The Doors’ ‘Live at the Matrix’ Pays Tribute to a Legendary Rock Club

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The Doors were only a few months away from stardom in March 1967 when they played five sparsely attended shows at a small club in San Francisco called the Matrix. These uninhibited performances would have been fleeting if not for Peter Abram, who co-owned the pizza parlor-turned-nightclub that had been founded two years earlier by Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin and three investors.

An avid recordist, Abram, who had purchased Balin’s share in the venue when the Airplane’s success made Balin’s participation in running the club impossible, taped concerts at the Matrix regularly. His recordings of The Doors, made between March 7-11, 1967, spawned one of the band’s most storied bootlegs. At long last, all known Matrix recordings, sourced entirely from Abram’s original master recordings, will be released on September 8, 2023.

The Doors in 1967. l. to r.: Jim Morrison, John Densmore, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger (early Elektra Records promo photo)

Bootlegs of the Doors’ shows at the Matrix, which was at 3138 Fillmore Street and legally held just over 100 patrons, have circulated among fans for years, and were popular despite the poor audio quality of most copies. The sound began improving in 1997 when the first two songs from the Matrix shows were officially released on The Doors: Box Set. Even more performances followed in 2008 on Live at the Matrix 1967; regrettably, it was discovered soon after that all of the recordings were sourced from third-generation tapes, not the originals.

Today, Abram’s original recordings have been remastered by Bruce Botnick, the Doors’ longtime engineer/mixer, for official release. Most of the newly upgraded live recordings are making their debut in the collection, including eight that have never been featured on any of the previous Matrix releases.

Rock fans line up outside the Matrix in San Francisco

It’s easy to understand the enduring appeal of these vintage performances by Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore. Recorded only a few months before “Light My Fire” propelled the band to worldwide success, the tapes capture the Doors playing a wide range of songs, including several from their self-titled debut, like “Break on Through,” “Soul Kitchen” and “The End.” They also performed half the songs destined for the group’s soon-to-be-recorded second album, Strange Days, including early performances of “Moonlight Drive” and “People Are Strange.” The Matrix shows also gave the band time to indulge its love of the blues with extended covers of “I’m a King Bee” and “Crawling King Snake.” The Doors even delivered an instrumental version of “Summertime” and a few jazz covers.

Joel Selvin writes in the collection’s liner notes, “They were young, fresh and uninhibited, spreading their wings to fly. The tapes are raw, savage, rough around the edges. This is pure Doors: unselfconscious and unspoiled.”

Balin had opened the Matrix on August 13, 1965, featuring his new band Jefferson Airplane. Over the next two years, the tiny club would showcase Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Sparrow [soon to become Steppenwolf], the Velvet Underground, the Great Society (with future Airplane singer Grace Slick), the Blues Project and many others.

“Back in those days, Marty was quite the businessman,” stated Jefferson Airplane’s now-deceased Paul Kantner in a 2010 interview conducted by this writer. “He was the leader of the band on that level. He was the one who pushed us to do all the business stuff, orchestrating, thinking ahead, looking for managers and club opportunities. He was very good at it.

“We had the fortune, or misfortune, of discovering Fender Twin Reverb amps and LSD in the same week,” Kantner revealed. “That’s a great step forward. We didn’t analyze it. We didn’t think to wonder about it. It was just another thing that was going on, along with the music, the clothes, the bookstores, the poets, the artists. It existed. In San Francisco we had no restrictions. All we had to do was roll with it.”

Listen to the Doors perform “Light My Fire” at the Matrix (from an earlier Rhino release)

Balin, who passed away in 2018, also spoke with this author about the Matrix. I opened the Matrix club in 1965 in San Francisco,” he said, “and I booked bands in 1966 and ’67. I had been a solo performer in 1964 and ’65, and these four nurses used to come who liked me. Then they started coming with their boyfriends. During the break I was sitting and talking to their boyfriends and they were all talking about investing this money they had. They didn’t know what to do with it. So I said, ‘Well, give it to me. I’ll build a nightclub and I’ll put a band in it.”

“They went and got the license and we started fixing it up and making it into the Matrix. As we were doing that, people were coming in, looking for places to play. The infamous Warlocks [who became the Grateful Dead]. Janis [Joplin]. All these other people were looking for places to play, too. So I had an immediate influx. And besides that, I had jazz guys playing there, blues guys, cats from the Committee [comedy troupe]. They would do stand-up. It took off right off the bat.

“I didn’t see the Doors at the Matrix,” Balin added, “but we worked and played with them many times in 1967 and ’68. I loved the Doors. I thought Jim Morrison was fantastic. I became a friend and hung out and got to drink with him. He’d read me his poems all the time. I thought Jim was great as an artist. Who knows? He would have probably gone into film and done movies. The guy was a good-looking dude, man. I’d go out with him and try and pick up chicks and I was like invisible.

“I think San Francisco was full of people who were talented and who were expressing themselves or their rights or playing music,” Balin added. “I don’t know if it’s the geomagnetic forces of the earth and the ocean but something went on there. It’s a lot different than the rest of the world.”

Listen to the Doors perform “Break on Through” from an earlier release of the Matrix tapes on Rhino

Related: Read more about the forthcoming Doors release here

Harvey Kubernik

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