According to a statement first posted on The Doors’ official Facebook fan page, founding member Ray Manzarek has died after a lengthy battle with bile duct cancer. Manzarek was 74.
Manzarek co-founded The Doors with Jim Morrison after a chance encounter on Venice Beach, not long after the two had parted ways at UCLA* film school. Manzarek, a classically trained keyboardist who’d been kicking around in local bands, and Morrison, already a nascent form of the preening poet he'd become, conceptualized the band on the spot, based on Morrison’s grand assertions that he’d already been writing a concert in his head, and Manzarek’s genuine interest in hearing it. That iconic, oft-imagined moment—in which Morrison sang a few bars of “Moonlight Drive” to Manzarek, blowing his mind—marked the beginning of what would become decades of Morrison mythmaking, much of it propagated by Manzarek himself.
But while the Doors' mythos became overwhelming, even off-putting for some, behind it was the music—and Manzarek’s spiraling keyboard lines, a heady mix of jazz, blues, and classical influences, distinguished The Doors every bit as much as Morrison’s husky croon or swaggering personality. The band's breakthrough "Light My Fire," though written by guitarist Robbie Krieger and launched as a showcase for Morrison’s sexual charisma, arguably belongs to Manzarek. On the radio, it whirled in on the unmistakable, acid-crazed calliope sound that inspired untold generations of rock organ players. On the album, it’s Manzarek’s Eastern raga that holds everything together and keeps up the song’s ebb and flow, an endlessly burbling loop that presaged the band’s longer head-trips to come. Live, Manzarek also provided the band’s bass lines with his Fender Rhodes; both on stage and off, he was the foundation of The Doors' often-unstable house.
Though tethered to an instrument slightly less expressive than Krieger’s guitar (or, for that matter, John Densmore’s jazzy drumming), Manzarek could wring all manner of emotional tone out of his organ and piano: the swaggering, bluesy creep of “Soul Kitchen;” the disorienting acid drips of “Strange Days;” the springy fuzz-stomp of “Hello, I Love You.” Whenever The Doors went headlong into full-bore theatrics on long slow-boilers like “When The Music’s Over,” Manzarek’s organ was the musical throughline fighting to resurface under the dramatic weight, the reemergence of his blues riffs a reminder that this was supposed to be a song, after all. Other times he was the drama, the dreamy waterfall runs and subtle, mellow low notes on “Riders On The Storm” providing all of the song's moody nuance.
Manzarek’s importance to The Doors only grew after Jim Morrison’s death, to ends both positive and detrimental. On the one hand, The Doors legend would definitely not loom as large today were it not for decades of Manzarek lionizing his departed bandmate. On the other hand, “The Doors legend” is also a huge burden on the actual music, a brand co-opted the second Morrison was in the ground and The Doors released Other Voices, the first of two albums in which Manzarek would take over vocal duties. Throughout the years, Manzarek would make many questionable decisions in his handling of the post-Morrison Doors, rigging up new releases by setting Morrison’s poetry to music, and even reuniting the band to tour as The Doors Of The 21st Century—a name that was only settled on after Densmore sued to stop them.
More recently, Manzarek attempted to breathe new life into the band through a collaboration with Skrillex that Manzarek trumpeted as the first Doors song of the new millennium, despite no one, anywhere, ever regarding it as such. He also wrote a book, The Poet In Exile, that was little more than a therapy exercise masquerading as fiction, in which a Jim Morrison-type rock star known as “The Snake Man” fakes his own death, reunites with his keyboard player “Roy,” apologizes for how he treated him, then thanks him profusely for keeping his legacy alive. As of 2011, Manzarek was still trying to turn it into a movie, convinced, as always, that this story needed to be told… by Ray Manzarek.
But for all the basking in reflected glory, all those irritating interviews where Manzarek couldn’t help but wax lyrical about Morrison “breaking on through,” “riding the crystal ship,” and other branded phrases, it's hard to deny that Manzarek arguably had every right to exploit the myth that he'd had such a hand in creating. That he chose to do so, repeatedly, was a constant disappointment to fans. (As one of them, I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t.) But it was also one born out of the unthinkable situation of trying to build a lifetime out of six short years of work, and being forced to wrangle a narrative that had become larger than any of them. Manzarek always claimed he only did all those things because Morrison was a poet, and a poet wants his words to outlive him. So, like his keyboard parts did for the songs, it was Manzarek who had to keep the story going.
And to Manzarek’s credit, he also tried to tell his own story. He released records both solo and with his "supergroup," Nite City. He found scrappy L.A. punk band X, producing and playing on their first four albums. He jammed with Echo And The Bunnymen, keeping a hand in the dark New Wave that The Doors had fostered. He backed Iggy Pop, stretched out with numerous jazz, blues, and electronica musicians, gigged with young bands just starting out around his hometown, and even gamely sent up his own playing for Weird Al Yankovic. He dabbled in his own poetry and wrote non-Doors-related fiction—including the Civil War ghost story Snake Moon. But above everything, there was The Doors. Manzarek was there to open them, and he saw to it that they never closed.
*The original posting of this obit misidentified Manzarek and Morrison's school as USC.