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A Tale From The Cheetah by Michael Kelley

In a special contribution to THE DOORS GUIDE, Michael Kelley recalls his unique encounter with Jim Morrison at a club called the Cheetah in the summer of 1967.

My first and only time seeing The Doors was at their matinee performance at 3:00PM on Sunday, August 27, 1967 at the Cheetah in Santa Monica, CA. I was just shy of eleven years old at the time.

Despite my young age, I had decidedly precocious and adult musical tastes, and at that point had owned a mono copy of the band's debut for more than half a year. I knew the record inside out and, in classic schoolboy fashion, hand-decorated my 5th grade Pee-Chee folder — and innumerable other things — with the stylized Doors logo.

I discovered The Doors through L.A.'s underground "free form" radio station KPPC 106.7 and by August of '67 had been wanting to see them perform live for what seemed like an eternity. Unfortunately, due to my young age, I was barred from the clubs they had been playing around L.A. since the prevailing age limit was either 18 or 21. Not far from where I lived in the South Bay was a club in Redondo Beach called The Flying Jib; I heard that The Doors had played there and it was always an exciting experience to pass by the club on the way to the beach with my parents.

I knew the debut album like the back of my hand; it was one of those literally life-changing records that introduced me to a vast universe of otherworldly perceptions, experiences, and sensibilities that shaped my personality and outlook on life in profound and powerful ways that remain with me to this day. And, as I imagine is the case with many Doors fans at the time, the first stirrings of my adolescent sexuality were aroused and mentored by many of the songs on that incredible and pioneering first album.

Just prior to the Cheetah shows in late summer of '67, I had left California for several weeks to go on a family road trip to Missouri. As we were on our way back to Los Angeles heading west on the 10 freeway, "Light My Fire" came on the AM radio — either KHJ or KRLA — and I went nuts. "It's The Doors! Turn it up! TURN IT UP!" I yelled. It was the first time hearing my beloved underground FM band on commercial AM radio and I was blown away — I really couldn't believe it. But my elation quickly gave way to shock and outrage when Ray Manzarek's glorious keyboard solo simply disappeared and I realized the song had been butchered for AM airplay. It was the first time I'd ever heard such an edit and this bordered on sacrilege. "How could they??" I wondered. But my attention was quickly diverted away from this offense when the DJ announced that The Doors would be appearing at the Cheetah the following weekend with a special all-ages Sunday matinee show. With this incredible news I really went crazy because I now finally had a chance to see my favorite band in person for the first time. My mother, who was also a fan, bought tickets as soon as they went on sale the following Monday morning.

I went to the show with my mom and eight-year-old sister. My first vivid recollection is that of the euphoric magic, excitement, and anticipation I felt upon seeing the giant pink cheetah sign and marquee at the front entrance. I'd been to Venice Beach with my family and remember laying on the sand just south of where the Cheetah was, daydreaming about all the great things that went on inside but couldn't experience because of my age; that towering cheetah was a powerful icon that represented a much longed-for yet forbidden world that I was aching to experience. Every week, I would read the L.A. Free Press to keep up with the doings at local clubs. I always knew what was happening and who was playing but was frustrated because I was too young to go. But now all of that was about to change in a huge way and a longstanding dream was about to become true. The marquee indicated that The Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band, Smokestack Lightnin', and The Nazz were opening for the different shows.

After being able to grab three of a very limited number of actual seats up front upon our arrival (it was otherwise floor seating or standing), I convinced my mom to let me wander and headed straight for the bar which was adjacent to us and located on the right side of the club. I was determined to meet my hero Jim Morrison and asked the bartender, an attractive female, if this would be possible. I feared there might be a back door that Jim would use and I wouldn't get an opportunity to meet him, but the bartender allayed my concerns when she said, "Jim always comes in the front door and then back here to me for a drink. Just keep your eyes over here and you won't miss him."

So there I stood, in front of the bar, with a clear view of the front door and the path that led to where I was. After what seemed like forever, during which time I took in the exotic sights, sounds, and smells of my first nightclub and its otherworldly trappings and inhabitants, the moment finally arrived: through the same door that I had used walked a solitary figure that could only be one person — but wait, let him get a little closer just to be sure — tall, dark shoulder length hair, leather pants, white long sleeve shirt, leather jacket slung over his shoulder, and a distinct swagger — yes, it was Jim!

Just as the bartender said he would, Jim walked straight to the spot where I was standing at the bar. After exchanging greetings the bartender looked over at me and told Jim, "You have a fan that would like to meet you." Jim put out his hand and shook mine, asking my name.

"Mike," I replied.

"How old are you?"

"Almost eleven," I said, feeling both embarrassed and proud.

"Wow, you're a Doors fan?" Jim responded, smiling and seemingly impressed.

"The Doors are my favorite band in the world! I've been waiting forever to see you but I'm not old enough to get into the places you play."

Jim had ordered a whisky and asked me, "Would you like a drink?"

Flustered and a bit confused, I replied, "Oh, I'm not old enough to drink...and that's my mom right over there!"

Jim laughed and said, "No, I mean like a Coke or something."

I was reeling inside but managed to reply, "Okay, I'll have a Coke."

As Jim sipped his whisky from a glass and I nervously clutched my Coke in a plastic cup, I told him that I'd bought the band's debut album when it came out and had owned it for the better part of a year. He asked me what my favorite songs were and I told him, adding that "Break On Through" had changed my life the moment I heard it. I told him I'd been hearing about how wild the band's performances were, especially during "The End," and was hoping to witness some of these theatrics. I asked "So, are you gonna get crazy tonight?"

Jim smiled and got a funny, bemused look on his face. "Are we gonna get crazy tonight? Whattya mean?"

I said, "You know, during that freak-out part in 'The End.'"

He smiled, gave a little laugh and said, "Oh, that part. You want me to get crazy? Sure, I'll get crazy for ya."

Sensing that this was the perfect place to leave things, I asked if I could get his autograph. He obliged and simply signed "Jim." I thanked him and he shook my hand again. As I walked away my head was spinning and I remember thinking, "This is the greatest moment of my life — and this is what it must feel like to be stoned!"

I returned to my seat alongside my mother and sister who were all questions, having just witnessed my exchange with Jim. A few minutes later, a couple walked over to where we were sitting and the girl sat down in a single empty seat next to me. Her boyfriend, who I immediately recognized, asked me, "Do you know Jim Morrison? I just saw you talking to him."

I told him that I didn't know Jim but was a big Doors fan and had been wanting to see them for ages. He asked me how old I was and wondered how someone so young knew The Doors. I told him that I listened to KPPC and was into all the underground bands. He asked, "Do you want to sell me your seat so I can sit next to my girlfriend? I'll give you $5."

Without blinking I said there was no way I was giving up my seat for any price, adding that the people next to me were my mother and sister.

"Do you know who I am?" he asked, sporting the same dark sunglasses I'd seen him wearing in photos.

"Sure," I replied. "You're the guitarist for the Strawberry Alarm Clock. I have "Incense And Peppermints" on 45, it's one of my favorite songs."

"Okay, NOW will you sell me your seat?" he asked.

"No way!" I said, shaking my head, unwilling to give up my most prized viewing spot for any amount of compensation to anyone.

After all the years that have passed since that meeting I never knew until recently that this guitarist, Ed King, went on to play with Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The opening band for Sunday's matinee was listed as The Nazz — a new and upcoming band from back east, or so I originally thought, who I had never heard but knew by name through magazine blurbs. Yet when they took the stage something immediately seemed wrong and I was confused.

The Nazz I knew from photos sported what in '67 seemed like outdated moptop haircuts ala The Beatles. But this Nazz who were opening for The Doors looked completely different; they all had shoulder length hair and at least one of them was wearing what looked like a Sgt. Pepper-type outfit — overall much more hippie/bohemian and unruly than the comparatively tame and Beatles-looking Todd Rundren-led Nazz I'd read about. I pretty quickly made up my mind that this was a different band using the same name. Musically speaking, they were pretty raucous and animated but seemed generic and derivative, at least to my young ears who really just wanted to hear The Doors.

The following summer, I saw the same band open the show at the 1968 Newport Pop Festival in Newport Beach, making their debut under a new name: Alice Cooper. By this time they were even more outlandish in their appearance — Alice was covered in fur despite the 90 degree temps — and they had morphed musically into something that I really liked. They were as yet unsigned and instantly became my new obsession as I awaited their debut album which finally arrived the following year in 1969.

The Doors were everything you could imagine and more. It was a surreal experience to see and hear in person and up-close all the songs I knew so well from the first album, as well as a couple from the forthcoming Strange Days album which was released a month later. I can't be sure, but I think they opened with "Strange Days." As the set progressed and each magical moment gave way to another, I anxiously anticipated "The End," hoping Jim would keep his word and I that I'd be treated to some of his already legendary theatrics. When the moment of moments finally arrived, Jim pulled out all the stops and gave me everything I had hoped for as he flung himself down on the ground, writhing and screaming like a man possessed. As I sat there spellbound, witnessing this otherworldly spectacle with goosebumps on my arms, I thought: "This is the second greatest moment of my life!"

Though The Doors were just beginning their commercial ascent, I knew that what I had experienced could never be bettered, and was content and determined to enshrine and protect my memory by making a pact with myself to never see them again. Though I remained a Doors fan until Morrison's death, I held true to my self-promise and am thankful I did. To this moment I am keenly aware of what a special experience I was privileged to have on that strange day at the Cheetah in August 1967.

Michael Kelley grew up in the South Bay area of Los Angeles and discovered the magic of rock 'n' roll in the early 1960s. Thanks to his liberal and understanding parents, he was lucky enough to see just about every great band of the era except The Beatles. By 1967, he was playing drums seriously and his first lessons were with Vince Thomas of the pre-Doors band Rick & The Ravens. After graduating from Leuzinger High School (Lawndale) in 1974, he began playing professionally throughout Southern California and worked with vocalist Bob James who replaced Sammy Hagar in Montrose, and Robert Fleischman, original lead singer for Journey pre-Steve Perry. In the mid 1980s, he moved to England for several years before returning to Los Angeles in 1985 and embarking on a career as a researcher and dealer in vintage fine art, a passion and livelihood that continues to this day.

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