By Paul Freeman [2003 Interview]

Our interview with Ray Manzarek, innovative keyboardist of The Doors, took place in 2003, while he was touring with the band’s co-founder, guitarist Robby Krieger, and new vocalist Ian Astbury, as The Doors of the 21st Century.

Manzarek passed away from a rare form of cancer in 2013, at age 74. The music he made with The Doors in the 60s remains as vigorous, fascinating and influential as ever.

Jim Morrison is dead. The Doors live on.

Founding members Ray Manzarek (keyboards) and Robby Krieger (guitar) have revived the seminal 60s band, now billed as The Doors of the 21st Century. They are joined by bassist Angelo Barbera, drummer Ty Dennis and vocalist Ian Astbury, formerly of The Cult.

Manzarek says The Doors’ music and moody, poetic lyrics never lost their relevance. “It’s a grasp for freedom, an attempt to leap beyond the chains of our life, of our society, the chains of the world that hold us down and keep our spirits down,” he says. “The Doors attempted to fly off the planet and to explore the depths of the unconscious, the dark places that people are afraid to go.”

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Manzarek and Krieger became re-energized after performing on VH1’s “Storytellers” series last year. The pair, along with original drummer John Densmore, were bolstered by reverential guest singers, including Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland, Train’s Pat Monahan, Creed’s Scott Stapp, Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell and The Cult’s Astbury. When Manzarek and Krieger decided to launch The Doors of the 21st Century, they tapped Astbury to handle the vocals.

“Ian was the one we thought was the best man for the job,” Manzarek says. “He’s similar to Jim, in that he’s a shamanic type. He’s also into Native American spirituality and Buddhism. He’s a Celtic Christian, just like Jim was. So there’s a great similarity. They share a dark, brooding archetype. But he’s never imitating Jim. He’s himself, Ian Astbury, singing the words of The Doors.”

The Doors originally formed in 1965 by UCLA film students Manzarek and Morrison. “We had nothing. After we graduated and decided to put this band together, Jim moved in with Dorothy [Manzarek’s wife] and I. Dorothy worked and supported us, while the two of us would work on songs and run around on the beach and get strong and healthy.”

They honed a sound that Manzarek describes as “a jazz, classical, flamenco guitar, blues, bottle-necked, jug band-based rock ’n’ roll,” often accentuated by Manzarek’s gothic keyboard work. The Doors became a sensation at the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles and Elektra Records signed them. “Light My Fire” soared to number one. The rest was history, though the headlines were not always positive.

The riveting, self-destructive Morrison attracted the spotlight, even when he wanted to escape its glare. His looks and wild antics sparked a media feeding frenzy and a point of controversy. In 1970, the band found itself in the middle of a sensational trial after Morrison was arrested on allegations that he had exposed himself during a Miami concert.

In 1971, at age 27, MOrrison died of a heart attack in Paris and entered the realm of myth. “That’s my friend, Jim, my buddy,” Manzarek says., “The icon doesn’t exist for me. I’m mildly amused by the worship of the icon. That almost has nothing to do with Jim’s poetry.

“Everybody just bought the image of Jim Morrison. Many people love it. Many people hate it. But for me, he’s a poet. That’s why we put the band together in the first place. It was going to be poetry and rock ’n’ roll, like the beatniks did poetry and jazz. That’s what we did. Then Jim’s death put him into the James Dean cult status.”

Manzarek himself a filmmaker, has particular scorn for Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie “The Doors.”

“Oliver Stone’s movie is a story of Oliver Stone in black leather pants,” Manzarek says. “That’s how Oliver would act. He never caught the nuances, the subtleties and the intellect of Jim Morrison. He depicted him as ranting and raving, spouting poetry, drunk out of his mind all the time.

“The worst part of it is that nobody laughed in the entire movie. I gotta tell you, man, we had a grand time, tons of laughter, and that sure isn’t in the movie. He wanted to make the movie about the wild and crazed Jim Morrison. It’s not a psychedelic movie. It’s a white powder movie. It had nothing to do with opening the doors of perception. That’s what The Doors is, from Aldous Huxley’s book, ‘The Doors of Perception.’”

After Morrison’s death, The Doors made two more albums, then disbanded. “We thought about getting another lead singer back then. Iggy Pop was considered. But the people would have crucified him - ‘How dare you take Jim Morrison’s place?’ Even today, some critics are giving it a tough time about that.

“Hey, folks, Jim Morrison has been dead for 30 years. But we’ve got a darned good lead singer. All I know is that audiences who are coming now think that it’s one of the most powerful rock ’n’ roll shows they’ve ever seen. We’re trying to play with the same energy, intensity and passion that we had in the 60s and 70s. And I think we’re approximating that quite well, thank you.

“it would be great if Jim was here. But he’s not. So this is what you get in the 21st century.”

The Doors of the 21st Century have had to overcome legal hassles since re-forming the band. After the VH1 show, the Harley-Davidson motorcycle company asked the band to play a couple of concerts. Manzarek and Krieger said yes. Densmore said no. He then sued, when The Doors sailed forth without him. Another suit was filed by Morrison’s parents.

“I figure there is so much energy and so much power coming off of the band coming together that people just freaked out,” Manzarek says.

Former Police drummer Stewart Copeland also sued, after he replaced Densmore and then was himself replaced. But that suit was settled amicably. “We’re all good friends again,” Manzarek says. “When we go into the recording studio, we hope to have Stewart come in and do some things with us.

When The Doors of the 21st Century record an album of new material, they’ll still have Manzarek and Krieger to compose the music. But they’ve had to find substitutes for Morrison’s lyrical magic.

“We’ve got some good stuff. We’ve got some lyrics by Jim Carroll [“Basketball Diaries”], John Doe [X], Michael McClure the elder statesman beatnik from San Francisco who was Jim’s poetry mentor and good buddy. Ian’s got some stuff, too. So we’re going to continue the poetic tradition of The Doors.

“The lyrics should have meaning. That should never change. There has always been an exploration of the darker side of things. And that shouldn’t change. Not that we don’t absorb the light. But there should always be an exploration of the dark underbelly of America.”