Joel Selvin, Chronicle Senior Pop Music Critic
Monday, November 17, 2008
Only a few tables of curious spectators showed up at the club each
night, so the musicians pretty much played for themselves. In between
two weekend engagements at the Avalon Ballroom, a little-known rock
group from Los Angeles called the Doors played Tuesday through Friday
at a 100-seat Marina district club called the Matrix. Even the
musicians might have forgotten all about the gig if the club manager
hadn't decided to tape the shows.
The Doors were making their second trip to the thriving San Francisco
ballroom scene in March 1967. It was an unseasonably chilly end of
winter before the Summer of Love and just three months after the
little-noted release of the band's now-historic debut album.
"We were on the lip of great success and we didn't know it," drummer
John Densmore says. "Neither did the audience, which was very cool."
"Light My Fire" wouldn't break the group on radio for another three
months, so the Doors were playing that weekend second-billed to
Country Joe and the Fish at the Avalon, and almost no one showed up
at their midweek Matrix engagement.
Matrix co-owner Peter Abrams had only recently installed a tape
recorder in the sound booth, but it would be his custom over the next
five years to record every show at the club. His tapes have been made
into albums before; his live recording of the Velvet Underground is
one of the few records of that landmark band's stage show. The Doors'
tapes have been passed around in the underground world of bootleg
recordings for years, including a set of "horrible, horrible
sounding" Italian CDs that Doors producer Bruce Botnick heard.
Botnick, who has engineered and produced virtually every Doors
recording in the band's history, finally dusted off the tape copies
in the band's vault, cleaned them up and put together a two-CD set,
"Live at the Matrix," complete with a cover by '60s San Francisco
poster artist Stanley Mouse, to be released Tuesday on Rhino Records.
Botnick says he thinks the Matrix tapes contain "one of their best
"They were young, enthusiastic, out to have fun," he says. "They
experimented a lot, changed arrangements around and played things
they never did before."
"We looked at it as a paid rehearsal," says guitarist Robbie Krieger.
"There were five to 10 people in the club. We did it for ourselves."
The Doors first came to San Francisco in January 1967 to open for the
Young Rascals and Sopwith Camel at the Fillmore Auditorium. It was
the same weekend that more than 25,000 hippies filled Golden Gate
Park for the Human Be-In, and the Doors were there, too.
'Changing the world'
"We thought you guys were changing the world," Densmore says.
They stayed at the Swiss American Hotel on Broadway and ate po'boy
sandwiches across the street at Mike's Pool Hall. "We were baby
beatniks," organist Ray Manzarek says.
Along with the San Francisco rock bands of the day, such as Jefferson
Airplane, Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, LSD
evangelist Tim Leary urged the gathering of the tribes in the park to
"turn on, tune in and drop out." There were also readings by the beat
poets Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure and Gary Snyder.
"Holy cow - these are the beat icons," says Manzarek. "(Jim) Morrison
and I idolized the beats."
When the band appeared that night in the scheduled engagement at the
Fillmore, the musicians sensed a certain reluctance by the crowd to
embrace the band, introduced as a rock group from Los Angeles -
"grumble, rumble, murmur, spatter of applause, sigh of disrespect,"
Manzarek remembers - but Morrison insisted the band plunge right
ahead, opening with the 10-minute-plus opus "When the Music's Over,"
and winning the crowd right from the start. Promoter Bill Graham gave
the band a $100 bonus.
Three months later, the Doors returned to San Francisco for the
Avalon Ballroom and the midweek Matrix engagement, checking into a
Lombard Street motel.
Airplane led the way
The Matrix opened in August 1965, with the first public performance
by the Jefferson Airplane - in many ways, the birth of the San
Francisco scene. The band held an ownership interest in the
enterprise - the surviving Doors semi-accurately remembered the club
as belonging to Airplane vocalist Marty Balin - and the Airplane
performed as house band during the brief, early days.
"Then the Fillmore opened and we got semi-famous," says Airplane
founding member Paul Kantner, who helped paint the club.
All the San Francisco bands of the day played the former Fillmore
Street pizza parlor. Artist Victor Moscoso did some of his most
famous posters, highly prized by collectors, for the club. The
Airplane played the band's last Matrix show in September 1966, the
first night Grace Slick sang with the band. Her previous group, the
Great Society, is largely remembered today through two live albums
recorded by Abrams at the Matrix.
The current whereabouts of Abrams is not known to his former
associates or the Doors, who tried to locate him for years. He is
rumored to have sold copies of his Matrix tapes through classified
ads in the back of Rolling Stone magazine during the '80s. Some 40
years ago, he gave the Doors four edited reels of the recordings -
Botnick says he believes the tapes come from only two different
nights - and the CD set was made from these first-generation dub copies.
A roar through the repertoire
On the earliest known live recording of the Doors, the band surges
with power ("Robby was exceptionally good," says Botnick), roaring
through the repertoire from the band's classic debut album with the
certainty of a thousand previous performances at Sunset Strip
niteries. Vocalist Morrison doesn't sound on the tapes like he thinks
it's a paid rehearsal.
"The ante is upped anytime you have people there," drummer Densmore
says, "even if it's only a couple. You can tell - Jim wants to say
something, even to two people: 'I don't care - it will be like a
pebble dropped in the water and make big circles.' "
The band played a lot of blues at the Matrix, including Allen
Toussaint's "Get Out of My Life Woman" and Slim Harpo's "I'm a King
Bee" that rarely turned up again in the repertoire. They did an
instrumental version of "Summertime," a piece Botnick never heard the
band play again. The group introduced new material that would
eventually find its way to the second album - "People Are Strange,"
"Moonlight Drive" - while Morrison expanded and elaborated the ending
of the already epic "The End" as recorded on the first album. The
shadowy, echoey recording sounds like being in the dingy, rundown
nightclub. The tiny room and handful of strangers in the crowd give
off a palpable presence on the tape. All 10 people applaud madly.
Site's come full circle
In 2001, new owners reclaimed the bar's name - it now goes by
MatrixFillmore - and some of its history. A enlargement of one of
Moscoso's iridescent psychedelic posters dominates the entranceway of
this sleek, upscale bar, operated by the ritzy PlumpJack restaurant
firm. The entire front wall is glass now, and a modern fireplace
burns away in the middle of the floor.
On a recent Wednesday night, a desultory DJ spun bluesy instrumentals
from the stage in the corner to a crowd about the size the Doors drew
in '67. Fewer than a dozen patrons nursed their drinks and made small
talk. The dance floor was empty.
New owners have done over the floors and ceiling. The backstage where
Jerry Garcia once smoked joints has been converted into an
upholstered lounge. The place is not just empty of customers;
something else is missing. It's squeaky clean, well-appointed,
illuminated carefully. Despite the echo of the psychedelic posters on
the drinks menu and the matchbooks, there isn't a trace of rock 'n'
roll funk anywhere.
Outside a chilly wind whips though the foggy streets. At least the
weather hasn't changed.
E-mail Joel Selvin at email@example.com.