When the Doors released their self-titled debut in 1967, it was a revelation. Vocalist Jim Morrison, keyboardist Ray Manzarek, drummer John Densmore and guitarist Robby Krieger produced a unique mix of rock, blues and jazz that became one of the soundtracks of the Summer of Love. Morrison died in France in 1971, Manzarek in 2013.
Krieger released a new book, Set the Night on Fire: Living, Dying, and Playing Guitar With the Doors, in October 2021. The book sets straight many of the myths and falsehoods that have grown around the group in an avalanche of books, TV shows and the 1991 film The Doors, directed by Oliver Stone.
Krieger also dissects the band’s rocky relationship with their long-time producer, Paul Rothchild, who also produced Janis Joplin’s final album, Pearl. Rothchild called one of the Doors’ songs “cocktail music,” which led to his departure from the L.A. Woman sessions.
The Doors never had a permanent bassist in their lineup. In concert, Manzarek played a Fender Rhodes Piano Bass with his left hand. Some of the best studio bassists performed on many of the Doors’ albums.
Krieger, who wrote the band’s number one hit “Light My Fire,” reveals why the band’s trademark song was not chosen as the Doors’ first single.
What was your reaction to the record company’s decision to shorten “Light My Fire” for the single?
When we started playing it in person, everybody just would go nuts every time we played it. Just amazing. So we knew right from the beginning it was the strongest on the album.
We all wanted them to put it out as it was, six minutes, because Bob Dylan had just done it with “Like a Rolling Stone.” They thought a six-minute song would be just too hard to get on the AM radio, which is true. There was no FM yet, it was just starting. So it was better to have a three-minute song than a six-minute song. That’s why we put out “Break on Through” as the first single. And we realized, everybody was telling us, not just the record company, it was all the DJs that we knew, "just cut that thing down, man, it’s gonna be a smash."
There was this one guy who had the first FM station in LA. It was in the Valley and it was KBLA. So this guy, Dave Diamond, Dave Diamond and the Diamond Mine. He would play all kinds of stuff, that’s what FM used to do before, playing the deep cuts. So he told us that every time he’d play that song he would get hundreds of calls. "Cut it down." So we finally did.
“Alabama Song” was such an odd choice for a rock album, especially a debut. How did that come to be recorded?
Ray had this great record collection. He had this one thing called “The Threepenny Opera” by Kurt Weill. That was one of the songs on that album. And we all just loved it. We said, "oh man, we should do this." We changed it quite a bit from the way they did it but to me, that could have been a single, easily.
The Doors were unique in 1967 in that you didn’t try to copy the Beatles.
[Laughs] I’m sure we would have copied the Beatles if we knew how. But we had our own thing and we believed in it.
Describe a typical Doors session in the early days.
The first album, we had been playing these songs every night at the Whisky for months. So we had a low budget and one or two takes of each song. No messin’ around. Then as time went on we had more money, more studio time and started getting really anal about it. Which was probably a mistake.
If you really listen to the old pressings of the first album, when it would come on the radio I would go "Oh man, it was so echoey and there’s not much volume compared the Beatles." But somehow the music came through. I don’t think it really matters what the sound quality is like if the music is good.
Why was a bassist never added to the Doors lineup?
We always played with Ray doing the bass on his little piano bass. It just seemed to work pretty good in person. We did try bass players now and then. It never really added anything. I think part of it was that with Ray having to do both, it made him play more hypnotically. And that really was part of our sound. Most of the albums had a real bass player after the first album. And some really great bass players. On L.A. Woman we had Jerry Scheff, who was Elvis’s bass player. He came up with some really cool stuff.
What is the biggest myth about the Doors that you bust in the book?
Hopefully, it’s really what kind of guy Jim was. You see that Doors movie and he seems like such an idiot. I tried to explain what it was like to write songs with him. Especially in the early days, he was really great to work with. The movie and the books that came out made him out to be crazy all the time. He had two sides to him. Very cool most of the time but when he drank too much at a certain point, that would be it.
Was everyone in the band happy that Jim was the focus of all the attention?
Yeah, I think so. Before the Doors, Ray was the front man with his brother’s band, Rick & the Ravens. So we were all very happy to let him be the front man.
You write about the period after Jim died. What were the ideas you, John and Ray discussed about going forward?
When Jim was gone we continued writing songs. We had a whole bunch of songs ready to go. We fully expected him to come back and make more records. At least going out on tour. We kept writing, had a lot of good songs. So when he passed away, we knew we couldn’t replace him so we said well, let’s just the three of us do it and see what happens.
I think there’s some pretty cool songs on those two albums. Wish he could have been there but . . . We didn’t know what else to do, that’s all we’d ever done for the past five years. I had the idea that we should have just become a jazz trio. To me, that would have been fun.
You write about the variety of good Doors tribute bands you’ve seen. Tell me about the worst of them.
A lot of them were pretty good actually but there was this one band, they actually did the songs really well but they tried to look like us. They dressed up in these silly weird wigs and Ray’s striped suit. It seemed silly to me. I actually sat in with them one time. I was trying to keep myself from laughing.
In the years since Jim’s death, you’ve performed the music of the Doors with other singers. Who best captured what Jim Morrison was like?
None of them, really. They all sang pretty good. We just did a gig the other night where my son Waylon did the singing and he’s actually very good. Ian Astbury [of the Cult] was the first guy, when we started up again in 2000, I thought he captured Jim’s persona pretty good. He didn’t really sing like Jim, he didn’t try to hit all the correct notes. He had a certain look to him and persona that really worked.
What can fans expect when the Robby Krieger Band tours?
They will hopefully hear the Doors’ music properly, the way it was meant to be. And my son Waylon is actually a pretty good front man. A lot of people really like him. He does Jim Morrison’s slot. I think anybody who likes the Doors would get a kick out of it.
Waylon was in a band with Joe Bonamassa called Bloodline. It was the sons of all these musicians; Berry Oakley’s kid Berry on bass, Miles Davis’s kid was the drummer and Sammy Hagar’s kid was the singer. It went pretty good.
Could the day come when you and John would perform together?
I think it’s possible. We just did a thing in my studio. We played “L.A. Woman” and a couple of other songs because the L.A. Woman box set is coming out pretty soon, the 50th anniversary of that album. He can really still play that stuff. We do stuff every six months or so. We did a benefit for the first responders last year. It’s usually pretty cool when we do get together. I just can’t seem to talk him into going out on a real tour.
How did you react when your producer, Paul Rothchild, referred to your music as “cocktail music”?
Not well. I don’t know if he really thought that because the song he was talking about was “Riders on the Storm,” when Ray plays that intro. It’s one of the best electric piano solos ever. Then later, he changed it, he said, "Oh no, I was talking about “Love Her Madly.".
He was in a bad spot at that time. He had just finished Janis Joplin’s album and then she OD’d and I think he was afraid that Jim was going to follow and that he would become known as the producer of the dead. So you can’t blame him. I’ll have to forgive for that “cocktail music.”
Let’s do a lightning round. The most overlooked Doors song.
“Yes, the River Knows.” To me, that was one of Ray’s best piano parts ever, rivaling “Riders on the Storm.” I just did a version of that on my last album, instrumental version, and we transcribed his part exactly and it came out pretty good.
A musician you would have loved to perform with.
Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever.