From the Doors to the blues, a keyboard legend finds poetry in music  

By Russell Hall 

“I’ve been lucky to have lots of poet friends,” says Ray Manzarek. “Poets are great to work with.” For example, the legendary keyboardist’s new album with slide guitar great Roy Rogers, Translucent Blues, features lyrics from some of rock’s finest wordsmiths, including Michael McClure, Jim Carroll and Warren Zevon. That string of luck with “poet friends,” of course, began on an L.A. beach in the summer of 1965 and a chance meeting with Manzarek’s former film-school classmate Jim Morrison. “He had been living on an apartment rooftop, making up a rock concert in his head,” Manzarek recalls.

Soon Manzarek, Morrison, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore would bring Morrison’s imaginary rock concert to life as the Doors, weaving rock, jazz, blues and psychedelia into a seamless tapestry. The keyboardist developed his trademark sound onstage with the Doors at venues like L.A.’s Whisky A Go-Go, playing lead lines on a Vox Continental organ and bass on a Fender Rhodes simultaneously. Together the group made six landmark albums in only four years, ending with Morrison’s death in 1971 at age 27. An expanded 40th anniversary edition of the group’s final album, L.A. Woman, will be out Jan. 24.

Manzarek has continued to create music, often collaborating with artists like Philip Glass, Iggy Pop and McClure. He has also reunited with Krieger and Densmore for projects like An American Prayer (a 1978 album setting music to Morrison’s poetry), the group’s 1993 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a track with DJ Skrillex for the new documentary Re:Generation. For the last several years he and Krieger have toured as Manzarek-Krieger. The keyboard wizard, 72, spoke with us about the new album, his approach to keyboards and the eternally tantalizing, unfulfilled potential of the Doors.

How did you team up with Roy?

We first got together at a gig I was playing in Northern California at the Raven Theater. We played some blues, classical pieces and jazz—things like Manuel de Falla’s “Will o’ the Wisp,” from Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain album. Roy can do anything.


How does he compare to Robby?

They’re amazingly similar. It’s almost like playing with two brothers. They’re both blues cats who play fast and play brilliant slide guitar. This new album really is blues for the new century. Roy and I have varied the form, but we’ve kept the basic heart and soul of the blues.


How did the album take shape?

The first album we did together, Ballads Before the Rain [2008], featured cool, tranquil stuff. We wanted to make a blues album after doing that. Roy had some tunes, and I had some things I had put together with various poet buddies of mine—Jim Carroll, who wrote The Basketball Diaries, and two stanzas that Warren Zevon had given me. I happened to run into Warren, and told him I was looking for Raymond Chandler-type material—L.A. film noir, those dark detective novels set in Los Angeles in the ’30s and ’40s. He said, “Well, you’re talking to the right guy. There’s just one problem, Ray. I’ll be dead in six months.” I said, “What are you talking about?” That’s when he told me he had lung cancer. But he said he would work on those lyrics for me as much as time allowed. [Zevon died in 2003.]


How did you discover keyboards?

My childhood involved lots of classical study and lessons. Plus I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. You can’t imagine what Chicago radio was like in the ’50s—it was blues all the time. I would come home from school, turn on the radio and listen to disc jockey Al Benson play Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and Howlin’ Wolf. Then suddenly here comes Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and all the rock ’n’ roll cats. Little Richard completely blew me away. I was just 12. I didn’t know what I was going to do at that age. All I knew was I loved playing music.


When did you discover the Vox?

That happened when I saw the Dave Clark Five on TV. The keyboardist was playing a thin little organ with black-and-white reversed keys and a chrome Z-stand. I thought, “That’s it! That’s exactly what I need!” I had been playing a Wurlitzer, but it couldn’t compete with the volume of Robby’s guitar. I tried the Vox Continental through a Fender Twin Reverb and it was as loud as the guitar. I wanted Robby and me to scream, and that’s exactly what we did when the Doors played the Whisky. It became a huge part of our sound, that and the Fender Rhodes keyboard bass. It worked out great, because the Vox organ was flat. I could set the keyboard bass right on top.


Did you try getting a bass player?

We actually auditioned two, but it didn’t work. With one of the guys we sounded like the Stones and with the other we sounded like the Animals. Besides, we wanted it to be just the four of us, like the cardinal points of the compass. I first saw a Fender Rhodes keyboard bass at a gig we auditioned for. We didn’t get the gig, but the keyboard player for the band that did had one. I thought, “Eureka!” I figured I would play my boogie-woogie lines, except play single notes since the bass couldn’t play two notes at the same time. Consequently we had those “Light My Fire”-type basslines that repeated on and on and became hypnotic.


Do you still play the Vox?

I play an Alesis keyboard with a bunch of custom sounds and samples. It fits right into a Vox Continental replica body. Onstage it looks like a Vox Continental, but of course it can sound like a piano, a harpsichord, a Hammond B-3, a clavinet and a Vox. Today’s keyboards are fabulous. You’ve got an entire symphony orchestra at your fingertips.


Was it hard on the Doors to make an album every six months?

Writing a bunch of songs wasn’t a problem. The tough part was deciding which to record. You could only squeeze about 45 minutes of music onto an LP, so for the first album we knew right away we couldn’t do all three epics we had—“Light My Fire,” “The End” and “When the Music’s Over.” “Light My Fire” and “The End” were the obvious ones to include, so we saved “When the Music’s Over” for the second album.

Is the perception of Jim accurate?

I assume most people’s conception of Morrison is the Oliver Stone conception: “Madman, priapic—girls loved him, guys wanted to be him.” But there’s plenty that flies in the face of that. There’s the Jim who walked along the beach with me, watching the sunset and discussing philosophy, God and existence. There’s the Jim who enjoyed discussing Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. People don’t want to hear about that. They don’t want to hear how smart he was and how he was a real poet. They just

want dirty stories.


What if he had lived?

My guess is we would have done more theater venues, playing smaller places for a week at a time, preparing the theater with laser lights and speakers under the seats so that we could swirl the sound throughout the auditorium. We would probably have done theatrical presentations that included dancers and actors with recitations. We would have combined film and music. It would essentially have been something like An American Prayer, presented live. There would have been more jazzy stuff and kick-ass rock ’n’ roll. We all had big ambitions. Jim wanted to publish more books of poetry, and I wanted to make movies starring the band.


What’s next?

Roy and I have another album in the works. We’ll probably start recording in March. Meanwhile I’m living up in the Napa Valley, enjoying the gentleman farmer’s life. My wife and I go to bed early and get up at 6. Who would have imagined going from a rocker to a farmer? It’s a great life.

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