Thirty-one years ago, Ray Manzarek’s organ riff to “Light My Fire” jarred loose a landslide that swept the American counter culture to the nether reaches of the psychedelic experience. Not only did the song earn the Doors a number one single, it propelled their dark debut far past the pot haze of happy hippy music and dared listeners to trip along with decadent anti-hero Jim Morrison. The myth of the Doors had begun, and its proportions have only magnified with the passage of time (as the recent spate of articles regarding Morrison’s possible exhumation illustrates). Now, after scores of bios, endless gossip and a big-budget Hollywood movie, Manzarek weighs in with his insider story of the mythic band, sharing his thoughts on the Doors, his friend Jim Morrison, the music they made, and what he really thinks about Oliver Stone.
When you think about the early years, does it surprise you that you’ve now written a book about it?
Absolutely. You go back to 1965-66, we had nothing. It was just two guys, a singer and a keyboard player. A songwriter/poet and a keyboard player. Then getting the other two guys, a drummer and a bass player, John Densmore and Robbie Krieger, and just knocking on doors, going around the town, trying to get people to listen to us and listen to our music. We had nothing. We were broke. We were flat broke. We were nobodies who had nothing, and here I am thirty years later writing a book about it.
I hear that at book signings there’s a lot of young kids. Do you think Doors music is still potent?
Absolutely. They hear the jazz-rock elements in there, they hear the John Coltrane and the Miles Davis and they hear Jim’s southern-gothic Carson McCullers-Tennessee Williams-Arthur Rimbaud-French symbolist poetry, and they hear the blues, and they hear the honest commitment to the music. This is why we can’t let the fascists joke about the Sixties and the counter culture. Because we were honestly, deeply committed to the music, there was no cynicism. We believed. There was no irony. There’s no irony in the Doors music. There’s no irony in my book. So, for a lot of people in their thirties, this may not strike the chord or ring the bell they want rung. But I think that’s what’s translating to a lot of young people today, is that they are really tired of the ironic stance that a lot of people are taking.
How do you respond to critics who attack your lack of cynicism?
Well, they lose. They don’t get a ticket into the future. If the critic does say that — and a couple of critics have said that about my book — well, you lose. You’re not allowed into the twenty-first century. You’re not allowed into the future, the new age, the new era, the new time that’s just around the corner, after we realize the end of the world is not coming. After we realize that the apocalypse is not going to happen, the rapture will not happen … the only way to live life is with an avid commitment, a deep passionate commitment to being alive. And if you’re not gonna live that way, you lose, man. So my advice to all the cynics is to, if you dare, drop a psychedelic.
Literally, dropping a psychedelic is a good idea?
I can’t advocate it, because then I’d be arrested. I can only tell you what worked for me. I’ll tell you this, it certainly worked for me, growing up a Catholic boy on the South Side of Chicago and not understanding the meaning of heaven and hell. I’d say, as William Blake said, if the doors of perception are cleansed, man will see things as they are: infinite. This is what the times, the Sixties were all about, among other things. Stopping the war, of course, and getting high and getting laid and having one hell of a good time. And underneath it all was this drive to transcendence, and you’re either going for it, or you’re stuck in the mud. And right now we’re all stuck in the mud, a lot of us are stuck in the mud.
What is the most important thing that people can extract from the Doors’ experience? What should people know about Jim that people don’t know?
Just to throw yourself away into your art and there is where you will find yourself. Once you abandon yourself to whatever art you’re doing, that’s where you find the new human being that is you, and see that the Doors did that very thing and you can do that very thing. And the thing to know about Jim Morrison is that he was not the guy in the Oliver Stone movie. He’s not a crazy drunk, he’s not a weirdo. Yes, he died. Yes, he was excessive. But he was also — this is what my book is going to tell you — he was also sensitive, artistic. Learn from Jim, if you want to be like Jim or want to learn something from Jim, find out what Jim’s inputs were, what were his antecedents, what art influenced Jim. And let that art, if you’re interested, influence you.
Do you have issues with Oliver Stone?
Yes I do.
Were you involved with the film?
Yes, I talked to Oliver Stone for two days, and I wasn’t involved in the movie, but I talked to Oliver Stone. I gave Oliver Stone the gospel according to the Doors. What I told Oliver Stone is what my book Light My Fire is. He didn’t hear it, he just didn’t get. He just didn’t get the psychological, spiritual, psychedelic aspect of the Doors. He turned the Doors into kind of a silly band and turned Jim into kind of a ridiculous figure, and it had nothing to do with who we really were. I did talk to him. I told him all these stories. He didn’t hear it. He said, I’m gonna write it, thank you very much, no. I said, let’s write a script, I’ll help you write a script. And he said, no, no, no, I’m writing the script. And two months later he came back with a script, I read the script and I said, this stinks. Do not make this movie. This is awful. Don’t do this. I told him, I won’t have anything to do with this script. If you want to do it the right way, please call me, I’m at your disposable, I’ll do anything you wanna do. Just give me a call, twenty-four hours a day. I’ll work with you to tell the right story. Oliver Stone never called me back.
Have you tried to contact him after?
And say what? Schmuck? What am I gonna say to him? What can I say? Hey, way to go man, I told you it was awful. You blew it. You blew it, boy. It’s done.
Will you ever play in another band?
No, I don’t think I’ll be in a band ever again for the rest of my life.
Because I did it. I have so much fun working with [Beat poet] Michael McClure and I have been working in an ensemble situation playing with some Indian musicians, so I might be doing some keyboard ragas with musicians from India. But I wouldn’t call that a band. It’s all music with a beat, and if the beat is there, then I’m there. If some singer guy comes along or some poet comes along that blows me away, then I’ll reconsider my above statement, of course. I never know what’s going to happen, that’s the fun of being an artist, that’s the danger of being an artist. You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow. If you can dare to live that way, it’s an exciting life, but you never know if you’re going to succeed or fall flat on your face.