The Long and Winding Road
When I walk through the stage door of the Roseland Ballroom in New York, I hear an unmistakable riff—the long electric piano solo that spirals up and down until it can’t go higher or become more intense and then it resolves as Jim Morrison comes in to sing: “The time to hesitate is through . . .”
“Light My Fire” by the Doors was the number one song in America in 1967. But onstage at Roseland almost forty years later are Ray Manzarek, the original keyboard player, Robby Krieger, the original guitarist, and between them, replacing Jim Morrison, is Ian Astbury, a singer in his thirties who looks so much like Morrison that the image of the three suggests The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ray and Robby are in their sixties, with silver hair and deeply lined faces, but Jim doesn’t seem to have aged—he looks frozen at twenty-seven, the age he was when he died.
The Doors of the Twenty-first Century, as they call themselves tonight, are doing a sound check for a concert celebrating fifty years of rock ’n’ roll. Ray stands at the electric piano, wearing a black Issey Miyake shirt with pleats over gray pants. His hair is slicked back, and he’s rail thin from lifting weights, swimming, and yoga. “I feel juicy,” Ray says into the microphone, testing the level. “I feel juicy now. I got filth running through my blood, Robby. It’s gonna be a dirrrrr-ty night.” It’s also going to be a loud night, and I make a note to come back later with earplugs and my glasses.
The Doors created and released albums for only four years, 1967 to 1971, but they’ve been embraced by succeeding generations, and my son has the lyrics to a Doors song on his blog. After Jim’s death, Ray kept making music on his own and wrote two books, none of which connected with a mass audience, but that was all right. He hadn’t played a Doors song in thirty years when in 2002 the Harley-Davidson company asked the Doors if they would re-form the group to perform at an L.A. concert celebrating Harley’s hundredth anniversary. “Robby and I said, ‘Let’s do it!’ ” Ray recalls, but John Densmore, the third living Door, said his ears were too badly damaged to play drums. Their manager brought in another drummer and, to sing, Ian Astbury of the Cult.
Playing for thousands of inflamed Harley-Davidson riders at the California Speedway was “so much fun,” Ray says, that they went on the road as the Doors of the Twenty-first Century, until a lawsuit forced them to drop the Doors name and perform as Riders on the Storm.
Backstage at Roseland, I ask Ray how he deals with the fact that his most well-loved work was done more than thirty years ago. He waves his hand, dismissive. I tell him I have the same issue on a smaller scale. “My first book was a bestseller—it was number two in the country and made into a miniseries. I’ve written five books since then and hundreds of articles and screenplays, but none has had that impact. I used to feel upset because people would meet me and say—”
“I know what they tell you,” Ray says. “You were big once upon a time, and you don’t have it anymore. Well, thank you very much, really nice of you to point that out. Have you ever had a success? No, you haven’t. I see, you . . . LOSER!” He shrugs. “What can we do with this society? We’re vicious that way.”
“How do you handle it?”
“You don’t. You get pissed off and say, Fuck you. Fuck you! You got the nerve to say that stuff to my fucking face, you fucker?”
He imitates the guy confronting him: “ ‘Well, Ray, you know, a lot of people have said you’re just doing it for the money.’
“Like who? Is he there with you? Put him on the phone, let me talk to that asshole.
“ ‘No, no, no, there’s nobody here. I’m just saying . . .’ ”
Ray sighs and tells me, “You have to put up with shit like that.”
I say, “I spent a lot of time feeling that I wasn’t fulfilling my early promise, whatever that was. Now I’ve come around to the fact that I wrote a book that’s still in print after thirty years. That makes me feel . . . humble.”
“Exactly,” Ray says. “Here’s the point. Did you do one thing? Yes, you did. You got any friends from high school who did one thing? You got any friends from college . . . Do I have any friends from UCLA film school who did . . . one . . . thing? No.”
“You did more than one thing.”
“You don’t have those demons?”
“Oh sure, absolutely. I’m more competitive than you are, and you’re obviously very competitive. We’re competitive animals. That’s the nature of being human, and that’s what drives us to accomplish great things. You live your life to the fullest, but at some point, things are snatched away from you. Death is going to happen.”
I ask if he still takes psychedelics. “No. That’s for your twenties and thirties. Once you open the doors of perception, they stay open.”
“Not for some,” I say. “The doors clanked shut when they became workaholics and tried to be superparents.”
“If they’ve forgotten the message, well, now that the kids have grown and retirement is approaching, let’s reinvent the gods. That’s what Jim Morrison said. ‘Let’s reinvent the gods—all the myths of the ages.’ The problem for Jim was that he had no idea how far he could go, how high he could get, before he was eased out.
“Psychedelics do a strange thing,” Ray says. “You accept that death is going to happen. Your friend is gone, you’ve danced for a while— you danced feverishly and madly around a bonfire and had that ecstatic joy and now the dance is over and all you can say is: So be it. Another kind of dance begins.”
I had this conversation with Ray Manzarek toward the end of a three- year period when everything I touched turned brown and died. Everywhere I’d go people would ask, “What are you doing now?”
“Different things . . .”
If I’d told the truth, I would have said: I’m doing nothing. For the first time since college, I have no work. After twenty-four years and several award nominations, I can’t get hired to write for television. In Hollywood jargon, I can’t get arrested. I can’t sell articles to magazines or books to publishers and I don’t know how I’ll earn money. The phone doesn’t ring, and I have to crank myself up to go out and hustle and why, dear God, do I have to hustle at this age? It’s humiliating.
During this same period, my lover of seven years, a cowboy artist I’d expected to spend the rest of my days with, rides off with no discussion. My children, who’ve occupied my first thoughts on waking and my last before falling asleep, are going off to college. As long as they lived with me, I got up at seven and made pancakes, drove them to school, soccer, Little League, ballet, music lessons, helped them write their papers and do research on Egyptian history and carve pumpkins for Halloween. No more. My kids, my lover, and my livelihood are being yanked from me at once and there’s nothing I can do. When I tell this to a friend, Peter Simon, the photographer, he says, “Oh, honey, you’ve got money problems and no sex. That’s not good.”
Not good at all. I can’t sleep, either. I fall asleep but wake at two, my feet jackknifing. Why hasn’t my agent called me back? I read or watch a movie, hoping my eyelids will close, but they don’t. Three a.m. I have stomach pains—it’s the cowboy, I can’t seem to untangle him from my body and I miss him so intensely I want to call and tell him he can name his terms, just come back. It wouldn’t work.
My doctor suggests I see a hypnotherapist, Guy Birdwhistle. His name is so ridiculously cheerful that I make an appointment. In his waiting room, I sit on a couch beside the trickling portable waterfall that’s de rigueur for New Age healers. When Birdwhistle opens the door, I’m shocked: He has the face of a teenager, wears a crisp blue shirt and tie, and speaks with a British accent.
“How old are you, may I ask?”
“Twenty-nine,” he says, showing me to a chair. “How can I help you?”
Good question. I don’t think he’s lived long enough. I ask how he became a hypnotist. He says he was working at Fred Segal, the trendy clothing store, “and I was having terrible anxiety attacks. I went to a hypnotherapist and got relief, and thought, I want to learn to do this.”
What the hell. I can’t sleep, I tell him, my identity is being stripped away, and a spiritual teacher I’ve worked with, Nina Zimbelman, tells me that my life as I know it is over.
“What’s wrong with that?” He smiles.
I start to cry. “I’m afraid I’ll die, I’ll disintegrate.”
“What’s really happening is, your life is beginning. It’s that simple. When you embrace doing nothing, all sorts of things can happen. If you struggle, you’ll be yanked kicking and screaming, so you might as well give in. You’re on vacation.”
Okay, I’ll take the rest of the day off. Instead of driving home to fret and make calls to people who won’t return them, I stop at Manderette, a Chinese restaurant on Melrose that serves exquisite food and where I usually can’t get a table. But at three p.m., nobody’s in Manderette except a fortyish man and woman playing cards. They’re on vacation, too, I assume.
I’m actually eager to go to bed. I play the hypnotherapy tape that Birdwhistle made for me, drift asleep but bolt awake at four with fear in my chest. What am I supposed to do for the next thirty years? I’ve raised my kids, written bestsellers, had deep love. . . . Why am I still here?
Why are we still here? When I look around, I see that others are going through similar transitions and that as a group we’re being stripped of our relevance, our primacy. We’re turning fifty at the rate of one every seven seconds, and the advance guard, the icons who set the tone—Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Angela Davis, Tom Hayden and the Chicago Seven—are well into their sixties or would be if they were alive. We did not plan for this; we did not know that at fifty-five we might have thirty more years of vigorous health, lust, and a desire to contribute and create.
Let me define what I mean by “we,” because the boomer generation— usually described as people born between 1946 and 1964—is not one culture or even one generation. It includes people turning sixty and considering retirement and others who’ve just hit forty and are having babies. Of those born during those years, 52 percent voted red in the last presidential election and 47 percent voted blue. When I speak of this group, I’m speaking about a cohort of various ages who were infected by the ideals of the sixties, who believed we should make love, not war, had a passion for improving the world and a transformational agenda. This cohort, whom I’ve been writing about for three decades, are mostly middle class and can get emotional when they hear “Sgt.
Pepper”—they remember where they were and how they felt when they first heard it—or see a film clip of Bobby Kennedy saying: “Some men see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?’ ”
We come together periodically for what I think of as geezer rock concerts, such as the one at Madison Square Garden in 2003 for a Simon and Garfunkel reunion. The audience rose when Paul and Art came onstage and sang “Old Friends.” Paul had written the song when he was twenty-eight, imagining what it would be like to be with Art when they’re seventy, sitting on a park bench, not talking, “lost in their overcoats.”
On this icy night in December, Paul and Art are sixty-three and don’t look anything like those silent old men. Paul is sexy and commanding as he plays electric guitar, and Art still has an Afro, that annoying ethereal smile and angelic voice. Before long, twenty thousand people are singing and dancing and time is elastic: We’re seventeen, with long hair and beads, singing “Feelin’ Groovy,” and we’re thirty, wearing a power suit and singing “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and we’re fifty or sixty and a chill passes through us. Suddenly seventy seems just a breath away.
There’s a new life stage—after fifty and before eighty—and we’re the ones whose mission it will be to figure out what to do with it. When my life began to unravel, I set out to interview friends and strangers who led me to others who are making their way, experimenting and asking: What’s the next part of life about? How do we make the leap?
Most of us are addicted to work and have spent more hours at our jobs than any other activity, except for those who’ve been full-time parents, which is another kind of job. But what happens if we don’t work so much or at all? People tend to fall into three groups: The first are being squeezed out of jobs and feel like Willy Loman, clawing to stay in the game; the second are quitting work or starting new ventures because they don’t want to repeat what they’ve done the last thirty years; and the third group are riding square in the saddle and want to keep going. Mort Zuckerman, in his sixties, publisher of the New York Daily News, told me, “Nobody I know wants to stop working at this age because nobody feels it’s old and guess what, it isn’t.”
If we’re creative, what happens if our work no longer sells for as much or at all? Will we keep doing it anyway? Probably, but how will we make our funds last until we reach one hundred, a real possibility? How much money is enough, how much achievement is enough, or have we found that recognition is like a drug and you can never get enough? What if we still strive for excellence and distinction? Tirzah Firestone, a rabbi, says, “When you’re being lowered into the ground, recognition will mean nothing. Nothing!” What will matter? Isn’t this the question to ask? What will matter when the dealin’s done?
I’m determined to learn what it will take to do the next stage of life well. How do we move ahead with grace and purpose, take risks, laugh and love without condition, be provocative, and gain some serenity and understanding of what our time—and our cohort’s—has meant?
What I’ve found is that there will be no single answer or solution, as everyone will go at this differently. Many models will arise, just as there were many lifestyles in the sixties: political activism, hippie communes, getting back to the land, as well as traditional jobs and families.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Leap! by Sara Davidson. Copyright © 2007 by Sara Davidson. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.