50 Years Ago, The Doors played in a Connecticut high school gym, second-billed to a beauty pageant, and WE WERE THERE…
by Charles Monagan
If we’ve been fortunate in life, we’ve gotten to witness some of the cultural bomb-throwing moments that have shown us the path from one way of seeing and living – and even being – into another. In my lifetime, some of the most famous of these, as far as music is concerned, have been Elvis Presley shaking up the Ed Sullivan Show, Jimi Hendrix powering through the “The Star Spangled Banner,” and Marvin Gaye doing his revolutionary version of that same anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game.
But if you’re really lucky, you’ll have a watershed moment happen right in front of you – a burying of the old and blasting through of the new – right before your very own disbelieving eyes. Which is what happened to me on the night of Oct. 11, 1967 – 50 years ago this month – when the Doors played a most unlikely concert at Danbury High School in Connecticut.
The Doors had been booked the previous spring to open up Fall Weekend at Western Connecticut State College (now University) in Danbury. By the time October rolled around, 1967 had already been a sensational year for the band. Its stunning first album, The Doors, arguably one of the greatest debuts ever, had been released in January, and it had done well. But it was the runaway success of the summer’s big hit single, “Light My Fire,” that pushed Jim Morrison’s scorching vocal through every AM radio speaker in America. The song went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts and carried the album all the way to No. 2, where it stalled out behind Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
In short, by October everyone knew who the Doors were. The band’s sudden success had turned the Danbury booking into a major coup for the WestConn organizers. But a huge problem arose: The college auditorium was undergoing weeks of renovations and was no longer available for use. In a last-minute switch, the concert was moved to nearby Danbury High School, where the auditorium was large enough to accommodate the crowd, which would turn out to be about 2,000 strong.
“Crystal Ship” and “Light My Fire” by the Doors, recorded live at Danbury High School, Oct. 11, 1967:
As for myself in October 1967, I was a 17-year-old high school senior attending a boarding school in the neighboring town of New Milford. Boarding schools in those days were not known for welcoming cultural change with open arms. We were all male. We wore jackets and ties to class and suits to dinner. We learned Latin, hosted tea dances with like-minded girls’ schools and attended chapel nearly every day. We were confined to campus except for wholesome special occasions, like a movie theater showing of Becket or a milkshake at a local dairy bar.
But we were far from unaware of the changes afoot in American culture that year; in fact, our prison-like circumstances made us even more keenly aware of them. We had just witnessed, and maybe even participated in, what was widely referred to as the Summer of Love. Movies such as The Graduate, Blow Up and The Trip were throwing out a counter-culture vibe. And now drugs – in the form of a few stray joints, an illicit bottle of Nembutal, a tube of airplane model glue – began to find their way into our dorm rooms, and we were eager to give them a try.
And what better way to try them out than with music? The year had already been a great one for fresh sounds, with hit singles that included “Ruby Tuesday,” “Penny Lane,” “Groovin’,” “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Incense and Peppermints.” But there was also another sound to hear as well, music that carried a darker, more disturbing, more rebellious note. “A Day in the Life” on Sgt. Pepper was certainly one of them, Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” was an obvious, urgent call to ingest drugs, but it was “Hungry Freaks” on the Mothers of Invention’s “Freak Out!” album that astonished us with its lyrics that acknowledged Dylan and the others but then blasted past them into pure freakdom:
“Mr. America, try to hide
The emptiness that’s you inside;
But once you find that the way you lied.
And all the corny tricks you tried
Will not forestall the rising tide
Of hungry freaks, daddy!”
All of this put us in the right mood for a Doors concert. With its big hit single and lyrical touches, but also with its hard rocking and potentially menacing stage presence, the band seemed to have all the bases covered.
Exactly how a group of overprotected preppies convinced school authorities to allow a field trip to a Doors concert is unfortunately pretty much lost in the mists of time. One recollection has it that it was a classmate, an excellent drummer and ardent music fan, who found out about the concert and pushed hard for the road trip. Another classmate remembers that about 20 of us went in a school bus and paid $2 for a ticket. We were of course dressed in jackets and ties and properly chaperoned, perhaps by a couple of younger, hipper faculty members. Thus we were perfectly positioned to witness, and take part in, an epic clash of cultures.
This “clash” came about because immediately preceding the Doors concert there was a beauty pageant. I don’t mean that the two events happened on the same day; I mean that they were part of the same bill. Here again, no one seems to recall exactly who was being crowned. It easily could have been “Miss Fall Weekend” or “Miss Homecoming.” It could even have been “Miss WestConn,” but I don’t think it quite rose to that level. During the pageant, the house lights were all turned up so everyone could see the contestants parade back and forth on the stage. WestConn being in large part a local commuter school, there were no doubt a number of proud parents in attendance. And maybe some little brothers and sisters ready to have their formative little brains fried by what was to come. In any case, the pageant ended with big smiles and polite applause, and then the principal, who sounded very much like Firesign Theater’s Principal Poop, said a few words about not having too much fun: “Sit in your seats and do not leave them,” he said in a reedy, high-pitched voice. “If you get out of your seat we will escort you to the door. And no smoking.” These words were greeted with derisive shouts and boos.
And then the Doors were standing before us – Robbie Krieger, John Densmore, Ray Manzarek and, front and center, Jim Morrison himself in his signature tight leather pants, leather jacket (which he soon tossed off) and frilly white shirt. Following a very low-key intro from an anonymous deep voice (“The Doors, okay?”), they went into the jaunty first notes of “Moonlight Drive” from their new album Strange Days, released just three weeks before. And then it was “Break on Through” and “Backdoor Man,” “People Are Strange,” “Crystal Ship” and, following a wild piece of Morrison’s avant-garde poetry called “Wake Up!,” they did a masterly version of “Light My Fire.” And then, inevitably, as sort of a required encore, came the extravaganza of “The End,” with its dark theatrics, role playing, and intimations of violence and incest. Here Morrison went into full Morrison mode, leaping from the stage and writhing down in front of the front row, before returning to the stage, at the very end of “The End,” to repeatedly smash his mic stand onto the floor.
In other words, it was perfect. Here was our watershed cultural moment – a sunny, small-town beauty pageant morphing into a loud, rhythmic, lizard-infested screamfest. We’d never seen anything remotely like it, although we certainly would again in the months and years ahead. The promise of the West Coast had been fully delivered to us here in prim and proper Connecticut. And whether we all fully enjoyed it or not, or got what it was all about, it signaled for us, personally, that change was in the air and that we might enjoy being on the side of change. On that night 50 years ago the world all of a sudden opened up before us. It would remain one of the finest, most enduring things we ever could hope to experience in a high school auditorium.