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:

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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.

No Stars in the New York Sky: Songs For Drella

“Are we not men?”

Whether your first association is The Island of Doctor Moreau or “We are Devo,” this simple sentence can be enough to make you shudder if you look closely enough. The to-be verb, thought by English teachers to be weak, instead strengthens and simplifies the negative question. Although the statement would be far more gender-neutral if it were instead, for instance, “are we not people?” the idea is what matters. What makes a person a person? Where does humanity end and everything else begin?

Is celebrity human? Arguably, it’s just another construct, as manufactured and unnatural as a plastic bag. Many of us simply cannot conceive of our idols as people, people who have dreams, fears, secrets, shame, and insecurities just like us groundlings. For some bizarre reason, we colloquially equate some celebrities with celestial objects.They are otherworldly to us, bright, distant, and completely unattainable.

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Personally, I don’t see the resemblance.

Maybe it is the otherworldliness of our icons that makes an honest, almost painfully vulnerable recording like Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs For Drella album equally moving and jarring. A collaboration between the two Velvet Underground veterans released in tribute to Andy Warhol three years after he died on February 22nd, 1987 (yes, 26 years ago today), this minimalistic character study of a record is enough to make you rethink the bitch of a persona that Reed especially has cultivated since his twenties. Cale and Reed’s lyrical study of Andy Warhol’s life and character (from what I understand, the album’s compositions were all collaborative) leaves its listeners with a changed view of the subject—Warhol—and also of the artists themselves.

The Velvet Underground with Nico and Andy Warhol in 1967.

The Velvet Underground with Nico and Andy Warhol

There is disturbingly palpable guilt throughout Songs for Drella. Bad blood between The Velvet Underground and Warhol, following their falling out in 1967, when Reed severed the band’s ties with the artist in order to take them in his own direction, was no secret. And in fact, on Drella, Reed acknowledges the many differences between Warhol and himself in the self-referential “Work,” a frantic track driven by Cale’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties”-reminiscent piano, and then his own mistreatment of Warhol in the simple but devastatingly emotive closer, “Hello It’s Me.”

But Songs For Drella becomes far more than just a self-aware tribute album where Cale and Reed’s voices form Andy’s. The bulk of the album, delivered from Warhol’s perspective, forms an incredibly rounded, exquisitely flawed protagonist in Warhol. While historical details must always be taken with a grain of salt when interpreted artistically, the objective facts are less important than the character of Warhol that Reed and Cale have created.

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Songs For Drella, 1990

He has a backstory expressed in the Broadway-worthy leadoff “Small Town,” insecurities especially clear in “Open House” and “Slip Away (A Warning),” and even an unconscious, unforgettably fleshed out in Cale’s meditative spoken-word piece “A Dream.” Andy has a voice as distinctive as any film or book’s protagonist, and by the album’s conclusion, we feel that on some level, we know him. We root for him despite his clear flaws, and as a result, we are at the very least fooled into believing we understand him. Warhol’s obsessions with fame and attention are not presented as smear– they form an undertone of constant unfulfillment, well-disguised, painful loneliness beneath Warhol’s industrious creative brilliance.

The music of Songs For Drella is just as exceptional as its lyrics, minimalistic, chilled, and expressive. Entirely without a drummer, Reed and Cale fashion a spacious, eerie sound with few instruments and simple arrangements.

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol

I would be personally curious as to what someone unfamiliar with Warhol and the VU story would think of this album. The truth is, my admiration and knowledge of both the artist’s and the band’s bodies of work could well have influenced my assessment of it. But for someone who is a fan of the musicians, the artist, or both, Songs For Drella provides a more vulnerable, human perspective than you are likely to find elsewhere.

Reed and Cale’s tribute to Andy Warhol plucks down Warhol the star to prove to  their audience that he has a face and a past. The historical details are unimportant. What matters is that Reed and Cale have erased the distance between us and the cosmos in order to make Andy Warhol real again.

No Expectations: Brian Jones’s Pop Redemption

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Keith Richards, Brian Jones, and Ian Stewart in-studio, 1966

Although the Stones’ original keyboardist, Ian Stewart has been virtually forgotten by all but hardcore fans, Keith Richards goes so far as to say in his 2010 autobiography, Life, that the Stones were, and still are, Ian’s band. It is indeed true that the group never could’ve reached the astronomical heights that they did without “Stu’s” contributions, both before and after he was disallowed from performing onstage with the Stones by their manager Andrew Loog Oldham in 1963. According to Oldham, six members was too many for a pop group, and older, coarser Stu did not look the part. After his dismissal, Stu contributed keyboard lines to some of the Stones’ best-known material, appeared on every album between 1964 and 1986 with the exception of Beggars’ Banquet, and additionally played on the legendary London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions in 1966 and Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti album in 1975. However, this Richards quip does more than just give the often-overlooked sixth Stone his due. Upon closer examination, Keith is not just honoring one former bandmate—he is backhanding another.

No matter how important Stu was, and yes, he was vastly important, he was not the Rolling Stones’ true founder. The man who really did start the group as we know it is one more difficult to comment on outright, one whose true character has been clouded not just by the almost half-century that has gone by since he died, but by the myriad of things that he appeared to be. But something about him is more memorable in the public eye than Stu’s much longer and more consistent stint in the band ever was.

In the oft-analyzed character of Brian Jones, one can trace three distinct sections.

Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Brian Jones, and Bill Wyman

Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Brian Jones, and Bill Wyman

The first is probably the most lauded of them. In a band where image is still everything even fifty years down the road, it is natural that the public is most aware of Brian Jones the Rolling Stone. In much of the world, people who may never have even been exposed to the group’s music outright could very well be aware of the tough, streetwise front that the group has cultivated since the very beginning.

The Stones and their camp had no chance of winning out over the grins and moptops of the Fab Four, so instead of competing with them, they decided to oppose them. Stones fans in the early days could of course love  the group’s violently-charged, liberatingly sloppy R&B, but they could just as easily be kids who balked at the Beatles, and sought an alternative. The Stones, unlike most other pop groups in England, made a show of their nastiness and wildness, hard partying and rough playing. Where others tried to steady the wobbling colt of rock and roll, The Rolling Stones made clear their alliance with American delta blues and boogie-woogie. But Brian Jones would go on to make the same mistake that Sid Vicious would a decade later: he did more than just live the image. Instead, he became it, and as he did, we see the second, more damaged section emerge.

Jones with girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, who would later spend twelve years with Keith Richards

Jones with girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, who would later spend twelve years with Keith Richards

Brian Jones could be abusive, manipulative, and had a mean streak that went back much farther than just the beginning of the Rolling Stones. The abuse that he is thought to have suffered in his youth at the hands of his own family left deep psychological scars, and as he reached adulthood, his self-destructive and misogynistic tendencies became clearer and clearer. While Brian left behind a number of alleged offspring in his short life, they are far outnumbered by jilted women. He was notoriously fickle in his relationships, and on more than one occasion he left a former flame, usually very young, pregnant and alone in a world where she would have little opportunity for recompense or any kind of formal recognition.

Brian Jones’ misogyny is most appalling in that no one and nothing was stopping it. During the early and mid-60s, when support for unmarried young mothers was still close to nonexistent, the young women left with Brian’s children were essentially swept under the rug, denied legal and financial support and even just the confirmation that Jones was actually the father. The machine of the smoothly-functioning 60s rock band—not only the Rolling Stones—ran in a manner such that minor scandals such as theirs were inconvenient, but easily quieted. In the name of the business, and in the name of the band, many were willing to practice blissful ignorance.

Brian as the 60s wore on

Brian as the 60s wore on

But even outside of his misogyny, another piece of Brian’s second side was his reliance on drugs. Part of the first wave of publicized English acid casualties along with Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett and Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, it is disturbing how many late 60s groups lost founders and principle members to a blend of mental instability, drugs, and immense stress. By the time Brian was dismissed from the Stones in June 1969, he had lost the ability to play almost entirely, and aside from his increasingly erratic habits in his personal life was becoming unreliable both live and in the studio. Even in the months before his departure, the Stones had been noticeably slipping away from his control. As Jagger and Richards reaffirmed their stature as icons time and time again, Jones covered little new ground. His experimentation with new instruments, most notably the sitar, had mostly petered out as the Stones outgrew their flirtation with psychedelia, and as he continued to deteriorate both physically and mentally, Brian became more of a burden in the eyes of his band than he was an asset. By the time of his mysterious death at twenty-seven, around a month after he was unceremoniously let go by Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, the group had already moved away from his influence.

But if this darker side were all that the public could see of Brian Jones, then the question of what brings him over the line from rock death to rock martyrdom remains unanswered.

Perhaps the third, final side of Brian, the one that makes us miss and perhaps even forgive him, is the thing that lay behind the guise of the Rolling Stone—the elusive foundation that forever lay beneath the tough, cool persona. Brian Jones was a natural musician, intelligent and ambitious. If not for that final set of qualities, it is unlikely that there would have ever been a London blues outfit called the Rolling Stones. And if there had been, they may have never left the little clubs where they first made their bones. Brian was a multi-instrumentalist, gifted in that he could play virtually anything given to him. Although he generated no original material for the band, early on, he was more musically versatile than the band’s chief songwriters, Jagger and Richards. While the blues remained close to Brian’s heart, his interest in The Master Musicians of Joujouka and other world music was brought the band from the R&B of its recent past into its psychedelic present.

closeupHowever, it is possible that Brian Jones’s pop redemption came about not even as a result of the music itself, but instead as a part of something much greater. His death was more than the death of one man or the lineup shift of one popular band. That isn’t to say, precisely, that it represented the end of an era—the notion that an isolated incident can perfectly encapsulate a cultural movement is impractical and overused outside of art and literature—but what Brian’s death did represent was a sprung leak in rock and roll hubris, a reminder of human vulnerability at a time and in a place where luck and stamina were freely confused for invincibility. Today, drug addiction and death are spattered across our homepages, morning papers and supermarket checkout lines constantly, especially where celebrity is concerned, but in 1969, rock was still young and unaware of its limits. There was no twenty-seven club when Brian Jones died, and rock and roll had not yet recognized its uncanny partnership with early death. “Hope I die before I get old” was a challenging sign of defiance, not a statement of reality. The death of Brian Jones was only the first brick to fall from a crumbling tower.

We don’t miss Brian because he was a good person; we miss him because he was a Rolling Stone in the most unadulterated sense. We are willing to forgive him for his startling decline and his blatant mistreatment of others because we understand in full the legend that came of it all. As of 2013, we have been inspired by the Rolling Stones’ eternal rebellion for over fifty years, and whatever notes he played and drugs he took, Brian Jones was as important a part of that rush as anyone can claim to be. Whether or not he qualifies as flawed antihero is anybody’s guess, but chances are, that designation couldn’t change the mind of a single fan or a single critic. Perhaps it isn’t ours to judge. It’s only rock and roll, and we like it no matter what.