Light My Fire by Ray Manzarek

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Light My Fire by Ray Manzarek

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Poorly written, but very endearing, Light My Fire is a recommended read for all Doors fans. Manzarek's affection for Jim Morrison shines through every page, even if he does cling a little to naive faith. It's not a taxing read, but it is an interesting one. One for a library visit and a rainy afternoon.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: May 1999
Publisher: Arrow
ISBN: 0099280655

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Not the most original of titles is it? "Light My Fire, My life with the Doors". You'd have thought Ray Manzarek would have come up with something rather better than that for his life story, wouldn't you? Well, don't let it put you off because because Ray's a nice guy - I think you'd enjoy reading his book. And anyway, he was never the wordsmith was he? He was the music man of the Doors, he was the keyboards man; the one who gave their music its minor key moodiness and its Fender keyboard bass.

Did you like the Doors? Do you like the Doors? Me, I loved them. I still love them. About twenty years ago every one I knew was into the Doors; all the girls loved Jim Morrisson, myself included. We liked his pre-beard, leather-trousered, silver-buckled belt stage best, we couldn't believe that a deep, rich, full-of-sex voice like that could come out of such a pretty man. Actually, looking back, I think all the boys loved Jim too (although they pretended it was his poetry that they liked). At any rate, much as they'd have protested, they all wanted to be like him. Of course the Doors weren't just Jim Morrison; they were Ray Manzarek, John Densmore and Robby Krieger too. Jim's dead now and we'll never be able to read his story but John's written his and so has Ray. I've read both and, despite its flaws, I prefer the Manzarek story of the Doors years. So that's the one I'm going to tell you about. If you're at all interested you should read both too and I imagine that then you'd be closer to the 'real' truth, but it's Manzarek's enthusiastic, touching, somehow naïve, but always musically interesting account I'd prefer to read.

The book begins at the end of the story, with the death of Jim Morrison in Paris, shortly after the recording of the album LA Woman. It tells of that last, joyous, music-making time and the sad confusion of the days so shortly afterward, the days when the three remaining Doors waited for their manager to tell them what was really happening in Paris. And really, that first chapter sets the scene for the whole book - for although it tells Ray's story it's really about music and it's really about Jim. It ends like this:

"We'll never make art again. The four of us will never enter that zone... making Doors music... ever again. It was over and we would all be something slightly less. We would always have a piece of us missing. For the rest of our lives."

Manzarek's childhood was a fairly happy one. He was one of three sons born into a liberal, hardworking second generation Polish immigrant family. His parents were avid collectors of old blues records and it was their encouragement which set him on a musical path. Some of the most interesting passages in the book come here as Manzarek tells of his lessons on the family piano and his progression through stride and boogie woogie to blues playing. And of course his left hand playing those stride and boogie woogie rhythms eventually became the Doors bassist. But Manzarek was filled with enthusiasm for what he was learning and he's still filled with enthusiasm now. Even better, at the time, so were his parents:

"And I sat at our country German upright and worked on my left hand, over and over, trying to get that beat, trying to make that snake crawl out of my fingers. And I did it. I got the hang of it. I could do it! And my parents, those blues record collectors, loved it. My mother smiled and my father tapped his foot as he relaxed in his chair. I once heard him say to my Mom, 'That boy's getting good, Helen.' And as John Lee Hooker said, 'I felt sogood, I boogied in the house.'"

Each part of Light My Fire about the music is just as enthusiastic as that and they're the best parts of it for me; they're fun to read but they're also incredibly interesting because Manzarek isn't afraid to talk technical. You get the full explanation of the styles, the keys, the chords, the arrangements and the productions without ever being talked down to. I discovered a lot about musical composition by reading Manzarek's book but he never let me forget that the technical ability is nothing without the verve, commitment and emotional involvement which turn the tonal pyrotechnics into art, or if that sounds too pretentious for you, at least into the sort of music people like me listen to not for weeks, but for years.

But of course the lion's share of the book is devoted to the Doors. Manzarek went on to do a film degree at UCLA and it was there in LA, on the course, that he met Jim Morrison and became his friend. They had plans to become film makers, not musicians, and it wasn't until a while after their degree was over that they decided to marry Morrison's poems to Manzarek's love of the blues and form a band. By that time America was in the grip of the first youth culture revolution and the two were huge admirers not only of the music but, like the good little arts graduates they were, of the Beat Poets and of the philosophies of Jung and Nietzsche. They loved the Beatniks. They fashionably explored Eastern mysticism and ideas, and of course they explored drugs; cannabis and LSD. And all of these things were both the background and the spur to the music they created. Just as it's a fusion of so many musical styles it's also a fusion of these equally many intellectual and spiritual ideas and a product too of psychedelic experience.

To be honest Ray Manzarek is a disgraceful name dropper. He wants you to know about all the iconic figures he's come into contact with in his life. He wants you to know he's well-read. He wants you to know he's known all the greats: poets, muscians and movers and shakers. He's also kept hold of many of those sixties eastern ideas and flower power attitudes down the years so reading his book you'll also be bombarded with constant references to chakras and energies and yings and yangs and chis and all that stuff. Great if you're into it all yourself, unfortunately I'm not but I really, honestly didn't mind because Ray's such a nice guy and his view of what's right and wrong and how we should live and behave towards each other isn't very far from mine, chakras or no chakras.

And then you get the big story, the story of the Doors, the story of finding Densmore and Krieger, of making the music, of pounding the streets looking for a recording deal, of playing the early gigs, and of having a really good time. And of course, the story of making it big, of Light My Fire becoming number one in the American charts. Of Jim singing 'higher' and not 'better' on the Ed Sullivan Show and scandalising the nation, of Jim performing on stage like a Native American Shaman, of gigs bigger and better and more psychedelic. All the anecdotes are here and they're all sadly set against the backdrop of the huge gulf apparent between the peacenik outlook of Manzarek and his wife and Morrison's decline into alcohol dependency and ridiculous levels of drug use. And that decline takes you equally sadly to the end of the circle, to where the book began, in the Paris hotel bathroom that day in 1971.

It's clear that one enormous motivation for Manzarek to write his book was to defend his friend. Even now, thirty years later he can't condemn Jim, or even the worst of his excesses. He's worked out an endearing but vaguely embarrassing theory of 'Jim' and 'Jimbo'. He sees the poet, the successor to the Beats, the LA film student as Jim, his friend and another person altogether from the hard-drinking, pill-popping, aggressive Jimbo. He thinks Morrison may have had some kind of psychological disorder, some sort of split personality, caused by his particular susceptibility to alcohol or perhaps his strict, unloving upbringing. I don't know about that, and if you get around to reading Densmore's book too you'll see that he's rather a large tad less forgiving. Again though, it doesn't matter because Light My Fire simply shines out with its atmosphere of purely personal recollection. You don't mind Ray having rose tinted spectacles because you can see just how much he loved his friend. And I can't see what's wrong with that.

Poor old Ray. Despite the mystery and odd circumstances, like Richy Preacherwhatsit, Jim's dead you know. He's not been lifted by the little green men, he's not escaping it all and living a life of humble obscurity as a Buddhist monk, not Jim, not the Jim who was a Native American Shaman when he wanted to be and halted his gig before thousands of people to talk to a grasshopper. He's dead. He died in Paris, in a hotel bathroom, aged only twenty-seven, and Ray knows it; it's his great sadness. And that's why I'd rather read Ray's remembering than anything 'outside', or even Densmore's account although it's probably the more objective. Ray's is a subjective story, a happy remembering, it's his nostalgic memoir if you like. It's nice to read.

This isn't a great book, the writing is fairly poor, like I said, Ray Mazarek wasn't the wordman. But, y'know, it might be naïve, it might not be particularly well-written, it might nag you to death about chakras and name-drop like fury, but Light My Fire is a lovely book; interesting, open, touching, and even the naivety is engaging when you think about just how naughty everyone considered the Doors, and especially Jim, to be. Makes you realise we're all just people really. And let's face it, if anyone at all has got an interesting story to tell it has to be Ray Manzarek, hasn't it?

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Max Rippe said:

I think you really missed what Ray was saying about jim and jimbo. Its supposed to be very representative. It parallels Dionysian revelry. Dionysus represents instinctual living, intellectual conversation, passion, and the role of intoxicants in enhancing situations. He also represents the power that intoxicants can have to turn your passion, conversation, and instincts into tools of evil and foolishness. Jim Morrison had much to be defended for. Such a wise person. As ray says, he was definitely privy to same ancient knowledge. I dont think someone as intelligent as ray honestly believes that jim wasn't responsible for his own demise. I think he just wanted to take the synical spin off the story that Oliver stone and others have delivered to the world. Also, I've never read such descriptive paragraphs as those written by mr. Manzarek. He has an amazing grasp of sentence structure and flow. I would say because because he does know poetry and art very well. His plot development, foreshadowing, and symbolic figures are incredible also.

P.S try not to treat eastern mysticism, existentialism, and the ideas of living an instinct based life as such mumbo jumbo.

Jill replied:

I don't think I missed anything, sorry! Re-reading this review, I think I have, if anything, been kind towards a naive and not very well-written book. This is because I have a great affection for Jim (and Jimbo!) and Ray and The Doors in general, and it gave me a great deal of pleasure to read. I'm sorry if this didn't come across to you, but it doesn't change my critique, which, as I say, I think could have been considerably sharper.