“A Ray of ‘Light’”

Ray Manzarek was one of my very favorite rock keyboard players. He certainly was one of the more intriguing faces in all of rock ‘n roll too. That hair and glasses combo was second to, well, second to John Lennon in the cool visage department. But I always loved what Ray and guitarist Robby Krieger saw as their “mission,” eg, to bring the freedom of jazz, particularly Coltrane who they both admired, to rock music.

“Light My Fire” remains one of my very favorite songs. I love the instrumental section especially. It’s a two-chord vamp that was inspired by Coltrane’s 1960 version of My Favorite Things. Ray and Robby had seen Coltrane live in L.A. where he played for over a half hour on the two chord vamp he created for that chart. I love the way Ray sat huddled over his keyboard, totally focused on the music. I love the lyrical quality of his first part of the Light My Fire instrumental section. And as he proceeds, you start to notice he’s not playing alone, but with a close-knit musical ensemble that is listening, communicating, talking to one another. That keyboard, along with that guitar and drum, produce some of the absolute best ensemble playing I’ve ever heard in a rock song. When the three musicians start to play at the same time towards the end of the instrumental section, it is in the form of a fugue. That part of the song still gives me chills. Bach himself would have been proud (I think…). The organ and guitar build to a climax with triplet rhythms.

They took it as far as they could, and don’t forget — in 1967, a seven minute rock song was considered radical. Way too long for AM radio play. I know you know that it was whittled down to the AM single that fortunately doesn’t get heard much anymore — if you want to annoy me, go ahead and play that AM version in my presence — it will make my eye twitch. By the time the instrumental section is ending, Ray’s iconic opening flourish is played again, and Jim Morrison belts out the final verse of lyrics, it feels like the world changed during that instrumental section. Suddenly, rock was studious. It was quiet, focused, serious, intense, and aware of music history outside of rock, with Coltrane and Bach smiling down on this relatively new kind of music called “rock.” Welcome to the big leagues, rock.

But it wasn’t by any means a one-hit wonder situation. I continued to love Ray’s work. “Not to Touch the Earth” was about going insane. The lyrics, Ray’s keyboard…It is concerning to me that I could relate to it at the tender age of eight! But I loved it. And still do. “Unknown Soldier” made me cry, and contributed to my anti-Vietnam war sentiments. Coolest thing about that song: That middle section sounds like they taped some marines marching to war. But there were no special effects whatsoever. Every “sound” in that section was produced with the instruments they already were playing: guitar, drum, keyboard! And finally, I loved songs like “Wintertime Love” with its Scarlatti-infused harpsichord and its bright, memorable melody. The song sparkles.

I am so saddened to hear that Ray passed away. His playing was truly transformative in my life, and I’m sure others’ lives as well. But with the body of music he left us, I know it will never truly be “the end.”

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Gregg R. Baker

Gregg R. Baker

Humanist, social scientist, pianist, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Tenured/Commissioned U.S. Foreign Service Officer, dad, soulmate and knowledge seeker.