Knocking on heaven’s Doors

Jim Morrison may have died at age 27 in 1971, but his band mates – and the sound of The Doors – keyboardist Ray Manzarek and guitarist Robby Krieger, are keeping the timeless music alive.

Doors members Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Doors members Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If Ray Manzarek hadn’t been in The Doors, he just might have been their biggest fan. Speaking in eloquent tones like a cross between an excited TV evangelist, a learned sociology professor and a sun-dried California unrepentant hippie, the 72-year-old co-founder of the legendary 1960s American rock band and the creator of its signature dense, organ-dominated sound, seems as enthusiastic about life – and playing Doors music with his original band mate, guitarist Robby Krieger – as he was when he was a young UCLA film student and began writing songs with classmate Jim Morrison.
“Gentlemen of a certain age as Robby and I have become, we’re still here walking the planet, dancing and making the incredible music that we first did with The Doors. Life is joyous,” said Manazarek early one morning earlier this month from his Napa County, California home he shares with his wife of 44 years, Dorothy.
The Doors are ensconced in a lofty position in rock & roll lore as one of the most evocative 1960s bands whose influence is still felt today. Their dark, enigmatic music – dominated by Manzarek’s swirling organ – and Morrison’s shaman-like stage presence, poetic lyrics and commanding vocals became symbols of the counter-culture revolution of the times. Their music demanded listeners succumb to total liberation and audiences willingly complied. That the band was also able to score one Top 40 hit after another – from “Light My Fire” to “Riders on the Storm” – was testament to their ability to synthesize psychedelia, free-form jazz soloing, and subversive themes into a palatable sound for the masses.
Their legendary status was locked into place when at age 27, Morrison was found dead in his Paris apartment, a tragedy which has elevated the charismatic singer/poet to a mythic status over the years.
Manzarek and Krieger will be commemorating the 40th anniversary of Morrison’s death on July 3, 1971 by performing a Doors hit-laden show in Paris as the first stop of a European tour. The band’s next stop after Paris? Tel Aviv, for Manzarek and Krieger’s debut Israel performance – and one of the summer’s most anticipated shows – on July 5 at Hangar 11.
For Manzarek, the untimely death of Morrison along with his untamed, poetic lyrics and magnetic yet unpredictable stage persona are only part of the reason the band’s music still resonates generations later.
“As the keyboard player, one would think that the music might have had something to do with people still liking it,” said Manzarek with a chuckle.
“I think without songs like “Light my Fire,” “Riders on the Storm” and “LA Woman,” we wouldn’t be worshiping Jim the way we do today.”
But Manzarek readily acknowledged that Morrison’s death at age 27 has enshrined him in a timeless netherworld inhabited by other live fast-die young rockers from Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to Kurt Kobain and Joy Division’s Ian Curtis.
“If you’re going to be become a legend – one of the immortals, a God – then you have to die. That’s the tragedy. I’d rather have Jim Morrison be here with us today than be remembered as an immortal rock legend. That’s the sad part. The whole story of him dying in Paris at such an early age and then his girlfriend Pamela dying two years later, it was Romeo and Juliet, rock & roll style. What a sad tale it was, but that just adds to the mystique.”
“But I’d like to think that the poetry is the most important thing about Jim – what he had to say. And with the music that we made, it all came together and gave it life.”
ALTHOUGH THE DOORS disbanded in 1973 following sputtering attempts by Manzarek, Krieger and drummer John Densmore to continue without Morrison, the music is still coming together in the form of Manzarek and Krieger, who since 2001 has kept the free-form solo-heavy 60s spirit alive with their exclusively Doors music shows. Densmore was part of the reunion but dropped out and has been involved in a series of legal moves against his former band mates which has prevented them from using the name ‘Doors.’
Since 2004, they’ve been joined by drummer Ty Dennis, bassist Phil Chen, and have employed a variety of high profile front men including The Cult’s Ian Astbury, and even Eddie Vedder for a few shows. Their current lead vocalist is Morrison look-and-soundalike Dave Brock, who has spent years fronting his own Doors tribute band Wild Child.
Now a quintet, the Doors were famous for their unique musical lineup, which instead of a bass player, used Manzarek’s left hand on his keyboard to replicate the rhythm sound at the bottom of the music. He remembered that the decision wasn’t intentional to eschew a live bassist, and the band did occasionally employ bass players in the studio or on tour, including Harvey Brooks, the legendary musician now living in Israel.
“We actually intended to have a bass player, and auditioned a couple of them,” said Manzarek.
“With the first one, we sounded like The Rolling Stones and with the second, for some reason, we sounded like Eric Burdon and the Animals. We knew there was no reason to have another band sound like either of them, so we kept looking.”
“Then we auditioned at a club in Los Angeles and I saw the Fender Rhodes keyboard bass onstage which belonged to another band. And I thought ‘Eureka, that’s it! I’ll play that.’ Robby’s father Stu Krieger bought one for us, because we had no money. This thing cost something like $325, and we didn’t have any gigs and could barely pay our rent, so he said, ‘alright, I’m going to buy this for you, but make sure you become a hit act.’ And we said, ‘yes sir, we will sir’ – and that was it. It worked out fine because it’s basically the way I play the keyboard anyway with my left hand playing the bass line. And it kept The Doors as a four-side diamond, rather than an evil pentagram.”
With their Fender Rhodes keyboard bass in tow, the band landed a gig as the house band at a Sunset Strip club called the London Fog, which Manzarek likened to The Beatles stint in Germany, where they played five sets a night and became a tight musical unit.
“We really got the music together because hardly anybody came into the club, so we could really concentrate on listening to each other,” he said. Their discipline elevated them to the house band at the prestigious Whiskey A Go Go, where they performed as opening act for some of the top mid-60s bands which came through Los Angeles. Their first show? Opening for the Irish rockers Them, featuring young lead singer Van Morrison.
“It was fabulous! Van and Jim! Can you believe that? Van Morrison and Jim Morrison on the Sunset Strip in the summer of 1966. It was really the ‘summer of love’ in Los Angeles, even before it reached San Francisco. We were going to make love, not war. It was mind-expanding, a time of magic. We had taken LSD and expanded our consciousness. And there we were onstage with Van Morrison, with Jim and Van jamming on “Gloria.” Oh, David, it was quite a night.”
The word got around about The Doors, a recording contract followed and the next six years became a blur of hit singles, gold records, and sold out tours. Manzarek and Kreiger, the two instrumentalists in the band, revelled in introducing complex musical statements into even the Top 40 fare of songs like “Light My Fire” which featured a Manzarek solo patterned after John Coltrane’s playing in “My Favorite Things.”
“We loved that we were getting Coltrane played on AM radio,” said Manzarek. “It was marvellous. I’m not sure how many people caught that, but I’m sure some did. We used to start our Whiskey shows off during the first set on Monday nights by playing Miles Davis and variations on “Summertime.”
IN ADDITION to the commercial success, there was also plenty of notoriety due to Morrison’s stormy onstage behavior which led to near riots at some shows and arrests at others – the most notable being an indecent behavior charge in Florida.
Morrison’s heavy drinking and bohemian lifestyle gradually changed his looks from matinee-idol sleek to bearded, potbellied slouch, and by the time of his death, the band’s status was in question. However Manzarek doubted that a break up with Morrison was in the offing.
“If we would have broken up, he would have had to join another band. My god, can you imagine Jim Morrison not singing?” said Manzarek.
“All eyes were watching him, the electric shaman with band behind him, allowing him to go into a Dionysian frenzy with complete joy, power and confidence – what a place to be. He was never going to give that up.”
“I imagine we would have stayed together, I don’t see how he could have found anyone as compatible to play with. We were the other half of his brain.”
Following Morrison’s death and the band’s split, Manzarek remained musically vital, becoming a champion of the West Coast punk movement of the late 1970s and producing the debut album – Los Angeles – by LA punk legends X “The punks were the next generation after the psychedelic era,” said Manzarek.
“After the stoners came the punks, and it was great. I thought it would be bigger in the US than it was, but it never really caught on like it did in England. The punk scene in California though was as exciting as what happened in the ‘60s.”
“I actually just played with X in December in San Francisco on the 30th anniversary of Los Angeles. Wow, it was hot, it was like nothing had changed, and why should it? We all still have our brains and our energy – we’re not drugged out or alcoholic. I might not have my youth anymore but I’ve still got my power!”
The same ethos applies to Manzarek and Krieger, whose explosive and faithful renditions of Doors classics have been deemed as engaging as the band’s initial incarnation. Manzarek said that he and Krieger are gratified that it’s not just their contemporaries who are attending the shows, but younger generations who weren’t even alive when the music was originally conceived.
“I welcome the intelligence of the young people who come to see us,” he said.
“Let’s face it, you have to be a little intelligent to understand and appreciate The Doors. You might have had to read a book. I’d like to think that our audience is not your typical rock crowd. They’re aware of the different implications and the Freudian aspects of the some of the lyrics. Plus, I think the younger audience is searching for freedom to break the chains, the shackles of repressive societies, probably their own repressive society.”
Manzarek, who expressed excitement about making his first visit to Israel, acknowledged efforts by anti-Israel activists to convince the band to boycott its Tel Aviv show, but insisted that no such thing was going to happen and that boycotts were the wrong approach to any conflict.
“I think we should be trying to bring cultures together, to bring messages from other lands into Israel,” he said. “We want nothing more than for Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace. And we can bring that message from Southern California, from the other ocean – the Pacific Ocean.”
“Pacific means peace and we’re going to bring peace from the ocean of peace to Israel and we’ll spread the vibration around. That’s the main thing. You’re talking to a psychedelic guy. Love is the answer. Let peace begin with me, let it continue with you.”