The music that keyboardist Ray Manzarek made as part of the Doors helped define the 1960s, and also was a crucial part of the Southern California music scene in the latter half of that decade. Two generations of L.A. music met in the late 1970s when Manzarek connected with punk band X to produce the group’s first four studio albums. The band’s songwriters and lead singers, Exene Cervenka and bassist John Doe, reflect on the music of the Doors and their relationship with Manzarek, who died Monday at 74 of cancer.
Exene Cervenka: The most profound musical event of my entire life was when I was 12 years old [in 1968]. I was in the car with my parents in Illinois, sitting in the back seat, and the long version of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” came on the radio. I didn’t even know there was a long version, I just knew it was my favorite song at that time. It was the early days of FM radio, and when the long version came on, and I realized it was going on this journey, it literally blew my mind open.
Music has a power that’s underestimated in our culture, but at one time we recognized that. Ray brought that power to the world; he brought it to the entire world. The problem with a lot of younger people today, and with a lot of music, is that it’s a passive soundtrack to their lives … it’s not music as a mind-expanding drug. That’s what the ‘60s and the ‘70s were about. Music has led multiple generations through the doors of perception, and it didn’t just lead you up to them and drop you off, it led people through those doors, and kept them open for people like me.
John Doe: Jim Morrison was my hero. He was who I wanted to be when I was 16. With my first P.A. system, I figured out a way to hook the turntable into it and I could sing along, down in my basement in Baltimore. I’d sing along with the Doors. There’s one of my deep, dark secrets. Later in life, I became more aware that they showed Los Angeles and the whole West Coast in a different light — it was the same kind of light Raymond Chandler used, and Nathanael West and Charles Bukowski … all the James M. Cain, the sordid stuff that could go on after the sun goes down, and before it comes up.
Cervenka: I think we met Ray at the Whisky, when we were playing there. It had only been about five years since he’d toured with the Doors and punk was just the next fun thing to do. He understood punk, he got the punk thing and understood it wasn’t the hippie thing. He was happy we existed and we felt like kindred spirits.... We said we were going to be making a record, and he said, ‘I’ll produce if you want.’ We said, ‘OK,’ and that was pretty much it. A lot of the punk people were trying to distance themselves from the hippies, from the dinosaur bands, but X was never really orthodox when it came to punk ideology. We just did whatever we wanted to do. It did outrage and alienate some people, but others were drawn into the world we created together. It brought not only X but that whole scene some credibility and fame and turned a lot of people onto it.
Doe: We took a lot of grief for that. Some of the more hard-core bands thought of us as hippies anyway, because we had slow songs like “Nausea.” We didn’t care. We really didn’t. If somebody said that, we probably just pushed them out of the way.... At least everyone respected the Doors because they were so dark and moody and they were seeing the other side.
Cervenka: In the studio, some people are dictators. Some people are brutally cruel to the artist. Ray was a tough guy when he needed to be a tough guy, but he was also a fan, a friend.... One time, I was in there all drunk and wild, and he pushed the talkback button after 15 takes of trying all sorts of different things, and said, “Remember, this is forever.” That was the first time I ever realized: You mean, it doesn’t just disappear tomorrow? Because everything else does — play a show, it disappears; have a relationship, it disappears.
Doe: Ray was really aware of how many songs we could do and how much time we had. That’s where his experience really helped. Maybe one of the reasons we only have nine songs on “Los Angeles” is because that’s what we could afford.
Cervenka: He was part of the gang. It was like a big clubhouse, a big party, and we would have a good time. It was just like the ‘60s and ‘70s where everything mixed: the art, the spiritual side, the serious side, the fun side. I think he had a tougher job reining us in — especially me — because we were crazy and pretty wild. A lot of people wouldn’t have been able to do what he did with us.
Doe: Ray understood that you needed to tell your story. If anything, I remember Ray as an incredible storyteller. He was always bringing in the spiritual and the far-flung, which we needed. We needed that sort of vision, instead of just the cold, hard streets of L.A.
Cervenka: He was a leader-teacher-guru-master kind of guy, but I wouldn’t say that to his face. A real person who is that kind of a spiritual being isn’t trying to be a leader, teacher or guru, they just are. They’re not trying to lead anybody, they just do; it’s what they open for people.
Doe: Ray was all about the big picture. He knew from his experience with the Doors that the most important thing was getting a good performance. One of his mottoes was, “If it sounds good once, try doing it twice.” A great example of that is the beginning of “Los Angeles.” We have those four chords or whatever it is that happens before the verse starts. We played that, and Ray said, “That sounds good, you should do it twice.” So we did, and that’s the way it is on the record and that’s the way we still do it.
Cervenka: As a person, I would like to say that in every way Ray was generous — to everybody, in everything. He is one of those people who changed the world, and he changed the world by changing people, by liberating people and liberating minds. I’m glad he had such a great life, and a great family. It’s sad, but I don’t see much reason for regret.