Photo: Jill Jarrett
Robby Krieger's Memoir 'Set The Night On Fire' Offers A New Perspective On The Doors & Jim Morrison: "There Was Another Side To Him"
When Robby Krieger first watched The Doors, something nagged at him in a big way. It wasn't just that the film almost unwaveringly focused on Jim Morrison — or concocted outrageous scenes from whole cloth, like the singer throwing his girlfriend in a closet and setting it ablaze. No, it was that Oliver Stone's 1991 rock flick failed to reflect the Doors' synergy — four to one, one to four.
"It just doesn't capture the interaction between the four of us," the GRAMMY nominee tells GRAMMY.com over the phone. What about unforgettable wildman Morrison? "There was another side to him that people don't know that much about. Only people that knew him," he adds. "I tried to put that over in the book and tell people what it was really like to hang out with him — when he wasn't all f***ed up."
Read More: The Doors' Self-Titled Debut: For The Record
Krieger is talking about his new, Jeff Alulis-assisted memoir, Set the Night on Fire: Living, Dying and Playing Guitar with the Doors, which arrived Oct. 12. For Doors fans, Krieger's tell-all has been decades coming; after all, drummer John Densmore dropped his book, Riders on the Storm, in 1990, and keyboardist Ray Manzarek followed with Light My Fire in 1999.
What took so long? Despite those three musicians experiencing the band together, shoulder-to-shoulder, they took away sometimes wildly different ideas of what happened. Their differences were magnified in the 2000s, when quarrelling gave way to out-and-out litigation. At times, it seemed nobody could agree on who the Doors were, and what they represented.
But now the smoke has cleared, and surviving members Krieger and Densmore — Manzarek passed away of cancer in 2013 — are getting along famously. For the guitarist's part, he's busier than ever. Aside from promoting Set the Night on Fire, Krieger's getting ready to roll out two new albums and a 50th-anniversary boxed set of L.A. Woman, plus a virtual book event via the Library of Philadelphia on Nov. 8.
Thanks in part to a global pandemic, which gave him the time and space to pick up the threads of a 25-year-old project, Krieger has found an opening to tell his side of the story. GRAMMY.com gave him a ring to discuss his nonlinear storytelling approach, his post-Doors life and career and what the public still gets wrong about Morrison — and their band.
I'm sure you've had opportunities to tell your story in the past. What compelled you to do it now?
Actually, I started writing this about 25 years ago, back when Ray and John both came out with their memoirs. It seemed like it just caused a lot of problems. One of them didn't like what the other said, and same with the other guy. So, it kind of put a stink on me wanting to do it, but I had a lot of it done back then.
I was just waiting until things died down. I had that trial and all that crap. I just kind of forgot about it until the pandemic hit, and then I had all this time. I said, "Hey, might as well finish that book."
It's wild how three guys who had these experiences together could have this kaleidoscope of perspectives on what happened.
Well, that happens with bands, you know? I was just reading about Creedence and all the problems those guys had. They were the biggest thing happening, and then one guy was unhappy about the songwriting or whatever. One thing leads to another.
I'll always remember when I first went to the Hall of Fame induction, when we got inducted back in '90, '91. They were being inducted as well, and I was sitting with the brother [Tom Fogerty]. He went, "He won't play with us. Even for something like this, he will not." I said, "Man, that trouble runs deep."
The Doors. Photo: Bobby Klein
I've always enjoyed the Doors because of all four of you — your contributions and musical voices. Has it been frustrating to watch it become the Jim Show?
Yeah, yeah. I don't think as much as it used to be. When the [Oliver Stone] movie came out, it was all about Jim. But I think, as time goes on, it'll be appreciated more as a band.
Jim was always against that. They wanted to call it "Jim Morrison and the Doors," and he would never put up with that. We had managers who wanted to do that — or even get rid of us and make him a frontman for some superstars or something like that. He would have never put up with that.
You guys had problems like any other band has, but Jim believed in the band democracy.
That's why he would say "Everything written by the Doors." Even though he was writing most of the songs in the early days, he didn't want it to be "Written by Jim Morrison," even though he wrote those first 10 songs or so. They were totally his.
So much ink is devoted to Morrison that it's easy to forget how tight-knit you guys were.
Oh yeah, for sure. I think the three of us — John, Ray and I — were an amazingly tight unit. Ray really was the bassist of the whole thing, because he played the piano bass with his left hand and organ with the right hand. He was so solid — his timing and everything — so that let John and I float over the top of it.
It just worked out perfectly. We were at the right place at the right time and got along musically so well. I've been in so many different musical situations since then and it's never been quite the same as how it was with the Doors.
The Doors. Photo: Paul Ferrara
I enjoyed the conversational, discursive style of Set the Night on Fire. Was that a conscious decision — to not make it a linear experience?
Yeah. I think a lot of that was due to my co-writer, Jeff Alulis. We would just have conversations and talk about what happened. I had the outline of the book — like I said — for years. So, we would just fill in the blanks, you know?
Did the anecdotes spring forth in the order as seen in the book?
Not really. We kind of went through it chronologically and then, after looking at it, we said, "Hmmm. That's boring." "And then this happened, and then it's '72, '73…" I like movies that jump back and forth and do flashbacks. So, that was kind of the idea of what we wanted to do with the book.
When trying to recall what happened half a century ago, did you have to deal with the fallibility of memory?
[Chuckles] Well, yeah. That was where Jeff came in. He's a really good researcher. So, he got to know all these — we call them the "Doors nerds." And these guys know everything about the Doors! Every gig and every little thing that happened. That made it a lot easier to remember stuff.
It was great to read about how you developed your flamenco-influenced guitar style.
Well, that was the first kind of guitar I played back then. I took flamenco lessons. My dad had these flamenco records, and I wanted to sound like that. Actually, the only real flamenco-y kind of song was "Spanish Caravan." I got in there.
But it was mostly the use of the fingers on the right hand that you use in flamenco. I kept that in my guitar playing on electric. I never used a pick with the Doors, and it made us sound different than most.
The Doors. Photo: Henry Diltz
I feel like you guys harkened back to a time when rock bands operated more like jazz bands — cooperating and giving each other a lot of space.
Yeah. Nowadays, it's usually one guy as kind of the musical leader. You don't get that unified band sound. You listen to a Stones song and you know it's the Rolling Stones, even when Mick isn't playing or singing.
After Jim passed away, you guys still had those core musical components. What was the feeling like in the band once he was gone?
We certainly didn't think of quitting. We knew it wouldn't be easy without Jim. But when Jim had gone to Paris, we had continued getting together and making new songs, thinking he would be back at some point and we'd make another album.
So, we had a bunch of songs, and the guy at Elektra Records — Jac Holzman, who we were good buddies with at that time — he kind of talked us into it: "Just keep doing it, man. You guys are so good together. There's no reason to stop." That was kind of cool, so he signed us up for three albums.
What do you make of the arc of your post-Doors career? I'm sure there are some hidden corners that even Doors fans would be surprised to learn about.
Yeah, I've had a lot of solo albums. It's been mostly instrumental stuff because, for me, writing lyrics is like pulling teeth. [Chuckles.] I mostly had Jim to do that until he was gone. But I love music and will always continue to record.
I've got two albums in the can right now that are getting ready to come out. I've got a reggae album — an instrumental reggae album of songs that most people know, like "Stayin' Alive" and Beatles songs. Stuff like that where you know the melody, but to hear it with a reggae style is kind of cool.
What are some reggae records you've been checking out?
You know, I've always been the biggest Wailers fan. Steel Pulse, stuff like that. There's a lot of good reggae that's been coming out over the past years, but I haven't really kept up with it as much as I should have, I guess.
I do. [Editor's note: The Butts Band was a group helmed by Densmore and Krieger between 1973 and 1975.]
Yeah, that was after we split up. John and I were over in England and we got a hold of this guy, Phil Chen. He was the oddest reggae guy in town. And funk — he could play funk. He liked James Jamerson, Motown stuff, which he liked.
So, that was the direction we wanted to go in — Motown reggae. [Chuckles.] It was really happening over in England. It wasn't so much here.
But we ended up recording half the album we did in Jamaica. Phil was from Jamaica, so he was so happy because he got to see his dad, who was sick and passed away shortly after. He showed us all over Jamaica. We actually stayed at [Island Records founder] Chris Blackwell's house up in the mountains.
As far as tending the legacy of the band, how would you describe the dynamic between you three — now two — guys?
We've actually been getting along really good lately. Ever since Ray passed, the two of us decided, "Hey, there's no use in being mad at each other."
So, we've done some fun stuff lately. We did a charity thing for homeless people about a year ago. And then, just recently, John came down to my studio and we did a version of "L.A. Woman," which is coming — the L.A. Woman boxed set is coming out. We did a promotional thing for that.
I play that one so much when I play the Doors stuff. "L.A. Woman" is always in the set. In fact, the last gig we did, my son and I — and a couple of the guys who played with Ray Manzarek and I — we did the whole L.A. Woman album because it's the 50th anniversary of that album.
Do any particular memories of those sessions come to mind?
Oh, gosh. That album was probably one of the most fun times ever for us. Up until then, Paul Rothchild had been producing everything — all the albums. Over time, he got a little anal, maybe. When you have unlimited funds in a studio, you tend to go crazy. He would take four hours to get a snare drum sound and stuff like that.
So, it almost got to be like work before we had fun. Especially for Jim, because the vocal was always the last thing to go on. When you're doing overdubs and stuff, the vocal is last, so he'd have to hang around all day and get drunk. By the time it was ready for him to sing, he'd be so messed up that we'd have to wait until the next day, usually.
But on L.A. Woman, we produced it ourselves with Bruce Botnick, who was our engineer all the time. We did it at our little rehearsal studio, which was pretty convenient for Jim, because he was staying at this little motel across the street. Jim was so amazing: He never cared about money. Staying in a crappy motel for $10 a night. But it was right across the street, so he was there every day, bright and early.
We just had so much time making that album: It was really live, because we had Jerry Scheff, who was Elvis' bass player. And then, we had a rhythm guitar player, which we'd never done before. That let me concentrate on whatever I was playing. I wouldn't have to overdub anything; I could just do it live.
I think had Jim come back from Paris, that's how we would have continued recording.
It's been framed historically as the back-to-basics album — a little earthier. Did it feel that way at the time?
Oh, yeah, for sure. But the cool part is that we actually wrote a couple of songs together, which had never happened before. It was always me and Jim, or I would write one, or he would write one. And then, we'd get together with the other guys and work it out.
But this time, it was like "OK, let's start playing. Let's just jam." That's how "L.A. Woman" came out. Jim just came up with those words, man, right on the spot. It was crazy.
"Riders" was a similar thing. We were kind of jamming on that song "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky" and that gave Jim the idea: "Instead of '(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,' how about "Riders on the Storm"? He just made those words up.
And then he came up with the "Mr. Mojo Risin'" thing for "L.A. Woman." He had that idea before, because he tried to stick that in one of the other songs. [Laughs.]
In the movie, that girlfriend of his claims that she came up with the "Mojo Risin'" thing with the witch. Remember, he got married to that witch, supposedly? But I think Jim actually came up with that idea. It's an anagram, you know. Jim Morrison and "Mr. Mojo Risin'."
Jim has been rendered messianic with time, which makes a certain amount of sense — he was quite a figure. But I hope this interview can help unfreeze his persona a tiny bit.
Well, that's what the book does, too. Not to say that he wasn't an amazing frontman and all that, but there was another side to him that people don't know that much about. Only people that knew him. I tried to put that over in the book and tell people what it was really like to hang out with him — when he wasn't all f***ed up.
What did you appreciate the most about his musicianship?
For a guy that never took a vocal lesson — never took a music lesson in his life — he was really an amazing singer. All these great musicians who play Doors songs with me, they all say the same thing about Jim's voice. He never hit a wrong note, you know?
And he had the most amazing range. He could have that looow voice and then he could scream cooler than anybody could ever scream. He just had a natural talent, and I think people will start realizing that as time goes on. But, god, what a voice.
It must feel like the soundtrack to your life, in a way.
Yeah, for sure. For sure. There's so many guys, like I said, that I play the Doors' songs with today. None of them can quite capture [the songs] the way Jim did it. But they try!
When you consider the breadth of the Doors' legacy and who Jim was, what misconception nags at you the most? What about the band's public perception would you change, if you could?
Well, after seeing the movie, it just doesn't capture the interaction between the four of us. It does a good job of showing how crazy Jim was — lighting his girlfriend on fire in the closet, which never happened.
I don't want to knock the movie, because it was a great rock 'n' roll movie. But it could have been about any group — not just the Doors.
And I think Val Kilmer was amazing, man. You know, the way he got the job, he actually had a Doors tribute band. He made a little film on video and showed it to Oliver Stone and I, and that's how he got the gig. He actually sang 90 percent of that stuff in the movie himself.
Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek. Photo: Paul Ferrara
Eight years after his passing, what do you miss most about Ray Manzarek?
The way he played. I've played with so many keyboard guys who try to play Ray's stuff, and none of them quite get it. Every one of them is amazed at the stuff he came up with — it was just unbelievable.
Read More: The Doors' Ray Manzarek Dies
He was such a different kind of guy — like Jim, kind of, in a way. I think maybe Ray's the only guy in the world that could have actually corralled Jim enough to form a rock 'n' roll band, because he was a little older than us. He was 27 when Jim was 22. I was 19. John was 21, I think.
Ray had a certain presence. He was a big guy — six foot two. [Imitates Manzarek] A big, low voice, you know. I think he's just what Jim needed to corral him enough to be serious about making a rock 'n' roll band.