PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.