Ray Manzarek remembered with an epic recount of a New York adventure

05.20.13 4 years ago 2 Comments

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Like many people, I had a Doors phase.

In particular, I had a Jim Morrison phase that was kicked off when I read Danny Sugarman’s “No One Here Gets Out Alive”. Morrison’s story is about as archetypical a rock and roll story as there is, and Sugarman was a true believer. Over the years, my feelings about them evolved, and now I find that I love what the Doors meant to me more than I actually love The Doors. They had such a brief moment, and at such a key moment in the overall story of rock’n’roll, that it’s hard to even apply a critical opinion to them at this point. They are simply The Doors, part of the foundation. My feelings about them now are far less ardent than even when I wrote this piece 11 years ago, but I meant every word at the time.

When I was at Ain’t It Cool, one of the strangest overall things that ever fell into my lap was courtesy of Tim Sullivan, who called me one day to ask if I’d like to go visit a rehearsal space in LA where the Doors were warming up for a reunion tour. Because it’s a nightmare finding anything on the AICN archives, and I’m not entirely sure the piece is even still online at this point, I thought I’d reprint some of the piece that came out of that encounter.

I’d just like to frame the story by saying that I wrote a piece of criticism near the end of my time dealing with Ray that seemed to offend him greatly, and we never spoke again. That’s a shame. No matter what, though, meeting him and getting to know him even a little bit was a genuine honor, and he was a wry, funny, larger than life persona, everything I would have hoped as a young fan.

He will be greatly missed.

(the following story originally appeared on Ain’t It Cool News in 2002 in a slightly different form)

There are few things that have happened to me in my life that are more surreal than driving up to the security gate of a rehearsal studio in Hollywood, pressing a buzzer, and telling the woman who answers, “Hi, I”m here to see The Doors.”

Except, possibly, watching the gate swing wide, and hearing her say, “Come right in.”

Wait… let me back up a bit here and explain. I know that your first knee-jerk reaction is the same as mine was. “How can there be a Doors without Jim?” And I”m sure that”s a question that Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger and John Densmore have asked themselves many times over the years. By the time I became aware of the band, Jim was already a distant memory, a place marker by the side of the autobahn of rock that was the ’70s. I”ve grown up with the presence of Jim as one of rock”s great casualties, right up there with Jimi and Janis and Lennon and Brian Jones and Keith Moon.

My knowledge of The Doors started with me picking up a copy of NO ONE HERE GETS OUT ALIVE to read before I”d consciously heard a note of their music. I just read the back of the book and thought it was cool. I was 11 years old. And by the end of that book, I”d been completely seduced by the legend of this band from Venice, these guys who were supposed to provide the soundtrack to a revolution. I fell for the romantic shambling slow-motion wreck that was Morrison”s life, and I was completely smitten by the lyrics in the book. I hadn”t heard a note of music, and I was already convinced that this had to be the greatest band of all time.

And then I heard them.

If you”ve ever heard me talk about how pivotal it was to see STAR WARS in the theater at the age of seven, then you know I consider that event to be a lightning bolt to the forehead, formative.

That first listen to THE DOORS GREATEST HITS was the same thing. Proof that lightning strikes twice. It was a glimpse of something bigger and deeper and darker and crazier than I”d had before. The Doors sounded like the house band at the sleaziest bar in the most dangerous province of the most dangerous country on earth. They always sounded raunchy, like you shouldn”t be allowed to listen to them, no matter what they were singing about. The Doors were a dare. They were just barely in control, it seemed like, controlled chaos. Jim was amazing, sure, but what really won me over and made me a lifelong fan was the virtuosity of the players. Ray Manzarek”s keyboards were smart and fun and absurd and cool all at the same time. Robbie Krieger was one of the most distinct guitar players in rock. John Densmore was a player of class and restraint, and he knew how to turn up the power when he needed to. They didn”t sound like anyone else out there, and their recordings sounded fresh to me when I discovered them over a decade later.

It was love at first listen, and my love affair with the band got me through high school and college. And through my first years in LA. And through a difficult break-up. And through all sorts of down times. In fact, I find I still return to The Doors as my musical comfort food. They are the constant in my personal soundtrack that has always been there, that always gives me the same emotional connection even now, every single time.
Not quite a year ago, a friend of mine named Tim Sullivan mentioned a book to me called THE POET IN EXILE. Told me it was a novel by Ray Manzarek. He mentioned this in a sort of an off-hand way because he didn”t realize what The Doors meant to me. Once he”d said it, though, he realized what he”d done because of my Pavlovian response. I didn”t realize just how hungry I was for something… anything. I didn”t realize how much I missed The Doors as a presence. I didn”t know how much I craved something new. Then he tossed the premise of the book out there, and I was hooked:

What if Jim hadn”t died? What if he took off to save his own life, and spent the time since figuring out what he wants from the world? And what if he came back and got in touch with Ray?

In the hands of anyone except Ray Manzarek, I”d think the idea insufferable, but there was something that drew me to the notion of Ray writing it. I thought that it would be wish fulfillment with Ray as the Ghost of Christmas That Will Never Be. Tim pulled some strings somewhere and got me an advanced copy of the book. At the time, I didn”t think anything of it. Tim”s like me. He”s got a touch of the Forrest Gump to him. He manages to find himself doing incredible things and sometimes stops to pinch himself to see if it”s all for real. He”s one of those guys who knows everyone, and I figured he had his ways.

Man, I had no idea…

The book, for those of you who haven”t read it, is great. It”s not what I expected at all. The first thing that comes through loud and clear when you read it is that Ray loved Jim very, very much. The second thing you notice is that Ray is a damn good writer. The book is essentially a Socratic dialogue between “Roy” and his long-missing friend, who he finds alive and well halfway around the world on a small island. The poet fills in the details of the missing years, illustrating a series of epiphanies that I truly believe Ray wished for his friend. The book is beautiful and filled with hope and longing and nostalgia and even sorrow. Ray manages to build in some grief, some long-overdue closure. The last ten or so pages made me cry when I read them, and I”ve found myself loaning the book out almost constantly since or buying copies for friends. To me, it read like Ray closing out a big part of his life with real grace and a generosity of spirit. I remember thinking at the end of the book, “I hope Ray does something else soon.”

And that”s where Tim Sullivan comes back in.

Tim called me last week to talk about one of the things he”s working on. He”s working on two horror films I knew about (2001 MANIACS and SHE-FREAK), but he”s also working on something that he”d hinted at in the past. The new project is a script that Tim co-wrote with Chris Kobin and Ray Manzarek. Yeah… the real Ray Manzarek. It”s a picture called RIDERS ON THE STORM that”s supposed to start shooting at the start of the year with Eddie Furlong and Peter Stormare the first actors to sign on to what promises to be an ensemble road picture.

”It”s EASY RIDER meets THE SEARCHERS,” Tim told me. I believe in aiming high, and that”s certainly an ambitious combination. The idea of Ray directing a film of any kind intrigued me. If he”s as intuitive a filmmaker as he is a novelist, then it could be something worth getting excited about. Tim is producing along with Brett Nemeroff, and Tim explained to me that the two of them had also ended up working with Ray on a couple of other things.

My spider-sense started tingling. “What sort of things, Tim?” I asked.

”The sort of things you might want to see. The sort of things you”d rent out a rehearsal studio for.” I could hear how pleased he was, how much fun Tim was having getting around to his news. “And Brett and Chris and I were wondering… maybe you”d like to come out and SEE these things we”re talking about.”

”You mean… see The Doors?”

”Could be,” he said. And then he gave me the directions to the small, unassuming space where the band was going to be meeting on a Monday afternoon.

That”s how I found myself standing in the lobby of that rehearsal studio, waiting for Tim to show up with Brett. I stared up at the pictures of Veronica Lake and Humphrey Bogart that dominate the upper walls of the lobby, and I smiled at how appropriate they seemed. After all, I can”t think of many rock bands where the convergence of cinema and music were more direct. Ray and Jim and Robbie met at UCLA, after all, where Ray and Jim were film majors and Robbie was studying history. Their songs paint very particular visual images, like the opening of “Riders On The Storm” or the entire frenzied crescendo of “The End.”

And then there”s Oliver Stone”s movie about the band from “91. I know that Ray has lamented the film in the past, calling it “a white powder movie about a psychedelic band,” and I would imagine it”s hard to watch if you were actually there, actually part of that story. Your memories are never going to match up with what you”re seeing onscreen, filtered through someone else”s idea of what the band and the era was all about.
But for me, the film felt like the closest I”d ever get to seeing this band play. I especially love the film”s final image, as the credits play and Oliver pushes through the whole recording studio, showing us each member of the band in their spot, playing their part, happy and creating music, the propulsive “L.A. Woman” on the soundtrack. At the very end of this long steadicam shot, we finally find Val Kilmer as Jim, sitting on a toilet with the lid down, singing his ass off, so full of energy that it makes you wanna weep. To a lifelong fan, a moment like that is as good as it gets.

Or so I thought.

When Tim showed up, he was visibly pleased, a huge smile on his face. He knew he was about to make my brain melt. He walked me into the actual rehearsal studio, and I saw that it had been set up for a band to play onstage. I tried to remain calm, but when Robbie Krieger showed up, I could barely contain myself. Tim asked me to explain Ain”t It Cool News to Robbie, and I babbled out something about “fans” and “website” and then swallowed my tongue. It”s funny… I don”t get like this about filmmakers. But The Doors… they”re rock stars. Rock legends. It”s so much more impressive to me.

Ray Manzarek was the next one to show up, looking exactly like you”d expect. Ray”s got a great centered tranquil aura that he puts out, and even when he”s joking around (which appears to be frequently), he”s relaxed, never frantic. He and Robbie began to set up their equipment, and I asked Tim when Densmore would be there.

He shook his head. “It”s not John. Not for these shows. They”ve got someone else now.”

I was about to ask who when the studio doors opened, and Stewart Copeland of The Police walked in, followed closely by Ian Astbury, the singer from The Cult.

Tim laughed as my jaw hit the floor, Tex Avery-style.

”Is everybody in?” he asked me. “Is everybody in? The ceremony… is about to begin…”

And if you can”t accept the idea of The Doors playing with anyone except Jim Morrison in the lead, I told you… I was with you at first. When they did VH1″s STORYTELLERS, I thought it was an interesting evening, a cool selection of music played by a group of fans sitting in with the original musicians, a tribute and a chance to share that music with the audience… the opportunity to “get together… one more time.” The idea of them actually picking up and continuing on as The Doors, though… I wasn”t sure what I thought of it. Especially without knowing some sort of firm line-up. I didn”t want to hear rumors about who might or might not participate.

That”s why it was literally dizzying when I took my seat on the leather couch that was front and center in the rehearsal studio. Tim Sullivan, my friend who invited me to visit the rehearsal, worked to set a mood in the place by pulling curtains closed and setting the light levels both onstage and off. Brett Nemeroff (Tim”s partner on the upcoming film RIDERS ON THE STORM along with Chris Kobin, which they”re producing for Ray Manzarek to direct) was walking around with a video camera, capturing footage of these moments as the band started to come together.

Me, I was just sitting there, watching Ray Manzarek settle in behind his keyboard, setting it up so that he had all the right sounds just a keypunch away. I was motionless as Robbie Krieger hooked up a new effects pedal he wanted to try out and started playing riffs, familiar little bits and pieces of things. For a moment, the high piano part from “Riders On The Storm” was unmistakable, and then Ray was back to working on the sound of the keys. Stewart Copeland kept adjusting the exact placement of his drums and his cymbals, and he tested things out with a few powerful snaps on each piece.

Tim kept showing up with different items for me. A copy of the set list. A single drumstick with Stewart”s name embossed on it. Then he would disappear again, getting ready.

There”s also one other new member of the band, a bassist named Angelo Barbara. He”s played with Robbie before, and watching him onstage with these guys, I”m jealous. He”s having a blast. He”s obviously a fan, having studied the original recordings closely enough that he actually corrected Ray and Robbie on how something was arranged originally. He”s working to reproduce all those great bass lines originally provided by Manzarek on keyboards, and it really fills the band”s sound out in a whole new way. He”s an adventurous player, and right from the start, he brings something important to their sound.

When they actually started playing, I almost didn”t notice at first. They just gradually started making sounds together, as if testing each other out, and those little moments suddenly seemed to gel, and just like that, “Roadhouse Blues” kicked in.

There”s something dirty and seedy about the song, about Robbie”s guitar lick at the beginning, at the fuzzy sound of the whole thing. If “Touch Me” is their cheesy Vegas song, then “Roadhouse Blues” really is their drunken bar band song. It”s a great, fun song, maybe the most joyous tune I can think of with the word “Blues” in the title and lines like “The future”s uncertain/And the end is always near.” Ian Astbury was restrained at first, like he was just looking for his place in the music. And I understand… there was a moment during that first song, where Robbie and Ray started trading riffs back and forth, where I suddenly felt all doubt drop away.

What are they rehearsing for? I still haven”t been clear on that, have I? There”s a show coming up… coming up very, very soon, as a matter of fact. It”s a secret show, somewhere in LA. I hope I end up going to the show so I can see the difference in the way they finally put everything together. And following that show, The Doors are going to be part of The Open Road Tour.

See, next year is the 100th anniversary of the formation of Harley-Davidson. The Open Road Tour began in July of this year, and will end in July of next year. There”s all sorts of acts that are part of the tour, like Aerosmith and Stone Temple Pilots and Journey and Los Lobos and George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic. And in Los Angeles (September 6-8) and Toronto (September 28-29), The Doors are going to be playing.

It”s a busy month, though. There”s also an event in New York on September 27th, where Ray Manzarek and George Winston are going to be playing together, a one-time concert to support Winston”s new album, a set of arrangements of Doors songs for jazz piano.

This sounds remarkable. The following night, Ain”t It Cool is going to be part of a special Ray Manzarek-related event, something I”ll be bringing you details about later in the week. I”m very, very pleased to be part of this, too. It”s going to be an interesting event, something I”m looking forward to for any number of reasons.
And if all of this goes well, there is talk of the future. There have been whispers (not at this rehearsal, but in the fan community) about poet Jim Carroll working with the band on new songs. They”re talking about moving forward and actually creating together again instead of just coasting on what already exists. These aren”t vampires, guys cashing in on former glory. There have been other opportunities for that in the past, and they haven”t been taken. They could have cashed in hard around the release of Oliver Stone”s biopic in the early ’90s, but they sat that one out. As far as I”m concerned, they”ve never looked like they were exploiting their former glory. If anything, they”ve erred on the side of caution.

I can say that with confidence having listened to them work their way through “Break On Through,” “When The Music”s Over,” and “Love Me Two Times.” On each song, they started getting looser, more comfortable with each other. Stewart is an explosive drummer. I saw the SYNCHRONICITY tour back in the day (I hesitated to tell Copeland how old I was, as I didn”t want to make him faint), and he hasn”t lost a bit of the energy or inventiveness that made him one of my favorite drummers back then. They went over a few bars of “When The Music”s Over” several times, working out the timing on “We want the world and we want it… now!” but for the most part, they just played a song and moved on to the next, working on their sense of rhythm in and out of the songs as much as the songs themselves.

As they warmed up for their Brecht/Weill-inspired “Alabama Song,” Ray ended up playing what sounded like WWII-era German beer hall music. He sang in a joyously bad accent straight out of THE PRODUCERS about taking over Poland while everyone broke up. Ray seemed to love to break the mood between songs, if only for a moment. They pulled it together, though, then bulled through “Alabama Song,” “Backdoor Man,” and “5 To 1,” where they found themselves working on the arrangement, Angelo once again serving as the voice of authority. This was the raunchiest part of the day, and on “5 To 1” especially, they seemed to be aiming for that decadence.

After one pass on the song, Robbie suggested trying it again slower, and as they played the first few bars, the menace was obvious. Ray laughed and said, “That’s going to seriously fuck them up the ass!” The song seemed darker, more malicious when played like that. They tried the ending of the song a few different ways before moving on, happy with the new arrangement they organically built based on what everyone was trying. Ray and Robbie aren”t trying to push the other players around onstage, and they didn”t pull rank. There was no sense that Stewart or Angelo or Ian were afraid to suggest something or experiment with something. This isn”t an attempt to reproduce the songs the way you”ve heard them a million times. Instead, it”s a celebration of this music, of these songs, a chance for these guys to take this material for a drive again. Imagine writing songs like “Strange Days” or “Ghost Song” and not being able to play them with your collaborators.

Now imagine how good it would feel to finally decide to play them together again. Imagine what a release it would be.

After the first half of the rehearsal, the guys took a break for a few minutes. The one thing that I felt I still didn”t have a handle on after nine full songs was Ian Astbury. I mean, I”ve seen the guy live before with his band The Cult, and I”ve always thought he was one of those great natural frontmen. His baritone is very much like Morrison”s, and there”s no missing Jim”s influence on The Cult lyrically. On CEREMONY, there”s a track called “Heart Of Soul” where he sings, “Down and out in London/Los Angeles/And Paris too/I drank a river/In my time/To get on through,” a sentiment that could have come directly from one of Jim”s journals. Ian”s fascinated by the same shamanistic history that so directly influenced Jim, and so much of that shows up in his work.
And when you guys point out that Ian isn”t Jim, I wonder who you think you”re cluing in to that fact. You think Ian doesn”t know what sort of shoes he”s stepping into? He”s in one of those classic no-win situations in rock music, where he”s performing songs that were very personal to a very particular talent, and that almost never works out. Sure, a band like AC/DC managed it, but they”re the exception, not the rule.

The band was still on break when Ian wandered over to where I was sitting. Tim had seeded the coffee table in front of me with bait. Ian”s a comic book fan (he seemed particularly keen on 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, the vampire story that Sam Raimi got so hot and bothered by recently), and Tim had brought in some great EC Comics reprints that he left sitting out. Ian and I started talking about comics, then drifted into talk of Alan Moore specifically. That led us to all sorts of other digressions, and what struck me about Ian is that he”s got a very sharp, dry sense of wit, and that once you get him talking, he”s quite engaging. I figured the last thing he”d want to talk about is the enormous weight of stepping in as the front man for The Doors, but he gave me a wry little laugh and said, “I”ve got arrows pointed at me from all sides.” Before we could continue down that conversational path, he looked over my shoulder and asked someone how they thought things were going for the day.

I turned, not realizing anyone had joined us while we were talking.

Robbie Krieger was seated next to me on the couch now. He answered Ian, but I didn”t hear what he said because I realized Ray Manzarek was next to him, in a chair, and that Stewart Copeland was sitting next to him. There I was, in the middle of The Doors…

… and there was no one else in the room.

As the band chatted, I watched the dynamic between them, and was impressed by the easy rapport they seem to have. Stewart and Ray could be brothers. They”re both tall, lean, well-preserved, with the same basic bone structure, both of them in glasses. They”re also both very quick, very witty men. Even between songs, there”s a sense of joking around, a sort of gameplay going on that really makes these guys feel like they”re coming together as a group. True… you won”t see years of shared experience between them onstage. Densmore is a particular piece of the puzzle, as was Jim. They don”t seem to be replacing those guys, though. They”re simply playing something different. These songs that they love playing are getting a fresh treatment from everyone.

They headed back onstage eventually, and began the second half of the rehearsal with a light as air rendition of “Love Street.” Astbury has a real warmth to him that came through loud and clear in that second half of the rehearsal. He had a hat pulled down over his eyes, and for the most part, he looked like Chuck Barris from THE GONG SHOW up there, not really moving much, simply working to find his space in the songs. And he did, too. As they moved through “Moonlight Drive,” “Wild Child,” and the unexpected pleasure of “Summer”s Almost Gone,” he really loosened up. By the time they launched into my very favorite Doors song ever, “L.A. Woman,” they were playing with incredible force and intensity, and Astbury had opened up completely. That slightest hint of an English accent in his voice brought an outsider”s edge to the song that made it sound new to me, and the band played the shit out of it. That song, even more than “The End,” is all about build-up and release for me. By the time Ian was singing “Just got into town about an hour ago/Took a look around to see which way the wind blow” for the second time, they weren”t just five musicians playing together.

They were The Doors. Absolutely and completely. In the end, no matter how much I acknowledge the individual contributions of someone on a band or in a film or in any collaborative medium, what matters most to me is the art itself. Two years of shitty rumors no longer matter when you”re sitting in a theater and a movie really works, transporting you in that almost chemical way that great movies can. And the spectre of a brilliant burn-out, the shadow of unfulfilled potential, no longer matters when a song like “L.A. Woman” blows through you like a desert wind. All the baggage simply falls away when it”s working, and I can honestly say… if this music matters to you, you are going to flip. If you”re in either Los Angeles or Toronto, make the effort. Make it to one of these shows. What you”ll see is a group of musicians who are playing something vital and alive, something I know I”ve personally always wanted to hear like this.

”Light My Fire” is the last song of their regular set, but they rehearsed three other songs that they”ll have ready for possible encores. By that point, they were humming along, well-oiled and capable of anything. “Spanish Caravan” made me crazy because of how great Robbie”s work on it was, and the last two songs seemed like just the right emotional note to end on. I”ll leave those for you to experience as surprises when and if you see them.

(This ran as a separate piece not long afterwards, also on Ain’t It Cool)

When does a day begin? Because technically, my trip started Wednesday night, Sept. 25, in Los Angeles. I left the ground after 10:00 at night and didn”t land in New York until just before 9:00 the next morning.
The plane trip was uncomfortable, to say the very least. I was the only person onboard unable to sleep, evidently, and I learned several things during those long, cramped hours.

(1) “Spirit” is Delta”s special code word for “really, really fucking tiny.”

(2) My knees do not, in fact, bend backwards.

(3) The dickhead seated in front of me did not care. Not one little bit.

I touched down, caught a shuttle from La Guardia, and spent the next two hours creeping into the city. I ended up dropped on the corner of 38th and 8th at just after 10:00 in the morning, dazed, unprepared for the light rain that was falling, hungry, and more than a little cranky. I managed to walk past the entrance to the hotel about four times. It was better disguised than the train platform to Hogwarts, and it was only once I deduced that the door to the dry cleaners might also lead somewhere else that I found the front desk of the Manhattan Hotel.

There was a key waiting for me, and I made me way up to the third floor, where I collapsed through the door. Thursday afternoon was just about sleep. Surreal, disrupted sleep thanks to a phone that kept ringing and some impatient guy from the front desk who kept actually letting himself into the room just to tell me that I had phone messages and a drummer rehearsing, playing the same damn drum riff again and again in the next building over. If five hours spent hovering on the verge of consciousness can be called sleep, then, yeah, I guess I slept.

So finally I struggled to a state that closely resembled being awake, and just in time, too. Tim Sullivan came bounding into the room we were sharing, ready to figure out what we would be doing for the next few days.

Speaking of the room… did you see THE BLUES BROTHERS? You remember Elwood”s room, where it was basically four walls and a bed? Well, that was pretty much the same layout for us. Tim kept telling me that he was fine with the floor, proving to me again that Tim is brave beyond words. He also told me to be at the Society Hall at 7:00 so I would have time to talk to Ray before his piano concert with George Winston that night. It was about 4:00 when he told me that, and before we could really talk about anything else, he was out the door and on his way to the sound check.

No problem, I thought. I have something else to do first anyway, I thought. I”ll just run do this, then cut over to the concert, and it”ll all be easy and simple and uncomplicated, I thought.

I can already hear you laughing.

As I mentioned, it was raining. Remember, I live in Los Angeles, a city where water falling from the sky is akin to some sort of biblical plague. I didn”t bring the right jacket or the right shoes for the rain, but I didn”t care. I was determined to just roll with it. By the time I showered and got out onto the street, it was 4:30 or so, and I had a destination in mind. I struck out on foot, pausing to buy a small umbrella from one of the 4,200 little camera/electronics stores on the same block as the hotel. I walked a few blocks to 40th Street, then cut up towards 3rd.

I figured I”d just catch a quick ride over and arrive a little early so I could dry off before I sat down to talk to Ray about the concert and his film and the Doors shows I saw recently in LA

Forty five f**king minutes, pardon my french. It took me forty-five minutes to catch a cab.

And don”t get me wrong. This isn”t my first time in New York. I basically lived out there in the summer of “95, working out of the Tribeca Film Center with Harry Lime on a movie that eventually fell apart in the most magnificent manner. I”ve hailed plenty of cabs in my time.

It was like something out of an absurdist comedy. Not only could I not get a single cab to stop, no matter where I went, but I also managed to get splashed by passing traffic, not once, not twice, but three separate and spectacular times.

I finally managed to leap in front of a helpless old lady who had managed to flag down the solitary empty cab in the entire city, knocking her violently to the ground with a forearm to the throat, and I told the driver to haul ass over to Central Park and 64th. He glared at me and drove a jaunty five miles per hour the entire way.

So it was that I walked into the Society Hall nearly a half hour late. Ray and Tim were nowhere to be found at first, no one would let me backstage, and the guy taking tickets seemed unimpressed by my claims that I should have a ticket waiting. I finally negotiated my way into the auditorium, which felt for all the world like a church. A giant engraving over the stage caught my eye. “The place where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground.” I found a seat down front and tried to relax, pleased that at least the show hadn”t started yet. People filled in around me, and around 8:00, Ray Manzarek and George Winston walked out without fanfare, both of them relaxed and casual.

Two huge pianos were onstage in a sort of 69, and each of the guys sat down, facing each other. I still can”t get over the fact that I”ve been fortunate enough to get to know Ray recently. We haven”t spent hours and hours talking, but I”ve been able to observe him at work, and I”ve soaked up a lot in these encounters. George Winston is a little under a decade younger than Ray, and he seemed as impressed by Ray as those of us in the audience were.

Winston”s new album is all jazz arrangements of Doors songs for solo piano, and Ray was so impressed by the album that the two of them decided to play this show together. “The Crystal Ship” was a beautiful way to start the evening off. There was no introduction. They just sat down and started playing. Within moments, I was entranced, forgetting completely about the rain outside.

“Love Street” was next up, and it struck me how different it was to see Ray in this context. For once, the keyboards were the whole song. No vocals. No guitar. The dynamics of the music were totally different. George Winston provided Ray the perfect companion onstage. There was a great sense of play between the two of them. These are Ray”s songs, but they were Winston”s arrangements, and it looked like Ray was hearing these songs for the first time. He was delighted, occasionally talking along as he played, letting loose with the occasional lyric, his foot tapping in time. “Love Me Two Times” proved that the evening wasn”t going to be some mellow VH-1 affair, injecting a bit of raunch into the proceedings. Ray finally slipped off his jacket, getting comfortable, laying actual copies of the CD onto the strings of his open piano, altering the sound for a very experimental version of “My Wild Love,” one of the evening”s unexpected highlights.

Before he played “Love Her Madly,” Ray plugged the AICN screening the following night, telling everyone about his first film as a director, underselling the heck out of it. There”s an offhand quality to Ray when he”s talking about what he”s up to, like he”s not trying to hype you at all. He”s going to be there, he”s going to show the film, and if you want to show up… great. If not, he”s still going to have a good time. He”s loose, totally at ease, and it should be noted, he”s very funny in person. He did a wicked impression of John Densmore before launching into “Light My Fire,” which closed out the first half of the evening. He and George left the stage, and as the house lights came up, I stood to walk around a bit and stretch my legs. I was feeling the effects of the travel and the lack of sleep and the rain, and I wasn”t sure how long we”d been listening to the music. I practically felt like I was out of body during the thing, and I wanted to wake myself up a bit.

I managed to find Tim in the midst of the crowd, and he pointed out where he was sitting with his mother and a friend. Tim had a camera with him, and he was shooting footage for an ongoing project, a document of all the things Ray”s working on right now. Tim”s like me, one of these proto-GUMPS who drifts through life, somehow landing in these amazing places and doing these amazing things.

He was one of the producers of DETROIT ROCK CITY, and it was really his blood, sweat, and tears that connected Gene Simmons and Mike De Luca, allowing the film to happen. Tim”s three great passions growing up were KISS, The Doors, and horror films, so it”s somehow fitting that he”s made a career with DETROIT ROCK CITY, his current work with Ray and the band, and with his upcoming film 2001 MANIACS. We spent the intermission talking, and he told me one of those “How stupid can some people be?” stories about how Macauley Culkin”s agent managed to not only profusely insult Ray on the phone that morning, but also managed to guarantee that Culkin, a massive self-professed Doors fan, would not get a chance to read for Ray”s upcoming film RIDERS ON THE STORM. It was one of those moments where someone”s total ignorance manages to not only offend someone, but also cost a client work. It”s not like Culkin is exactly turning roles down at the moment, either. It”s a shame. RIDERS is a good script with three really strong young lead roles. Eddie Furlong, who I met at the House of Blues show by the Doors a few weeks ago, was the first person to sign up for the film, and there”s a number of other interesting young guys currently circling the project.

The second half of the show began with an elegaic version of “Summer”s Almost Gone” that felt especially appropriate with the weather outside. “I Can”t See Your Face In My Mind” was up next, and it set Ray off on a string of memories about how that was the first song Jim ever sang to him sitting on Venice Beach. He described the process of recording the song with Paul Rothschild, and that set George Winston off in turn, talking about how he first stumbled across the music of The Doors and how it changed his entire life and his opinion of what music is supposed to be. Ray played a solo tune next, “Take It As It Comes,” talking about his work with poet Mark McClure, who he accompanies sometimes. He spoke of his regrets that he never got to play for Jim in the same way, and that this song was written “for Jim to read his poetry to. One day, we”re going to play this together.” It was achingly beautiful, the music of loss and memory. George followed this by playing his only solo piece of the evening, a selection from AN AMERICAN PRAYER”s CD release. It”s actually an original composition by George to accompany “Bird Of Prey.” It was so beautiful that Ray actually turned away from the audience so he could have a private reaction.

Afterwards, they played “Riders On The Storm” together, and it was a real reminder of just how epic and lovely the song really is. Even though that was supposed to be the final song of the night, the audience managed to coax them back out for one encore, “Soul Kitchen,” and Ray couldn”t contain himself any longer. He ended up singing along again, and even though he doesn”t have what I would call a great singing voice, there”s something so passionate and undeniable about the way he sings these songs that you just end up with this grin on your face, a natural reaction to such open exuberance.

By this point, the evening was pretty much a hazy blur for me. Fatigue had set in and I barely knew where I was. We went to some sort of nightclub, loud beyond comprehension and so dimly lit that I had to navigate my way through the dance floor by braille in search of our friends. Then we went walking in the rain, looking for bars, and found one where we began to piss off a bartender by unstacking chairs, a group of 12 of us trying to find a place to sit, and before we even started to shake the rain off, we were told the bar was closing.
It was 2:00. It hit me that I was supposed to get up the next day to try and get myself and Ray onto THE HOWARD STERN SHOW at some unholy hour, so I bowed out and headed back to the hotel. I figured sleep would be a simple thing by that point.

Turns out, though, that the drummer I heard earlier in the day was just the tip of the iceberg. We were evidently right next to a full-blown rehearsal studio, one that was mysteriously not soundproofed, meaning I was treated to the sound of a band playing the entire Strokes album live. Not once, either. Not twice. Over and over and over and over. For all I know, it was the actual Strokes, making sure they know all their own songs.
Whoever it was, they played until almost four in the morning, and I was finally able to drift into a sort of giddy, exhausted near-sleep that was disrupted mildly when Tim walked into the room, and that came to a sudden and ugly end at around 6:00, when Tim woke me up so that we could figure out how to handle the entire HOWARD STERN issue.

I had the office number that I had used earlier in the week when I talked to Gary Dell”abate”s assistant. For some reason, though, no one answered. The main K-ROCK switchboard kept sending me to the same number, and again, no one answered. They were there, and we knew it. All you had to do was switch on the radio to know for sure. So we decided to just pack up and head over to the studio and see what was going to happen. Originally, I had talked to the show about being on to discuss the SUPERMAN script with Howard, a well-known comic book fan. I was going to spring Ray on him as a surprise, since I know he”s also quite fond of The Doors.

Never got the chance. I made it as far as the lobby for the show, where I was greeted by Ronnie The Limo Driver, who asked me for my name and my reason for being there. Everything looked like it was going to be good until Aria Giovanni showed up with a stack of her all-anal porn DVDs. I listen to Stern every morning, so as soon as I saw her, I knew the score. Comic books… porn… no contest. Ronnie came to escort her in and ask me to leave, and that was that. Yeah, I ended up on the show by phone the following Monday, but Howard never even learned that Ray Manzarek was ready to drop by at a moment”s notice just to say hello, and I felt terrible about it at the time.

Back in the room, there was no chance of getting back to sleep, so I worked a little and then went out to lunch with some friends I made at Ebertfest this year, a filmmaker and his wife, a recently published author. Cool folks. Good meal. Long conversation. I took the subway and managed not to get lost or confused. At least, not until I got back to the hotel and tried my key. The door to the room didn”t open. I tried it again. Still nothing. I was standing there, confounded, trying the key again and again because, as tired as I was, it just wasn”t making sense to me.

The guy who I vaguely remembered from the day before, the one who kept walking into the room while I was sleeping, finally came walking up to me and started yelling at me in something that almost resembled English. Something about “an hour” and “reserved,” and then he kept pointing at the stairs.

So fine. Back downstairs I go. I wait for some other guests to finish checking in and then asked at the front desk why my card key wasn”t working. “What room were you in?” the woman at the desk asked. 309, I told her. She immediately realized who I was. “You suitcase! Here! We have for you!” Sure enough, all of my belongings were packed up and stored in a side room, along with a note from Tim. “We”ve been kicked out. Find me at Brett”s hotel. 236 W. 59th. Room 2419.” Okay. Easier said than done. Thanks to the state of heightened security that seems to permeate all facets of our daily lives now, you can no longer go upstairs in most hotels without having a card key of your very own. Doesn”t matter what explanations you have or how normal or rational you are. And it certainly doesn”t help if you”ve just dragged your luggage ten blocks in humidity so thick that you”ve begun to make your own gravy.

I took a few phone calls, but I finally got Tim downstairs to the lobby. He told me a story about how our room had somehow been rented out on an hourly basis, and as Tim had been run out of the hotel, there was literally a sweaty businessman waiting in the hallway with a hooker, eager to get into the room. As I tried to cope with my severe case of the heebie jeebies, Tim was able to wave his card key and fend off hotel security long enough for us to head upstairs, where I basically had time to shower and change and get all my luggage together to make sure I was ready to leave town almost immediately after the screenings. One more adventure in New York traffic convinced me to stop bitching just because of a little extra congestion around the Highland and Franklin intersection, and it didn”t help that Tim and I had the wrong address for the Clearview Cinemas where the night”s event would be taking place. By the time we got things sorted out and got to the right venue, it was time for things to get started.

There was a brief break between shows, and I was relieved to see the theater fill completely for the next film. The primary reason for the night was, after all, the premiere of Ray Manzarek”s directorial debut, LOVE HER MADLY. This was the only film of the evening that I hadn”t seen before the screenings, and I was nervous. I like Ray, and talking to him about the various artistic projects he”s working on, his enthusiasm and joy is clear and unmistakeable. I”ve read the script for the film he”s going to make next, RIDERS ON THE STORM, and I think it”s ambitious and imbued with a really daring spiritual side. It has the potential to be something really special.

So in a way, I”m glad he got LOVE HER MADLY out of his system first.

It seems strange to say when the filmmaker is a world-famous rock star multi-millionaire, but this is very much a student film, with all the bumps and bruises that term implies. Its cast tries incredibly hard, but none of them are able to make much of their largely unsympathetic roles. For the most part, they”re impossible to relate to. They”re types, not people, and it keeps us from being drawn into any of the emotions that we see played out in rather obvious fashion. It”s a shame, too, because there”s some potential here. If we were able to really understand the madness that is supposed to grip the main characters, then maybe we”d be drawn in and we”d be willing to take this intense ride with these people. Instead, we watch these events unfold without ever once being in danger of actually feeling them.

Ray explained that the initial idea for the film came from Jim Morrison himself in the days after film school but before they started The Doors. The basic premise, for which Jim gets a “story by” credit, takes place on a college campus. As the film begins, there”s been a murder, but we aren”t sure who”s been killed, or why, or even how. The film flashes back in time 24 hours so we can meet Hadley, a beautiful drama major, as well as the three men who are obssessed with her. One is her theater professor, a former Pulitzer Prize winner who lives in a bottle now, coasting on his laurels while he “writes” his follow-up play. One is a sculptor, her supposed boyfriend, and all he ever seems to sculpt is her lithe nude form. Finally, there”s a video maker with ties to internet porn who sees dollar signs when he looks at Hadley. Each of the men is inspired by her in some way, and she feeds off of it, playing each of them to get what she wants.

And, as an idea, that”s a pretty good one. The execution, on the other hand, is a case of someone still learning to put it together as you watch. To be fair, the theater totally fucked Ray on the exhibition of the film. They lost his print and had to show a digi-beta tape version instead, and somehow the sound got off-sync even as the picture washed out completely. As a result, it”s hard to fairly judge the film on a technical level. I have no idea what the cinematography of the film actually looked like, since the version we saw was overbright to the point of being indistinct.

As always, Ray was engaging and self-effacing during the Q&A after the film, and he didn”t try to oversell the movie. He answered questions about the production with his typical laconic dry wit, and he stayed until the Clearview Cinemas literally forced us to wrap things up so we could get the next screening started. I think it would be wrong to call LOVE HER MADLY a disappointment, since I had no real expectations one way or another. Let”s call this a necessary first step, and let”s see what Ray can do with RIDERS ON THE STORM. If there”s anything Ray”s proven over the years, it”s that he is a rennaisance man, willing to try new things and push himself, and willing to fail at times. That”s something to admire in any artist, whether the filmmaker pays for his movie with his rock-star royalties or his credit card he can”t pay off.

(that’s the end of the original pieces from Ain’t It Cool)

I hold that entire encounter dear, and I left it all in there because it’s one of those whirlwind moments that I am still amazed actually happened. Lots of what we talked about in that piece never came to pass, but I get the feeling Ray was always thinking, always planning, always creating. It means the world to me that he was willing to open up as much as he was, and aside from a local LA gig not long after the New York trip, I never saw him again. I thought of him often and fondly, though, and my thoughts go out to his family and his friends.

Ray Manzarek was 74. Fuck cancer.

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