Nite City: The Dark Side of L.A.
There's no way to write a story about Ray Manzarek and his new band, Nite City, without conjuring up the ghost of Jim Morrison, The Doors' late and lamented Lizard King. Morrison's spirit haunts Nite City just as surly as it lurks in the midnight alleys and slick, seamy streets of Los Angeles, a city Morrison seduced with the boldness of a young Romeo and spurned with the frenzy of an aging gigolo.
Nite City represents a restatement of The Doors' demonic spirit, but with the pragmatism and cool elegance of the '70s.
Even Manzarek's description of his current band draws on The Doors' satanic mystique. "Nite City sorta represents the dark side of L.A.," he said. "We're not the Eagles and we're not Jackson Browne. We're not part of the laid-back country scene. We're a big-city band. L.A. is a big city and we're part of both it's electricity and it's strangeness." Before his marriage Manzarek lived by night, prowling the city streets. "There were endless nights of wandering," he
said. "Everywhere-downtown a lot, and weird sections where most people don't go-the back streets of Venice."
Manzarek and I had just barely settled into a pair of plush chairs and the pianist's tasteful Hollywood home. As we spoke, Ray tried gently to discourage Pablo, his indefatigably curious son from pounding my tape recorder like a baseball glove.
Earlier in the day Danny Sugarman, Ray's manager, confidante and occasional co-lyricist, took me on the Jim Morrison Memorial Tour of L.A., pointing out the Lizard King's favorite watering holes and escape hatches-he often checked into motels to avoid career and domestic pressures. Once Morrison's boy-Friday, Sugarman is a veritable Doors encyclopedia, full of titillating trivia and anecdotes. To wit: Running parallel to Topango Canyon Drive is a thin, winding road Morrison nicknamed "Love Street." At the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and La Cienega is Upside Down Studios, formerly The Doors office and rehearsal hall.
Manzarek and Morrison met at UCLA, where they majored in film and played in bar bands like The Ravens and the UCLA Film Crazies, a motley collection of cinema buffs who jammed at nearby Santa Monica saloons. The Doors were put together out of this musical jigsaw puzzle, landing their first paying gig at the London Fog, a club two doors up from the old Whiskey A Go Go on Sunset Strip. A hand-painted sign outside heralded their triumphant debut: "The Doors-a band from Venice."
The band made $50 a week ("It was all the guy could afford," Manzarek said generously), playing to depressingly sparse clumps of businessmen and an occasional sailor on shore leave. After four months, the owner screwed up enough courage to fire them ("I can't keep the same band forever," he apologized). Fortunately, the Whiskey's booking agent caught their farewell set and proceeded to hire them as a house band, opening for headliners like the Turtles, Love, and The Locos, Mexico's leading lounge act.
"Our first gig was with Them," Manzarek remembered. "God, were they great! The last couple of nights we jammed, with Morrison and Morrison singing together. Van was a lunatic then-a real crazy, drunken Irishman. He was the first person I ever saw sing with the mic upside down. He'd destroy anything on the stage." Elektra president Jac Holzman, at the Whiskey to see Love, fell in love with The Doors, particularly after their boozy rendition of Kurt Weill's "Whiskey Bar."
Thus began The Doors association with Elektra, a loyal, well-intentioned but folk music-oriented company that had, as Manzarek politely put it, "absolutely no idea how to promote us. They knew nothing about rock publicity or distribution. We happened by ourselves. Once they saw how it worked, especially Jac, the smartest record label president ever, they said, 'Ah hah, this is how it works,' and put their machinery into operation."
Morrison's early performances were restrained, even decorous. He was far from the Lizard King. "Oh, Jesus," Manzarek laughed. "He kept his back to the audience for the first six months. Going to the Whiskey and having to face real people was the most traumatic experience of his life. See, when we rehearsed-hell, even when we played in front of 15,000 people, we always improvised. The Doors never knew what we were gonna do. We'd huddle together and debate what the next tune should be.
"The huddle gave Jim energy. But at the Whiskey he had to leave the security of the circle and face the audience. Our eye-contact energy was gone but he soon learned to let the energy hit his back and just ride out into the audience. We kicked him in the ass all the time."
Nite City's current line up, framed by Manzarek's stately keyboard presence and the brooding theatrics of Noah James, (the band's recently canned lead singer whose unfortunate fondness for gaudy indian jewelry and bearskin overcoats may have hastened his exit) successfully exploits the creative tension of this process, even if it gives the stage show a bit of a ragged edge. Lead guitarist Paul Warren, a particularly agile soloist, sporadically sings his background harmonies wildly off-key, as if to add a hint of suspense to the proceedings.
Morrison's dilemma, as anybody who experienced a Doors show will surly recall, was his peculiarly ambivalent rapport with his audience. Manzarek labels him a "shaman," comparing a Doors performance to a preacher inspiring his congregation. Even from the start, there was a more tragic quality to the event, an atmosphere of love and hate, of compassion and contempt that could never be dissipated, not even by Morrison's increasingly desperate lunges from the stage.
"The frustration set in when Jim became the King of Orgasmic Rock," Manzarek said,. "At first the crowd got crazy with us. Then Jim's reputation got out and people said, 'OK, let's see you fall off the stage.' They just came for the sensationalism."
"It finally culminated in Miami," Manzarek explained calmly. "Jim got sick of seeing an arena full of eyeballs with bodies like stalks of corn. He said 'All right, ya wanna see something? You're just gonna stand there like a bunch of fucking idiots while everybody rubs your face in the shit of the world.' They just sat there. He said, 'Let's everybody hug each other. Take your clothes off and let's get naked. So you wanna see something? How 'bout this? Maybe this will get you off'."
I remember the incident well, having sneaked into the concert with a pair of friends through an open window in the girl's bathroom. We left immediately after Morrison's last gasp tirade, not exactly shocked (the lead singer of a local Miami band called the Exterminators made his name with much the same trick) but sorely depressed and dispirited that The Doors' erotic musical high-tribunal had degenerated into a botched, impotent hand-job.
Manzarek and Nite City have so far neatly avoided the impasse. First, by lowering the audience's expectations, and also, by relying on craftsmanship rather than the erratic stamp of genius. Near the end of our interview, Manzarek fought off his kid's onslaught of body punches long enough to read his astrological sign. "It says you're going to be OK," Ray explained, bouncing Pablo up in the air. "You're very creative and stable and you're a very rich kid."
No one knows this prophecy's promise and peril better than Ray Manzarek. He has lived it once before and would like to see Nite City-not just another Manzarek tax loss but a promising and evocative rock band-string along the vision a little further, and see where it leads.
By Patrick Goldstein