Remembering Ray Manzarek of The Doors

Below is an interview I did with Ray Manzarek in December 2005, prior to his band, Riders on the Storm, performing in Boise. Manzarek, who died today at 74, was a fun guy to talk to — and a man unafraid to irk a few people.

Re-opening The Doors: Keyboardist Ray Manzarek talks about Jim Morrison, legal battles and the music that helped define a generation

To purists and Jim Morrison fanatics, former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek is a knob.

It doesn’t matter that he formed the group with icon Jim Morrison.

It doesn’t matter that Manzarek’s psychedelic organ melodies were a defining element of the band.

The outspoken Manzarek, they say, is a jerk. Because since 2001, Manzarek and original guitarist Robby Krieger have attempted to rekindle the Doors franchise without Morrison, who has rested in a Paris cemetery since 1971.

In the eyes of some classic rock fans, including ex-Doors drummer John Densmore, that’s akin to holding a Last Supper without Jesus. Using his veto power, Densmore has prevented Manzarek and Krieger from licensing Doors music for commercial use. He also sued them for performing as the Doors of the 21st Century.

So in front of a packed house Saturday at The Big Easy, Manzarek and Krieger will revive hits such as “Light My Fire” and “Hello, I Love You” as a group called Riders on the Storm.

Ian Astbury, vocalist from British rock band the Cult, will attempt to fill Morrison’s boots. Many in the crowd probably will react as if the Lizard King himself has been reborn. (As Morrison once sang, people are strange.) Hired gun Ty Dennis will play drums. And bass guitar — an instrument never used by the Doors — will be supplied by Phil Chen.

Scoffing at this venture is easy. But if the musicians and the crowd enjoy the evening, deducing what’s so wrong about it will be harder.

Speaking by phone Tuesday from his home in Northern California, Manzarek — the group’s eldest member at 66 — enthusiastically explained why he isn’t concerned about what anybody thinks:

Why did the idea to do this new band come into your head?

Because it seemed like a good idea at the time. We had played the “VH1 Storytellers” special with a group of different lead singers, and everybody loved it and wanted us to go out on the road and do it. And at one point, after about two years, Robby and I looked at each other and said, “Let’s go do it! Let’s go play.” So that was the impetus. And (on) the “VH1 Storytellers” — available now in your local TV store or on the Internet — Ian Astbury was one of the singers, along with Scott Stapp, Scott Weiland, Pat Monohan from Train, a couple of other guys . And we thought Ian was the best man for the job — without a, uh … (laughs) … without a serious drug problem. Many others will go nameless!

So there were others that could have possibly wormed their way into this role?

Nope! No, Ian was the guy from the get-go.

What makes Ian such a great stand-in — is it proper to call him a stand-in? — for Jim?

Uh, no. He’s the lead singer of the Doors of the — nope, I’m sorry! What are we called? What are we allowed to call ourselves now?

You’re now called Riders on the Storm.

Riders on the Storm! Right. God, if I had said “Doors of the 21st Century, ” it’s possible that I could be arrested and taken away to jail. Using the name of the Doors, the band that I started with Jim Morrison. But I cannot use that name anymore. Nor can Robby Krieger, the man who wrote “Light My Fire.” And Ray and Robby are playing together, but they cannot use the name the Doors, although they are the Doors.

All right! Well, then, let’s jump right into the dirt: Why has John Densmore caused so much angst for you and Robby?

Uhhhhhhm. (Chuckles.) Because he can’t cut the mustard! You know? John doesn’t feel like playing. John doesn’t want to play with us. No, John doesn’t want to play with us.

Densmore’s cost you a lot of money …

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah!

… Both by filing suit to prevent you from using the Doors name, and by preventing the music from being used in any commercial use. Does this make you angry?

Well, you know. Life is — we live in the Kali Yuga. And things will go bad. This is a case where one of the people has sort of gone a little off in the head and is going to stop all commercial exploitation of the band, like playing music! (Laughs.)

He claims to take the high road by not allowing –

Yes! Yeah, yeah. He’s a far better man than I am.

But with the ubiquitousness of classic rock in commercials nowadays, do you feel like that argument is kind of a moot point?

Well, of course! Once again, I’m actually now taking my cue from John Densmore, and I’m trying to become a better human being. Like he is.

How are you doing that?

I don’t know. I have to figure that one out. I’m going to turn the reins of the Doors more or less over to him. Whatever he wants to do. Because he has the veto power, so he can stop anything. So what he determines to be a positive thing is — whatever he does, I will do.

If suddenly, he woke up and wanted to play music with you, would all be forgiven?

Well, of course! Oh God, we’ve asked him many times to come and play with us. We asked him from the get-go and he said no. We said, “Come on and plaaay! We’re having fun! The audience loves it! The music’s great! We’re playing, come on, man, Ian’s doing a great job.” He said (shifts into snippy voice), “Nope! I don’t like Ian Astbury.” “He’s terrific, man, everybody loves him, he does a great job!” (Laughs, then goes back to snippy voice) “No! I don’t want to play those songs. I don’t want to play those pop songs anymore.” “Wooooah, what do you mean? Those pop songs like ‘L.A. Woman?’ Or ‘Light My Fire, ‘ or ‘Roadhouse Blues’? Well, ooooh.” Well, see he’s more advanced artistically than I am, too, and Robby, certainly.

Well, you at least seem to have a sense of humor about it.

Well, what are you going to do, man? You know, what the f—. It’s only money. (Laughs.) We’re having a great time. So we go out and play and have a great time and the audience loves it. And we just played Honolulu for the Honolulu Marathon. … It was like a luau concert. It was terrific! So we’re having a great time.

I wanted to ask you that: Nearly 40 years after you started the band, how does it feel to be on stage playing the music?

Damn good! Damn good. You know? It’s not as if Robby and I have been doing it for 40 years is the thing. This band went on hiatus in 1973 and has not performed publicly. The only time Robby and I played “Light My Fire” together was at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in ’91. So I haven’t played “Light My Fire” with my buddy, Robby Krieger, and I hope someday in the future, with my other buddy John Densmore — we haven’t played those songs in years! So to play them again is great.

And the crowds, I’m sure, have been eating it up.

Terrific! You know, they know the words, they go and hear it played, and it’s the Doors, playing, you know? It may be called Riders on the Storm, but there’s Manzarek, who put the band together with Morrison. And there’s Krieger, who wrote “Light My Fire.” And they’re playing “Light My Fire.” And Ian Astbury from the Cult is singing.

What makes Ian such a great member of this particular band?

A touch of the shaman. He’s got a touch of the shaman. Like a touch of the poet. Eugene O’Neill’s “A Touch of the Poet” is a touch of the shaman. He’s cut from the same cloth as Morrison: Dark, brooding, Celtic, Christian, Buddhist and Native American spirituality. He’s into all that stuff, you know? And there he is on stage. It’s like Jim’s English cousin. It’s like Morrison’s in California, this guy’s in the British Isles, and they’re related by … archetype. They’re the same archetype.

Let’s refer to a certain segment of rock fan as Densmores: You knew there would be a certain group of Densmores when you formed this that would be appalled by it.

Yeah! Well, that’s the way it goes! I tell them not to come. Don’t come to the show for God’s sake! Keep your negativity at home! Go to some little juice bar, and you know, light a candle for Jim, and demonize Ray. (Shifts into funny voice) “Ray, he’s so bad. He’s a bad man!”

Well, you knew Jim. What do you think Jim would say about it?

Jim would say, “If Ian’s singing my words … .” See here’s the thing: These people don’t really understand, I don’t think they know Jim’s poetry. Jim Morrison is a poet. Jim Morrison is not a rock star. In his own mind, he’s not a rock star, he’s a poet. What does a poet want? His words to be heard! Say my words. Speak my words! If the words are in a book, great. If someone is reading your words, even better. Ian is out there singing Jim Morrison’s words alive, one more time, to the public. The public is hearing Jim’s words. Jim would say, “For God’s sake, go play the songs, Ray. And let Ian sing. He’s doing a great job. Those words are great.”

I love Jim Morrison. What is this — a disrespect to Jim Morrison? Whoever thinks that is a little off in the head. Or totally insane. Or hung up on Jim Morrison’s leather bulges.

You talked about the shaman and how Ian has so many affectations that Jim had. Was there discussion about, “Well, maybe we should get away from that a little?” Or was it, “Go for it! If there’s a little piece of Jim that inhabits Ian, then … .”

Here’s what Robbie and I said: Ian Astbury said, “I don’t want to look like I’m imitating Jim.” We said, “We’re not hiring you to imitate Jim. We’re hiring you to sing Doors songs. Sing ‘Light My Fire’ any way you want to. Be Ian Astbury. Be yourself. Sing, ‘Come on baby light my fire. Try to set the night on fire!’ Just sing the songs! And be yourself!”

There was never any thought about doing a Jim Morrison imitation. If there was, we would have hired — there’s some great Jim Morrison imitators in the clone bands. Boy oh boy oh boy. Dave Brock here in California, and Joe Russo out on the East Coast with the Soft Parade. And Dave Brock with Wild Child. Why shouldn’t we hire one of those guys? Who know the songs inside out, upside down, who really does a great Jim Morrison imitation? That wasn’t the point. The point was to get somebody who was into the music to sing the songs their way, to be themselves.

You have a bass player, too. Correct me if I’m wrong, that’s new!

Oh my God, Ray! Ray, what the f— are you doing? That’s different! You don’t do different, Ray! You do what we know! Only what we know! That’s what we want — what we know. We don’t want anything new!

Why did you decide to add a bass player?

I always wanted a bass player!

I suppose fans are so focused on the lead singer that they forget about the bass player.

(Sighs.) Most fans forget about everything. They’re focused a little bit too closely on the groin area of the lead singer. You know, “Do you think he’ll whip it out in Miami, Ray?” somebody said to me. I said, “Har-har-har! Let’s have another drink! That’s pretty funny. Cough.”

So are the Doors of 2005 a little mellower on the road than the Doors were back in 1967?

Of course, man, my God almighty! A couple members of the band are in their 60s. You kidding?

Well, you never know! You said you hadn’t gotten to play in about three decades. I thought there might be some catching up.

Well, the joy is in the playing. The joy is not in the doing white powder, smoking reefer, drinking Jack Daniels and destroying a hotel room. If that’s what you think is fun, you’re in trouble. Especially if you’re in your 60s — you’re in deep s—!

Maybe Densmore will let you have the OxyContin Doors commercial.

Uh, no, I don’t know if that would be correct. What I was hoping for was “Love Me Two Times” paired with Trojans.

That would be a killer!

Wouldn’t it? (Begins singing): Love me two times, baby! (Shifts into announcer voice): Trojans! Twice as strong! (Singing): Love me twice today! I think it would be good.



Michael Deeds is the Idaho Statesman’s entertainment columnist and Scene magazine editor. His column runs Fridays and Sundays. He appears on the 6 p.m. broadcast of "Today's 6 News" on Thursdays and hosts a music show, "The Other Studio," from 9-10 p.m. Sundays on 94.9 FM The River.

Posted in Words & Deeds