January 24, 1969: The Doors Play Madison Square Garden

The Doors at Madison Square Garden, January 1969

It was a trade-off, but it was a compromise The Doors were still willing to make. Playing Madison Square Garden on January 24, 1969 was a prestigious opportunity. They became one of the first West Coast bands to book such a large arena, but there was a duality that the band was so conscious of that Jim Morrison illustrated it from the stage, pointing out its effects. It was a compromise that The Doors, and Jim Morrison in particular, wouldn’t be able to live with much longer.

The Doors had always liked to play smaller venues because of the intimacy and the theatrical atmosphere that the band could create. Playing a larger venue entailed that loss of intimacy. The acoustics were best suited for sporting events. Bill Graham offered The Doors a four-night stand at the Fillmore East, but The Doors thought they had outgrown those smaller venues when a night at Madison Square Garden would bring 20,000 more people than even four nights at the Fillmore could. Then there was the money. The show sold out a month in advance and The Doors’ take-home pay would be $50,000 for the night, making them one of the highest paid acts of the ’60s.

Madison Square Garden Ticket

Despite the artistic compromises that The Doors were making, there was still an air of excitement about the show. Morrison arrived in New York a few days early to do interviews. The show started with a subdued feeling. Morrison didn’t fall to the stage writhing, though later he rolled up his leather jacket and threw it into the audience where it was instantly torn apart. The audience then started becoming a thing of its own. Kids lighting sparklers running up and down the aisles with them, flashbulbs going off, girls rushing the stage and Morrison giving them a hand up onto the stage. But there was another palpable feeling among the spectators. As rock writer Ellen Sander wrote in Hi Parader “…it’s been over for The Doors for a long time now. Once they were fiery, arrogant, renegade emperors of the rock scene and once they deserved it…” Morrison illustrated his convoluted feelings when he pointed to one side of the arena and said “you are life” then pointing to the other side of the arena said, “you are death”, adding, “I straddle the fence and my balls hurt.”

Patricia Kennealy, who was the editor of Jazz & Pop Magazine, had seen the show the night before while sitting next to Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman. The next day she met Morrison for an interview in his hotel room, and as he stood to greet her their was a static electric charge between them which both thought ‘portentous’. However, the affair wouldn’t be consummated until January of 1970 when The Doors played the smaller venue of Madison Square Garden, the Felt Forum.

Originally published January 25, 2015.

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