The Doors c. 1966. From left: Jim Morrison, John Densmore, Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty)
In interviews I’m often asked, “when did you take up the piano?”
Well that’s just it. It was never about the piano. I was merely looking for a time machine, a portal, escape hatch, a way out of this dreary place. Discovery of classic film score composers and bands like Pink Floyd and The Doors transported me. It was the music itself that conjured the emotion. It was inside our own heads. I wanted to figure out how to do the same thing–– create imaginary worlds of my own. Please read this wonderful interview in Sepiachord where I discuss this in depth.
I am so saddened to hear of the passing of The Door’s brilliant keyboard player Ray Manzarek. At a time when I was forced to take stale piano lessons (which thankfully I eventually quit) and hated the instrument, I discovered a song that changed everything.
“Riders on the Storm” was one of the first songs that inspired me to compose my own music. It was one of the first songs I easily picked out by ear as a girl and began playing its hypnotic riff––it was positively mystical.
I found then I could not only play by ear, but also the excitement of exploring unusual keys and improvisations. (As most of you know, to this day I don’t read or write music. It’s all intuited.) I realized it was all about breaking the rules, or at least inventing your own. This informed all of my later work.
“Riders on the Storm” (from The Doors 1971 album, L.A. Woman) is played in E Dorian mode, and featured its trademark sound effects of a dreamy thunderstorm amidst Ray Manzarek’s Fender Rhodes electric piano, which also emulates the soft sound of rain. It was a fragile, transparent piece––haunted, meditative, suspenseful, subtle, carnival-esque.
As a kid, I would play “Riders on the Storm,” over and over again, get lost inside those gorgeous cascading notes. It was almost like casting a spell, or unlocking some mysterious code. I felt like if I just got all the notes right, the world would suddenly make sense. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all.
That power I realized I had hidden inside me all along. Finding the key to unlock it is the trick. In my case it was E Dorian Mode.
Onstage, The Doors’ four-man lineup was distinctive; it did not include a bass player. Manzarek’s powerful left hand held down the bass grooves on the keys. (The rest of The Doors: drummer John Densmore, guitarist Robby Krieger and of course, singer Jim Morrison.) This fact was always quite comforting to me during times I did not have a bassist.
I must say growing up loving 1970s rock made me develop my own strong left hand. With my music, a heavy seductive bass line is crucial, especially when I am playing solo.
Little did I know, years later I would actually share the stage with Ray Manzarek.
We were two of the musicians chosen by Litquake to speak about our favorite books, play music, and discuss how literature has influenced our work.
Ray and I had neighboring dressing rooms. He told me funny stories. I told him he was partly responsible for me becoming a pianist…told him my tale of discovering “Riders on the Storm” and he said he was honored.
I was standing next to him onstage when he began to soundcheck. We were the only two sharing a digital keyboard. The soundman shouted “Hey Ray, we’re getting levels, just play something on the keyboard.”
Ray looked at me. I smiled. He began playing “Riders on the Storm.” Time stopped. I suddenly became that 8 year old girl again…and fought to hide the tears in my eyes. I will never forget that moment.
Into this world we’re thrown.
Thank you Ray. For your music, your inspiration and for being kind to a young pianist who didn’t want you to know you had moved her to tears. You still do. You remain always in spirit.
Jill Tracy and The Doors’ Ray Manzarek backstage pre-show at the Regency Grand Ballroom, San Francisco. (2006)