By Chris M. Junior
The blues are very much a part of the respective musical DNA of keyboardist Ray Manzarek and guitarist Roy Rogers.
Growing up in Chicago during the 1950s, Manzarek would come home from school, turn on the radio and listen to the music of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and other greats being played on local stations. Years later with The Doors, Manzarek played blues-based music from time to time, both covers (such as the Willie Dixon-penned “Back Door Man” and “Little Red Rooster”) and originals (“Roadhouse Blues” and “L.A. Woman”).
As for Rogers, he played with blues legend John Lee Hooker in the 1980s and also produced a few of Hooker’s albums, among them “The Healer,” which contains the Grammy-winning “I’m in the Mood.” Rogers formed the Delta Rhythm Kings in 1980, and the band has backed him on his solo albums since the mid-1980s.
For “Translucent Blues” (Blind Pig Records), their new album, Manzarek and Rogers weren’t interested in safely cruising down the genre’s well-traveled thematic or structural roads. For lyrics, they used the words of such respected songwriters and poets as Warren Zevon, Jim Carroll, Michael McClure and Michael C. Ford; when it came to creating the music, they were not boxed in by any preconceived boundaries.
During a break in their touring schedule, Manzarek and Rogers spoke about the ins and outs of “Translucent Blues,” their record on Blind Pig Records (http://www.blindpigrecords.com).
The term blues can refer to a song’s structure, sound or feeling. At times “Translucent Blues” is those three things, but the blues are also a musical starting point for the album as well as a state of mind. What was the game plan before recording began, and in what ways did it change along the way?
Ray Manzarek: The game plan was to make the best possible record we could make, adapting the blues into a 21st-century milieu and combining intricate and interesting variations on the blues, musically, with the lyrics of poets that we know. The poetry aspect was very important, as was, of course, the music, so we adapted the poetry into a blues setting and framework, but we weren’t slaves to the 12-bar blues structure.
Roy Rogers: I would agree. We really wanted to create a different structure and different sound, obviously within a blues-oriented framework. But the lyrics give it a different bend, as Ray states. It’s really a collaboration of the sound: We wanted to create not only just in a musical form, but in a soundscape, if you will, and, hopefully, we accomplished that.
What did “Translucent Blues” allow each of you to do that, for whatever reason, you haven’t really done in the past?
RM: We’ve never done this before, and we’ve been playing music for a long time. All the things on “Translucent Blues” are part of our inner psyche. Part of the subconscious of Ray Manzarek comes out in every single piece, and that subconscious mind has been there since I was approximately 24 years of age. You know, I took LSD; what can I say? And what you’re hearing are the results of lots of practicing, lots of playing and a small amount of LSD.
RR: As players, we both respond to what stimulus you get. And musically, we really fed off each other. We did a lot of preproduction: “What’s this song going to be like, and what can we do with that?” We played with it. We really had fun; I think this is a fun record. … It’s always a cumulative thing. Whatever music you make at whatever time in your life, it’s always going to be a cumulative thing, so you’re drawing upon stuff that you don’t even know you’ve got, but it’s down there somewhere.
RM: Now this is a fun album, and we had a great deal of fun making the album, but the album itself, each song is profoundly serious.
RR: That’s true.
RM: But there’s no reason why seriousness can’t be a great deal of fun, too. In the creation, there was a great deal of fun. In the very essence of the songs themselves is a great deal of seriousness, and the playing is a great deal of seriousness … This is a real album. This is an album of the earth, the city, the sky and the water.
RR: Things went well in the studio. We didn’t have to wring it out. It’s serious stuff, and it’s definitely a statement, and I think it’s a multifaceted statement.
RM: We’re trying to examine the vagaries of existence in a blues framework.
Talk about the songs that were co-written with Jim Carroll and Warren Zevon. How much of “Hurricane,” “Tension” and “River of Madness” were written while Carroll and Zevon were still alive?
RM: I ran into Warren Zevon in Los Angeles; I hadn’t seen him in a long time. I told him, “Hey man, I’m working [on an album] … and I’d like to have something from you. You got anything in mind?” And he said, “As a matter of fact, I do. … Let me work on it. Give me your e-mail, and I’ll send it off to you in a couple of days.” In the e-mail comes the first stanza of “River of Madness.” He had a couple more lines of lyrics, but he had no music or anything. And then he got involved in his own album and never sent me anything else [and the project I had been working on was shelved].
So [when Roy and I got together to make this album], we had [my] good buddy Stephen Gordon, who works with [his friend David Gionfriddo] — those two guys got to work on adapting and adding to Warren Zevon’s lyrics. And I told Stephen, “I want something like Raymond Chandler. I want a film noir kind of thing; I want the dark bars of Los Angeles, and I want the back alleys of Hollywood involved in it.” And they came up with some great stuff.
Jim Carroll — I worked on some things with him within the last decade. He had contributed [“Hurricane” and “Tension”], and those lyrics were complete. I did the music to the pre-existing lyrics that Jim had always thought of as songs, and I thought they were songs, too.
“Greenhouse Blues” is the only song on the album that you worked on together as writers, and it also involved poet Michael C. Ford. How did that song come together?
RR: Ray and I were woodshedding at his house. He had these lyrics that we tossed about. As I recall, I said, “How about this?” And I just started singing, and he started playing, and it fell together really quickly.
RM: Yeah, one thing led to another, and it evolved very quickly. Other songs take awhile and need to cook; they need to bake awhile. You don’t want to take the bread out of the oven before it’s nicely browned, but some things brown very quickly, and you never know when that’s going to happen. There’s a magic to creating songs that’s very hard to put into words, because you’re working in a vibratory arena. Music comes out of the ether; it comes out of the energy, and you grab little bits and pieces of it. And there’s no way to describe it, because it’s just pure energy.
RR: And that’s the great thing about it being blues-oriented. … The blues are always a mystical thing. It’s coming from deep down inside, and you’re not trying to analyze — nor should you analyze — every conceivable, specific thing. You don’t make music that way; it’s emotional. It has that depth, and you don’t know where it’s coming from sometimes, and that’s OK.
RM: That’s what we entered into; we entered into that state. Not to be overly profound, but you definitely enter that state, and it takes you to another place. When you’re in the act of creation, you go somewhere else. You’re not on the planet anymore. You’re in a semi-mystical state, and it feels great, man.
The album ends with a pair of instrumentals. Roy, can you shed some light on “As You Leave,” and Ray, can you do the same with “An Organ, a Guitar and a Chicken Wing”?
RR: I said to Ray, “I have this idea for a slow track, an instrumental.” It was a thematic thing; I just wanted it to be real simple — atmospheric piano and slide guitar. Ray has a great description of this song.
RM: It’s Paris, 1956. The music certainly tripped that off in my mind. It’s film noir; it’s Paris … It’s a love affair that has fallen apart. It’s French blues, 1956.
RR: It’s got that sadness; it’s got that poignancy, at least for me. I had this melody that just stuck out, and I said, “We just have to run with it.” It’s very atmospheric to me.
RM: With “An Organ, a Guitar and a Chicken Wing,” [tenor saxophonist] George Brooks said, “Am I the chicken wing?” And I said, “Of course you are.” Have you noticed that a tenor sax is actually shaped like a chicken wing? … That song is being somewhere down in Memphis, the south side of Chicago or any juke joint or blues bar in any city in America. There are four guys onstage, and they’re rockin’ out, and they’re just waiting for the lead singer to come along.