Joseph Bottum on the guy who knew Jim Morrison
Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
I met him once. Well, met in the loosest sense: I was introduced to Ray Manzarek at a Los Angeles restaurant in the 1980s and got to shake his hand. No more than that, but even at the time it felt like an encounter with passing greatness, a brush with the fading mythology of the age, and down through the years, I’ve never forgotten it.
Manzarek died of cancer on May 20, at age 74, to obituaries around the nation that dutifully mentioned his screen-music compositions, his fiction writing, the handful of solo albums, and the mentorship of young musicians to which he devoted himself as a producer. But then, duty over, the obituaries all heaved a sigh of relief, turning back in delight to the late 1960s when Manzarek was in his twenties and played the organ, one of those Vox Continentals with the plastic keys, for a rock group called The Doors. Everything else in the man’s life, the 40-odd years after lead singer Jim Morrison’s death in 1971, seemed almost a coda. The mythological moment, the mystical connection with the age, was gone.
After the 1953 death of her husband, the poet Dylan Thomas—another of those figures who somehow caught the mad slipstream of his times—Caitlin Thomas gave her autobiography the bitter title Leftover Life to Kill. By all accounts, Manzarek was never bitter; he seems, in fact, to have been a cheerful man who lived with some real grace and not a little ironic bemusement about the cultural eddies that had swirled for a few short years around his friend Jim Morrison. But there always remained something of that strange aura surrounding Ray Manzarek: leftover life to kill.
No one has ever quite explained the combination of luck, talent, and good looks—the humble dedication and arrogant self-mythologizing, for that matter—by which some figures mount the whirlwind with spurs on their heels, but whatever that combination is, Jim Morrison had it. And Ray Manzarek went along for the ride.
We could name dozens of similar figures, of course, in movie acting, sports, and music. But what makes The Doors so interesting is that, nearly everyone agrees, Manzarek was by a long stretch the most musically talented member of the group. A classical pianist, he brought into The Doors a skillful drummer named John Densmore, whom he knew from a meditation group, and Densmore in turn eventually gathered in Robby Krieger, new to rock guitar but trained in classical and flamenco acoustic work.
All that the three musicians really had in common was a certain Eastern inflection—these were the days when the cognoscenti were all proclaiming Ravi Shankar’s sitar the greatest music on the planet—and a sense of mild California jazz. Listen again to the lounge style of “Riders on the Storm,” or the free-form background to the middle of “The End,” or the straightforward blues they played on what seems half The Doors’ recordings. The typical pattern of their songs is a quick riff to establish the beat and chord progression, then a couple of verses of Jim Morrison’s pop poetry, an extended instrumental, and a concluding Morrison lyric.
And that instrumental midsection almost always begins with a virtuoso organ performance. Then Manzarek backs off to allow Krieger to display his own skills, the sitar-influenced sound of the guitar often forming a counterpoint to, or even a fight with, the organ. Densmore’s drumming keeps the rhythm of Manzarek’s riff going—until, in the signal that the climax has arrived, the drums shift to the beat of Krieger’s guitar riff and decide the battle. The three musical Doors were, in essence, a talented jazz trio. A jazz trio, that is, who happened to back a rogue frontman heading places no jazz trio typically goes.
And having been to those places, what remained for Manzarek, the wonderful keyboardist? He had been on the inside of the mythological fantasy that was Jim Morrison and The Doors, and myth is always better—more meaningful and complete—when seen from the outside. Ajax, Hector, Paris, and even Helen get used up in the Iliad, because it’s not their story. They’re the necessary players in another person’s tale. It’s Achilles’ myth we’re told by Homer, and everyone else is just along for the ride.
Ray Manzarek was a gentleman and conscientious friend who never disparaged the days and the man that had made him famous. But it must have been odd to live another 40 years beyond The Doors, knowing he would never do anything as famous again. Like a man who had fought his way skillfully through the Trojan War and survived the dangerous adventures of the journey home—only to spend the rest of his life being asked, “But what was Achilles really like?”
Apr 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 30 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
I cannot claim to have been an intimate of Margaret Thatcher’s. But I can claim to have known her on several levels—as a prime minister from whom I learned to put the “political” back into “political economy,” as a woman who fancied both her whisky and her sweet desserts, and as one who made it possible for me and others to withstand the thuggishness of the pickets attempting to block the introduction of new technology into Britain’s newspaper industry.
Dec 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 14 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
The Scrapbook notes with regret the death last week of Dave Brubeck, the California-born, classically trained pianist whose eponymous quartet—with its infectious melodies and unconventional time signatures—did so much to revitalize jazz in the 1950s and ’60s. Brubeck, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, and drummer Joe Morello are all now gone, leaving only the bass player, 89-year-old Eugene Wright.
5:20 PM, Jun 27, 2012 • By DANIEL HALPER
Jill Hanson, an impressive and successful behind-the-scenes Republican political operative, passed away earlier this month after suffering from throat cancer. A memorial service for Hanson is scheduled in Washington, D.C. for Friday, June 29, at at the Capitol Hill Club, 300 First Street SE, Washington D.C., at 10 a.m.
7:05 PM, Mar 1, 2012 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
I suspect many of Andrew Breitbart's friends thinking today about how they’ll remember Andrew will picture him charging through the lobby of a hotel followed by opponents hoping to trip him up, supporters cheering on the confrontation, or journalists taking it all in. Some will recall seeing him give a speech to hundreds of conservative activists as he did in Michigan last Saturday. Many will remember having drinks or dinner or coffee with Andrew and a large group of people crowded around a tiny bar table or spilling out awkwardly into the aisles of a restaurant.
9:37 AM, Jan 9, 2012 • By ARNOLD STEINBERG
Two weeks ago I spoke with Tony Blankley. He was in the ICU at Sibley Hospital in Washington. He was glad to hear from me. He was cheerful, upbeat, optimistic.
2:55 PM, Apr 20, 2011 • By JOHN P. MCCONNELL
One of my favorite Bill Rusher stories is from the 1984 presidential campaign, when he and Jeane Kirkpatrick faced off against Christopher Dodd and Barney Frank on the question of Reagan vs. Mondale. Poor Senator Dodd had to contend with this impossible query from Bill Rusher: “On the invasion of Grenada, do you agree with Mr. Mondale that it was justified, or with Ms. Ferraro that it wasn’t?”
Sidney Lumet, 1924-2011Apr 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 31 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The death of Sidney Lumet April 9 is a striking reminder of how little the American motion-picture industry today has in common with Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s—which were his heyday and, arguably, the heyday of the movies themselves. Lumet was unquestionably the most consistent and productive of the star filmmakers of his time.
John Gross, 1935-2011.Jan 24, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 18 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
My friend John Gross died on Monday, January 10. His son Tom, who sent out an email announcing John’s death to a large number of his friends, noted that his father’s death was caused by complications relating to his heart and kidneys. His health had been failing in various ways for quite a long spell. Tom Gross also mentioned that his sister Susanna, John’s daughter, was reading to him from Shakespeare’s Sonnets when he died.
An intriguing, if unmentioned, biographical detail.2:53 PM, Nov 23, 2010 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
I couldn’t help but notice that the New York Times obituary this past week for Norris Church Mailer, widow of Norman Mailer, failed to mention the occasion that first brought their love affair to public attention. If the institutional memory of the Times has failed in this instance—which I doubt, since the obit is full of charming anecdotes about Ms. Church Mailer—it is worth resurrecting the story.
Remembering the photographer of a half-century's jazz greats12:00 AM, Oct 14, 2010 • By CYNTHIA GRENIER
Quincy Jones, who once roomed with Herman Leonard in Paris, wrote of him: “When people think of jazz, their mental picture is likely one of Herman’s.” All certainly true of the wonderfully talented photographer who died in California two months ago at 87. Strictly speaking, there can be no jazz greats from the mid-1940s to the present who were not captured by Herman’s camera.
Last words of an Everywoman.10:45 AM, Jul 14, 2010 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
Sadly, it is too late for any of us to meet Charlotte McCourt. The Nevada grandmother passed away this week at the age of 84 after a long illness. But it is not too late for Charlotte to tell everyone exactly how she feels.
An excerpt from her obituary, placed in the Las Vegas Review Journal Tuesday, reads:
10:30 AM, Jun 1, 2010 • By KATHERINE EASTLAND
On Monday, the French-born American sculptor Louise Bourgeois died in her Manhattan home at age 98 of a heart attack.
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