Ray Manzarek: "What do you think happens after you die?"

Written by Scott Mervis on .

RayManzarekray1Bob Dylan’s nasal croon.

The glorious Beatles harmonies.

The snarling feedback of Hendrix’s guitar.

Not far behind in the iconic sounds of the ’60s is the swirling organ of Ray Manzarek.

The keyboardist for the Doors, who died Monday at 74, made the era all the more psychedelic with his hypnotic, acid-laced work on “Light My Fire,” “Riders on the Storm,” “Break on Through” and so many of the band’s earth-shaking classics.

Not only did the keyboardist from Chicago provide all that color (and darkness) with the organ. From his boogie-woogie background, he also provided the bass-line grooves with his left hand.

Of course, it ended way too early when Jim Morrison died in 1971.

Manzarek, a former UCLA film student, went on to make a handful of solo records, produce the first two X albums and write several books.

In 2003, when Manzarek and Robbie Krieger regrouped for The Doors 21st Century with Ian Astbury on vocals, I had a chance to speak with the keyboardist, who had a voice like an FM deejay.

He talked about the ‘60s, about Morrison and about death, which he thought would come a decade or so later.

Here are a few excerpts:

How does it feel to play these songs again? 
It feels great, really invigorating, like I’m back in 1968 again. You’re playing “Light My Fire.” What could be more fun? Playing the songs live is always fun, because it’s full of improvisation. Even the 20th-century Doors, Jim would take a break and leave the stage, drink a beer or something. We’re doing the same thing now.

After all these years, what made you decide to do this now?
I don’t know. The 21st century came along, and there’s a psychic need for Doors songs to be played one more time into the atmosphere of America.

Were you concerned about tampering with the legacy, about how it would be received?
Of course. “There’s no Jim Morrison. How could they go out and play as the Doors?!”

Is that what held you back?
The times didn’t rotate into the right place. There is a time to do things and a time not to do things. The 20th century was not the right time. Now this century has come along and we’re in a rewind of the ‘60s with war and despoiling of the environment and bad economics and people enslaved by their religions, and it’s time for a reworking of Doors songs to offer another avenue. People need another way of looking at reality. The psychedelic mindset is needed now more than ever, but I don’t know if America has the [guts] to embrace the psychedelic. It’s very dangerous, yet very liberating.

Now, why did you want a bass player [for this reunion]? You always played it on the keyboards.
What a joy. I never wanted to play the piano bass in the first place. [laughs] We always wanted a bass player. We always used one in the recording studio. Now to have one on the road is really great. I can just float over their foundation.

Are you saying that, lead singer aside, the core group sounds better than back in the day?
The sound is monster. People have said to me, “You sound better than the first time around.” My wife has seen lots of Doors gigs. Every gig at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go. She was around before the beginning. After the gig in Los Angeles, she said, “That’s one of the best Doors concerts I’ve ever seen.” I thought, “Whoa! Honey! Love ya.”

You knew him. How do you feel about the way Jim Morrison is remembered, the way he’s glorified and mystified?
Right, made into some iconographic, Dionysian figure of — I-don’t-know-what — ultimate debauchery? For me, Jim is my buddy who slept on the floor of our little three-room house. We dropped acid and were students together. For me, Jim Morrison is poet, first and foremost. The reason the Doors got together in the first place was poetry and rock ’n’ roll. Like the beatniks did with poetry and jazz. Jim’s lyrics were poetry. For him to become this persona is a little more than I can take. Jim was the fourth guy in the band. He was not the leader of the band. The band had no leader. Jim’s job was lead sax — like John Coltrane.

Did you see him as a tragic figure all along, or a normal guy?
No, I saw him as a tragic figure. When we talked about life and death, there was a sense of brevity to his life. He once asked me out of nowhere on the beach, before John and Robbie were even in the band, he said, out of the blue, “How long do you think you’re going to live?” [laughs] I said, “Off the top of my head, 87.” He said, “Whoa, not me, man. I see my life like a shooting star. Everybody looks up and says, `Wow, look at that, amaaazing.’ “ OK, on to the next subject, Jim.

I never understand how this kind of angst comes out of L.A., this place with sunshine and beautiful beaches.
It does, man. Raymond Chandler. Nathaniel West. “Day of the Locust.” The punk bands. Charles Bukowski. [dropping his voice] There’s a hunger in the city ... for fame. It’s the center of show business, where maybe you could be a movie star or, if you’re a girl, you can get a rock star. There’s a deep hunger for fame, and that hunger once realized, it can drive you mad. And if you don’t satisfy that hunger, you’re also going to go mad. The punks are watching and saying, “How the hell did we get stuck in this?”

It seems like teen-age boys from every generation go through a Doors phase. To what to do you owe that fascination?
The sense of freedom. They pick up on the Doors’ freedom and certainly Morrison’s rebellion against authority, which is very Freudian, the rebellion against the military authority that he grew up in. That rebellion and that search for freedom, you add that to the music, that almost hypnotic kind of “Light My Fire,” going on and on. Those solos. A-minor to B-minor for like 5 minutes — in a pop song? There’s a hypnotic quality that puts you in a semi-trance state and a search for freedom that’s very appealing for teen-age boys in that phase just as they’re entering manhood. At some point, they’re going to have to put the yoke on. This is their last gasp of freedom before they put on the yoke of society — which we all do.

And there’s that presence of death in the music.
Yes, it’s always there. And as a teenager you become aware of your mortality. Kids don’t think about it. But at some point [dropping his voice to a spooky whisper], you’re in your room, alone, or smoking a doob with friends, and you think, “What happens after you die? What do you think happens after you die?” And the Doors are out there exploring the scenario.


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