Ray Manzarek remembered with an epic recount of a New York adventure
So it was that I walked into the Society Hall nearly a half hour late. Ray and Tim were nowhere to be found at first, no one would let me backstage, and the guy taking tickets seemed unimpressed by my claims that I should have a ticket waiting. I finally negotiated my way into the auditorium, which felt for all the world like a church. A giant engraving over the stage caught my eye. “The place where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground.” I found a seat down front and tried to relax, pleased that at least the show hadn’t started yet. People filled in around me, and around 8:00, Ray Manzarek and George Winston walked out without fanfare, both of them relaxed and casual.
Two huge pianos were onstage in a sort of 69, and each of the guys sat down, facing each other. I still can’t get over the fact that I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know Ray recently. We haven’t spent hours and hours talking, but I’ve been able to observe him at work, and I’ve soaked up a lot in these encounters. George Winston is a little under a decade younger than Ray, and he seemed as impressed by Ray as those of us in the audience were.
Winston’s new album is all jazz arrangements of Doors songs for solo piano, and Ray was so impressed by the album that the two of them decided to play this show together. “The Crystal Ship” was a beautiful way to start the evening off. There was no introduction. They just sat down and started playing. Within moments, I was entranced, forgetting completely about the rain outside.
“Love Street” was next up, and it struck me how different it was to see Ray in this context. For once, the keyboards were the whole song. No vocals. No guitar. The dynamics of the music were totally different. George Winston provided Ray the perfect companion onstage. There was a great sense of play between the two of them. These are Ray’s songs, but they were Winston’s arrangements, and it looked like Ray was hearing these songs for the first time. He was delighted, occasionally talking along as he played, letting loose with the occasional lyric, his foot tapping in time. “Love Me Two Times” proved that the evening wasn’t going to be some mellow VH-1 affair, injecting a bit of raunch into the proceedings. Ray finally slipped off his jacket, getting comfortable, laying actual copies of the CD onto the strings of his open piano, altering the sound for a very experimental version of “My Wild Love,” one of the evening’s unexpected highlights.
Before he played “Love Her Madly,” Ray plugged the AICN screening the following night, telling everyone about his first film as a director, underselling the heck out of it. There’s an offhand quality to Ray when he’s talking about what he’s up to, like he’s not trying to hype you at all. He’s going to be there, he’s going to show the film, and if you want to show up... great. If not, he’s still going to have a good time. He’s loose, totally at ease, and it should be noted, he’s very funny in person. He did a wicked impression of John Densmore before launching into “Light My Fire,” which closed out the first half of the evening. He and George left the stage, and as the house lights came up, I stood to walk around a bit and stretch my legs. I was feeling the effects of the travel and the lack of sleep and the rain, and I wasn’t sure how long we’d been listening to the music. I practically felt like I was out of body during the thing, and I wanted to wake myself up a bit.
I managed to find Tim in the midst of the crowd, and he pointed out where he was sitting with his mother and a friend. Tim had a camera with him, and he was shooting footage for an ongoing project, a document of all the things Ray’s working on right now. Tim’s like me, one of these proto-GUMPS who drifts through life, somehow landing in these amazing places and doing these amazing things.
He was one of the producers of DETROIT ROCK CITY, and it was really his blood, sweat, and tears that connected Gene Simmons and Mike De Luca, allowing the film to happen. Tim’s three great passions growing up were KISS, The Doors, and horror films, so it’s somehow fitting that he’s made a career with DETROIT ROCK CITY, his current work with Ray and the band, and with his upcoming film 2001 MANIACS. We spent the intermission talking, and he told me one of those “How stupid can some people be?” stories about how Macauley Culkin’s agent managed to not only profusely insult Ray on the phone that morning, but also managed to guarantee that Culkin, a massive self-professed Doors fan, would not get a chance to read for Ray’s upcoming film RIDERS ON THE STORM. It was one of those moments where someone’s total ignorance manages to not only offend someone, but also cost a client work. It’s not like Culkin is exactly turning roles down at the moment, either. It’s a shame. RIDERS is a good script with three really strong young lead roles. Eddie Furlong, who I met at the House of Blues show by the Doors a few weeks ago, was the first person to sign up for the film, and there’s a number of other interesting young guys currently circling the project.
The second half of the show began with an elegaic version of “Summer’s Almost Gone” that felt especially appropriate with the weather outside. “I Can’t See Your Face In My Mind” was up next, and it set Ray off on a string of memories about how that was the first song Jim ever sang to him sitting on Venice Beach. He described the process of recording the song with Paul Rothschild, and that set George Winston off in turn, talking about how he first stumbled across the music of The Doors and how it changed his entire life and his opinion of what music is supposed to be. Ray played a solo tune next, “Take It As It Comes,” talking about his work with poet Mark McClure, who he accompanies sometimes. He spoke of his regrets that he never got to play for Jim in the same way, and that this song was written “for Jim to read his poetry to. One day, we’re going to play this together.” It was achingly beautiful, the music of loss and memory. George followed this by playing his only solo piece of the evening, a selection from AN AMERICAN PRAYER’s CD release. It’s actually an original composition by George to accompany “Bird Of Prey.” It was so beautiful that Ray actually turned away from the audience so he could have a private reaction.
Afterwards, they played “Riders On The Storm” together, and it was a real reminder of just how epic and lovely the song really is. Even though that was supposed to be the final song of the night, the audience managed to coax them back out for one encore, “Soul Kitchen,” and Ray couldn’t contain himself any longer. He ended up singing along again, and even though he doesn’t have what I would call a great singing voice, there’s something so passionate and undeniable about the way he sings these songs that you just end up with this grin on your face, a natural reaction to such open exuberance.
By this point, the evening was pretty much a hazy blur for me. Fatigue had set in and I barely knew where I was. We went to some sort of nightclub, loud beyond comprehension and so dimly lit that I had to navigate my way through the dance floor by braille in search of our friends. Then we went walking in the rain, looking for bars, and found one where we began to piss off a bartender by unstacking chairs, a group of 12 of us trying to find a place to sit, and before we even started to shake the rain off, we were told the bar was closing.
It was 2:00. It hit me that I was supposed to get up the next day to try and get myself and Ray onto THE HOWARD STERN SHOW at some unholy hour, so I bowed out and headed back to the hotel. I figured sleep would be a simple thing by that point.