Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Light My (Funeral) Pyre: Ray Manzarek’s Long, Strange Movie Trip

Some people are meant to die young. Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, entered into myth when he died in Paris at age 27, having overdosed on drugs and fame. But I thought Ray Manzarek was capable of living forever. Ray, whose keyboard artistry dominated the great Doors hit, “Light My Fire,” seemed well and fit when we spoke at length in 2008. He was then living in Napa Valley with his wife of forty years, growing vegetables and regularly working out. He spoke candidly and with roaring enthusiasm about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, of how LSD had opened the doors of perception and helped him find his way. It was totally clear to me that his was a life well lived. Now, alas, he’s dead of cancer at the age of 74.

Though Manzarek made his mark in the world of music, I discovered that he’d been a movie buff all along. In fact, he first met Jim Morrison when both were students in UCLA’s graduate film program, which they favored because of its “European sensibilities,” at a time when Hollywood had dedicated itself to Rock Hudson’s on-screen flirtations with Doris Day. Actually, Ray rather liked Pillow Talk, which he described to me as a guilty pleasure. But by the time he entered film school, he had discovered The Virgin Spring and The Four Hundred Blows. For him, “Black Orpheus just totally sealed the deal. . . . You can have samba and an adaptation of a classical Greek story of Orpheus and Eurydice and Death and the underworld, and it all takes place at Carnaval in Brazil. And I said, fuck it, that’s it, that’s what I want to do.”

At UCLA, where instructor Josef von Sternberg of The Blue Angel fame praised his student film, Manzarek had no clear-cut career plan: “You know, I was a pothead. I was trying to do as little as possible.” He toyed with making documentaries, then joined with Morrison, Robby Krieger, and John Densmore to form a rock group that hit it big in 1967. But always he remained fascinated by the contrast between music and movies. For him, “Music is close-your-eyes-and-have-an-orgasm. . . . Cinema, on the other hand, is our contemporary church. You walk into the darkened auditorium, and there on a large screen the gods dance for you, tell a story.” Referring to the Javanese tradition of using shadow puppets to convey religious teachings, he noted that today’s moviegoers “are not watching the gods, but we make those people on the screen our gods. Those are our contemporary gods and goddesses.”   

Ray passionately described for me his favorite Sixties films, including Bonnie and Clyde, Blow-Up, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. (The Doors first watched 2001 while stoned, sitting in the very first row, mesmerized by Kubrick’s long, strange trip.) To him such films, edited like rock videos, struck a chord with America’s youth because they were “just going at the intensity that WE were going at. Everybody in America or all the young people in America, all the stoners in America, were operating at a high level of INTENSITY. And those movies were made at that level of intensity. And it was like TOO MUCH TOO MUCH TOO FAST TOO HARD TOO BRIGHT TOO COLORFUL. TOO LOUD, MAN, TOO LOUD. TOO VIOLENT. And that’s what we said – Yeahhhhh! That’s the way movies are supposed to be.”

Well, Ray, you’ve just swung open the doors of perception for the last time. I do hope you’re enjoying this chance to break on through to the other side.


  1. A terrific remembrance - I had no idea Mr. Manzarek was such a film buff. I just attended a movie convention where Metallica's Kirk Hammett was selling a hardcover book showing off his monster toy collection. (Monster toys, not monster collection, although it is a monster collection too).

    Can you imagine watching 2001 with the Doors? A transcendent experience I'm sure - whether you inhaled or not!

    I hope the other side treats him well. RIP Ray Manzarek.

  2. When we spoke, he'd just watched Summer and Smoke with Geraldine Page and Laurence Harvey, which he considered #5 on his personal list of great Tennessee Williams films. So his taste was definitely eclectic.