Tuesday, May 21, 2013
RAY MANZARAK R.I.P.
There was a lot of confusion yesterday on the web about whether Ray Manzarek, keyboardist and songwriter for The Doors, had really passed or not. And I contributed to some of it. I was sent a link to a site that claimed that the news of Manzarak's death was a hoax, part of a series of so-called "celebrity death hoaxes"—but it turns out to be true. Here's the obit from the NY Times that is a pretty good summary of Ray's life and accomplishments.
I had just given up playing piano in clubs and coffee houses for close to a decade, mostly jazz and R&B, when The Doors first album came out. I was focused at the time on my writing, particularly poetry and political commentary for mostly what was then called "underground" newspapers, though some above ground ones too. But I also reviewed music, so a lot of folks would ask me what I thought of some band's latest album, because at that time—the late 1960s—the appearance of a new album by a rock band was considered an event equal to, or more important than, the other significant historic making events that seemed to be multiplying at the time.
My first reaction was scorn, maybe based on envy, and definitely based on my anti-California prejudice at the time. I had come up through the whole East Coast/West Coast jazz rivalry of the 1950s, more adhered to by critics and fans than most of the musicians, though there were definitely some musicians I knew and played with who believed in it. So I could be pretty judgmental about West Coast musicians and their music, and carried that into my reviewing of new jazz LPs.
I don't think I reviewed that first Doors album, but it wasn't long before I was digging the music despite my initial reaction. So many of their songs were irresistible, and a lot of that was due to Ray Manzarek. His keyboard work was oddly raw and refined at once and definitely unlike any other keyboardist in pop or rock music (although at the time I think I considered it all just "rock'n'roll").
When I moved to L.A. in 1982, I met a woman who claimed to be the "L.A. woman" the Doors song was based on, and eventually I met Manzarek, briefly, when Michael McClure came to L.A. and Manzarek backed his poetry reading with his keyboard work. I had always had a prejudice against that, from my old jazz days as well, because some older musicians I'd played with back then hated having to back "Beat" poets, feeling it was demeaning to their own artistry, especially when the poet was high or drunk and not integrated with the music in ways say a Sinatra would be.
Many times in my life musicians offered to back me reading my poems and I declined because of that petty prejudice born from trying to impress my elders on the jazz scene. But finally, one day in I think 1989, when I was asked to read some poems with some other poets, and Ray Manzarek was going to back us on keyboards, I agreed. At the rehearsals he was full of interesting insights into the rehearsal process that I wish I had written down because I no longer remember. What I do remember, and assume is accurate, was his being a nice guy, and when I sat down and played a little between his rehearsing with the others, he complimented me and suggested I back myself on at least one poem. So I did. Not only the first and I think only time I combined my poetry with my piano playing, but with anybody's.
Today I feel honored that I got to meet Ray Manzarek (and John Densmore the drummer from The Doors while I was in L.A. as well, at another gig where I read some of my poems and he backed others on drums if I remember correctly, and was a total soulmate for the few minutes we spent getting to know each other) let alone collaborate briefly on some music and poetry with him. He was a true original, as much or more so than the legendary Jim Morrison whose lyrics Ray made unforgettable with his music.