On Ray Manzarek

On Ray Manzarek
by Mark Augustine

Jim Morrison always gets most of the attention when you talk about The Doors. He also gets most of the credit for the band’s ineffable strangeness. This is a terrible miscalculation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that The Lizard King didn’t have his quirks (Celtic Paganism, among others). But the dark and surreal landscape of L.A.’s acid rock heroes was largely the product of the strange brain of keyboardist Ray Manzarek.

Ray ManzarekOf course “keyboardist” is a misleading term because he was also the band’s bass player. Or at least his left hand was. He would simultaneously play the bass parts on a Fender Rhodes keyboard with the left hand while the right was reserved for the haunting melodies and solos that were the essence of the band’s sound, the immediate signifier that you were listening to a Doors song.

And that sound. Manzarek’s signature sound (and consequently that of his band) was produced by his trademark instrument, the Vox Continental organ. Not some beefy Hammond or bluesy Wurlitzer, but that piercing, shimmery Vox. It was Manzarek’s insistence on using that Vox that created the texture for The Doors sound, the reason they sounded so manic and oddly threatening. He’s the reason why, when you reach the gates of hell, they won’t be playing War Pigs or Raining Blood – they’ll be playing Alabama Song (Whisky Bar).

Manzarek always made for a far more interesting interview subject than Morrison, who was often mentally absent or wilfully aloof during interviews. Manzarek, however, was always irrepressibly weird during interviews, and excited to talk about his band or his music or nearly any other topic imaginable. When Ray (a Chicago native and Depaul alum) played a show at Legends several years ago, he spent several hours with staff members gladly talking about people he knew from the neighborhood.

It’s somehow charming to watch modern interviews with him and see that he had never been able to drop his 1960’s vocabulary, often punctuating thoughts or sentences with “man” or “you dig?” When asked recently about the importance of his own legacy, he replied, “You don’t make music for immortality, you make music for the moment. For capturing the sheer joy of being alive on planet earth.”

Far out, man.

Manzarek died on May 20th of complications stemming from bile duct cancer. The world is a far less strange place without him in it.

Mark Augustine

Mark Augustine

Mark Augustine is a faculty member at Columbia College Chicago and a staff writer at BG: Blues And Music News.

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