“He always saw the good side of people and that was his genius. He was the only guy at UCLA who saw something good about Jim. Everyone else thought Jim was a phony or worse. He saw the genius of Jim’s words and the rest is history.”

Robby Krieger (Posting immediately after the announcement of Ray Manzarek’s death).

My mother passed away in 1987. For reasons that aren’t relevant to this little story, I waited five years to visit her grave. On the lazy spring Saturday afternoon I finally decided to drive over, I bought a basket of her favorite flowers (daisies) and, instead of the hop, skip and jump on the interstate, took the long, casual route through the Florida Panhandle on Highway 90 (from Tallahassee, one of the college towns Jim Morrison happened to pass through on his way to meeting up with Fate in Los Angeles, to Campbellton, which is just west of Faye Dunaway’s old childhood haunts in Two Egg and a little bit north of Cottondale, where Dionne Warwick used to grab a headline whenever she visited her grandmother–it really is a small country in some ways).

In those days, like a lot of days prior and more than a few since, the AC on my car wasn’t working (record collectors with modest incomes understand why, at least in youth, certain things are luxuries, even air conditioning in Florida) so I drove with the windows rolled down and the radio on.

It happened that as I pulled up to the stop light directly in front of the Florida state mental hospital, which we really do keep in a place called Chattahoochee, a rough-looking (by which I mean a bit unkempt, not threatening) teenage boy was humping it along the sidewalk on the opposite side of the road, hunch-shouldered, head down, sneakers and a long-sleeved jacket in 85-degree weather, generally doing the James Dean thing.

The breeze must have been blowing in his direction, because, on hearing the music from my radio, he slowed down and then came to a complete stop.

He looked both ways for a bit, as if trying to determine that we were alone.

And then straight at me.

Then he smiled and began nodding his head.

So there, with the sun just beginning to turn to late afternoon gold and the radio playing and me trying to keep the box holding my mother’s basket of daisies from slipping into the floorboard, I found myself suddenly confronting one of those situations that remain indelible ever after because they are occasions for recognizing one of life’s little truisms.

In particular, this:

From about 1967 until some future date yet to be determined, if some rough-looking teenage kid walking in front of a mental hospital doing his James Dean thing suddenly stops and looks both ways and then straight at you and then starts bobbing his head and smiling and knows he doesn’t need to say a word, then the Doors must be playing.

It happened that, at this particular self-defining moment, the song was “Riders on the Storm,” but it probably could have been anything the band ever did.

That’s how it operates in those moments when the Doors–and only the Doors–must be on the radio.

* * * *

To tell the plain truth, I came to the Doors late. I never had a lot of James Dean–and certainly not a lot of Jim Morrison–in me.

If I’m gonna’ be a rebel, I’m gonna’ need a cause.

And, that being the case, I probably did have a little Ray Manzarek in me. I’m still kinda’, sorta’ looking for my cause. He found his when he met Morrison at UCLA in the mid-sixties and it’s very likely that no one else could have synched up with the future Lizard King so thoroughly that great, rough, mind-expanding, era-challenging records would be bound to result.

I like that image from Robby Krieger about others seeing Morrison as a phony and Manzarek’s ability to see through to the core being a genuine gift. Because Jim Morrison was a lot of things but phony wasn’t one of them. (Poseur? Of course, he was that–but, at least the way Jim Morrison played it, that’s a very different thing, because the way Jim Morrison–the one true Rock God who shared full credit and full profits with his bandmates–played it, it just meant that he was kicking the world before it could kick him.)

The way I came to see it finally, when I did come around to the Doors, is that in the Summer of Love, when a whole lot of people saw perpetual grooviness extending into a bright, trippy future and professional cynics like Frank Zappa thought themselves exceptionally clever because they saw new wine in old bottles, Jim Morrison was the one who looked down the long, black tunnel of The Future and saw Charlie Manson and Ted Bundy waiting.

Little wonder he ended the way he did.

Wouldn’t you, if you were him?

The miracle is that he got the chance to put those visions on record at all, and Ray Manzarek was probably more responsible for that than anyone, including perhaps Morrison himself.

And, of course, being a congenial guy, who saw talent–genius even–where others saw fool, wouldn’t have mattered in the least if Manzarek hadn’t also been a wizard on the keys, as the distance between the organ and piano parts below should suffice to demonstrate:

The beginning…

The Doors “Light My Fire” (Live on the Ed Sullivan Show, from which the group were banned because Morrison sang the line “Our love is like a funeral pyre,” after, er, being told not to)

and the end.

The Doors “Riders on the Storm” (Live/Video edit)

(And all this moody reflection does leave me wondering whether the several downtown apartment complexes who claimed they were the place JIm Morrison stayed when he went to FSU are still using it to bump the rent!)



  1. Johnny….a fitting and insightful tribute to Ray Manzarek….he would have loved the little ditty about the kid doin’ the ‘James Dean’ thing, and sharing the music with you for an instant…..indelible. Another ‘Keeper at the Gate’ gone! Bless you…Ray Manzarek

    • Thanks Clementine…I always liked that we were in front of a mental hospital…my parents were home missionaries and that was one of the main stops on my dad’s beat. “There but for the grace of God go I” as we used to say in the old days…Serendipitous somehow.

  2. Ray’s playing was a staple of The Doors. He’ll certainly be missed after such a long and fruitful career helping to create such haunting music. The Doors’ songs opened my mind to other realms of possibilities and cleansed my perception. I paid tribute to Ray when I heard of his passing by creating a new portrait of him and some melting doors which you can see on my artist’s blog at Drop by and let me know how The Doors influenced you too.

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