Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Ray Manzerak: Our Forever 19 Organ

I liked them more now than I did then.

I heard that all the time about The Doors back in my Punk Rock day. That’s what they said, the aging hippies, when The Doors would come up while talking music as they tried to relate to us young bloods with our shorter hair, blacker clothes and disdain for bell bottoms,. The Doors were common ground. The Doors were still constantly on the radio, as they would be for the following decades and still are today. The FM never played The Ramones.

But always that qualifier – I like them more now than I did then, an acknowledgement that the Doors didn’t quite fit in. The Doors were too weird, and too original, for the 1960s. Alongside their very pop, pop hits –Love Her, Madly – there were very weird, pagan freak outs like Peace Frog or Unknown Soldier or Crystal Ship. That organ, inviting yet eerie, unnerving, enticing, make you believe that the risk of danger was worthwhile. Morrison was a lunatic shaman, party animal poet. Manzerak was the party – a tribalistic, gut-bucket, acid-test. It took a while to realize how deep the Doors were, how there was so much more to them than their hits, yet unpacking even their most well known hits, dark desires are there to be discovered (key word: Madly).

Horses, Rocket to Russia, Marquee Moon… then the Brits… and for a while you just couldn’t listen to the Grateful Dead or The Band or Jefferson Airplane, much less that Progressive Crap (Yes, Pink Floyd), which I never went for anyway. Half the record collection that got you through junior high had become irrelevant. For a while though, The Doors kept getting more and more relevant. While never as counter-60s era counter culture as the Velvet Underground, Doors records could be as smoothly played right after Wave or Never Mind the Bullocks as they did after Volunteers or Live Dead.

There weren’t that many Punk records, so we had to go to their forefathers – the Velvets & Lou and The Doors. The Doors were our cross over to the tie-dyed grooviness, the only surviving strands of 60s Ethos that was still relevant to 70s Alienation. Plus, Morrison like Patti Smith or Leonard Cohen, was a bona fide poet.

When I went to France after College, I spend a memorable afternoon in Pere Lachaise Cemetery searching for the Jim Morrison grave (Gertrude Stein, Balzac, Zola and Oscar Wilde were also on the list). There was a bust (just like Balzac), which had eyeliner painted on it.

Lou was still around of course, doing great new stuff but always insistent on recycling his 60s songs (Rock & Roll Animal), but The Doors they were still popular, revived in fact, more popular than any of their contemporaries, ubiquitous as Sex Pistol Nihilism and Clash Class Resentment overcame the Symbolist Poetry of Horses. But the Doors were listened to. They were dug. Aside from some Reggae records, what else could you spin without ridicule – there weren’t that many punk records before the Reagan Era made the idea seem rather silly (until Nirvana – and Pearl Jam and Hole – saved us). Yet, even then, Ray Manzerak’s propulsive keyboards were still ubiquitous on the Rock& Roll wavelengths.


Ray Manzerak was the sound of the doors, that lush, trippy organ made it relevant to both the hippies and the punk. The draft is over, the war is over but the angst could still be felt by Watergate alienated youth. Break on Through. Try to listen to that song with fresh ears – a challenge for sure, it’s so over-exposed. The beginning is an almost disco bass line – The Doors famously had not bass player, those deep rhythm parts were issued forth by Manzerak. Your shoulders and hips shimmy and shake, it’s an infections beginning and you are moving and grooving and then you start to notice the lyrics are way off kilter – apocalyptical observations – night divides the day? – and then the up-tempo dance ditty explodes into a no-holes barred rave up – a license to be crazy – that other side, freedom, revelation, a undeniable feeling of living or maybe just ultimate pleasure or just ultimate truth.

The Doors were more popular in 1979 than they were in 1969 and in 1969 they were huge, lots of hits, gold records. They were by definition a highly commercial band. The death of their lead singer only made their music more timeless and poignant. The fact that there was something very morbid about their success never detracted from that success, only enhancing its longevity. Sure, there are always re-issues and rediscoveries, but they are always about Nostalgia. The Doors sounded fresher longer than other Rock band.

A few things to remember why Jim and the Doors had such a robust after-life.

Apocalypse Now. Everyone went to see this movie upon its release. This was the war that ruined our childhoods, the scenes were flashbacks to the news broadcasts that came on after our cartoons and caused fist fights on the lawn between fathers and older brothers. Apocalypse Now was a major event, dominated the movie news. The experience of seeing its first theater run was like having a dark family secret suddenly explained to you – this is why things were like the way they were – the cut I saw ends with the napalming of the jungle being called in, the illegal bombing of Cambodia, where Kurtz had the encampment of death and ruthlessness savagery and the music returned… This is The End – that frightening opus that wallowed in subconscious sexual impulses (kill Dad and have sex with Mom) returns, with Manzerak’s organ drawing us in, spooky, macabre but hypnotic, irresistible… decadence was the dance with death and not everyone lives to hear the end of the song.

But Apocalypse Now’s musical achievement – still a landmark first – is that the original recording is just a basis for a bigger, more complex whole. Coppolla recruited the Grateful Dead – actually Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart – to drastically augment The End, extending it into an entire movie score. The Doors were Los Angeles and The Grateful Dead San Francisco and they both made some of the best druggy music of the era and while The Doors were no more by the time Coppola’s feverish adaptation of Heart of Darkness explained America’s nightmare to Americans, the Grateful Dead were at the height of their improvisational and composition powers. Garcia and Hart not just jammed with a recording track, they created an entire film score – one of the best rock scores ever composed for film – by building on but never departing from those music themes Ray Manzerak composed with his organ. Today, you cannot hear The End without thinking … Shit, Saigon… and seeing the ceiling fan Martin Sheen watches through his drunken vision. Hart, a genius of percussion, gives the Manzerak themes the primal impact, connecting with Conrad’s original vision, that the savagery western civilization finds in the undeveloped world is just below the surface of our civilized world. Coppola made us see our shared savagery through the lens of war. Coppola augmented Conrad just like Garcia & Hart augmented Morrison & Manzerak, and just like they augmented the dichotomous combination of lamentation and celebration of humanity found in the original Blues forms


Besides have the same dark themes and aggressive rock as Punk, the other reason we welcomed The Doors is that we were young and the Doors are for the young. They are the sound of being 19 – and by the time you are 13 all you want to be is 19 and by the time you’re 21, the party is over and you basically try to be 19 for as long as you can. I loved The Doors when I was 19; they made little sense to by 30. I loved the Oliver Stone movie of The Doors, saw it twice in the theater and rented it a couple of times in the 90s. The film makes you want to wash down some blotter acid with whiskey, but I was never compelled to get the soundtrack or listen to the Doors. They get a lot of airplay, although mainly the hits but their sublime deep cuts like Hyacinthine House or Indian Summer remain overlooked, so its not like you are without the Doors when you come into earshot of Classic Rock rock radio. I never play The Doors, I can sing dozens of their song (want to take a shower?)

A buddy of mine says his 16 year old son has all the Doors albums, and I’m not surprised. I had them all too when I was a teenager and they, like now, like then, were in the past. I have no memory of Jim Morrison dying, or The Doors singles being hit when the band was still active. Yet, they are as much a part of my rite of passage soundtrack as those boomers who went down to induction office for their physical exam.

A lot of music, especially from the 60s, appeals to later generations, inspiring nostalgia for experiences they never had. The Doors appeal to later generations of 19 years old – the teenage insistence that We’re Not Just Kids Anymore – as they also insistent on freedom and the intensity of experience, expressed in a metaphors that seem like a code – break on through, light my fire, this is the end, Let’s cook all night in our Soul Kitchen. The Doors were of their time, but unlike say, The Jefferson Airplane, another blues-based, California band, the Doors were not just of their time, but for all time. The Doors are forever 19, in spite of topical circumstances. Morrison is a poet as much as any other lyricist, a lover of Dionysus like all teenagers, a bacchanal enthusiast when that sort of unabashed hedonism was still shocking and often outlawed. Blake, Nietzsche, Rimbaud – even Melville – Horse Latitudes is a wallow in spiritual doubt Ishmael could related with – are competently invoked in his lyrics. But growing up means an increased awareness of your own mortality and understanding how fragile it can be. I think that is why you enjoy the Doors at a certain age –where they are all you can listen to – and then by a certain age, as your 20s end, they are just completely irrelevant – although enjoyable when you do hear them. The Doors invoke nostalgia, not for the 60s, but for being 19 (come to think of it, because of the baby boom, during the 60s, America had more 19 year olds in one place than at any other time in history).

The Doors are not your first love, nor are they your last. They are just that band you absolutely love at that pivotal point between youth and adulthood and that subconscious dichotomy of holding on to the former while reaching for the latter.

Morrison gets the glory – Jim Lives was a popular T-shirt, as was the rumor he was still alive in Paris, the grave is empty– it was Manzerak who made the sound. Oh, Krieger and Densmore were fine musicians, but not as accomplished or distinctive. Manzerak is the best keyboard player of his generation.

Dylan – with Al Kooper – brought the organ sound to Rock& Roll – the only previous keyboard were really piano men like Jerry Lee or Little Richard – and for a while there, in the mid-60s, especially with a lot of the post-Beatles 60 invasion bands – the first phase of psychedelic folk rock – organ was central to the 65-66 sound, the year Morrison and Manzerak met and formed The Doors. And, the Doors were always radio friendly. They had hits. Light My Fire was such a big hit that Jose Feliciano did the same song – in nearly the same way – and had a same hit – but that was just the start – Touch Me Now, Hello, Strange Days, I love You, LA Woman, Riders on the Storm – at least one or two per album. The radio friendly organ, eerie but compelling, invoking pop, jazz, blues and classical themes in the always inviting, melodic riffs. There’s something all-encompassing about Manzerak’s keyboard, an amoeba absorbing the other instruments, the baritone vocal and the listener. It emanates and undulates; an energy field of sound, a lysergic calliope.

Radio changed but those Doors hits stayed. Until he died, whenever it rained, Scott Muni (a Rock & Roll FM mainstay known to anyone over 40 who grew up in the N.Y. area) would play Riders on the Storm. Every time it rained. There are millions of middle aged men and women who still hear Riders on the Storm (and Scottso’s baritone rasp) echoing in their memories every time drops appear on a windshield.

Here’s this other, weird (are there any other) Doors memory. A little more individualistic, however. Soft Parade, the title song of their full-fledged, psychedelic record, is this this bizarre, self-indulgent acid ditty (the soft parade has now begun), with sound effects and echo and the then cutting-edge studio sound technology. I didn’t really like it then, I’m not about to play it now. I was down the shore, the boardwalk – this was when I was a young teenager – the long row of games of chance, one of the wheels of fortune – put a quarter down, wheel spins, win a t-shirt. The long haired barker running this one game had Soft Parade blasting. He had the song memorized to an extent that he was able to perform a pantomime of the entire song. I can still see him singing every lyric, twiddling his fingers to the organ sound, moving his elbow with the grove then stopping with the song, pointing his finger for another audio insert. You used to see weird shit down the shore all the time back then.

Around the same as Punk gained momentum and The Doors proved they had staying power (there were some post-Jim Morrison Doors albums that went no where. I knew of no one who had them and have no memory of ever hearing them), American Prayer was released. Similar to what Garcia & Hart did to The End, the surviving members of The Doors augmented poetry Morrison recorded; it was a spoken word, rock music amalgamation. I was about 19 when it came out and I thought was the greatest work of art ever released (well, the best since Horses) and played it relentlessly until my college roommates were forced to agree. Manzerak’s organ, always the indisputable core of the sound, made the melding of old tapes and new music seamless. He made it sound like a Doors record, not a posthumous novelty record.

Around this time, Manzerak produced the first two X albums. If there’s one band that should have been bigger, it was X. It didn’t help that the record label – Slash (they also carried The Blasters) – was terrible at distribution – X was forced to sign to Warner Brothers because the band would tour and find out the local record stores couldn’t get Slash releases – but by then it was the 80s, Punk was way over (and Nirvana not yet even on the horizon). X – and the LA punk scene – followed the brits, which soon followed NYC (Patti, Ramones, Television) – but as the Pistols self immolated and the Clash went top 40, the very nihilistic LA punks – Fear – but X was something else, rockabilly twinges, modernistic poetry; Manzerak was a great producer, he found the rock and roll within the punk attitude. Amateur aesthetic was a popular trend in music (Teenage Jesus & The Jerks), but X had great musicians –Billy Zoom was an excellent guitarist and John Doe, a superb base player and mellow tenor vocalist -- and Manzerak brought out their musicianship, but always within the punk context. I wrote a record review in college and I still remember the line – Chuck Berry meets Charles Baudelaire – which still sounds good – a highlight of the record was Soul Kitchen, which Manzerak played some organ on.

Not only were The Doors the rare crossover between the Summer of Love and the Summer of Sam, but Manzerak was a midwife in bringing one of the most significant and musically talented American punk bands to emerge out of our collective consciousness. A punk band's punk band, at least X was more well known than some of the other Manzerak's projects

The Rolling Stones, the Animals, Cream, the Electric Flag, Jimi Hendrix, Quick Silver, even Led Zeppelin – The Doors were of this ilk –60s-era musicians who took the Blues and made it relevant to the youthful audiences of their time. Artists like the Howlin Wolf, sang about love and heart break and their own humanity and those 60s cats staked out a new terrorist of sexuality and rebellion, augmenting what the electric bluesmen of the 50 had created, which they in turn had expanded upon from the originals like Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and Blind Lemmon Jefferson (who they expanded on are lost since they lived before music could be recorded). But, no one had the surrealism and audacity of The Doors. No one had Jim Morrison either, a distinctive baritone and gifted poet whose fame and drug abuse drove him crazy until he was killed by his own youth, romantic Paris succumbing to reality, yet freezing him forever young in sonic amber for ensuing generations to adopt then forget, depending on their age.

Morrison gets the glory, but Manzerak was really why the Doors are the most original of their 60s blues groups. The other bands are also guitar-based (okay, the Animals and Quick Silver may be exceptions) blues, just like the 50s electric blues guys; in fact, most of them, the Rolling Stones, are really Age of Aquarius renditions of Chess recordings. The Doors had that organ as the core, the guitar adding fill ins and rhythm accents – think about it – this keyboard/guitar balance is completely the opposite of Mick & Keith & Ian Stewart. The Doors had more ambiance than the other blues-based groups. They had Manzerak.

My favorite version of Who Do You Love (one the greatest songs ever) is by the Doors. I like it even more than Bo Diddley’s original. It’s on the double LP live album, Absolutely Live, which has Celebration of the Lizard (I am the Lizard King, I Can Do Anything), Morrison’s poetry at its most unhinged. Morrison infuses the already menacing lyric of Who Do You Love with a noirish psychedelic edge that questions sanity itself. Listen to how he stretches out down the alley an ice wagon screamed – you should’ve heard just what I seen. Morrison, like Dylan and a few others, realized that Rimbaud and Blake come from the same primal wellspring as the delta blues. The Doors Who Do You Love is the most original version, making all the other great versions by Ronnie Hawkins & The Band, George Thorogood, Dave Alvin, sound a bit like karaoke Bo Diddley. Aside from Morrison’s distinctive phrasing, the reason is Manzerak. The organ is the rhythm section and the lead. The Doors are like taking drugs, their music reacts through you on a cellular level, and they found a gut-bucket honesty that went right to the core of the human experience, something that the blues masters they idolized only hinted at.

The Back Door in Howlin’s Back Door Man clearly intends a guy who sneaks away after sleeping with another man’s woman, the Doors expands the sexual innuendo to include all the Penthouse Forum possibilities. He liberates the libido in a way even Howlin did not, although Howlin’s version inspires more empathy.

In Oliver Stone’s The Doors, when the band mates are saying goodbye to Jim, who is about to move to Paris, one of the characters says, you have to come back so we can do our blues albums. I still wish for an alternative universe where that album is a reality, a collection of blues songs (and early R&R, which are the same songs), with Morrison vocals and Manzerak translating the delta into the keyboard. Jim died too early for the Doors to do their Moondog Matinee. I heard a bootleg version of the Doors performing Mystery Train, a concert recording. Fascinating. Makes me wonder if all those radio hits that are now classic rock standards actually overshadowed the true energy of the group.

On an official, posthumous release of a live record – I got it on cassette – there’s a great rendition of Road House (Woke up this morning, got myself a beer), which is introduced by Morrison with “I want to get my kicks before this whole shithouse goes up in flames” – or is it smoke, I can’t find it right now and I’m not searching the internet – anyway, that ethos is probably why the Doors could remain beloved by Woodstock Nation and The Blank Generation, both of whom were the first of the generations to grow up knowing that global annihilation was possible. By the time of Gen X, annihilation threats were nothing new. Reagan teenagers could believe in no tomorrow that was not about them and their needs and their entitlements. Unlike my older sibs, we never did drills where we hid under our desks at school, but given what we knew of humanity, nuclear doom was just a matter of time. No Future Johnny Rotten reminded us; Jim reminded us to get laid and get high, to be alive, and to be free and live for now because the future is uncertain and the end is always near. Sure, you wind up dissolute, depressed and you soon realize there’s much more to life (and literature) than knowledge of the sensual and gratification of appetite. But those repercussion and that realization is down the road, not the forever now. When you’re 19 (or right before or right after you’re 19), there’s that moment when not to be reckless is to die, or to feel like death, to succumb to sorrow.

Living life any other way seems impossible. And the only ones appreciating that fact, the only ones sharing this Tao, are other 19 year olds. You’re horny as hell all the time, the repercussions of intoxication not as severe, and dictums like No One Here Gets Out Alive make sense like they will never again. The worst thing you can do to Nietzsche is read him after you turn 30 (what the hell were those Nazi’s thinking anyway?)

Ray Manzerak released a lot of music before he died the other day. He was always in Rolling Stone or on NPR with one project or another. Save for producing the X records, I can’t remember much less name a single non-Doors Manzerak project. That makes me sad but it’s the truth. Manzerak, the best keyboard player of his generation, probably knew he could play better in his 30s and 40s and 50s than he did in his 20s – God knows that Eric Clapton and lots of other musicians, especially in Jazz, proved that age enhances talent – yet, no one was there to listen. Manzerak could never compete with his younger self; forever young just like his deceased compadre. What a funny life it must have been – a great musician, made rich from music he made in his 20s, yet he could never get interested in his music again. Almost a half century of having to compete against your own youth; I’m sure the wealth reduced the frustration, but it must have seemed absurd at times. Manzerak was no stranger to being interviewed, he was always promoting his latest project, and he seemed like a very smart, well-rounded guy. He took it in stride.

David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Queen, Billy Idol, Psychedelic Furs, the Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Pearl Jam – to name just the obvious – all owe a debt to Jim… and to Ray (while they may not care about the blues, their music all features heavy keyboard). It’s music with a fullness of sound, which was probably the root cause of the appeal of the Doors.

It must have been frustrating, not only did he lose a friend too young, but to have the career abruptly end. They obviously had a lot more music to make together. American Prayer was brilliant, but it was just a pastiche of new material formed around found recitations and sadly pointed out what could have been if the lead singer and main lyricist could have kept his appetites, and ego, in check,

I think we are on the fourth generation now of teenagers being 19 to the sound of Ray Manzerak’s organ. The Doors – I loved them more then than I do now – but who can forget them, who can forget that organ playing, how all encompassing it seemed, how propulsive – who can forget being 19?

Rest in peace, Ray. Like organ playing was here, you're now in a place where you'll never grow old.

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