimed. “You know what he said? I was asleep, mind you, and he said, ‘This is God calling, and we’ve decided to kick you right out of the universe!'”
“What a card!”
“Yeah…..I hope he’s in good shape for tonight.”

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Jim seemed in pretty good spirits. If his state of mind was in that delicate balance where had a buzz, but not too much, my confidence was strong enough to reduce my preperformance nerves to small butterflies.
I’ve always thought that if you aren’t a little nervous, then you aren’t risking enough.
We came out to the center boxing ring and twenty-four thousand people gave us the biggest roar I had ever heard. It was the ultimate in mass affection. How could this he topped? And the stage was still dark! Since there wasn’t any curtain, we chose to be led our with flashlights and were tuning up in the dark-and they were already going crazy!
Ray lit a stick of incense that was preset on the organ, an idea we copped from Indian music. It had evolved into a ritual that signaled we were leaving the outside world behind, and the smell put us in a collective mood to play.
The combination of powerful electric instruments crashing in over primitive drums with simultaneous stage lights blasting in out of total blackness was very effective, an electronic coming of Christ. Or the Anti-Christ, to be more precise.
Then came Jim’s voice, the voice of total belligerence, spouting out an improvised poem about “FAT CATS, DEAD RATS, suckin’ on a soldier’s sperm. CRAP-THAT’S CRAP!”
“Back Door Man” was next, not giving the audience a moment to breathe. The guitar started it, then Jim let out one of his bloodcurdling screams. No one could scream like Jim.

The lights were meticulously programmed to the mood of each song by Chip Monck, our new lighting designer. For “Whiskey Bar,” Chip would bathe the band in blue light while giving Jim a yellow halo.
We argued in front of everybody about which song to play fourth. Harvey Brooks, our bass player, doubled over in laughter at the audience’s response to our unprofessionalism. They loved It.
Jim, as usual, wanted to play “Little Red Rooster”; Robby was amenable to anything; Ray and I pushed for an original. We finally agreed on “Unknown Soldier.” The execution section in the middle was terrifying. I would start the military drumming with Jim vocalizing “Hup-two-three-four;” Robby would go to his amp and turn a knob that made a siren sound.
“COMPANNYYY HALT!! Preessenntt ARMS.”
Robby would aim his guitar at Jim like it was a gun; Ray ‘would hold a fist in the air with one hand and pick up the top of his amplifier with the other, dropping it on cue. The sound blasted out like a gunshot.

This was the usual routine, but I could tell Jim was very concentrated tonight. When he got “shot,” he slammed himself to the floor like never before. I stood up from my seat and looked down at him over the drums. He didn’t move. Maybe he banged his head on the edge of the drum riser or on one of Robby’s guitar pedals? He seemed unconscious and was all tangled up in the mike cord, a stillborn baby who’d just arrived with umbilical webs. Panic was setting in when finally, after a few long seconds, he started moving one of his legs. The shaman was returning from his seizure. All of a sudden, out of the PA, in slurred speech, came “make a grave for the unknown soldier, nestled in your hollow shoulder.” Jim had the mike at his lips. I quickly sat down to play the accompanying cymbal splashes. We finished the song as usual, with Jim jumping up and ending the war lyrically. I thought to myself, The song really has evolved into a miniplay. The audience was so stunned it didn’t know whether to keep quiet or applaud. I liked that response.

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It was time for our anthem, “Light My Fire.” As usual, the opening drum crack organ tiff brought the house to its feet. We had played this number probably a thousand times already, but I always looked forward to it. The solo section in the middle allowed for long instrumental improvisation, which made it new each time. With improvisation there is danger. The chords we used were similar to Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things,” only stretched out and in 4/4.
Jim had to hang out sometimes for up to fifteen minutes waiting for us to finish. He loved to play his maraca, though, and dance like an American Indian. He would lift one leg and jump around in a circle as if he were at a campfire. This wasn’t no James Brown dance imitation. Sometimes he would be so loose with his movements, I got inspiration for what l was playing from watching him. I drummed harder when Jim, Ray, or Robby were “into it.”
He surrendered so totally some nights that we released the sorcerer inside him. We were caught in a ritual. Control seemed to be exchanged among the four of us until the ceremony was completed-three Apollos balanced by one intense Dionysus.
The last verse and chorus of “Light My Fire” was usually very strong, and the instrumental tag at the end left everyone sort of hanging. But they loved that song!
I had to take a deep breath and gather all my strength to play our last number. No wonder. “The End” was Jim’s voyage into pain and death.

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………Technically the end wasn’t that difficult for me except at the finish, but the emotional concentration required to give it justice was exhausting. Remember how many times the audience was right with us, surrendering to Robby’s hypnotic guitar and taking the trip? I was always surprised how tolerant the crowd was of the ten minutes of surrealistic poetry you read. I don’t think the recorded version ever equaled what happened some nights.

Remember that night at Madison Square Garden on Light My Fire when you threw in some new verse about “Stop the Car! The dead seal, the dull crucifix, I’m getting outta here”? Sounded like drug imagery to me. I loved that next line, “I can’t live through each slow century of her moving.” When we sensed you were done, we slammed back into the rhythm. God that was fun.

Onto the finale The End. You always gave me a chill when you pounded your boots down on the stage while shouting “the killer awoke before dawn. He put his boots on.” Method acting, huh, Oedipus! I liked the way you covered your eyes on the “Yes Son” section of “Father-yes son-I want to kill you.” It implied characters in Greek drama with masks. 

I used to love to draw out the double time after the killer section as long as possible, milking every increase in tempo. The climax was orgasmic as ever at Madison Square Garden, you sang the last chorus as tenderly as ever. 

It seemed the ultimate in appreciation when the audience quietly filed out. Drained. They had taken the trip and there was no more to give or receive. Mutual satisfaction. Everyone in attendance was cleansed…security guards included. What a show. A truly religious experience. Much better thank church. Almost as good as sex. Better! A communion with twenty thousand people.

Jim, you were great that night. When you were on, boy, were you on……I wish it had stayed like that forever. But it all started to slip…..

The Doors When the Music’s Over Live at Madison Square Garden 1969

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– excerpt taken from John Densmore’s Riders on the Storm.

While there is no official release or even a decent bootleg recording of this show, there is an underrated live document of performances between 1968-1970 called Alive She Cried (1983), an album I’ve always loved uploaded for your enjoyment.

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  1. Gloria
  2. Light My Fire
  3. You Make Me Real
  4. The WASP
  5. Love Me Two Times
  6. Little Red Rooster
  7. Moonlight Drive

This entry was posted in Doors, The, Gigs, Now Reading. Bookmark the permalink.

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