By Tony Sauro
November 12, 2009
Call it serendipity. Or karma. Maybe pure coincidence.
Whatever. For 45 years, Ray Manzarek and Michael C Ford have shared a
mutual admiration for communication, improvisation and creativity.
They'll be demonstrating that again Saturday, blending Ford's poetry
and Manzarek's piano inventions at University of the Pacific.
Their connection began at UCLA, when the rebellious, restless and
inquisitive young men (occasionally assisted by herbs and chemicals)
first met in graduate school film-study classes. Ford was sneaking in.
First sign: They both had gone West from their hometown of Chicago,
Ford as a child and Manzarek six months before graduating from DePaul
Manzarek, who would dream up The Doors with Jim Morrison in 1965 on
Venice Beach, had been enthralled by a "chamber jazz sextet playing
'Lonesome Boy Blues' by (poet) Kenneth Patchen" on a Chicago radio
station in 1959.
Ruefully, "I never heard it again," Manzarek said. Until he met Ford.
Second sign: Ford, who became an unconventional poet, writer,
recording artist and teacher, told Manzarek, " 'Hey, I've got that
record.' It was a cool awakening," Manzarek said during a recent
phone interview from his farm in Napa County.
"The (jazz sextet's) beat was full of sunshine, full of light, full
of, dare I say, the truth. I said, 'I've gotta get to California.' "
Fortuitously, he did. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame history would ensue.
Manzarek, now 70, and the late Morrison opened plenty of musical,
spiritual and mental portals with The Doors.
Along with guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore - both
very jazz-influenced - the Doors' darkly exotic potion of Morrison's
imagistic poetry and Manzarek's jazz- and R&B-based keyboard
inventions electrified the rock world in the Summer of Love.
On the full version of "Light My Fire" - a No. 1 single in 1967 that
was written by Krieger but chopped in half so radio DJs would play it
- Manzarek's snaking Vox Continental organ solo is one of rock
music's most memorable and durable.
Ford, now 69, Manzarek and Morrison were working on their own forms
of expressionistic nirvana before that at UCLA's Bungalow 3K7, where
they helped a fellow student create a spoken word-music thesis, and
during music-poetry experiments at assorted Los Angeles dives.
"I guess it's important to realize there's a timeline there," said
Ford, who took part in a Delta College poetry workshop in April,
"with me having collaborated with Manzarek on so many different levels.
"It's the longevity of the friendship. It's a brotherhood,
considering we were experiencing our cultural discovery and forming
our opinions at the UCLA film school. It's a key factor. The best
part of it was watching Ray and Jim reading poems out of their Big 5
Lured by West Coast jazz and poetry - as well as California's other
obviously winter-free amenities and progressive thinking - Manzarek
found an appealing vibe, a new home and a lifetime soulmate, Dorothy Fujikawa.
"Well listen," he said. "It's weird. It's so great to find kindred spirits."
While The Doors opened new horizons as a massively popular band with
a noir-ish L.A. mystique - before Morrison, a star-crossed romantic,
left the group in 1970 and died on July 31, 1971, in Paris at 27 -
Manzarek and Ford pursued their spiritual and intellectual goals
separately. Until 1985.
That's when they started blending spoken word and music in
performance pieces, as Manzarek has done with Allen Ginsberg, Michael
McClure, Jim Carroll and, even, "Weird Al" Yankovic.
"After taking a bath" in '50s and '60s beat poetry - much of which
experienced its metamorphosis in San Francisco - Ford and Manzarek
are extending and expanding the legacies of Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth,
Jack Kerouac. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Lamantia, Philip Whalen,
Jack Hirschman David Meltzer and others.
"I play the words," said Manzarek, who was doing just that 45 years
ago with Morrison's poetic lyrics. "Whatever the words require.
Whoever's with me on stage.
"I'm reading as Ford is reading. We're reading the same things and
doing whatever is appropriate to the words. It's not free-form
playing with poetry over the top. It's creating a piece for the poem.
We improvise. But it's the tone of each piece. I'm aware of what that
tone is and I'm playing accordingly."
"The thing about Ray is there is absolutely nothing self-conscious
about his contribution to the words," said Ford, who mentored
elementary and middle school students in Stockton, Lodi and Manteca
from 1984-90 as part of a Poetry in Schools program at San Francisco
State University. "He has an almost tranquil connection to poets."
Part of that has been enhanced by his current lifestyle.
Manzarek, after a lifetime in metropolises, now "has a John Deere
tractor in the barn and he's a gentleman farmer," Ford said.
Manzarek and Fujikawa, married for 42 years, have lived on a 2
1/2-acre Napa County farm (corn, tomatoes, melons, broccoli, cabbage,
lettuce, cauliflower) for 6 1/2 years.
"I served my time in hell," Manzarek said of life in L.A. "It's more
intense here. There's more time to think. You're not as distracted by
the energy of the city. I got my headful."
On Saturday, they'll perform - Manzarek on piano - after
demonstrating and tutoring during workshops and discussions.
"We'll be exploring all avenues of the creative imagination that lead
to putting words together with music," said Ford, who has recorded
four albums such as 1995's "Fire Escapes" (with Manzarek), and six
volumes of poetry. "It'll be informal with a lot of important
information. It's kind of putting theories into practice.
"My arsenal of words, will they be construed as unique? Will they
signify an approach to language and music that may be coming from a
different direction than the post-Beat poets? I don't know. I could
be flipping and flopping around making no sense at all."
They'll still be riffing off each other like the friends they are.
"You follow the impulse. Your brain impulse. Your heart impulse,"
That has included playing in groups (Nite City), developing a rock
version of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" (with Philip Glass),
performing with Iggy Pop (James Osterberg), collaborating with
legatees X, a seminal L.A. punk band, and England's Echo and the
Bunnymen and recording blues-spoken word CDs with Scott Richardson.
"I'm just doing what I Iike," said the affable and witty Manzarek.
"That's what's great about The Doors. It's given me the freedom
financially to pursue my dreams."
While maintaining his karmatic connections, of course.
Contact Tony Sauro at (209) 546-8267 or firstname.lastname@example.org.