Ray Manzarek, RIP

The story of how I became a Doors fan is probably the most unlikely in all of music fandom.

When I was about 12 years old or so, my sister decided to weed through her LPs and donate several to the local library. I was a budding music geek, so she gave me first crack at them. One of the albums she singled out, and said “This band was very good.” The band was called The Doors. I took the album and listened to it and fell instantly, madly in love with this band. I listened to the album every day, usually more than once. Some songs I kept listening to, lifting the needle at the end and putting it back at the beginning. Over the course of the next several months, I listened to the album constantly.

Several months later, I was talking to my brother about this incredible band I had discovered, how they were unlike anything I’d ever heard. He was aware of what I was listening to and he smirked at me and said, “You know, they were even better with Jim Morrison.”

“Who was that?” I asked.

He explained to me that the album I’d been listening to, Other Voices, was recorded after the death of their original lead singer, and that they were a much better band when Jim Morrison was alive. I was intrigued. Better than “Down On The Farm”? Superior to such surefire classics as “I’m Horny, I’m Stoned” and “Tightrope Ride”? A better singer than Ray Manzarek?!

Later, looking through my brother’s record collection, I discovered Strange Days. I put the record on and lowered the needle on the title track. An odd, squiggly keyboard run and then a voice, dripping in echo and effects: “Strange days have found us/Strange days have tracked us down…”

I hated it. I took it off and put Other Voices back on.

It wasn’t until a year or so later when I saw a brief clip from the Ed Sullivan Show and finally made the connection between “Light My Fire”, a song I had long loved, and The Doors that I took a chance on the band with their earlier singer. I haven’t looked back.

So yes, probably unique among Doors fans, my first allegiance was to Ray, Robbie, and John. For months I was likely the only Doors fan who had never heard of Jim Morrison.

Ray Manzarek could be an absolute blowhard as the self-appointed keeper of the Doors Myth. His endless talk of Dionysos, shamanism, existentialism, and the need to explore the boundaries of reality could be really wearing to heathen ears. But at the same time, Manzarek was a great storyteller. His recounting of meeting Jim Morrison on Venice Beach and having the erstwhile poet cum filmmaker crouch in the sand and sing the songs he’d been writing has been repeated ad nauseam, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that he tells the story so well. You can almost feel the sun on your back and smell the Pacific air; you can almost see the shy young Morrison before the drink and drugs destroyed him, crouching before you and letting the sand run through his fingers as, eyes closed, he nervously sang the words for what would become “Moonlight Drive.” For all of his tendency towards the pompous, I could listen to Manzarek spinning yarns for hours.

He will be remembered, though, for his musicianship. Manzarek was a truly great keyboard player, playing both the haunting organ runs that permeated the Doors while simultaneously playing bass keyboards with his left hand. You can see him in the clips of the Doors and in the Hollywood Bowl performance: head down, shaking vigorously, with a huge smile on his face. The man was totally lost to the music he was playing and hearing. The Doors don’t get anywhere near the credit they deserve as a band. They successfully followed a lead singer who was prone to bursting into poetry or drunken rants at any given moment, but as long as Morrison was semi-coherent, they never lost the thread. It’s not easy. Doors concerts were wildly unpredictable; the result of having a lead singer like Morrison.

What Manzarek brought to the Doors, along with drummer John Densmore, was the sensibility of jazz. For all of their success as a rock band, both Manzarek and Densmore were jazz musicians, while guitarist Robbie Krieger was in love with flamenco, blues, and folk. That odd trio made rock music that sounded like nothing else before it or since. Much like The Who, The Doors shouldn’t have worked. But they did, and were so unique that their sound is almost impossible to imitate. Listen to the lengthy instrumental break in “Light My Fire”. It’s a bizarre combination of John Coltrane and Paco DeLucia. It’s also, as Grace Slick memorably described it, “the closest thing to sex on record.” There’s nothing else like it in the entire rock canon.

But as the final two Doors albums recorded with Morrison proved, Manzarek was equally at home playing barrelhouse piano. Right in the middle of “L.A. Woman”, a song dripping in darkness, mystery, murder, and madness Manzarek launches into a honky-tonk piano solo that was lifted almost verbatim from Blood, Sweat & Tears’s bright, summery “House In The Country”. It’s a truly odd dichotomy that works brilliantly. From the jazz-inspired soloing of “Light My Fire” to the psychedelic strangeness of “Not To Touch The Earth”, from the waltz-time “Wintertime Love” to the sea-shanty organ of “Land Ho!”, from the pounding blues runs of “You Make Me Real” to the elegiac, tinkling rains of “Riders On The Storm”, Ray Manzarek proved that he was a musical polymath. He could do it all, and was endlessly creative on his instrument. Like his musical partners in the Doors, Manzarek’s playing was virtuosic but somehow never showy. Musically, the three of them were incredibly sympathetic players, almost never playing the wrong part. Their music, even on their less successful songs, was always appropriate for the mood and theme of the piece. In an era when musicians spent a lot of time trying to outplay each other, this was a rare gift. Jim Morrison was the voice of the band; he was the brains of the outfit, and the public face. Robbie Krieger was the muscle; John Densmore, the heart. Ray Manzarek was the soul of The Doors. The world of rock music is greatly diminished by his loss.

And I still really like Other Voices.

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