On December 2, 2011, I opened for the Manzarek Rogers Band at the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma, California. Ray Manzarek and Roy Rogers had teamed up for an album called “Translucent Blues”, and they were playing out to promote the album. My booking agent Steve Keyser asked my band and I to be the opener. It was one of the best rock ‘n’ roll events of my life. Opening for Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist and co-‐founder of The Doors.
The Doors have been written about for nearly 50 years as a band that has fans in every generation. They are timeless, inventive, theatric, cinematic and darkly risqué. Perfect for a 15-‐year-‐old punk rock art kid growing up in the Midwest who wants to get out. And that was me.
LuAnne, one of my girlfriends in high school, had a poster of Jim Morrison on the wall of her bedroom, and I wanted to be him. I believe thousands of counter culture kids want to be Jim Morrison at some point. But, I also wanted to be Ray Manzarek. I played the piano from the time I was five years old, and there was no one I wanted to emulate until I heard him play. Not Billy Joel, not Elton John. I heard The Doors, and my life was changed. Ray’s left-‐handed bass lines changed the way I thought about piano and keys. That marvelous, frivolous, surreal organ sound, the way he played the solo on “Love Me Two Times”, and the long, jazz-‐tinged solos. It all changed me from my fingers to my head to my balls.
We used to play “Roadhouse Blues” in my first high school garage band, The Eviction Committee. We were too young to play most bars, so instead we played makeshift stages inside barns in the winter and next to browning fields in the summer. Out on farms where we couldn’t get caught for playing loud and partying. Kegs of beer and girls and parked cars lined up the long, dirt driveways. Whenever I sang “Roadhouse”, I felt the audience go wild. I was on top of those fields of wheat and corn.
I moved out to the West Coast in 1990 and migrated from Oregon to Alaska to Washington and finally down to Northern California in 1994. San Francisco was my home until the end of the decade when I started moving north. First to Sausalito in Marin County, just down the road from Studio D where Ray and Roy would record “Translucent Blues” in 2010. Then, to Mill Valley and up to San Rafael, and in 2011, I moved to Petaluma in Sonoma County.
I loved Petaluma, but I wasn’t a stranger to it. I began working in Petaluma in 2002 as a music director for Alchemia, a day program for “differently-‐abled” adults. While working there, I wrote music for a rock band and a musical, and I instructed a very talented and unique group of disabled people how perform and write music. They played venues and schools in Sonoma and Marin counties. I was a part of a team of instructors that included professional artists, dancers and musicians. Alex Aspinall was one of those instructors.
Alex grew up in Santa Rosa and already had incredible chops as a Sonoma State University educated jazz drummer when I met him. I asked him to join my band, and neither one of us would ever has guessed then that we’d end up making five records together and opening for Ray Manzarek nine years later.
Bassist Dave Fairchild joined my band in 2008. He grew up in Texas and had played for Alejandro Escovedo and other roots, Americana and punk styled artists for years. Dave’s gin & tonic resting on his bass amp, flannel shirt unbuttoned over his T-‐shirt and a giant smile on his face coupled with Alex’s Zen expression, solid rock playing, and quirky inventiveness formed an excellent rhythm section. Guitarist Jesse Brewster joined the band shortly after Dave. I had known Jesse since my days in Sausalito, and he had his own solo career, having released several solo records. The burn and energy in his guitar playing completed my electric 4-‐piece band.
My history with the Mystic Theatre didn’t exist yet. In fact, I had never even been inside its hallowed halls by the autumn of 2011. So, I went to see Dave Alvin play there to a solid 500 people a month before opening for Ray and Roy. That night, I realized something; this venue was the Fillmore West of San Francisco’s North Bay. A holy place. Wooden and creaking with expansive, high ceilings dripping sweat and sound, and long ago spilled beer seeping from the walls and floors.
Roy Rodgers & Ray Manzarek
The Mystic was only five blocks from my rented cottage, so the day of the show, I drove down to load in and sound check at about five o’clock. I walked in, and Ray and Roy and their band were just finishing sound check with Randy Teaford, who was behind the main console upstairs. I brought in some gear and some wardrobe, and then I saw Ray getting ready to leave the stage after his sound check. So, I walked over to introduce myself.
There are moments in your life when time stops. There are moments when you regress in age. There are moments when you feel like everyone in the room is looking at you. All three things happened when I walked up to the Mystic stage to say hi to Ray Manzarek.
I said, “Um, hi, I just wanted to introduce myself. My band & I are opening for you tonight. “And you must be Gentry!” he exclaimed as he smiled with a remarkably young twinkle in his eyes. Then, he extended his hand. I gleefully shook hands with him and then bashfully said, “I just wanted to say that I’m really honored to open for you. You’ve been a big influence on me.”
What do you say to someone who’s been a big influence on you? I guess you say, ‘You’ve been a big influence on me.’ Instead of ‘I’m totally star struck right now!’ What do you say to a guy who’s been doing this for 50 years, who is a legend, has graced albums with legends, and who is looking at you in the face with generosity and a grin? The room was spinning. I was 15 years old again.
Ray looked me right in the eye, “Well, we’re looking forward to the night. Thanks for opening up for us!” and then he climbed down from the stage to the floor where I was standing.
We small talked about the show for a while, and then Ray asked with an air of sarcasm, “So, you’re probably classically trained?” “Yeah, I am.” “I would’ve played classical or jazz, but it was too hard. So, I stuck to the blues. It was easier.” We laughed.“Where you guys from? Did you have to drive far for this gig? “I live right up the street. About four blocks. It was a pretty cool drive to get here.” “Wow! That’s nice. I live in Napa. And I thought I had an easy drive to get here!”
Still the same glitter in his eye. Still looking exactly like he did on the covers of albums like “The Soft Parade” and “Morrison Hotel” and “Waiting For The Sun” with slightly shorter hair. I’ve met a number of “rock stars” in my life, and I generally think they’re ego-‐less, nice people. But, here was Ray, doing something that felt different, talking to me like we were buddies, or like he was a super groovy Uncle I had never met. He was putting his arm around me, smiling and joking.
Then, for some reason, we started talking about what it was like for us to vote in The Grammys. I mock complained, “There’s so many bands to listen to. I don’t know how anybody can go through them all. ”Ray responded, “I voted for a polka band in The Grammys once.” I laughed and said “Did you know that Duke Ellington was writing polkas at the end of his life?” “Really?? I did not know that!”
People were staring at us and I was thinking, ‘I’m talking to fucking Ray Manzarek about Duke Ellington, polka music & The Grammys!’
For Ray, it was probably just another night talking to his opening act with stars in their eyes. For me, it was like reaching backward into rock history and my own artistic future at the same time. Weeks before the show, Alex and I had joked about how, years from now, we’d be telling people about how we opened for Ray Manzarek and all the stupid questions we would ask him about Jim Morrison. I realized that night, that I probably could have asked Ray all about his old friend Jim. And I realize that years from now, I will indeed be telling people about the night I opened for Ray Manzarek.
Petaluma’s Xmas tree lighting was that same night, right outside the theatre. People were all over the street under this strange, magical haze. By the time we walked out on stage, I felt more relaxed than I had on stage in a long time.
I’ve never found that I can write about what it’s like to perform music live. There are looks between the musicians, lights and sweat and stories told to the audience. Sometimes you get a cramp in your leg or your fingers. Sometimes you screw up a solo or miss a word in a verse. But all of that doesn’t mean as much as what happens for you and the audience in the moment. That is a special, spiritual thing. Unless it’s recorded, as soon as you play or sing a note, the sound of live music trickles off into the ether like a sonic rock thrown into a pond until you can’t hear it anymore. It all goes by fast and furious until you’re taking off your show shirt in the dressing room.
Right before we launched into our first song, as the audience applauded our entrance, I walked back to the drum riser and quietly said to Alex, “Remember every moment, man.” I took my own advice. Our 45-‐minute set was like three glorious hours to me.
After we finished, I drove my gear home and then walked back to The Mystic. The Manzarek Rogers Band were just starting when I returned. They performed a lot of songs from their new album along with Roy Rogers’ originals and a couple Doors’ songs. I called my brother and put my phone up to the stage at one point during a Doors’ song. It wasn’t musically the greatest thing I’d ever heard, but it was solid.
Legends on stage. And the audience loved it.
They came out for one encore, the air buzzing with electricity. And Ray said into the microphone, “This one’s for Jim.” Yes, that is what he said. I got goose bumps then, and I get goose bumps now. 40 years after his friend died, Ray still had no problem paying tribute to his long gone friend. Then, they played “Riders On The Storm”. The final song from the final record The Doors recorded with Jim Morrison called “LA Woman”.
There was the opening bass line and the sizzle of the ride cymbal, the long glissando of keys like a rainstorm, and then Ray sang in a deep baritone, “Riders on the storm, riders on the storm, into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown…” Is it possible that every time Ray Manzarek sang that song after Jim Morrison died, that Jim was floating above the stage, watching? Because, to me, Morrison’s ghost was in the theatre, high above us, that night. And Ray was playing music with him.
The night ended with the usual post show schmoozing and hang shaking and hugs and drunks and flirting girls and money counting and loading out. Back stage, Ray was slumped down in a chair and was not as enthusiastic as he had been hours before while talking to me. He was tired. I reluctantly asked him and Roy for autographs. I don’t even like autographs. I don’t know why I did that. I wanted to feel like we were on the same level that night. It was a one-‐night only event for Ray and I though. I would find out later that he was fighting cancer.
It wasn’t very long after that night at the Mystic Theatre that Ray Manzarek went to see his old friend Jim. He died on May 20, 2013.
There are many quotes from many Doors’ songs that I could end this memory-‐filled night with. Many lyrics Jim Morrison wrote. But it’s the trailing sound of Ray Manzarek’s keyboard that I hear instead. Lingering like rain on a warm California night, with the flicker of a thousand white Xmas tree lights. Bluesy and shimmering, mystical and grinning.
A SHORT ADDITION TO THE STORY: I also recall this night very well!
I've been a huge fan of Roy's and have engineered countless live shows with Roy Rodgers and The Delta Rhythm Kings and of course my old friend Norton Buffalo through the years., but this new duo with Ray Manzarek at the keys was something else!
I thought to balance Gentry's recall of his first meeting with Ray Manzarek I would do the same.
It was about 5pm at The Mystic Theatre and I was waiting for Ray and Roy to arrive for their sound check. Ray loaded in first and as I was greeting him, I was placing our backline RD700 keyboard and throne out or him to use. Ray had a real warmth about him and a big smile to match, I found him very approachable and casual.
He sat down immediately before everything was placed... just as I realized how dusty the keyboard was. He looked up at me just as he started to play the declining line on "Riders on The Storm" and smiled and said "you could of at least dusted the old girl off for me."
I melted as he played the line and of course was embarrassed, but Ray unlike a lot of other major performers that I have worked with turned the mishap into a moment that
I will never forget.
FYI, Ray & Roy as well as Gentry and his band rocked the house that night, and I am very grateful for his recollections of the evening... it was a special one for me as well!