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A throwaway threnody for Ray Manzarek

He will always articulate the sound of those briefest of instances before you slip into unconsciousness

Written by Sudipto Sanyal |
May 24, 2013 12:12:55 am

He will always articulate the sound of those briefest of instances before you slip into unconsciousness

Ray Manzarek,baroque bespectacled keyboardist and co-founder of the Doors,died Monday at age 74,thereby living out almost three times the rockstar’s stipulated lifespan. He must not have read the fine print.

But Ray was never a regular rocker. Steeped in the jazz and the classical,his music was slithery and contrapuntal,with frequent Bach-like flights of fancy. And while in practice he played the keys,he was,in essence,the Doors’ bassist — Jim Beckerman,in his Manzarek obituary,calls him “the greatest keyboard player in the history of bass guitar.” Perhaps that’s why the Doors are such a rock anomaly; they weren’t part of the Northern California brotherhood of eternal love like the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane,nor the folk rock explosion of the Los Angeles of the Byrds or Buffalo Springfield. They were barely influenced by the British Invasion. They can’t even be categorised with a geographical locator like the Velvet Underground’s “New York sound”.

The Doors are sui generis,making sense only in their own jangling doomsday way. John Densmore was a jazz drummer who more often than not sounds like Elvin Jones playing bossa nova. Robby Krieger will always be a flamenco guitarist. And Jim Morrison,decadent electric baritone,a Bozo Sinatra for the dark night of the soul.

Tying these eclectic chthonic forces together into that mythic swirling Doors sound are Manzarek’s pounding keys,usually the organ,though he dabbled with divers other instruments — the Moog synthesiser on Strange Days,for example,or the Fender Rhodes electric piano that emulates the sound of rain on “Riders on the Storm”. You can even hear him playing the Marxophone,a sort of fretless zither,on “Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)”,itself a foxtrotting blues bit from a Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill cabaret cantata. That’s how odd the Doors could be.

The prodigal rock writer Paul Nelson once described “that Doors sound” as emanating primarily from “Manzarek’s staccato yet melodic organ.” This dualistic paradox is often noted by those writing about the Doors; “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” get thrown about with gay abandon. In these accounts,Morrison is usually cast as the Dionysiac initiate riding the serpent of manic poetic death,while the other three provide the Apollonian foil,ordering his incomplete madness into polished final form. While this is true to an extent,it is also a vast simplification. No one who’s heard “We could be so good together” (Waiting for the Sun) can accuse Manzarek of anything but surreal playfulness when he suddenly quotes Thelonious Monk’s “Straight,No Chaser.” Listen closer,and you realise the entire song is structured around that older tune.

Manzarek,of course,plunders from the best,and plunders superbly. “Light My Fire”,arguably the Doors’ most famous song,hinges on Bach,bossa nova and John Coltrane — the long organ solo in the middle is based in large part on Coltrane’s remarkable recording of “My Favourite Things”,with a Bach melody in 4/4 time being played askew over a throbbing Coltrane 3/4 bass rhythm. “Spanish Caravan” is based on “Asturias (Leyenda)”,the Andalusian flamenco of the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz,and seems to quote bits of “Malagueña”,a Cuban song from the 1920s by Ernesto Lecuona. This tendency to quote and build upon existing and popularly identifiable pieces even suggests Manzarek’s — and the band’s — affinity for the quodlibet,those little delights that combined different existing melodies and became popular from the Renaissance onwards.

The Doors had moved towards a bluesier sound by their last couple of albums,but they always retained their essentially baroque sound. Manzarek sounds like what Rainer Fassbinder’s flawed masterpiece Berlin Alexanderplatz looks like — decadent and vibrant,frightening yet poignant,always epic in intensity. Experience either in the wrong mood and they can be ruinous,and ruined. But feel them out of the corner of your eye or by a brief outstretched hand,and they are mystical and transcendent,encapsulating what Manzarek called “that perfect LSD moment”,when all seems connected and the worst that can happen is death.

Sanyal is a Kolkata-based writer

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