Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore released “The Doors” in January of 1967. The LP might not have changed my life if, at the time, I had just listened a little closer…
I was turning 16. The only thing I wanted for my birthday was this band’s debut psychedelic rock LP, although I had only ever heard the edited version of “Light My Fire” on AM radio. My folks could have opted for the cheaper single, but they knew better and popped for the album. They had raised us on Beethoven and Gilbert & Sullivan and my dad referred to all rock as ‘zurab music’. Even though I argued that the keyboard parts were taken from Bach, he forbade me from cranking it up in his presence. Anyway, as long as I finished my orchard work and homework in a timely manner, I was free to play my new favorite record. Which I did, endlessly.
All the while, my auditory system was learning to listen critically. “Light My Fire”, the hit single and first tune in the track list, was a real puzzler. I was able to pick out dramatic, sometimes manic vocals (Morrison), trippy guitar solos (Krieger), bashing drums (Densmore), neo-classical keyboard licks (Manzarek) and a mantra-like bass. What? Wait a minute – the liner notes credited only four guys. Who was playing bass? A friend who had seen them live later explained that Manzarek was covering bass on a little 32-key electric piano, a fact confirmed during The Doors’ infamous performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on September 17th, 1967.* There it was, a Fender Rhodes keyboard bass sitting atop the Vox Continental organ, Ray meditating away with his left hand.
*The Doors were banned from the show for life after Morrison sang “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher” instead of “Girl, we couldn’t get much better”, a less drug-related lyric that the producers had suggested for their young audience. Similarly, Sullivan made Mick Jagger sing “Let’s spend some time together” instead of the much racier “Let’s spend the night together.”
I made a solemn vow, right then and there, to become the most famous keyboard/bass player in Long Lake, Minnesota (population 6,643). With the family turntable on the piano bench next to me, I carefully lowered the needle to “Light My Fire”. The bass line was too easy. During the lengthy solos, it just rocked back and forth between A♭ minor and B♭ minor. No problem! I quickly learned the concept of ‘set it and forget it’: start my left hand in a mindless robotic loop, then use the creative areas of my brain to play chords and solos with the right, at least until my brother and sisters started threatening violence. I practiced long and hard, lifting the needle, dropping the needle, ignoring the tendonitis creeping up my left arm.
After saving up to buy a Farfisa Combo Compact organ, I started getting solo gigs at lavish beachside parties on Lake Minnetonka. I was already the drummer in a British Invasion cover band (known variously as “The Unlimited Five”, “The Avengers”, or “The Untalented Five” to our detractors), but it wasn’t enough. I wanted to emulate emerging rock trios like The Doors, The James Gang, Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, even The Lovin’ Spoonful. My high school pal Pat had some drums, and together with an amazing, self-taught kid guitarist named Russell,** we formed a three-piece band, calling ourselves “Zabadak” (after a hit song by the British musical group Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich). We covered Hendrix, Cream and The Doors for gas money and soft drinks at barn parties, youth centers and sock hops.
**Russell Pahl had figured out how to better hear Krieger’s guitar. He was able to eliminate Morrison’s vocals by recording a tune from LP to stereo tape, then inverting one output by swapping the hot and ground wires on its plug. When he mixed both the straight and inverted sides to mono, everything originally panned to the center (mostly vocals) disappeared. Sheer genius, and years ahead of the Thompson Vocal Eliminator. Russell went on to play pedal steel guitar with Elton John, among others.
Learning to listen was paying off. I mastered the bass parts on “The Doors” and then tackled “Strange Days”. By applying my new-found analytical skills to recordings by the progressive rock trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer, I was able to pick out the amazing sounds of Moog synthesizers. I got my hands on every synth recording I could find and took classes in synth programming in college. Teasing apart the roles of oscillators, filters, amplifiers and envelope generators became a passion. My talents gained the attention of local recording artists, who hired me to add special effects. In time, I recorded with Prince, Janet Jackson, Cat Stevens and at Todd Rundgren’s Bearsville studio. I opened a synthesizer store and taught college courses in an electronic music studio. Because I had learned to listen, I subsequently earned a position as a neuroscientist studying music cognition at a Big Ten university. And I owed it all, somewhat mistakenly, to The Doors.
Just today, I read the truth in Wikipedia. For their first album, The Doors’ producer Paul Rothchild thought that Ray Manzarek’s Fender Rhodes piano bass didn’t have enough ‘punch’, so he brought in session musician Larry Knechtel to play Fender Precision Bass on “Light My Fire” and other cuts. NOOOOOOO!!! How could I have been so naïve? Did Ray fake it in live performances? Was Larry standing behind the curtain all those times?***
***I shouldn’t have been surprised. My friend keyboardist Casey Young once toured invisibly with Yes. They had buried him under the grid-like stage with a massive complement of synths, samplers, keyboards and a video monitor.
I had to know. The time to revisit “Light My Fire” with renewed critical listening skills had come. Last night, I clipped and analyzed the keyboard solo section (listen to the excerpt below). In this passage, I’ve dropped either the left or right channel every eight bars to reveal guitar, organ solo and Larry’s bass panned hard-right, and lo and behold, drums and Ray’s bass hard-left. He really was playing the part, but barely audible and an octave above Larry!
Some might not understand the emotional roller-coaster I’ve been riding the last couple of days. Imagine discovering that all of your favorite singers have their vocal tracks auto-tuned. Oh, wait, that happens all the time. Nevermind.
Listen to Roger’s mix of “Light My Fire” here.
Roger Dumas doesn’t own up to any particular label, but admits that he has masqueraded as a college professor, recording artist, synth programmer, corporate president, author, neuroscientist, inventor, father and husband. He believes that music can make it all better.