Death of musical heroes a reminder of our mortality

"Ray Manzarek died," a colleague announced a couple of days ago as I walked past his desk.

I gave him a quizzical look.

"Ray Manzarek," he said. "The keyboardist for the Doors."

Ah. Of course.

Ray Manzarek. The name may not light up the average brain as fast as the name Jim Morrison does, but without Manzarek, a native of Chicago's South Side who co-founded one of the great rock bands of all time, Morrison's name might not be legend either.

When I heard that Manzarek had died, my mind immediately broke into the opening organ riff to "Light My Fire."

I flashed back to the searing June night when I first heard it, on a transistor radio, outside the Phoenix house of a couple of boys slightly older and vastly worldlier. I was still too young to know just what kind of fire was being lit in that song, but I was pretty sure my parents wouldn't want me near it.

I went home that night and softly picked out the notes on the piano, with the sense I was doing something illicit.

And now the guy who had indelibly imprinted those notes into my brain, into millions of brains, was gone.

Another stroke of the musical clock in the countdown of our lives.

At a certain point in life, every time a public figure dies, you feel the pinch of your own mortality. It's not the same as sadness, though you may feel sad.

The pinch is simply the recognition that all of us belong to a cultural moment, and famous people are the most visible representatives of our moment. When those people transit into the next orbit, they take a piece of our times and us with them. Their departure is a forecast of our own voyage out.

Some of the famous people who define an era are politicians. Others are movie stars, sports stars, inventors. A few are writers.

The ones whose deaths pinch me hardest are musicians. I notice and remember their deaths the way some people remember assassinations or explosions.

I know where I was when Ricky Nelson died. (New Year's Eve, 1985, my mother's house, Phoenix.)

When Elvis died. (1977, driving in Claremont, Calif., listening to the radio.)

When George Harrison died. (My birthday, 2001, at home in Chicago.)

John Lennon, Davy Jones, the great John Hartford. I clearly recall the news of each demise.

I wasn't a fan of all of them, but their music suffused the world as I've known it and so their deaths seemed more notable than the passing of any movie star.

You see a movie once. But that "Light My Fire" riff? Along with everyone in my generation, I must have listened to it 2.3 million times.

Musicians make the sounds we come of age with, dance to, fall in love to, weep with. Their notes and rhythms and words lull us to sleep; rev us up while we're cleaning house; keep us company across lonely highways; keep us calm in expressway gridlock; remind us, when we're older, what it felt like to be 15 or 26.

The songs you encounter when you're young, like the friends you make, leave an especially deep imprint. Their rhythms shape your rhythms. Their ideas infuse your own.

So when musicians go, even if the songs stay, it's like losing a companion.

Manzarek was 74 when he died Monday, of bile duct cancer, nearly 42 years after Jim Morrison's premature passing. He wasn't old, though he was older than many of the people who grew up listening to his music, and old enough that his death reminds us that a generation of rock pioneers is beginning to peel off.

"They're like our older brothers and sisters," notes a friend, thinking of the musicians who gave us the songs we grew up with.

Mick Jagger. Bob Dylan. Paul Simon. Joni Mitchell. Carole King. Paul McCartney. Most of the greats of that era are still here, many still making music.

Manzarek's passing is a reason to take a moment and appreciate that.

In his honor, I sat down at the piano to see if I still had the "Light My Fire" riff in my fingers. I did.

mschmich@tribune.com

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