Remembering Ray Manzarek, Keyboardist For The Doors

May 24, 2013
Originally published on May 30, 2013 5:04 pm

This interview was originally broadcast in 1998.

The mythology surrounding The Doors has centered largely on its lead singer, Jim Morrison, who died under mysterious circumstances in 1971. Morrison is still considered one of rock music's tortured poets and sex gods, but instrumentally, The Doors' distinctive sound was based on Ray Manzarek's keyboard playing. His are the riffs made famous in such songs such as "Riders on the Storm," "Break on Through" and "People Are Strange."

Manzarek, who died of bile-duct cancer on May 20, spoke with Fresh Air after the publication of his memoir Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors in 1998. He described encountering Morrison on the beach near Los Angeles shortly after they'd both graduated from UCLA. Morrison told him he had spent the months since graduating writing songs. Manzarek asked him to sing one of those songs and was blown away. "I said, 'Man, this is incredible. Let's get a rock 'n' roll band together,'" he told host Terry Gross.

It didn't take long for Morrison and Manzarek to add drummer John Densmore and guitarist Robby Krieger to the band. The four soon found themselves at the epicenter of a cult of sexual adoration that gathered around Morrison. Manzarek recalled anticipating this development from the beginning.

"It was fabulous," he said. "I mean, we made our music, that's what we did. You know, the fact that Jim attracted the little girls was something that I knew he was going to do when I saw him at 135 pounds on the beach [and said], 'We're going to start a rock 'n' roll band and you're about the handsomest guy I've seen.' I didn't say that to him. 'The girls are going to love this guy,' and the girls did love him."

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.


DAVIES: Ray Manzarek, whose keyboard work helped define the distinctive sound of the '60s rock band The Doors, died Monday in Germany after a long battle with cancer. He was 74. Manzarek was raised in Chicago and grew up with a passion for jazz and blues. He kept that passion in his keyboard work as he shaped the sound of the band that backed Jim Morrison.


DAVIES: The Doors had a string of hits between 1967 and Jim Morrison's death in 1971. After the demise of The Doors, Manzarek recorded with a band of his own called Nite City and in the '80s produced four albums for the L.A. punk band X. Terry spoke to Ray Manzarek in 1988 and invited him to sit at the piano during their conversation. He'd written a memoir called "Light My Fire: My Life with The Doors."

Manzarek and Jim Morrison attended UCLA film school together but didn't think of forming a band until they were both out of school.

RAY MANZAREK: Biblically, 40 days and 40 nights after we said our goodbyes after graduation, I'm sitting on the beach wondering what I'm going to do with myself. Who comes walking down the beach but James Douglas Morrison, looking great, lost 30 pounds, was down to about 135, six feet tall, Leonardo - Michelangelo's David. He had the ringlets and the curly hair starting to kind of fall over his ears in gentle locks.

And I thought, God, he looks just great. And I said Jim, Jim, come on over here, man. And I said, well, what have you been up to? So what's going on? And he said, well, I've been living up on Dennis Jacobs'(ph) rooftop, consuming a bit of LSD and writing songs.

I said, whoa, writing songs, OK, man, cool, like sing me a song. You know, he said, oh, I'm kind of shy, because I knew he was a poet, he knew I was a musician. I said sing me a song. So he sat down on the beach, dug his hands into the sand, and the sand started streaming out in little rivulets, and he kind of closed his eyes, and he began to sing in a Chet Baker, haunted whisper kind of voice.

He began to sing "Moonlight Drive," and when I heard that first stanza, let's swim to the moon, let's climb through the tide, penetrate the evening that the city sleeps to hide, I thought ooh, spooky and cool, man. I can do all kinds of stuff behind that. I could do kind of...


MANZAREK: Sort of let's swim to the moon, you know, let's climb through the tide, penetrate the evening that the city sleeps to hide. And I thought ooh, I can put all jazz chords, and I can put some kind of bluesy stuff.


MANZAREK: I thought yeah. And I could do my Ray Charles and my Muddy Waters, Otis Spann influences, and I could do just all kinds of bluesy, funky stuff behind what Jim was singing. And then he had a couple of other songs, "My Eyes Have Seen You," and "Summer's Almost Gone," and they were just, they had beautiful melodies to them that would just allow for chord changes and improvisations, and I said, man, this is incredible, let's get a rock and roll band together.

And he said that's exactly what I want to do. And I said all right, man. But one thing: What do we call the band? It's got no name. We can't call it Morrison and Manzarek, I mean, you know, M&M or, you know, Two Guys from Venice Beach or something. He said no, man, we're going to call it The Doors.

And I said the what? That's ridiculous, the - oh, wait a minute, you mean like the doors of perception, the doors in your mind.


MANZAREK: And the light bulb went on, and I said that's it, the Doors of Perception. He said no, no, just The Doors. I said like Aldous Huxley. He said yeah, but we're just The Doors.


MANZAREK: And that was it. We were The Doors.


MANZAREK: And that's how the band got formed.


THE DOORS: (Singing) Let's swim to the moon, uh-huh, let's climb through the tide, penetrate the evening that the city sleeps to hide. Let's swim out tonight, love. It's our turn to try, parked beside the ocean on our moonlight drive. Let's swim to the moon, uh-huh, let's climb through the tide...


So when you and Jim Morrison decided to create a band, that left the lead singer and keyboard player. You still needed other musicians. So you ended up finding the drummer, John Densmore, and guitarist Robby Krieger. But you became not only the keyboard player but the bass player too.

MANZAREK: Well, that was of necessity.

GROSS: Tell us that story.

MANZAREK: We had the four of us. I found John and Robby in the maharishi's meditation.


MANZAREK: And kind of Eastern mysticism. We were into the same thing, the yoga, the same kind of yoga that The Beatles were into, and that came out of the song - the song "This is The End" comes out of that. So we were all seekers after spiritual enlightenment, and so was Jim, of course. But we didn't have a bass player.

So I applied my boogie-woogie background, my rock and roll boogie-woogie, because when discovered boogie-woogie, that was the whole thing.


MANZAREK: And you just keep that left hand going. You don't do anything with it. It just goes and goes and goes and goes.


MANZAREK: And the right hand does the improvisations.


MANZAREK: So I had done that over and over and over as a kid, so it was very easy for me to once we found the Fender Rhodes keyboard bass, 32 notes of extra low-sounding low notes, it was very easy for me to do...


MANZAREK: So that's what I did on the piano bass.


MANZAREK: Or like "Riders on the Storm."


MANZAREK: And that's what I did, I just over and over, repetitive bass lines that are just like boogie-woogie, it just keeps on going. And it becomes hypnotic, and that was - that's why lefty here is, thank you, he did a very good job. He's not too quick, a bit of a slow-witted fellow, lefty, but he's really strong and solid and plays what he has to play, so lefty became our bass player.

GROSS: One of the really big stories in the lore of The Doors is the concert in Miami where...

MANZAREK: Yes it is.

GROSS: ...where many people say that Jim Morrison exposed himself.

MANZAREK: Yes, they do.

GROSS: And you say he didn't exactly. But he had seen The Living Theatre a few days before and that was like the theater group was experimenting with, you know, breaking down the fourth wall and taking off their clothes in the middle of theater performances, confronting the audience and so on.


GROSS: And he was influenced by that.

MANZAREK: Yes, he was. We're in Miami. It's hot and sweaty. It's a Tennessee Williams night. It's a swamp and it's a yuck - a horrible kind of place, a seaplane hangar - and 14,000 people are packed in there, and they're sweaty, and Jim has seen The Living Theatre and he's going to do his version of The Living Theatre in front of - this is the first time he's been home.

He was born in Melbourne, Florida. This is his - virtually his hometown and he's going to show these Florida people what psychedelic West Coast shamanism and confrontation is all about.

He takes his shirt off in the middle of the set and says, you know, you people haven't come to hear a rock and roll - he's drunk as a skunk, and he didn't tell any of us what he was going to do. If only he have told somebody. He said you didn't come to hear a rock and roll band play some pretty good songs. What you came - you came to see something, didn't you? And they're all going - errrrrrrr.

He said what's you come to see? You came to see something that you've never seen before, something greater than you've ever seen. What do you want? What can I do for you? And the audience is going like this, you know, that's how the audience, it's just rumbling and rumbling. And he said OK, how about if I show you my - and all the audience goes screaming crazy.

It was like madness, and Jim takes his shirt off, holds it in front of him, reaches behind it and starts fiddling around down there, and you wonder what is he doing. And I'm thinking, oh God, he's going to take it off. And the audience is getting crazier and crazier. And then Jim whips the shirt out to the side, he said did you see it, did you see it? Look, I just showed it to you. Watch, I'm going to show it to you. Now, keep your eyes on it folks and he whips it out...


MANZAREK: Off to the side again.


MANZAREK: Off to the side again, off to the side and says, I showed it to you. You saw it, didn't you? You saw it, and you loved it, and you people loved seeing it. Isn't that what you wanted to see? And sure enough, it's what they wanted to see.

They hallucinated. I swear, the guy never did it. He never whipped it out. It was like, it was like in the West Coast, Jesus on a tortilla. It was one of those mass hallucinations. It was - I don't want to say the vision of Lourdes because only Bernadette saw that, but the other people believed and maybe other people said - it was one of those kind of religious hallucinations, except it was Dionysus bringing forth, calling forth snakes.

GROSS: And then you say he said to the audience, come closer, come on down here. Get with us, man.

MANZAREK: Oh, yeah, yeah. Come on, yeah, oh, come on. Sure, come on. Join us. Join us on stage. And eventually, the - sure, and they started coming on a rickety little stage, and the entire stage collapsed. Sure.

GROSS: What were you thinking?

MANZAREK: It's chaos. It's the end of the world as we know it. It's rock and roll. It's madness. It's the end of Western civilization. Dionysus has come back from 2,000, 3,000 years ago. He has called forth the snakes. The people have had a mass hallucination. They've rushed the stage trying to get their hands on Dionysus to rip and tear him apart, and I played...


MANZAREK: I played the riot. John and Robby left the stage, and I just played screaming, crunching organ all over the place, just the way I did when my first piano lesson - before the piano lesson when my mom and dad said play the piano, and I went...


MANZAREK: I did the exact same thing on the organ. I was seven years old going yaaaah and screaming on the organ.

GROSS: Was there a part of you that was saying instead of like, blah, blah, blah, Dionysus, was there a part of you that was saying my stupid buddy Jim Morrison is creating this madness, we'll be lucky if we get off the stage alive?

MANZAREK: There was a part of me that was saying we are going to get in big trouble, we're in trouble here. But you know what? It's too late to stop it.


MANZAREK: So why not treat it as a theatrical event, you know? But we're going to get in serious trouble, and sure enough within a week Jim had been arrested, he had been charged with indecent exposure, public profanity, open profanity, public drunkenness, lewd and lascivious behavior, and - and they read this in court - and simulation of oral copulation.

He did take is penis out and shake it.


MANZAREK: In the courtroom, the audience is going ehhhhhh, judge going order in the court, order in the court here. And once they read that in court, I knew it was a total fiasco because he had never done it. He didn't do it.

DAVIES: Ray Manzarek of The Doors, speaking with Terry Gross in 1998. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's interview with keyboardist Ray Manzarek, who died on Monday. They spoke in 1998 when Manzarek's memoir, called "Light My Fire: My Life with the Doors," was published.

GROSS: In your memoir you write a little bit - you write a lot, really, about how The Doors developed their sound and how you developed your sound as the keyboard player with the group. Let's take an example of one of those songs. Why don't we look at "Light My Fire," which is...


GROSS: ...probably the most famous or one of the most famous.

MANZAREK: The most famous Doors song.

GROSS: Sure. Yeah.

MANZAREK: Yeah, probably the most famous Doors song. You know, it's that worldwide popular appeal, the most famous. And Robby Krieger is actually the writer of "Light My Fire." So the way we would work on songs is somebody would bring a song in and then everyone would go to work on it. It would be like little bees just - or little things spinning and working and weaving.

So Robby came in with a song, he said I got a new song called "Light My Fire," the first song Robby Krieger ever wrote. What a genius he is. He's just the greatest guy, a great guitar player and great songwriter. I've got a song called "Light My Fire." So he plays the song for us and it's kind of a Sonny and Cher kind of...

(Singing) Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da. Light my fire.

And it's like, OK. OK. Good chords change - what are the chord changes there? And he shows me an A minor...


MANZAREK: an F sharp minor.


MANZAREK: And that's like, whoa, that's hip.


MANZAREK: That's cool. And then...


MANZAREK: And that's when he went into the Sonny and Cher part.


MANZAREK: I say, no, no, no, no, no, no, we're not going to a Sonny and Cher kind of song here, man. And that was popular at the time. Densmore says, look, we've got to do a Latin kind of beat here. Let's do something in kind of a Latin groove.


MANZAREK: And I'm doing this left-hand line. So John is doing ka-chinka-chinka-dunka. And we set up this Latin groove and then go into a hard rock four...


MANZAREK: And Robby's only got one verse, he needs the second verse, and Morrison says, OK, let me think about it for a second. And Jim comes up with the classic line: And our love becomes a funeral pyre. You know, you know that it would be untrue, you know that I would be a liar if I were to say to you, girl, we couldn't get much higher, is Robby's. And then Jim comes: The time to hesitate is through. In other words seize the moment, seize the spiritual LSD moment. The time to hesitate is through, no time to wallow in the mire. Try now, we can only lose.

Whoa, that's kind of heavy - try now, we can only lose, meaning the worst thing that can happen to you is death, and our love becomes a funeral pyre, our love is consumed in the fires of (unintelligible) and it's like, God, Jim, what a great, great verse, man.

So we've got verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and then it's time for solos. So anyway, the verse goes...


MANZAREK: You know how that goes. You've heard it a million times. And then into the chorus...

(Singing) Come on baby light my fire.

So it's time then for some solos. We've done a verse, chorus, verse, chorus. Now what do we do? We've got to play some solos. We've got to stretch out. Here's where John Coltrane comes in. Here's where The Doors' jazz background - John's a jazz drummer. I'm a jazz piano player. Robby's a flamenco guitar player. And we all said, you know, we're in A minor. Let's see. What do we do?


MANZAREK: It ends up on an E, so how about...


MANZAREK: "My Favorite Things," John Coltrane. It's "My Favorite Things," except Coltrane's doing it in D minor.


MANZAREK: But the left hand is exactly the same thing. It's in three, one, two, three, one, two, three, A minor. The Doors' "Light My Fire" is in four. We're going from A minor to B minor.


MANZAREK: So it's the same thing as...


MANZAREK: And that's how the solo comes about. And then we just go...


MANZAREK: So it's John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things." And Coltrane's "Ole Coltrane," and then...


MANZAREK: That's the chord structure. Then I would solo over it, Robby would solo over it, and at the end of our two solos, we'd go into a - a three against four.


MANZAREK: And I'm keeping the left hand going exactly as it goes. That hasn't changed. That's the four. On top of it is three.


MANZAREK: And into the turnaround.


MANZAREK: And we're back at verse one and verse two, and we're back into our Latin groove. So it's basically a jazz structure. It's verse chorus, verse chorus, state the theme, take a long solo, come back to stating the theme again. And that's how "Light My Fire" came about. The only thing left to do was to come up with that little turnaround thing. I hadn't had that yet.

And we said, now, how do we start the song? Do we just jump on A minor to an F? Should we - are we going to do that, vamp a little bit? I said no, no, no, we need something more. We can't just vamp a little bit. And I started this, I took my Bach back to work, put my Bach hat on and came up with a circle of fifths. So I started like this...


MANZAREK: Like a Bach thing, like...


MANZAREK: So same kind of thing.


MANZAREK: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, B flat. I'm on - so I'm in G, D, F, up to B flat, E flat, A flat to the A to A major, A major, yeah, that's it, and then we'll go to the A minor. I'm thinking all this to myself. So that's how the introduction came about.


MANZAREK: F, B flat, E flat, A flat, A - and the drums and everything. Jim comes in singing. And the Latinesque and then into hard rock. So that's how "Light My Fire" goes. That's the creation of "Light My Fire."

DAVIES: Ray Manzarek on FRESH AIR, recorded in 1998. That was when his memoir about his life with The Doors was published. Manzarek died Monday. He was 74. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.