Alas, my first guest post. Since it was William Ohanesian who first suggested I start this blog, I asked him to contribute some pieces to it. His first essay is a remembrance of two very different concerts by the Doors that he attended in 1968 and 1970 in Los Angeles.
by William Ohanesian, Copyright 2016
It’s an odd time-out-of-mind sensation that keeps recurring.
At local hangouts, conversation with young people occasionally drifts to music. At my age (60+), there’s the inevitable, hopeful curiosity: “What was it like in the 60’s? What bands did you see?”
Their default frame of reference about the period is the standard YouTube stock footage blur of half-naked hippies, blithely Woodstocking, Altamonting or Isle of Wighting their lives away in a marijuana haze.
Formulating an answer can make you feel like a veteran of foreign wars that you may have never served in. Still, given all the misconceptions, you genuinely want to shed some light for those who want to hear from someone who was around then.
“Were you at Woodstock? Did you live in a commune and do drugs? Was that what everybody did in the 60s?”
“Well, not exactly. Actually…”
“–Did you ever see the Doors?”
Of course you know it’s coming. Even back in the proverbial day, no musical outfit personified the drama, passion, sensuality, proclamations and provocations of the late 1960s like these guys in their prime. Or more accurately, by that one guy at the mic: the Navy admiral’s son as American cultural outlaw. It’s as if Richard Nixon begat a son that grew into Abbie Hoffman. Or if John Wayne’s trusted young frontier deputy drilled the Duke between the eyes, stole his hoss and hit the dusty trail as Billy the Kid.
Young people have downloaded the songs, the photos, the old scratchy videos, the corny Hollywood movie, but still… this possessed, leather-swathed pre-digital ghost from the past eludes and entices them. “Did you ever meet Jim? What was he really like?”
I’m dying to tell them how I whupped his ass on the golf course, except for the fact that they might believe me.
“Well, we didn’t exactly hang out together.” The hopeful faces drop. But their eyes bulge when I reassure them that, “But yes, I did see the Doors perform.”
“Was he drunk on stage? Was he crazy? Did he swear at everybody and pull his pants off?”
I know what they want to hear. And here’s where the expectations go south again. “Sorry, but no. No. And no.”
“But I heard… I read…”
“I know. I didn’t see the bad nights, but what I did see was pretty interesting.”
I tell them that during the singer’s tenure, I saw the band twice. The first time was late 1968 at the height of their most notorious badassery. The second time would be during their last tour of duty, in 1970.
Most everyone who asks, knows the front-end story. In ‘68, the Doors were pedal-to-the-metal musical madmen barreling toward the infamous crash-and-burn implosion of Miami. What most listeners can’t connect, is how fourteen short months later, they were practically written off as who-cares has-beens.
In retrospect, thinking about the two public performances at either end of the spectrum offers a fascinating study in contrasts and expectations.
As a teenager, I was no different than today’s young people. I was enticed by the lurid magazine profiles. Savored the bold insolent photos. Overdosed on the music daily. In two years, they had exploded from the LA underground into the big-time pop stratosphere. I was in my 15th innocent year on the planet as we drove to Inglewood’s 1968 LA Forum concert, where they would preview songs from their new album, “The Soft Parade”.
Driving to the show, I relished my expectations of the screaming wildman on stage, the swirling electric organ, slipsliding guitar and hard driving percussion. What I got was a lesson in Doorsville reality.
The Doors’ calling card fused mystery, unpredictability, and confrontation. Therefore, it’s no wonder something seemed indefinably out-of-whack that night. The opening acts floundered through. An elderly Japanese solo instrumentalist was oblivious, a country pop band came and went through a few songs, the pissed-off early rock legend Jerry Lee Lewis was booed off the stage.
Then with a blare, on came the hometown heroes to barrel into their new songs. Heroes? Barely a couple of songs in, people began heckling the band to ditch the new stuff in favor of their big radio hits.
I didn’t get it. You come to a concert and rudely demand what you want to hear? Isn’t that what you do at home around the record player?
This clearly wasn’t going down well with the guys on stage. They played their set with conviction, but somehow weren’t delivering the spectacle that people expected from this group. What was missing? What else was supposed to happen? It was a rock concert, not a magic show. Or was it? After all, hadn’t we been sold that he / they were the baddest of the bad, the smartest, the sexiest, shamanistic drunken demonboy sorcerers of the 60s?
Just play songs? No way!! DO something! Get it on! Burn down the night!
The antsy Forum cauldron was bubbling toward the boiling point. Who was calling the shots here – the paying audience or the pop heroes?
Suddenly out of nowhere, the big guy stops the music cold and starts talking.
“Cut that shit out”
Some gasps, some cheers, then silence.
”What did you come here for, anyway?”
Nobody seemed to know.
“We can play music all night, but that’s not what you want, is it?”
Personally, I wanted “Moonlight Drive” and was quickly coming to realize that probably wouldn’t happen.
Some meek catcalls were followed by more taunts and unanswerable questions. What did we want? Showtime? Reassurance? Power? Deliverance?
Then, “Well, fuck you. We came to play music.”
There was a nervous applause of relief. As if, Ok, he had his little hissy fit, now on with the show!
But what followed wasn’t exactly another three-minute crowd pleaser. Instead, the band launched into an unheard 20 min. poetic, discordant, multi-movement, avant-garde magnum opus that went through, if not over the heads of most of the audience. The musicians gave it their all. When it was over, the lights came on, applause was minimal, the band left the stage and we quietly filed out into the Los Angeles night.
So, “What was it like?” Think of it this way: can you imagine that today from any major arena-level pop group? Impossible! But in 1968, the singer wasn’t just there to dish out musical fast food and score a big payday. He strove to liberate us from our preconceptions, dared us to look inward and ask ourselves, not just what, but why?
In 1969, it all went south for the band, figuratively and literally – as in Miami south. Hammered by legal indictments, alcohol abuse and assorted personal dramas, the band’s 1970 concert trail was a far different landscape than the ‘68 one. Expectations were low. The band was no longer a cultural phenomenon, but simply, four musicians trying to resurrect a career threatened both from outside and within. Not known at the time was that both the drummer and singer were ready to jump ship at the drop of a hat.
Considering their prior devotional- fan reverence, the fall from grace was the equivalent of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from a rocknroll Garden of Eden.
Warming up the Long Beach Arena stage in Feb. of 1970 were the newly formed Gram Parsons’ Burrito Brothers and blues guitarist Albert King. The Burritos turned in a lively, winning set, but it was Albert who laid down the law. He set the stage on fire like I’d never seen a barely-known supporting act do. Called back for a rousing encore, he threatened to overwhelm the headliners.
Given the fact that Morrison and the band had been written off by the hipoisie for being dated, out of control, rich sellouts, self-indulgent alcoholics, etcetc., there was more than a little dread at what would happen onstage. Were they just a nostalgia act, only going through the motions for the money? Yesterday’s psychedelic news nobody wanted to read anymore? Did anybody besides stuck-in-the-past groupies and late-to-the-party teenyboppers even care what the Doors did anymore?
They took the stage, yet again riskily opening with new songs few people had barely heard yet. Uh oh. Except this time, the outpouring from the faithful was overwhelming.
They played their full set to rapturous response, with Morrison visibly grateful for the reception. He told jokes, improvised lyrics and even nailed the (still?) hecklers with some choice verbal uppercuts that got everyone on his side. No longer presenting himself as Mr. Bad-ass, he was relaxed, funny, even a little hoarse.
The standard encore ended with a defining memory: they finished with “Soul Kitchen”, and it was that song’s closing verse that drove the audience through the roof:
“The clock says it’s time to close now…” triggered a spontaneous arena-wide chorus of “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!”s
“…But I really want to stay here / all night” ignited the loudest foot-pounding “YEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAHHHH”s I’d ever heard for a rock band.
And with a wave, they were gone.
“MOOOORE!!!!” Sorry folks. Show’s over. House lights on. Roadies started unplugging cables. People kept yelling for more. An announcement was made that the musicians were homeward bound. The arena slowly emptied, leaving a few stragglers (yes, including yours truly) still yelling in what-the-hell futility. Ten minutes passed… fifteen…
Morrison himself trots back on to the fully lit stage, past the surprised stagehands, grabs the mic and off-handedly asks “Hey – does anybody have to go home early tonight?”
What the hell?
The stragglers were not shy. “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
“Well, let’s have some fun, then!”
People ran back in. Chaos! Roadies scrambled to get amps plugged back in, etc., etc. The band proceeded to play for another hour, taking requests, joking, jamming, doing cover songs, even aborting the hypnotic “Crystal Ship” half-way through (JM: “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s an out-of-tune ‘Crystal Ship’”). Generally just kicking back and cutting loose. They had us as much as we had them.
In retrospect, it was a night of genuine connection between audience and performer, a mutual gratitude almost never seen since on a rock concert stage. Their special gesture for the faithful who stuck it out created an intimacy that made the cavernous Long Beach Sports Arena feel like your living room.
In a final pronouncement that was more prescient than anyone could have possibly foreseen, Morrison announced that, “Unfortunately, all good things must eventually come to an end”, his introduction to the last song he would ever sing in front of the hometown audience.
“It hurts to set you free… “
So while I was “there”, I’m not even sure if “What was it like?” is even answerable without knowing what “it” was. Reflecting on these two experiences decades later, “it” may ultimately be the unknowable journey from the idealism of our hearts to the sentience of our minds.
William Ohanesian is a Los Angeles-based video documentarian, Writer and Videographer, He is currently editing a documentary on Turnbull Canyon, a place of notorious local legend.
He may be reached at WOProvideo@gmail.com