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The High Times Interview: Robby Krieger

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When you consider rock’n’roll’s greatest legends—the most iconic and influential of groups—there are only a handful that come in at the top of the list: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin … and of course, the Doors. Transcendent and timeless, passionate and poetic — the acid-fueled music and mystique of guitarist Robby Krieger, keyboardist Ray Manzarek, drummer John Densmore and singer Jim Morrison epitomized the hedonism and rebellion of the late ’60s and forever transformed American consciousness and culture.  

Krieger was only 19 years old when he wrote his first song with the band: “Light My Fire.” Little did he realize that it would go on to become not only their first No. 1 hit, but the most popular Doors song — and one of the greatest rock songs — of all time. The song’s popularity led to the band’s infamous 1967 live appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, where they defied the producer’s demand that they change the lyric “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher” due to its drug connotation. Backstage after the performance, the furious producer threatened, “You’ll never do the Sullivan show again!” To which Morrison giddily replied: “We just did the Sullivan show.”

The Doors may have ended with the death of their charismatic frontman in 1971, but their legacy lives on. For over a decade now, Krieger and Manzarek have been touring—under various monikers and with various singers—bringing their incredible music to a whole new generation. This year, the band released a new documentary, When You’re Strange, narrated by Johnny Depp and featuring never-before-seen footage of Morrison, originally shot for his film project HWY. The film was nominated for Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize, won the 24 Beats Per Second Award at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival, and is in the running for our 2010 Stony Award for Best Documentary.

Now, for the first time ever, Robby Krieger talks to High Times about music, Morrison and, of course, marijuana.

Do you remember the first time you smoked pot?

Oh, yeah. I was probably 15 or so, and I was at boarding school up in Menlo Park. We had a couple of guys from New York there, and one of them was telling us about this stuff called “boo.” That’s what they called it—boo. He said, “Man, you gotta try this stuff—it’s really great.” So we got a weekend pass and went over to his brother’s place and started smoking this stuff. I had no idea it was even marijuana. All of a sudden, I imagined that I was a king and everybody else were my subjects. I started cracking up, and couldn’t stop laughing for about half an hour.

You got arrested for pot at a young age, didn’t you?

The first time I got busted for pot, I was 18. We went to this dealer’s house, and there were some guys over there that were buying pot who ended up being undercover cops. We were all really high because, besides the pot—which was pretty good—we were taking Romilar, which was a cough syrup that got you really messed up [laughs]. So the cops came in—there were like 10 of them, with guns out—and they weren’t dressed like cops; they looked like Mexicans to me. We didn’t know—we thought they were robbing the place, so we were trying to fight them. It was crazy … we just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and we all got popped.

How did weed affect your songwriting? Do you feel it inhibited it or enhanced it?

I think it enhanced it. If I never smoked pot, who knows what my songwriting would have been. Honestly, I think acid definitely had a bigger effect on my songwriting—for me and for Jim. I actually took most of my acid before the Doors; Jim was just getting into it at the time. Jim took lots of acid … we all did, but he did a pretty legendary amount.

Of all the songs you’ve written over the years, what would you say is your personal favorite, and why?

Well, I’d have to say “Light My Fire,” because it was the first one I wrote for the Doors. I didn’t know much about music at the time, so I just thought, “I want to make this a good song, so I’ll use every chord I know.” When you listen to “Light My Fire,” it sounds pretty simple, but in actuality there are a lot of chord changes in it. I forget how many … I think there’s something like 17. Just the intro alone has like five changes. Most rock’n’roll songs have only three or four chord changes.

And it turned out to be the band’s biggest hit. Were you stoned when you wrote it?

Honestly, I don’t remember. It took me three or four days to write it, so I’m sure at some point I might’ve been, but I don’t really attribute it to being on pot. But when I wrote it, I did think of the fact that people were going to say “light my fire” could mean lighting up a joint, or it could mean “You turn me on.”

So the double entendre was on purpose?

Yeah. Jim always talked about trying to write lyrics that would mean different things to different people. People would ask me, “What does ‘Light My Fire’ mean?” And I’ve heard many different interpretations, but I thought the best one was this guy who said,  “I know what ‘Light My Fire’ means—it’s the fire in your third eye that always burns.”

Were you glad or upset when Jim went ahead and sang the original lyric on The Ed Sullivan Show?

You know, I really didn’t think about it. It was such an insignificant occurrence. They make a big deal about it, but to me that was just normal Jim. I had no doubt that he was going to sing the normal words—it wasn’t a surprise.

There’s a new Doors documentary that came out this year called When You’re Strange … whose idea was it to do this film?

Well, after our manager Danny Sugarman passed away in 2005, his friend Jeff Jampol took over. We were going through all of these tapes in the vault, and we noticed there was a lot of footage we hadn’t looked at in years and never used. We wondered whether there was a possibility of doing a feature-length documentary, because we’d never had that before—and it turned out there was enough.

It wasn’t just live-performance footage — there was also some never-before-seen film of Jim Morrison on the highway. Who shot that?

That was shot by Jim and his college buddies. They were doing an experimental film [HWY]; this is before Jim died, obviously. They never finished it, but they did shoot 40 or 50 minutes’ worth of footage. And they did it right—they did it with 35mm film, which is what you shoot a real movie in. That’s why it looks like it could have been shot yesterday. In fact, a lot of people think that it isn’t really Jim. They say, “Oh, they got an actor to play Jim …. ” But it’s really Jim, and it really does look good. So our director, Tom DiCillo, had this idea of how to integrate it into the film, which works out pretty cool—he has Jim in the car listening to the radio, and he hears about his own death.

I know you guys were unhappy with the way the Oliver Stone movie portrayed the band … was this film kind of a response to that? To show people how it really was?

Well, that’s not the reason we did it, but it’s kind of a good companion piece. I have no problem with that film, really—it was Ray that was bad-mouthing Oliver’s film. You know, for a Hollywood movie, I think it was a great rock’n’roll movie. As far as telling the real story of the Doors—that’s another question.

Would you say it was just a little over-romanticized, or was it grossly inaccurate?

Well, it wasn’t grossly inaccurate, but it only told one side of the story — the crazy kind of stuff that, obviously, you’re going to put in a Hollywood movie. I think our film gives people a much better idea of what Jim was really like on a day-to-day basis.

What would you say is the biggest misconception people may have about Jim Morrison?

Mainly that he was just constantly drunk and a total idiot, lighting fire to his girlfriend’s closet when she was in it … none of that ever happened. But, you know, it’s hard to explain what he was really like, because I never met anybody like him. He was a genius in one way, and a crazy asshole in another way. He was definitely bipolar, but in those days nobody knew what that meant.

The drugs probably aggravated that as well.

Yeah. Definitely.

You must’ve gotten high with lots of other famous musicians over the years … care to toke and tell?

[Laughs] No, but I’ll tell you something about Jimi Hendrix. When we were on our way to the Isle of Wight Festival, Jimi and I were sitting next to each other on the plane, and all he kept saying was, “Here’s my phone number—when you get to London, if you score first, you call me; if I score first, I’ll call you.” And he kept saying that over and over.

So … who scored first?

I’m sure he did … he never called.

I imagine you’ve had some pretty wild trips as well. Is there any particular one that stands out?

Probably the strongest, most crazy one was in Santa Barbara when I was going to college. We had a guy up there who could get Sandoz acid—you know, the real stuff. There was definitely a difference in that stuff than the rest of it. That was a great place to take it, too—up on the beach in Santa Barbara … just a great nature experience. That night, we went out to see some music, and it was just a real good time.

Nothing over the top?

[Laughs] Nothing I can tell you about.

Oh, come on ….

Well, with the Doors, a lot of times we’d go onstage and Jim would slip me something. I think the craziest one was when we were playing this place in Phoenix. It was one of our first out-of-town gigs, and this place was totally the weirdest club I’ve ever seen. It was this huge building—probably the size of a football field almost — but it had a really low ceiling, like an eight-foot ceiling. So it gave you a real weird perspective — and that’s without acid. And there was this guy who worked there—they called him “Elvis” because he did Elvis impersonations — but he was totally touched, if you know what I mean. He wasn’t an imbecile or anything — maybe he had Down syndrome or something — but he was a very weird guy. So Jim gave me this acid and … well, it was really a weird gig, that’s all I can tell you.

In your bio, it says that your first psychedelic experience was on morning-glory seeds, and that it was “the defining point in your life.” How so?

Well, it just made me realize that I’d had one view of the world up until then, and that it was wrong. I mean, not that it was wrong, but it was one out of thousands of ways of looking at the world. You grow up, and you’re in this little box—you see everything from your perspective. Whereas psychedelics, if you do them right, will bring you out of that box.

What about peyote?

I only did it once, in the high country of New Mexico. I felt like Carlos Castaneda.

After the lawsuit with John Densmore a few years back, you and Ray switched from the Doors of the 21st Century to Riders on the Storm. Now you’re just calling yourselves Manzarek-Krieger. Why another name change?

We just felt that Riders on the Storm sounded too much like a tribute band. This way, at least we get to use “the Doors” in a sentence, which is what we probably should’ve done in the first place and avoided that whole lawsuit.

Are you and John Densmore still friends?

Well  … we’re not friendly [laughs], but I’m sure we’re still friends.

Do you think it’s still possible that he’ll ever play with you guys again?

Oh, he will at some point. It’s just that he’s kind of painted himself into a corner at this point—he’s said stuff like, “I’ll never play with them unless Eddie Vedder plays with us.” Or he would accept Bono.

And you guys didn’t want to play with Vedder?

Sure we would, but why would Eddie Vedder play with us? He has his own band. I mean, he might play one gig with us, but ….

I guess he sees something in Eddie that reminds him of Jim?

No, it’s his way of saying he doesn’t want to play. He knows it ain’t gonna happen.

Is it true that you’re writing an autobiography?

Yep. It’s about  three-quarters of the way done. At first I didn’t want to write one, because John wrote one and put Ray down, then Ray wrote one and put John down … that was really the reason for the lawsuit, I think. It’s stupid to write bad stuff about people, but sometimes you can’t help it. So my plan was to wait until everybody died [laughs] … but that ain’t gonna happen. So I’m writing it and trying not to put anyone down.

You recently put out a new solo album. Can you tell us about it?

It’s called Singularity. It’s an instrumental record—flamenco guitar. I haven’t recorded any flamenco since “Spanish Caravan” back in the Doors days. This record started out about 15 years ago. When Miles Davis died, my friend Arthur Barrow and I — Arthur was with Frank Zappa — wanted to do this tribute to him, kind of like Sketches of Spain. I was going to be Miles Davis, and Arthur was going to be Gil Evans. It starts off with flamenco and goes into this orchestral part that Arthur arranged. We got to the point of getting it on MIDI, getting it on a click track, and we kind of forgot about it. Then, a couple of years ago, we just happened to listen to it again and were like, “Shit, man, we gotta finish this!”

So is it all Miles Davis or originals?

All originals. It’s just a tribute to Miles Davis.

When you listen to music for pleasure, what do you mostly listen to?

I listen to all kinds of music. I like jazz, obviously, any kind of guitar music, ’50s and ’60s rock … anything that’s good. I even like some hip-hop.

Hip-hop? That’s surprising. What hip-hop do you listen to?

I was just listening to the Wu-Tang Clan the other day. I really like them.

Do you still smoke weed?

I’m known to, yeah. In fact, I’m growing a couple of plants right now.

Really? Where?

Yeah. They started out in a pot, but I transplanted them over by the tomato bushes.

What strain?

It’s Purple … something. A friend of mine is a grower, and he gave me some clones.

Purple Haze? Purple Urkel?

Purple something — I don’t know. My buddy is a doctor at the local pot dispensary in Venice, right on the beach. It’s really cool. I went over there to sign up, and he got me this stuff called Kushinator [laughs].

So you have a medical-marijuana card?

Yeah.

As a lifelong resident of California, how do you feel about the current medical-marijuana law and the dispensary system?

Well, it’s better than nothing. In fact, I’m kind of amazed that it’s gotten this far.

Do you know about the ballot initiative—to decriminalize for recreational use?

Yeah, I did hear about that. You think it’ll pass?

Seems like it. We just had our first-ever US Cannabis Cup—like the one we usually do in Amsterdam every year—in San Francisco, and it was a huge success.

Wow. I know the one in Amsterdam—I was over there a few years ago, and I got some of the winner.

Finally, for the record: Who was the biggest pothead in the band?

[Laughs] Ah … that’s a good question. In those days, Jim was definitely the leader. We all did pretty well, though.

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