An honest, exclusive conversation with the legendary guitarist from The Doors
Though it’s been over 50 years since Robby Krieger shared a stage with Jim Morrison, he’ll always be best known as the guitarist for the Doors.
But that’s okay with Krieger; “It’s a good problem to have,” he says. And the Doors have been much on his mind of late. This December sees the 50th anniversary reissue of the band’s classic album L.A. Woman, in a deluxe edition with plenty of bonus tracks. A theatrical screening of the Doors’ July 5, 1968 performance at the Hollywood Bowl is planned for November 4. And he finally joins his fellow Doors as an author.
Drummer John Densmore’s Riders on the Storm came out in 1990; keyboardist Ray Manzarek’s Light My Fire followed in 1999. Now it’s Krieger’s turn to give his side of the story, with Set the Night on Fire: Living, Dying, and Playing Guitar with The Doors (Little, Brown, and co-written with Jeff Alulis). It offers a fresh perspective on the roller coaster ride that was the Doors’ career, and sets the record straight on a number of misconceptions about the band (they never did peyote together in the desert; that was Oliver Stone’s fantasy in his movie The Doors). He’s also forthcoming about his own life, including post-Doors lawsuits and his own struggle with heroin addiction. He took the time to chat with Rock and Roll Globe about why it took him so long to tell his tale, what he likes about the Hollywood Bowl show, and how “Doors nerds” are helping track down the guitar he used to write “Light My Fire.”
VIDEO: Q&A with Robby Krieger on The Doors’ website
Most of the other Doors books focus on Jim’s excesses. But offer a more well-rounded portrait of him.
Well thanks, because that’s what I was shooting for.
If John and Ray hadn’t written their books, do you think you would have written one?
Yeah, for sure. I actually started writing this about twenty years ago. John’s book came out, and then Ray’s, and it caused a lot of friction. They weren’t so nice to each other in their books. But it leaked over to me too, because I was going out with Ray as the Doors, and John didn’t want to do it. It ended up in a lawsuit. And I didn’t want to exacerbate the situation, so I put the book off. And now with the pandemic, it just seemed like a good time to finish it up.
But it sounds like things are okay between you and John now.
Yeah, we’re doing a lot better. And in fact, we just did a thing a couple of weeks ago at my studio. We played “L.A. Woman” and “Riders on the Storm,” because they’re putting the Doors’ Hollywood Bowl video out into theaters. Those songs are going to be a little preview for the movie.
In your book you talk about Hollywood Bowl being one of the band’s more static performances, and you wish that there a better show had been captured on film.
Yeah. But after watching it a number of times, I think it is pretty good, really. The camerawork is great, and there are some great musical moments in there. My favorite one is the very beginning, when Ray is starting “When the Music’s Over.” And he’s just going, and he’s going, and his timing is so good. And John is supposed to come in after a while and start the whole band going, and he just wasn’t starting. And I’m going, “Is he lost? What the hell is going on?” I think he was just mesmerized by Ray, how good Ray was playing that part. It’s really an amazing display of Ray’s talent right there. And then finally John does come in and we start the song. And Jim is over on the side waiting, and he’s waiting; he’s waiting to spring like a leopard, you know? His legs must have got sore waiting that long.
VIDEO: The Doors perform “When The Music’s Over” at the Hollywood Bowl 1968
Are there any rock biographies or memoirs that you’ve especially liked?
I’ve read a number of them. None of them really jumped out at me. I read Keith Richards’ one [Life], and I wish he’d told more details about the drug stuff and all that; it kind of glosses over it pretty much. And then I just read Robbie Robertson’s book [Testimony]; that was pretty good. But I don’t know, I think I’m hoping that mine is going to be the best!
The chapter on your drug use is really harrowing, the pacing and the recurring theme: “It wasn’t like we were doing hard drugs. And then we started doing hard drugs.” Just that phrase throughout the chapter; “It wasn’t like we were doing it every day. And then we started doing it every day.” It’s really insidious.
Yeah, that was actually Jeff Alulis’s idea. And that was pretty cool, I thought. Jeff was really great. I don’t think I would have finished the damn book if it weren’t for him pushing me. Where he really was helpful was researching. He went back and found, I don’t know how, I guess just on the internet, all these shows that I had totally forgotten about. And he’d go, “Remember this happened here and this happened there?” “Oh, yeah!” (laughs) Because you know, it’s been fifty years or so.
Yeah, I was going to ask how you remembered some of that stuff, if you kept notes or anything. Obviously, part of it’s Jeff, the research he did.
Yeah, that was a really good job by him. And then he got to know these Doors nerds, you know, guys out there that just know everything about the Doors — they think they do anyway! But they were very helpful.
And one cool thing about those guys, my first guitar that I bought after I saw Chuck Berry was the Gibson SG Special, the cheap version of the Gibson ES-355. That got stolen after we did the second Doors album; one day it was just gone from the place where we kept the instruments. And I didn’t think much about it at the time, I just got a new one. In those days, there was no such thing as a “collectible guitar,” you know what I mean? It was just an instrument; if one’s gone, you just get another one. But now one of these guys found the serial number of the guitar. Because we went to Europe and we had a manifest, so he somehow found that serial number. And I’m going to try and get that guitar back. We’re going to do a big number on the internet and see if somebody pops it up. I’d love to have that thing back. I did the first two Doors albums with it. I wrote “Light My Fire” on that thing. I really love that guitar.
VIDEO: The “Light My Fire” scene from The Doors movie
You write that The Doors movie had you believing certain things had happened, when they actually hadn’t.
Well, when you see the movie, the details kind of get into your head, and I kind of believed them. I knew Jim didn’t light Pam on fire in her apartment and stuff like that. But there’s a lot of things that just kind of creep into your head, and you just take them for granted. So it was good to clear some of that stuff up in the book.
Is there more to say about the Doors in a book? There have been a number of biographies….
Well, yeah, there’s sure been enough. Did you read the one by Dennis Jakob by chance? [Summer With Morrison: The Early Life and Times of James Douglas Morrison]. That one’s worth reading. Dennis Jakob was a guy that was at the UCLA film school along with Ray and Jim. And Jim used to stay up on his rooftop; Dennis lived right there in Venice. And Jim loved it, because he could see the ocean and all that. And that’s where he supposedly came up with some of the first Doors songs. He would get this really good Acapulco Gold and he would just sit there, and it was like a movie was playing in his head, a concert, and he would just write it down. Which to me is really amazing, because for me writing songs is like pulling teeth. But for him, at least the first ones, “Moonlight Drive,” and “Hello, I Love You,” and a couple other ones, all he had to do was write it down. It just played like a movie in his head. I envy people like that.
Anyway, it tells all about how Jim was before the Doors, which to me was very revealing. I always figured that Jim was a normal kind of student at UCLA before the Doors, and the whole Doors experience made him kind of go nuts, you know? But I think he was a little off even before the Doors.
What about recordings? Is there more stuff that could come out? The L.A. Woman 50th anniversary set has a lot more bonus stuff than previous editions. But is there more in the vault?
Well, we’re always on the lookout, you know? There’s a lot of tapes that are buried in the vault, but Bruce [Botnick, the Doors’ engineer] says he’s listened to everything, and I think we’re done. Everything is out. But you never know, because people come up with weird stuff. Ex-engineers that conveniently steal tapes here and there.
And there’s one song called “Paris Blues.” Somehow we lost the master tape on it, and all we had was this cassette; we all had a cassette, me and Ray and John, and everybody lost theirs, except for Ray. And then Ray said that Pablo, his five-year-old son, was playing with the cassette, just messing around, and he inadvertently messed it up, lost a couple of verses. And it had noise, it was all noisy. So just recently we got a copy of that and we fixed it up really good. So I think that’s one thing that will come out pretty soon. It’s pretty cool, just a simple blues, Jim was making up the words as he went along. It’s pretty neat.
Does it bother you that people want outtakes to come out? I mean, they were outtakes for a reason; songs that didn’t make it to the album because you didn’t think they were good enough. Does it bug you as an artist to have that stuff come out later?
Yeah, it is kind of annoying, because I think one reason why the Doors are still relevant today is because even our deep cuts were really great. And we were very adamant about not putting anything out unless we all thought it was great and belonged on an album. There’s so many bands that have an album and they’ve got maybe one or two good songs on there and the rest is crap, you know? But I think the Doors albums were, in my mind anyway, really damn good. And we wouldn’t put out anything that we didn’t think was great, you know?
I can see both sides. I can understand your perspective. But then as a fan, you want to hear whatever you can, especially if the band is no longer together.
Yeah. And unless it’s really a horrible performance, then sure, we’ll let people hear it. Why not?
And you have some new music of your own coming out.
Yeah, I’ve got a couple albums ready to come out. During the pandemic, there was nothing to do except record, and we got a lot of stuff done. My buddy Ed Roth was playing keyboards on a lot of the stuff. He lives right around the corner from the studio practically, and we’ve been doing quite a bit of recording. The one that’s coming out soon is called Rock Versus Dub. It’s like reggae versions of rock and roll songs, stuff like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Stayin’ Alive,” all kinds of crazy stuff that people wouldn’t really think of as reggae.
The other one is more jazz and R&B flavored and I don’t have a title for that one yet, but we’re mixing it as we speak. And we got a few shows lined up in November on the East Coast; hopefully those won’t fall through. Had a couple near Chicago that did fall through last month.
Order signed copies of Set the Night on Fire here.