Ray Manzarek, 1939-2013


I got an email from my friend Matt last night that said, “Well, you won’t have Ray Manzarek to kick around anymore.” This was a reference to an argument we had, Matt and I and another friend, Dave, very late at night this past New Year’s Eve. We’ve known each since grade school, the three of us, and we got into music together in the way that lots of adolescent suburban boys do: classic-rock-first. We all loved the Doors as kids, I had a poster of Jim Morrison in my room in front of which I used to bow my head in prayer. We all mastered the distinctive building-block lettering of the band’s logo—among the best examples of graphic design in the history of rock and roll, if only because of the ease with which it could be drawn on desk-tops and math book covers.

But we all don’t love the Doors anymore. I find a lot of their music really stupid, actually. Schmaltzy melodies, awkward changes, laughable lyrics. With the exception of a few songs that hold up better than others—”Five to One,” “Roadhouse Blues,” “L.A. Woman,” “Riders on the Storm”—they kinda stink. Dave agrees. But Matty, full of New Years Eve cheer, argued for their greatness. His argument was along the lines of, How can we deny the power and beauty and meaning we found in this music when we were 13? And why should we stop ourselves from tapping into those memories, letting ourselves feel those feelings again, that pleasure, that wonder, through the music when we heard it today? I like this argument. And it might mean that Matty’s a smarter person than I am—or, at least, a more generous one, more generous to our younger selves, less hung-up on honing critical judgement and developing an adult identity based in large part in snobbery. One too-much borrowed, maybe, from conventional wisdom based on the writings of famous Doors-hater Lester Bangs. Too proud of my more “educated” belief that Love, one of my very ’60s bands, who came out of the same scene in L.A., but never achieved anyway near the success of the Doors, were so much better.

So, I don’t know… this argument, which is of a kind that I really enjoy, starts to maybe break down along lines of semantics and categories. I mean, yeah, I will always love the Doors in some ways. Jim Morrison stands as a totemic figure: sort of the ultimate rock star. This may be due in large part to the fact that he died (or faked his death and moved to Madagascar and has been living there secretly since) when he was 27 and still so good looking, but nevertheless occupies a large part of my heart. I LOVED the Doors when I was a kid, every song, every album. (Though I remember thinking “Touch Me” was a little silly even then; it sounded so much like bad Frank Sinatra.) They did have a unique sound. One that no band has really ever captured since. How much credit are we supposed to give our younger selves, our still-developing tastes? Maybe more than I usually do?

Anyway, Ray Manzarek, the man most responsible for the Doors sound (and innocent of any blame for their lyrics) died in Germany yesterday after a long battle the even-more-awful-than-most-cancers-sounding bile duct cancer. You can see him being “the adult in the room” in the video at the top of this post, during the recording of “Wild Child” (another song that I think holds up relatively well) from the band’s fourth album, 1969’s Soft Parade. He was 74.