Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Ray Manzarek of The Doors: The Coolest Rockstar I Almost Met

Ray Manzarek, Keyboardist of The Doors

Of the many celebrities that I've had the pleasure of knowing, Ray Manzarek was the one I learned the most from. He was sociable, moody, erudite, poetic, energetic, playful, temperamental and wonderfully thoughtful. The coolest rock star I ever met… well almost.

          The year was 1997. I had been in the midst of a 7-year magic carpet ride of working with many of my boyhood heroes.  My job in those days was director of marketing and PR for an international postal agency called IGPC. I had initiated a program in 1995 that allowed living legends from the world of entertainment to be honored on postage stamps by a handful of lesser-known countries around the world. Before long, every publicist, agent, manager, fan-club, marketing company and some celebrities themselves were pursuing me in an effort to have that next postal honor. It was mind-blowing.

Ray Manzarek in the 1960s
          The Doors were undoubtedly one of the greatest rock groups of the 1960s. Led by their legendary front-man, Jim Morrison, they made their mark on the pop music world with their psychedelic and bluesy rock sound. Manzarek was the band’s tall, bespectacled keyboard player who supplied them with much of their signature sound – especially on keyboard-heavy classics such as Light My Fire and Touch Me.

          Sometime in mid-1997, I got contacted by a collectible company from New Jersey about a licensing deal celebrating the music of The Doors. They asked me to find them a series of postal administrations to feature their first six album covers on legal tender. Eventually, we settled on six stamps from one nation: St. Vincent & The Grenadines (a Caribbean island). The stamps were designed impressively. They all had to be approved by the band’s manager, a gentleman from Los Angeles by the name of Danny Sugarman. It was a quick turnaround; no complications whatsoever. During this process I had no contact with any of the surviving band members. Nor did I expect to.

          The Doors postage stamps were released in late ’97. I remember drafting a press release, getting it approved by all parties, then sending it out to my list of go-to media contacts. But a funny thing happened along the way. One of my regulars for the celebrity stamp stories was a guy called David Moye, an editor for a satirical news service out in San Diego called Wireless Flash. Mr. Moye called me up upon receipt of my announcement. He promised to run a story, but something in his voice that day suggested that he had a much bigger idea.

Journalist, David Moye
          As it turned out, David Moye was a personal friend of Ray Manzarek. He told me that no story would be complete without a quote from one of the living band members, so he would be contacting him for a sound byte. Later that evening, Mr. Moye phoned me back. He could hardly contain his excitement. “Lonnie, not only did Ray give me some quotes for the feature, but he’s really keen on these Doors stamps. He’s asking to talk to you; wants to maybe do something special to promote them.”

           The very next day, I had a home phone number for a rock legend with an invitation to call him up. It was his wife, Dorothy who answered when I called. She passed the phone to Ray, who couldn’t have been friendlier. “So I was thinking, maybe you and I could help each other out. You see, I know you’re looking to promote our stamps, which are way cool. But I’ve got this other project going on that I’m trying to hype. I’m thinking that maybe you can book me on a few shows where I can plug both the stamps and my new memoir, which is about to be published.”

          Manzarek had written a book called: Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors. David Moye had told him of my considerable publicity skills. The rock legend saw this as an opportunity to potentially co-promote two projects at once. I was only too willing to play along. I sent out an alert to some 60 rock-radio morning shows across the US, offering Ray Manzerek as an interview guest, plus a set of the Doors stamps as an on-air giveaway. I immediately drew interest from some 20 stations. I phoned back Ray with the details.

          “So I’m really impressed. But I’m not gonna take all of ‘em. Sure, I’ll do the big markets. Also the west coast shows where I’m in the same time zone. But I’m passing on the smaller east coast gigs. No way I’m getting up at 4am to talk to ten listeners in South Carolina.”

          The radio spots were all a success. Ray would call me after each one to give me the interview highlights. As we progressed with the promotion, he began to treat me like a friend. He offered to sign sets of the Doors stamps sheets, and even gave me his home address in Beverly Hills to send over packages by FedEx. At one point, I remember him asking me if I was a fan of The Doors. When I answered affirmatively, he told me I could ask him any question I wanted about the band.

“So what was your take on the Oliver Stone movie of The Doors?”

“Next question!” he answered sharply. After we both had an awkward laugh, he went on a ten minute diatribe about how much Oliver Stone had distorted the personalities of the band members. “I loved the attention that the movie generated for us and our music, but let’s just say that I wasn’t a fan of the depiction of us.”

One of the big early bookings that I got for Ray was a phone-in segment on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Craig Kilborn. I don’t own a clip of the show from that night, but I remember it going horribly wrong.  An audio glitch occurred from the start of the interview that prevented Ray from hearing the questions from the host. He started talking about the stamps, but then lost his temper (on live TV) when he couldn’t hear Kilborn’s questions. Eventually, he started cursing a blue streak (which was bleeped out on 7-second delay). He hung up in frustration. The studio audience couldn’t control their laughter. It was a disaster… or so I thought.

I wasn’t sure I’d ever hear back from Ray after the Daily Show debacle. But late the next morning, he was calling my office. I was hesitant to pick up his call. But I nervously grabbed it after the second ring, awaiting an eruption that never came.

“Lonnie, you won’t believe how many people have been calling us this morning about that show from last night. I had no idea so many people even watched that cable network. I haven’t had this much attention in years! Everyone we know has been ringing us since that screw-up from last night. It’s wild.”

 I probably spoke to Ray Manzarek some twenty times by phone over the next several months. In addition to my booking him for media appearances, he also enjoyed bouncing some ideas off me for future projects. One of them was a novel he was writing entitled, The Poet In Exile. It was a fantasy story where Jim Morrison had faked his own death and was living on some remote island, keeping tabs on the music world. It wasn’t particularly good, though I appreciated the sentiment of Ray keeping his fallen band-mate alive for a last reunion. He’d even sent me the unedited manuscript to review.

Regrettably, I never did get to meet Ray in person, though it almost happened in June of 1998. He had flown to New York to attend a memorial service for Linda McCartney to which he had been invited. I was traveling that week at a postal exhibition on the west coast, unaware that Ray was in my hometown. I had quite the surprise when I returned.

Toby, our lovely, redheaded receptionist alerted me that someone famous had stopped by while I was away. She couldn’t remember his name, but she told me that he had been in my office and left me a note. I immediately raced to my cluttered desk and found the message amidst the piles of folders, stamp designs and loose papers. It was scrawled on a yellow note pad next to my keyboard.

“Lonnie, sorry I missed you. I thought I’d surprise you by saying hello in person. Maybe next time. Best wishes from your friend Ray.”

There never would be a next time. Not in person, anyway. But I continued to speak with Ray by phone sporadically over the next few years. In 2001, after I’d left my job at IGPC, I’d called him to let him know that I was looking for the next phase in my career. His response was unhelpful, but priceless.

The Doors 21st Century Reunion Lineup
“So how’s your singing voice? Robbie, John and I are thinking about going back on the road as the Doors again for some shows. If you can sing like Jim Morrison, well I might have you audition.”

In 2002, I penned the first draft of my debut novel, Poet Of The Wrong Generation. There is a sequence midway through the story where my fictional rock star, Johnny Elias would be out in Los Angeles, recording a second album with his band, trying to match the immense success of his first recording. As the author, I wanted to insert a real rock legend based in L.A. who could randomly run into Johnny and share some career advice and offer validation of his success. Immediately, I thought of Ray. A musical icon for sure, but not someone who would be so easily recognized by casual fans. The scene is a short one, though I took the liberty of putting a few words of encouragement in Ray’s mouth. I mailed him the pages of the scene, along with a note summarizing my book. He phoned me up some weeks later.

“So, when I first saw your book title, I thought you were ripping off The Poet In Exile (his Jim Morrison inspired novel). But then I read the scene you sent me and realized this is totally different. Anyway, it’s all cool with me. I’m kinda flattered that you thought to stick me in your story. When do I get to read the rest of it?”

          I later sent a box to Ray containing the complete manuscript. And though I never heard back from him with his feedback, I had every intention of seeking him out upon publication of the novel to get a promotional quote. Sadly, this was not to be.

          It took me 14 long years to finally bring my novel to print after years of life’s ups and downs. Between a busy career, raising two kids, endless editing, and an array of setbacks, an earlier release was simply not possible.

Ray Manzarek died suddenly in 2013 after a short illness. He was 73 and had been musically active to the end. It would have been a great joy for me to have shared a signed copy of my novel with my legendary “friend” after all the stamp sheets and books he had signed for me. Even sweeter would have been the opportunity to do it in person, an event that unfortunately eluded us both. Still, I will always cherish the relationship he and I shared by phone and FedEx back in the late 1990s. A truly terrific character who I am proud to honor with a scene in my novel that I know he was genuinely tickled by. It now serves as a fitting tribute.

Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format. Order your copy today.

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