Yesterday, The Doors’ Ray Manzarek, who provided the classic keyboard and organ riffs that became synonymous with the band’s most iconic songs, lost his battle to cancer at the age of 74. Musicians ranging from Slash to American Idol judge Randy Jackson to his own bandmates paid their (digital) respects to the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. And last night, clubs like the Whiskey A Go-Go and the Roxy on Los Angeles’ famed Sunset Strip, where the Doors first made their name, paid tribute by dimming their lights for a minute at 9:31 p.m. (Manzarek passed away in Germany at 9:31 p.m. local time).
Although the Doors effectively ended in 1971 after the death of Jim Morrison, Manzarek spent a good amount of his life maintaining the band’s legacy. Other than his tours with Doors guitarist Robby Krieger, he also worked on keeping the band’s recorded work in the marketplace through a series of reissues, best-ofs and box sets. The most recent release was the live concert film, Live At The Bowl ’68, which shows the band at the peak of their powers.
Manzarek was beaming through the phone as he told Radio.com about the show in a late 2012 interview. He said that some of his, and the band’s, favorite artists had played that stage, so it meant a lot for them to be booked at the Hollywood Bowl. “It was momentous. That was the granddaddy of all venues in Southern California. Igor Stravinsky conducted there! The Beatles played there! And we were playing at the same place. But up to that point, very few rock bands played there. We were very honored.”
With their second No. 1 single under their belt (“Hello, I Love You”; the first was “Light My Fire”) the band was on top of the world, having realized all their dreams of becoming rock stars in just a few short years.
“The best laid plans of mice and men had not gone astray yet,” Manzarek mused. “We dreamed of putting a rock and roll band together on Venice Beach in the summer of 1965. This is now the summer of 1968 and we had attained the goal. We wanted to be as big as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and we had arrived at that place.”
Indeed, at that time, The Doors — Manzarek, Krieger, drummer John Densmore and Jim Morrison — had a powerful grip on their audience; Manzarek himself exclaimed that, in that moment in 1968, “Those four guys were the four horsemen of the apocalypse!” After the Hollywood Bowl gig, the Doors became even more popular and eventually headlined Madison Square Garden. Had Morrison lived a longer life, would they, like the Stones and Paul McCartney, have upgraded to football stadiums? “I’m not sure if you are still a rock and roll band or if you turn into a circus at that point,” Manzarek said.
However, Manzarek noted that if the Doors had been popular enough, they most likely would have tried to play the largest venues possible: “It would have been a theatrical challenge to do something like that. The Rolling Stones do it on a grand scale. So what would The Doors have done on a grand scale? All things would have been possible, unfortunately Jim didn’t make it.”
Referencing the massive popularity the band still enjoys decades after Morrison’s passing, he said, “The Doors were an underground band, out of the mainstream. That’s where Jim and I always wanted to be.”
But Manzarek noted that there was always a compromise between being an outsider and being obscure. He put it frankly: “I’d prefer to have the Doors’ music being played on a radio station in a gas station than not being played. We wanted our music to be heard by as large of an audience as possible.”
Without question, the Doors was Manzarek’s greatest musical achievement. But he also enjoyed a great “second act” after the band split up. In the ’80s, he produced legendary L.A. punk band X’s first four albums, 1980’s Los Angeles, 1981’s Wild Gift, 1982’s Under The Big Black Sun and 1983’s More Fun In The New World. As Manzarek noted, he wasn’t even paid to produce X’s debut, which has long been a critical favorite. And yet, he couldn’t say enough positive things about the sessions and the influential albeit underground band, whom he called “far and away, America’s best punk rock band.”
Following Manzarek’s passing, X posted to their Facebook: “We are very saddened by the news that Ray Manzarek has passed away today. He was not only a musical icon but a close friend. He will be sorely missed. RIP Ray.” X followed up the statement with a YouTube clip of their cover of the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen,” produced by Manzarek. It goes to show the far-reaching influence of a band like the Doors and, in a lot of ways, Manzarek himself. For Manzarek to have the amount of success he did with the Doors — a band so synonymous with a psychedelic sound — and then for him to focus his energies and resources into a totally opposite band like X, is a testament to his spirit of experimentation and curiosity about the musical underground.