I was shocked when I heard Ray Manzarek passed away earlier this week. Really shocked. Still sort-of shocked. As I was listening to some musicians reflect on the tremendous career of the former Doors’ keyboardist, I tried to understand why I was so surprised. He was 74. In 2013 that is young, but he did fight a long battle with cancer. I think my shock was a product of a Manzarek-Krieger concert I saw at the NYCB Theater at Westbury in 2011. I had seen them once before with my father and brother when Manzarek and Robby Krieger went by the moniker Riders on the Storm. Considering that Riders on the Storm sounds like a cheesy cover band, it is probably a good thing the formers Doors’ members chose a band name of their last names.
Not many people know (or can envision) that The Doors played Westbury Music Fair (the former name of the current NYCB Theater). The Doors, one of the most celebrated and influential rock bands to come out of the 1960s, played a small venue less than a 5k from my house. Manzarek and Krieger celebrated their grand return to Westbury by recreating the set list from their April, 1968 show. It was electric. At the conclusion of the effervescent concert, the band played “Light My Fire.” Here is what I wrote about it back in 2011.
“Think of everything you love about The Doors – the energy, sexiness, ruthlessness, originality, togetherness – and throw it into a pot of boiling liveliness and love. Let that boil for around a 20-minute epic performance of “Light My Fire” that neared mystical levels and you have a great performance. Manzarek stood up from his stool, kicked it over, and swiftly put his right foot on the keyboard! 72 years old, my ass.”
That’s why I am still so surprised. His vivaciousness was striking. His effusive passion for the music was alive and well. While Jim Morrison was the soul of The Doors, Ray Manzarek was the mad genius behind the scenes concocting keyboard riffs on his Vox Continental. But when he got out on stage, it was clear that Manzarek was in love with the music the band was creating. If you have been listening to any of the eulogies of Manzarek over the past few days, I am sure you have heard words like “genius” and “master.” Sometimes these words are thrown around loosely. In the case of Manzarek, though, it would be unwise to understate his musical ability and perspicacity. Every member of the Doors was supremely talented. That is one reason why the band created keen, genre-bending music that appealed to the masses and maintained its canny flavor. But, if it weren’t for Manzarek’s proficiency with the breathy and psychedelic Vox Continental combo organ, low-pitched keyboard bass, and other keys, we may not be speaking about the Doors.
I include “Light My Fire” not because it is my favorite Doors song (that title is reserved for “Roadhouse Blues” or “Waiting for the Sun”) but because of the renowned organ intro. It is arguably one of the best known keyboard riffs ever. It is a riff of pure afflatus. While this may sound overly simplistic, there is just something so introductory about it. Without the riff, the song would not have the same potency. Manzarek’s work on keys on “Light My Fire” was a microcosm for how much he meant to the The Doors. As the elder statesman of the band, Manzarek also acted as an intellectual and sagacious force.
In the wise words of the Doors (from “When The Music’s Over” off of Strange Days):
When the music’s over, yeah
When the music’s over
Turn out the lights