Ian Astbury is a dead ringer for Jim Morrison, pardon the expression - and so the former Cult frontman is eerily perfect as the new lead singer for the Doors, or rather, "Doors of the 21st Century," playing tomorrow night at Rexall Place for the Strange Days Festival.
To those who scoff, Ray Manzarek has been honing a snappy retort through interview after interview. He refers to himself in the third person: "When Jim died, there should've been a joint suicide pact in which Ray (and fellow original Doors) Robby (Krieger) and John (Densmore) also died. That'd be bitchin'! Bitchin'! Yeah!"
He snaps off the audible sneer, "I don't think so, man! Jim's dead. You wanna see us play? Fine. Ray and Robby are going to play with Ian Astbury as the lead singer. You wanna see that? Fine.
"If it cheapens the image, don't come. Stay home with your picture of Jim and a little piece of leather and rub that piece of leather softly. Light a candle. And play a Doors record. Maybe you have a dayglo poster of Jim Morrison. Stay in your room and lock the doors. Don't come out. Don't come to our concert."
But if you do, he adds, you may be pleased with "really powerful playing." The new singer is gifted with what Manzarek calls "Morrisonesque" qualities: Dark, brooding, "shamanistic" and oh, yes, the small matter that Astbury looks and sings like the real Lizard King.
"Fans love it," Manzarek enthuses. "My God. They're all saying, God, you got the right guy. I've had 45-year-old women say to me, 'Oh, Ray, Ian is just terrific.' He touches that Dionysian nerve in the maenads."
Manzarek speaks his mind
Manzarek himself is quite a character. Having long ago replaced LSD with Napa Valley wine - which keeps those "doors of perception," once opened, shining happily - the 66-year-old keyboardist can wax forth with great eloquence and learned rhetoric on almost any topic.
He's obviously well-read, politically far left, quick of wit and clearly no fan of politically correct thought. He speaks his mind. He's as close to the archetypical rock star as a keyboard player can get. He's a rock star in a cardigan.
The Worst Rock 'n' Roll Records of All Time - which has a distinct anti-Doors bias - singles him out in the "Brian Jones Memorial List" of bands with missing/dead singers that "have no business trudging on without him."
The Doors of the 21st Century would then be ranked with Van Halen, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Starship, the Who and the Grateful Dead, all of which are still working without core members. What's wrong with that?
Manzarek is also alluded to in Kids in the Hall's Bruce McCulloch's great Doors monologue: "Who's playing bass? No bass! That's right! The gypsies had no homes, the Doors had no bass. But don't let that scare you, my friend. Let that liberate you! 'Cause when you're free flying with the Doors, man, what do you need a safety net for? Vive le Doors!"
In the strange days before synthesizers were invented, Manzarek played Fender Rhodes bass with his left hand and the distinctive Vox organ with his right. Now he uses a synth that covers all required sounds and has hired a bass player so he can devote both hands to his instrument. Another myth is destroyed.
"A real bass sounds better," he explains. "You might be in the audience and say, 'Aw, he doesn't have the Vox, aw, he doesn't have the Fender Rhodes. Aw, he doesn't have the mutton-chop sideburns. I'm going home. So go home."
Now, now, no need to get defensive. You had us sold at "bitchin'!"
The surviving Doors members have been involved with various Doors-related projects over the years, but they've never gone this far before. They've never hired a permanent replacement for Jim and used the "Doors" name. Why now? It was time.
"The fates had something else in store for us," Manzarek says. "The three sisters who weave the cloth and cut the cloth, they were waiting for the 21st century. It's interesting that it's the right time now. We're at war and we're fighting the right-wingers again, we're fighting the spoil and the rape of the environment.
"My God, what is this? The '60s all over again? Here we are needing to bring some message to people, saying there's another way to live. You don't have to bow down to the authorities. You can actually think for yourself. Of course we don't do that in the States now, but you can actually think for yourself."
Legal roadblocks put a crimp in the new Doors. At least three different parties have sued the band - including original drummer John Densmore, who is not on the tour.
Everybody wanted money
Manzarek says, "There's so much energy surrounding the Doors that as soon as Robby and I got together with Ian, certain people wanted bananas: Stop them! Stop them! Give me money! They can't play without giving me money! Well, come on and play. I don't wanna play! You can't play, either. Give me money! Geez, well, hey, so you can sue. Go ahead."
Doors of the 21st Century were even sued by Jim Morrison's parents - which really scares Manzarek.
"I thought they were dead! Didn't Jim say his mother and father are dead? So the fact that we're also being sued by dead people, whoa ...."
The keyboardist takes time to answer some obvious questions, starting with one he asks himself: "What was Jim Morrison like? He had a large penis. Well, you know, I saw it. A lot of people saw it - or did they? Or was it a mass hallucination similar to to the vision of Lourdes?"
This one is really obvious: What do you think Jim would be doing now if he were still alive?
"He would be writing poetry and singing with the Doors. He'd be doing exactly what he was doing back then. I just would've been all stretched out. It wouldn't have been done in such a frenzy, the frenzy of the '60s, the frenzy of youth.
"If Jim had stopped drinking - he would've had to stop drinking to be alive - we would've moved into politics. Jim Morrison as president of the United States! He would've run against Ronald Reagan. You know, I said in 1968 that someone from show business would become the president. Unfortunately we got the wrong guy. We got the fascist."
He goes on a bit of a political rant from here, but comes to the conclusion that touching the Dionysian nerve in the maenads, imbibing mild hallucinogenic drugs (he recommends magic mushrooms or peyote) and rock 'n' roll are all good things.
Manzarek says he looks forward to a time when the power of religious fundamentalists wanes in favour of "the return of the lovers."
He advises, "Change yourself and then emanate good vibrations. Personally, I'm glad to be alive. I try to move through life having a great time being alive. Isn't that what all the religions are about? It's a great time to be alive."
Funny thing about those "doors" of perception. Once opened, it's impossible to get them closed. But who's complaining? Doors of the 21st Century is the closest Doors fans are going to get to the real deal without breakin' on through to the other side.
The Strange Days Festival also features opening acts Vanilla Fudge and the Pat Travers Band. Tickets are $32.50 and on sale at Ticketmaster (451-8000).