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The Doors' Keyboard Counterpoint Goes Silent: Remembering Ray Manzarek
Originally published on Tue May 21, 2013 12:43 pm
Ray Manzarek, the founding keyboardist of the Los Angeles rock band The Doors, died in a clinic in Germany on Monday after a lengthy battle with bile duct cancer, according to his publicist. He was 74.
Born Raymond Daniel Manczarek Jr. and raised on the south side of Chicago, he resisted piano lessons when he was young, until he heard Chicago blues and jazz on the radio. In 1965, he formed The Doors after moving to Los Angeles and meeting Jim Morrison. "We were aware of Muddy Waters. We were aware of Howlin' Wolf and John Coltrane and Miles Davis," Manzarek told WHYY's Fresh Air in 2000.
Manzarek brought the Chicago sound to L.A.'s beaches, and The Doors added beat poetry and psychedelic drugs to rock 'n' roll. "As the sun is setting into the Pacific Ocean at the end, the terminus of Western civilization, that's the end of it," Manzarek said. "Western civilization ends here in California at Venice Beach, so we stood there inventing a new world on psychedelics."
The group became well-known for Morrison's magnetism and volatility. Drummer John Densmore says Manzarek recognized Morrison's talent for words.
"He saw in Jim the magic before anyone," Densmore says. He also figured out how to add something new to the band. "We didn't have a bass player, which is really against the rock 'n' roll rules, but we found this keyboard bass. And so Ray's left hand and my drumming were ... cooking up the groove for [guitarist] Robby [Krieger] and Jim to float on top of."
Manzarek pulled double duty: Not only did he provide half of the rhythm section, but he played melodies too.
"I had a keyboard bass sitting on top of a Vox Continental organ," he told Fresh Air in 2000. "The Vox Continental organ was what I played with my right hand and the Fender keyboard bass with my left hand."
It was Manzarek's interpretation of Bach — with that right hand — that launched The Doors' first hit, "Light My Fire," in 1967.
"That was like a giant hook," Densmore says. "Schools of fish bit that. Ray's keyboard licks will go down in history as the most memorable hooks you could never forget."
His keyboard playing would drive many classic Doors songs, like "Riders on the Storm" and "Break on Through (to the Other Side)," but just four years after "Light My Fire" hit the top of the charts, Morrison was dead. Manzarek, Densmore and Krieger tried to continue, recording two albums with Manzarek singing some of the lead vocals, but eventually called it quits. Manzarek recorded several solo albums, collaborated with poets and produced for other groups, including X, another Los Angeles trailblazer.
In 1998, Putnam published Manzarek's autobiography to critical acclaim, though Light My Fire: My Life with the Doors, was more about Morrison than Manzarek. He also wrote two novels. And in 2002, he reunited with Krieger to play The Doors' songs live. But he maintained that his identity was formed in Los Angeles with his three bandmates nearly a half-century ago.
"Once you open the doors of perception," he said, "the doors of perception are cleansed, they stay cleansed, they stay open, and you see life as an infinite voyage of joy and adventure and strangeness and darkness and wildness and craziness and softness and beauty."
And Ray Manzarek leaves all of that behind in his music.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
You know, some music is dated; some music is timeless. And some is both; it's clearly of a particular time and place, yet attracts the ears of later generations. Such is the music of The Doors, which I knew growing up even though I had no memory at all of the 1960s.
The lead singer, and co-founder, was Jim Morrison. His co-founder, Ray Manzarek, was nearly as famous for his keyboard playing. And Manzarek has died, at age 74. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Raymond Daniel Manzarek was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago. And he brought that city's sound with him to the Southern California beaches, where The Doors were born.
(SOUNDBITE ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
RAY MANZAREK: We were aware of Muddy Waters. We were aware of Howlin' Wolf and John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
DEL BARCO: The Doors added beat poetry and psychedelic drugs to the mix, as Manzarek told NPR in 2000.
(SOUNDBITE ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
MANZAREK: As the sun is setting into the Pacific Ocean at the end, the terminus of Western civilization. Western civilization ends here in California, at Venice Beach. So we stood there, inventing a new world on psychedelics.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAK ON THROUGH")
THE DOORS: (Singing) You know the day destroys the night. Night divides the day. Tried to run, tried to hide. Break on through to the other side...
JOHN DENSMORE: He saw, in Jim, the magic before anyone.
DEL BARCO: Doors drummer John Densmore says Ray Manzarek recognized Jim Morrison's talent for words, but he also figured out how to add something else to the band.
DENSMORE: We didn't have a bass player, which is really against the rock 'n' roll rules. But we found this keyboard bass and so Ray's left hand, and my drumming, cooking up the groove for Robbie and Jim to float on top of.
DEL BARCO: That, too, came from Manzarek Chicago roots, as he demonstrated for WHYY's FRESH AIR in 2000.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
MANZAREK: I applied my boogie-woogie background...
(PLAYING PIANO) )
MANZAREK: That was the whole thing. And you just keep that left hand going ...
MANZAREK: ...and the right hand does the improvisations.
MANZAREK: So I had done that over and over and over, as a kid. So I had a Fender keyboard bass sitting on top of a Vox Continental organ. And the Vox Continental organ was what I played with my right hand, and the Fender keyboard bass with my left hand.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE ME TWO TIMES")
THE DOORS: (Singing) Love me one time, could not speak...
DEL BARCO: But it was Manzarek's interpretation of Bach that launched The Doors' first hit.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "LIGHT MY FIRE")
DENSMORE: Ray's keyboard licks will go down in history as the most memorable hooks you could never forget.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIGHT MY FIRE")
THE DOORS: (Singing) You know that it would be untrue. You know that I would be a liar...
DEL BARCO: "Light My Fire" went to the top of the charts in 1967. Four years later, Jim Morrison was dead. Manzarek, Densmore and guitarist Robbie Krieger tried to continue but eventually, called it quits. Manzarek made solo albums and produced for other groups, including the seminal L.A. punk band X.
He wrote a critically acclaimed book about his years with The Doors, and two novels. But he maintained his identity was formed in Los Angeles with his three band mates, nearly a half a century ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
MANZAREK: Once you open the doors of perception, the doors of perception are cleansed. They stay cleansed; they stay open. And you see life as an infinite voyage of joy and adventure, and strangeness and darkness, and wildness and craziness, and softness and beauty.
DEL BARCO: And Ray Manzarek leaves all of that behind, in his music.
Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.