By Michael Aushenker
July, 1965. A hot summer day on Venice Beach…
Freshly graduated from college, Ray Manzarek runs into James “Jim” Morrison, an enigmatic acquaintance from UCLA Film School. Aware Manzarek was in a band with his brothers called Rick and the Ravens, Morrison informs Manzarek he’s been writing some songs. At Manzarek’s coaxing, Morrison recites verses to what would become “Moonlight Drive.” Morrison’s haunting, opaque lyrics blow Manzarek away. Rick and the Ravens is summarily disbanded as Manzarek enlists transcendental meditation class buddy John Densmore to drum while Morrison wrangles guitarist Robby Krieger. With that, the Doors were formed.
“The riff he did in ‘Light My Fire,’ that was him,” Don Novack, the musician-friendly longtime owner of Hal’s Bar, said of Manzarek. “They were iconic Venice. They were the Venice band. Venice, at the time, was the only place musicians and artists could afford.”
On May 20, Manzarek, whose distinctive, baroque keyboards on such rock masterpieces as “Light My Fire” and “Break On Through,” set the L.A. band apart from pop rivals The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, died at the age of 74 in Rosenheim, Germany, where he had been receiving treatment for bile duct cancer. Manzarek is survived by his wife, Dorothy, son Pablo, and grandchildren Noah, Apollo and Camille.
In the wake of the sad news, Venice locals, such as Novack, and other Angelenos shared with the Argonaut their fondness for the legacy Manzarek and his bandmates left behind; a history with this community dating back to that chance meeting on Venice Beach which led to the formation of one of the most successful and prescient rock bands to emerge from the 1960s. On just six studio albums within six brief years, the Doors dominated the Billboard charts with 15 chart-toppers that also included “Touch Me,” “People Are Strange,” “Love Me Two Times,” “Love Her Madly,” and “L.A. Woman.” And with singer Morrison’s relentless alcohol and drug abuse and his notorious, headline-making stage presence, the Doors’ unique marriage of dark pop and literary, neo-classical lyrics, became a precursor for prog and punk rock alike. Since their self-titled album debuted on Elektra in January 1967, the Doors have sold more than 100-million albums worldwide.
If Morrison was the voice and the heart of the Doors, Manzarek was certainly its soul; his eerie organ work adding a spooky layer to “Crystal Ship,” “Twentieth Century Fox,” “Wintertime Love,” and the chart-topper “Hello, I Love You.”
Manzarek long ago relocated with his family to Napa Valley, However, the Doors– like the Beach Boys and California–have always had a strong connection to their Los Angeles environs, particularly Venice and Santa Monica.
Venice is rife with tributes to the Doors and whispers of his time there. According to local lore, Morrison lived on the boardwalk in a cottage between Venice and Washington near 26th (today, a modern home with an artificial waterfall stands in its place). While it is popularly believed that he had lived at the Morrison Apartments on Speedway and Westminster, others insist he only stayed there at Dennis Jakob’s pad, crashing on the building’s roof where he’d write songs. After meeting Ray and Dorothy, Morrison stayed with the couple at 147 Frasier in the Ocean Park.
In 1967, the Doors actually made the rounds rocking out high school gigs. On April 20 of that year, they appeared at Taft High School in Woodland Hills; a month later, opening for Jefferson Airplane at Birmingham High. Beverly Hills High (opening for the Coasters) followed on June 7; Lowell High’s gym in La Habra on July 5; and also at the Valley Teen Center in Van Nuys and at the Griffith Park Be-In. In addition to famously serving as Whiskey A Go-Go’s house band on the Sunset Strip, the Doors performed at the now-defunct Betty’s Music Shop in Venice, Devonshire Downs in Northridge, Ports O’ Call in San Pedro, Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and Valley Music Theatre in Woodland Hills before playing bigger venues.
When he visited Venice 311 online on May 20, news of Manzarek’s death hit local realtor Denny Lyons like a gut punch.
“They’re in my car,” Lyons said of the Doors’ music, which he first heard at age 6. “When you hear that first album, it’s all Manzarek!”
Lyons, the self-proclaimed “rock ‘n’ roll realtor” who also leads the pop culture-laden “Magical Mystery Tour of Venice,” includes The Doors on his itinerary. Alongside local landmarks related to the Beatles, the Stones and Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lyons takes his tourists to Rip Crunk’s Jim Morrison mural on Speedway and 18th, and the Morrison Apartments.
According to Lyons, references to Venice and Santa Monica abound in Morrison’s lyrics on The Doors’ classic self-titled debut.
“The blue bus is callin’ us/ Driver, where you taken’ us…C’mon baby, take a chance with us
And meet me at the back of the blue bus/Doin’ a blue rock/ On a blue bus.”
“Morrison used to take the Big Blue Bus from Winward Circle to Olivia’s,” according to Lyons. Today a surf shop, Olivia’s was a soul food restaurant near Main St. and Ocean Park Blvd., where Morrison loved to order corn bread and ribs.
“The guy wouldn’t leave,” Lyons said. “He loved the food and the vibe, and they’d have to kick him out.”
Hence, the lyrics for another first-album track, “Soul Kitchen”:
“Well, the clock says, ‘It’s time to close now’/I guess I’d better go now/I’d really like to stay here all night…Let me sleep all night in your/ soul kitchen!”
Lyons, who enjoyed a chance conversation with Ray and Dorothy at a Beverly Hills-area car wash in 2002, observed how the other Doors were as adept musicians as Morrison was a front man.
“Morrison had these songs in his head but he could not convey them on paper,” Lyons said. “They had to take what Morrison had in his head and tried to transpose chord progressions from his singing.”
Venice-based photographer Guy Webster shot the now-iconic cover for that debut album. He remembers being “taken by the whole group” when the band showed up at Webster’s studio on Crescent Drive in Beverly Hills.
“They come in,” Webster said, “and absolutely, Jim is the star. He’s comfortable, he’s posing, he’s the star. I knew immediately and I connected with that.”
Webster had already met Manzarek at UCLA in philosophy class. Cut to six weeks before the January 1967 debut of “The Doors.”
“Ray was intelligent, well spoken and educated,” he said. “As was Jim.
“Jim was wearing a $3 shirt with ribbons he had found on Venice Beach and it wasn’t sexy. I told him to take off his shirt. He did this Christ-like pose and that’s what happened.”
Webster had free reign on the cover photo shoot, which Elektra Records did not interfere with. It was Webster’s idea to enlarge Morrison’s visage large, juxtaposing him against the other three as smaller full figures.
“I knew to put Jim’s face up front so the teenage girls can dream about it,” Webster said. “When I get a group in front of the camera, either the Stones or the Mamas and Papa, the first time, it’s easy. It’s the second time that’s tough. They fight.”
On the day Manzarek died, photographer Bobby Klein “got inundated with 150 emails: ‘Did you hear? Did you know?” The reason: Klein shot the Doors on five different assignments, including a famous Venice Beach session.
Klein saw two sides of Manzarek: the one before they were to break on through to the other side…the other decades later.
“They were sweet,” he said of the band pre-fame. “They had no idea if they would make it or not. Ray was the elder statesman. He got a lot of respect, but he would pontificate and eyes would roll. They liked each other. There was a great deal of affection. This is before Jim started drinking. They weren’t stars yet. They were a band.”
But Klein added that, in recent years, Manzarek sounded bitter.
“Ray was not the most pleasant fellow,” Klein said. “I like him, I thought he was great, but toward the end he was really pissed off. At John Densmore, at Oliver Stone (Manzarek disliked the filmmaker’s 1991 biopic “The Doors,” on which Klein was an advisor).”
On his first Doors assignment, not only did the band hear themselves on the car radio for the first time (their inaugural single, “Break On Through,” and Klein said, “They were jazzed!”), “it turned out Jim lived next door.”
Klein lived on Laurel Pass, just behind the Canyon Store, as did Morrison.
“(Doors producer) Paul Rothchild was one of my best friends,” Klein told the Argonaut. “Paul and I were both big jazz fans. Paul had a feeling the band could really break. And it did.”
In the year before the Doors exploded, Klein saw “a very simple guy. Poet, sweetheart, girls loved him, even before he was a star. Jim hung out at my house a lot. Jim didn’t smoke much weed in those days. He would just come over.”
They would discuss independent and foreign cinema at length.
“He was a film buff,” Klein said of Morrison. “He liked Cassavetes, the French filmmakers. We’d talk a lot about music. Not the bands that were around but jazz, classical music. Bach, Beethoven. He loved Sinatra.”
Aside of the Venice photo shoot (at the Canals, a beachside gazebo, a stairwell), Klein later shot the Doors at the Bronson Canyon caves in Hollywood, in San Francisco and around Saucalito for an Avalon appearance, and at Pacific Ocean Park, where they played the Cheetah ballroom on the Pier.
“I wish I would’ve shot a lot more film,” Klein said. “We didn’t know the band was going to be that big…”
“He basically wanted to be a filmmaker and then it took him by surprise,” said Klein, who speculates that, had Morrison become a director, he would’ve been aligned with French New Wave heroes such as Jean-Luc Godard and Louis Malle.
When the Doors took off, Morrison moved from Laurel Canyon and Klein and Morrison did not see each other very often. However, every now and then, “he would come around and find me.”
By the late 1960s, Klein and two partners ran The Black Rabbit Inn, an “organic food spot before it was hip” on Melrose in West Hollywood. When the restaurant went out of business in 1970, “the Doors played closing night. We had a feast.” By then, it was a year before he died. Morrison had changed.
“He became a hopeless drunk,” said Klein, who, as a healer, does not like to romanticize Morrison’s live fast, die young aura, but he admitted, “Jim had a magic about him, even as a drunk.”
One of today’s rock bands benefiting from the Doors’ cultural legacy is L.A.-based rock band The Wallflowers. Fronted by Jakob Dylan, the Wallflowers have been among the younger groups greatly influenced by ‘60s rock. Of course, back in the 1960s, the Doors and Dylan’s father, Bob Dylan, were superstar contemporaries.
“Ray Manzarek embodied great band spirit and possessed a completely unique voice on keyboards that will continue to influence musicians and music lovers forever,” said Wallflowers bassist Greg Richling, whose band tours with Counting Crows in June.
Fellow Wallflowers founding member Rami Jaffee has an even more profound connection to Manzarek as his band’s keyboardist. Jaffee, who moonlights with Foo Fighters, called Manzarek’s passing “sad, sad, sad. Ray was my Ray Charles. When I was barely 10, I was obsessed with the ‘Light My Fire’ intro and solo and laid it out hardcore at the Fairfax High School talent show.”
One of rock’s most in-demand pianists who has recorded albums with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and uber-producers Rick Rubin and Don Was, Jaffee never got to perform with the late Doors member. However, the two keyboardists did meet once in front of El Coyote restaurant in West Hollywood.
“I told him I played organ,” Jaffee recalled. “I asked him about a rare farfisa I was going to buy and if he had any advice. He talked to me for over five minutes and I couldn’t help but daze out while he spoke, thinking of what a sweet dude he was, even talking to a wacky teenager fan.”
In 1978, the surviving Doors reunited to add music to unreleased recordings of Morrison’s poetry for the album “An American Prayer.” Manzarek produced “Los Angeles,” the debut of seminal punk band X, in 1980. He also collaborated with avant-gardist Philip Glass, poet Michael McClure, and British band Echo and the Bunnymen. Manzarek’s attempt to tour under the Doors moniker, featuring the Cult’s Ian Astbury on vocals, split the band internally, with Manzarek and Krieger fighting Densmore and Morrison’s estate in a 2005 court battle. As a result, Manzarek had to rename his touring band The Doors of the 21st Century.
In a 1967 interview with Billboard, Manzarek articulated his reaction to hearing Morrison recite “Moonlight Drive” on that fateful Venice day in 1965.
“I’d never heard lyrics to a rock song like that before,” Manzarek said. “We talked a while before we decided to get a group together and make a million dollars.”