Set the Night on Fire: Living, Dying, and Playing Guitar with the Doors
By Robby Krieger with Jeff Alulis
432 pp., $29, Little, Brown and Company
Of all the classic rock bands, the Doors might have the most solid connection with literature. After all, they were named after Aldous Huxley’s must-have-hippie-bookshelf-title The Doors of Perception.
Singer Jim Morrison wrote reams of poetry and lyrics, anthologized in this year’s The Collected Works of Jim Morrison. The late keyboardist Ray Manzaeak wrote an autobiography, as did drummer John Densmore, along with a more recent book of musical encounters.
Now, guitarist Robby Krieger offers his entry into the Doors canon. Written in an easygoing style, he offers his version of the band’s history, impact, his life outside of the band and throws some truth bombs about other books, docs and movies about the band (sorry, fans of Oliver Stone’s The Doors movie).
Once the Doors coalesce and try to find their place in the pantheon of California-bred 1960’s rock bands, Krieger writes about their inauspicious first gigs: a Hughes Aircraft Company party with well-dressed middle aged couples in an airplane hanger (Manzarek’s dad was an employee). Or gigging at Krieger’s parents’ New Year’s Eve backyard cocktail party.
But once they started playing more Los Angeles and San Francisco rock clubs, there was both an air of danger and “anything goes” about the group with no live bass player (Manzarek did double duty onstage).
That encompasses often improvised performances and a volcanic frontman who enjoyed flirting with women, seeking dangerous situations and baiting the crowd and police. Those proclivities led to Morrison’s arrest in New Haven, as well as the charges from a Miami show in which law enforcement said he exposed himself.
Accounts of this famous event vary, but Krieger maintains while the singer (drunk at the time) made suggestions, he never actually pulled his pants down. This legal case would drag on, ending only when Morrison’s life did.
One of the greatest strength’s of Krieger’s remembrances is how he explains (as much as he can) the personal appeal and complexities of Jim Morrison and how he could get away with such bad behavior. Like, say, not showing up for a gig, or emptying a fire extinguisher inside a recording studio, or destroying Manzarek’s record collection by spinning discs to crash against the wall of his living room.
“His apologies were so simple, and yet so hypnotic,” Krieger writes. “I still don’t know how he got us to forgive him for half the stuff he did.” Krieger even theorizes that some of his more reckless behavior—whether driving a vehicle, massive alcohol intake, or provoking fights—was some sort of self-punishment.
And even though Morrison wrote the bulk of the lyrics and could have easily demanded the main songwriting credit, he insisted for most of their career that it be credited to all four members for their contributions (and to share in the royalties).
Though it was Krieger who wrote the bulk of words and music their biggest hit, “Light My Fire” (Morrison contributed the verse about the funeral pyre). Krieger also wrote or co-wrote the hits “Love Me Two Times,” “Love Her Madly,” and “Touch Me.”
Houston gets a shout out for a 2003 performance by The Doors of the 21st Century—the band that Krieger and Manzarek formed with Cult singer Ian Astbury to play Doors music. “In Houston, a bunch of the crowd members stripped naked,” Krieger writes.
This writer was at that show and didn’t recall seeing naked people. Though it was filmed for a live concert DVD, and the stage was full of audience members on the final number.
Krieger also touches on his and wife Lynn’s struggle with heroin, recent health scares, relationship with his parents and disturbed twin brother. Also post-Doors musical endeavors that included Doors-related band projects, jazz fusion, guitar rock, and a stint in the unfortunately-named The Butts Band.
There’s also a neat summary of the various ups and downs of the members’ relationships post-Morrison, lawsuits against each other and occasional reunions.
As to when Jim Morrison not-unexpectedly died in Paris at the age of 27—the true circumstances of which will likely never be known—Krieger admits honestly at first he felt relief that the chaos was over. And happiness that his fried bizarrely fulfilled a goal he talked about a lot (though later sorrow and anger came into the picture). And he does not want to contribute another theory or myth about his friend’s demise.
Now 75, Krieger still performs with his band and occasional Doors-related gigs. And while he self-effacingly describes himself as having “the worst hair in rock and roll” multiple times, Set the Night on Fire is the best memoir by a band member of one of the era’s most unique—and mythologized—groups.
This review originally appeared at HoustonPress.com