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The Doors at the Rock Hall:Checking Out the Exhibit and Checking In with Ray and Robby

The opening of “Break On Through: The Lasting Legacy of The Doors” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum led to an opportunity to discuss the past, present and future with surviving Doors members Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger.
The two were in Cleveland to celebrate the opening, do a few interviews and that evening, play their band’s music as Riders On The Storm at House of Blues. The band name refers to one of the many timeless numbers that the quartet delivered during its short tenure. It’s also a change following Doors drummer John Densmore’s lawsuit against the duo’s previous moniker, The Doors of the 21st Century. Not surprisingly, Densmore was nowhere near the I.M. Pei designed glass structure that rests alongside the banks of Lake Erie.

As everyone gets settled in, I mention to Krieger that I heard his collaboration with Particle that took place at last year’s Joshua Tree Music Festival. Immediately, he turns to his longtime bandmate, “They were all on acid and it took an hour and a half to set up the stage. It’s like one in the morning and people are going crazy. It’s funny. You know how hard it is to plug your plugs in when you’re on acid?”

Manzarek, who turns out to be a raconteur, responds in faux shock, “Nooooooo. I’ve never plugged a plug… I bet it is, man.” The two laugh at the memory of their own psychedelic exploits.

Taking up the sixth floor of the Museum, "Break on Through" brings together personal items from the three living members of The Doors as well as from Morrision’s estate and the Rock Hall’s collection. It includes instruments, clothing, programs from Manzarek and Morrison’s UCLA film school days, original manuscripts, rare concert posters and album artwork. Audio selections from Morrison’s last American interview are set up for private listening, while a concert video, which can be heard over the PA system, offers a grasp of the band’s powerful live presence.

Manzarek gave it his approval. “I thought it was a great exhibit. It covered The Doors history from pre-Doors — my brother’s band, Rick & the Ravens, a surf band — all the way through post-Jim Morrison.”

During Manzarek’s days playing in his brother’s band, Morrison would occasionally join the group onstage. At that time nothing more than having fun played into the picture. It was only after a chance meeting on Venice Beach in 1965 that Manzarek and Morrison decided to collaborate on a serious basis. Manzarek brought in Densmore, who he knew through a local meditation center. Then, Krieger auditioned…

Ray Manzarek: The very first time we played together we played “Moonlight Drive” and I showed Robby the chord changes. We smoked a joint. Robby said, ‘Oh, this’ll be good on it.’ Gets his guitar case and in the little center compartment, he opens it up and pulls out a weapon, pulls out a broken bottleneck. And it looked like something for jabbing into the face and cutting people with. I was shocked. I thought what kind of gigs do you play that you need a weapon like that?

Robby Krieger: It comes in handy in some places. (slight laugh)

RM: Cause you never know when you need to whip out that broken, jagged…He said, No Ray, you idiot. It’s a bottleneck.’ And then he played that snaky sounding glass against his guitar. It was just amazing. And he said this would be good for “Moonlight Drive.” And we played "Moonlight Drive," and it was the first time I’d ever played music. I’d played music all my life, but I’d never played music until that very moment in time. That bottleneck guitar.

Morrison loved Robby’s bottleneck guitar so much that he said to me, Ray I want that sound on every song.’ And I said, Every Song?’ Well, okay, maybe not every song, but a lot of ‘em.’ That’s a deal.’ That was Robby’s audition. The very first time we all got together, the very first song we played. That was it, man.

RK: Quick audition.

RM: Yeah, right. You got the gig. You’re in.

Despite having the lyrics for “Moonlight Drive” on hand during that fateful meeting on Venice Beach, Morrison was still a work in progress.

RK: He hadn’t really developed his voice at that time. It didn’t really shock me or anything. He had a good voice, but nothing spectacular. It took a year of playing every night at clubs and stuff for his voice to go to where it was really to where he developed it more. So, at first it wasn’t anything unusual.

Taking on the music world as a quartet made sense on a level that saw a cosmic meeting of the minds. Bringing in someone else to play bass seemed more of a negative than a positive. The members’ intentions were to create something new and developing a sound that made use of the instrument’s absence fit in with that approach.

RK: We tried various bass players. We always had a bass player in the studio.

RM: Yeah. I recall we auditioned two guys. With one guy we sounded like The Animals. With another guy we sounded like The Rolling Stones. So, it was like there’s no point in that because they already exist. We’re The Doors. We’re different.

RK: We didn’t realize at the time, but the fact that Ray played piano bass with his left hand was actually part of The Doors sound because it was all he could do, very hypnotic stuff, because he had to put his left hand on automatic pilot. And that actually made part of The Doors sound, and it also affected what I played because being just a piano bass, not a real bass left a lot of bass notes open where I would play low notes on the guitar. So, we’re lucky we didn’t…

RM: That necessity created the sound of The Doors. Certainly those solos in “Light My Fire," I play my left, who, gets very sensitive when people say we didn’t have a bass player and he would say (holds up his left hand in the shape of hand puppet, using a silly voice) I am the bass player with The Doors. What do you mean you have no bass player? My name is Johnny.’ A mind bomb, (mouths keyboard pattern of “Light My Fire”) This guy’ll do that as long as you want. (hand puppet, funny voice again) Thank you, Ray because I am faithful to you.’ I know you are. (kisses hand). And he would just play that. To get a bass player to do that, it’s hard to do.

The seamless combination of influences rock, blues, jazz, classical and Eastern along with Morrison’s poetic manner that traveled through dark psychedelic territories gave the material a lasting potency. Looking over the musical landscape of 2007, there’s nothing that comes close to its mix of styles, artistic and metaphysical elements, and ability to make the sum of its parts melodic, memorable and commercially viable. My reaction causes me to wonder aloud whether a band such as The Doors could even come together and exist under the conditions of the music industry in the 21st century.

RM: Sure it’s just a couple of college guys, a bunch of college guys, psychedelics…

RK: The Doors do exist today.

RM: Yeah right. Well, The Doors of necessity, of the psyche of America exists today, and for the psyche of rock and roll, we still exist. But all you have to do is come out of college, read a lot of books, play flamenco guitar, classical and jazz keyboards, a beatnik French symbolist poet and a marching band/jazz drummer. And you put those all together and you’ve got The Doors. It’s easy as that. And you give them all psychedelic substances and send them off into the desert, on to the beach and whatnot and they read a lot of Freud and Jung…and then you’ve got The Doors. That’s all it takes.

Conveniently for this conversation, The Doors’ debut came out in 1967, the same time as the Summer of Love. With the 40th anniversary of both events upon us, the two reflected more on the scene that surrounded them in L.A. than their contribution to its history.

RM: That’s right. "Light My Fire" was the number one song in America in July of 1967. That was the Summer of Love.

RK: And the Sunset Strip was amazing, man, that summer. That summer it was like every night there were all these clubs, up and down the Strip, and you could see bands like The Doors, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield. And at the Whiskey, they brought the national acts — Smokey Robinson, Otis Redding and stuff like that. So, it was wonderful.

RM: They were swarming the streets. Hippies, longhairs, the first time you’d ever seen that many longhairs together. They were called Freaks in those days. The Freaks all came together. They came from South, the West, the East…and they came to the Sunset Strip to walk and sing and dance, to talk about love.

RK: In 66 and 65 there were some Freaks there, Bido and his Troops they were called. They were a troop of dancers and they all had long hair. They were weird, you know. They thought they were pretty cool. Then two years later, everybody looked like them. So they left.

RM: And then they stopped it. The police stopped it. There were the riots on Sunset Strip. The young people, the children of the New Age had drifted into the street of Sunset Boulevard. They had gone off the sidewalk on to the street. And the police said that’s enough, you must stay on the sidewalks and out came the batons, Billy clubs. And they started beating. And there were the riots on Sunset Strip.

RM: It had no name. It was an existential moment in time.

RK: We thought that’s how it would be for the rest of our lives. Then Nixon got in office and they killed Kennedy and it was all over.

RM: Manson came along and you knew that you could take psychedelic substances and you could be mad and sane at the same time. And then Kent State happened and we realized that our fathers would kill us if they had to preserve their legacy, their way of life. And Kennedy was killed, Bobby Kennedy in ’68 and Martin Luther King and that was the end.

Their reaction to the idea of Flower Power wilting and a New Utopia destroyed? Retreat and head towards the pathway that led to the excess of the 70s.

RM: You felt a great depression. Mainly, you felt like your fathers would kill you. The powers that be, the military, the government, the army. The government would call the army and they would kill you. And at that point, you would go, ‘Oh my God! We’re in serious trouble here. What do we do?’ And then Jackie Kennedy, our Queen who was going to perhaps marry somebody of great elegance married a frog. Onassis. And we said, I see’

RK: Money rules.

RM: Let’s get money. And we gave up the dream and went after the big bucks.

Krieger recalls that in Morrison’s case, he continued to run against authority, creating upheaval at Doors concerts and arrests for lewd behavior including the infamous alleged exposure at a gig in Miami.

RK: Well you know, Jim really lived that ideal because you know he never spoke to his parents after a certain point. I guess he talked to his mom once in awhile. I don’t know whether it was because he knew his dad was in the military and didn’t want to embarrass him or whatever, but whenever people would ask him about his parents, he’d say, ‘They’re dead.’ He didn’t want people to find out who they were or where they were.

One of the more remarkable items in the exhibit is a letter from Morrison’s dad. The prosecutor of Morrison’s incident in Miami requested Navy Admiral George S. Morrison’s opinion. While father and son had not been close for many years, the words presented a positive picture of the musician, viewing the incident as something out of character.

RM: (his face lights up at its mention) Isn’t that great? That Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has some stuff that I’ve never seen before, along with Robby’s guitars and my Vox continental organ. Amplifiers from the Hollywood Bowl. There are certain things from Jim’s father that are profoundly sad and profoundly revealing of the relationship of those two guys. And I am shocked that that was released. But happy. It’s like, Yeah man, this is what it’s all about.’

The Doors are rarely viewed as a musical entity beyond Morrison’s death. Despite the loss of their charismatic and controversial frontman, who died of a heart attack in 1971, the trio did release two more albums in the early 1970s (“Other Voices” and “Full Circle”), along with “American Prayer” in 1978, which featured Morrison reading his poetry over newly created instrumental backdrops by the remaining three.

The mythical view of Morrison has always been of a rebel confronting society who left the world’s stage much too early, or for conspiracy theorists, disappeared from public sight for his own sanity and exists today.

Either way, Morrison’s move to Paris, the city of his death and final resting place, and run-ins with the law presented the idea that his ambition focused on tearing apart any shred of success. It’s a view that both Krieger and Manzarek quickly dismiss.

RK: As far as I know, Jim, he wanted to be huge. What he was mad about was that it didn’t happen fast enough. In our minds, we never became as big as the Stones or The Beatles or anything like that. And that’s really what he wanted. He wanted it to happen fast. He always talked about the shooting star that goes up and is really bright and dies out quickly. So, that’s how he saw it. I wish he was here today to see how people are so into The Doors.

RK: People think he rebelled against the whole…

RM: ...fame. Yeah. They like that.

RK: No, he got fat cause he ate too much. He had no control over his intake of things. It wasn’t because…

RM: That damn beer.

RK: he hated fame or he rebelled against it.

RM: (mocking tone) Yes he did. He did rebel. He was a rebel to the end. Yes sir.

Still, the myth plays as a much better rock n’ roll tale. It remains appealing to music listeners of any age who seek an anti-social hero vicariously flipping the bird to society. Besides the constant airplay of Doors music on radio, its timelessness renders the material a part of one generation to the next and so on.

RM: For me it’s a sense of freedom they discover in The Doors. When you’re 15 or 16, you discover freedom. These are like four guys who came from the beach in Venice, California and sought to break on through, break free of the dictates of religion, schooling and politics. And here we are.

The here and now includes playing Doors music around the world as Riders On The Storm. With Ian Astbury out and back with The Cult, ex-Fuel frontman Brett Scallions has taken over the lead vocals spot.

RM: He’s really good on stage. Moves with a liquid grace. Blond spiked hair, big powerful voice. Prowls the stage, wears leather like its licorice.

RK: We’re playing Paris on Jim’s death date. We played Paris on Jim’s birth date, December 8. Now we’re going to play Paris on Jim’s death date, July 3.

Then, it’s off during the month of August due to Scallions’ wife expecting to give birth, with dates in South America scheduled for October. Buoyed by a new band member and legal hassles settled, Manzarek and Krieger seem ready to go tread beyond their sphere of Doors music and present fresh offerings.

RM: We’re working on new songs with lyrics by a poet. Jim Carroll. (“The Basketball Diaries”) Robby’s working on some stuff. So, we’ll be doing the music to other people’s works. But that’ll be coming in the future.

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