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Behind the Curtain: Great Adventures with Ray Manzarek of the Doors

Written by: Steve Rosen

January 4, 2017 was christened The Day of the Doors in Venice, California — and surviving members John Densmore and Robby Krieger were on-hand for a fun event streamed live on the band’s Facebook page. It’s within that context, as well as the 50th anniversary of the band’s legendary 1976 debut album, that we present Steve Rosen’s recollections of Ray Manzarek below. 

If you were playing in a rock band doing covers anytime between 1967 and 1972, there were certain songs you had to play. De rigueur.  Dude, if you didn’t play these, your band sucked. You had to play Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love” and “Born on the Bayou” or “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.  These were songs that had been played on the radio thousands of times and every band huddled in a neighborhood garage somewhere had to learn them. Besides that, they were relatively easy songs to get down and even if you were still a struggling guitar player or drummer, you were able to come up with versions that sounded relatively decent.

However, if you had a keyboard player in your band—that was a rarity because there weren’t many electric keyboards around and virtually no high school kid could afford one—there was one song you really had to include in your repertoire: the Doors’ “Light My Fire.” If you played at a party or a school dance, you were expected to play it and if you didn’t people asked for it and if you didn’t know it you were screwed.

I was playing guitar in a band called Headwaters back in 1969. It was a group I’d formed with some friends — Eric Sinclair on bass and vocals, Steve Doctrow on drums and Dave Adams on keyboards — and we played at various school functions and at some church socials. We had a keyboardist—Adams had either a Roland Juno 106 or Yamaha DX7—and  consequently we tried to learn “Light My Fire.” Dave was not a good musician and he tried but try as he might, he could simply never cop the feel, notes or phrasing of the Ray Manzarek riff that opened the song. Which isn’t to imply that I didn’t totally butcher Robby Krieger’s guitar parts and that my solo was so bad that it deserved to be condemned — but we’re talking about keyboard players here so that’s where the focus will remain.

We practiced in my parents’ garage where I had set up a little record player. We listened to that first Doors album over and over and over but to no avail. Dave never played the intro right and though it was a relatively simple harmonic progression, it was Manzarek’s jazzy feel and sense of fluidity that made the keyboard riff so difficult to emulate. Though Headwaters butchered that song each and every time we played it, it never diminished my love for that track and the band.

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I had bought The Doors album about two years earlier and played the hell out of it. In fact, before “Light My Fire” took off, the album hadn’t attracted a lot of traction, which was why I found it in the $1.99 sale bin.  I was transfixed by the sound of Manzarek’s keyboards and the guitar tones Krieger was creating.

I really had no idea who was in the band back in those days but I did know I was lured to the haunting music they were making. Little did I know that about eight years later, I would actually meet and talk to this Ray Manzarek, the hip-looking cat on the cover with the Ben Franklin glasses and the cool. Never in a million years could I have imagined that.

Though I was possessed at the time with collecting records and listening to them, there was not a single thought in my head given over to the idea of one day talking to these musicians whose music I was so ardently listening to. I couldn’t even conceive of it. “Meet Ray Manzarek?” I thought. “How in the world would that ever happen?”

It did happen as I mentioned about eight years later. But at that time, I was simply listening to records and trying to show Dave Adams the chords of the “Light My Fire” intro. When I wasn’t working on learning a Clapton solo or trying to figure out another Doors song from that first album, I was caught up in reading comic books and building model cars. I loved both those pursuits and in some way they belong here in the telling of this story.

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When I was a young boy, there were many things that filled me with joy and delight. Before getting into music, one of the things I loved doing was reading and collecting Mad Magazine. Mad was an American humor publication that poked satirical fun at movies, political figures and popular culture at large. It was first published in 1952 and the first 23 issues were in comic book form. I probably started collecting them when I was about 13 or 14 or maybe 15 and by that time — circa 1966 or 1967 — they were already in a regular magazine format.

My parents would go shopping at the neighborhood grocery store, I would jump in the backseat of our 1966 Lemonwood yellow—an apt color my mom would later say when the entire motor literally fell apart — Chevrolet Impala in gleeful anticipation. Mad was a monthly publication you could buy off the little news racks usually situated at the front of most markets and drug stores. I was never sure when a new issue might come out so every time my parents went food shopping, I accompanied them.

The minute the car was parked, I’d swing open the back door and race for the magazine rack. I’d look past all the glamour and fashion magazines, all the car publications and all the newspapers and focus my attention on the bottom rack where I knew the Mad Magazines were.

I’d hold my breath for one long second before glancing down. If I saw the last issue still on the stand, I’d emit a long sigh of disappointment and trundle off to find my parents. They only had to look at me for a moment to understand the new issue had not yet arrived. My head slumped on my shoulders, I just stood there like a lump. “They didn’t have it?” my mom would ask. I shook my head and sadly accompanied them as they finished up their grocery shopping.

However, during those times when the new issue was there, I turned into a barely contained little ball of fire and excitement. I’d reach down to the lower rack and pull out a copy and lovingly cradle it. There were certain parts of Mad I especially loved reading — the Fold-in and The Lighter Side Of—were two particular favorites — and it took all the self-control my little 14-year old psyche could muster not to read those parts then and there in the market before even getting home.

I also collected Superman comic books — never Batman — and spent days building little model cars. Those pursuits filled my little kid’s life with meaning and purpose. A new Mad or another model car kit bought at the local hobby store were all that I needed to make me happy.

Then I started listening to the radio and becoming more aware of music and my priorities changed. At that point, all I wanted to do was listen to music and collect records. To that end, my parents bought me a little GE [General Electric], portable, green record player. It was the greatest thing I had ever seen. It had the size and shape of a small suitcase with a little top that opened and closed. It was green and had a turntable in it that could play three speeds: 33 [albums]; 45 [singles]; and 78 [older vinyl albums].

From that moment on, I was hooked. I would walk to the local record store and buy 45s, which then cost anywhere from 49¢ to 99¢. I had only been paying 25¢ for the Mad Magazines so buying a 45 for twice the money put a large hurt on my pocketbook. I remember buying “House Of the Rising Sun” by the Animals and “Jolly Green Giant” by the Kingsmen [the band that recorded “Louie Louie”]. I so desperately wanted to increase my collection that I even stole a single one time from a record shop called Mr. Music. I don’t remember which 45 it was because I don’t want to remember. I don’t know why I did it. That’s a lie. I do know why I did it. I wanted that record. But it made me feel horrible and I never did it again.

So I began collecting records and it consumed me. There was nothing that meant more to me than adding another record to the growing stash that was quickly filling up my small bedroom in my parents’ house. I didn’t have shelves or racks so I simply lined them up on the floor against the wall and it wasn’t long before they covered virtually every inch of walking space in my tiny bedroom.

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My very good friend Skip would drive us to stores like Platterpus and Field of Zaad where we’d lurch like zombies amongst the rows, racks and walls filled with vinyl. We were like junkies in a pharmacy or more proverbially like kids in a candy store. If Skip came across an album I’d been looking for before I found it, I would be upset for the rest of the day. “How could you take that Spirit album when you knew how much I wanted it?” I’d ask. Somehow I thought what I wanted was more important than what he wanted, but of course it wasn’t.

In 1967, I was looking through the racks at Martin’s Music. One of the neighborhood record stores close enough to walk to, Martin’s first opened their doors in 1961 and was located at 3870 Culver Center Drive in Culver City. By the time I walked through that hallowed portal six years later, the store had relocated to Washington Boulevard just a half-block away. As I was perusing the titles and thumbing through the various bins one day, I saw a bunch of albums in a sales display. One of them was the first Doors record (and that’s how all this talk about Mad Magazine and model cars connects together).

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Photo: Glen La Ferman

Listening to that album in 1967, I never had the slightest inkling that I would one day meet and interview the keyboardist pictured standing on the front of that cover. I met Ray Manzarek in September 1977 for a story that would appear in Contemporary Keyboard. He immediately struck me as a completely normal human being because I must admit I was concerned. I had heard about Jim Morrison and the craziness that surrounded him. I knew that Morrison was a heavy drinker and could be really abusive to the people around him. So I thought maybe Ray had had to develop a thick exterior to tolerate the singer’s self-destructive tendencies.

I was ready to meet a hardened warrior but the man I met instead was bright, insightful, and lighthearted. Standing over six feet, Ray struck me as a kind of hippie philosopher. He had these great, round glasses and wore a black turtleneck — black turtlenecks were always worn by smart people! — and he seemed so centered. Calm. Cool.

The Doors had been disbanded for about four years when we sat down to talk. Subsequently, Ray had been working with his own solo project called Nite City and their first album had just been released. He talked about how his playing had been changing and growing and how he had expanded his keyboard arsenal to include synths and various other pieces of gear he had never used in the Doors. In fact, that beautiful intro on “Light My Fire” as well as the rest of the first and second [Strange Days] Doors’ albums had been played entirely on a Vox Continental. This was truly an inspired choice because virtually every other keyboardist around was using either a Farfisa or a Hammond. But Ray had his own take on the subject. “The Vox was the perfect instrument to put the Rhodes piano bass on because it was flat as a pancake.”

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Though Morrison and Krieger wrote most of the music for the band, it was Manzarek’s unique blend of the blues, boogie woogie and Russian classical music from the late 19th century that truly stamped the songs. He told me about his love for Stravinsky and how he brought those classical elements into the band.

I had to ask him about the intro to “Light My Fire” and he said he came up with it really quickly. I was astonished by that. I may have told him I used to play the song in a band but probably didn’t. I would have been too embarrassed. How could I tell him that our keyboardist used to butcher the opening of the song every time we played it? Or that I couldn’t play Robby’s solo to save my life.  He probably would have smiled and been amused by the anecdote but I simply couldn’t bring myself to tell him.

Ray Manzarek passed away on May 20, 2013. It was a tragic loss. His death transports me back to that moment when I walked into that record store and bought the first Doors album and then walked home and put it on my little green plastic record player. I look back on that moment with tremendous fondness. It was a magic time. And I think back on meeting Ray Manzarek and that moment too makes my heart beat faster. I was so lucky. Even now I think, “I should have told him my band used to play ‘Light My Fire.’ He would have liked that.”

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