Thursday, January 7, 2016

The underappreciated ingenuity of Robby Krieger

Seventy years ago today, the universe yielded up Robby Krieger, later to become the lone introvert in the Doors. Sharing space and time with outsized personalities such as the Lizard King, one of the most captivating lead singers ever, the hyper-talented and ever-voluble Ray Manzarek (who spent the second half of his life proselytizing about the Doors’ sizable legacy in a non-stop hepcat patter), and John Densmorethe activist and stubborn conscience of the band who unilaterally blocked the sale of "Light My Fire" to Cadillac for a $15,000,000 payday—the soft-spoken guitarist tended to be overshadowed and undersung. But Krieger's contributions were essential to the Doors’ unique sound, what Manzarek referred to as a "four-sided diamond." 

When the Doors were gathering tracks for their debut album, they were short of original material, so the band members parted for a few days to write songs. Upon his return, Robbie offered up the arrangement that would become “Light My Fire,” the mega-hit which launched the band.

Teenyboppers heard the three-minute single, but album track listeners were treated to a seven-minute version with a heady instrumental jam which features two extended solos. Following Ray Manzarek’s mesmerizing solo was a tall order, but Krieger keeps things interesting when he comes in at 3:18. Unlike most of the rock players of his day, he didn’t follow the blues power template of Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, and forebears such as B.B. King; his solo is all clean channel finesse—colorful flamenco flutters and hammer-on pull-offs perfectly fitted to the huge pocket created by Densmore and Manzarek.

The last song on The Doors’ second album, “Strange Days,” is the epic “When the Music’s Over.” In one of the most powerful introductions committed to acetate, Ray Manzarek opens by vamping on the main theme, and is soon joined by Densmore, the two of them building tension that is released with Jim Morrison's blood-curdling shriek and Krieger’s big mystical wash of feedback. As Manzarek’s hypnotic organ and Morrison’s apocalyptic lyrics take center stage, Krieger stays in the background, doubling Manzarek or darting out quick little blues fills, until he plays what he later called his favorite solo, at 2:54.

Once, when asked what he was thinking about while he took solos in concert (with no expression on his face), Krieger said “my goldfish,” and it shows here. Unlike the muscular, virtuosic leads of contemporaries such as Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page, Krieger’s solo is not a demonstration of chops or a climbing route to a crescendo but a mood reflecting his interest in the modal approach of Indian music. It is a perfect acid rock solo: oblique and multi-layered, a miasma of shapes and colors swimming around freely in your ears simultaneously in both the left and right channels.

One of the gems on the Doors’ third album, "Waiting for the Sun," is “Spanish Caravan.” Borrowing from the classical piece "Asturias," this song showcases yet another side of Robbie’s guitar voicings—fleet, nylon-stringed, flamenco finger picking.

The Doors’ final album, “L.A. Woman,” had several blues tracks. Manzarek, a Chicago native, had always had a foot in the blues. Years of cigarettes and heavy drinking had deepened Morrison’s voice, transforming his persona from that of a slinky and mystical shaman to a full-throated, whiskey-besotted bluesman. And the simplicity of blues arrangements appealed to the group after the departure of their long-time producer, Paul Rothchild, early in the sessions.

“Been Down So Long,” based on a '60s cult novel, is simple and stark. Driven by a pulsing bass line and bone-dry four-four drums, Manzarek's absence gives added emphasis to Krieger's tasty blues fills. While he didn’t possess the lightning-quick slide skills of Johnny Winter or the prowess of Duane Allman, Robbie was handy with the bottleneck, as evidenced by the eye-popping, Delta-influenced solos at 1:34 and 3:08. 

“Crawling King Snake” was an ancient standard previously recorded by blues giants John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf. The Doors’ version is appropriately gritty, stripped-down, and true to the original spirit of the song. Robbie’s solo at 1:48, a model in dirty blues, is filled with jagged flurries of notes that cut like shards of glass.

Just three months after “L.A. Woman” hit record store shelves, Jim Morrison was found dead in a Paris bathtub. The surviving Doors recorded two more albums with Ray Manzarek on vocals, but the magic was gone. In the decades since, Krieger has made guest appearances, collaborated with John Densmore and Ray Manzarek, and released solo albums, but ultimately, the recordings that shine brightest are his rich and versatile stylings for the original lineup of the Doors, the four-sided diamond.

Other Truth and Beauty guitar hero essays:

         Click here for "The Second Coming:  Stevie Ray Vaughan," 
a first-hand account of Vaughan's final concert

here for "The heaviest New Year's Eve guitar jam ever: Hendrix
does 'Machine Gun'"

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #8: Freddie King's 'San-Ho-Zay'"
  here for "Link Wray's 'Rumble'"
here for "Great Guitar Solos, #1:  Eddie Hazel (Funkadelic)"

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #2:  Frank Zappa"

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #3:  Hiram Bullock" 

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #5:  Alvin Lee"

 here for "Great Guitar Solos, #6: Neil Young's 'Hey Hey, My My'"

and here for "Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar - The Six-String Wizardry of Frank Zappa, Part II"

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