As I’m writing this, I’ve only just minutes ago learned of the death of Ray Manzarek, founding member and keyboardist with the Doors. Manzarek was 74, and had been battling cancer for some time. I had no idea he’d been ill.
As this greatest of the great rock generations starts to see its numbers diminish, reflecting on the loss of an artist who means – or meant, at one time – something to you becomes more common than is desirable. For most of us, these losses are not truly felt on a personal level – we don’t know these people intimately. And yet, the losses feel personal.
So it is with myself and Manzarek, I find. I never met the guy. I only saw him perform once, and it was awful, a major disappointment after 30 years of waiting. Still, his passing feels somehow significant.
As I wrestle with why I might feel some sort of empathy with someone I’ve never met, I’m realizing that this is something music conditions us to be able to do. It speaks to our common humanity, ignores all of the superfluous stuff, cuts across cultural dividing lines, ignores nationalistic borders, and makes us feel connected. Even if we’ve never met.
People who play music on a regular basis understand this implicitly. Who among that group hasn’t had the experience of bonding immediately with a stranger, often without speaking a word? You start to play together, and you realize that you’ve probably just made a friend for life.
My son said this to me, out of the blue earlier in the day on Monday: “Music is better, because it’s a language without words, unlike school, where everyone talks way too much.”
I get that. Sometimes, talking is just unnecessary. It’s noise, and the music is pure signal.
Manzarek and the Doors got to me young. I read the Morrison biography “No One Here Gets Out Alive” in the eighth grade, and that was it – time to put the KISS records away and get serious. Here was music that presented itself with the power of myth. It was dangerous, frightening, Gothic, poetic and decidedly pompous. I loved this about it, without needing to put it into words. This music had nothing to do with boring middle-class life.
Part of the magic was Manzarek, who played organ and piano with his right hand, while manning the bass (the Doors had no bass player when they performed live) with his left hand. His tone came close to suggesting the sound of a church organ, which resonated with my already lapsing Catholicism. The Doors, then, had invaded the sanctuary, and once inside, they employed Morrison’s somewhat naïve but incredibly powerful interpretations of Nietszche and William Blake to create a whole new church. This was the temple of a transcendence born of rabid volition.
That rabid volition ate Morrison alive – he was dead by 27, proving with his death that full and constant obliteration of the senses was not a sustainable method of transcending the mundane.
But before he went, he – along with Manzarek, guitarist Robby Kreiger and drummer John Densmore – crafted music that was destined to outlive his vapor trail of a life.
When you become intimately attached to an artist’s music at a young age, you can’t help but feel a little piece of your youth stripped from you when that artist dies. This is not rational, but it’s real.
No sense dwelling on this, though. Far better to remember Manzarek and the Doors through their most transcendent musical moments. Here are a few of the moments that were transformative for me.
“When the Music’s Over,” from “Strange Days.”
Manzarek’s organ stabs and creepy fills bounced around Kreiger’s snaky guitar lines, creating something exotic. Those lyrics weren’t too shabby, either.
“Back Door Man,” from “The Doors.”
A Willie Dixon blues song, but Manzarek made it his own with a twisted Booker T. line wrapping itself around Morrison’s incredible vocal, which sounded like the hiss of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
“Five To One,” from “Waiting for the Sun.”
Manzarek knew how to set up a vocal. This is masterful, and a little bit scary. “We want the world and we want it now!” Yes!
“Light My Fire,” from “The Doors.”
If Manzarek ends up being remembered by most people solely for the modal line that introduces this song, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
So long, Ray. You gave us a lot. We’ll pass it on.