Ray Manzarek: The Key to the Doors

Ray Manzarek left his handiwork all over several of the more resilient and extraordinary songs from one of the enduring American bands.

When it comes to this great American band’s legacy, the best thing about the Doors is also the worst thing about the Doors: Jim Morrison.

Blessed with one of the more charismatic and literate frontmen of their -- or any -- era, it seems inevitable, in hindsight, that the Doors would become icons. Morrison, as leather-legged Lizard King, cut a figure that adorns posters and t-shirts four decades after his death.

Morrison also endures as one of the epic -- and tragicomic -- tales of rock and roll excess: a bright and beautiful young man who abused his body with drugs and alcohol, becoming a bloated shell of himself by the time he expired, looking like a fat retiree at 27.

Unfortunately, Oliver Stone’s ass-backwards hagiography is a quintessential slab of outsider’s groupie-envy, and his movie reinforced every lazy cliché associated with Morrison (and rock music). Despite what he may actually have intended, he turned his hero into a rather uninteresting cartoon character. In the final analysis, Morrison may have cared too little about his life, but he cared a great deal about his work.

Perhaps it is because of Morrison’s paradoxes (as another American poet put it, he contained multitudes) that he continues to appeal, as a source of both aggrandizement and reproach. And that’s just his lyrics. The ever-growing legend of Mr. Mojo Risin’ helps sell albums and convert young fans every year, but it tends to obscure a single, important fact: The Doors were a first-rate band, period.

The man to whom more credit for their success, and sound, should be attributed is Ray Manzarek, who passed away this week. Manzarek, an accomplished keyboardist who famously handled bass duties on his Fender Rhodes, also played the role of arranger and older brother. It’s obvious why his songwriting and technical abilities were so significant. It’s his role as middleman -- and mediator -- for Morrison and the band (including drummer John Densmore and guitarist Robby Krieger) that does not get nearly enough consideration. Without Manzarek’s steadying personality and the patience he preached to all involved (Morrison, the band, the fans), it’s debatable if the Doors would have made more than two albums.

For bringing keyboards to the forefront and utilizing his organ as a lead instrument, Manzarek was a pioneer. He was also the chief architect of the dark, distinctly psychedelic sound the band perfected on their first two albums. Whether it’s the Sunset Boulevard funk of “Soul Kitchen”, the Brechtian whimsy of “Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)”, or the eyes-half-shut oblivion of “End of the Night” that’s Manzarek moving things forward, and sometimes sideways.

Equally comfortable playing piano, Manzarek’s contributions were at once front and center and lurking in every corner, adding color, texture, momentum. This versatility is nowhere better represented than on “The Crystal Ship”, where his restrained, often ethereal organ is the water the rest of the band could cook with, while his discerning, almost elegant turn at the piano provides cerebral counterpoint. Manzarek takes what would be a near-perfect pop song and elevates it, imbuing it with a maturity and class that resists age: the rush and remorse inextricable from day-to-day existence; the deadening of the senses through chemical escape; the illusory respite from reality that is more or less Morrison’s epitaph; all the pain and unfulfilled promise of his life, along with much of the glory and redemptory grace, somehow contained in one song (all in all, a pretty impressive use of two minutes and 40 seconds).

One of the reasons the first album remains one of the all-time great debuts is because “The Crystal Ship” (along with “Break on Through” and “Soul Kitchen”) still sound remarkably, almost impossibly fresh; still edgy, still laced with menace, not dark so much as indifferent: immune to taste, fashion and time. And if Strange Days is slightly leaner and less essential than the first album, it has a handful of songs that stand proudly alongside anything the band ever did. The carnivalesque touches on “People Are Strange”, and the employment throughout of harpsichord and marimba reveal a willingness to stretch out and search for the perfect sounds. Still, The Doors were best when they went dark and deep: the surreal title track screams 1967, yet somehow seems as ominous and intact as ever in 2013. Each of these songs sound nothing like what anyone else was doing, and all would be unimaginable with Manzarek’s distinctive imprint.

For the rest of the group’s brief but rewarding time together Manzarek remains the focal point, always the anchor, but occasionally the captain. From the sweet piano of “Love Street” to the sour organ of “Not to Touch the Earth”; from the defiant “Shaman’s Blues” to the kaleidoscopic “Soft Parade”; from the bar-room bonhomie of “You Make Me Real” to the cool blues groove of “The Spy”; from the Ray Charles acid jazz of “The Changeling” to the wistful-to-majestic swells of “Hyacinth House” it’s Manzarek supplying the foundation -- and the feeling. Aside from Morrison, it’s that image of Ray most fans associate with the band: hunched over his keyboard, head shaking like he was not only reading a book in his lap, but translating it.

With Morrison gone, Manzarek -- so reticent and introspective during the band’s heyday -- became a character, perhaps because he felt it was his obligation. In interviews Ray consistently came across as the brilliant but eccentric uncle. He embodied so many excesses we tend to associate with the ‘60s, never reluctant to reminisce about mind expansion, mythology and always prepared to espouse peace, love and understanding. At times a little Manzarek went a long way, particularly when he could not leave well enough alone as it pertained to the band’s influence... and influences.

Several years ago while reviewing the band’s thrice-remastered catalog, I acknowledge that Manzarek invited interest -- and occasional ridicule -- for so zealously, and loquaciously embracing his role as spokesman for the band’s legacy:

Let’s face it, one reason it is so easy, even imperative, to poke fun at the Doors is because Manzarek himself, who has been anything but tongue-tied in interviews over the years, seems entirely too eager to elucidate the ways in which the band consciously emulated John Coltrane while composing their most important song. It might have behooved him a bit to understand that the considerable majority of even the most proficient jazz musicians are wary of drawing any sort of overt comparisons to Coltrane (mostly because the first thing it does is amplify the rather extreme divergence between the very good and the Great).

And yet. Robby Krieger, through lessons and discipline, had developed a facility on the flamenco guitar before moving on to amplified blues, then rock; John Densmore received classical training and played in jazz bands for years; Manzarek too had classical training. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of musicians (in rock and even in jazz) who have all the technique and ambition in the world, but cannot craft truly original, irrevocable melodies. Only the most obstreperous haters will deny that, as a tune, “Light My Fire” is irresistible ... at least the first million times.

To the end, Manzarek remained Morrion’s biggest fan, and defender. He showed both his loyalty and taste on the occasion of Oliver Stone’s idiotic Pop Opera, which he rightly lambasted. He was ebullient, always happy to explain the creative process and offer behind the scenes insight into how the Doors captured so many lightning bolts in so many bottles. He was also self-deprecating, droll and a total original. We are steadily losing, in prototypes like Manzarek, Dennis Hopper and Levon Helm, crucial links to a time we will never see again. As gloomy as it is to watch them go, we can, as always, console ourselves with the work they left behind -- all for our enjoyment and edification. Still, Manzarek seemed like a man destined to live a very long time. His ride only lasted 74 years, but he left his handiwork all over several of the more resilient and extraordinary songs from one of the more resilient and extraordinary American bands.

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