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An Elegy for Ray Manzarek: Pay Some Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

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The only time I ever walked out of a show was during a solo performance of Ray Manzarek. It's strange and sad that that was the first thing that came to mind upon hearing of the passing of the legendary founding member and keyboard player of The Doors. However, that evening made an indelible mark on me and clarified a lot of how I feel about The Doors and their legacy.

The show was at the Bottom Line in New York a little over ten years ago. I'm not sure what I was expecting to see. Opening the show for him was the poet/musician Jim Carroll, who did a spoken word performance, at the end of which Ray joined him onstage to provide piano accompaniment to some poems. Curiously, the stage did not look like it was set up for a band to play.

What I did not know when I went to the show was that Manzarek was on a book tour at the time. He had written a novel entitled The Poet in Exile, about a musician named "Roy" who begins a journey to seek "The Poet," the lead singer from his former band, long since thought dead, but in fact living on an island somewhere, essentially culminating in some kind of reconciliation and closure. As Manzarek stood on stage and described the book, I could discern a feeling of incredulity from the audience. The performance consisted of Manzarek performing instrumental, solo renditions of Doors songs on the piano in between his banter and recitation of passages from his novel. I left about fifteen minutes into his "set."

It was a sad spectacle to see. I had gone to the show because I always liked Ray. I'm one of those people who like The Doors in spite of Jim Morrison, and not because of him. Yes, Jim had a great voice, and was certainly charismatic, I suppose. Still, I always thought him ridiculous and self-important, as well as unfairly overshadowing his band-mates' contributions. Also, rightly or wrongly, I always perceived of Manzarek as the architect of the band's sound.

Manzarek certainly wasn't as cool as Morrison. I always thought he looked kind of like the morose older brother of the Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian (who, as it turns out, played un-credited harmonica on the track, "Roadside Blues"). But hunched over the keyboard, laying down his dark organ textures with his right hand while handling the bass parts with his left (the Doors never had an official bass player), he cut a striking image of his own, the somber engineer, the mad scientist, the man behind the curtain.

After The Doors disillusion, his influence would continue, playing on albums by the likes of Echo and the Bunnymen, and producing the first four albums by the seminal Los Angeles punk band, X. More recently, he would work with other poets (I say "other" for the benefit of those who believe that Jim Morrison was a poet), most notably beat poet Michael McClure, providing acoustic backdrops for their work on record and in performance.

Still, he lurked in Jim's shadow. He even seemed very comfortable there. I guess it makes sense. Through his constant reinforcement of the myth of the Lizard King, through books, interviews and the like, he succeeded in making the shadow a bigger place to inhabit.

Again, I don't mean to be insulting to Ray Manzarek here. Quite the opposite. I think he deserves more credit, even more than he gave himself.

The point is that Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore were not merely a backing band for Jim Morrison. Yes, it has been argued that The Doors would have been nothing without Jim Morrison, and even I grudgingly have to agree, but all too rarely is the converse argued, that Jim Morrison would have been nothing without The Doors. The band's aggression, colored by Manzarek's dark, almost gothic tones, gave weight to Morrison's lyrics and vocals, which otherwise would have been mere self-indulgent ravings. I think too often people don't realize this. I think the thing that bothered me the most about seeing Ray plugging his book onstage at the Bottom Line all those years ago, was the fact that, at the time at least, it seemed he'd forgotten that himself.