The Doors played some famous concerts—think of the live recordings at the Whiskey A-Go-Go or the time Jim Morrison was arrested in Miami for allegedly exposing himself. And then there was the gig at Danbury High.
Okay, that one may not have gone down in the annals of rock history, but the events of that evening showed just how outrageous The Doors could be for their time.
I went to Danbury High School in Danbury, Connecticut. It was the late ’60s, and pop and rock music was in the midst of one of its greatest flowerings. The Beatles ruled the day, while other individuals and bands were creating seminal sounds that would spawn whole genres of pop and rock music: Bob Dylan originated folk rock, the Byrds were developing country rock, and Blue Cheer first split the heaven and earth alike with heavy metal. Surf music and psychedelia were rampant on the West Coast, the Velvet Underground was ravaging New York with early punk, and a score of British bands like The Yardbirds were transforming rock through the motifs of American blues. spawning, in the process, the early super groups Cream and Led Zeppelin.
In a musical universe of such intense originality, it was difficult to stand out. But some bands managed it, and The Doors was one. Their eponymously named first album was immediately influential. Its unique, spooky sound, dark tone, and daring lyrics sung with heavy sensuality belied the bubble gum mentality of much of pop music and spoke in a way that went deeper than the counter-culture politics of Jefferson Airplane or the cultural criticisms that were the messages of so many other bands. It tapped directly into the Id. It said that sex was directly linked to raw creativity, to mysticism, to power, and to madness. And there, telling us all about it, was Jim Morrison—the perfect exemplar.
Living in Danbury, we often despaired of seeing our favorite groups live. Most bands were only real to us as sounds from speakers and pictures on album jackets, and to actually hear and see them, we usually had to go either to New Haven or Hartford or down to New York City—not simple matters for teens without money or cars. So, we made do with local and regional bands and rare manna from rock heaven, such as the concert performed by Vanilla Fudge in a local dinner theater. That concert took place in the midst of a blizzard, so only ticket holders within walking distance actually made it to the theater. But the Fudge put on a good show even though there were only about 50 of us in the audience.
But much as we loved Vanilla Fudge, we revered The Doors, and so, when the news broke in mid-1967 that they were coming to town, we couldn’t believe it. But it was true, and they were going to play, of all places, at the high school auditorium. I guess it made sense. The school was only a few years old, and it had a big auditorium with a wonderful, shiny, hardwood stage just begging for something to happen on it besides school assemblies.
We all bought tickets and, on the appointed night, dressed in our hippie best and went to school. I don’t remember if there was an opening act. If there was, it was local. All I remember was the band I’d come to hear. Morrison was dressed in skin-tight black leather pants, a white, blousy shirt with ruffles down the front, and a sleek black leather jacket. We cheered, and the band played, starting off with several songs from their first album. Then they launched into new material from Strange Days; this concert was one stop on the promotional tour for that album.
About twenty minutes into the concert, Morrison arched his back and gave a sensual shrug that slid him out of his jacket. As he tossed the jacket off stage, you could feel electricity charge the air. He already had us in his power, and as the music went on, his every movement and vocal nuance produced a pronounced effect. The band was at the height of their skill and creative energies, and they didn’t stint on the length of some of the longer songs, like “Light My Fire” and “When the Music’s Over.” There was even a primitive light show whose main feature was strobe lights.
At last, the band had played almost everything from both albums. Almost. Morrison, shirt now hanging open and loose, torso glistening with sweat, approached the mike stand, leaned on it, and asked, “Have you had enough?”
The multitude of voices that answered were equally split between “No!” and “More!” and “The End!”
Morrison didn’t even look at the rest of the band. They all knew. They’d been saving it for . . . well, the end. After all, that particular song—apocalyptic and final—really couldn’t be played any other time.
Robby Krieger’s slow, pensive opening guitar chord crept over the audience, Ray Manzarek’s organ built like a rising wind beneath, and John Densmore’s drums propelled the music as The Doors launched into a full-blown version of “The End.” Mesmerized by the music and Morrison’s commanding presence on stage, we sat hushed and awed as the music and vocals washed over, around, and through us. Somewhere during the first half of the song, Morrison tore off his shirt. Then the song built to the climax where its protagonist enacts his terrible deeds, and the strobe lights went on, making the stage a flickering nightmare and Morrison’s movements completely unworldly.
With the music swelling to a crescendo of swirling rage, Morrison suddenly fell to his knees, gripping the microphone stand in his hands like an ax. His movements made as mechanical as they were maniacal by the flashing strobes, he began axing the microphone stand into the floor, bashing and battering, filled with his demons as much as he was slaying them. People in the audience gasped and cried out and screamed, their voices becoming a chorus at one with the ferociously charged atmosphere.
And then, while the music began to shrink from its billowing madness, Morrison stopped bashing. He slumped forward across the bent mic stand, exhausted and drained. At last, he got to his feet. And as the final eerie refrain drained from the air, he intoned the final words, “This is the end.”
And it was. The stage lights went out, but there was no clamor for more. The Doors had given us what they had, and it was more than enough.
The newspaper carried an item the next day about how the deranged band had caused major damage to the high school stage, and the city eventually made The Doors pay to repair the hole Morrison had bashed in it. But we didn’t care much about the stage. We simply cared that someone had understood that dark place we all have within us, that someone had courage enough to uncover it so that it would not remain a hidden wound.
And I think that’s why, even forty years later, The Doors remain vital. They spoke truth as few dare speak it, and from the darkness they shone a glimmer of hope.