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The Doors: Riding the Storm Out

A new door opens for Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek

Considering all the tumultuous legal battles that Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek have endured over the past three years, the name they recently chose for their current band—Riders on the Storm—fits like pair of skintight leather pants.

The band, which consists of Krieger, Manzarek and former Cult singer Ian Astbury, began giving enthusiastically welcomed performances of classic Doors songs in September 2002, working under the name Doors of the 21st Century. Unfortunately, former Doors drummer John Densmore (whose tinnitus prevented him from joining the group) balked when he learned of the band’s suggestive name. Along with Morrison’s estate, he successfully convinced a U.S. court this past August to issue a permanent injunction that bars Krieger and Manzarek from employing the word “Doors” in their group’s name, although they can still perform the Doors’ music.

Densmore isn’t the only drummer feeling litigious toward his onetime band mates. Former Police drummer Stewart Copeland had been performing with Doors of the 21st Century but bowed out after he broke his arm in a bicycle accident. When the group announced it had hired Ty Dennis as his replacement, Copeland sued for breach of contract. The lawsuit was settled quickly and amicably under confidential terms.

For now, anyway, the road ahead looks clear for Riders on the Storm. The band’s arduous journey began in early 2001, when Krieger, Manzarek and Densmore reunited for VH1’s Storytellers, with a variety of guest singers filling in for Jim Morrison. The program’s success convinced Krieger and Manzarek that the time was right to perform the Doors’ most beloved material on the road once again. Impressed with Astbury’s performances of “Whiskey Bar” and “Backdoor Man” on the VH1 program, the duo invited him to handle vocal duties. “I knew it was going to be difficult because Morrison is such a sacred icon,” Astbury told Billboard. “My take on it is more we’re performing a classic body of work in the same way that a classical body of work of a dead composer would be performed by musicians of the day.”

In addition to touring almost nonstop for the past three years, Riders on the Storm have also started work on a new album of original material. Poets Michael McClure and Jim Carroll contributed lyrics, and the band recently introduced a new song, “Eagle in a Whirlpool,” featuring lyrics penned by McClure, to their live sets. In August, VH1 taped “A Tribute to the Doors,” the first episode of their brand-new program, Decades Rock Live. The show aired on October 8 and featured performances by Riders on the Storm, Perry Farrell, Macy Gray, Pat Travers, John Sebastian and members of Antigone Rising and Vanilla Fudge. With their legal battles behind them, Krieger and Manzarek look forward to continuing their work with Riders on the Storm without further obstacles. Although a door was closed on use of their old band name, as a popular statement of wisdom notes, an entirely new door has opened. Robby Krieger brought Guitar Legends along on the band’s journey as it entered its latest portal.

GUITAR LEGENDS What influenced you and Ray to get together with Ian Astbury and start performing classic Doors songs again?

ROBBY KRIEGER We taped a VH1 Storytellers special back in early 2001, and we had a bunch of different singers join us, like Scott Stapp from Creed, Scott Weiland, Pat Monahan from Train, Perry Farrell and Ian. After we did the show, Ian expressed a desire to do the reunion. All the other singers had their own deals going, but Ian was getting tired of singing with the Cult. It was perfect timing, plus he was great. He was one of the better singers on that show.

For years Ian was a friend of Danny Sugerman, who was our manager. The two of them had always plotted to get us together. Ian came to some shows I did with the Robby Krieger Band and sat in with us. It was the logical conclusion to choose him.

GL You and Ray have worked together for a while on a few collaborations, such as the tracks you both recorded for your Versions album in 1983. What took you until 2002 to revisit the Doors?

KRIEGER It was just the right time. I had my own band and Ray was doing things with his poet friends. More and more we had people asking when we were going to get together and do something. We figured we’d waited long enough, especially because it seemed like a lot of people wanted to see us do it. Then we got an offer from Harley- Davidson to play at their 100th Anniversary celebration in Los Angeles. We thought that would be a good way to start the reunion.

GL Since then you haven’t stopped. The band has played shows almost every month with just a few short breaks.

KRIEGER We’ve always figured that as long as people want to see us play, we’ll do it.

GL The band went into the studio in May 2005. How are things progressing on new material?

KRIEGER We did some work at Ocean Way with producer Ken Scott. We recorded maybe five or six songs and they turned out pretty good. The thing is we’ve got to make sure that they’re all incredible because it’s going to be compared to the Doors, of course. If it’s not incredible people will complain, so we’ve got to do our best. We’re taking our time with it, and we won’t put out an album until we’ve completed something that lives up to what we’ve previously done as the Doors.

GL The band debuted a new song, “Ea GLe in a Whirlpool,” in July. What is that song about?

KRIEGER Michael McClure wrote the words to that song. It’s about America. You’ll have to ask Michael what it’s really about because it’s pretty esoteric. It’s like a lot of other Doors songs where you’re not really sure what the hell it means and you have to make your own judgments.

GL With the Robby Krieger Band you usually played a Gibson ES-355, but I noticed that you’re playing Gibson SG guitars again, just like you used with the Doors.

KRIEGER My road manager Marco Moir talked me into trying the old SG again. He found a ’67 SG in a pawnshop and I really liked it. I could get a pretty similar sound to the 355 with it. Plus, I think people like to see you play the guitar that you used to play in the old days. It worked out pretty good. I have three SGs now. I found an old SG Special with P-90 pickups in my closet. I bought it about 20 years ago for 100 bucks, and it was in new condition. I just put it away and forgot about it. When the band got back together, I was looking through my guitars and found that thing, It sounded incredibly sweet for slide, so that’s what I’m using it for. I’m also playing a flamencostyle Renaissance Series guitar that Rick Turner made for me. I use it for “Spanish Caravan.”

GL Are you still using a Fender Twin Reverb amp like you did in the Sixties?

KRIEGER I’m using a Fender Blues DeVille with 4x10 speakers. I play through two of them in stereo.

GL When the Doors performed live, Ray played the bass lines on a keyboard. On this tour you guys are playing with a bassist. What influenced that decision?

KRIEGER Ray wanted to have both of his hands available to play other things. In reality, the piano bass sounds kind of clunky. The piano bass added to the Doors sound by making Ray play very hypnotically because he kind of had to be on automatic pilot with his bass lines. That made the whole band sound more hypnotic as well. We make sure that Phil Chen plays that way on the bass guitar, playing the exact same patterns that Ray did.

GL How do you feel about being forced to stop using the name Doors of the 21st Century?

KRIEGER It’s ridiculous, but I don’t think that fans really care what the name is at this point. Everybody knows who is playing with the band and who is not. Obviously Jim Morrison is not going to be there. Most people realize that. Maybe there’s one person in the audience who might think otherwise, but that’s not our fault. This whole legal mess has been really stupid. A lot of time was wasted and a lot of feelings were hurt. I don’t mind not calling the band the Doors, but I don’t see what’s wrong about putting the word “doors” somewhere in the name. I think that the fans know what’s going on and they know who they’re going to see onstage when they come to see us play.

GL You and Ray have often performed “The End” with your own bands, but you haven’t performed it yet with Riders on the Storm. Why not?

KRIEGER Ray felt that it was Jim’s song, that it was personal and that we should probably stay away from it. I’ve played it a couple of times with my band, and it always turns out great. We also played it on the VH1 special with Travis Meeks singing it, who also recorded a version of it for the Stoned Immaculate tribute album. John Densmore and I played on that recording along with Rob Wasserman on bass, and we thought it turned out really good. I wish we could play it. I’m sure we will at one point.

GL What other songs does the band shy away from playing?

KRIEGER I’ve always wanted to perform “Soft Parade” but I think Ray is reticent to do it because he’s too lazy to learn how to play it. [laughs] The other guys and I have already worked on it, but now we just have to convince Ray.

GL The music of the Doors still sounds as fresh as it did when it came out during the late Sixties and early Seventies.

KRIEGER I think you’re right. It’s amazing that people are still listening and the music still seems to work. We get a lot of young people at our shows. Our audiences are very mixed, but we get a lot of younger people there, especially when we’re not playing 21-and-over venues.

GL Do you find it ironic that the band is back and the U.S. is once again at war on foreign soil, just like we were in the late Sixties?

KRIEGER We just try to put some good music out there and encourage people to make love, not war. I saw this show on television the other night about some musicians in Afghanistan and those guys are so happy now that they’re able to write songs about the government or whatever they want to. They’ve been stifled for so long over there. It’s something we all take for granted. Music is one of the most pure forms of expression known to man, and no one should be allowed to stop people from making music.

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Chris is the co-author of Eruption - Conversations with Eddie Van Halen. He is a 40-year music industry veteran who started at Boardwalk Entertainment (Joan Jett, Night Ranger) and Roland US before becoming a guitar journalist in 1991. He has interviewed more than 600 artists, written more than 1,400 product reviews and contributed to Jeff Beck’s Beck 01: Hot Rods and Rock & Roll and Eric Clapton’s Six String Stories.