Ray Manzarek, RIP

Ray Manzarek, one of the founding members of The Doors, has died in Germany after a long battle with cancer.

When I think of The Doors, I think of Jim Morrison’s deep, throaty vocals — but I think equally of Ray Manzarek’s keyboards.  Both of those elements made The Doors musically unique, and both were equally important.  Mazarek’s deft chops on the keyboard helped to burn countless Doors’ songs into the brain synapses, where they will remain forever and can be hauled out and remembered, note by note.  Most of The Doors’ great songs had a great keyboard riff in their somewhere, but my all-time favorite is Riders On The Storm.  For us wannabe musicians, who don’t know anything about those black and white keys, it’s one of the great air piano songs ever.  I’ve “played” that extended keyboard solo on desktops, tabletops, car dashboards, and the air above the walkway around the Yantis Loop, always with a smile on my face and those lilting notes lifting my heart.  I’ve put a YouTube video of Riders on the Storm below, and it still sounds fantastic and absolutely fresh.

Thank you for that, Ray Manzarek.  You were one of those creative forces who helped to change the course of popular music, and you made my life a little bit richer through your genius.

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The End: Jim Morrison’s Grave

On the day we visited the Pompidou Center, Richard and I decided to go a bit off the beaten path, so we walked over to the cemetery where Jim Morrison is buried.  It was a sad experience.

Jim Morrison's grave

Morrison’s grave is found in the Cimietiere du Pere Lachaise, where some other notables, like Oscar Wilde and Marcel Proust, also are buried.  It is a nice cemetery — apparently Paris’ most prestigious — that is filled with above-ground graves and family crypts.  Morrison’s grave is located in the interior of the cemetery, wedged between other burial sites.  It was not hard to find, because 99 percent of the people visiting the cemetery seemed to be there to see the last resting place of the Doors’ lead singer.  We just had to follow the crowd.

When Richard and I reached the gravesite, we found a group of loudly talking, laughing people jostling to get their pictures taken with the simple headstone in the background.  A cheap fence had been tied around the gravesite, presumably to keep most people people from chipping off pieces of the marker or otherwise disturbing the area.  As it was, people had placed flowers on Morrison’s grave and also had tossed in cigarettes, what looked like a white plastic bottle of some kinds of pills, and other debris.  The tree next to the site is covered with graffiti left by visitors, and the ground has been denuded of grass and packed hard by the feet of many, many visitors.

The tree next to the Morrison gravesite

I thought the visit to Morrison’s grave was depressing.  It struck me as a sad, not particularly pretty or peaceful resting place.  I felt sorry for Morrison that so many people remember (and apparently celebrate) him for his excesses, and I felt sorry for the families of people whose graves are next to Morrison’s and who therefore have to constantly deal with disrespectful, crass visitors who forget they are in a cemetery.

The inscription beneath Morrison’s name on the headstone is in Greek.  There seems to be some disagreement about precisely how it should be translated, but Wikipedia says its literal meaning is “according to his own demon.”  When Richard and I left the cemetery, we passed a storefront that was selling t-shirts that showed Morrison’s picture and said he was “wanted in Dade County, Florida.”

American artists, British bands

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry

There are eight Americans and two Brits in the top ten of Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest artists of all time

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash

(not a definitive list, but useful for illustrating my point). What’s strange is that all the Americans entries are individuals, while the British entries are for bands. Going down the list, it’s pretty much the same, with a few exceptions. Marvin Gaye, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison for the Americans, the Clash and the Who for the British.

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra

Elvis

Elvis

It’s not a fluke. Anyone who’s listened to pop music from the past fifty years has probably noticed that America’s best contributions come in the forms of individuals, while British ones come in the form of bands. None of the “best American bands” we’ve discussed so far are as influential, in my opinion, as Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. Many of America’s best bands have been dominated by a single member – Nirvana by Kurt Cobain, the Beach Boys by Brian Wilson, the Doors by Jim Morrison – while Britain’s best bands traditionally derive their brilliance from collaboration (or compromise) – the Beatles from Lennon and McCartney, the Rolling Stones from Jagger and Richards, etc.

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder

The “American artists, British bands” rule applies too consistently to be dismissed as coincidence. Why is it this way?

Maybe it has something to do with America’s culture of individualism. The republican ideal of a man free to work to improve his own life has, perhaps, helped create the image of the American singer-songwriter

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

who blazes his own path through music. This explanation strikes me as too idealistic, however.

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen

It could have something to do with America’s celebrity culture. Americans love creating personas for public figures. Maybe individual artists, with songs reflecting their own personality and values, resonate more with the American people. With more popularity, they are more likely to have successful careers that allow them more creativity. In fact, nearly all the great American musicians have personas like this. Sinatra was classy, Elvis wild but respectful, Springsteen working-class, Madonna sexual, etc. We even give them nicknames like “the Boss” and “the King.”

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

Prince

Prince

Another likely explanation is that, for whatever reason, America started a tradition of successful singer-songwriters that musicians imitated throughout the years. The great musicians whose pictures are in this post might have been following the model set by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, jazz greats like Miles Davis, or country legends like Woody Guthrie. In Britain, aspiring musicians would be more likely to follow the example of their country’s legends, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Jay-Z

Jay-Z

In the past thirty years rap has dominated American popular music. More than any other genre, rap is all about individualism. I wonder if this is continuing the same tradition. After all, rappers do tend to have well-known personas (usually involving a huge ego).

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!

Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake