When the Doors formed in 1965, there was no predicting their outsized impact. Their six year-run would push the boundaries of rock and roll, created public hysteria (including a string of riots at their live shows), and changed the face of American music forever. Central to its legend, alongside the iconic frontman Jim Morrison, is the guitarist Robby Krieger. One of the last surviving members of the band, Krieger joined its ranks shortly after its founding and offered a unique musical voice thanks to his love of folk and flamenco, writing early hits including “Light My Fire.”
While much has been said in the 50 years since Morrison’s death, Krieger, now 75, is telling his definitive version of events for the first time in the new book Set the Night on Fire: Living, Dying, and Playing Guitar With the Doors. It recounts Krieger’s tumultuous life, from the band’s earliest days and artistry to working alongside Morisson, his harrowing adventures and ultimate recovery from the perils of drugs. “My friend Billy Wolf once told me, ‘Man, I’ve never known anybody who has had as many highs and as many lows as you,’” he recalls. “At the time you don’t really think about it that way. But he was probably right.
ESQUIRE: What’s it like for you looking back at your life? Does it feel like everything actually happened, especially all of these years later?
Robby Krieger: You know, I don’t know. I might have been an engineer or something boring like that. And who knows, maybe my life would have been better? But I doubt it.
One thing that I think is lost as the years go on is that one generation of music is intricately connected to another generation of music. When I think of The Doors, I don’t think of someone like Chuck Berry. It seems like they both reside on different planets. But in reality, you were deeply inspired and enamored by him.
Well, I always liked his records. He was different than the other blues guys, mainly because his parents were English teachers. So he grew up with a much better vocabulary than most blues guys and that kind of gave him a different perspective. But I was really not into rock and roll at the time. I was into folk music, Chicago blues, and Flamenco. So I kind of turned my nose up at rock and roll at first, whether the early Beatles or the Beach Boys. I never even imagined myself playing rock and roll. But then one day, this friend of mine got some really good pot called Acapulco Gold and said “Let’s go see this Blues festival at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.” I said, really? Great, who’s playing?” It was Big Momma Thornton and The Chambers Brothers who at that time were not rock and roll at all, they were totally blues. Chuck Berry was also on the bill. I said, “Okay, alright, I want to go to that.” I wasn’t really expecting much from Chuck Berry, but when he hit the stage man, it was so cool. He had his band with (pianist) Johnnie Johnson and guys he’d tour with at the time. He just blew me away; duck-walking everywhere. The sound he got from his guitar was unbelievable. The very next day I went out and bought an electric guitar.
Reading the book and hearing about the many controversies that the Doors waded into it, and all of the pearl clutching from critics when you were at your peak, it seems that that time in American culture and what the Doors offered, could never be replicated again because culture has moved on so much. You were exploring fertile territory.
Yeah, we were really lucky to come out when we did. It was just an amazing time. We were at the right place at the right time.
Did it feel like that at the time, that you were breaking boundaries and creating something brand new?
Um, it definitely felt like we were doing something different. We didn’t know if it would catch on or not. We thought we were as good as any band out there and we had the confidence. But, we also knew we were a little weird and we weren’t sure we would catch on. Luckily I had written a little more accessible songs than Jim (would write). I think that helped (let people) check out the deeper meanings of Jim’s stuff.
Ray Manzarek, Jim Morrison, John Densmore and Robby Krieger of The Doors, in London for “Top of the Pops,” 1968.
What do you think it was about the Doors that made such an impact at the time, and is still making an impact? There aren’t that many bands from your era who can still capture the public’s attention.
That’s a good question. I think it’s definitely the songs; the quality of them and the number of them. We had a lot of deep tracks, but no throwaways. We were pretty picky about what we had put on an album. A lot of groups in those days would have one or two good songs on an album. We, in my opinion, would have a lot more. In the long run, that’s really what makes people remember you. We weren’t just teenage guys who were playing rock and roll. Ray (Manzarek) was actually 28 years-old when we started; he was in the Chicago (blues) scene and was brought up playing classical, which was quite a combination. Then our drummer John Densmore was in a jazz band at school; he never played rock very much. And then you have me with the Flamenco and folk influences. We were just all different compared to everybody else. And then it didn’t hurt to have a guy that wrote lyrics like, and looked like, Jim Morrison. The Doors movie (directed by Oliver Stone) concentrated on him, mainly, which was fine. But without the three of us, he probably would have never even played rock and roll. He was incredibly musical considering he had never taken lessons or even been in a band. Ray’s brothers had a band before the Doors and they’d play in bars around Hermosa Beach because we all went to UCLA. Jim would love to get drunk and sing on a couple of blues songs, and that was the extent of his experience. When we first started his voice was pretty bad. The good thing was that the notes he hit were right. He had an incredible sense of the right note. And he never sang out of tune, which is really half the battle when you’re a singer, so he had that going for him. But his voice was kind of weak. Once we started playing every night, he just kept on getting better and better at an unbelievable pace.
During your shows, the people in the audience were obviously captivated by Jim. But I was struck that you wrote in the book that you and the band were also captivated by him. You really never knew what he was going to do and he always kept it interesting on stage. What was it like performing with him as your lead singer, one of the most iconic frontmen in American music history?
We really didn’t know what was going to happen, that was the main thing. That’s what made it kind of cool in a way, but kind of nerve-wracking in another way. It depended what kind of drugs he had taken that day or if he drank too much. We just never knew who was going to show up. When he was good there was nobody better. He had a way of connecting with the audience that I still, to this day, I haven’t seen. There are a lot of great singers out there like Mick Jagger, but you could tell Jim just wasn’t doing a show. The English guys, they all had to try to sing with an American or Black accent. For Jim, he didn’t have that problem. And you could tell it was all coming from his heart and it was what was really happening that particular night. I think people realized that.
Krieger performs at the Good Hurt nightclub in Los Angeles in September 2011.
To your point, I think some lead singers, especially in rock, have this fake persona. They’re trying to be cool, but it’s not really them. What struck me about Jim is that he was effortlessly cool. The choices he made were not to impress anyone, they were all just things that suited him at the time.
Right. You’re exactly right. And sometimes it did not work out for the best. But a lot of times it would. I didn’t realize at the time how cool it was on those good nights. I thought all bands came together like this. But after playing in so many different situations after the Doors, I realized that experience was different.
What strikes me in the book is that the aspects that made Jim Morrison so great were also some of the most difficult aspects of him as a person. He was a very complicated man with a lot of demons, and as a result the band was always on edge. There’s one story where Jim is driving your car speeding down the highway and he jerks the wheel for absolutely no reason. You write, “It was such a small moment, but it perfectly encapsulated what it was like to know Jim Morrison. You’d be cruising along with him and everything would be alright and then suddenly without warning or explanation he’d swerve. You’d survive and things would be fine, but your heart would be pounding from the shock and you’d never fully relax again because no matter how much reassurance he’d offer, you knew the next swerve could happen at any moment.” That sounds incredibly stressful.
Yep, in a way it was. And if it had been anybody else but Jim Morrison, I would have not put up with that shit. But because of how great his lyrics were, we just knew that nobody else was going to compare. So we stuck with him.
What also struck me was the camaraderie between the band. You and your bandmates really stuck together. In the early days there were never big fights or disagreements. The biggest source of tension in groups is typically when a love interest gets involved, and Jim even made the moves on your wife Lynn. But you never held it against him.
Like I said, if it were anybody else, it would have been a problem. And she thought the same thing. He pulled me in the same way he pulled all of these girls in. It was just amazing.
The other thing about Jimmy is that this was a man who seemed to have a death wish. For example, you talk about in the book that he would regularly hang out of windows to freak everybody out. Explain what he’d do, because I can’t even picture it.
Well, I’ve seen him do it to impress girls. What he’d do is jump out the window and grab the ledge. He was really coordinated, he was on the diving team. He had great balance, at least (in his younger years). He’d do that stuff and not even think twice about it. The first couple times it happened, it was where John and I lived in Laurel Canyon. It was a little unnerving but we knew he was just fooling around. But when he did it at the Henry Hudson Hotel in New York which is like 15 stories up and he was totally drunk, that was nerve-wracking. It was me, Ray, John and Jim, and there he went. He was definitely high as a kite. Another time, I don’t know if you ever saw the movie he was in called HWY, but there was a part where he was walking on the ledge on the top of the 9000 Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood (the tallest building Sunset) and that was scary. That was 16 stories up and he was definitely drunk on a one or two foot ledge that went around the building. These idiots who were making the movie with him were like, “Yeah, go ahead!” They got the shot, but that could have turned out bad. One night he fell out the window at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood and was pretty sore for a couple weeks after that. If he wasn’t drunk he could do this shit in his sleep. But, usually he was drunk when he did it.
Krieger and Morrison circa 1967.
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At the same time, Jim had this big heart. He would do things that were absolutely insane and then would apologize and be very sweet, and then the cycle would continue again. This was a man who did care about you guys. I think that aspect of his personality is forgotten today.
Yeah, for sure. He was… I guess they would call it schizophrenic today. Or at least manic. One day he could be the nicest guy in the world with this southern kinda charm. My parents loved him for example, but they never got to see the other side very much. He definitely had those two sides. Nobody could balance it when he was on that crazy side.
One moment that was poignant is that you wrote that when you heard Jim died, you said there was almost a sense of relief that came over you. If I heard that without context, I’d be confused but understanding how erratic Jim could be, it makes sense. Can you take me through that moment when you found out?
Yeah, I really felt guilty about feeling that way. But it kind of was a relief. He was so obsessed with death and the other side, and I really believe he wanted to experience it. I can’t imagine doing that myself, but I don’t know. I just wonder if he had some medical condition where maybe he knew he wasn’t going to last for long. So he just wanted to cram everything he could get into life. That’s just a theory.
Speaking of, you write that you vaguely remember a Doctor that Jim frequented mentioned at one point that Jim had something wrong with him, but it’s lost in the ether as to what that was.
Yeah, I didn’t pursue it because I didn’t want to know. But I definitely remember that conversation. He was a Doctor we all went to. I don’t know why he would say what he said out of the blue.
In later years, did you ever try to clarify what he said or track him down?
Well, no I didn’t. He kind of disappeared from the scene even before Jim passed away. He went to New York and his name was Dr. Arnold Derwin. Maybe you can find out. (Editor’s note: In the 1991 book Break on Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison, Dr. Derwin was quoted as saying, “Jim was in excellent health before he went (on his eventually fatal) trip to Paris.”)
Your scene and the people in your circle at the time in the 60s and early 70s were experiencing so much cultural success, fame and fortune. But that, of course, is juxtaposed with the countless tragedies of the time as well, from the death of Jimi Hendrix in September 1970, Janis Joplin dying the next month and Jim the following year, to name a few. Just one of those facets of life hitting you would be a lot to deal with. What was it like to deal with all of these very intense things during a compressed time period?
Not only all of that, but around that time I was in a car accident where my friend Donna ended up in a wheelchair. My friend Billy Wolf who is in the book once told me, “Man, I’ve never known anybody who has had as many highs and as many lows as you.” At the time you don’t really think about it that way. But he was probably right.
Robby Krieger Set the Night on Fire
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I think what also probably helped is that you had this foundation of meditation and you were a very zen person. Without that, I’m sure things would have been different. Throughout the chaos you stayed grounded.
(Before I got into heavy drugs), I only smoked pot once in a while. And the other two guys were very similar. We were a balancing act for Jim. Who ever heard of three guys in a band like that who didn’t drink much? I think it was to balance Jim.
Speaking of, as someone who went to jail twice for pot, what’s it like for you to see it become an acceptable part of mainstream culture?
In a way it’s cool, but I think the business and the science of it has gotten out of control. The shit they have now that kids can buy is just fucking way too strong. I think it’s dangerous to have people driving around on it. The stuff back then was so much milder. Of course I guess you eventually get used to it and you can handle it, but I think it’s going to turn out bad for people in the long run if they keep on smoking this shit.
Do you still smoke pot today?
I do, but not a lot. I really like growing it more than smoking it. I’m part of a company called Cali Life and they’re going to feature my brand pretty soon. It’s really fun to grow, the stuff I grow is Stetiva. I think it’s better for listening to music and playing music.
When it comes to harder drugs, at first you merely dabbled and set personal restrictions to only use it occasionally, then incrementally you began using every day and became a full blown addict. Then when you finally got clean, which you said was the hardest experience of your life and you were never going to use again, you used again.
Yeah, well I was just thinking the other day why so many musicians get hooked on hard drugs? What I think it is is that when you’re a musician or even an actor or someone who is performing in front of people, you have to appear as if you’re really having fun and everything’s cool. And sometimes you’re not feeling that great or maybe you don’t even want to be there. But when you’re on drugs, that no longer becomes a problem. It’s really a control thing: you’re controlling how you feel and you know that whenever you take that drug you’re going to feel great and everyone who’s watching you will think it’s great. It’s a crutch. Once you’ve done that, to not do it is really tough.
You’re a part of an American music legend and there’s not many people who can say that. And with that word ‘legend’ means that people who had no part in what you and your three bandmates experienced have their own opinions, own stories, and views. But you were right in the middle of it. What’s it like for you when people take bits and pieces of your story and the public perception changes, and eventually that perception becomes our reality and the truth becomes embellished and stretched. Even down to the fact that people think that Jim Morrison is alive somewhere.
When the book No One Here Gets Out Alive by Danny Sugarman came out, there was so much exaggeration and so many lies. And then the Oliver Stone movie comes out and that’s even worse. After seeing and reading those things, it’s almost as if it becomes reality for me too, even. I get mixed up thinking if something actually happened or not. It’s essentially propaganda. When they feed it to you long enough you’re going to believe it. But that’s why I wrote this book, to tell the real side of what happened. Maybe it’s not as exciting as it was in the movie, but I want people to know the real reasons- which in my mind are even farther out than those books. I mean, to me the real truth is always more interesting than fiction.
Rob LeDonne is a Brooklyn-based humor and culture writer who has written for Billboard, GQ, Rolling Stone, and TIME Magazine.