by Sheri Boggs
In October of 1955, a young poet by the name of Michael McClure took part in his first public reading. Joining five like-minded radical thinkers and poets at a little San Francisco art gallery in a former auto repair shop, McClure -- who read with Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Phil Whalen, Kenneth Rexroth and a newcomer named Allen Ginsberg -- became a part of literary history and a strong voice among the San Francisco Beat movement.
Fast forward 10 years to Los Angeles, where UCLA film students Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison were starting a band that would come to personify not only their own nihilistic and literary leanings, but the visionary experiences of an entire generation. With Manzarek's trippy electric organ themes, Morrison's sonorous, dark vocals, John Densmore on drums and Robby Krieger on guitar, the Doors were an instant and explosive element of the psychedelic, anti-war and love-and-peace movements of the 1960s before quietly disbanding several years after Morrison's death in 1971.
While the Beats and the Doors were a good decade separated from one another, they still shared the same anti-establishment, counter-cultural, make-love-not-war philosophical outlook. Furthermore, the Doors were, in fact, heavily influenced by the Beats, especially Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, but also Ginsberg and McClure. It's not surprising then, to find Manzarek and McClure working together. A blend of the spoken word and piano accompaniment, Manzarek and McClure call their collaboration the "Third Mind," and it comes to Pullman's Kimbrough Concert Hall Friday night.
"We've been doing this for more than 10 years now. We knew each other from the days of the Doors. Michael McClure and Jim Morrison were poetry buddies," says Manzarek, from his home in L.A. "Jim Morrison brought Michael down to one of the recording sessions, and that's how we first met, when we were recording Waiting for the Sun."
Although Manzarek and McClure ran into each other from time to time during the Doors' late-1960s heyday, after Morrison's death they didn't see each other for nearly two decades. A rogue shared gig in 1988 brought them back together and shaped a surprising new career path for them both.
"I saw Michael reading here in Los Angeles at a club, on the same bill that I was playing with a friend of mine -- a jazz poet," Manzarek recalls. "I heard him read, and he heard me play and we said, 'God, we've got to get together.' He said, 'I want you to do that with me,' and I said, 'I want to play behind Stanzas and Turmoil,' one of Michael's poems, which we'll play on Friday night. It's a piece where I envision the great central plain of America. And then I found out Michael's originally from Kansas, and I'm from Illinois and I said, 'Man, I wanna play great big C major chords behind this thing. I see the wheat fields and the cornfields and the amber waves of grain... that's what I want to play.' "
Although they've played everywhere from Fillmore Auditorium to the North Beach Coffee House, their first gig together was about as far removed from the West Coast scene as, well, a little college town in upstate New York.
"Michael called and said, 'How about a college gig?' Well he's in San Francisco and I'm in L.A. and he books us in Troy, New York," laughs Manzarek. "I said, 'There's only a thousand colleges between Vancouver and San Diego. Why that one?' and Michael said, 'Because they called.' "
The name of their work together, "The Third Mind," is vintage Beat philosophy.
"The Third Mind is from a quote by William Burroughs," he says. "When two artists collaborate, a third mind is created, and that's what we do. It becomes an entity that's different from either one of us, and the audience adds a whole other element to it as well."
McClure, speaking from his home in San Francisco, notes that their work together encompasses many things.
"Some of it is entertainment, some of it is environmental, some of it is political. It brings together the things we're interested in and it brings some news or some support to the people who are also interested in those things, so maybe they can learn from it and maybe we can learn from them."
When they take the stage, McClure doesn't read poetry so much as perform it, using his voice like an instrument. And Manzarek isn't providing a cloud of music to cushion the spoken word either.
"I play each poem," says Manzarek. "I don't just riff and have him read over it, I've got the words in front of me, and I read and play what's appropriate to the words. It constantly evolves. It changes from performance to performance. You never know what it's going to be. It's like jazz that way. You have your basic theme, and then you improvise."
While McClure's poetry -- which combines a Buddhist sensibility with a deep love of nature -- and Manzarek's melodic interpretations -- echoing his work with the Doors -- might seem at first anachronistic; the way they see it, their work is as timely now as it was four decades ago. Still, they find the world is not as willing to hear their message as it once was.
"It's become less so," says Manzarek. "I don't know, they elected George Bush didn't they? They'll get what they deserve. Maybe we need to bottom out on the environment and the economy before we realize it's our obligation to take care of the world instead of destroy it. It all depends on whether you're a lover or a hater, whether you love the world or whether you don't care."
It's with no small bit of irony that one of the Doors' album titles, Full Circle, could easily describe the trajectory of Manzarek and McClure's careers. Manzarek, who met Jim Morrison at UCLA film school, recently finished directing a feature film he co-wrote called Love Her Madly. And McClure continues to write poetry.
"We were heavily influenced by the Beats," says McClure, "in fact we did a gig in Seattle awhile back, it was Allen Ginsberg, me and Ray Manzarek. Boy, was that something. It was just before Ginsberg died, he was still full of energy and life. We were in Seattle, but I thought I was in Paris in the '20s. The energy there was incredible." In fact, McClure hopes to dispel myths as to what the Beat movement was originally all about.
"Beat poetry was never people sitting around with cracker crumbs in their beards playing bongo drums and drinking warm wine on the beach," he says. "It was the first literary wing of the environmental movement. It was all about the political and artistic energy of a young group of people resisting the wars in Asia, and promoting the environment." He is heartened to see how accepted poetry has eventually become.
"After a bunch of us met at that reading in 1955, we felt we had put our toes to the line but we weren't going to back away. It was pretty dangerous, pretty uncomfortable in those days," he says. "Now my grandson and all his friends hang out at the coffee shops, pretending to be Beat poets. It's sweet. But in those days, no one would stand up and say they were a poet in a public place."
There are myths to dispel for Manzarek as well. The question must be asked: Does he ever get tired of talking about Jim Morrison?
"Yes," he laughs. "And if I'm not answering questions about Jim Morrison, I'm being asked what I thought of the Oliver Stone movie. But on the other hand, it has to be said. For the rest of my life, I'll have to say what I think of the Oliver Stone take on Jim Morrison, but this is good. Now Spokane will know that Ray Manzarek doesn't think that's the real Jim Morrison. That's Oliver Stone in black leather pants."
Michael McClure and Ray Manzarek perform at WSU's Kimbrough Concert Hall in Pullman on Friday, April 27, at 7:30 pm. Tickets: Free. Call: (509) 335-3564.