Remembering Ray Manzarek: Doors Keyboardist Believed Venice Beach Helped the Band Find Its Sound

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Ray Manzarek with the Doors, second from right.
Ray Manzarek, the keyboard player for the Doors, was the first rock star I ever interviewed. I'd just started writing about music, and one morning my editor called me up and asked if I'd like to interview Manzarek. I don't know if he knew I was a Doors fanatic, but I jumped at the chance. I went out and bought a cassette recorder and a contact mic with a black suction cup that stuck to the mouthpiece of my landline. Manzarek called me late one afternoon and, after I did a sound check to make sure the recorder was working properly, we started talking.

He spoke at length about music, art, poetry, and the possibility that Jim Morrison had faked his own death to get out of the glare of the spotlight. Manzarek said it would be just the kind of stunt he'd pull. Morrison had only been gone for a few years at the time of the interview, so it seemed possible that, unlike Elvis, he might still be around.

It was a great interview. The conversation filled both sides of the cassette, an hour and a half. The next morning, I went over to the typewriter to transcribe the tape. The sound check was perfectly clear and then there was nothing. My jaw dropped. My eyes teared up. Fast forward. Stop. Nothing! I flipped the tape over. More blank space. I must have forgotten to push the record button of the machine after I did the sound check. I sat there looking at the tape deck for an hour, paralyzed by grief.

In 2007, I got the chance to interview Manzarek again, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the first Doors album. This time, he gave me a thumbnail history of the band. Most of the songs he wrote with Morrison were created in a four or five year period. The Doors came out in January of 1967 and Strange Days came out in October, two seminal albums cut in less than a year, but they'd already been playing most of them live for two years.

"Our sound developed because we lived in Venice, away from the Hollywood rock 'n' roll scene, with leftover beatniks, writers, winos, retired people and poor people," he said. They weren't folkies or really rockers, as such. Guitarist Robbie Krieger could play flamenco, Manzarek had studied keyboard for years, John Densmore was a jazz drummer and Morrison was a poet. They all had chops. He said the story of meeting Morrison on the beach in Venice, and deciding they were going to become rock stars and make millions was true, although he'd previously run into Morrison at the UCLA film school.

One weekend, Morrison told everybody to go home and write a song. Krieger came back with most of "Light My Fire." Manzarek composed one of the best keyboard hooks in the history of pop music to compliment the song's dark mood, and Morrison rhymed "Fire" with "funeral pyre." Their recording of the song went gold and launched one of the most successful bands of the 1960s. They sold more than 100 million records and made seven best-selling albums in five years. Morrison's death in 1971 ended their stellar career.

The band made two more albums after Morrison's death, but without him, the magic was gone and they disbanded. Manzarek continued to have a hand in innovative music, however. He produced the first two albums by seminal punk-rock folkies X, had a long running collaboration with poet Michael McClure, played with Iggy Pop and Weird Al Yankovic, cut a roots rock album with slide guitarist Roy Rogers, and played electronic jazz with the trumpeter Bal and new music with Philip Glass. Starting in 2002, he toured with the Manzarek- Krieger group, performing Doors material, and wrote the best-selling memoir, Light My Fire: My Life with The Doors, in 1998.

He fought a long battle with bile duct cancer and was undergoing therapy for his condition in Roseheim, Germany when he died on Monday, May 20, surrounded by family and friends. The family asks that donations be made in Manzarek's name to
Standup2Cancer.org.


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