There are many musicians who come off as bigger champions of their respective bands than even the most obsessive fans. Gene Simmons loves to talk about the greatness of Kiss. Keith Richards places the Rolling Stones right up there with religion. But no one could touch Ray Manzarek when it came to going on and on, in words and actions, about how crucial the Doors have been in influence and stature in music.
The acclaimed keyboardist single-handedly kept the legend of the Sunset Strip’s darkest and most notorious act alive after frontman Jim Morrison died in a Paris bathtub/went missing/disappeared from the spotlight in 1971. A few years ago, when asked by Classic Rock Magazine where keeping the legacy of the Doors lay in his professional priorities, he said, “There’s no question that it’s number one.”
When news broke today that Manzarek died in Germany at the age of 74 from the horrible sounding “bile duct cancer,” it might has well have been the match that lit the Doors very own funeral pyre; the keyboardist was essential in carrying the band’s mantle to newer generations long detached from the band’s late-‘60s/early-‘70s apex, stretching even to the EDM world in a 2011 collaboration with Skrillex.
When Morrison made his exit 42 years ago, it took just three months for Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger, and drummer John Densmore to release a new record. Not a bunch of outtakes or demos mind you, but new material with Manzarek on lead vocals dubbed Other Voices. They did it again the following year with Full Circle. The most surprising thing? Those two albums are actually really good. If it weren’t for the looming spectre of the Lizard King, they would’ve been much more popular.
Manzarek, of course, was partially at fault; he mythologized Morrison more than anyone else, spearheading the “Jim’s not dead” rumors with unabashed enthusiasm. In 1991’s ridiculously comprehensive Break on Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison he was quoted as saying, “If there’s one guy who would have been capable of faking his own death – getting a phony death certificate or paying off some French doctor …and putting a hundred and 50 pounds of sand in a coffin and splitting to some point on this planet – Africa, who knows where – Jim Morrison would have been the guy to pull it off.”
Morrison obviously never reappeared, and the Doors as a trio stopped recording save for a few dodgy projects here and there. For some reason in the early ‘80s, interest in the group exploded again, perhaps it was a new generation of fans discovering the music, and Manzarek was all too happy to jump back in front of the camera for any interviewer who wanted to talk about the band.
He could wax poetic on the merits of the outfit for hours in a stream of consciousness manner that bordered on autistic fervor. Manzarek worked closely with Oliver Stone in the beginning stages of the hazy lensed view of Morrison in The Doors, but quickly distanced himself when he thought the director was taking too many creative liberties in the biopic.
At the turn of the century, the band regrouped for what was basically an unofficial audition for a new singer. Stoned Immaculate: The Music of The Doors had the guys backing a smorgasbord of then somehow relevant acts like Creed, Smashmouth and Days of the New on a trove of favorites like “Light My Fire” and “Roadhouse Blues.” Ultimately, the band settled on The Cult’s Ian Astbury, who convincingly and eerily transformed himself into a Morrison doppelganger.
Under the moniker The Doors of the 21st Century, and later Riders on the Storm, the unit had cut ties with Densmore, who promptly sued his former bandmates for using the Doors name in any context. Astbury went back to the Cult in 2007 and Brett Scallions of Fuel took his place, in a move that can only be described as forehead-slapping.
Manzarek and Krieger have been accused of tainting the Doors’ history, but never being able to overshadow its past, why not revisit it? Densmore whines about it to this day, yet Manzarek was always unapologetic, putting forth the notion that the music needed to live on, to breathe, to be experienced by a new audience. If that sounds a little too mystical and new-agey, it is – and that’s exactly how Manzarek meant it.
Now that this chapter of the Doors has come to its close, Manzarek will quickly be canonized for his intrinsic contribution to the sound of the group – and it can’t be overstated. Listen to the keyboards on “The Unknown Solider,” “Five to One,” or “Soul Kitchen” – the songs would be lost without his touch. Without Manzarek to reel Morrison back in after petulant childlike incidents like his arrest in New Haven and the did-he-or-didn’t-he indecent exposure charge in Miami, the Doors would’ve never managed a six record output. The Dionysian leather pants clad singer will always be the go to image of the group, but Manzarek was the operative musical force behind the curtain.