If you’re a fan of The Doors or have any interest in gaining insight into who they were, what they became and what they meant to our culture, it really doesn’t get any better than this. The new feature documentary, When You’re Strange, uncovers historic and previously unseen footage of the Los Angeles rock band and provides new insights into the revolutionary impact of its music and legacy. Directed by award-winning writer/director Tom DiCillo and narrated by Johnny Depp, the film is a riveting account of the band’s history and the first feature documentary about them.
The film reveals an intimate perspective on the creative chemistry between drummer John Densmore, guitarist Robby Krieger, keyboardist Ray Manzarek and singer Jim Morrison – four brilliant artists who made The Doors one of America’s most iconic and influential rock bands. Using footage shot between the band’s 1965 formation and Morrison’s 1971 death, When You’re Strange follows the band from the corridors of UCLA’s Film School, where Manzarek and Morrison met, to the stages of sold-out arenas.
Morrison’s mystical command of the frontman role may be the iconic heart of The Doors, but the group’s extraordinary power would hardly have been possible without the virtuosic keyboard tapestries of Ray Manzarek, the gritty, expressive fretwork of guitarist Robby Krieger and the supple, dynamically rich grooves of drummer John Densmore. From baroque art-rock to jazz-infused pop to gutbucket blues, the band’s instrumental triad could navigate any musical territory with aplomb and all three contributed significantly as songwriters.
We talked to Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger at a recent roundtable interview about what it was like to see their story told on the big screen through actual documentary footage narrated by Johnny Depp. They also discussed the state of music today, how the music industry has changed, and how the current generation compares to theirs when confronted with the prospects of war.
Q: Ray, you weren’t too pleased with Oliver Stone’s depiction of your story, would you have liked the public to have seen this footage of The Doors earlier?
RM: No, I wish the public sees this footage now. That’s the point of it. We’ve put it all together into making [this film]. It’s not just the footage but it’s the interpretation. It’s Dick Wolf and Tom DiCillo putting it altogether into a cohesive form telling the story of The Doors. Time does not enter into The Doors equation. Time is just a moment that we occupy in this brief spin around the planet.
RK: Time is unimportant.
RM: It really is.
RK: We knew we had all this footage but it was in pieces and we didn’t want to mess with it.
RM: Boy, what a job.
RK: So luckily, it was Jeff Jampol who started working for us about five years ago that initiated the idea.
RM: He got a hold of Dick Wolf and Dick Wolf and Tom DiCillo put this thing together.
RK: We got a couple of suckers to do it for us.
RM: (laughs) And tell the story and make it good on top of it.
Q: How does it feel to see your story on the big screen?
RM: It feels good.
Q: Are you pleased with the results?
RM: Oh yes. Are we pleased? Right. Does it feel good? Yes. Are you pleased with the results? Yes, absolutely.
Q: Do you like the narration by Johnny Depp?
RK: We love the narration.
RM: Johnny did a great job. He’s got that subtle, understated quality about him that lends itself perfectly to narrating this whole Doors story. It’s not sensational and yet it’s very decisive.
RK: Before we had Johnny Depp, the director, Tom (DiCillo) had done the voiceover and he’s not really a speaker as such.
RM: Yeah, he did it at Sundance.
RK: It was probably the weakest point in the movie so that was why we decided to try and get somebody else to do it and luckily we found Johnny. It turned out he was a big Doors fan which I think was a big, decisive point for him to do it. And, not only did he do that, but he read a bunch of Jim’s poetry which found itself onto the soundtrack album for the movie.
Q: Was it hard to get the rights for all of that? I heard they were stuck in limbo for a while.
RM: The rights? We have the rights.
Q: But don’t the Courson’s have the rights to Jim’s poetry.
RK: Oh, for Jim’s poetry. No, there was no problem.
RM: Jim’s poetry is controlled by Jim’s sister, Anne Morrison Chewning. It’s up to her. They’re not stuck in limbo. Anne was fine with it. She thought it was a terrific idea to have Johnny Depp read Jim’s poetry, so on the CD it’s in between the songs of the soundtrack album. In between those cuts is Johnny Depp reading Jim’s poetry. She was all in favor of it. It was just a matter of somebody coming up with the idea and Bruce Spotnick came up with the idea. Bruce Spotnick is our original engineer and producer from the olden days and we’re still working together which is great. The only ones not on the planet are Jim Morrison, Paul Rothchild, our original producer who produced all the albums, and Danny Sugarman, our young, hotshot office boy that worked his way all the way up to a manager and then unfortunately exited the planet. So anyway, those three guys are no longer with us, but the rest of us are still together.
RK: In any movie situation or soundtrack, there’s always rights that have to be gotten. I guess it was not a problem.
RM: No problem. Not for the poetry. (to Robby) Was what a problem?
RK: Getting rights.
RM: Like what? To the film? It’s our film. We own the film. It belongs to The Doors.
RK: (laughs) That’s right.
Q: Watching the footage brings us back to a time that’s not too dissimilar to what we’re going through now. Your generation had Vietnam. My generation has Iraq. You guys were right in the middle of it and you commented on it, what is your assessment of how my generation has reacted to 9/11 now that we’re done with the first decade of the new millennium and we’re into the second?
RM: You really want to know that — what we think of your generation?
RM: No, you don’t want to know that. Get on the stick, man. Get on the stick and let’s change the world already.
Q: I was on the front lines of one of the first anti-Iraq war demonstrations in downtown L.A. and we tried.
RM: Good for you. I gotta hand it to you guys. You really did that. There were anti-Iraq war demonstrations going on all over America and all over the world. Could you stop the bastards? No, you can’t. You know why? ‘Cause they’ve got the power. Why do they have the power? ‘Cause we voted for them. Ballot power.
RK: Not we.
RM: Ballot power. He didn’t even win the damn election. But nonetheless, there were not enough people. Anybody got relatives in Florida?
RK: They stole it from us.
RM: Well did they? They did a real good job then, didn’t they? If you can actually steal the presidency, wow, are you sharp and on the ball! Alright you’re dealing with the foxes. What are we? We’re just a bunch of hens in the henhouse. All we want to do is lay our eggs and have some fun. We want to smoke a joint, get laid, listen to some rock ‘n roll, see some good movies. That’s all we want to do. You know what they want? Power. They want the power. This is what I objected to with Timothy Leary’s statement: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Oh no, no, no, no, turn on, tune in, take over. You’ve got to take over. Don’t drop out because if you drop out, they win. Bushco wins if you drop out. We’ve got to take over. The lovers. There are two kinds of people. There are lovers and killers. The killers will fuckin’ kill you. But, you’ve got to be willing to go up on that front line and fight those son-of-bitches. We have to be willing to put our asses on the line. We have to take over. I had a friend who dropped out. He was getting his Ph.D. at UCLA in accounting and then he saw me and he saw Dorothy. I knew him back in Chicago. I had a scarf around my neck. It was cold. I’ve got a Japanese girlfriend. He said “Ah Ray. Yeah, that’s what I want to do.” I said, “Forget it. Don’t do this. You’re a Ph.D. in Accounting. Get your Ph.D. Finish your degree.” He didn’t write his thesis. He never got it. He could have been one of the corporate managers. Those are the guys we need. We need to take over the corporations. We need to take over the banks. We need to take over all that stuff. And, the goal of that is to save the environment, save the planet. Don’t destroy the planet. Nobody is coming from outer space, from the invisible world. He’s not coming. He’s not coming back. He was here. Did you miss the message? He’s not coming back and when He comes back, everything will be alright. He’s not coming back. We have to change the environment. We have to save it. We have to stop emitting all of the pollutants into the air because He’s not coming back to right it. I keep wondering why the hell – no offense if you are a Republican and if you are, let me offer you something to think about – why don’t they care about the environment? How come they don’t care about the environment? You know why? Because when He comes back…
RK: No, that’s not true.
RM: Ha, ha, ha, ha! The basic philosophy is when He comes back …
RK: …everything will be alright.
RM: Everything will be righted. The lamb will lie down with the lion. It will be an eternal Spring when He comes back.
RK: That’s why they don’t care about the environment?
RM: What’s your basic philosophy? Why am I on this planet? What’s going to happen on this planet? Because He is going to come back. He is coming back – El Messiah. I’m telling you, man.
RK: The one thing I can’t figure out is, even if they think that global warming is not caused by man, it’s still not cool to dump tons of shit in the air every day, is it? I mean, what good is that?
RM: Sure it is. You know why? When He comes back, it will all be righted. Spring, it will be eternal Springtime.
RK: Their argument is false. Who cares if it’s manmade or not? It’s here.
RM: Really. I can’t breathe the air, I’m sorry, on a bad day in L.A., you look up. Well what is that all from? What’s that from? That’s from the exhaust from the cars. Let’s clean it up. So anyway, that’s what we were all about and hopefully you want to do it too. You’ve gotta vote and you’ve got to buy. You’ve got two powers. You’ve got ballot power and you’ve got dollar power. What are you going to buy? Don’t buy junk, don’t buy crap, don’t buy the manufactured stuff. Buy produce that’s made close to home within a 150 mile radius. We’ve gotta put our thinking caps on. You have to because of the fuckin’ old timers man. You guys shouldn’t have to worry about this. You should worry about your job and your significant other. It’s up to us, but unfortunately, you pass 60 and you become very afraid, and you can’t maintain that rebel stance anymore. You’re going to see it the old fashioned way and you can’t turn into the new way of doing things. So you guys have to add to the numbers of the hip old people versus the squares. It always was – it’s the lovers versus the killers and it’s still that way.
Q: What do you think of the state of music today? Is there anything we can do to salvage it?
RM: Being a keyboard player, I love Electronica – The Chemical Brothers and when Beck makes an album, when he goes full on Electronica. I think that stuff is just terrific. You know, there’s other people like DJ Rodriguez.
RK: I like Screamo.
RM: Robbie likes Screamo.
RK: Actually there are some metal bands that have really amazing guitar players. Do you ever notice?
RM: I try not to, man. You know, being the keyboardist.
RK: (laughs) Well I’m not kidding.
RM: Hey, I don’t care. You know, being the keyboard player, I love your guitar playing.
Q: What about the labels and the way that the music industry is changing?
RK: That’s terrible. It sucks. Labels should not have anything to do with making music or telling bands what kind of music to make. Back when we were with Elektra Records, we signed luckily with Elektra Records, which was a small label. They were a folk music label up to the point where we joined them, although they did have Love. Love was their first rock and roll thing. But they said, “Hey, you guys make the music. We put it out.” They had no say. They didn’t want a say.
RM: Right! Jac Holzman never told us what to do. The only thing he said was, “Don’t use George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words” because he knew, of course, that we would. “Father I want to kill you. Mother I want to fuck you.” “Don’t say that. You can’t say that. You can’t say ‘Mother I want to fuck you.’ Don’t say your mother at all.” That’s all he said. “Don’t say the Seven Dirty Words. Other than that, you guys do anything you absolutely want.” What freedom. What an amazing thing. Not only that, we had three albums guaranteed. We didn’t get any front money to speak of.
RM: $5,000. Jac thought that was terrific. “I paid you $5000!”
RK: And another $5,000 for the publishing.
RM: Right. And he took the publishing too but he gave it back to us so everything worked out fine.
Q: With the advent of the internet, self-publishing is bigger now than it’s ever been. What do you think of artists taking the music and their work directly to the masses?
RM: Oh, God bless.
RK: That’s great.
RM: Absolutely. We needed record companies to be the ones who would put it on this black vinyl 12-inch thing and distribute that around the country. But, the internet takes care of all of that. Of course, it also allows you to steal our art which is a bitch, man. I mean, it’s okay for us. Before I left L.A., I was at a magazine stand and two guys came up to me and said, “Aren’t you Ray from The Doors?” “Yeah, I guess I am.” “Oh man! We just downloaded ‘L.A. Woman.'” “Well that’s great, man. Are you going to give me a dollar?” “Huh?!” “When I sell a record, I get a dollar. Robbie, John and Jim get a dollar.” “Oh…no, we did it for free, man.” I said, “Yeah, thanks brother. Thanks a lot.” And the guy actually started to reach for a dollar and I said, “No, I don’t need it. I’m okay. I’m cool. Keep your money.” But what if I was a beginning band? What would I do? How do I pay the rent? How do I pay the rent and keep playing music? That’s what it’s all about. Can I pay the rent? Can I feed myself? Can I take care of my old lady and maybe my kids? Musicians have to be paid.
RK: It’s tough today, man. There’s more bands than there are audiences now. I think somebody figured that out. You can’t get a gig anymore in L.A. You have to pay to play. How does a band make a living anymore?
Q: So what’s the solution or is there one?
RM: There is no solution. The solution is that you’re not going to get music.
RK: The solution is there are too many bands and the quality of the music therefore has gone down and people are going to lose interest in music after a while. It’ll right itself one of these days.
Q: What about indie labels?
RK: Indie labels are always good.
RM: Speaking of that – indie labels – Jesus, when do I get paid by Slash for producing the X records.
RK: You never got paid? Not a cent? Jeez.
Q: Well he’s got one coming out so call him this week.
RM: I oughta call him. “Where the fuck is my…, you know?” They sell enough X records. Do I get anything? I made the first two X records for nothing…no, let’s see. The first one we made for nothing in Los Angeles and I think the second one there was enough to pay studio time – that’s what you have to pay – and everybody in the band got paid. The producer said that’s fine.
Q: Do you get the sense that even legal downloading – such as iTunes with $.99 tracks and deep discounts – is hurting young up-and-coming artists who are trying to make a living out of this?
RM: Well how do I get on iTunes, you know, if I’m a beginning artist? “Hi, we’re a new band.” So what?
RK: Well there are people though that have made it that way. It’s word of mouth. You put your stuff out there and you hope somebody sees it. He tells all his friends and they tell all their friends. It’s happened.
RM: See, I think Robbie is too, we’re very old fashioned. I’m very old fashioned. I used to like the fact that the DJ’s used to do that for us on the radio. That was great. You gotta listen. That’s your job. “Hey, here’s a new one, man. You’ve never heard of this group? You’ve never heard this song? I’m going to play it for you.” And you’ll listen to it. The first time I heard Devo on the radio, on FM radio, doing Satisfaction, I remember I was on Sunset and La Cienega driving down Sunset and “da da da da can’t get me no…” “What the fuck is that, man?” “It’s Satisfaction.” “I know it’s Satisfaction.” “That’s by Devo.” “Whoa! Who’s Devo?” Then we became big fans of Devo after that. I used to love the radio for that. Maybe there’s college radio. Is everybody listening to college radio? Is that what it is?
RK: X Radio.
Q: During times of economic and social strife and multiple wars, do you think that if there’s a silver lining to it, that this is an especially fertile time for the arts and for artists?
RM: It can be. Yes, exactly. As an artist, you’re going to say “Holy shit! Is this fucked, man! Let’s get to work here. Let’s read our Joseph Campbell. Let’s read our Carl Jung. Let’s listen to Igor Stravinsky, Miles Davis and John Coltrane and The Doors. Let’s see how The Doors put that stuff into their music.” Yes, I think so. In a time like this, I think it is very fertile for creativity.
Q: Did you ever expect that we’d be back in the same situation?
RM: Fuck no! Isn’t that a joke? If you had said to me “Ray, you know, 2010, not only are we in the 21st century, we’re in 2010, we’re in the second decade. You know, we’re going to have a war in Iraq. We’re going to have left and right. We’re going to have the Republicans giving the President shit. The President is going to be black by the way.” I would have said, “No, not in this country.” But sure enough, we’ve got a Black president getting shit from the Republicans. I would have thought that we’d be in the Aquarian Age by now, but obviously we’re not. We’re still battling because the Aquarian Age, the astrological age, it’s not a hippie thing. You move out of the age of Pisces and you move into the procession of the Equinox. It’s 2,000 years of Pisces, the sign of the fish. We’re going to move out of that into the Age of Aquarius, sort of like lightening bolts, and the Age of Aquarius will be a blending of all the arts, sciences, and philosophy. It all blends together into one new intellectual, artistic religion that all men, all humans, will be part of and it won’t be a hierarchic religion, top down. It will be a love of the planet, which is what we were trying to do in the 60s – a love of the planet and a love of the art. I mean, Buddha is as valid as Jesus, as Mohammed, as Moses. It’s all different ways of seeking the one, which is what The Doors tried to do in their music – seeking the one, that oneness, that energy, the power of creation, the power of playing Robbie’s song, Light My Fire. The power of playing Light My Fire. After I came up with that organ part – and that was the last thing left to do – we were at the beach house in Venice and I told John, Robbie and Jim “Hey, go out to the beach and let me think about this for a second. You guys just go.” And they walked out to the beach or walked out to the ocean because we were on the beach and I went (hums melody) and it just sort of fell into place as the introduction, the last thing needed for Light My Fire. I said to the guys, “C’mon back in. I got it.” And putting all of that together, Robbie’s brilliant creation, A minor to F sharp minor, Light My Fire, the solo section, that opening passage, that opening introduction, Jim’s second verse, John’s drumming, all of that coming together into this creation. See how good it is for brethren to dwell together in harmony, in oneness. The creation of you, all of us and our fellows together, we could take what we did as four guys and we could create the new American society. What a fucking goal, man! That’s the goal of my life. And I’m just waiting for the young guys to come along. Let’s do it. C’mon, guys. And now the girls can join us too. C’mon, let’s change this whole society and make it a society ruled by the dictates of the heart master from Jerusalem, that Jesus Christ guy. That Mohammed, the lover of things. The Buddha, another lover. That Lao Tzu, all of those lovers. Let’s make this new society based on love, not war. Make love, not war. It’s as simple as that. Peace, brother. Peace be upon you.
Q: What are both of you working on now?
RM: What are we doing? Robbie and I, we’re going out on the road. We’re going to have a good time.
RM: Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek playing the music of The Doors.
Q: Are you going to do any L.A. shows?
RM: No. Not this time. We’re playing the Midwest, Kansas City. I believe we start in Kansas City and then Detroit and then one or two other things in the Midwest, and then we go to the East Coast and then from the East Coast we come back home for a while, a couple of weeks, and then we go to Europe for July. Then after July, we go to Australia and Japan in October.
Q: What are the chances of you and John ever playing together again?
RM: It’s up to him. It’s on his shoulders. We’re all set. We’re ready to go. So whenever he wants to. You can ask him.
Q: Will it be with a new singer or will it be Ian Astbury?
RM: No. Ian’s off with The Cult. Ian’s gone back to The Cult. We’re going to have a new singer when we go.
RK: We had a guy named Brett Scallions and he was from Fuel (means Fuel revival band, Re-Fueled).
Q: The movie puts us back in the time with the original footage of The Doors and the narration, but what was it really like for you guys to soldier on through when Jim Morrison had performance difficulties and his behavior was sometimes erratic?
RM: It’s all tough. Everything is tough. Everything is hard. Life is hard. Living this life is hard, man. But, we did what we had to do. Jim’s a little intoxicated. He’s a little intoxicated and Jimbo is taking over. There’s another personality taking over. Okay. We’re going to have to deal with Jimbo. We’ve got a poet, Jim Morrison, a great poet, a great songwriter, great poetry. The rest of it is the hard part and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. If you can’t do it, get out of the game.
RK: He was locked into that body where he had his problems, but when we got together to play, that was the good part. He always loved that part. That’s when he would be at his best.
RM: And 90% of the time he would come through. There were only a few gigs that went really bad and those happened in Seattle. (laughs) We feel sorry for Seattle.
RK: And Michigan.
RM: Three times in Michigan.
RK: Michigan, it was at the school.
RM: Jesus Christ, at the fucking University of Michigan homecoming with the football players, Jimbo took over and Jim was simply not able to perform. It was so bad that John and Robbie left the stage. I picked up a guitar and played some John Lee Hooker kind of stuff hoping we could get through at least something and Jim was just drunk as a skunk berating tuxedoed guys and gowned, coiffured girls who had come to hear the band with that hit song Light My Fire and instead they get The Dirty Doors. It was like a tragedy, man. (laughs) We got banned from the Big 10. The letter went out. Never hire this filthy, dirty, disgusting band ever again. So yes, we had a tough time but it was what you had to go through.
RK: What band doesn’t, you know? I mean, you look at STP.
RM: Look at who?
RK: Stone Temple Pilots. I just played with them the other night back in Texas.
RM: Scott’s (Weiland) not with them, is he?
RK: Yeah, he is. He’s back. That was his first gig.
RM: Great. There you go. That’s what happens. You have these problems and then you fix the problems and then you play again. The art is the only thing that matters. Whatever it takes, whatever you have to go through to get to the art, that’s the only thing that matters. Sure, it was tough. We had a tough time with the latter half of Jim’s short life on the planet but I wouldn’t trade it for anything, man. I wouldn’t fire the guy. I would not do it because every time he had to deliver something, he delivered great poetry. He delivered a great song. He delivered a great lyric. That was worth the whole thing. Now if that had suffered, now that would have been a different story. You know, your poetry is not any good and your verses aren’t any good. If what you’re doing isn’t any good because of your drinking, then we would have had to tie him up and do something to him. But he always came through. So what are you going to do? You live with his eccentricities – the eccentricities of a poet.
Q: I heard the film was the most realistic portrayal for you as opposed to the book.
RM: Well certainly the most realistic portrayal outside of *my* book. When you say “the book,” what do you mean “the book”?
RK: Danny’s book.
RM: Now my book is the best book.
RK: Well I’m writing my book now.
RM: It’s not the best book because it’s not written yet. Yours has to come out to be the best book. (laughs)
Q: When will it come out?
RK: Hopefully by the end of the year.
RM: Robby Krieger has a new book coming out. That will be the new news. Ray Manzarek has written the best book yet about The Doors. That’s what it says on the back.
RK: Is that right?
RM: Yes, Book Week said “The best book yet about The Doors: Ray Manzarek’s Light My Fire: My Life with The Doors.”
RK: And I have a new instrumental album coming out called Singularity, like what happened when the world started, when the Big Bang happened. That was a singularity.
RM: (to Robbie) Cosmic! You’re so cosmic! You know this band is actually a very cosmic band. We’re called The Doors of Perception. Where does the name The Doors of Perception come from? Aldous Huxley’s book about opening the doors of perception, taking mescaline. It comes from a line by William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite” and we call ourselves The Doors. Thank you very much.
Q: Thanks a lot, guys. Have fun on your tour.
RM: Thanks a lot. We’re going to. We intend to.
When You’re Strange opens in theaters on April 9th.