Strange Days Dog the Doors
After watching Oliver Stone’s Doors movie four times in 1992, I could take it no more. I quit my job, booked a one-way 13-hour flight, and rented an apartment in Jim Morrison’s old haunt of Venice Beach.
The hippie lifestyle grew old after a few weeks when I remembered that I’m not much of a beach person and am immensely bothered by sand. Nor am I able to sing, write music or look like a Rock God. One of the few people left unimpressed by my frequent recitation of the story was former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, who hated the movie and quickly broke off our conversation when I breezily mentioned how it had changed my life.
Things had been going well up until then because Manzarek loves to talk. We were chatting in September 2000 during rehearsals for a VH1 Storytellers episode that reunited the band’s three surviving members for their first public performance since their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction seven years earlier. Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore were joined by a selection of singers filling in for Jim Morrison, who died of suspected heart failure in 1971. Among them were Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots, Ian Astbury of the Cult, Scott Stapp of Creed, and Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction.
The November airing coincided with the release of a Doors tribute album, Stoned Immaculate: The Music of the Doors, a rather innovative effort featuring the aforementioned artists as well as John Lee Hooker, Aerosmith, and two “new” Doors songs. Sadly, it stalled at No. 72 on the U.S. pop album chart.
I showed up early at the Storytellers taping to watch some rehearsals. Weiland, who has done his damnedest to die a gloriously premature death, was doing “Five to One,” reading the portentous lyrics from a teleprompter for what he said was the first time in his life. “I wanna have to go to the restroom because it’s loosening my bowels,” he said for no obvious reason. The performers also listened to an old live version of the song to see how it ended. During “Break on Through,” Krieger instructed Weiland to improvise on the too-edgy-for-radio “she gets high” mantra, “like Jim used to.” As the rehearsal wound down, Weiland said, “I feel like I have an 80 percent chance of not letting you down.”
During the break I chatted with Manzarek, softening him up by asking him if his keyboards dated from the bad old days (“those are not mine. Mine are all dead … but that is the exact same stuff I used”) and why he was burning incense (“incense is all about altering the vibrations of smell”).
Are there some Doors songs that are harder to cover? Maybe it would be sacrilegious to do them with a different singer?
No, I don’t think it’s so much a sense of sacrilegious. I think some of the songs are harder to play. They require a studio setting. Like “Touch Me,” for example, that’s a hard song to play in person. We tried it a couple of times, and that one just never locked in to what it was supposed to be. Each song has its own locked-in place, its Zen place, that Zen moment in time, and “Touch Me” never really got that Zen moment in time. (Manzarek said Stapp sang “Touch Me” for the Stoned Immaculate CD, but it evidently was dropped.)
Are there some songs that bring back bittersweet memories?
You always think about Morrison. I miss that guy, man. He’s always around. He’s floating in the room here. The energy of Jim Morrison is always with us and I think all the singers are doing a real homage to Jim Morrison. They all love Jim, they love his poetry, they love Doors music.
But do we really need a tribute album when we already have the originals? Is your legacy in that much danger that we need this record to turn the younger generations on to the Doors?
You know what I find? I find that it’s interesting to hear other people’s versions of Doors songs. I’ve always loved other people doing Doors songs. There’s nothing sacred about a Doors song. There’s nothing sacred about any piece of music. It’s sacred in the conception of the music, but then anybody can do an improvisation on it. Doors music is like jazz. Anybody should play it. It’s like saying nobody should play “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane. Coltrane would be the first one to say, “Go ahead and play it. Enjoy yourselves. Get off on it.”
Are you playing better keyboards now than when you did with the Doors?
Oh sure, yeah. I play better today. Robby plays better today. John’s on top of it. We’ve been playing off and on here and there with all kinds of different people. I’ve been working with Michael McClure, a beatnik poet. With Michael he reads his poetry and I play the piano, so I’ve been just playing all kinds of stuff. So I think I was a better piano player than I was back then. But there was a magic to that time that will never be recaptured. It was like Paris in the ’20s. America and England in the ’60s, an absolutely psychedelic, magical place.
I kinda feel I missed the bus on all that.
Well, you know, the 21st century is here. The way I look at it is that it’s now time to reinvent the gods, all the myths of the ages, as Jim says, to reinvent the ’60s, apply it into the 21st century and take that Dionysian, psychedelic madness and riotous good time that we had and get it into the 21st century.
That’s great, Ray. I saw the Doors movie four times. That was my inspiration—
All right! Cool, man. I’m on.
Manzarek hated the movie because he thought it presented the Doors in too serious a light. Yes, the film does get a little over-wrought at times and its focus on Morrison’s poor performance in bed is unsettling. But if we were treated to a possibly more accurate depiction of the band sitting around smoking pot and telling jokes it might have looked like a Beavis and Butt-head homage. It’s easy to forget that Val Kilmer (as Jim) and Meg Ryan (as his girlfriend Pamela Courson) used to be hot, while the music remains as vital as ever. Manzarek’s character, played as a geek by Kyle MacLachlan, gets put in his place during the burned-turkey scene when a fictional character played by Billy Idol sneers at him, “Yeah, fuck off, Ray!”
The script was based on Densmore’s memoir, Riders on the Storm: My Life with Jim Morrison and the Doors, and Stone drafted Densmore as a consultant and gave him a cameo role. The book’s version of events was bitterly countered in 1998 when Manzarek published his own unimaginatively titled memoir Light My Fire: My Life with The Doors. The discord was a sign of things to come.
(But wait! There’s more. Buy Strange Days here to see what happened next.)
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