Doors drummer John Densmore discusses his musical and personal relationship with the band’s keys maestro Ray Manzarek in this new excerpt from the drummer’s upcoming book, The Seekers: Meetings With Remarkable Musicians (And Other Artists), out November 17th.
The book, as its title suggests, is less a straight memoir or autobiography than an exploration of the creative life and process. Inspired by Greek-Armenian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff’s 1927 book, Meetings With Remarkable Men, Densmore says in the intro to The Seekers that his goal was to assemble “my own group of what I would call musical masters who achieved their mystical destiny through sound.” He adds, “Like my colleagues, I ‘hear’ the world. The one constant thread through my life so far is that I have been constantly fed and nourished by music.”
Densmore’s book features reflections on an array of musical peers and predecessors, including Elvin Jones, Lou Reed, Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar, Bob Marley, and Patti Smith; he also writes about his mother’s influence on his creative life and his high school music teacher. And, of course, the book touches on two of his Doors bandmates, Jim Morrison and Manzarek.
The chapter about Manzarek is fittingly titled “Improvisation,” and Densmore uses that spontaneous musical connection to anchor a deeper exploration of spirituality and oneness. Densmore recalls locking into the pocket with Manzarek the first time they played together and describes how the Doors’ unique rhythm section evolved after they decided not to hire a traditional bass player, and instead let Manzarek’s left hand elicit the low-end on a keyboard bass while playing lead riffs with his right hand on an organ.
“Playing with Ray’s left hand as the bass player was more challenging than having a separate mind working the groove (as bass players and drummers do),” Densmore tells Rolling Stone via email. “When Ray would take a solo with his right (on organ), sometimes he would get excited and rush (speed up a little). I had to pull back the reins somewhat.”
In the chapter, Densmore revels in what made Manzarek’s playing so singular, highlighting classic moments like “Light My Fire” and “Riders on the Storm.” He shared two more deep cut favorites with RS, describing Manzarek’s solo on “Love Street” as “not flashy, but gets me off every time because the phrasing is so strong, precise, and simultaneously relaxed.” And of “When the Music’s Over,” Densmore says: “Ray understands dynamics (loud, soft, and everything in between) as I do. We ride those crescendos and pianissimos together as a tight duo… and it pleases me very much.”
Densmore is also frank about how his relationship with Manzarek grew tumultuous during the years when they squabbled over the best way to honor the Doors’ legacy (Densmore chronicled this feud extensively in 2013’s The Doors: Unhinged). But he writes movingly about their reconciliation before Manzarek’s death in 2013, and Densmore says his respect for his former bandmate’s musicianship has only deepened in the years since.
“Our mutual love of jazz informed our spirituality,” Densmore says. “We had the same jazz mentors. Jazz musicians are spiritual by nature… they are constantly searching (John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme). That we made something bigger than the four of us in the early garage rehearsals is a very strong bond that has been our through-line. The Fab Four are connected, even though two have ‘broken on thru,’ (same with the Doors), and if you’re one of the Fab Doors, it’s a private club that transcends time, and is forever grateful of its fans.”
Ray Manzarek: Improvisation
A slew of books on The Doors have been published— including not one but two memoirs of my own—but none of them have focused on that bespectacled organ wizard Ray Manzarek. You see, Ray came with two musicians inside his one frame. Let’s go back to the beginning.
After meeting Ray at the Maharishi meditation class in 1965, I ventured down to his parents’ Manhattan Beach house to attend a jam session. I drove up the alley where I heard rock ’n’ roll coming from the garage. Ray came out of the front house, walking down the narrow passageway between these beach cottages. He wore a blue long-sleeved dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up and the top unbuttoned halfway. His white pants were also rolled up to reveal flip-flops on his feet. In a buttonhole of his shirt he had placed a daisy.
Ray broke into the warmest smile as he directed me where to park. He certainly looked more relaxed than at the meditation class the previous night. That had been a follow-up meeting after we were all initiated, and Ray was complaining about not getting the instant “bliss” that was promised, he thought, by Jerry Jarvis, the instructor. I knew meditation wasn’t going to have effects as instant as LSD, so I was willing to try it for a while and see how it went.
Ray and I broke the ice when we started talking about our mutual love of jazz. I told him that I had seen all the greats at the Manne Hole in Hollywood: Miles, Coltrane, Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, and so on.
“Bill Evans!” Ray exclaimed. He was jealous.
“His genius is in his touch,” I waxed.
“Yeah,” Ray agreed, adding, “Miles got crap for having this mellow white guy in the band, but he knew how good he was.”
“Yeah, man. Miles doesn’t take shit from anybody! Do you know All Blues?” I prompted.
“Let’s do it!” Ray said enthusiastically.
Now we would break the musical ice. The tune is in ¾ time, a waltz tempo that is a good test of whether a musician can “swing.” Ray and I locked immediately. That felt good.
A major component of jazz is improvisation, which forces you to stay in the moment because you never know what will be coming up. There’s a lot of freedom and space available as you improvise around the chord changes. In jazz improvisation or in a rock guitar solo, mere speed doesn’t guarantee the most creative solo (thank God). It’s a balance between sound and space, between lyricism and virtuosity. It’s about breathing in and breathing out. Sometimes it’s cool to show your shit (demonstrating how fast you can play), but when it comes organically out of an entire solo, it’s better. Kinda like being human: sometimes we have to run, sometimes we get to chill.
You can read about what happened after that jam session in all those other Doors books. The extremely important thing to know is that Ray was the first to see the magic in Jim Morrison. He even received flak from some of his fellow UCLA film students for hanging out with Jim. They thought Jim was too crazy. The first set of lyrics Ray gave me—I think intentionally— was for “Break on Through (to the Other Side).” He had immediately resonated with Jim’s connection to the world behind this world—or, to quote the mythologist Michael Meade, “the world where this world came from”—just as I did.
Another extremely important musical moment happened a month later. We had been auditioning bass players and didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Ray said that he’d seen a Fender electric keyboard bass he wanted to try. I went with him to Glenn Wallichs’s Music City in Hollywood to check it out. After parking, we passed the display window of the musical instrument department, and there it was, sitting on top of a stand. It looked like a couple of octaves (twenty-four black-and-white keys) with a silver chrome top.
“Let’s go through the record department quickly,” I said, “because if we look at all, we’ll never get to the instrument department.”
Ray knew what I meant. Years before, I got stuck listening for hours in the record booths. What a great store! You could actually play something before you bought it. Started by Glenn Wallichs and songsmith Johnny Mercer, Music City was mecca for all southern California music junkies. “I drooled over all of Coltrane’s LPs in that booth,” I said as we passed the brown mahogany listening section and entered the musical instruments department.
Ray asked if he could play the keyboard bass, and the rep plugged it into an amp. Ray began doing those repetitive lines he was experimenting with on our new songs. “I’m thinking of playing this with my left hand and the organ with my right.”
“It sounds like it has enough punch,” I said. We didn’t want the bass to sound mushy, which could have been a trap without a separate bass player plucking a string. (Remember, this was before the advent of synthesizers and computers, which eventually could duplicate almost any sound in the world.)
The keyboard bass was a few hundred bucks, significant money then, but we bought it. This was a pivotal moment in the formation of our sound. It forced Ray to play the keys more sparsely with his right hand only, and it also made him simplify his left-hand bass lines.
Now in rehearsals I concentrated on connecting with Ray’s left hand. Bass players and drummers are like brothers, working in the basement, cooking up the groove. If they don’t lock together with the feel, the ensemble will suck. You can have a brilliant drummer and bass player and a lousy guitarist and the band will survive, but if the rhythm section (bass and drums) is lousy, it won’t fly, no matter how brilliant the guitarist is.
You see, for drummers one beat is extremely long. Let me quote my second memoir (The Doors: Unhinged):
“The space between one beat and the next is extremely important, since the space implies the feel of the entire composition. If you play on the front of the beat, as in military music, Irish music, polkas, etc. (the style I learned in my high school marching band), the feel is rather controlled. I used this style way back when I played bar mitzvahs. On the other hand, if you perform with the accent on the back of the beat (if you don’t hit the next beat until the last second), the feel is very laid-back as in the blues, R&B, ballads, etc. I certainly got this style down from performing for years in bars.
“When The Doors got started, we covered the blues a lot until we had enough originals, so our foundation was first built on a laid-back feel. If you wait until the last mini-second to come in with the second beat, you’re playing the blues . . . leaving as much room as possible for the “sadness” to enter. Then the originals, with Jim’s percussive lyrics, pushed the pulse forward a little. Thank God Ray and I were in the same arena when we wrote the music to these words.”
Simply put, if Ray and I had not felt the pulse for Jim’s lyrics the same way, there would have been no Doors. I don’t mean to be self-congratulatory here. What I do mean to stress is that the rhythm section is the foundation of any ensemble, whether it’s a quartet or a forty-piece orchestra, and without a strong foundation, the structure will crumble.
It eventually turned out that with Ray and me as that foundation, Robby could build the walls for Jim to sit on top of as the roof . . . or up front as the lead singer. The walls were formidable because of Robby’s gifted songwriting skills. If there is mutual respect, the structure will have balance and be very solid. So I credit the pairing of Ray’s left hand and my drumming as a blessing from the muse.
Now let’s talk about Ray splitting his brain in two. He simultaneously had to lock into a repetitive bass pulse with his left hand and support Jim’s lyrics playing chord changes with his right. To do this, he said, he thought of playing boogie-woogie bass lines that he learned as a kid in Chicago. If that wasn’t enough, he occasionally came up with the most memorable keyboard hooks (musical segues) in popular music.
Think of the intro to “Light My Fire.” It’s a circle of fifths, played in a baroque (Bach-like) style. This keyboard part is permanently stamped on everyone’s brain. We will never forget it. Or take what he created in “Riders on the Storm,” the mysterious sound supporting Jim’s dark lyrics. It was an incredible extended piano solo that I rode with him up and down the full arc of human emotions. From pianissimo to fortissimo and everything in between, that solo of Ray’s will also be stamped on all our brains forever.
You only need to hear a couple of bars of music from a great artist and you can identify who it is. Elvin Jones, Ravi Shankar, Janis Joplin, Bob Marley, Van and Jim Morrison . . . practically every chapter of this book is about someone whose work is instantly recognizable. Read a couple of sentences of Joseph Campbell and you know it’s him. You hear Ray’s hand on a Vox organ and you know who it is in three seconds.
Maybe it’s sadness over losing Ray—my early father figure has crossed over—but these days I aspire to having an even better relationship with my old keyboard player than before. I make a joke about this over and over concerning my deceased mother, but maybe it’s not really a joke. An even bigger space can open up in the wake of a significant person’s departure. My mind tends to go to my mother and to Ray more often now, because I know that I can’t reach them on a physical level. As Maharishi said before he passed, “I will be available anywhere, instantly!”
For instance, having dinner in a French restaurant, I flip my fork over like Europeans do and immediately think of Ray. He and his wife Dorothy always ate that way, looking like sophisticated continental diners. As a twenty-year-old, I was intimidated by their sophistication. I felt clumsy with my less refined manners.
My self-esteem did get a lift when we toured France, where my pidgin French served me well while Ray and Dorothy retreated into silence. When I was young, I aspired to be like the extremely cultured ivory tinkler in our band, and I’m still working on it. Back then, Ray was exceptionally well read, and now I’m catching up. He is still my teacher, now more than ever. I’ve recently had some medical issues around my abdomen (burst appendix), the same area of the body that took Ray out. My compassion for him has increased twofold now that my own experience has made me more aware of how he must have suffered.
Okay, I’m sure some of you readers right now are thinking: it’s sweet that John is talking to the dead (Ray), but let’s get real—there’s no actual communication once people you knew “Break on Through to the Other Side.” All I can say is, it’s more than just mental candy, this expectation that I’m going to jam again with Ray in that big band in the sky. Musicians are serious when they talk about all the incredible musicians now playing in God’s orchestra. There’s a very deep bond between “melody makers.”
Check out Ray’s masterful solo album Golden Scarab to see clearly into his metaphysical side. “The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic just because the body is rotten—that is all fantasy. What is found now is found then. If you find nothing now, you will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death. If you make love with the divine now, in the next life you will have the face of satisfied desire.” So said the great Indian poet Kabir.
Or as George Harrison put it in speaking of his connection to John Lennon: “We saw beyond each other’s physical bodies. If you can’t feel the spirit of some friend who’s been that close, then what chance have you got of feeling the spirit of Christ or Buddha or whoever else you may be interested in?” So I’m coming out of the closet right now and admitting that I’ve had several conversations with George since he passed, and I’m surely going to keep talking with Ray. I talk to Jim all the time.
I’m starting to worry that I now sound like my devoted Catholic mother, who is “gonna see all her friends in Heaven.” I don’t see things quite that literally. I feel that when the body passes, the spirit continues, but in what form that energy manifests I haven’t a clue. It’s a mystery to me . . . a great mystery. That’s why when asked if I believe in God, I answer, “I believe in the Mystery, with a capital M.”
Maybe that’s why Ray had a giant art deco poster with a big “M” in the middle. Of course, the “M” stood for Manzarek, which implies he had a large ego. When I challenged Ray in my first memoir that he might be working the Willy Loman beat a little too hard (the selling of The Doors), he got back at me by saying in his own book that Jim had hated me “as a human being.” Jim might very well have said that, probably while tripping, and maybe because I didn’t do as many drugs as he did. But you see, Jim and I are okay with that now. I sacrificed over five years of my life trying to preserve Jim’s legacy through a brutal court battle. It’s amusing (or prophetic) how in Riders I used what I thought was just a technique to communicate with Jim: writing him a continuing letter in the first person, as if he could hear me even though he had passed. Now I feel the love energy not only with Jim but with Ray too.
Toward the end of our career, a philosophical gap grew between Ray and me. You can read all about it in The Doors: Unhinged, but here it suffices to say that I was so angry at him I felt it would take several incarnations to forgive him. Writing Unhinged helped. As I wrote in the last chapter of that book, how could I not love Ray? We had created magic together in a garage, so many years ago. I sent that last chapter to Ray and Robby before the book was published, to make sure they got to that section, because the first half was going to be a tough pill for them to swallow.
Even amid those philosophical and personal struggles, the two of us never lost the almost telepathic communication we had on the musical level. Ray understood the avant-garde, and he understood dark matter. He was comfortable, as I was, with venturing outside traditional rhythmic and chord structures, but he also knew that eventually you had to get back or you would leave the cosmos and your audience behind.
When to come back is the question, and that is one that can only be answered intuitively. The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says that the earth doesn’t just rotate around the sun, that it is also affected by the gravitational pull of all the planets in our solar system. A musical ensemble is the same. The rhythm section (Ray’s left hand and me) vibrates at a lower frequency, supporting the lead players. All of the celestial bodies in our solar system push and pull each other, to varying degrees, while the sun is the lead singer.
Balance is everything. If the ice caps are melting, or if the guitar player is too loud, life gets out of balance (koyaanisqatsi). That’s why the really accomplished musicians listen intently to their fellow players. They put aside their egos. If one of the musicians gets a little too full of himself when he’s the focal point, the “star,” the surrounding planets have to adjust. But sometimes the star spins out of orbit and no amount of adjusting will bring him back.
Ray and I were completely in sync when it came to finding common musical ground. The musical background each of us brought to our partnership fed us well and fertilized our unique feel and sound. With my drums and Ray’s left hand as the bottom, Robby Krieger’s liquid guitar completed the sound. The resulting melting pot was an American gumbo that Jim obviously couldn’t get enough of. I say that not out of arrogance. Just think about it: here was a guy who had never sung before and who, after getting over his shyness, sang from the bowels of his vocal chords. He was in heaven lying on the bed of sound we made for him. Without Manzarek, our quartet would have sounded like a three-legged dog.
When I heard that Ray was getting really sick, I gave him a call. Our relationship had obviously been strained, so I was very pleased that he picked up the phone. We talked about his bout with cancer, and I said to give his wife Dorothy my love. At the time I didn’t know it was going to be my last conversation with him. I’m so grateful that we had a closing talk.
I will forever miss this remarkable, gifted musician. After Ray passed, I called Robby, told him death trumps everything, suggested we get together. We recently played some Doors songs at a film screening at the Los Angeles County Art Museum. It felt so good. After only a few bars, we were back in the garage in Venice, California. Music is a healing salve.
Excerpted from THE SEEKERS: Meetings With Remarkable Musicians (and Other Artists) by John Densmore. Copyright © 2020. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.