Earlier this week, I posted an item to Twitter (sorry, I refuse to use the word ‘tweeted’ in regard to any action I’ve ever taken) saying that I was listening to Rhino’s latest box set, The Doors: Live in New York. The response I got was immediate, negative in tone, and came from two colleagues who know a little something about music. One took a shot at Jim Morrison, the other at drummer John Densmore. The subject of the Doors has always been, and apparently still is, a provocative one. Battle lines are drawn. Feelings are strong on both sides. In the end, the fact that a simple mention of the band evokes such reaction, 40 years after the fact, is itself commentary on the band’s legacy.
Madison Square Garden opened in 1968, the fourth building in New York City to bear that name. In addition to the world famous arena, home to the New York Knicks, and New York Rangers, and the site of many legendary concerts, the complex includes what was then called the Felt Forum. The theater, which can seat up to 5,600 people for concerts, was named after then-Garden president Irving Felt.
On January 17 and 18, 1970, the Doors showed up to play four shows, two a night, at the Felt Forum. In 1969, they were one of the first rock bands to play Madison Square Garden itself, but opted to play the smaller Forum the next time around in order to recapture the intimacy with the audience that had characterized their early career, and to take advantage of the superior acoustics that the Felt Forum offered. It was just a few weeks before their album Morrison Hotel would be released.
The first thing you notice is how good these recordings sound. All of the shows were mixed and mastered by the Doors long-time engineer, Bruce Botnick, who recorded a number of shows on the 1970 tour. Most of the music spread out over the six sprawling discs that make up the set has never been released, but a few of the tracks did surface on Absolutely Live in 1970, and on the Doors Box Set in 1997.
These days a major band will rarely do two shows in one night, but it was more common in 1970. Most people at the time suspected that the late show would always be better. After all, set length for the second show was not limited by the need to change the house over for another show, plus the band had more time to become inspired, if you get my drift. The Doors: Live In New York proves that those suspicions were valid, if only for this band, at these shows. Take the first two shows of the run on January 17 as an example. The first show is good, but pedestrian. None of the band’s classic lengthy jams are included in the set list. The second show that night was a different story. Morrison and his audience are clearer more into it. The set is longer, and we get extended versions of both “When the Music’s Over,” during which Morrison gets a little belligerent with a somewhat overenthusiastic audience, and “The End,” which opens with ringing bells and the haunting specter of Morrison shouting “bring out your dead” again and again.
The same thing happens the next night. The first show of the evening is once again good, but somewhat tamer. The second show is not only much longer, with more intensity from the band and the audience, there are special guest appearances as well. The Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian sits in with the Doors for several songs. A little rock trivia note for you; it was Sebastian who played harmonica on the studio version of “Roadhouse Blues.” Also guesting that night was drummer Dallas Taylor, best known for playing with Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s also a stunning, maddening version of the rarely performed “Celebration of the Lizard.” From that second show, here is an absolutely savage version of “Back Door Man,” which segues beautifully into an equally intense version of my favorite Doors song, “Five to One.” Note the outstanding guitar work from Robbie Krieger on these two tracks. He and organist Ray Manzarek are brilliant throughout these shows.
The Doors dip into the not yet released Morrison Hotel album, opening each of the four shows with “Roadhouse Blues,” and “Ship of Fools,” “Peace Frog,” and “Maggie M’Gill” each make one or more appearances. The band also taps their classic, self-titled debut album for “Break on Through (To the Other Side),” “Soul Kitchen,” and of course their first #1 hit “Light My Fire.” Blues covers abound, including Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster,” and John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling King Snake.” In the interest of presenting complete shows, we also get a number of breaks that are labeled as “Tuning/Breather.” While I recognize the need for tuning, the inclusion of the breaks on these recordings tends to break the momentum of the shows more than anything else. Apparently Botnick and the surviving Doors agreed on the importance of having complete shows, and the purists will be pleased. I could have done with less tuning, and more playing.
Live In New York being a Rhino release, it goes without saying that the packaging is first rate. The small hardcover book that accompanies the discs features essays by James Henke, Chief Curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, producer and engineer Bruce Botnick, and Elektra Records Founder and Chairman Jac Holzman. If you are a Doors fan, I’m afraid you’re going to have to dig deep and get this one. Essential is the only word to describe it. If you’re merely curious as to what all the fuss about the Doors was, there are less expensive ways to get into the band, but none of them capture the band’s live magic, and Morrison’s massive appeal, better than this set.
One last note: the cover of the box is a reproduction of a ticket from the Felt Forum shows. The price of an orchestra seat? $5.50. That wouldn’t even begin to cover what you pay in Ticketmaster fees for a ticket these days.