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?”