An Appreciation: Ray Manzarek of The Doors

By Mike Finkelstein

Now that we are 13 years into the new millennium, the rock icons of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s are getting into their 60’s and 70’s.  It’s been nearly 46 years since the Summer of Love and while they aren’t dropping like flies, every few months or so, we seem to hear that yet another well known name has died on the younger side of old age.

It was sad but not shocking to hear of the passing of Ray Manzarek yesterday.  At age 74, he died in Germany of gall bladder cancer with his entire family by his side — not a bad run for a rock star who survived the most turbulent of times in a band that was a lightning rod for controversy.

Manzarek was the main musical architect of The Doors’ iconic sound.  It just wouldn’t have been remotely possible without his instantly recognizable, shimmering keyboard parts. His passing gives us pause to reflect upon the legacy of The Doors.

You always know it instantly when you’re hearing Ray Manzarek.  He played mostly a Vox Continental organ, which defined his sound, and a small Fender Rhodes bass keyboard.  His style was elegantly arpeggiated and colorful, working well on pop singles and expanded onstage. And, all those beautifully utilitarian bass parts in The Doors’ tunes were from his left hand!  This was a nifty detail for kids like me who were keen on how all this was done.

Ray Manzarek
Ray Manzarek

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The Doors attracted controversy because they took artistic chances, which usually ended up sounding phenomenally memorable and meaningful. They pushed the envelope much more than most did, artistically. It’s good to remember that Manzarek’s and Morrison’s well chronicled pairing was based on a shared affinity for art, film, and poetry before they decided to play music together.  The group always sought to fuse their musical roots in classical, jazz, flamenco, blues and rock ‘n’ roll with Morrison’s unique poetic stance.

Their sound made Morrison’s dark thoughts, ramblings, rants and crooning appealing and seductive, wrapping them up in silver paper, for us.  Disturbing lyrics were delivered as temptation.  They lured us in with music so we would experience the lyrics on an expanded level.  Every A-side song they put out was one to get psyched for on 20/20 AM radio in the family car, and later the rest of the albums flourished on the FM dial.   Given the musical and poetic depth of so many of the B-side doors cuts, the Doors influence is undeniable.  They are still as important an American band as there will probably ever be.

Live, they were hardly a pop band.  Erratic, unpredictable and ready to lurch in any direction, they really had to react to each other onstage.  If you watch film of the band or just listen to their live tracks you can see and hear the three players locked into each other, spotting Morrison to push him and the audience higher and closer to the elusive “other side.”

There was little they wouldn’t try.  The results were utterly unique, and to so many who experienced the group in the present tense, they were indispensable to the times.  Taking the musical tension Manzarek established between guitar, organ and drums — and setting a personality like Morrison’s loose over it all in a pop format — mesmerized most young people at the time.  With the backdrop of the Vietnam war and the tensions of the generation gap, The Doors had the leverage to rip young minds wide open.  People wanted desperately to “break on through to the other side.” This was way beyond the Beach Boys.  This was dancing into the dark side.  That was the power of popular music in those pricelessly tragic times.

The Doors: John Densmore, Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek, Jim Morrison
The Doors: John Densmore, Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek, Jim Morrison

There never has been a whole lot of middle ground with The Doors.  People seem to either passionately love them or hate them.  The folks that hate them are often too young to have grown up while they were current.  But their music also continues to appeal to the open ears and minds in any generation.

I grew up near where they rehearsed in Santa Monica, and I loved them as a kid.  I still love them.  On their way up, they used to play the lunch concert circuit for high school kids here in LA.  But they were finished before I even got to high school — hell, they were only together for about 6 years!  But they always sounded so mysterious and exciting!  The combination of Manzarek’s swirling keyboards, Robby Krieger’s slithering guitar, and John Densmore’s delicate jazz touch on drums under Jim Morrison’s voice was the greatest.  Every voice in the mix was so distinct, so clear, and so different.  It all worked phenomenally well for them as an ensemble.  Nobody sounded remotely like them.  Not even close.  Still.   Chemistry like that is as precious as it is volatile and dangerous.  Strong stuff indeed.

Robby Krieger reflected the other day that Ray Manzarek was a very smart guy to recognize in 1966 that Jim Morrison was a real talent … and not just the jerk that many who knew him felt he was.  Morrison’s legacy as an ugly drunk is well documented, but The Doors collective work with him is a treasure.  To have experienced it when it was current puts it into its true artistic perspective.  For those of us lucky enough to have been there, it is still no less than iconic.

And none of this would have been possible if Ray Manzarek hadn’t collaborated with the other three Doors.  He put the whole amazing thing in motion.   RIP, Ray.

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To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

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