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.

The Show Must Go On: Roger Waters’ Wall Revisited

Aside

During Pink Floyd’s 1977 tour of their concept album, Animals, their chief songwriter and bassist, Roger Waters, was profoundly disturbed by an incident where he spat on a particularly unruly audience member. Stemming from this incident and its subsequent soul-searching was the concept double album, The Wall— a chronicle of distrust, self-doubt, repression, and most notably isolation. After years in the making, it would be released before Christmas in 1979. The album, the last one featuring Pink Floyd’s classic lineup of Waters along with guitarist David Gilmour, keyboardist Rick Wright, and drummer Nick Mason, would become the best-selling double album of all time, a veritable classic of its era and beyond it.

A still of an original Wall concert in 1980

After twenty-six ridiculously expensive and not altogether successful shows that the rapidly fragmenting band performed all over the world in 1980 and 1981, people rightfully assumed that The Wall would probably never again be performed. This was to the great dismay of Pink Floyd fans who were not able to catch the original shows, especially since no footage of the original concerts has been released. Although Waters has toured The Wall solo several times since those original shows, most of us young fans conceded that probably we would never get to see Waters’ magnum opus performed live.

Some of us 21st century fans got very lucky though when Roger Waters announced that he would embark on a new solo tour with The Wall. After a run of sold-out and critically-acclaimed shows all over the world in 2010 and 2011 with a touring band that included G.E. Smith, Snowy White, and Waters’ son, Harry, Roger again embarked on the tour for 2012. And just a few weeks ago, that massive tour returned to Los Angeles, this time, outgrowing its previous host, the Staples Center, to inhabit the massive LA Coliseum, a venue used for the 1984 Olympics.

Waters at the LA Coliseum show I saw on May 16th, 2012

The long silence on this blog is largely due to the fact that it took me days to even process the scale and sheer power of the event. To see The Wall performed in its entirety by the chief mastermind behind it thirty-two years later with the show that the original essentially wished it could be was an experience I will never forget. However, as much as the masterfulness of the original music blew me away, the thing that made the experience truly exceptional was the way that Waters has managed not only to keep The Wall relevant, but to make it more relevant and in-touch than it has ever been before.

From my understanding of The Wall’s development, it began as basically a personal project for Waters– an expression of his personal struggles, elements of his past and present including his breakup with his wife, the death of his father in World War II, and his perceived isolation from both the people around him and even from emotion itself. Over the years though, it has become much, much more than that, seemingly for both Waters and for his audience.

No longer simply a story of personal struggle, this newest incarnation of The Wall delves into larger issues than those of one life. Waters uses his performance as a platform for the issues he finds important. Anti-war and sometimes anti-government, Waters is not simply a purveyor of pop causes. “We don’t need no thought control” is only the beginning. Waters’ positions are indeed controversial, and in some respects, that is what makes his expressing them so admirable.

Waters in 1980

A performer as respected and popular as Roger Waters has more influence than most people know. Some could perceivably criticize him for using this influence for political means. I have heard people express the belief that music is music and politics is politics. My agreement with many of Waters’ positions might be a factor, but even outside of that, I don’t believe that this particular criticism is a valid one. Whether or not people like it, there is no denying that celebrities have become an important source of information in the 21st century. This is not always good– especially when the celebrities in question have opinions  that are shallow or uninformed. However, this cannot be said of Waters. His interests are genuine, and his sentiments are valid. If anything, critics should be glad that of all the celebrities who could be spreading their gospel, Waters is the one in question.

Additionally, something must be said for the sheer spectacle of the show itself. It would be very easy to create a massive, but alienating show– especially one like The Wall which centers so specifically on the idea of isolation, but Waters manages to go beyond it. The show, with projections (including spectacular animations both original and from The Wall movie in 1982), pyrotechnics, and massive inflatables, is a piece of art– a solid and cohesive statement that does complement the album, but instead supplements it. With an album like The Wall, it seems nearly impossible to expand. But Waters has done so, and by doing so, he has shown his own enormous growth in the years since the album originally came to be.

Waters now refers to himself at the time The Wall was originally written as “the fucked-up, miserable little Roger of thirty-two years ago.” With this show, he has done his best to leave that legacy behind, and build himself a new one– that of a socially-conscious, generous performer. At the show I saw, there was a problem with Roger’s mike at the beginning of “The Thin Ice.” After “In the Flesh,” when Waters began to sing the next track, his mic appeared to be completely nonfunctional. At most shows, especially ones of that scope, he probably would’ve just soldiered on until the problem was fixed, but instead of pushing through, he called for the band to stop  the song. The band did stop, and stayed stopped until the problem was fixed. At that point, they started the song over again, and continued the show as usual.

The sheer professionalism of the incident was unnerving, but at the same time, so was the utter humanity of it– same with the point near the end of the show when Roger spoke of the disappointment of the first Wall tour and how much it meant to him to bring such a better show back to Los Angeles. For a show criticized for its many nonhuman elements, this show is unbelievably human, using technology as it should be used– an extension of the natural ability of the performers, and the sheer power of the music in question.

In short (although yes, this piece has gotten rather long), I feel that in witnessing this tour, I have witnessed a piece of musical history– not only in getting to see Roger Waters perform what many consider his magnum opus, but also in seeing a show the likes of which have not been seen in rock before. Equally concert, art project, and play, it is difficult to overestimate this show’s importance, and it was my absolute privilege to see it.