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Opportunity Knocking

Retooled Doors find new magic in old hits before revved-up fans at Harley fest

September 09, 2002|DEAN KUIPERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A strange tension gripped the California Speedway in Fontana on Friday night as the Doors, circa 2002, took the stage. Striding up to the microphone in black jeans, cowboy boots and lace-up blouse shirt was not Jim Morrison but his doppelganger, British rocker Ian Astbury, complete with a head of natural black curls.

As original keyboard player Ray Manzarek and guitarist Robbie Krieger stepped up to a roar of approval from the 5,000 bikers and classic-rock fans gathered in the dusty infield for a concert celebrating the 100th anniversary of Harley Davidson, the legacy of the Doors hung for a moment in the balance.

When they last left the stage at the Hollywood Bowl on Sept 10, 1972, almost 30 years ago to the day, Manzarek said, "Next time we'll be back with Jim" --meaning they'd never be back (Morrison died in 1971). So the songs have remained as they were then, unsullied museum pieces of FM rock radio, perfect, the past. But as Krieger laid into the loping opening riff to "Roadhouse Blues," it suddenly seemed that the band's risky endeavor could work: there could be a new Doors. Astbury's rich baritone picked up the verse with Morrison's inflections--"Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel"--and the crowd began to roar.

Yes, it was the Doors' greatest hits, with all that that implies. But it was more too. It wasn't Morrison, it wasn't a tribute act, it was Astbury revealing that the familiar songs --"L.A. Woman," "Break On Through (to the Other Side)," "Five to One"-- held new potential.

Manzarek, visibly moved by what was happening before him, couldn't help but shout out what he'd been waiting 30 years to say: "Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the Doors! We're here to witness the new Doors for the 21st century."

Whether the rock audiences, young or old, will accept a new Doors is a major question. It's not, for instance, likely to be embraced by either radio or MTV, and none of the four principals--including ex-Police drummer Stuart Copeland--have been involved in high-profile rock projects for years.

Manzarek and Krieger are comfortable in using the Doors' name again. Not as a nostalgia act, not playing the rock revival circuit, but to step into a spiritual leadership void that has haunted rock music since at least the mid-'90s with the demise of Nirvana and the movement of rap toward R&B, which has become acute in post-Sept. 11 America.

"It's kind of comin' back around to how it used to be," said Krieger, 56, sitting in the lounge of a rehearsal studio in Hollywood last week. "In the '60s we had the Vietnam War, and now we have the war with Iraq and terrorism."

"So we're going to offer Doors passion and Doors spirituality to a new generation," said Manzarek, 63, breaking in with his rapid-fire, youthful enthusiasm, "that looks like right about now could really use a dose of truth and reality and making music just for the sheer love of making music."

During an afternoon in the cool dark of the black-walled rehearsal studio, with Stone Temple Pilots thundering in the next room, it became clear just exactly how the original members of the Doors see themselves having an impact. The revolutionary aspects of the '60s, for instance, the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, are still largely communicated through the music of the time. The Doors albums from 1966 to '71 did not shy away from the bloody, menacing news of those days, but transformed them truthfully with the poetic and theatrical sensibility of "The End" or "When the Music's Over."

"There's a spiritual crisis in light of what happened last year," said Astbury, 40, his intense eyes almost mocking his Mickey Mouse T-shirt, his light English accent deepened by hours of singing.

"Right now, we seem to be in this void where there's no real patriarchal figures that we can depend upon," he said. "I think Morrison was a great, strong model for masculinity--how to carry yourself without being phony baloney and hippie about it."

While Astbury and his hard-rock stance with the British band the Cult might seem like a strange fit for the Doors, he suits the combination of romantic poet and spiritual warrior that drove the original band members. Manzarek and Krieger, who met drummer John Densmore when all three were part of the original Transcendental Meditation group of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1965 (later popularized by the Beatles), are committed to preserving the shamanistic and poetic tradition embraced by Morrison.

"I read principally because of Morrison," said Astbury. "I studied native cultures because of Morrison, I went to Tibet because I was introduced to indigenous and shamanistic cultures through the Doors' work. Even when I was a longhaired rock guy, I've constantly pushed Native American philosophy, indigenous philosophies, Buddhist philosophies."

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