A Day With Ray: Remembering The Doors' Keyboardist

Ray Manzarek Headshot Horizontal - H 2013
Getty Images

Ray Manzarek Headshot Horizontal - H 2013

Ray Manzarek, keyboardist for The Doors who co-founded the band in 1965, died on May 20 at the age of 74. He had been battling bile duct cancer.

With no assignment and only the most minimal of work obligations, I spent a day with Ray Manzarek. It was 2008 and in the midst of promoting the book I co-wrote with fellow journalist Steve Bloom, Pot Culture, we had recruited The Doors keyboardist to speak at a conference in Berkeley on marijuana’s impact on creativity and pop culture. He agreed to come with almost no demands or restrictions -- other than a ride to the event at the Doubletree Hotel and back home to Napa.

Ray was greeted and treated like a king at the conference, and patiently obliged the scores of autograph seekers and “I saw you when” stories as his wife of 40-plus years Dorothy stood by. His own tales of the Doors’ earliest rehearsals and formative first months, when songs like “Moonlight Drive” were conceived, had attendees mesmerized -- in part because Ray was regaling the room with the very essence and spirit of rock god Jim Morrison and even more so because he was such a good storyteller. Like the best NPR personalities, he had a tone and inflection to his voice and manner to his speech that completely sucked you in, as we learned on the hour-long drive back to Napa.

There, in our rental car, Ray showered us with more Doors lore, separating myth from reality, emphasizing how funny Jim Morrison really was, blasting Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie about the band, which, he said was more fiction than fact. At one point, we all recalled his production work on seminal albums by L.A. punk band X. Ray said that those records in particular meant a lot to him because he was such a fan. "All I was trying to do was capture the sound of the band in the room because they sounded amazing," he explained.

PHOTOS: The 15 Best Portrayals of Musicians in Movies

Ray was like an open book -- you could ask him anything, and he would answer you not only honestly, but eloquently. No wonder he came up with so many winding, funky, trip-the-light-fantastic melodies: it seemed his music and mind worked very much the same way.

Ray was a connoisseur of life and especially of movies. He knew film history inside and out, starting with his matriculation at UCLA, where he met his future wife and future frontman. “There would be no Doors if it wasn’t for Dorothy Fujikawa,” he has said many times over the years, and to us as well. “She was the one who supported Jim and me as we put the band together.”

But even after selling millions of albums, Ray continued to study the great directors throughout his years. Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Sergei Eisenstein and Joseph von Sternberg -- those names were as likely to be uttered by Ray as great keyboardists or fellow rockers. Not surprisingly, he was also an aficionado when it came to wine, real estate and, of course, food.

STORY: The Doors Release Reimagined New Video for 'L.A. Woman'

As we neared our destination outside of Napa, and evening was approaching, we asked Ray for a recommendation on where to grab a quick bite in town. It turned out he and Dorothy were famished as well and suggested we all eat together at a local Italian bistro.

So there we were, the four of us, celebrating our mutual accomplishments with a bottle of red and hours of even more fascinating conversation. We learned during that time that Ray was still absolutely head-over-heels in love with Dorothy and gave his wife endless credit, not only for steering him the Doors’ way in those early days, but keeping him on a path of contentment and creativity that would serve to preserve his own legacy, too.

By the time we arrived at the Manzarek home, it was nearly midnight. Still, Ray invited us in for a look around. The house was tasteful and white with charming landscaping outside (as much as we could see in the pitch black of night) and a modern, airy vibe indoors. Covering a two-story wall from floor to ceiling was a giant poster for the 1925 silent film The Battleship Potemkin, directed by Eisenstein. It was one of Manzarek's favorites for many reasons including its "dynamic angularity" and "bam-bam cutting," which he described as "insanely revolutionary" for the time.

The story centered on a mutiny that leads to revolution in the time of Russia’s Tsarist regime is an intense, emotional work of art that’s considered one of cinema’s most influential pictures, even in these modern times. You could say the same of the rebel Ray Manzarek, whose snaky organ solos defined an era of music and continue to resonate today on classic rock stations and beyond. He will be missed, but certainly not forgotten.

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin