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Cover Story: The Doors

| January 31, 2012 | 4 Comments

The British take a lot of pride in their rock ‘n’ roll, boasting that they studied its roots better than its host country; rescued the form after the crooners rushed in to fill Elvis’ void; and, if you canvas the ’60s titans, only the Queen’s subjects showed any real longevity.

On that last part, the numbers sure are hard to ignore. Beyond those Rolling Stones – whose reputation now is more Barnum & Bailey than actual Rock ‘N’ Roll Circus – The Who, The Kinks, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin far outlasted the careers of The Band, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Velvet Underground, or Simon & Garfunkel. The lone holdout are The Grateful Dead, while you’d want to put duct tape over the more embarrassing permutations of The Beach Boys and Jefferson Airplane/Starship.

Death, of course, intervened indiscriminately, which has led more than a couple people to wonder what would have become of The Doors. The conversation was controversially steered into view when keyboardist (and native Chicagoan) Ray Manzarek and guitarist Robby Krieger ignored the cries of drummer John Densmore and critics by asking The Cult’s Ian Astbury (and recently Hawkwind’s Dave Brock) to fill Jim Morrison’s role on their Doors Of Perception tours, beginning 2002.

The tone is far less circumspect this year, however, as Rhino and Eagle Rock – on behalf of the original label, Elektra – revisit The Doors’ swan song, L.A. Woman. Despite the broken – physical and mental – status of their frontman, L.A. Woman and its Morrison Hotel predecessor declared a band who’d reorganized and been revitalized. That Morrison was to move to France matters not – it was an indefinite hiatus before there were indefinate hiatuses. The trio of Manzarek, Krieger, and Densmore would “complete” and release music they’d been working on at the time of Morrison’s death – music Morrison intended to complete.

Still, his ragged vocals on L.A. Woman and the collective decision to shelve touring before Morrison’s relocation to Paris suggest the set might have been an end forthcoming. In the new, authorized documentary Mr. Mojo Risin’: The Story Of L.A. Woman, Manzarek himself reckons, “We had one last album to go, and we’re gonna make this album. In this zen moment in time, we didn’t discuss the future: the future’s uncertain. The end is always near.”

Call it a crafty editing job.

“That would be a good story, what people want,” he jeers to IE, “that when Jim left for Paris we knew it was the end. That would be a good story. Like we’re fucking psychic. We knew he was at his end. That his destiny had been completed.”

You knew with the court case that he’d been under a lot of pressure, and that his voice was pretty shot.

“Have you listened to L.A. Woman?”

Yes.

“And you think his voice is shot?”

On certain tracks, it sounds a little ragged.

“Hey, you know? It’d been five years of singing his ass off, sure. You’re getting a little bit of that whiskey voice. Oh! What a shame! That means he’s going to die? He’s getting a little older. [Referring to the DVD:] Is that exactly what I said? Or did I say, ‘It was our last recording contract with Elektra Records. Our last record on the contract of the seven.’ That’s what the last is. It’s not The Doors’ last record.”

This, of course, is discussion of the end of The Doors. Let’s start with Ray at his musical beginnings.

Ray Manzarek: Everett grammar school. St. Rita High School. And DePaul University.
IE: Local history then was all about the folk revival at the Gate Of Horn, etc. Were you involved in that at all?
RM
: No, the blues scene and the jazz scene.
IE: So the South Side and West Side clubs?
RM
: South Side, yeah. I went to see Muddy Waters at 47th and Racine at whatever the heck the club was. So I saw Waters live. That was a most amazing evening.
IE: You were known for inserting nods to your heros in those keyboard lines.
RM
: Oh, absolutely. A tip of the hat. With The Doors, we always credited John Coltrane; “My Favorite Things” and “Ole Coltrane” were the inspiration to play the solo in “Light My Fire.” Those two were in 3/4, but I’m basically playing it in 4/4. Gosh, Miles Davis – what an influence he was. We used to open our sets at the Whisky A Go-Go [in Los Angeles] at 9 o’clock – nobody’s in the club; no need for Jim to start singing – so John, Robby, and I would play “Milestones” and then “Kind Of Blue,” and then improvise like a jazz quartet. It was always a tip of the hat. I cut my eyeteeth on the piano players of rock ‘n’ roll. My deepest influence was the blues, South Side of Chicago. Al Benson I’d come home from school and he’d play blues [on WGES-AM]. Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Richard, Magic Sam . . . holy Christ! Howlin’ Wolf, all of it. You hear those sounds as a young keyboard player, it’s mesmerizing. The depth of the emotion of those men singing their songs: absolutely profound.
IE: You’re in your late teens, early 20s . . .
RM
: I was gone by 21.
IE: So before that, when you saw Muddy on Racine – was it easy to do that? Just any kid at school?
RM
: Oh, yeah, but [my classmates] just weren’t hip to it. It was pre-Butterfield. And pre-Stones. So the Stones showed white kids what the blues was, and Paul Butterfield opened up Chicago and probably college students to listening to the blues. But there we were, the South Side of Chicago. The blues permeated the South Side. So it was no big deal. But I could never find anybody who was into the blues. Rock ‘n’ roll? Definitely. They were definitely into rock ‘n’ roll.
IE: Well, you grew up on Western. And the city was/is segregated.
RM
: Oof! Wasn’t it ever! That was a totally white neighborhood. There were no black guys at St. Rita, not until much later. It’s pretty well mixed now, but at the time it was a totally white school. “We do not play the blues in St. Rita High School.” But they sure do now.
IE: But you could cross into the clubs on Michigan Avenue and Roosevelt Road without a problem?
RM
: Absolutely. Things were pretty cool. I was there at Peppers Lounge, and Muddy Waters was playing, and we’re three white guys: me and two buddies from DePaul. Muddy thought it was so charming, that he introduced us. [Laughs.] “I’ve got my white fanclub here.” And we’re going, “Nooo!” “Stand up boys, and take a bow.” So we stood up, and people are applauding, and we sat back down. Talk about embarrassment. We tried to melt into the floor and be totally inconspicuous. But it was fine, like, “There’s some white guys. Hey, it’s cool! Come on, you kids!”
IE: Was everyone else listening to rock at that time?
RM
: Yep. A couple guys I knew, one was a musician and the other was our buddy. We said, “You gotta go see this show.” “We’re gonna go where?” “47th and Racine, Peppers Lounge. Come on, man!” “O.K. That could be quite the adventure.” “It’s Muddy! Playing live!” They were reticent, but had the time of our lives. We came out of the club like, “Holy fuck, man.” It was a ritual, out of the transposed soul of Africa to America.
IE: When you moved to Los Angeles, what sort of musicians did you grip onto?
RM
: The jazz musicians. It was also in Chicago. I went down to the Blue Note – I think it was called the Blue Note. What was great about it was, well because you had to be 21 to get into it, this was for under-21 and in the back they had a railing separating the kids area. They actually had a kids area. They weren’t 12-year-olds, but 18, 19, and 20-year-olds. And they would only serve Cokes. And man, I saw Duke Ellington, Count Basie’s Big Band with Joe Williams singing the blues.
IE: That was when West Coast jazz was just hitting its stride.
RM:
Just getting started. Very rarely did you hear Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Shorty Rogers, Shelly Mann, and those people.
IE: Whom do you hear in Robby? Obviously there’s blues overtones, but when you hear his jazz you don’t hear Wes Montgomery or George Benson.
RM
: No.
IE: He sounds more like a sax player.
RM
: Yeah. Well he’s fast now. Holy Christ, can he play fast. He was a rock ‘n’ roller when we first started. He played blues, with a bottle neck like country blues. That’s what he played, and he played flamenco. With The Doors, he didn’t play with a pick. So it was flamenco-style guitar in a rock ‘n’ roll band with blues influence. And that was Robby Krieger.
IE: Was that like most bands in L.A., like Love? Amalgams of different players? Today, rock bands are all weaned on rock.
RM
: Psychedelic rock was too young. It had its Little Richard era. But the ’60s were a cross-cultural time in which white people and black people all embraced each other. Anybody who was psychedelic was a member of the tribe. The battle for supremacy was between the squares and the hip people. The heads and the straights – and the straights win.
IE: There was a book a couple years ago, called How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘N’ Roll, and the point was that snobbery didn’t exist among listeners until a certain point. You could listen to The Association and The Beach Boys as well as the Dead and Incredible String Band. There was no differentiation between what music was cool. Do you agree?
RM
: Oh, yeah. I don’t know that The Beatles did that. And if you think of rock ‘n’ roll as ’50s music as Little Richard and Elvis Presley – that expanded from the original genre it was into almost world music. Hell, there was folk rock in Los Angeles that was very big, like The Byrds. Then into the mid-’70s like Jackson Browne, the Eagles, and Linda Ronstadt. Almost country rock. Jingle-jangle morning. Everything was going on.
IE: You didn’t happen to know [The Byrds’] Roger McGuinn back in Chicago, did you?
RM
: No, I didn’t know anybody. That’s why I got out of there. I wasn’t going to stay around. I never played with any bands in Chicago – I played with my own band. There were no bands. There were little lounge gigs. I guess if there were bands, they were little folk-rock bands. And the only guys playing R&B and rock ‘n’ roll were black guys. With electric basses. Holy
shit, the first time I ever heard that live!
IE: When you think about The Doors’ history – we can look at it now like the first one came out, the next one, L.A. Woman came out in ’71. Does it seem like a blur, or can you see each as stages?
RM
: The stages were pretty short, man. We were recording as fast as we could. The first album came out in January of ’67, the second came out in October. We were moving. We were hauling ass. We were recording, playing, and the whole thing. It was just a rollercoaster ride.
IE: Today, four years is two albums. If that.
RM:
It’s an album, two years of touring, and a year of recording the next album. People take their time. Jim’s got a great line: “In that year, we had a great visitation of energy” – that’s The Doors. That was a five-year year. It lasted January ’67 to July 3rd, 1971, Jim’s death. But now, my God, it seems like 40 years.
IE: When you and Robby tour and do interviews, do you have conflicting memories?
RM
: Oh, sure. It’s the reality plus 40 years of memory. But then we have memories that are identical. We are different people, different human beings. We were four people, now we’re three, and we all have our own version of it. I make my own stories. Robby and I can be sitting next to each other and talking about something and tell two different stories.
IE: Are there any specific instances where you can’t believe he doesn’t have the same memory as you?
RM
: All the time, but there are no specifics that I can give you that would make an amusing point in your article. You’d have to be interviewing Robby and I at the exact same time.

(Here is where the chat turned to the misunderstanding on the DVD at the beginning of the article.)

IE: You may have been joking or being sarcastic.
RM
: Hey, [people] love that shit. “We thought the end was coming, and we were making our last album together.” Even greater, if all three of us, if after Jim died, we’d committed suicide. That’s four brothers, a great rock ‘n’ roll story! But the fact is, we were making our music and playing away, and Jim was going to Paris to take a break. Jim never said anything about Paris until the album was virtually completed. All the recording was done, all the vocals were done, we were mixing, we had three/four more to go, and Jim said, “I’m leaving for Paris next week.” It was like, “What?” “I’m going to Paris.” “Good idea, man.” The contract was up. We’ve completed our contractual obligation. We are now free to break up and never play together again; sign with a new record company; or take a break and sign with another record company in six months or a year. “Go! Jesus Christ! You’ve been drinking too much, man. You’ve got too many groupies and too many bad friends. Perfect. Go to Paris, become Jim Morrison poet again in Paris.” An American In Paris. Hemingway. Fitzgerald. Who wrote Tropic Of Cancer/Tropic Of Capricorn? Henry Miller.

So, anyway, that was Jim Morrison. The next American in Paris. “Get your shit together: write.” Of course, he only lasted four months. And who knows what his thoughts were? “He was breaking up the band. He had quit.” People know that? If he had, in his mind, quit, and went to Paris without telling me? Then he broke the magic circle. If he’d said to me, “Ray! That’s it, buddy. We had a great run. We put this band together out of nothing, graduated out of UCLA, didn’t see each other for two months, didn’t see each other until July 1965, right on the beach and we started the band, we dreamed the dream but I’ve had it. That’s it. The dream is now over.” I would have said, “My friend, go to Paris. Send me a poem or two every once in a while, and I’ll see you.” That would have been fine.

IE: The music you were working on when he left, Full Circle . . .
RM
: Full Circle would have been great had Jim been there.

IE: Was it normal for you guys to just jam, the three of you?
RM
: Jim would be on a midnight creep for a week and a half, and then he’d come back. We’d have rehearsals every Tues-day/Thursday, Monday/Wednesday/Fri-day depending how ambitious we felt, how close we were, how exicted we were in the recording studio. And we’d work on songs. Jim would be there, not be there, Robby would have songs, when Jim left John and I started writing songs. We had plenty of material to work on, and we were just rehearsing as we usually did, and waiting for Jim to come back.

He said to John, he called John, and asked how L.A. Woman was doing, and [John] said fine. “It’s the Doors’ comeback.” And Jim said, “That’s great. Sure was fun making that record.” And John said, “We were talking about going on the road with Jerry Scheff [Elvis Presley’s bassist, who played on the album] and Mark Benno on rhythm guitar, so instead of four there’d be six of us on stage and we’d do the album just like we recorded it.” And Morrison said, “What a great idea! Sounds fabulous! Let’s do that as soon as I get back.” John said, “Cool. When are you coming back?” “I don’t know.”
IE: When you guys were working on what would have become the album after L.A. Woman, would Morrison have been writing melodies as well as lyrics?
RM
: Never.
IE: Never?
RM:
Jim was the word-man. If he initiated the song, he would sing the melody. Well, he could add words to Robby’s stuff. That was Jim’s words to Robby’s melody. His songs, he sings the melody, that’s his melody. And he had a good sense of bars and phrases, and when to lay out and when to come back in. He was a very musical guy.

And the British very certainly couldn’t call this one their own.

— Steve Forstneger

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  1. Illinois Entertainer Interview with Ray Manzarek - The Doors Examiner, Redux | February 15, 2017
  1. Doors Fan says:

    So cool. All these years, I never knew Ray was from Chicago. Thanks ie.

  2. This just convinces me more that Jim was murdered. I hope that someday the real truth comes out. I’ve always admired Ray. He is a musician’s musician. Pure brilliance.

  3. James says:

    Sidney,

    What the hell makes you think that Jim was murdered? You’re problably a 9-11 “truther” too. Ah conspiracy theories, what a laugh.

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