I was lucky enough to meet Ray Manzarek once. As an undergraduate, I assisted Ann Charters and Allen Ginsberg when they co-chaired a conference on the Beat Generation at NYU. During that conference, I saw Ray perform with Michael McClure, the poet–McClure reading and Ray playing piano underscore. The next day I was taking a break at a nearby bar when Ray walked in and sat next to me. I wanted to say something, but decided not to say any of the things he must hear all the time and tire of, things like, “I really love The Doors” or “What was it like playing music with Jim Morrison?”
So instead I simply said, “Great show last night,” and Ray said, “Oh, did you see us?”
“Yes,” I said. “How did you come up with the music you play under McClure’s poems?”
And that’s when it came out. Ray began excitedly, “Well, it was *just* like when I used to play with Jim, man…” and out came story after story of how they conceived of the songs for The Doors, how life-changing it all was, how much he believed in Morrison and the band. His excitement was so thrilling. How many times must he have told these stories over the years? And yet, without even being asked, he launched happily into several stories, as excited as he must have been all that time ago.
“One thing,” I said, well into our conversation, “that bass figure you were playing underneath that one poem… that’s Miles Davis, right? From Sketches of Spain?”
Ray just looked at me. “You know,” he said, “I’ve been playing that underneath that poem all this past year, and you’re the first person to call me on it.” He turned to the bartender. “Bartender, get this man a Heineken.”
Ray Manzarek’s organ occupied a place at once sinister and yet playful–its sound and his playing was rooted in garage rock and yet yearned to be so much more, so much closer to the jazz and classical players he so admired. Along with Morrison, Krieger, and Densmore, he came up with a unique sound all its own, blending rock with jazz, poetry, classical drama, philosophy, blues, European art, spirituality, and a lot of tongue-in-cheek meta-analysis of pop stars and pop culture–the sound of The Doors. Among other things, The Doors were proto-punk. Without them, there would be no Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Patti Smith, Echo & the Bunnymen, Jim Carroll Band, X… the list could go on and on…
It seems that it’s largely unhip to like The Doors these days, a phenomenon I mostly ascribe to the fact that most kids Gen X and younger get turned on to them, and their myth, at the tender early age of 12 or so, when adolescence breeds strong emotions, and so this music is forever tied to those youthful, naive times. Once grown up, these people feel The Doors belong in their past, along with their toys and cartoons. I do not count myself among them. It’s a valid emotional experience, and to each their own, but I still find in The Doors a power and a curiosity, a danger–can you even imagine this music coming on the radio in 1967, or seeing this dangerous livewire act perform in a time of the Viet Nam war, when the ’60s were just becoming the ’60s?–, and yes, even a black sense of humor and wicked intelligence that I believe deserves more.
So, in Ray’s honor, spin that first Doors album. Again, or for the first time. And tell me Ray doesn’t deserve a place among the best.