Doors Guitarist Robby Krieger Gets to the Truth of Rock's Most Mythologized Band with New Memoir
When legend becomes fact, the old saying goes, print the legend. That's certainly the case when considering The Doors. Few bands in rock history have become so shrouded in myth, speculation and outright lies. It's a dubious distinction they've endured for more than half a century. The murky circumstances of Jim Morrison's death in 1971 provided ample opportunity for conspiracy theorists and so-called historians to provide their own unique takes on "what really happened." Moreover, the sudden nature of Morrison's end traumatized his fans and bandmates alike, leading to his posthumous coronation as the leather-clad Lizard King, an archetype that falls somewhere between a modern shaman and a cartoon cliché. That this character barely resembles Morrison the man seems to matter little. It's an early instance of the Doors' narrative being twisted into whatever fans wanted — or needed — it to be.
Their history has been rehashed in an untold number of books, articles, documentaries, and (most famously) Oliver Stone's big-budget Hollywood treatment. While some of these endeavors have been well-intentioned, facts have undeniably become distorted for the sake of salacious headlines, self-interest, or simply grief. Perhaps the most stubborn Doors rumor, that Morrison faked his own death and is living a quiet existence as a poet in some far-flung locale, was propagated in part by his own bandmate, keyboardist Ray Manzarek.
Manzarek and drummer John Densmore both chronicled their time in the Doors with a pair of memoirs published in the '90s. Though entertaining and insightful, the books had the unmistakable whiff of score-settling at times. Each man vehemently objected to the other's account, leading to years of bad blood and lawsuits that only began to dissipate after Manzarek's death in 2013.
This left Robby Krieger as the only surviving Door whose story was largely unheard. His silence was notable given his outsize role in the band's history. In addition to penning their biggest hits — "Light My Fire," "Touch Me," "Love Her Madly," "Love Me Two Times," among many others — his instantly recognizable blend of flamenco-tinged bottleneck blues guitar was a critical factor in the band's singular sound. Now, at last, he's sharing his side with a new memoir, Set the Night on Fire: Living, Dying, and Playing Guitar with The Doors (out Oct. 12).
It's tempting to label his even-handed account the tie-breaking vote among the three men whose lives have been dominated by Morrison's ghost. But to do so would be a disservice to the book. Written with the help of documentarian and former Dead Kennedys singer Jeff Alulis, Set the Night on Fire is always warm, often funny, and frequently revelatory; a sizable achievement for such well-trod territory. In addition to sharing inspirations behind the Doors' biggest songs, Krieger reframes crucial moments in the group's story. Flashpoints like their infamous Miami bust, their debut on Ed Sullivan's Sunday night television juggernaut, and their star-marking sets on the Sunset Strip are rendered fresh, and previously unheard anecdotes involving Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, George Harrison, the Stones and even O.J. Simpson will certainly blow some minds. He also fact-checks the many tall tales told in The Doors biopic, busting myths with remarkable good humor.
Known as perhaps the most taciturn Door, Krieger gets deeply personal, outlining his harrowing substance abuse struggles in the wake of Morrison's death, the ugly legal squabbles that divided the Doors for over a decade, and his triumph against Stage 4 cancer.
Gripping from start to finish, Set the Night on Fire is an intimate and honest look inside one of the most compelling outfits in music. It towers above the piles of other Doors documents as a powerful reminder that the truth can be more fascinating than the myth.
When I spoke with you a few years back, I asked if you'd ever follow John and Ray and write a memoir. And you said, "I'm a little nervous, I want to take my time…" It was certainly worth the wait, but why the trepidation?
Well, John and Ray's book caused a bit of problems within the band. I actually started writing this book 25 years ago. At that time, John and Ray were pissed at each other because of their books. John came out with his first, and he put Ray down a little bit in his book. Then Ray came out with his book, and really put John down. The next thing you know we're in court and fighting about use of the band name, and all that s—. But it really stemmed from their books. I just didn't want to add fuel to the fire, I guess.
I thought your book was very diplomatic. I feel like being the peacemaker was a crucial part of your role in the Doors.
[Laughs] You could say that. I gave a copy to John before okaying it [to be published], so he's cool with it. The funny thing is that John gave Ray and me copies of his book before he put it out. I don't know why Ray didn't complain when he had the chance. Instead, he just let it stew in his mind for years. It's too bad.
A lot of myths have developed concerning the Doors over the years — probably more than almost any band I can think of. How much of your decision to write this book was motivated by a desire to set the record straight?
I wanted to correct a lot of people's misinformation about the band, especially with the [Oliver Stone] movie and [Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman's notorious 1980 book] No One Here Gets Out Alive. A lot of that stuff was really overblown. I just wanted people to know more of the truth.
Was it cathartic for you to get it all down? How was it revisiting all of these moments from your past?
Well, it's hard to get away from it. [laughs] Over the years I do so many interviews. A box set will come out, there's an anniversary, or something else to talk about. So, I can't forget that stuff. People remind me all the time!
The book pays tribute to your parents, who you describe as the Doors' number one fans. It sounds like they're really unsung heroes in the Doors saga. That seems pretty unusual for the '60s. You tend to hear stories about parents begging their musician kid to get a "real job." Yours seem a lot cooler!
I didn't realize at the time how cool my parents were.
Nobody ever does!
I'm sure my Dad would have much rather had me be an engineer like him, or some kind of scientist. But once he saw how cool the Doors were, all that was gone. I think he was just really happy that I was able to find something that I really wanted to do — or that I wanted to do anything after being such a bad kid. I went to jail and stuff. I think he was happy that I was actually doing something that I liked.
He sounds like the polar opposite of Jim's dad, who told him to give up music because he didn't think he had a future in it.
Yeah, exactly. Jim couldn't even tell his parents [about the Doors]. They had no idea he was in a band until his sister saw some article about us in New York or something. She had no idea he was even singing. Much less his parents. It was insane.
In the book, you talk about how much your dad loved picking up young hitchhikers because it gave him an opportunity to brag about being your father. As a son, that's got to be the greatest feeling in the world.
Yeah, my Dad was funny. He was different, but he definitely loved the Doors. He was really helpful too, because a lot of groups get f—ed, business-wise. He wanted to make sure that we didn't. He got us lawyers and business managers, some of which didn't turn out that well. Our first business manager turned out to be a big gambler, and he lost millions of dollars from us. We were lucky we had insurance!
Wow. OK, a bit of a miscalculation there from Mr. Krieger. But at least he's responsible for getting their Doors their first Fender Rhodes Piano Bass. That instrument was such a key ingredient in the band's sound. It's pretty much the Fifth Door!
It really was. We wanted to have a bass player, because all other groups had bass players, except for the Seeds. The Seeds were the same as us. The guy used a keyboard bass. Anyway, my Dad put up a couple hundred bucks to buy us one, and he made up this big legal document that he made us sign. "Make sure you pay me back!" And then, of course, he never cared about it. We never did pay him back. [laughs]
That's such a classic dad move. You've gotta have a strong work ethic.
Right, exactly. My Mom was cool too. She loved Jim. She loved music. But Dad was not really a rock guy. His favorite thing was [John Philip] Sousa marches. He did have some cool records, though. Lots of boogie-woogie and some blues. He also had Peter and the Wolf, which is the first thing he ever played me and my brother. He also had flamenco records, and that's really what got me into flamenco.
Was that the first music that started speaking to you in a major way? You mentioned earlier, as a teen you had some legal problems and it was an unhappy time. When did you know that music was the direction that you really wanted to go?
I think I was in high school. I was taking flamenco lessons with my buddy Billy Wolf. We went to Uni High, but then we started getting in trouble, so our parents sent us away to the same school — which was really stupid! Two guys get in trouble at home, so they send them both away to the same dorm at Menlo School. Great! [laughs]
We formed a jug band up there. Bob Weir was in the same school, and the year before he had started the Mother McCree's Band, a jug band, with the other [future] Grateful Dead guys. We heard about that and said, "Hey, we can do that!" That ended up being pretty cool. That was the first real band that we ever played in.
That jugband stuff seems a world away from the kind of music you played later on. How did you transition into rock 'n' roll? I'd read you'd only been playing electric guitar for a year before you started playing with the Doors.
Yeah, because before that, I was really a music snob. "Oh, those [rock] guys, they're boring. Folk music is the thing, and flamenco, and fancy stuff like that." At the time, there was just early Beach Boys, Jan and Dean. They had some cool stuff, but to me it was corny. Until Bob Dylan started doing electric music [in 1965], I had no thoughts of doing that. Then one day I saw Chuck Berry play. The only reason I went to see him play was because it was billed as a blues festival. They had Big Mama Thornton and the Chambers Brothers on that bill. Then here comes Chuck Berry and he just blew everybody away, man. He had Johnny Johnson on piano. He was duck walking and all that s—.
So the very next day I went out and got an electric guitar. I wanted one like his. He had a red Gibson ES-335, but I couldn't afford that. So I went to the store and said, "Give me a red guitar." That was an SG Special. It sounded pretty good for $180. I used it on the two first Doors albums, then it got stolen. I really didn't care at that time, because guitars were not looked upon as collectible or anything like that. So I just got another one. But it sounded pretty damn good on those first two albums.
My partner who's writing this book with me, he's really good at researching. He ran across these total Doors freaks, and they found the manifest list of our equipment when we first went to Europe. Through that, we got the serial number for my missing guitar. We're putting it out right now on social media to try to find that thing.
That's the guitar you used when you auditioned to be in the Doors. Can you take me back to that moment? What was the energy like when you were all in the room together for the first time?
It was pretty cool. I had met Jim a couple weeks before that for the first time. John brought him over to my house, so I played them some bottleneck guitar stuff, and Jim really dug that. Then a couple weeks later, I went down to play with Ray, John and Jim. The first song we did was "Moonlight Drive." I used the slide on it and they just went nuts. And that was it; we knew right then that we were a band. One song. It's crazy.
How do you look back on those early days when you were playing your first gigs at the London Fog on the Sunset Strip? Were they happy times, or did a little bit of anxiety and desperation creep in as you were trying to take the band to the next level?
Some of both. There weren't a whole lot of bands around, luckily for us. It wasn't like today, where you pay to play and all that stuff. We actually made a few bucks just playing at these little clubs around LA. It was fun. It wasn't easy. We didn't say, "Oh, we're going to make it, no problem," but we really thought that we were as good as any other band around. And we knew we had better words than anybody.
And better guitar.
Right! The whole Sunset Strip thing was starting to happen. Going out to these clubs and hanging out was getting to be the cool thing to do. Most people didn't have long hair or beads or anything like that yet. We were still looked upon as weirdos with our long hair, which was cool. Then, about a year later, everybody looked like that. It took the fun out of it.
The part of the book that I was most excited to read concerned your one-on-one working relationship with Jim when you were putting songs like "Strange Days" and "The Crystal Ship" together. He was an untrained musician who couldn't play an instrument. Was it a challenge to wrestle the melodies he sang into chord structures? What was that process like?
You know, it was so natural. It was amazing. I've never had that experience again with anybody. It just seemed like what he envisioned was the same thing I did, musically. Even though he couldn't play an instrument — and he really wasn't much of a singer at that point, either — we came up with this stuff that just worked. Of course, playing it with the other two guys really helped, too. They were more experienced musicians. It was like magic. I've tried it with hundreds of musicians ever since then, and it's never been quite the same.
I know you get asked all the time about the first song you ever wrote, some deep cut called "Light My Fire." But I wanted to be different and ask you about your second attempt at songwriting, "You're Lost Little Girl." It's one of my favorite tracks the Doors ever did.
Wow, not many people say that. It wasn't really written about a special girl or anything. I wrote the music first, and then words came out of that. It's really one of my favorite solos that I do on any of the Doors songs. I remember the night I was overdubbing the solo, I couldn't get it. So [producer] Paul Rothschild said, "Okay, everybody out of the room. Just me and Robby." I think he gave me a little puff of his stuff, and then just one take. That was it. It was perfect. It's short and simple, but it's one of my favorites.
In the book, you address all of the people who read into your lyrics. There was somebody who thought "Light My Fire" is about fire burning in your third eye, and all these other people with various metaphysical theories about the song's meaning. How does that affect you? Do you appreciate all these different interpretations?
Yeah, very much so. Jim told me, "Look, when you're writing, write something that will mean different things to different people. Things that can be interpreted by the listener rather than the writer." That's what I tried to do. The elemental theme of "Light My Fire" came from him, for sure.
The book opens with an anecdote of Jim terrorizing you by prank calling your room in the middle of the night and saying, "This is God speaking! And we're going to throw you right out of this universe!" That's a heavy way to wake up! And a hell of an introduction to Jim. Was it clear early on that you were playing with fire by hanging around with this guy?
Oh yeah. The second time I met him, the day I did the [Doors] audition, this guy comes in while we were rehearsing. Jim grabs him, drags him into the bathroom and starts screaming at him. I'm going, "Jesus Christ, what's going on here?!" I guess the guy had f—ed up a dope deal or something and they didn't get their marijuana or acid, or whatever it was. I hadn't seen that side of Jim yet, so that was weird.
Then, our second rehearsal was going to be at my parents' house, in their garage. We got over there, and we were waiting for Jim to show up. We're waiting and waiting. Of course, he never showed up. He finally calls and says he's in jail in Blythe, California.
Where the hell is that?
Yeah, exactly! It's almost to Arizona. It turned out he and his buddies got into a fight with some bikers at this bar and everybody got thrown in jail. So we had to go bail him out. That was the second rehearsal. It went downhill after that.
Jim's brawls are definitely a recurring theme in your book. One of the most evocative scenes you describe is when he's getting worked over by a couple of Navy guys in a phone booth. His face is smashed against the glass, but he's got a big grin spread across his face — even as he's getting beat up! What do you think motivated him in those moments?
I don't know, I really don't. He really did seem to enjoy that situation. Maybe masochism? He did like to get in a fistfight every once in a while. Although he never won.
There's the part about him flipping quarters into his mouth and swallowing them as a way to impress girls. That's certainly an unusual pickup move! Although I guess it worked, he dated your wife Lynn for a while before you two got together. Was that ever something that was discussed between you and Jim?
Nah, not really. She was there when we first went to New York. There was this place called Ondine's Club, and she was one of the gals who would hang out there. She, of course, took a shining to Jim and so eventually she came out to LA. I hadn't even really met her in New York, although I knew she was there. She was one of the gals or guys that would come back to the dressing room and stuff, just to hang out.
Anyway, she was taken with Jim so she decided to come out to LA. Jim had written to her and said something like, "Oh yeah, come on out. I've got this apartment you can stay in." So she comes out and knocks on the door, and who's there but [Jim's longtime girlfriend] Pam. That was their first encounter in LA. Lynn goes, "Who is she?" Jim says, "Oh, she just lives here." So Lynn leaves in a huff, and Jim runs after her, and then almost gets run down by a car. Crazy stuff.
Anyway, I took a liking to her later, when she was pissed off at Jim. I just started seeing her a little more when she was really down on Jim because of all his crazy s—. And it just worked out. She's still with me.
You had a big anniversary not too long ago, if I'm not mistaken.
That's right. The big 50.
Congratulations! On the topic of strong unions, I got the impression from the book that you four were really tight as a band. I'm sure splitting the songwriting royalties helped, but even something like Jim demanding that his name be removed from a marquee that had "Jim Morrison AND the Doors." It seems like he didn't really have much of an ego about the showbiz stuff.
That's really how he was. It was his idea to split all the money for the publishing and for the songwriting. That's why it says everything was written by "the Doors" on those first three albums. That's how he wanted it. Jim was just so different, man. He didn't care about money, he really didn't. He never bought a house. Most of the time he lived across the street from our studio in a crappy motel. Eventually he finally got a nice car, a Shelby Mustang.
Yeah, right. They're still trying to find that thing.
They'll probably find your lost Gibson in the trunk.
Was there a tipping point when the Doors went from being fun to being something that was primarily stressful and overwhelming?
It was getting that way. Right around the time of the Miami [bust], it was getting out of hand. Miami might have been a good thing, in a way, because at that point we were put on the "no play" list. None of the promoters would hire us, so we couldn't play anywhere. Because of that, we just started recording a lot, which was good. We got a lot of good stuff done. Six albums in four and a half years — no band does that today.
Your productivity is absolutely insane by 2021 standards.
I think it's mainly because bands are making so much money playing live that the recording suffers. The Beatles did what we did. They couldn't play anywhere. It was just too crazy, so they started [only] recording. They got a great body of work done in a short time.
Did you ever consider being just a studio band, like the Beatles [after they quit touring] in 1966? No matter what you did, crowds were ready to riot. Especially in the Miami era, it seemed like there was this expectation of chaos whenever you played. That must have been burdensome. Were you ever tempted to abandon that part of your career altogether and just focus on recording?
Not really. In reality, that's really what Jim lived for. He loved to be on stage and play. The rest of us too. Well, maybe not so much John. I don't know if John ever thought about [retiring from the road]. I never did.
I spoke to [Doors manager] Bill Siddons recently, and he believes that when Jim left for Paris [in the spring of 1971], he was effectively resigning from the Doors; he was done with rock 'n' roll and intended to start a new life abroad as a poet with Pam. Did you get that sense at the time?
Jim would talk like that, but I knew different. When he went to Paris, supposedly to get away from everything, all he did was jump up onstage with these flipping house bands, get drunk and sing. He couldn't stop himself from doing that. That's why I know he's dead. Because if he was alive, he'd be up on stage somewhere.
When was the last time you saw him?
It was in the Doors' workshop [studio]. We were finishing LA Woman. He had brought each of us a copy of his [self-published] poetry book. The next day he was leaving for Paris. We said, "But we haven't even mixed the album yet!" And he said, "Oh, I trust you guys." I think he wanted to get over to Paris where Pam was. He was really excited about going over there and trying to write poetry and all that.
It's nice to hear that he was enthusiastic and hopeful. There are so many stories put around later that he was depressed and in a black mood when he left. Sounds like he was optimistic.
Yeah, I think so. The only problem was he had this horrible cough and he wasn't feeling too well. We were hoping that maybe a different city and all that might help, but I think that might have contributed to his demise.
You mentioned that in the book that you shared a doctor with Jim, and this doctor spoke in vague terms about a serious health problem Jim was dealing with. He mentioned it as if this was common knowledge among the band, but clearly it wasn't. Do you remember any specifics about what he said?
I wasn't there. That was my wife he was talking to. She just can't remember. It wasn't anything special that he said, it was just the way he said it.
There are so many theories and myths about Jim's death that it overshadows what you, John and Ray went through. All three of you dealt with this loss in your own way. In the book you're very frank about your subsequent heroin addiction stemming from an attempt to dull the pain of grief. I can only imagine how tough that process must have been. What brought you out of that period?
Yeah, well I just kept playing music. Just kept doing it. That's all you can do. I didn't know anything else. It just took time. It's still tough because I'm reminded of it every day. It's hard to let it go.
These days you're making music with your son, Waylon. That has to be a really cool bond for you both.
It's been great. We've been doing that for the last six or eight years. He played in my Robby Krieger Band, but now he's the frontman. He's really great. It's amazing. I think maybe some of Jim's soul might have jumped into him.
You're a lucky man for several reasons. You recently overcame a life-threatening health scare, with you outlined at the end of your book. You beat stage four melanoma through a course of immunotherapy. It's a relatively new treatment but, in your case, it was wildly successful and you're now cancer-free. I wanted to ask you more about immunotherapy, because I think it could offer hope to a lot of people. Basically, it sounds like it's the anti-chemo.
Yeah, it is. It's exactly the opposite of chemo. Eventually they will get it to work on all different kinds of cancer. I was just lucky because it worked really well on the type of melanoma that I had. They keep testing it on different stuff, and eventually I think that will replace chemo.
I think it's so important to get the word out there about this treatment, so that people facing a cancer diagnosis can look into it for themselves and see if it's an option for them.
Yeah, I didn't know about it. I was just lucky. I was ready to go in for surgery. They opened me up once and looked in there, and they were going to take two-thirds of my lung out, but they said it looked pretty good in there — just this one tumor. So they sewed me back up. When I woke up, I was thinking I was going to be minus a lung, but no. I said, "S—, it still feels like it's in there." So the doctor says, "Yeah, it looks pretty good in there, so we're going to make sure that it's melanoma, and if it is, then we're going to do another operation and chemo."
I was getting ready to do that when I was talking to my gardener. It turns out one of his clients was doing this immunotherapy, which is not unheard of at the time, but my doctor never mentioned it. I called him and said, "What about this immunotherapy thing?" He said, "Oh yeah. Well, we could try that." It if wasn't for my gardener I'd be on the chemo trail. Unbelievable.
Keep that guy, no matter how many plants he kills.
Exactly. He's a terrible gardener. [laughs] But I think he saved my life.
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