Break on Blues
On the phone, Ray Manzarek comes off as snidely cynical, but it’s forgivable. As the co-founder of The Doors and his recent project, the Manzarek-Rogers Band, Manzarek has been interviewed enough times to know how I’d start my interview with him and bluesman Roy Rogers.
“‘How’d you [and Rogers] get together’–is that on your agenda? I’ve got all the questions,” Manzarek says. “We share the same agent. He said, ‘Hey, you’re a blues guy, Ray,’ and I said, ‘Yes I am, from the south side of Chicago.’ ‘Why don’t you get together with Roy?’ I said, ‘Sure.’”
Rogers’s parents, perhaps predicting a solid musician, named him after the singing cowboy. He spent years on the road with John Lee Hooker’s band and his own Delta Rhythm Kings, and earned eight Grammy nominations and two awards.
Of the two however, Manzarek is the elephant on the phone, having met a guy named Jim Morrison at UCLA’s film school and forming The Doors upon graduation in 1965. Morrison provided poetry and erratic presence, but it was Manzarek’s Bach-like chords on the organ and left-handed bass that shaped the group’s sound. The pulsing psychedelia for which The Doors is known owes chiefly to Manzarek’s electric piano and combo organs, but his skill at song-writing is well-exhibited in Manzarek-Rogers.
Following Morrison’s death in 1971, Manzarek produced bands including Echo and the Bunnymen and seminal punkers X, but his bread and butter is performing solo at places like northern California’s Raven Theater, where he injects his set with Doors stories. Rogers stopped by one night to sit in and check their musical fit.
“We played a little blues and a little Miles Davis, something from Sketches of Spain, and then we played a little Eric Satie,” Manzarek reflects. “It worked great, so I said–”
“Simpatico!” Rogers chimes in.
“Simpatico!” Manzarek echoes.
Translucent Blues, the follow-up to Manzarek-Rogers’s acoustic and instrumental debut, Ballads Before the Rain, at first seems like a retro Doors derivative but is set apart once Rogers lets loose on the slide guitar.
The varied styles of each track presage the musical range of their paired sound. “Fives and Ones” features Rogers’s hard-driving Delta blues until it shifts into a delicate Satie-esque reverie from Manzarek. In “Blues in my Shoes,” Manzarek arpeggiates down like a rider on the storm from bridge to the final verse. “As You Leave” is a sweet ballad blending classical and jazz elements from keys, sax and guitar. They’ll release a third album, Twisted Tales, later this year.
The songs are built with lyrics inspired by a stellar array of poets: wordsmiths such as Jim Carrol, Michael McClure and the dark humor of rocker Warren Zevon.
“Like Romney’s [binder of] women, we have binders of poets,” Manzarek says. “Roy and I made music to some of these poems that I had from various poetry buddies. And that was the process: We wanted to make songs that were a bit more advanced. We’re making 21st century blues with interesting lyrics.”
Translucent Blues straddles transitioning musical styles during a paradigm shift in the music industry.
“I was at a news stand a few years ago,” Manzarek says, “and these three young guys came up. ‘You’re Ray Manzarek from The Doors, right? We just downloaded Riders on the Storm–awesome!’ I said, ‘Great; you want to give me a dollar?’ Because that’s what I’d get if they buy the album.”
Manzarek declined the buck they proffered, but in this era of bit torrents and streaming services, the thousands of dollars spent recording in a studio are no longer likely to be recouped.
“It had never entered their minds that here I was, the artist, and it might be good if I got something for my work,” he says.
Rogers interjects: “The recording has become a calling card for the live performance. That’s where people are making their money; at the live shows. The recordings just attract people to those.”
To make it work, Manzarek-Rogers travels light, with little gear and no sax player. The Translucent Blues tour, with stops on Maui, Big Island, Kauai and the Irish Rose in Honolulu, features Kevin Hayes from Robert Cray’s band on drums and Elvin Bishop’s Steve Evans on bass.
“We improvise psychically with each other,” Manzarek says. “Here’s how it works: We go into a Vulcan-like mind meld, so that we’re all playing the same song, and that works out really well–the rhythm, the chord changes, the passion, the excitement. We try to bring as much passion as we can to each song, and in that passion you lose yourself.”
“I tell people always, it should be better live,” Rogers says, more practically. “You use the record as a place to start, and then the thing evolves. It’s living, breathing stuff.”
“Music is a pure vibration,” Manzarek says. “Roy plucks a string on his guitar and vibrations come out. We find those vibrations most pleasing. That’s what musicians do: They create vibrations that feel really good. And when you all hit the same vibration at the same time, wow. It’s like an orgasm. You don’t ejaculate, but you vibrate at the same speed, level, intensity, and–it’s thrilling!”
It is hard to tell when Manzarek is joking, but here he seems sincere. While Manzarek and Rogers are no sedate museum piece, they’re icons from a passing age. Still, they pump out a vital, balls-to-the-wall groove, rooted in the origins of rock and well-suited for the future.