I turned my laptop on just after dawn this morning, as I usually do, and sat down with a cup of strong black coffee to see what was happening in the world. Two stories caught me like punches to the stomach and I woke up without any need for caffeine: a tornado killing scores of people in Oklahoma, and Ray Manzarek of the Doors dying at 74 of bile duct cancer.
Jesus, is there a black cloud hanging over the world right now? Is the Angel of Death hovering somewhere in the high blue yonder? Is Kali the Destroyer on the loose wreaking havoc with our minds, our bodies and our spirits?
Any formulation of words would be an inadequate response for Oklahoma. There are stories of children drowning. Imagine that, in your own hometown. All we can do is pray, if that way inclined, send money if we have any, and remember those we love but don’t look after very well. (No one is more guilty of that than I am.)
Manzarek is another matter. I am a Doors fan. In my twenties they were my favourite band. I bought every lp I could afford. I grew a beard, as much to make me look like Jim as Allen Ginsberg (it didn’t work in either case). I started writing journals because I read Jim did it, at least in the early days, and it sounded terrifically poet-like. I was such a fan of the Doors I even went to visit Jim in Pere Lachaise, although I couldn’t get anywhere near his grave because of other Doors fans and some tv cameras. I’d forgotten it was his birthday that day.
The Doors may have folded, at least in their original form, a decade before I could vote, but their music provided a significant part of the soundtrack of my youth. And although I didn’t realise it at the time, the music was at least as important to the band’s intelligent intensity on tv and record – it was at least as much a part of their scary, sexy, dangerous aura – as Jim’s developing poetical gift and his devil-prophet-snake god stage presence. Manzarek’s musicianship in particular was extremely sophisticated. So much the perfect complement to poetry, in fact, that Ray worked, in later life, with San Francisco/ Beat legend Michael McClure.
When your heroes die the hours and days and weeks and years you spent with them in your imagination also die. If they help to make you who you are, their leaving takes a piece of you along. That’s how it is with Ray Manzarek, and one reason why the news that he has gone sucks as much as it does. The other? Turn on your tv or radio tonight and try to find something as fearless, as weird, as unbounded and frontier-crossing as “The End”. You won’t because those guys took the rock and roll song so far and fast it broke, to paraphrase Hunter Thompson, and rolled right back.
There was something new and free happening when the Doors were on top of their game, a simultaneous liberation of the body and the mind from the straitjacket of consensual reality. The same consensus that circles and traps us today, even when we know it’s bullshit because Morrison and his band, among many others, showed us it was bullshit.
Mourning Ray Manzarek we mourn our freedom too. We see the world closing up just a little bit more, getting further away still from the days when such miracles could come out of a recording studio. But then we go back, as I just did, and put a Doors record on; we hear the ecstatic opening keyboard notes of “Light My Fire”, and once the hairs on our arms have settled back in their place, we remember freedom is always waiting for those who know how to find it.
I set my stinky boots down on the freedom road when I was still in my teens, and I will never stop walking it however tough the road gets. It’s just too sweet a journey. I hope the friends and family of Ray Manzarek take some comfort in the knowledge that he helped put me, and millions of others, right there. We should pay him back by lauding his incredible talent in the places that laud only Hendrix.