A Few Words for Ray Manzarek

Ray during his Doors years.

I apologize, as this is a rushed post, but I feel it’s a necessary one: 

Today, after a typically mundane school day, I returned home only to see that a cyber-bomb had dropped on my daily routine. Ray Manzarek, Doors founder and legendary keyboardist, had passed away at age 74 from long-term cancer, surrounded by family, and, doubtless in the thoughts and memories of millions.

Nothing in my experience as a writer has been as bewildering and as ultimately devastating as the feeling of total wordlessness, the punch-in-the-stomach reality that absolutely nothing can be said. And, in blunt reality, nothing can be said to dull or undo loss. If it is not already clear, I was hit very hard by the death of Ray Manzarek, as if it were a friend or a family member that was gone, not just a talented and beloved musician. But as the initial shock disappears (and indeed, it is still disappearing), I would like to briefly eulogize a man whom I can say, with ultimate assurance, changed my life.

Years before I could sing every note of “Light My Fire,” including the solos, years before I let a skeevy record store owner flirt with me so he would give me a deal on The Doors’ “Absolutely Live,” The Doors were an early cornerstone of my journey into vintage music, the beginning of my breaking free into music that my parents, at the time, had very little interest in. I fell headlong into the trance of The Doors, the slithering rhythms and unearthly tones that made them so gorgeous, so hypnotic, that they still were opening the minds of generations neither born nor conceived of during the short period in which the band was active.

From the very beginning of my loving the Doors, I was a Ray Manzarek fan. I would watch Live at the Hollywood Bowl with my eye on the side of the stage, not just to see a great player at work, but also to see someone completely moved and carried away by the music that moved me too. Watching Ray perform, both back in the day and when I finally got to see him play on June 4th, 2011, was watching a master musician and an unabashed music lover.

I was privileged enough to catch Ray when he appeared to open a very strange venue in Thousand Oaks, California—a large building, newly empty after the collapse of Borders book stores that year, that had been converted to house art and live music until its lease expired at the end of the summer, and a company selling medical supplies was set to move in. Visitors were treated to tiny, intimate shows with some fabulous people, and proceeds were to go to charity. Fifteen years old, I was going to the show with a good friend, Aaron, and his younger sister, Dana, then aged fifteen and twelve respectively.

We decided to arrive as early as possible, several hours before the show was set to begin. So early, in fact, that as we were soon to discover, not even Ray had arrived yet. But as we walked through the parking lot, we saw him, some distance away, walking with someone else. He was tall, seemingly relaxed, and with an expression not unlike he wore in 1967. And despite my shy friends’ protests, I decided that the opportunity was too good to pass up. They dragged behind me apprehensively as I faked confidence, and explained that we just had to take this golden opportunity to meet the man we’d so long admired.

And that we did. Ray seemed appreciative that three young fans were crazy enough to chase him down in a SoCal parking lot. He spoke with his usual wry wit, but a clear and touching affection, even ruffling Dana’s hair. We parted ways after we’d spoken for less than a minute, a relatively unexceptional fan encounter during which we’d been treated with utter respect—respect which I can only hope we returned to him.

Later that night, Ray did a Q&A with the audience assembled to hear him play. When I stood to ask my question, he smiled with recognition.

“Hey, it’s that girl! I love that girl!”

Now, in 2013, I bid farewell to Ray Manzarek along with legions of other adoring fans. One of my childhood heroes has passed away, and I am face to face with the crushing reality that there are many others still to go, sooner or later. And while I am not so deluded as to think that Ray remembered me past that evening, or perhaps the next day, I would like to think that somehow, I stayed “that girl” to him. “That girl” who was unashamed of my undying love and respect for the music he made, and even at age 15, wanted to share it with him.

I am thankful to Ray Manzarek for the great music he left us, thankful for the fact that he was ever here to do what he did so well, and thankful for the small but indisputable thing he did for three young fans who wanted nothing more than to shake his hand.

I am thankful to Ray Manzarek for playing and listening.

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Time Is On My Side: A Teenager at a Stones Secret Show

Rolling Stones secret shows are a thing that always happen to other people—fans of some elusive higher stature with magical gift for anticipating the band’s movements, plus a great deal of superhuman luck. I thought those people at secret Stones shows are all longtime fans who’ve loved the band for twice as long as I’ve been alive. But somehow, here I am at my first Stones show ever, a mere ten feet from Mick Jagger. Close enough to discern the color of the band’s guitar picks, close enough to hear what the microphones miss. I am in the kind of venue the band hasn’t regularly played since 1964, but it is a half-century later—April 27th, 2013, Echo Park, California, and I am seventeen years old.

Raised in a staunchly pro-Beatle household (at least for the most part), it took me some time to find the Stones. The soundtrack of my formative years more closely resembled “All You Need Is Love” than “It’s Only Rock and Roll,” but after that Saturday night at the Echoplex, those characters of myth, theoretically close enough to gob at, are real to me in a way that the Fab Four will never be. Real as they are to very few others, let alone others of my generation. The scene was dreamlike as the band moved around the inexplicably foggy club stage, but evident also was flesh and blood.

ImageEspecially to us young vintage music fans, the Stones are included in the pantheon of unreachables. These men have, in some cases, deeply changed us, but they will never know us. We are just another part of that many-handed, many-throated beast that is the audience, the same wild creature that the Stones conquered at the Marquee Club, Hyde Park, and Madison Square Garden, and painfully lost at the Altamont Speedway in 1969. But as some older fans relish pointing out, we weren’t there. We didn’t know the Stones before the plane and the bodyguards—all we have to judge by is, no wordplay intended, the aftermath. But perhaps that is what made the exclusive phoneless and cameraless Echoplex set all the more special to us.

We were all standing, tickets were an even $20 no matter how much lips and tongue-logo gear you owned or how many Stones records you’ve been alive to rush out and buy upon release. More casual listeners and megafans talked at ease as we all waited in line for the show, swapping facts and anecdotes, quietly calculating how many people stood ahead and behind us. The best kind of rock and roll show is a great equalizer, not a class war, and while there is no question that in recent years, the Stones have become something of a rich man’s band, this gig was anything but a rich man’s show.

Throughout a set that included a wide swath of Stones material from the 60’s to the 80’s plus several blues and R&B covers, we were fortunate enough to see Mick, Keith, Ronnie, and Charlie with Mick Taylor, the extraordinary guitarist who worked in the band from 1969 to 1974, and longtime sax player Bobby Keys, plus Darryl Jones on bass, Chuck Leavell on keys, and Bernard Fowler and Lisa Fischer on background vocals. Musically in top form, the group moved freely around the tiny stage and seemed to be in good spirits, laughing and hugging between songs. “Love in Vain” and “Midnight Rambler” were bluesy highlights, and “Street Fighting Man” blew the crowd off their feet. A funky treatment of “Miss You” breathed new life into a song I have heard many times, but never responded to in its studio form.

When I spoke to the owner of the Echoplex after the set finished around 10:30, he told us that the venue had actually lost money by hosting the Stones on what Jagger called “the first show of the tour, probably the best one.”

True, even in shows like this, the rock industry is a numbers game, so here is how that evening added up: my full expenditure for the Echoplex show was one twenty-dollar bill, one utterly ruined page of notes in a brand-new notebook, one lost pen (fortunately, my spare), and, including both the set and time spent in line for both tickets and the show, approximately eight and one half hours of my life. But what I gained was worth a million lost pens:

Image

I was closer to the band than this photographer was. Really.

I danced, sang, and listened to an hour and twenty minutes of great music from international, and now technically intermillennial icons. I was baptized by Mick Jagger’s waterbottle when he splashed it out into the crowd. After I intently stared down Ronnie Wood when he wandered in front of me, we made eye contact twice. As Jagger announced the end of the set, before the encore of “Brown Sugar” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” I heard him yell “that alright, Charlie?” back towards the drum kit. Finally, I managed to find my crumpled ticket stub on the ground outside my house the next bleary morning, after feeling utterly crushed when I thought I’d lost it.

And what’s more, I feel I saw something very special—not just as a fan who missed the Rolling Stones the first time around (and second, and third, and fourth, etcetera), but even just as a teenager who values great music and a great time. When the group kicked into “Midnight Rambler,” I don’t know firsthand how much it looked and sounded like 1972, and I don’t particularly care. But what I do know is that more than a half-century after they started out, in 2013, even in front of an audience of so few, The Rolling Stones are still brimming with energy, playing well, and bringing people together.

Perhaps the Stones’ secret shows always happens to other people, but April 27th proved to me that if you try sometimes, despite all odds, you’ll find you get what you need.