By Jon Matsumoto
Ray Manzarek will likely always be best known for his role in the
legendary rock band, the Doors. The keyboardist co-founded the group
with vocalist-poet Jim Morrison, whose death in 1971 essentially
ended the Los Angeles band's brief, but enormously successful, existence.
What's less well-known about Manzarek's career is his part in
bringing the acclaimed punk brigade X to public attention during the
1980s. He produced the band's first four albums beginning with the
trailblazing debut, "Los Angeles," in 1980.
This Tuesday and Wednesday night at Slim's in San Francisco, Manzarek
will join X on stage as the quartet celebrates the 30th anniversary
of "Los Angeles," arguably its most accomplished work. The album will
be played in its entirety on both nights.
The 71-year-old musician, writer and filmmaker will play keyboards on
songs like "Nausea," "The World's a Mess; It's In My Kiss" and "The
Unheard Music." The original recordings of these songs also featured
Manzarek's distinctive keyboard sound. These two shows will represent
the first time he's appeared on stage with X since the early '80s.
Manzarek clearly recalls the first time he ever heard X at a late
'70s show at Los Angeles' Whisky a Go-Go, a popular rock club that
had also hosted the Doors a decade earlier. Appropriately enough, X
executed a blazing cover version of the Doors' "Soul Kitchen" that
night. A studio recording of the song also ended up being part of the
"Los Angeles" album.
"I saw them and I just fell in love," says Manzarek of X's Whisky a
Go-Go performance. "They were amazing. About the fourth song into the
show they're just wailing on something.
"My wife Dorothy said to me, 'Do you recognize that one?' I said,
'Honey, I don't know any of these songs.' She said, 'No, no, no
listen carefully.' I said, 'Oh my god, it's 'Soul Kitchen!' They were
doing 'Soul Kitchen' at a thousand miles per hour."
X -- which currently consists of original members John Doe, Exene
Cervenka, Billy Zoom and D.J. Bonebrake -- was sometimes compared
with the Doors during its early years. But musically, the two outfits
were quite dissimilar.
X's revved up punk sound was often anchored by rockabilly influenced
guitar licks. The Doors were a psychedelic rock band with tentacles
in everything from jazz to blues. Still, both L.A.-bred bands shared
darkly poetic lyrics that reflected the seamier side of the outwardly
sunshiny City of Angels.
"Both bands occupied that film noir Los Angeles represented by John
Fante," observes Manzarek, referring to the 20th century writer known
for his gritty portrayal of Los Angeles.
Commercially, the Doors and X ended up existing on entirely different planets.
With number one singles like "Light My Fire" and "Hello, I Love You"
and hit albums such as the self-titled debut disc and "L.A. Woman,"
the Doors would go on to sell an astonishing 75 million plus albums
worldwide. X's first two albums were released on the small, Los
Angeles label Slash and appealed largely to a coterie of punks and
hipsters. The group's next four studio albums with the major label
Elektra Records also failed to resonate with the larger public.
Manzarek remembers that "by the time the third album had come out it
was like, 'God, what's the matter? Radio will not play them.' It was
very depressing to me because I knew how good they were. They're
America's best punk rock band. I don't know if they are even punk
rock. They are hard contemporary American music. Maybe it was a
little too hard for the radio."
The density and traffic of Los Angeles are firmly in Manzarek's
rearview mirror at this point. He and Dorothy have called Napa home
for the past eight years. But he's far from retired.
After penning his memoir, "Light My Fire: My Life with the Doors" in
1998, he had two of his novels published, "The Poet In Exile" in 2002
and "Snake Moon" in 2006. "The Poet In Exile" elaborates on the myth
that Morrison staged his own death. "Snake Moon" reinterprets the
haunting Japanese film "Ugetsu" in Civil War era America.
Manzarek is currently creating some meditative nature videos. He is
producing the soundtrack for a project with his son Pablo. Early in
2011, blues slide guitarist Roy Rogers will release a CD with
contributions from the keyboardist.
This past summer, Manzarek and former Doors guitarist Robby Krieger
performed the music of the Doors in Ireland and England with full
orchestras. The duo plan to return to Europe next year for additional
symphonic shows. It's possible similar performances will be staged in
the United States at some point.
"Doors songs with a symphony orchestra. "... Man, oh man, is that
great!" Manzarek enthuses. "[The song] 'Touch Me' is a natural
because there are already horns and strings on that. That sounds
fantastic with an orchestra."
Manzarek is also pleased that the Doors documentary "When You're
Strange" was recently nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Long
Form Music Video category. He feels the film is a far more accurate
summation of the band than Oliver Stone's 1991 feature film, "The Doors."
"Oliver Stone got the wild drunk, but he completely missed out on the
psychedelic philosopher, the poet," Manzarek says of Stone's
portrayal of Morrison in "The Doors."
"Jim was a funny guy. My god, nobody laughed in that movie."