Ray Manzarek, 1939-2013

manzarekI sent a little Tweet out when Ray Manzarek passed away on May 20th. But I’ve just now listened again to the entire STRANGE DAYS album. Those two facts don’t agree. I try to keep personal the tributes I write here, but Ray is telling me from beyond the grave that this IS personal. At least that darting, bluesy organ is. So, a belated bit of blather which I think I’ve actually been holding back inside. (Thank you, Dr. Shrink!)

When I was a rockcrit in Georgia, Ray blew through Atlanta with a post-Doors mélange full of Egyptian symbols: “Scarab, roll your dung ball…” he actually sang. THE GOLDEN SCARAB – that was the album he was touring to promote – was his attempt to conjure Jim’s ineffable spirit. Of course, as Ray would tell you were he here to do it, that stuff seemed limited to the Lizard King, which is why the Doors became rock stars in the first place. Jim’s backup guys were HUGELY talented in a musical sense, but only Jim could touch God’s hand, even in his poetic, alcoholic haze.

But Jim could still point to Ray and say, “See that guy? He’s the Doors.” And it was Ray who attracted me. Not just his rimless glasses, which I adopted (and wore for years) after seeing them on the boys’ first album cover. Not just the struts, fills and bass lines which kept the Doors on earth while Jim indulged his Dionysian fantasies. No, Ray Manzarek was the brooding intelligence behind the Doors, and you could hear that in every note on their first three albums. (Jim’s id was clearly asserting itself by the fifth one, MORRISON HOTEL, much as the Tea Partiers are affecting the GOP right now, but in the case of the Doors we didn’t realize this might be a terminal condition.)

Two nights make me sure of all this. One, in 1974, Ray accepted my interview request, but on one condition: that I’d shoot some pool with him and his manager Danny Sugerman while we talked about THE GOLDEN SCARAB. I set my recorder on a cushion and turned it on. Two hours later, the best stuff was long gone, but, as with golfers, a bond had been formed: you cheer the other guy’s shot, you pretend you absolutely planned that bit of luck all along, you talk trash, all that. I wrote the resulting piece mostly from memory (me: “Why didn’t you ever have a bass player?” Ray, lining up a shot: “We never found another Door.”) and I heard from a third party that Ray later said about me, “That guy has read a book or two.” Treasured praise, because Jim may have been the Doors’ phallus, but Ray was its brain.

Two, many years later Ray and my childhood friend George Winston pushed two Grands together at the Society for Ethical Culture and played an acoustic dual-piano concert to celebrate George’s album of Doors songs. As they were about to launch into “Light My Fire,” Ray said, “I bet I’ve played this song a thousand times. But tonight, the solo’s going to George.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Ray had been inspiring many of us, including a huge-selling keyboard artist whom Ray regarded as a peer, whether you do or not. Thank you, man. If you ever reincarnate – I’m not sure, even after the pool session, how much of what you said was legit – I promise, I won’t step on you.

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