Ray Manzarek’s death has led to a lot of online discussion about The Doors, who Manzarek co-founded. It’s typical that even in death, Manzarek is overshadowed. And not only does he kick off memories of The Doors, memories of The Doors inevitably turn into discussions about Jim Morrison.
“Light My Fire” is a fine example of Manzarek and our relationship to The Doors. It kicks off with drummer John Densmore’s snare shot, after which the band appears, with Manzarek’s seductive, Bach-inspired organ inviting the listener in. After a couple of verses, Manzarek lays out an atmospherically appropriate solo for a few minutes … that’s followed by an equally fine guitar solo by Robby Krieger. Finally, the band returns to Morrison and the song ends. The chorus is catchy … I imagine most people who have heard it know “come on baby, light my fire” by heart. But Manzarek’s opening organ theme is equally iconic.
But his solo (and Krieger’s)? The song was so popular that AM radio stations wanted to play it, so a shorter version was released that edited out the two solos from the middle. Thus, the version many people heard was dominated by Morrison to a much larger extent than was the original.
The 45 version was a big deal in the Bay Area, where “underground radio” was starting. I can remember my older brother telling me there was this new station on FM that I should check out; I also remember him telling me there was this really amazing song on the first Doors album, called “The End”. Thus began my decades-long-and-still-counting obsession with the underground radio of those days. Again relying on memory, once, Tom Donahue said he didn’t want to play “Light My Fire” because it was being played to death on the AM dial. Someone pointed out to him that we no longer listened to AM, so it wasn’t played out for us.
“The End”, like “Light My Fire”, desperately needs what the musicians bring to the table, and Manzarek’s keyboards are essential. But, as was regularly true for The Doors, the musicians’ contributions were overwhelmed by the presence of Jim Morrison. “The End” wasn’t remarkable because of the music, it was remarkable for the Oedipal lyrics from Morrison (“Father? Yes, son. I want to kill you. Mother? I want to …. ARRGGRGAJHGRHHGH!).
The Doors released five more studio albums during Morrison’s lifetime, some better than others. None of them startled us the way the debut did, but that’s always the case with startling debuts. Each album went Top Ten, as did three singles. If anything, the band got better as time went on. But what got noticed was Jim Morrison, with his poetic lyrics and outrageous stage presence. He was arrested several times, he had problems with alcohol and drugs, and about the time he exposed himself on stage, if not long before, it was clear that if you asked the average fan what they knew about The Doors, they would reply “Jim Morrison”. (Anyone who thinks Morrison’s stage shenanigans were over-the-top are invited to check out GG Allin on YouTube. No, I’m not offering any links.) Morrison overdosed, and while the band released another couple of albums, their time in the spotlight was gone. They still pop up occasionally, but not for their music … Oliver Stone’s movie may have been called The Doors, but it never would have been made if Stone hadn’t made Morrison the focus of his film.
And now Ray Manzarek is dead, and people like me offer hundreds of words filled with talk about the Doors, which is to say about Jim Morrison, which is to say, not about Ray Manzarek. But if you listen to the “long” version of “Light My Fire”, you’ll hear Ray. You’ll notice him.