Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger: ‘The music will outlast the crazy Jim stuff’

This year marks half a century since the storied singer of the Doors, Jim Morrison, met his untimely death. Or at least that’s what most reasonable people believe happened. Due to a combination of denial, wishful thinking and some eagerly promoted conspiracy theories, however, some people actually believe that Morrison still lives. According to the Doors’ guitarist, Robbie Krieger, that’s just one of many outrageous myths, misconceptions or outright lies that have clung to the band’s story. “To me, what happened to the Doors was pretty damn cool just the way it was,” Krieger told the Guardian from his home in Los Angeles. “This wasn’t a story that needed to be hyped.”

In order to represent his version of setting the record straight, then, Krieger has just published a memoir, Set the Night on Fire: Living, Dying and Playing Guitar with the Doors. It’s a doorstop-thick attempt to retell an oft-told tale, this time informed by a desire to suck the hot air out of the more inflated earlier versions, aided by a hilariously flip tone that makes this late-arriving history perhaps the most reliable, and certainly the most entertaining, of all. The witty prose, fashioned by co-author Jeff Alulis, stands in marked contrast to the bitter tone of the two memoirs penned by the band’s drummer, John Densmore – the second of which focused on his protracted lawsuit against the two other surviving members of the band – as well as the pedantic, and at times pretentious, tone of the published reminiscences of keyboardist Ray Manzarek.

Krieger’s tome also aims to blow holes in the mega-selling 1980 book on Morrison, No One Here Gets Out Alive, as well as Oliver Stone’s bloviated 1991 movie The Doors, which Krieger takes down in an entire mocking chapter. To the guitarist, Stone’s movie wins the prize for fostering the single most outrageous fallacy. “The scene in the film where Jim supposedly pushes a fan into a closet and sets it on fire is the worst,” Krieger said. “That is ridiculously untrue.”

At the same time, Krieger’s version of the story hardly wants for drama or lunacy. Here’s what happens in just the first three pages: Morrison proclaims himself God and threatens to throw Krieger “right out of the universe”. Minutes later, during a dinner, Morrison comes on to the wife of the band’s producer and, then, as they’re all tensely driving back to their hotel, he grabs the steering wheel, manned by said producer, and swerves directly into oncoming traffic. After somehow making it back to the hotel alive, Morrison runs up to his room on the 12th floor and proceeds to dangle his body out of the window while stone drunk and stark naked, before leaping back into the room at the last minute to grab Krieger’s crotch and pin him down on the bed for an unsolicited dry hump. “All those things did happen,” Krieger said. “But it seemed normal at the time. It was like, ‘It’s the 60s, man. Anything goes.’”

It helped that they were all incredibly young at the time. Krieger was just 19 in late 1965 when he joined the other three members who had begun trying to find a sound six months earlier. Krieger may have come to the band with what he calls “the worst hair in rock’n’roll,” but he had already developed a distinct and sophisticated guitar style, informed by a love of flamenco music and John Coltrane’s jazz. On the other hand, Krieger said that Morrison hadn’t yet developed the commanding voice he would later become famous for. “Jim had never sung before and your singing muscles need time to develop,” he said. “It didn’t take long but, vocally, Jim became a 95 on a scale of 100 after starting as a 10. His voice became a weapon.”

Likewise, though Morrison “was very shy and reserved on stage at first”, the guitarist said, “as we played night after night, he got better and better – and wilder and wilder.”

The prodigious amounts of acid he took helped. “Most people, when they take acid get self-conscious and quiet,” Krieger said. “With Jim, it was the opposite. He would really go for it.”

That attitude didn’t only apply to his time onstage. “I think Jim believed that life could be boring and that a lot of people were just going through the motions so he would try to freak them out,” Krieger said. “He would do anything to add to the craziness.”

That even applied to how he initially dealt with a case of syphilis. “Most people would be scared if they contracted a potentially lethal STD,” Krieger writes, “but Jim was excited to feel close to all those disease-ridden nineteenth century poets and painters he idealized. He wanted to let it go untreated so he could experience what it was really like to go insane.”

In considering such behavior now, the guitarist said, “I think Jim had some real mental issues – manic depression, or whatever.” He also believes he had issues with his parents. “Whenever the press would ask about his family, he would say that they were dead,” Krieger said. “His mom was weird. She was very bossy. But he was fixated on her.”

In fact, that fraught relationship informed one of Morrison’s most famous lyrics – his oedipal outburst in The End in which he shouts about killing his father and having sex with his mother. In the book, Krieger writes that the other band members had no idea that part of the song was coming the first time Morrison introduced it during an improvised section of a show at the Whiskey a Go Go in Hollywood. “The first time I heard it, I didn’t even know what he was talking about,” Krieger said. “It wasn’t until we recorded it that Jim talked about why he put it in there. He would never tell us what his lyrics were about. He’d say, ‘you have to interpret the words.’ But this time, he went on and on about it. I never met anyone who had such an Oedipus complex that he writes a song about it and then talks about it. Most people don’t even realize they have it.”

Krieger believes Morrison’s ability to create such frank, outrageous and spontaneous moments is what made the Doors’ live shows so vital and real. “When people saw us play, they knew that this wasn’t just a show,” he said. Or, as he writes in the book, “there was no difference between Jim on-stage and off. I’m pretty sure Iggy Pop doesn’t roll around in glass in between trips to the supermarket and I doubt Hendrix ever set his guitar on fire just to keep warm. The magic of Jim was that he was just Jim.”

At the same time, because the singer became so famous for his out-of-the-blue provocations, fans, writers and even the authorities felt free to project stunts on to him he never pulled or intended. An infamous incident at a Miami show in 1969 in which Morrison was arrested for exposure as well as for simulating oral copulation on Krieger was entirely false, the guitarist said. “I would have noticed if he had given me a fake blowjob,” he writes.

The depiction of the band’s behavior surrounding their Ed Sullivan Show appearance is equally baseless, he said. The only reason Morrison sang the word “higher” during Light My Fire – after he had been specifically instructed by the show’s producers not to – wasn’t to be defiant. It was because he was nervous to perform on TV, so he stuck to the script of the song to anchor himself, Krieger said. He added that it was flat-out false that the band were subsequently banned from the show, as the Doors movie had it. In his book, Krieger writes that Manzarek later embellished this part of the story even more than Oliver Stone did. “The way Ray told stories, I’m surprised his version didn’t end with us strutting in slow motion down Broadway while the CBS studios exploded in the background,” he wrote.

Another mischaracterization concerns Morrison’s nom-de-persona, The Lizard King, which came from a lyric in the song Not to Touch the Earth. The line was meant to refer to a character in the song not the singer. “Jim thought the name was silly,” Krieger writes.

He asserts, too, that the singer’s weight gain later in his career wasn’t a willful attempt to sabotage his rock god image. The girth came from his escalating alcoholism, a voracious appetite for food, as well as his natural tendency to pack on the pounds. In a related story, Krieger said that Morrison’s move to Paris in 1971 wasn’t about getting away from his rock career so he could be taken more seriously as a poet. “More than anything, he loved being onstage and playing rock’n’roll,” he said. “There’s no way he would have stopped being a singer.”

In fact, the guitarist said Morrison felt the band had revitalized itself with the album they cut shortly before his death, LA Woman. That album will be honored with a 50th-anniversary edition out this month, containing some never-before-heard alternate studio versions of the album’s classics. Krieger, who wrote the core of many of the band’s best-known songs from Light My Fire to Love Her Madly, considers LA Woman to be the best Doors album since their debut four years earlier. He believes that has to do with the fully collaborative nature of the writing and the more spontaneous nature of the playing and recording, encouraged by their engineer-turned-producer Bruce Botnick. “The coolest thing was when we were recording songs like Riders on the Storm and LA Woman, we were just jamming,” Krieger said. “We were making things up on the spot which we hadn’t done in years.”

After Morrison’s death, the remaining Doors considered other singers to replace him, though not Iggy Pop, as has long been rumored. They coveted Joe Cocker and Paul Rodgers, though they never made offers to either. Instead they recorded two albums on their own, which Krieger believes may have been two too many. After the surviving three members finally admitted defeat, Krieger continued to record with new bands, yet a growing depression rooted in his realization that his career had peaked when he was just 25, led him into a heroin addiction that took years to beat. In the book, he details that time and connects it to other personal problems in his life, including his mother’s long history of pill addiction and his twin brother’s mental illness, which led to an early, and still mysterious, death.

A painful part of the book deals with drummer Densmore’s suits against Krieger and Manzarek after they tried to tour under the band’s original name in the early aughts. Contentious as that period was, Krieger said that he and Densmore later became friendly again, spurred by Manzarek’s death from cancer in 2013. “I think John was upset that he and Ray hadn’t really made up,” Krieger said. “And he realized you can’t be mad forever.”

As to why Manzarek continued to stoke Doors myths up until his death, Krieger believes it was because the keyboardist “couldn’t believe it was over. So, he kept doing interviews and making stuff up,” he said.

At the same time, Krieger admits that the escalating myth-making “is, in a way, what kept the Doors going. So, maybe it was for the best.”

Especially since Krieger no longer worries, as he had for years, that the myths – and truths – about Morrison’s wild antics would overshadow the band’s recordings. “The music will outlast all the ‘crazy Jim’ stuff,” he said. Fifty years after the group’s demise, said Krieger, “the music is what will keep the Doors in people’s minds for the next fifty years.”

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