art by Joey Feldman
by Kyle K. Mann
”The Avalon was one stoned gig… the crowd was more out of it than usual, more receptive to our surreal imagery. The psychedelized crowd wanted head music — they wanted to be transported. Their vibes encouraged experimentation. Jim was really coming into his own that night. We all were.” – John Densmore, from his autobiographical ‘Riders on the Storm’
It is a night when legends become legendary.
March, 1967, and a wide-eyed, long-haired young lad watches in anticipation as the Doors take the stage at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. His seat, though a piece of dance floor with the rest of the audience, is only 30 feet away from the performers
The Doors don’t look like the other bands that play that night. The lead singer, for example, wears all black, in apparent defiance of the colorful hippie garb affected by most of the people on hand.
Jim Morrison at this point of his development is painfully shy, yet simultaneously defiant. The wild theatrical moves he would later become known for are still in the future.
As he sings, his technique is simple. Morrison clutches the mic stand with both hands, closes his eyes, and cuts loose. His eyes stay shut, except when he looks at his band mates. Despite this, undeniable charisma radiates from him. In fact, Morrison crackles with waves of potent energy. The room is hushed.
The youngster in the audience puzzles briefly over the keyboard setup on stage left: a Vox Continental organ with a smaller keyboard on top. Sport-coated, Beatle-haired Ray Manzarek begins playing a boogie-woogie riff, but slowly, in a minor key.
The spooky effect of the organ notes is compounded by echo, and the deep hypnotic bass pattern Manzarek adds with his left hand from the smaller keyboard. We in the audience are stunned. Unique stuff!
Drummer John Densmore begins to add percussive bursts that deliberately stutter, and the two-man music lurches along until he rat-a-tat-a, rat-a-tat-a snare drum blast that brings in guitarist Robby Krieger, who wails on the instrument with distorted feedback.
As Morrison screams!
This is a scream to end all screams. The scream of a young man whose father, Admiral Morrison, helped start the illegal, immoral Vietnam War with a bogus action in the Gulf of Tonkin. The scream is of rejection from his ex-girlfriend Mary Werbelow, of alienation, of rage at what has happened in two short years. It’s a scream for the ages, a scream for us all. It shatters yet unites us.
We in the Avalon audience are now onboard with the Doors, in the hands of recently-minted masters who, at this stage of their careers have not yet enjoyed the massive success of their first hit single. They are uncorrupted, hungry and not yet fully aware of their powers. The Doors are fresh, they are transformative, and we are plugged in, as Morrison begins singing, in his deep clear tenor, “When the music’s over…”
Most of us have never heard this song. The first Doors album, slowly getting national attention but not yet a big seller, doesn’t contain this epic, so ours is a first-ever experience. A cosmic rush!
The song as performed is lengthy, and the edgy message profoundly different from the usual peace-n-love lyrics of the era. After the verses comes an exploding guitar solo, as the light show pulsates wildly. Oh yes, the light show. Man, the Avalon’s are the best. Oozing colors throb in time to the beat. They overwhelm the eye, complement the music.
The maddeningly repetitive, yet hypnotic, left handed keyboard bass line weaves throughout Krieger’s unpredictable guitar excursions, and then the song settles down and Morrison takes over again. The dramatic lowering of the volume creates a different kind of tension.
“Something’s wrong, something’s not quite right,” Morrison sings, repeating the line several times before adding “touch me baby, all through the night.”
Hmm. The lad watching in the audience is confounded. Interestingly weird, to say the least. What’s wrong? And yet… yeah.
“Con… fusion,” Morrison continues. He dwells on the word, and repeats it, then moves on. “All my life’s a… bright illusion.” Indeed, and as the seated youngster, despite his tender age a veteran of the Human Be-In a few months earlier and several LSD trips, gets that clearly. “All my life’s a… torn curtain.”
Yes. But, what’s happening? That fuzzy tone that roars like waves. The Doors pull back abruptly. The sound of a tape that goes faster and faster. The kid in the audience dwindles, the city below twinkles and vanishes and the planets and stars fade as we beam nearly a half century forward.
Ah, hmm. I’m in my car, listening to a CD of the same tune, “When the Music’s Over.” Woah, ok. Been rather obsessive about this one lately, in this gnarly year of the Great Magnet, 2016
The music still soothes me, takes me back to that rebellious 15-year-old youngster, a child really, who has snuck out of his parents’ house in Marin County and now still watches, and feels, the Doors at the Avalon in March ’67.
Of course, this album track I’m playing [Live at Matrix “San Francisco” 1967], recorded about six months after I saw it performed, is faster, and has different words in the middle section. I seldom get as far as “the scream of the butterfly,” which, as a lyric addition, does not do much for me. I always start the tune over by that point.
Still, the album version of the song works, especially, as I say, the first half. The legendary Paul Rothchild’s production sharpened the sound, with the drums tweaked to perfection, the keys and guitar clearly defined, and Morrison’s vocals brilliant.
And that scream on the cut is top notch, arguably the best one recorded in rock history.
Stopped at the light at Topanga Canyon and Mulholland, a young man on a motorcycle pulls up next to me. I’ve got the window down, and the opening notes of “When the Music’s Over” gush out. The rider, not much older than I was when I first heard the tune, turns his head and makes eye contact. It’s obvious he’s hip. It’s still the intro, Morrison has not started singing, but the dude nods approvingly and speaks
I nod back, the light changes, and we blast off into the future.