When news spread last week that Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek had died, I remembered 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 persuaded Manzarek to write his bestselling 1998 autobiography, Light My Fire: My Life With the Doors.
Music connoisseurs have raved about how Manzarek, 74, helped define the art of rock organ playing during his time with the Doors, powering hits such as L.A. Woman, Riders on the Storm and, of course, Light My Fire. The keyboardist died last Monday in Germany while fighting bile duct cancer, according to his publicist.
He and I met by telephone back in 1996, when I was pop music critic for the Times. He had created a two-CD set filled with audio recordings of stories on 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."
This was well before boldfaced names such as Keith Richards, Steven Tyler and Gregg Allman turned the rock star memoir into a certified retirement plan. Still, when I was in high school, the biography of Morrison by journalist Jerry Hopkins and former Doors manager Danny Sugerman, No One Here Gets Out Alive, was a well-thumbed talisman for alienated teen boys who identified with the singer's outsider status.
During our 1996 interview, Manzarek complained that someone who was writing a book about Morrison's widow Pam didn't even know how the couple met. The CD was an attempt to tell his story his way, but it was obvious that would only reach a limited audience.
Well if you think I should write a book, I remember him telling me by telephone from California after my 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 an 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.
The keyboardist told me he met Morrison in the mid 1960s at UCLA's film school. Copping a name from the Aldous Huxley book about mescaline, The Doors of Perception, they pieced together a band that could back their ideas of uniting ambitious poetry with improvised rock songs, enlisting fellow transcendental meditation enthusiasts Robby Krieger on guitar and John Densmore on drums.
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 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 as a drunken, rebellious bum, quitting film school at UCLA after his student film was panned; Manzarek believed a genius like the singer was never a quitter. As I noted in the first draft of the book proposal we developed together, Manzarek's reaction to Stone's script for The Doors was so negative that the keyboardist was banned from the film's glitzy Los Angeles premiere.
"That Jim Morrison (in Stone's movie) was hell-bent for leather … this wild, crazy maniac," Manzarek said in 1996. "The Morrison I knew was also an intellectual, poet and artist. He was spiritual. He was funny. Can you imagine Jim Morrison making somebody laugh? That movie … nobody laughs during the whole movie. We were potheads, man … we giggled a lot."
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 stressed they — and Morrison in particular — weren't just sexed-up, drugged-out hedonists. They were artists.
"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. "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."
Born in Melbourne, Fla., in 1943, Morrison himself had a series of interesting ties to the Tampa Bay area, including time spent at then-St. Petersburg Junior College. 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.
Manzarek's story was a great window into Morrison's intellect and charisma as well. Unfortunately, I was a bit too green and 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 band members 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 Krieger when those two tried to tour under the name The Doors of the 21st Century. 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: "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 art in 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.