Light My Fire, My Life with The Doors
by Ray Manzarek
I recently picked this book up in the library, a book on The Doors I hadn’t seen before. I’d somehow missed it when it came out. I figured that it had to have some interesting stuff, since Manzarek was there through it all with Morrison, he was the co-creator of The Doors, and it could be strongly argued that he was the real guiding force in The Doors, shaping and forming them into what they were, utilizing Morrison’s mercurial talents and giving him direction. Morrison, of course, was the force of nature that propelled The Doors forward, and the other way of seeing it is the Manzarek was the one musician who was able to understand Morrison as a poet/songwriter/singer and was the only guy who could have ever ridden the snake.
In any case, the book came out in 1998, and it didn’t disappoint me, it makes for a really interesting read. It needs to be said that Manzarek, though quite a talented writer, is undisciplined, or at the very least could have used a good editor. He writes like a MFA graduate student run amuk – gushing, overusing his favorite arcane words, such as maenads (female followers of Dionysis) frequently throwing in references to mythological figures in describing the moments when the band was inspired. The following passage is an example of this, recalling the session where the Doors (absent of Morrison) record the music to “When the Music’s Over.”
The maenads were with us. The muse Euterpe was with us. Her sisters Calliope and Terpsichore and Polyhymnia had joined us. And they were all whirling and dancing in a delirium of ecstasy, of exhilaration, of joy.
This is the kind of overwrought prose that pops up throughout the book, but at times it leads to good things. The next part of the above section, for instance.
We were in the divine moment and all pretense was abandoned. We were our real, naked selves and we were playing our instruments with our souls. Everything was on the line and because it was… everything was alive. That’s the reward you get when you make the leap into the void.
Passages like this, when he's gotten to the meat of the matter, make the book by turns a compelling read. They take you into the real inner world of The Doors, what it was like to be onstage as a band with Morrison when those incredible, shamanic performances happened. To his credit, Manzarek is a fiercely intelligent man, well read and vastly knowledgeable in the all things art and culture. He understands writing and his prose, though uneven, isn’t afraid to take off into Kerouacian flights of bop prosody. At times, it works. Here's he's describing Morrison walking in the water on the edge of the beach.
He's like an Indian deity, like Krishna - the Blue God - creating a field of diamonds from his footsteps, like Sai Baba, a popular guru of the time, materializing ashes from his fingers, but this human figure is producing glittering, ephemeral, now-you-see-them, now-you-don't jewels.
Manzarek takes us through the whole Doors story, beginning back at film school with Morrison, to their famous meeting on the beach, months after Jim said he was going to move to New York, to finding Keiger and Densmore, through the Doors' early struggles, their time as the house band at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go, their rapid rise when “Light My Fire” became the number one single in the US. Soon after that happened, Manzarek recounts how the band played a gig at Beverly Hills High School with The Coasters. This kind of strange historical detail shows just how much the music business has changed between then and now.
The book is a great insider read – were see Morrison in New York at the Warhol Factory, where a priceless encounter between Morrison and Warhol occurs (as recounted to Manzarek by Morrison). We see the recording of “Light My Fire,” where in the middle of a good take of the song, the band playing live in the studio, no overdubs, Morrison sees a television set that’s on with no sound (the sound engineer wanted to keep an eye on the baseball game) and Jim grabs the TV then throws it at the control booth window. The Doors at this point are a brand new band with their first recording contract, first time in the studio, not superstars. The TV smashes, the window doesn’t. The music stops, and Morrison quietly but forcefully says, "No TV's in the studio." Paul Rothschild, their producer, somehow just lets it go and the next day they come back to record the version of “Light My Fire” that goes to the top of the charts.
Manzarek clearly didn’t like Oliver Stone’s movie about The Doors, ditto for Stone himself, and he goes off on the occasional rant, chastising Stone for aspects of his character and citing how he got facts about The Doors very wrong, and put them in the movie just for the sake of telling the story the way he wanted to tell it. These struck me as funny little asides, though some readers might find them jarring and annoying. Afterward, in each case Manzarek displays humor, asking forgiveness of the reader for his need to vent.
The curious thing about this book, and I don’t think this is any fault of Manzarek’s, is that after reading it, despite all the close up details written by the man who was one of the closest people to Jim Morrison in his life, Morrison himself remains stubbornly elusive, still mysterious, his inner self hidden. We see little glimpses, but he remains almost alien-like, as if he was just visiting here for while, playing around on this earth with all the funny people, his real soul and identity carefully guarded, kept private, always tightly locked away.