Michael C Ford Still Breaking On Through to the Other Side

By Jeb Wright
Photo by Jill Jarrett

When The Doors first formed, Michael C Ford was considered for the bass player position in the band, however, it was decided that keyboardist Ray Manzarek would play the bass on his keyboard instead, giving the Doors their unique sound. Michael went on to become a Pulitzer Prize, Grammy nominated poet while all along remaining close friends and collaborator with the band as they rose to international stardom. This album marks a reunion and the last recording for the last three Doors members, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore, backing up Michael C Ford as he recites his poetry.


Jeb: First off, I love the title Look Each Other in the Ears.  How did you come up with that? 

Michael: I didn't really come up with the title for this project. It was a line from another one of my narrative pieces named 21st-Century Goodnight. When I was writing the record, I cannibalized the line, inserting it into the middle of what was to be titled Waterfalls. Hen House Studios executive producer Harlan Steinberger lifted the line and suggested that this had to be, without question, the main title.

Jeb: Before we talk about the members of the Doors tell me about your style.  The poetry in motion, jazzy-sort of thing you do.  Where does that evolve from

Michael: All my initial LA jazz conceits come from standing in front of The Encore Room on La Cienega Boulevard when I was 14 and being mesmerized by the music of Bobby Troup and his group. I learned he was the composer of “Route 66” because of the earlier hit parade mark made by Nat King Cole… and that was the night Bobby introduced Julie London to the world. And, as our friendship was immediate and both of them calling me their number one fan, they let me know about two adventurous 1950’s radio jocks: Jack Wagner & Gene Norman playing 45 EP tracks and 10-inch vinyl discs on AM radio.

Think about it for a minute: Jazz on AM… and they were my first music teachers, introducing me to cuts from Machito's Afro-Cuban bop band with solos by Charlie Parker, Stan Kenton's spin-off players in the Lighthouse All-Stars, too, with Shorty Rogers and his Giants, The George Shearing Quintet- just the entire  spectrum of modern sounds buzzing my ears. And by the time I reach UCLA and meet Ray Manzarek, a real jazz hound, we had a lot of serious music to talk about.

Within the framework of writing figurative language, it wasn't much of a leap to insinuate the components of complicated melodic lines and rhythm patterns into my own poetry and prose.

I might point out that The Encore Room was only 2 blocks south of where The Doors established their upstairs office space and 1st floor rehearsal room. Interesting to recognize, now, a major fraction of my musical history is within a 2-block radius.

 

Jeb: I like how you talk about how we don’t talk on the phone.  We email, text…even this interview, not only are we not in the same room, we are not speaking.  Is this a good movement in our existence?  It is harmful? 

Michael: I believe our dependence upon, sometimes, bewildering technology has become contagious (wow that implies disease, doesn't it) but maybe as you say "harmful," only, if it means constantly distancing ourselves from using our human voices for direct communication, until we feel that isn't really necessary anymore. Although finding email an advantage due to its obvious super speed connections, I am slowly getting caught up with the 21st-Century. However, because of an electronic hijacking, haven't been on Facebook for over 2 years, so that when the urgency of advertising the introduction of this CD and LP  product into the world, a campaign by Hen House Studios to recreate my old F-book page had to materialize for promo, posting pix, just all the stuff of the publicity machine. Now, I have to admit that Hen House PR people have been accomplishing recognition in a far more industrious and enterprising way than I, in my computer illiteracy, could never have with equivalent energy. So, in that sense, my eyes have been opened to many new important aspects of communication. And maybe I better get some semblance of a Facebook presence, again.

Jeb: You say you are a verbal artist.  Explain.  

Michael: As I've already indicated, music culture has always been of major importance: most especially to my spoken word work. This is why so much of my obsession with all musical genres initiated me into the idea that I might be creating what was, in essence, "verbal music."

In the Orwellian year of 1984, with the advent of Freeway Records, when I was invited by Spoken Word producer Harvey Robert Kubernik to record cuttings of my original materials at Radio Tokyo in Venice West, I realized here I was in the middle of Beat Generation history and felt an inclination to maintain a verbal respect for the way words worked out loud, verbal dynamics, the balance of words, the weight of words as I lifted them off the page and pumped them into a microphone. And I guess, in an improvisational moment of vision, started thinking of myself as a "verbal artist."

Jeb: This is the last recording made with Ray, Robby and John…that has to bring a weight to the project.  

Michael: To be honest I never thought of it as weight of any kind; it was, as I listened to every one of my musical colleagues on these sessions being so integral giving me this enormous cushion of support, and with the presence of Ray, Rob and Johnny D, I was feeling more of an almost buoyancy, as though during different vocal intonations my spirit was rising into the rafters, floating in an instrumental troposphere, sailing around in the ether.  And I feel it has been necessary to emphasize it was never implied that this recording is MCF and The Doors. It's just my words being, somehow, clarified by my musical brothers, in this luminous moment in time, for which we seem to have been tuning up, during the last 48 years.

Jeb: Take me way back…to before I was born…I hatched in 1966…I am going back to 1964.  You met Jim Morrison.  Recall that meeting for me.  

Michael: My 1st encounter was co-existent: meeting both Ray and Jim in Joseph Von Stenberg's directing class in the UCLA School of Cinema Arts. I was a non-registered student, illegally attending incredible classes of which I never would have been aware. Being enamored with German expressionist film we would habitually attend, most especially, the films of Carl Theodore Dreyer: the dire images of Vampyr, the luminous presence of Maria Falconetti in The Passion of  Joan of Arc, the mind-bending films of Fritz Lang.

We attended Jack Hirschman's afternoon poetry classes. Any further commentary of mine with long paragraphs of anecdotal stories describing Hirschman's effect on how we perceived the creative process will be located in Alexandra Bava's biography of Jack Hirschman forthcoming from her publisher in Rome, Italy.

One thing in common with Morrison was when I observed we both carried vest-pocket notepads, always copying down striking images: they might have been snatches of conversation, bits of syntax from novels, lines from philosophical essays or paperback noir detective mysteries and transitions in scenes from all manner of movies.

Jeb: Before that you were in a band with Densmore and Krieger.  What was that like?

Michael: In the early 60s Robby and John co-founded a band called the Psychedelic Rangers. I was NEVER a member of that band. How does crazy conjecture like this hatch into rumors that seem to persist? One amazing rumor is, at some early incarnation of The Doors, I was invited to be a band mate. 

Here's the true story: Ray and I informally started a funk band in 1964 we named The White Trash Quintet (a name, incidentally, picked up and used by 1970s bands on more than one occasion) and we were playing at Mother Neptune's, a Beat Generation coffee house on Melrose Ave. Ray was playing a thumbtack upright piano and I was playing a pawnshop blond Kay upright string bass. Also, in the rhythm section the redoubtable drummer Ed Cassidy (Cass went on to co-found Spirit with his stepson Randy California,) and in the front line two wonderful players Elliott on Tenor and Don on trumpet: both out of Frank Zappa's rehearsal band, so you can say, at one time, they were woodshedding with the Mothers Of Invention.

Not too much time later, I witnessed the genesis of The Doors in front of the Gypsy Wagon adjacent to the UCLA film editing bungalows and a few weeks later Ray was saying: "Hey, Ford, why not bring your upright to one of our rehearsals at Venice Beach and sit in with us." I was just a few days away from doing an Idaho 5 month resident writer guest shot at Boise State College. I encouraged Ray to go along with his original intention of attaching a bass keyboard to his electric Vox organ. "After all," I added, "you guys should be FOUR doors: I mean, who ever heard of a 5-door sedan?"

Ray cracked-up laughing and wished me well on the road.  Now, where in what I just said does it say I was "asked to join the band" or that I was "considered to play electric bass?” I'm screwed. I speak English. So, I am vulnerable to misinterpretation.

Jeb: As the Doors grew in popularity, what was it like for you, a friend, to see them change?  What do you remember about that time? 

Michael: I saw them, once at the London Fog and twice when they were the house band at The Whiskey.  A few months later, returning this time from Weber College in Utah, looking up at a billboard on the Sunset Strip which stated THE DOORS BREAK ON THROUGH WITH AN ELECTRIFYING NEW ALBUM with 4 familiar faces emblazoned on the sign. And I do remember thinking, with the mote of  a sentimental look in my eye, Waitaminute, I know those guys.

I remember being in an Elektra recording booth with Jim, during one of the Waiting For The Sun sessions. I was eyeballing this enlarged studio space with streamlined state-of-the-art sound equipment which looked (in retrospect) like something out of  a Star Wars dash board. Mentioning this vastly enlarged version of earlier remembered Elektra studio surroundings, Morrison responded: “Yeh, twelve acid trips built this room!”

Well sure, it's easy to imagine that LSD ingestion might have fueled his lyric writing, but it’s also, very important to realize it might have, also, amp'd a literary sensibility he'd been courting in previous years of self-education. Let’s point-out too many clueless rockers who dropped copious amounts of acid were incapable of writing anything but contrived gibberish.

I remember returning from another Inter-mountain states trek and ringing Jim up to find out what rock room they would be jamming in, and Morrison suggested I show up at the Hollywood Bowl and wondering aloud why he wanted to play in such an intimate club. But, you know, I really can't recall  allowing  my sense of who they were as contributors to innovations in modern American music ever being overshadowed by the exterior glitter of popularity.

Jeb: Now, as the Doors, after Jim’s death, became icons…did that blow you away? Or did you expect it? 

Michael:  If I expected death of any kind being a clever career move, I don't think I wouldn't have been consumed by the suspected tragic loss of it all.

I was moved to disclose every transition of profound feelings of subtraction, tuning in on psychically frozen-in-time prophetic indicators, some of which you may have discovered in my July 1971 funeral ode cut entitled Extreme Unction For James Douglas Morrison recorded on a 2004 document from Hen House Studios Anthology Volume 4. And, as the years have gone, I realize that document has become an elegiac message to an entirely new generation of warrior poets who are encouraged to be sentinels, guardians of our rebel spirits, night watchmen poets who patrol the dark streets in the landscape of terror:  and connecting with the question of why we keep going back into the actual tomb of the mind.  

Jeb: Tell me about performing on stage with Jim.  

Michael: The one main occasion of evolution for both Jim and myself was the June 1969 fundraiser to raise $$ for the celebrated novelist Norman Mailer.  He was campaigning for election as mayor of New York City. Andy Warhol had created a similar benefit a month before in Manhattan featuring many of his movie luminaries along with the Velvet Underground. So, when Warhol personnel went to the West Coast, they decided to martial Morrison into service: and there was that rare moment worth years when Jim pulled on my coat and asked me if I had ever, before, read my poetry out loud. I said no, and he said "Well, why shouldn't you join me in taking that trip."

It wasn't a question. It was a challenge I was ready to grasp with eager intent. Not too surprising is it that Morrison was the priest who baptized my writing credentials, in a deep sense, anointing the laurel crown leaf on my poet's head. 

Jeb: Okay…in all seriousness, how in the heck does one make a living being a poet these days?  What are the challenges and pitfalls? 

Michael: Poetry is such a loaded word. There are so many diverse ways of getting into it: reading it or writing it. I love the idea of being able to tap into the metaphoric imagination and discover an absolutely unique way of describing someone or someplace or some traditional architecture or cultural event. When courageous college writing program people have allowed me to teach, I right away break down the rules of the poetry power structure and get student writers to remove themselves from the inclination to write chatty conversational ego gratification diary notes. Honestly I listen to poetry readings by certain constituents of the Canon and  find their credentials of literary prizes and high praise from the monotone poets of distinction disturbing. I love the possibilities of the art form of Poetry: I just despise the places where poetry resides.

I recall Morrison summing up the state of  U.S. poetry hierarchy  saying: “I am not adverse to verse, but I'm amazed at how easily so many “poets” revere the literary establishment. I  wanted them to LIFE their fires! But when I see the way street poets are put on a crucible in this country, I am not, simply, openly disapproving, I'm generally outraged!”

Following the appearance of my Selected Poems from Amaranth Editions and with thoroughly constructive respect from publisher Brian Paris, I haven't allowed the words poet, poetry or poems by to exist on my jackets of  either recorded or print product. I think those words, overtime, have become maligned and abused  by those who with a displaced pride call themselves Poets without the realization that being a poet is a noble and dangerous profession and in order to protect your soul you need to distance yourself from those without any discernible taste, talent or integrity.  This, quite naturally, has to be one of the main reasons I've spent so many years in a sullen environment, cultivating my craft,  perfecting my art. Whether or not I managed to write anything pertinent or eternal, well, I guess time will decide whatever the verdict needs to be.    

Jeb: Where has mankind’s… or American’s attention span gone?  I think this could be a dangerous thing as we trod into the future.  Your thoughts? 

Michael:  Whenever I think of attention span, I think one of the greatest gifts to me from my mother and father had to be that they were too financially despondent to buy a television set in the 1950s: media entertainment during my years of elementary school and early jr. high school came out of listening to the last days of the Golden Age of broadcasting through this glowing, globular Silvertone radio. Radio was a theatre of the mind: no TV set decorators were there tweaking your imagination. You had to do all the work yourself; so, I am convinced those rare moments beside the radio fueled my creative imagination in direct opposition to 21st-Century mass-market appeal pandering to people who don't, even, read books anymore. And might not this be a clue as to why the lack of a recognizable attention span is so dominant and could it, also, be a major reason why  so many cynical film heads are making movies for 14-yearold mentality? In today's world that's what makes the cash registers jangle. 


Jeb: Explain this statement: “this recorded document is designed to inspire an audience of potential listeners to really turn the pages of their personal nostalgic notepads.”

Michael: Okay, this alludes to one of my literary conceits: that in order to define the denigration and disintegration of American culture, it becomes necessary to flirt with vintage references. Much of my work is crafted for those who might be inspired by what I'm saying to a point where they may become sympathetic to those artists outside the mainstream. Hopefully, they may be either nostalgically motivated to page through their own mindscapes of recollection or connect with YouTube and research the history of what isn't here anymore.

Jeb: You and John did a project in 2002.  Talk about that one…it’s kind of a neat concept.  

MichaelIt was in the beginning of that year when the head of the percussion section at The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame  got the idea for John and myself to invent a verbal history of Drumming in America with Densy emulating, literally, many contemporary drummers indigenous to the history of percussion to whom I was alluding in my narrative text. 

JD wanted to do the project with his friends at the West Coast audio video company Hen House Studios. And, parenthetically, it was Harlan Steinberger's methods of creating a hospitable environment that, as we know, provided me with an awesome set of recording experiences. 

Jeb: Did you stay in touch with all of the Doors throughout their lives? 

Michael: Always, as we went through the years, one of my 1st stops, after touching down in Los Angeles, again, was a Doors stop. Especially, since 1986, when in different studio sessions or live dates Ray Manzarek became such an encouraging musical conduit to plug into.

A few of our collaborative concerts in venues from The Cinegrille in Hollywood to the Pacific Theatre in Stockton, and venues in-between have been, overtime, enthusiastically documented as were interim recording sessions.

Jeb: The mystery of Jim overshadows the others.  So, take a moment and talk about what the other three brought to their art.  

Michael: Ray, without hesitation, made so many  references to Robby as The Doors' secret weapon. When you realize Rob's worthy contributions (i.e.) “Light My Fire,” “Spanish Caravan,” “Runnin' Blue,” “Love Me 2 Times,” etcetera... it doesn't seem to be much of a secret, really.

Robby's talent and good taste were always in evidence and I must explain,  at the risk of sounding gratuitous, that my time alongside of him, either in studio or on stage playing varied charitable events, Krieger has always been more generous and available and totally supportive than would be normally expected.

Manzarek was so beyond just being a musician and composer. In a 1986 blurb section of the liner notes for one of those (1982 to 1986) double vinyl Harvey Kubernik productions, Ray Manzarek stated: “We are coming of age emotionally and spiritually turning into inspired visionaries.” Now, if he means we’re figuratively hanging our toes in the Jordan River, waiting for Armageddon, gee, what if he’s right?

Manzarek was the EF Hutton of Rock & Roll: when he delivered these orphic messages, people listened.  He was in radical contention to anything that popularized opposition to the core freedoms of contemporary artists. He was a coherent and focused filmmaker and one of the most eclectically compelling keyboard artists on the planet.

Listen to his Bill Evans voicings on the out-take acoustic version of Queen Of The Highway. Has anyone ever realized what a groovy document Ray could have bequeathed to us if some shrewd smart record cat had put Ray alone in a studio setting and (on a sort of Bill Evans conversations-with-myself  level) we might today be able to listen to the project I told Ray he should title: MANZAREK: Dialogues With My Other Self .

May I comment on his gifted sensibilities as a writer of calculating prose. You surely remember either the book or the film The Razor's Edge authored by Somerset Maugham published in 1939 and in cinemas in 1946. Some 53 years later this autobiographical fiction tiled Poet In Exile written by Ray is in print. Here's my flash on it. Not since Maugham's book has there been a novel so clearly spiritually revelatory: a story so luminously presented concerning an American artist conscientiously pursuing the truth, searching for Satori: that is an enlightenment through revelations from the Upanishads in Tibet. Ray's survey goes all the way through deep meditation, continues into the Judeo/Christian ethic and totally evolves into East Asian redemptive joy.

And, finally, what can I say about Densmore? As I have often reminisced, he lived just two houses down the street from my maternal grandparents near Westwood Village (after it stopped being a village) so in 1963, I knew JD as a neighbor. And I need to reiterate circumstances of our DRUMMING duet. It  is an enormous credit to Densmore that his erudition and eclectic dexterity allowed our collaboration to reach full fruition. Just a couple of examples: when I mention Gene Krupa, John lays down the floor-tom riffs from Benny Goodman's Sing Sing Sing session from 1938. And, when I mention Chico Hamilton, Densmore delivers percussive jolts Chico played on the quintet sessions from 1963. Do I even need to mention his enviable sense of music history?

I think it's important to note that, like Charlie Watts having these jazz chops and unorthodox drumming techniques, clearly weirding-out various time signatures for The Rolling Stones, John Densmore's similar approach to the drum kit made The Doors a lot more than just like a really great garage band.

Jeb: We have to talk about Jim.  When was the last time you saw him?  

Michael:  I remember it being a typically Southern California lukewarm day in early spring, when Morrison was preparing to escape to a Paris, France hideout/sanctuary.

We were standing inside Doors office space on Santa Monica Blvd. I was staring at all those Elektra gold circles in their iconic status pinned to the plaster.  I wondered aloud “Will this soul-sucker of a music game ever really allow any artist to assimilate, even the most simple existential truths; enough for him to stop accepting the euphemistic lies from the walking dead of the media?”

Jim riposted with that familiar seraphic smile: "Well, you know they have like this weird army and, sometimes, we’re just put up against the wall, man, and rendered powerless.”                                            

I opened a MS to be published in 1972: Sheet Music  revealing my author's dedication. I mentioned to Jim that Paris just might be the chance to be the filmmaker he always wanted to be: that it wasn't enough to be a Shaman in the authentic sense that Native American consciousness understood.

Although media propaganda recklessly persisted in commercializing his image by characterizing him as a hyper witch-doctor clown. He was, in actuality, a Florida dude who went West: as far as he could go. Venice Beach: land's end!

It was, also, Chicago born Ray Manzarek who traveled to and was seduced by the same Pacific Coast: that great calm mother womb ocean and the shoreline where Ray and Jim designed the blueprint for their projected music revolution.

One is immediately aware of how Morrison's collaboration with the rest of the quartet allowed his song-lyric sensibilities to hover, precariously, between Nietzche's Birth Of Tragedy and radiations of Biblical tract: the whole born-again-of-the-water-thing which Morrison implied, later, in The New Creatures: and how difficult it is, now, to forget how Morrison ended.

One remembers his poetry in tribute to that pool-dive taken by Brian Jones whose memory, according to JDM's broadside poem, is, by not being drowned,  he's weirdly resurrected in water. This is very much the way Jim, with prophetic irony, would “slide down the cool tile” {as it is rendered in that monologue section from a live version of Moonlight Drive} imagining himself to be immersed  in water. It would, really, be sort of fascinating to make a big deal out of all this. But let's not!

As I was on my way out, after dialoguing with Morrison for the last time, he called out after me: "Leave the dedication in there, Mikey!"

Jeb: What was the most odd thing you all did?  

Michael: There was only one instance which would be classified as being either odd or unusual: however, it might only add up to what we might want to accept as the memory of our visions and diversions.

I always thought that, after the shy reticent approach to singing, JDM genuinely enjoyed performing, mainly because he discovered it was an avenue towards manipulating the street crowd mentality.

This, I think, is where his original lyrics translated into a cultural argument against by what he, eventually, became disenchanted: all the negative divisions of a demanding audience: the malignant critical observers, the obsessive antagonists, all those in-between the culture vulture monitors and the cultural anarchists and, especially, those who were not quite in line with Morrison’s verbal/visual rebellion, not wholly favorable to his esoteric public recitations.

Remembering a particularly bleak night in Seattle, when Morrison fell into reciting lines of his deconstructionist poetry, some of the audience got grungy and began catcalling: "SHUT UP! Sing Light My Fire" Others took up the chant and I watched an, apparently, dejected Morrison go limp and hang on the microphone.  Watching from backstage and thinking, maybe, it was a normal dramatic pose in opposition to this continuing harrang; however, there was a moment when, I swear, seeing the smoky aura caused by stage lights around Jim's skull slowly lift and rise in a shower of angels. Later I'm wondering if Ray noticed anything weird and, when I questioned him he said:  "I'm hunched over the keyboard, right, and there was a moment when I thought I saw Morrison's soul leave his body." 

To this very moment, I cannot negate the feeling that Morrison spiritually died in Seattle: and that Miami was just a death rattle.

Jeb: Do you believe he is dead? 

Michael: Have to say I don't believe in ectoplasm, so, if I actually saw him one morning strolling down San Vincente Boulevard I would say, well, then, for sure, that would be he. Too, I just do not believe Pamela Susan was in possession of that intense an acting ability she'd be able to feign grief on a level, where she would ditch a spike into her arm and put herself into a heroin coma.   

Jeb: Last one:  back to the album….will you perform this work?  Do you perform live?  If so describe a typical gig.  

Michael:  My feeling is it would be a pretty expensive concert. I wouldn't mind putting that instrumentation together plus the associate producer on EARS Tommy Jordan blending, as he so remarkably did on the vocal sessions, with some amalgam of attendant voices; especially an addition of stellar female vocalists would be a good idea: maybe Cathy Segal Garcia with Tierney Sutton and if they, in usual busy touring mode, couldn't answer the bell, bring Kate Davis and Rebecca Kilgore down from West Linn, Oregon. 

Let me indulge myself here, as long as we're making up dream concerts. I have eyes to present a staged word movie with musicians on the Hen House label combined with members of the LA Phil: it could even be a benefit for the Philharmonic in conjunction with the Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs: with guest players coming on to solo: Danny honking on tenor, Densmore doubling on congas and tympani. Krieger and his cadre of core musicians: Hanni playing his assortment of arcane guitars, Phil joining the double basses and a slot for Kit playing harpsichord. We could bring in Megan Welsh from El Paso, Texas to solo on viola, Harvey Lane falling in from Red Hill, blowing bass clarinet. There are no ends to the possibilities.

Jeb: Really last one:  What is your favorite Doors album and why? 

Michael:  I must select The Soft Parade, because it's the album most deplored by the majority of initial listeners. Lifelong experience has taught me that any "majority" is generally wrong.

The title track torrentially pours Jim's lyrical brain into our ears like Yosemite's Bridal Veil Falls. The music is borderline Doors: risky and playful and full of ultra-urban angst. Also, guest musicians on strings and reeds put this gatefold album right in the center of the experimental vinyl dart board.  

Just listen to Curtis Amy's boiling tenor saxophone on Robby's originals.  Some of these sessions could easily be compared to like Gunther Schuller's 3rd-Stream sounds with the Modern jazz Quartet. So, yeh, there really isn't a single track that doesn't resonate with me on a personal level.

http://www.michaelcford.com
http://henhousestudios.com
https://www.facebook.com/Hen.House.Studios
https://www.facebook.com/michaelc.ford.96
 

Comments

 

The views of the comments below are not necessarily those of Classic Rock Revisited