Ray and the boys…
Listen/Download – The Doors – Not To Touch the Earth Listen/Download – The Doors – The Unknown Soldier Listen/Download – The Doors – Peace Frog/Blue Sunday
I hope all is well in your corner of the universe.
This past week saw yours truly on the receiving end of a spiritual kick in the ass when news of the passing of the mighty Ray Manzarek came over the wire.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever discussed it in this space before, but when I was a kid (17 in 1980) the Doors inhabited a place in my mind, previously held only by the Beatles, and afterward by Otis Redding.
They were IT.
My buddy Mike and I were (to slightly varying degrees, he being of a slightly more conventional bent, then and now) major Doors fanboys, right before that first big posthumous rush when the mythology/hagiography ‘No One Here Gets Out Alive’ was flying off the shelves.
Fortunately for me, my love for the Doors preceded the emergence of Jim Morrison as leather clad memento mori, cemented by the opening organ run of ‘Light My Fire’ which I probably heard for the first time only a year or two after it was first released.
I remember walking a couple of miles to the dusty flea market and returning home with a copy of ‘13’ (the first Doors ‘Best of’) which I quite literally wore down over the next few years.
There was something about the Doors sound which managed to hit all of the pleasure centers in my teenage brain, including evidence of a certain darkness which – even though I didn’t really understand it – appealed to me greatly.
When ‘No One Here…’ came out, preaching the gospel of Jim Morrison, making note of the sacraments of intoxication, rebellion and poetry, it was like finding a religion that had been specifically designed for teenaged outsiders.
The music of the Doors, which I already dug, suddenly took on a whole new meaning.
When you’re an adolescent, you’re much more susceptible to finding profundity wherever you look.
Here we had Jim Morrison, great singer and amazing performer and above all an intellectual who was also – at his best (or worst, depending on your own perspective) a huge, protruding middle finger pointed at the authority figures of his time.
Morrison was punk in a way that I understood, while at the same time I was largely oblivious to the punk that was happening around me. While many of my peers looked to Johnny Rotten or the Ramones, I cast my net back a decade and fixated on Morrison.
Of course, a few years later, when other – less worshipful – voices entered the conversation, combined with my own maturity (as it was) it became clear that Jim Morrison was less a dark, shamanic lord, than he was an out of control alcoholic and ego (albeit with a great deal of talent) who made the lives of those around him extremely difficult.
While this changed the way I thought about Morrison, it never really had an effect on the way I felt about the Doors music.
Of course, by the time I figured all of this out, a whole new generation of kids were finding the same things to dig about Jim Morrison that I had ten years before.
This had everything to do with the fact that the Hopkins/Sugerman bio (seemingly perpetually in print) had been in many ways supplanted by the voice of Ray Manzarek.
Everywhere the Doors or Jim Morrison came up in conversation, it seemed Ray Manzarek, with his hippie drawl, was there too, playing Joseph Campbell to Jim Morrison’s hero with a thousand faces, perpetually whipping a few years of rock’n’roll madness into a kind of psychedelic meringue.
Where I had settled into the idea of Morrison as a great rock singer and frontman, Manzarek was popping up, right and left, using words like “shaman’ and ‘ritual’ to describe the man and his life.
The funny thing is, when you go back and watch film of the Doors, you get the impression, delivered with repeated sly grins, that Morrison himself didn’t believe half of that stuff, and for the same reasons, I never thought Ray bought into it all the way either.
But he became the public face of the Doors, as well as the guy shoveling coal into the furnace of Morrison’s memory.
One of my favorite bits of musical algebra (as it were), is to posit that most aren’t nearly as good as their biggest fans think they are, nor are they as bad as their detractors would have you believe.
The Doors are exemplary in this respect.
While they weren’t the modern equivalent of an ancient shamanic ceremony, they weren’t a psychedelic clown car either.
One of the cooler things about finding out more about the Doors as I got older (separate from all the ‘kill your idols’ ish) is that I began to appreciate the depth of their music.
When I was first listening to the Doors in the 70s, I had yet to hear (let alone really understand) the music of Arthur Lee and Love, the Velvet Underground or the 13th Floor Elevators. I was basically digging the Doors without an adequate supply of context.
As I got older, and listened to more, something very interesting happened.
A lot of the bullshit got shaved away, but what it revealed underneath was a band that was trying (and more often than not, succeeding) to make something new and interesting which in most cases worked outside of the contemporary grab bag of musical clichés.
Though it was probably 15 years between the first time I heard the Doors play ‘Alabama Song’ and when I heard Brecht and Weill’s ‘Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny’, it immediately occurred to me that the Doors weren’t fucking around. They understood from whence that music came, and (re)delivered it in a way that was both proper and respectful of the original context.
Critics in the 60s and the 70s were find of stapling all kinds of retrospective tinsel onto their favorite bands/performers, suggesting that their music was ‘evocative’ of one cool old thing or another, but the Doors were one of the first bands where I understood that if they did evoke memories of earlier, ‘important’ things, it was because they meant it that way.
While I wouldn’t (couldn’t) refer to Jim Morrison as a genius, I also wouldn’t hesitate to suggest that he was better read and smarter than a lot of his contemporaries, and less pretentious than a lot of folks would have you believe.
The Doors weren’t dilettantes when it came to jazz and the blues, or working those sounds into their music in an organic way.
They didn’t sound like anyone else, nor – once they were gone – did anyone sound like them.
Sure, there have been countless attempted-Morrisons over the years, but by and large they missed the point, misunderstanding Blake, and taking the road of excess not to the palace of wisdom, but straight to the gutter (or like Jim, right into the cemetery).
Ray Manzarek, manning the combo organ, piano and even that odd, Fender keyboard bass, was the instrumental heart of the Doors. Though he wasn’t the group’s main composer (those duties assumed by Robbie Krieger and Morrison*) the sounds he made, on the Vox Continental or Gibson G-101 organs, pianos (acoustic and electric) were what made the band’s music stand out. I can hardly think of a keyboard player (aside from any singer/songwriters where the primary instrument was piano) in a band that contributed so much to the recognizable sound of their band, where the instrument wasn’t a Hammond organ.
As I said earlier, the Doors music was unique, and in retrospect, surprisingly odd and challenging for a band that was in its day quite popular.
There is a stark dividing line between most of their hits and their album tracks, and you have to wonder what was going through the mind of someone that bought ‘Waiting for the Sun’ for ‘Hello I Love You’ and got the record home only to hear ‘Not To Touch The Earth’ or ‘The Unknown Soldier’.
The tunes I’m including here today are faves of mine from ‘Waiting for the Sun’ and ‘Morrison Hotel’.
The aforementioned cuts from ‘Waiting for the Sun’ are great examples of the “weird” side of the Doors.
‘Not to Touch the Earth’ is as piquant a bit of bad-trip psyche out as has ever come down the pike. Opening with Doug Lubahn’s (of Clear Light) bass, Manzarek’s organ and Kreiger’s woozy slide guitar, Morrison joins in for a verse, and then things get progressively darker, dissonant and weird, broken only by the periodic ‘run with me’ chorus.
‘The Unkown Soldier’ was the first 45 from ‘Waiting for the Sun’, and believe it or not, broke into the Top 40 in 1968. The song is a playlet, with martial sound effects, a mock execution and cheering crowds, and it still seems weird to think of it sandwiched in between ‘To Sir With Love’ and ‘La La Means I Love You’ on the radio.
‘Peace Frog/Blue Sunday’, which run together near the end of side one of ‘Morrison Hotel’ is alternately the funkiest thing the Doors ever laid down, and the most melancholy. ‘Peace Frog’, with lyrical nods to Morrison’s arrest in New Haven and the unrest at the Democratic Convention in Chicago features one of Robbie Kreiger’s hottest guitar solos.
‘Blue Sunday’ is a slow, dreamy, and in the context of the Doors catalog, very conventional love song, which provides a stark contrast to ‘Peace Frog’ (which I’m guessing was the idea).
In the years after Morrison’s untimely demise, Manzarek played with artists as diverse as Philip Glass and Iggy Pop, and most importantly produced the first four albums by X, including their breakthrough ‘Under the Big Black Sun’.
There were also the various and sundry Doors recreations, none of which I paid much attention to, unable to stomach the idea of a faux-Morrison out in front.
That said, Ray Manzarek always seemed like a good guy, with his personal and artistic heart in the right place, which is why I could forgive (and occasionally enjoy) the mythmaking.
He was a great talent, and will be missed.
See you all next week.