The Doors were in the dumps.
“We need more songs,” Jim Morrison told the band at a rehearsal session in the fall of 1966.
Lead guitarist Robby Krieger went home and wrote a song. He called it “Light My Fire.” The music world called it a hit. It stayed No. 1 for three months. The band, with its psychedelic sound and Morrison’s seductive stage presence, represented the dangers and temptations of rock music in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
“I hadn’t thought about writing songs,” said Krieger, 45, from his West Los Angeles home. “Jim was the writer. It didn’t seem necessary. So I decided to write about one of the elements--earth, wind, fire or water. I probably picked fire because I liked the Stones’ song ‘Play With Fire.’ ”
Two decades after Morrison’s death, The Doors are back. Director Oliver Stone has put their story on screen, set to open Friday. For years, Krieger knew this day was coming. No matter which way his life turned, musically or personally, he realized that The Doors chapter would be capped by Hollywood. At first, he and other surviving members tried to stop any films, fearing that the band’s image might be forever tarnished. They opposed a Brian De Palma project when John Travolta was pegged to play Morrison.
But now that they are center stage again, perhaps for the last time, Krieger has learned to embrace, even envy, his former self.
“It has made me wish I could do it all over again,” said Krieger, who served as a consultant on the picture. “We had no time to enjoy it; it was all happening so fast. I miss the huge concerts. I wish I could have had a second chance.”
Krieger’s first chance started in a study hall. Attending a private school in Northern California, he was often confined to his room. He was supposed to study. He learned guitar. His parents had shipped him there to become a businessman or engineer. Rock star wasn’t on their list.
“They did come around when The Doors made it big, and became our biggest fans,” Krieger said. “Not that they ever considered what I did anything worthwhile.”
Krieger later attended UCLA but never took school seriously. He dropped out and met Ray Manzarek (keyboardist) in 1965 at a meditation session led by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Krieger already knew John Densmore (drummer).
“We were three men on the quest for enlightenment. When he joined, the band became complete,” Manzarek said of Krieger.
Danny Sugerman, co-author of “No One Here Gets Out Alive,” a chronology of The Doors, said Krieger provided “a unique sense of guitar and arrangement. The Doors were four equals.”
But the Stone movie, not surprisingly, doesn’t reflect that equality. “The movie’s about Jim,” Krieger said. “There’s hardly anything about the three other Doors. Jim Morrison could not have been Jim Morrison without The Doors. His poetry needed music to make it come alive.”
Their teamwork became most evident in “Light My Fire.” After Krieger wrote the song, it still needed an extra touch, which Manzarek brought with his sterling introduction. Manzarek remembers it well.
“It’s a brilliant song,” Manzarek said. “I took about 15 minutes, and I came up with the intro. It was one of the magical moments in the life of The Doors, in which the music came down and touched the forehead.”
The other Doors served as more than Morrison’s musical collaborators. As Krieger sees it, their control was necessary to counterbalance his chaos. They often lost. They couldn’t stop him from screaming obscenities and exposing himself on stage, from consuming endless amounts of liquor and drugs, from always exploring another route to self-destruction.
Krieger felt that he had to appease Morrison to keep the band together. If Morrison wanted to do acid, Krieger, more than he liked, joined him. “I was tired of it,” he says, “and if it were up to me, I wouldn’t do it. Doing acid with Jim Morrison was not the greatest idea, especially if he was driving a car. He wanted us to be as crazy as him.”
Eventually, when the band couldn’t keep up with him, Morrison found others who could. “They were friends from college that he knew,” Krieger said. “They thought it was such a great kick to go out and get drunk with Jim Morrison.”
There were moments, however, when Krieger saw a sober Morrison.
“He could be the nicest, most laid-back guy,” Krieger said. “When he was straight, after a few nights of liquor, he was so apologetic. He’d say, ‘Did I really do that?’ He’d totally win people over.” But, Krieger added, a few drinks would make Morrison go off the edge again. “It was the liquor.”
Krieger believes that Morrison’s premature death at 27 was the only possible fate for a man who courted it so loyally.
“Was it necessary that he go that far?” Krieger said. “Yes, it was. I don’t think he planned to go beyond 28. He saw himself as a shooting star, going up real fast and coming down real fast. A lot of people have tried to be like him, but no one is like him. He had the commitment to go all out. All these guys can’t be like him, because if they were, they’d be dead.”
At first, Krieger and the other band members didn’t believe that their leader had died in a Paris bathtub in 1971. “We heard stuff like that before,” Krieger said. “We sent our manager to Paris to find out what happened.”
The truth changed Krieger’s life. Gone was a friend and an automatic ticket to rock ‘n’ roll fame and fortune. He was depressed and angry. “What right did he have to leave us alone like that? It’s like he took the easy way out.”
For the next year, the other Doors tried to play on without Morrison. But without its spiritual center, the group disbanded in 1972, with each member pursuing a different musical direction.
Krieger chose jazz. He had always been influenced by it, but now decided to concentrate on it seriously. Ironically, it took The Doors’ demise to open his musical mind. Manzarek turned to producing albums. Densmore developed his acting abilities.
“I had taken it for granted that rock ‘n’ roll was all there was to music,” Krieger said. “I had never considered myself a real musician. But I started practicing over the next five years, and I realized playing jazz, other than sex, is one of the only ways to get off in this world.”
Said Sugerman: “Robby’s grown tremendously as a musician, which should be his first concern. He has developed his own technique.”
Along with Densmore, Krieger formed the Butts Band in 1972. They produced two albums, playing a lot of reggae. He blames inadequate promotion by the record companies for their poor sales.
The record companies “were caught off guard by the jazz and reggae,” he said. “People like to put you in a box. I was never going to make it as big as The Doors again.”
He didn’t quit but continued to form new bands and release solo instrumental records. “I’m still hoping to break through with an instrumental album,” he said. “There is room for instrumental records on the radio. They’re just not being played.”
Krieger would also like to break into the soundtrack business. Even with all his credentials, he still has to prove himself. He’s made a demo of his material and will send it to movie producers.
“It’s tough getting started in it,” he said. “Everybody tells me my music sounds like it should be in a movie, and I know soundtracks are one of the few outlets for music these days. But just because you were in The Doors doesn’t mean you’re going to be hired for a soundtrack.”
Meanwhile, he’s assembled a new group, The Robby Krieger Band, which includes his son, Waylon, on rhythm guitar. The band is about to tour the East Coast and will play March 22 at Trancas in Malibu.
In all his post-Doors musical endeavors, Krieger has missed collaborating with a singer. Finally, last year, he teamed with former Animals leader Eric Burdon. They toured the country with moderate success.
“Eric has a great voice,” Krieger said. “And the Animals were similar to us. We used to look up to them a lot.”
While touring, Krieger also renewed his affection for his past. He used to resent it when the audience, unfulfilled by his new material, pleaded for him to play old Doors songs. But, as time evolved, he grew to cherish those requests.
“I learned that it wasn’t a hindrance,” he said. “It is my privilege to play them, and have them be my songs.”
Krieger is excited about hearing the songs again on a big screen; he also helped write “Love Me Two Times,” “Touch Me,” and “You’re Lost Little Girl.” Although he said he would have preferred to see even more music in the film, “The Doors,” he believes audiences will get a plentiful supply of the band’s repertoire. The movie is far better than he once envisioned.
“Nobody ever really had a handle on how to make this movie,” he said. “No one came up with anything great. But once Oliver Stone was into it, we figured it couldn’t get any better. We didn’t get as much control as we’d like, because the bigger the director, the more he can make it in his own image. But I’d rather see him take a chance with it than have a lesser director where there’s no guarantee of a good movie.”
The movie will probably educate a whole new generation about a band before its time. For Krieger, that time is still very close.
“I dream about Jim all the time,” he said. “He had such an effect on my life. I dream that he’s back, that he was never gone, that we are still playing.”