The guy who admits to having the worst hair in rock and roll, but Robby Krieger has a sweet guitar playing style. When you think back, the Doors were only active from 1966-1971 as a foursome. After Jim Morrison died, the band tried, but failed to find much traction and disbanded. In years since, Doors music has periodically caught fire again, but Krieger has kept a lower profile, recording and touring with his own band, and a periodic musical partnership with the late, fellow Doors member, Ray Manzarek.
Krieger has released his memoirs, Set the Night on Fire. This writing, like his guitar playing, is subtle and effective. His was the only guitar in the band, in fact, they did not have a regular bass player. Krieger was responsible for some of the band’s greatest songs, but as he states in his book, the band mostly shared songwriting credit evenly. He admits giving up money and credit for band unity.
One of the things that impresses me about the book is that it covers some crazy times and behavior, but does so no to dwell on the salaciousness of the times or self-indulgence that many once famous people use to amp up the book sales. Krieger reflects on the events of his life rather matter-of-factly, almost as if he was observing, rather than living it. That’s not a slight, rather there is insight and near objectivity in his writing.
I did not know what to expect of his book, but how pleasantly surprised I was. The legacy of Jim Morrison casts a long shadow over the Doors, so it was interesting to see Krieger step from behind it to tell his own story. It is one of the best musical memoirs I have read.
Krieger also writes of the importance of his parents in his life and the support they provided in his career. You might not know that Krieger has been married to the same woman for 50 years and plays golf with Alice Cooper. He regularly raises money for Vets, even though he opposed the war in Vietnam and luckily was deemed 4-F by the draft board. In his younger days he felt responsible for a vehicle accident that left a young woman a paraplegic, and voluntarily provided financial support for the rest of her life.
Here is someone who lived and experienced the highs of stardom and success, along with the lows of addiction, cancer and death, but seems able to process and describe those times with clarity and perspective. Rarely, have I read a memoir written with such with truth and humility. Krieger seems to have come to grips with sometimes difficult relationships with his Doors band mates, able to navigate the past, and highly praising them for what they contributed to the band’s success and their friendship. Krieger is one of the most forgiving people and humble about his own failings.
“The Doors always had a very dour public image,” Krieger admits in the book, partially, the strange behavior of Morrison, and the dark undercurrent of their music. In the late 1960s, rock music splintered into various shades of psychedelic, blues, hard rock and drug-fuel imagery. Longish hair and sarcastic humor of pop groups grew into darker, more serious and cultural-critical lyrics, longer format, more distorted and angrier sounding music. The Doors embraced most of what parents seemed against.
The Doors represented a dark, dangerous attitude – to me, as a pre-teen, in those years. When I would think of a dark, desert California highway, the image was not the somber pastels painted by the Eagles, rather a menacing Manson-like cauldron of fear. That’s what I got from “The End”, “Riders on the Storm” and “When the Music’s Over.”
A healthy part of the book is about Jim Morrison from Krieger’s first hand account. Morrison was bigger than life and quite unpredictable with his behavior, especially when drink was involved. According to Krieger, the band gladly deferred to Morrison to be the center of attention on stage, they welcomed his energy and charisma. He had it and they didn’t, not compared to him. That allowed them to focus their full attention on playing.
“No matter how famous he got. He never had an ego,” Krieger said of Morrison. When managers, record company execs and promoters wanted to change the name of the band by putting Morrison’s name out front, it was Morrison who pushed back against it. Morrison caused the band a lot of grief with his drinking and unpredictable behavior, but Krieger looks back on Morrison with understanding and reverence, a flawed human, coping with demons, and a brilliance that fueled the band’s success and legacy.
“You would be cruising along with him (Morrison), everything would be right with the world, and he would suddenly, without warning or explanation, swerve. You’d survive, and things would be fine, but your heart would be pounding from the shock. And you’d never fully relax again because – no matter how much reassurance he offered – you knew the next swerve could happen at any moment.”
As a guitar player, I rarely hear Krieger’s name mentioned as one of the great or most influential players in rock, although he is ranked #76 on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 greatest guitarists. After the Doors, Krieger embraced a number of different musical styles including, blues, jazz-fusion and New Wave. When you are the only guitar player in a band that depends on the guitar as a main instrument, that player better be able to provide rhythm, lead and fills. Never flashy, Krieger’s style provides the right amount.