Monday, September 8, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Light My Fire: My Life with the Doors


The Doors had one of the most unique band lineups of any rock band, with only guitar, drums, keyboards, and vocals to create their sound. With this blend of instrumentation and the talented men writing and playing this music, they managed to carve out a one-of-a-kind sound and career in only five and a half short years in order to become one of the most legendary and famous American rock bands of all time. While Jim Morrison is a household name and one of the most famous icons of his era (and beyond), the other three Doors, while well known, have always taken a back seat to Morrison's persona. However, it's always valuable and interesting to get the perspective of as many people in a band as possible, and to get it from someone as talented and outspoken as Ray Manzarek is not to be missed.


Ray Manzarek formed the Doors with his UCLA Film School friend and classmate Jim Morrison in the summer of 1965 and recruited Robby Krieger and John Densmore, whom he met at a meditation lecture, solidifying the lineup that would go on to achieve massive success during the band's lifetime and beyond. A classically trained pianist with a love of jazz, blues, and R&B, Ray pulled double duty in the Doors, as he was not only the keyboard player but his left hand was their bass player.  As supremely talented as Krieger and Densmore were, it was Manzarek that gave the band their unique sound with not only his haunting organ playing, but his insistent and dexterous keyboard bass playing.  Light My Fire, published in 1998, is the late Ray's autobiography about his life in the Doors, and he's as good as his word when it comes to what's in the book.



Ray was born in 1939 and spent his entire childhood in Chicago.  As third generation Polish-American, he lived with his parents and two younger brothers in what is portrayed as a very happy and warm, comfortably working/middle-class family. Indeed, the many chapters describing his childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood in Chicago (where he graduated from DePaul University with an economic degree in 1960) sound idyllic and the warmth and affection Ray has for his family and those years really comes across to the reader. During these years, he became classically trained on the piano before being smitten by the blues and jazz, laying the groundwork for the skills that would serve him in good stead later on in his life.  Moving out to the west coast to attend UCLA Film School, Ray meets the love of his life, Dorothy, whom he married in 1967 and remained married to until his death in 2013. He also became friends with fellow film student Jim Morrison, and when their paths crossed after graduation in 1965, it seemed as though fate brought them together and they decided to form a band based around Jim's lyrics and some melodies he had in his head. Meeting Robby and John at a meditation lecture, Ray recruited them into the band and it's the story of the Doors' career that makes up the bulk of the remainder of the book. It's also where things really get interesting, as there is a lot of information that was new to me, as well as some controversial bits.  Ray discusses the initial band rehearsals and his impressions of his bandmates. It's clear throughout the book that he had, and continues to have, a lot of affection and respect for Jim, and he has nothing but kind words to say about Robby Krieger.  It's when he discusses John Densmore that sparks begin to fly.  It's been no secret over the years that the relationship between Ray and John has been strained (to put it mildly), but throughout the book Ray always seems to take a passive-aggressive swipe at Densmore when he can. He does temper this by offering a lot of praise, not only for John's drumming (calling him "the best drummer I ever played with") but highlighting how his personality fit perfectly within the band dynamic.  However, every time a band conversation is relayed in the book, Ray always includes comments John made that are labelled as being "whiny" or casting Densmore as a "worry-wart." There are also several exchanges described where John tried to make jokes or snide comments about Robby's comfortable upbringing or Jim's parents' money, which were answered with a lot of verbal abuse from the other three back.  In fact, there is one discussion with Jim that Ray shares where, in between sets at the Whiskey Au-Go-Go in the summer of 1966, Jim pulled him outside and asked if they could fire Densmore!  Densmore seems to be the recipient of a lot of criticism in this book, from Ray as well as Morrison...I'm planning on reading John's memoir and reviewing it at a later date to get his side of the story.

From here, Ray gives the reader a firsthand account of the Doors' career, from topping the charts with "Light My Fire" and their debut album through the making of all of their hugely successful albums. It's interesting to get his insiders perspective on many of the recording sessions and concerts, as well as the interband dynamics between the four of them. For the most part, it seems to have been a harmonious brotherhood, at least according to Ray. This is in contrast to the picture painted by Jim's friends in the excellent new book that I recently reviewed, Friends Gathered Together, where it was stated that Jim tolerated his bandmates and that, apart from making music with them, he had no real affection for them.  It's difficult to know who to believe, but as in most cases the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.  I would certainly believe Ray's account as far as his friendship with Jim goes, since he knew Jim the longest, by far, of anyone in the band, having first met him at UCLA in the early 1960s.  Throughout the book, it's obvious he had (and still has) a real love and affection for his friend Jim Morrison. He spends the bulk of the book lamenting Jim's alcoholism and the emergence of Jim's drunken persona, whom he labels "Jimbo."  It is quite sad to read of Ray's heartbreak and despair as he tried to help save Jim from himself, attempts which as everyone now knows were ultimately unsuccessful. I did like how critical he was of Oliver Stone and his movie "The Doors," which none of the surviving members liked, and Ray's attempts to set the record straight were both enlightening and humorous.  The other major thread running throughout the book was Ray's relationship with the love of his life, Dorothy, and it was quite heartwarming to read of his adoration of her...theirs was truly one of the rare showbiz marriages that stood the test of time.



Overall, this is an enjoyable book to read, but there are times where Ray lapses into a lot of hippie-dippie spiritual and mystical speak that tends to grate after a while.  He also seems not to have lost any of the misty-eyed idealism of the 1960s, which is fine for the most part, but he does seem a bit hypocritical when he talks of his dreams for a more utopian future and then describes how excited he was by all of the money he made in the Doors. A house, cars, clothes, musical equipment, all things he spent his well-deserved and well-earned money on, but in stark contrast to his constant talk of equality and his de-emphasis on material possessions and wealth.  It does show that Ray was human like the rest of us, and he does point out that he was only ever in the Doors to make music, stating that earning a living from it was simply a fortuitous byproduct. His writing style is very engaging and there is a lot of humor in the book, both intentional and subtle, with several laugh-out-loud moments attesting to this. It's easy to see how he can (and does) rub many Doors fans the wrong way with his enthusiasm and predilection to have an opinion on just about everything, but this is also one of the qualities that made him an enjoyable interview and the world is definitely a sadder place for his absence, not only as an interesting interviewee, but also for his musicianship.  I just wish the book didn't feel so rushed, as he spends the bulk of the book discussing his life and the early part of the Doors' career and then crams the final four albums and all that happened around them, including the infamous Miami incident and Jim's death, into the last fifty pages. It definitely makes for a somewhat unsatisfying finish to the book.  I also would have liked him to have written more about the Doors' brief post-Morrison career in the early 1970s as well as what he was up to since the band ended in 1973, but I suppose he was only staying true to the subtitle of the book and just writing about his life in the Doors.  One more minor annoyance is his constant reference to video footage of the band, which is followed by a tagline as to how the reader can rent or purchase it. I realize he was probably just trying to be helpful, but after a while it started to come off as though he was shilling for sales.  However, this is a relatively minor complaint, and either way, this is a book well worth reading for any Doors fan; a memoir from a unique man about his time in one of rock music's most unique bands.

MY RATING: 7.5/10




4 comments:

  1. Good review. I've only read one book on the band, No One Here Gets Out Alive, and it was a worthwhile read. I do like (for the most part) Oliver Stone films, but I thought the Doors film was a dud too. It just seemed cheesy and dated. But I agree, it's hard to get the full picture, and their relationships at least worked well enough to keep the band together for a while. During that time, the dynamics probably changed as things tend to do over time. Somehow some bands can make a go of it even longer, and it's surprising when they are able to do that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's the book by Danny Sugerman, isn't it? It's weird because, as you said, band dynamics change but it seems most, if not all, of the bitterness with the Doors came about AFTER they called it a day in 1973. Mainly between Ray and John, who couldn't stand each other.

      Delete
  2. That's right, it was written by Sugerman. I wonder if the riff between Ray & John intensified after Morrison's death, and also with their couple albums they released afterwards. I got the feeling that Morrison and Ray were pretty good friends. Ray being older, sort of a mentor. I thought Morrison got on well with Robbie as well due to their blues interest. John I don't know much about, though I thought he meshed well musically with the band. It's funny that even though the members may not have got along at time, they worked well enough to make it work successfully. Plus you loose a member as the Doors did, and something is missing. I thought the same thing happened once Joplin left Big Brother.

    ReplyDelete
  3. From everything I've read and heard over the years, John was always the odd man out in the band, from the beginning to the present day...it was only in terms of personality, of course, because musically Ray and Robby always lauded him and I agree, he was the perfect drummer for the band. Ray and Jim had been friends from before the band, and while Ray got irritated by John's constant complaining, Jim couldn't stand him, and he used to piss Robby off, too, by joking about his (Robby's) affluent upbringing.

    Band relationships have been touchy since the beginning of time! :)

    You make a good point about bands being able to function well when the band members dislike each other (to whatever degree)...Pink Floyd is another prime example.

    ReplyDelete