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The Doors Live At The Matrix: The Story Behind The Legendary Club Residency
Bobby Klein
In Depth

The Doors Live At The Matrix: The Story Behind The Legendary Club Residency

The Doors’ short residency at San Francisco’s Matrix club, in March 1967, helped build the group’s legend. The shows remain a crucial listen.

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Consistently proving themselves as one of the most electrifying live acts of the 60s – with one of the best rock frontmen of all timeThe Doors had the ability to make the largest arena venues feel intimate, and the smallest club venues feel like the sites of epic voyages into the outer reaches of sound. When they performed a five-night residency at San Francisco’s tiny Matrix club, from 7-11 March 1967, the group were given the opportunity to hone a live show that followed wherever inspiration took them. Performing three sets every evening, their repertoire included highlights from their recently released self-titled debut album and its yet-to-be-recorded follow-up, plus standards learned from the jazz and blues records that had inspired them from the off. Marking a moment that would soon be impossible for the band to repeat, the Matrix shows are among the last The Doors ever played in a club setting, as the size of the rooms they could fill began to grow in line with the band’s legend.

Scuzzy bootleg recordings and a 2CD sampler collection have given fans a glimpse at these historic Doors performances, but it hasn’t been until the release of the 5LP/3CD box set Live At The Matrix 1967: The Original Masters that first-generation tapes have been used to provide the cleanest and most complete picture yet of The Doors’ brief stint at the former pizzeria turned rock club. “They had a decent live recording setup,” guitarist Robby Krieger recalled in his memoir, Set The Night On Fire: Living, Dying And Playing Guitar With The Doors, “and they happened to roll tape while we were in town.” Recorded on a reel-to-reel recorder, by Peter Abram, who co-owned the Matrix with Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin, The Doors’ Matrix shows present a band fearlessly redrawing the boundaries of their art while unwittingly standing on the verge of a fame beyond their imagining.

Here is the story of how that happened, and what the Matrix shows meant to The Doors’ legacy.

Buy The Doors’ ‘Live At The Matrix 1967: The Original Masters’ box set.

The backstory: “The front few rows stared at us like we were from another planet”

Playing in club venues throughout 1966 had been crucial to the development of The Doors’ sound. Booked as house band first at Los Angeles’ London Fog before graduating to the Sunset Strip’s legendary Whisky A Go Go – from which they were fired after manager Phil Tanzini heard frontman Jim Morrison’s Oedipal monologues in the group’s infamous set highlight The End – The Doors used these small venues, in which they could be on stage in front of anywhere from one to one hundred punters, as testing grounds for new ideas, extrapolating their longer songs into increasingly exploratory journeys into the unknown, and tightening arrangements on their punchier early classics such as Break On Through (To The Other Side).

By the time they began their Matrix residency, in March 1967, the band had already made their first visit to the hippie haven of San Francisco, playing support slots at Bill Graham’s hallowed Fillmore West that past January. Despite having just released their debut album, the out-of-towners were forced to prove themselves in a city whose countercultural audiences were in thrall to local trailblazers Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead. “It felt as if we were being scrutinised because we were from LA,” drummer John Densmore wrote in his memoir, Riders On The Storm: My Life With Jim Morrison And The Doors. “The faces in the first few rows stared at us like we were from another planet.”

Passing the informal test, when the Angelenos returned two months later, they were headlining at the Avalon Ballroom. As Krieger wrote, “When an out-of-town group came to SF… they might play the Matrix during the week, then play the Fillmore or Avalon Ballroom the next weekend.” Receiving an offer to play at the small club throughout the week following their Avalon gig, The Doors spied the perfect chance to continue to woodshed their material in an informal setting.

The Matrix shows: “A cool and intimate place to do some experiments”

As described by keyboardist Ray Manzarek, in his book Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors, the Matrix was “a cool and intimate place to do some experiments with arrangements and poetry placements”. In the liner notes to The Doors: Box Set, a 4CD collection of outtakes and live recordings which featured two Matrix performances released officially for the first time, Densmore added that the 150-person venue may have been “an echo chamber with no people, but we got to rehearse our songs”.

Playing a total of 15 sets across the five-night engagement, The Doors treated those audience members who were present at the Matrix to a mix of highlights from their debut album and work-in-progress new material, while also digging deep into their blues roots and further displaying their jazz chops, as they pulled out songs such as John Lee Hooker’s Crawling King Snake, which they would revisit for their LA Woman album, along with Milt Jackson’s bebop-era composition Bags’ Groove and an instrumental version of George Gershwin’s Great American Songbook classic Summertime, never to be performed again by the group in any setting.

Building in confidence as a band, they also turned their own music inside out, with Morrison taking lengthy versions of their debut album’s ever-changing closing song, The End, as an opportunity to try out new spoken-word interludes, including séance-like incantations (“Can you stand by and watch the pictures burn?/And not leap in to plunder its sick blaze/Seize coals melting by the hair/Grab these ashes for your face/Keep the incense burning pure/The flames eat higher on the walls”) and instructions for an unnamed apocalypse (“Let’s feed ice cream to the rats, baby/Let’s stick a smile in the kitten’s stomach”).

The four Doors also continued to tinker with the arrangement of their signature song, Light My Fire. Just weeks ahead of releasing an edited version of the track as their eventual breakthrough No.1 single, at the Matrix the group put Ray Manzarek’s iconic opening passage to service as a bridge between the first chorus and second verse, as they had originally imagined it. “It was our producer, Paul Rothchild, who had the vision to suggest that we use that transitional part as both an intro and an outro,” Krieger wrote in Set The Night On Fire. “If you listen to our live recordings from the Matrix in San Francisco, you can hear the original arrangement and you can wonder, like I do sometimes, how different life would’ve been for The Doors if Paul hadn’t made that formative suggestion.”

Elsewhere during their Matrix residency, future additions to the best Doors songs took shape. The mournful Summer’s Almost Gone, a song the fledgling Doors had recorded for their first ever demo tape, but which wouldn’t make it onto record until the release of their third album, Waiting For The Sun, finds Morrison discovering a tender croon in keeping with a stage presence that, with its polite addresses (“Thank you, we’ll be right back”), was yet to take on the shaman-like persona Morrison would assume in months to come.

Meanwhile, doing for their second album, Strange Days, what The End had done for The Doors, the portentous When The Music’s Over gave Morrison the chance to experiment with vocal phrasing and pull a range of poetic ideas out of his psyche, among them paranoid warnings (“Everything you do will be reported/At night your dreams will be recorded”) and a formative pass at lyrics that would later make it onto a future The Soft Parade-era B-side, Who Scared You.

Musically, The Doors’ instrumentalists drew upon a wider palette of influences than had informed their debut album. On what would become a Strange Days highlight, Moonlight Drive, Krieger’s lysergic guitar lines almost manage to make it sound as though the group had two guitarists on stage in San Francisco. Earmarked for that same record, I Can’t See Your Face In My Mind rides a Latin groove which the group would jettison in favour of the haunting nocturnal arrangement they’d record in the studio just a few months later. “On the studio version we do this as a languid, oriental Bolero. Paper lanterns, full moon, a Kyoto garden,” Manzarek would observe. “But here… we’re in Mexico at a seaside, salsa resort and the night is hot!”

“I think Carlos Santana may have been at the Matrix that night. Gave him a few ideas!” Krieger joked.

The legacy: “So distant from the soon-to-be raucous, arena-filled concerts”

Following their engagement at the Matrix, The Doors returned to LA, where recording sessions for Strange Days would begin in May, a little more than a week after Light My Fire launched the group’s first serious assault on the charts.

Club gigs would soon be a thing of the past for the band, and the Matrix shows quickly took on a legend of their own for fans who would only ever get to witness The Doors in larger venues – whether in person, or through such legend-burnishing releases as Absolutely Live and Live At The Hollywood Bowl. Yet though the group were already on the rise by the time they made their second trip to San Francisco, this week-long stay provided a welcome boost to a creative process that always thrived on the freedoms found in live improvisation.

“The Matrix recordings reflect the kind of intimate nightclub scene where people came to sit back, slowly get stoned, listen to the band tell you how it is, applaud, and then drift home,” Doug Sundling wrote in his book The Doors: Artistic Vision. Noting that “the sound which was still contoured to fit the intimacy of the nightclub would blossom into the amplified renderings” of The Doors’ later live performances, Sundling contextualised the Matrix shows within the group’s wider legacy, writing, “The pleasant applause and a cordial Morrison at the microphone seem so distant from the soon-to-be raucous, arena-filled concerts.”

“Of course, we didn’t draw much of an audience as an out-of-town band playing on a Tuesday,” Krieger would say of the shows that are now gathered together as Live At The Matrix 1967: The Original Masters, but the guitarist would acknowledge that they afforded The Doors time to develop on stage in a way they would never again be able to: “It almost felt like we were back at the London Fog.”

Buy The Doors’ ‘Live At The Matrix 1967: The Original Masters’ box set on vinyl or CD.

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