Michael McClure’s Collaborations with Ray Manzarek and Terry Riley
by Roxanne Power Hamilton
I don’t go to church, but when I heard that Michael McClure would perform with Ray Manzarek at San Francisco’s Noe Valley Ministries in January 2006, I knew I might be in for a religious experience. Not long before he died, Allen Ginsberg gave a spiritual gloss to the collaboration between the notorious beat poet and the Doors’ keyboardist, calling it a “ripening of good karma.” Part of that “karma” is the apparent inheritance of the Beat legacy by key musicians of the 60s such as Bob Dylan and the Doors. Ray Manzarek put it quite succinctly, “If Kerouac hadn’t written On the Road, the Doors would not exist…We wanted to be beatniks. We wanted to be ‘poetry and jazz'” (The Third Mind, 1999.) In 1968, Jim Morrison introduced Manzarek and McClure during the third recording session of the Doors. Almost forty years later, they are still bringing the word to a congregation hungry for that potent mixture of beat poetry and music.
In recognition of their roots, they launch into “For Jim Morrison.” Manzarek plays the familiar cascading piano lines of “Riders on the Storm” behind McClure’s transcendent lyrics. McClure’s overdub is unlike the original song; rather than holding its listeners spellbound in a delicious fear, this piece rides forward on that eerie beat toward something more like illumination. With the same calm, deep resonance he brings to each poem, McClure speaks his words while listening and responding to Manzarek’s subtle piano work: “O Potency. To be my self-soiled soul spirit again and nothing more. I am my abstract alchemist of flesh made real and nothing more, no less than star…O Muse! O Me!” This Whitmanesque paean to his own creative presence is a far cry from the apocalyptic lyrics we expect, “if you give this man a ride, sweet memory will die.”
Viz. is publishing two gutsy blues lyrics that McClure and Manzarek played in the concert and which will appear on their next CD, In the Rippling of an Aeon. This performance of “Black Wine” was the most moving tune of the evening because of its indebtedness to Chicago blues. It’s no coincidence that one of their best pieces is called “For Willie Dixon.” to get a sense of how primal their blues can get, listen to “High Heelz” and “Spank Me with a Rose” on their last CD, There’s A Word. These are simple down and dirty lyrics with a solid thrumming backbeat: “I’m headed for jail, just headed for jail…See the little sparrow with her eyes on the hawk. Everything around is just more talk. don’t use a knife to pound in a nail. Spank me with a rose. I’m headed for jail.” Throughout the evening, roses unfurled in McClure’s poetry until they took on mystical connotations not unlike the reappearing angels in the poetry and paintings of Blake.
The Romantic influence is particularly felt in the “Music Haikus” that they have been developing for years. Manzarek’s accompaniment is, by turns, complementary or contrapuntal to McClure’s words, depending upon the piece. As McClure reads, “What soft brown eyes the dog has/ as she shits/ on the deer’s hoof prints,” the piano and flute accompaniment actually manage, delightfully, to suggest this event for us. The same is true of the haiku, “The yellow leaf spins/through the silver downpour/smacks my windshield.” McClure’s imagery is, of course, enough to carry the poem, but Manzarek’s piano-work recreates a twirling leaf and allows us to hear the image. Each of the artists is very sensitive to the autonomy of the other’s art. It’s a pleasure to see McClure walk over to Manzarek’s piano, microphone in hand, and gaze down upon his partner’s graceful hands, quietly attentive to the uniqueness of the event as it’s happening. In other moments, Manzarek’s head — usually bent down over his keyboard — tilts up, and he follows the poet’s words, head nodding in time, fingers following the linguistic dance.
“The Beat” is apparently McClure’s signature piece, since he plays it with Manzarek and also with Terry Riley on their CD, I Like Your Eyes, Liberty. In the version he plays with Manzarek, the piano sounds like a dancer strutting playfully behind the poet, trying out its footsteps. The poetic line and the musical line could each stand alone: two kids playing in the playground glad for each other’s presence but absorbed in their own play. Merce Cunningham and John Cage liked to take the stage together, but the dancer did not dance to the music; the musician did not play for the dancer. They occupied the same space in time. Though Manzarek and McClure do integrate their work more conscientiously, each artistic expression is valid unto itself, creating a third space through simultaneity. That is why Manzarek’s keyboard licks with the Doors were so compelling; he wasn’t supplementing Morrison so much as creating a self-sufficient and memorable sound with him, rather than behind him.
With McClure’s collaboration with Terry Riley, on the other hand, you experience the keyboard as being solely responsive to the words. Similar to the experience of hearing a film soundtrack, the symbiosis between narrative and music in these places feels like fully integrated compositions. In “The Beat,” Riley’s piano notes spiral up and down; long, rapid scales invoking the journey from birth to death and back, as McClure’s lyrics imply. “Beat. The beat moves on. Right in the life after life before birth can flash. Lightning and turquoise. Dream collapses into the river. While the current flows, the boat sets off. Long regret, this body, no possession of mine…” Riley’s jazzy backdrop contrasts Manzarek’s slow, bluesy boogie woogie. This feels more like a spiraling journey: sparkling, chromosomal glimpses into the beginning of life; piano notes shimmying up and down DNA strands. There is a simpatico here between McClure’s cosmic visions and Riley’s expansive reach across the keyboard’s upper and lower registers, reminding us of the Ptolemaic claim about the relationship between musical notes and interplanetary space. If you plucked strings between Venus, Earth, and mars, you might end up with a beautiful chord, as you do here.
In I Like Your Eyes Liberty, the words are from McClure’s Plum Stones: Cartoons of No Heaven (O Books, 2002), and Ghost Tantras (San Francisco, 1964). The sentient and ethereal intermingle in this recording, especially in the long track, “Each Side.” A musicalized short epic, McClure’s story feels bardic and episodic because of the way the musical interludes set up a chain of interlinking narratives. Almost every piece references a Buddhist concept related to conditions such as impermanence, suffering, emptiness, and kindness. “Before meat conceived of its hunger, I was inside the stream listening to myself out there…Let me work with these monster dragons. I will seek clearly and be generous.” As Riley said of the recording, “All the elements were there…opening vast spaces for voice and music to spiral up the Buddha column.”
McClure writes, “And the beat moves on into life after life. I am trying to flash. But the best I can manage is my love for you.” The best we can manage is to listen closely, track after track. This is an inspired collaboration worth our presence of mind.