The Doors' Robby Krieger Sheds Light — Album by Album — on One of Rock’s Most Mysterious Bands
The Doors’ Jim Morrison lit the world on fire, but it was guitarist Robby Krieger who supplied the matches. In 2008, the legendary axman shed light on one of rock’s most mysterious bands for Guitar World.
“It was hard living with Jim.”
Robby Krieger is talking about his days as guitarist with the Doors, reflecting on his role as creative sidekick to one of rock’s all-time great lyricists, singers, sex symbols and extreme personalities, Jim Morrison.
“It would have been so great if we’d just had a guy like Sting,” says Krieger wistfully. “You know, a normal guy who’s extremely talented, too. Someone who didn’t have to be on the verge of life and death every second of his life.”
The guitarist laughs at his own fantasy. He knows better than anyone that it was Morrison’s inner demons, which surfaced all too frequently, that gave the Doors’ music its resonance and power. But while Morrison was undoubtedly one of rock’s great visionaries, the contributions of the other Doors to the band’s unique sound and success cannot be overlooked.
The blues-based, often hypnotic music created by Krieger, organist Ray Manzarek and drummer John Densmore perfectly complemented Morrison’s commanding, sensual vocals and mesmerizing lyrics. And it was actually Krieger who penned many of the Doors’ greatest songs and biggest hits, including “Light My Fire,” “Love Me Two Times” and “Touch Me.”
Remarkably, when Krieger joined the Doors in 1965 he was only 18 years old and had been playing guitar for just two years—electric guitar a mere six months.
“I really learned to play as a member of the Doors,” he asserts. “I just tried to sound like myself—I consciously avoided copying Chuck Berry or B.B. King because that’s what everyone was doing. I tried to come up with the right part for the song and play something that would complement Jim’s singing.
“It must have worked,” he adds coyly. “I think we came up with a pretty good body of work.”
Pretty good, yes. Good enough to have gotten the Doors inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last January and to have inspired Oliver Stone’s reverential 1991 biopic. And, most of all, good enough to enthrall three decades of rock fans with music that remains as powerful and profound in the Nineties as it was in the Sixties.
Robby Krieger cannot escape his past with the Doors, even though the band essentially died with Morrison in 1971. Although he has remained active, touring regularly and recording seven solo albums dominated by instrumental music, Krieger says, “I realized pretty quickly that I would never again have another band like the Doors. Music has become more of a fun thing for me, much like painting is — something that’s personally rewarding. It’s what I do and how I identify myself: I’m Robby Krieger, guitarist.”
Most people would say: Robby Krieger, Doors guitarist. What follows are Krieger’s recollections of the Doors’ career, from their 1967 self-titled debut to 1971’s brilliant swan song, L.A. Woman.
Released January 1967
GUITAR WORLD: What was your first impression of Jim Morrison?
I first met him when he came to my house with John Densmore and he seemed pretty normal. I didn’t really get a sense that there was anything unusual about him until the end of our first rehearsal. Initially, everything was cool. Then this guy came looking for Jim. Something had gone wrong with a dope deal, and Jim just went nuts. Absolutely bananas. I thought, Jesus Christ, this guy’s not normal.
What were your impressions of Ray Manzarek?
When I first met him, he was the “big man on campus” at the UCLA film school. In fact, our first gig as a band was to provide music for one of his student films. Afterwards Ray got up in front of an auditorium full of people and gave a speech. I remember it well, because he had them in the palm of his hand. He was down-right mesmerizing. He was a major character, but Jim kind of kept him in his place. Jim was so out there that Ray’s personality was overwhelmed—which, oddly enough, created a good balance.
And you were pretty much what you appeared to be: a nice, quiet guy who fit in between these two powerful personalities?
Well, dealing with Jim kind of changed me, too, because I was pretty crazy myself. I was the first one at my school to try acid and I was always the one pushing things. Then I got into the Doors and I couldn’t hold a candle to Jim and Ray. [laughs] But I had already gone through acid and I was onto meditation by the time I joined the Doors—I actually met John at meditation class—so I had already mellowed out.
When were the Doors thrown out of the Whisky-A-Go-Go for performing “The End”?
Well, that’s overstating it a little bit. That whole incident has been blown out of proportion. There was a fight with the owner and we were thrown out, but I don’t think we were actually fired. We kept playing the Whisky after that.
Jim’s antics are held in such reverence now. Were they funny at the time?
It was always a bummer. We had this group which we all knew had the potential to be something really big, and Jim was trying to sabotage it by fucking up at every turn. We would call a rehearsal, Jim wouldn’t show, and we’d get a call from Blythe, Arizona, telling us that he was in jail.
Yet you guys were amazingly productive. You produced six studio albums in three or four years. Were his work habits really that bad?
No. the music was all he lived for. A lot of times he was at the office when we weren’t. He’d even live there sometimes, because that was his whole life. We all had lives other than the Doors, but he didn’t, and he kind of resented that. He felt like he was living it 24 hours a day, and we weren’t. And he was right.
But the recording sessions really bored him. We had to hang around interminably until they got the drum sound down and all that shit, so I can’t blame him for going crazy. Paul Rothchild, our producer, was a real perfectionist.
How important was Paul to your music?
It really differed from album to album. On the first one, he just turned on the mic and stepped out of the way. The second album, when we actually had a budget, Paul really got involved in the sound.
We were all kind of freaked out recording the first album because we didn’t know what it would be like. For example, it really bothered us that we couldn’t turn up as loud as we wanted.
Yet it really sounds like you were all playing with total abandon.
That’s because we had been playing those songs for so long that we really had the material down cold. Everything was cut in one or two takes.
Your version of “Back Door Man” is really effective. Were there any debates about how faithful you should be to the original version?
No. For one thing, we probably weren’t good enough musicians to do exact copies and we knew that Jim would never sing it anywhere near the original anyhow. So we just went on our own.
For years it was a little-known fact that you wrote “Light My Fire.” That changed when Oliver Stone made it a point to show how the song evolved in his movie, The Doors. Was it as simple as pulling a crumpled piece of paper out of your pocket and offering it to the band like the movie suggests?
It’s pretty close. Jim had been writing all the songs and then one day we realized we didn’t have enough tunes, so he said, “Hey, why don’t you guys try and write songs?” I wrote “Light My Fire” that night and brought it to the next rehearsal. It was my idea to have that scene in the movie, by the way. I wanted it there because it’s always kind of bugged me that so many people don’t know I was the composer.
Your solo on “Light My Fire” is truly one of your shining moments as a guitarist. Was it improvised in the studio?
It was the kind of solo that I usually did, but it was different every night. To be honest, the one on the record is not one of my better versions. I only had two tries at it. But it’s not bad; I’m glad it was as good as it was.
Was the whole album recorded live?
No. Jim always sang with us, but they rarely used the scratch vocal. “The End” was an exception.
What do you think of the song now?
I think that particular version of “The End” was nowhere near as good as the way we played it many other times. All the songs on the first album were like skeletons of how we really played them. It was just a combination of not having any studio experience and having to do everything so fast. I also think that studios are, by nature, limiting. You cannot get the sound of five big amplifiers on a little piece of tape.