As world mourns death of Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, my story on helping with his memoir
As the music world expresses sorrow over the death today of Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, I can’t help remembering a personal story about my brief time working with a member of one of the best classic rock bands in history.
The short version: I think I convinced Manzarek to write his best-selling 1998 autobiography, Light My Fire: My Life with the Doors.
Manzarek, 74, died today in Germany while fighting bile duct cancer, according to his publicist. He and I met by telephone in 1996, when I was serving as pop music critic for the St. Petersburg Times and interviewed Manzarek about a two-CD set where he talked about the history of the band and his own life, Myth and Reality: The Spoken Word History.
“This is great,” I remember telling him about the package, issued near the 25th anniversary of legendary Doors frontman Jim Morrison’s 1971 death. “But nobody will absorb this story this way. You’ve got to write it in a book.”
Well if you think I should write a book, I remember him telling me by telephone from California after the story was published, why don’t you help me write it?
So, Manzarek eventually sent me a bound transcript of the audio he recorded for the CD; over 700 pages of material in which he talked of things both metaphysical and down to earth.
I combed through the pages and cobbled together a loose outline for the book, opening with a evocative scene he had shared in which the keyboardist fumed while watching Oliver Stone’s 1991 film The Doors. Manzarek got so incensed then, he decided it was time to start telling the band’s story himself.
I always had the sense that Manzarek -- the oldest member when the group formed in Los Angeles circa 1965 -- acted as guardian of the band’s legacy in general and Morrison’s legend, in particular.
He was the one who pushed back against the notion that frontman Morrison actually exposed himself during an infamous 1969 concert in Miami where he was arrested for indecent exposure (in the book, Manzarek said Morrison faked the crowd into thinking he did it). He also criticized Stone’s depiction of Morrison quitting film school at UCLA after his student film was panned, saying a genius like the singer was never a quitter.
Parsing myth from fact in the band's story can be tough. Manzarek even told me in 1996 that his age widely circulated at that time, 61, was a little older than reality, the result of telling music journalists he was a few years older when the band was starting out.
Manzarek's blend of metaphysical talk and protectiveness of the band could be formidable, as well. The keyboardist saw it as protecting the spirit of the band and their statu, upshing back againstcharacterization as a bunch of drugged-out, over-the-top, rock 'n' roll hedonists. He insisted they were artists, first.
“I talked to Oliver Stone about this for two days and he didn’t get it…he didn’t get the psychedelic thing,” Manzarek told me in 1996, providing quotes I used in my story on the CD. “Strobe lights and keyboards going ‘woo, woo;’ isn’t psychedelic. Psychedelic has to do with opening the doors of perception. We wanted to take rock ‘n’ roll and add poetry…like the Beatniks combined jazz and poetry. We were psychedelic, man.”
Morrison himself had a series of interesting ties to the Tampa Bay area. Former Tampa Bay Times writer Rob Farley tracked down the girlfriend Morrison had for three years in Clearwater, where he was sent by his Navy captain dad to live with grandparents after blowing off his high school graduation in Virginia. Farley told the story of Mary Werbelow, who followed Morrison from his time at then-St. Petersburg Junior College to Florida State University in Tallahassee and UCLA in Los Angeles before they broke up; read it here (including a great bit about Morrison sitting through a Jaycees-sponsored Miss Clearwater competition because Werbelow was in it).
Manzarek's story was a great window into Morrison's intellect and charisma as well. Unfortunately, I was a bit too green and a bit too far away to sort through all the material effectively, and the keyboardist eventually decided to write the book himself.
He did list me among a dozen people given special thanks at the book’s start and seemed to use some of my ideas from the outline in the finished version. We also talked a few times afterward, when his conflicts with former bandmembers surged in the news.
There were, unfortunately, some epic battles. Manazarek told me in 2005 that original drummer John Densmore sent him a copy of Light My Fire burnt up, angry that the keyboardist had written that Morrison wanted to fire Densmore because he “couldn’t stand him as a human being.”
Densmore sued Manzarek and Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger when those two tried to tour under the name The Doors of the 21st Century, prompting several name changes. But the band has always been a classic rock favorite, earning induction into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 while inspiring countless books, memoirs, documentaries and greatest hits compilations.
Back in 1996, Manzarek told me this about the band’s music for my St. Petersburg Times story: “It taps into the psychological and religious needs for young people…an antidote to the constriction of the ‘90s. The recordings sell more today than they did in 1968. In a way, that’s why we got into rock ‘n’ roll. We thought we could advance the cause of (young) America…and I like to think we did.”
RIP Ray. Now you can join your pal Jimbo in rock ’n’ roll heaven.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.