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Set the Night on Fire
Living, Dying, and Playing Guitar With the Doors
With Jeff Alulis
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- Hardcover $29.00 $37.00 CAD
- ebook $14.99 $18.99 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around October 12, 2021. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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In his tell-all, legendary Doors guitarist, Robby Krieger, one of Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time," opens up about his band's meteoric career, his own darkest moments, and the most famous black eye in rock 'n' roll.
Few bands are as shrouded in the murky haze of rock mythology as The Doors, and parsing fact from fiction has been a virtually impossible task. But now, after fifty years, The Doors' notoriously quiet guitarist is finally breaking his silence to set the record straight.
Through a series of vignettes, Robby Krieger takes readers back to where it all happened: the pawn shop where he bought his first guitar; the jail cell he was tossed into after a teenage drug bust; his parents' living room where his first songwriting sessions with Jim Morrison took place; the empty bars and backyard parties where The Doors played their first awkward gigs; the studios where their iconic songs were recorded; and the many concert venues that erupted into historic riots. Set the Night on Fire is packed with never-before-told stories from The Doors' most vital years, and offers a fresh perspective on the most infamous moments of the band's career.
Krieger also goes into heartbreaking detail about his life's most difficult struggles, ranging from drug addiction to cancer, but he balances out the sorrow with humorous anecdotes about run-ins with unstable fans, famous musicians, and one really angry monk. Set the Night on Fire is at once an insightful time capsule of the '60s counterculture, a moving reflection on what it means to find oneself as a musician, and a touching tale of a life lived non-traditionally. It's not only a must-read for Doors fans, but an essential volume of American pop culture history.
THE HENRY HUDSON HOTEL
“Robby! This is God speaking! And we’re gonna throw you right out of this universe!”
It wasn’t God on the phone. It was Jim Morrison. I hung up.
The call came in at some ungodly hour in the fall of 1966. The Doors had recently arrived in New York City to play a monthlong residency at the Ondine Discotheque, to finish the mixing of our debut album, and to make a promotional film for our first single. We were playing five half-hour sets each night, finishing just shy of sunrise. I valued the little sleep I was able to get.
Our lawyer had arranged for us to stay at the Henry Hudson Hotel in midtown Manhattan. On the floor above us the Chambers Brothers had a series of suites, so we often ended up getting stoned with them after coming home from our respective gigs. On our nights off, drummer John Densmore and I explored jazz clubs in the Village. During the daylight hours, keyboardist Ray Manzarek and his girlfriend, Dorothy, ventured out to the museums. Even though the New York crowd hadn’t heard our songs before, they seemed to dig us, and the local groupies seemed fascinated by these mysterious aliens from California. I had brief flings with several of them, including Rory Flynn, a six-foot-tall model I knew from back in L.A., who also happened to be Errol Flynn’s daughter. I found out later that the groupies at Ondine’s compared notes with one another and bestowed ratings on their conquests. I didn’t get much attention from anyone after Rory, so I must not have rated too highly.
We were a young band on our way up. There was plenty of cause for celebration. But as usual, Jim celebrated harder than the rest of us.
The night after my phone call from God, we went to Thanksgiving dinner at our producer Paul Rothchild’s house in New Jersey, and Jim celebrated so hard that he was hitting on Paul’s wife right at the table. Paul took it in stride, but when he gave us a ride back to the Henry Hudson Hotel, Jim kept grabbing Paul by the hair, causing him to swerve and nearly crash. It took the whole band to drag Jim back to his hotel room. We hoped if we could just get him into bed he’d wind down and pass out. Instead, he stripped naked and jumped out the window.
Jim had a particular technique for jumping out of windows. I’d seen him do it a few times before. Back then, John and I were sharing a house in Laurel Canyon, and one night, Jim stopped by when we had some girls over. He decided to freak the girls out by breaking into a run and leaping off our balcony. His jump included a well-timed twist that allowed him to grab hold of the ledge, where he would dangle for a while until he got the attention he needed. Then he would pull himself up, to the gasping relief and accelerated heartbeats of any females who had witnessed it.
Our Laurel Canyon house was only two stories tall, though. This time Jim was dangling a dozen floors above the unforgiving concrete and honking traffic of Fifty-Eighth Street. And judging from the gratuitous nudity, he was even drunker than usual, so I didn’t have much confidence in his grip.
We raced across the room to pull him back in. If we hadn’t been there, he probably wouldn’t have been able to rescue himself. Then again, if we hadn’t been there, he probably wouldn’t have jumped for the shock value in the first place. Once we pulled him back inside, Jim tackled me onto the bed. While John and Ray secured the window, Jim kept me pinned down as he jokingly writhed around, pretending to put the moves on me. Sure, it was the sixties, but I didn’t swing quite that far. I shoved him off the bed and watched him cackle with laughter on the floor.
Looking back, I think Jim subconsciously knew that John or Ray would never have put up with his impromptu Greco-Roman seduction act. Jim was always driven to test his limits, and even at his most intoxicated, he was still instinctively aware of exactly what those limits were. That night, he saw me as the band member with the best sense of humor. So I was the limit he decided to test.
It’s funny to me now, but it wasn’t funny to me at the time. I was twenty years old, the youngest member of the band. I didn’t have any authority over these guys, and I didn’t have any understanding of how to cope with this level of chaos. I was constantly being placed at the crossroads between rock ’n’ roll stardom and scooping our lead singer’s brains off the pavement.
We stayed in Jim’s room for another hour or so as he calmed down and passed out. The next day he greeted me as if nothing ever happened. Jim rarely remembered his drunken fits, leaving the rest of us to pick up the pieces. I told him what he’d done, and it was like he was hearing a story about someone else. His reply, as usual, was something like “Wow, that’s terrible” or “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”
His apologies were so simple, and yet so hypnotic. I still don’t know how he got us to forgive him for half the stuff he did. There was something about his sober nature that made you feel bad about holding a grudge. Hanging from a window ledge, wrestling me naked on his hotel bed, all of it after embarrassing us in front of our producer and waking me up in the middle of the night with prank calls—why was I putting up with it? How can a simple apology cover it? Why was I sticking with this band when one of its crucial elements seemed bent on destroying everything?
All I knew was that I could never walk away. We were still playing small clubs, and we were still unknown to most of the world, but I could already see the future. I knew that Jim could be as big a rock star as anyone who had come before him, and I knew the Doors had the potential to become the biggest group in America. Regardless of whatever else might happen along the way, I was all in.
Two months later, we released a debut album that would prove my instincts right and that would forever alter the trajectory of our lives. But in the ensuing years I would repeatedly be reminded of the lesson I learned at the Henry Hudson Hotel: Jim Morrison may not have been God, but he most certainly had the power to throw me right out of this universe.
THE WORST HAIR IN ROCK ’N’ ROLL
A critic once said I had “the worst hair in rock ’n’ roll.” It stung pretty bad, but I can’t say they were wrong. I always battled with my naturally frizzy, kinky Jewfro, so one day my friend Bill Wolff and I experimented with Ultra Sheen, a hair relaxer marketed mainly to Black consumers. The results were remarkable. Wolff, as we all called him, said, “You’re starting to look like that jerk Bryan MacLean,” which was the closest he ever came to giving me a compliment. MacLean was the guitarist for Love, and his lustrous mop top resembled that of Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones. I don’t know if I looked as good as MacLean or Jones did, but it was a marked improvement over my usual bird’s nest.
Our hair relaxer experiment happened to occur about a week before Wolff and I auditioned for the Doors. Wolff tried out a few days before I did and I was surprised he didn’t get picked. He was a much more experienced and technical player than I was. We had taken flamenco guitar classes together, we had formed a jug band together, we had played as part of a folk trio together, and we had jammed in an acid rock band with Doors drummer John Densmore together. Wolff was the Doors’ first choice. I was their second. But my hair looked better, and my bottleneck made all the difference.
If you walk into a music store today, you can pick up a professional guitar bottleneck made of chromed steel, glazed ceramic, lightweight titanium, borosilicate glass, or even high-tech carbon fiber. When Wolff and I were learning guitar, we just smashed bottles. My favorites were the cheap California champagne bottles because they had the perfect shape, and the glass was slightly thicker than most wine bottles. Sometimes we’d put in the effort to tape up the jagged edges or melt them over a flame, but usually I just left them sharp. I figured if I ever got into a bar fight somewhere it might come in handy.
Wolff and I loved listening to records by Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama… their lack of sight apparently left them with a heightened sense of slide guitar. We didn’t have a teacher who could instruct us on bottleneck technique, so we did our best to figure it out on our own. Originally I was a purist and exclusively played acoustic, but just before my audition for the Doors I had become enamored with the sound of a bottleneck slide on an electric guitar.
So one day in the fall of 1965 I drove my electric guitar, my amplifier, and my weaponized California champagne bottleneck to a parking lot behind an office building in Santa Monica. At the edge of the lot was an alley, and in that alley was a little dilapidated house. Inside the house lived a guy named Hank, who graciously allowed the Doors to use his Yamaha piano and rehearse in his cramped living room. No neighbors meant no noise complaints.
I had previously met everyone in the band, so there was no need for introductions, and John had already given me a copy of their six-song demo, so I came prepared. The first song we ever played together was my favorite of their six tracks: “Moonlight Drive.” The demo version was much more bouncy and bluesy than the one we’d later record together, and Jim sang in a fluttering high register that Doors fans would hardly recognize today. The guitar part plodded predictably in time with the piano. I played along faithfully.
Then I asked if I could try something. I slipped on my bottleneck and we ran through the song again as I wove in a warbling, spaced-out slide riff. Between my flamenco fingerpicking and my Muddy Waters bottlenecking I guess I stood out from the other candidates. Jim went crazy for the sound of the bottleneck and said the Doors should use it on every song. And that’s why I ended up getting the gig over Wolff. All it took was one song to know it felt right.
The hair relaxer wore off after a few months and my sexy mop top went back to looking like a frayed Brillo pad. But thankfully by then I had proven myself indispensable, and the Doors couldn’t get rid of me any more than I could get rid of the worst hair in rock ’n’ roll.
I rehearsed once more with the Doors at Hank’s house, during which one of Jim’s friends dropped by. Jim dragged him into a back room, slammed the door, and started shouting at the top of his lungs. As their muffled screams bled through the walls, I stitched together the context: this guy had fucked Jim over on some sort of drug deal. I don’t know what type of drug, or whether there was too little of it, or whether the money wasn’t right, but either way, it sounded like someone was going to get killed back there.
Ray, John, and I exchanged awkward glances and a few comments but otherwise pretended not to notice. It was our first shared act of burying our heads in the sand when it came to the erratic behavior of Jim Morrison, and it was my first disturbing taste of Jim’s dark side. In the moment I didn’t see it as any sort of red flag; for all I knew, Jim had a perfectly good reason to scream at that guy. But up until that point he had been so reserved, so the sudden turn was startling, to say the least.
As we ran through some more songs to try and drown out the noise, I stood there, unnerved, thinking to myself, This guy is our lead singer?
Eventually Jim and his friend reemerged. No explanation was ever given. Jim was visibly pissed off. Rehearsal was over.
BEWARE THE STARE THAT THREATENS ALL MANKIND
I wonder if I identified with all those famous blind blues artists due to the fact that the universe has never been kind to my eyes. If you look at old promo photos of the Doors, I’m often squinting due to my sensitivity to all the bright flashbulbs. I still have to force myself not to squint in photos today. I had LASIK surgery in the nineties, twice, but it wore off after a few years, and then I developed cataracts and had to have surgery on them, and then I had to have radial keratotomy surgery in my left eye, where they had to physically cut into my cornea to correct the farsightedness from the cataract surgery, and meanwhile the iris in my right eye doesn’t close properly because it got whacked with a tennis ball (by an eye doctor, ironically).
As a young kid growing up in perpetually sunny Southern California, I was always athletic and confident. My twin brother, Ronny, and I excelled at golf at an early age, we were both on the gymnastics team at school, and we were always picked first for kickball teams. I had a passion for baseball and I’m sure it’s something I would’ve pursued more seriously if my eyes hadn’t gone bad at the height of my Little League career. I just had a harder and harder time seeing the fucking ball. I was eventually banished to right field, hoping the ball wouldn’t come my way so I could avoid embarrassment. My grades plummeted as well—since I couldn’t see the chalkboard—and one day when I pointed out a plane in the sky that wasn’t there my parents finally put the pieces together and took me to get glasses.
But only nerds wore glasses. I was a cool kid. A popular kid! Wearing glasses would bring all of that crashing down. So when I left the house in the morning the glasses went into my pocket until I came home again. My parents noticed that my grades weren’t improving and again put the pieces together. Contact lenses were relatively new at the time. They were hard plastic shells that didn’t let in enough oxygen, so you could wear them for only short periods of time, but anything was better than being uncool.
I took to the hassle and discomfort of wearing contacts so well that I ended up as a guinea pig for Hollywood. The 1960 sci-fi horror movie Village of the Damned features a bunch of creepy children with hypnotic powers and glowing eyes. Before production began, I went in for a screen test to demonstrate how the eye effect would look on film. I assume my ophthalmologist recommended me; Dr. Roberts said I was his youngest patient ever to wear contacts. The lenses they had made for the film were hard, gold-painted corneal shells with a tiny pinhole in the center to see through. They were even less forgiving than my usual lenses, so one of the crew members had to put numbing drops in my eyes to deaden the pain. It was exciting at first to be on a real soundstage with all the big lights and cameras, but after a few hours, when the drops wore off, my eyes were screaming for relief. I put on a brave face but I’m sure it became clear that they couldn’t possibly expect a full cast of kids to comfortably act in those things. I loved the movie when it came out, but likely due to my excruciating screen test, they scrapped the corneal shells and created the glowing eyes in postproduction.
My non-sci-fi contacts helped me see somewhat better, but my grades hardly rebounded, my athletic confidence never fully returned, and when I hit junior high my face exploded with zits and I gained a bunch of weight. All but a few of my friends from grade school turned on me. I went from being one of the most popular kids at school to being a total outcast, and I was hazed mercilessly by upperclassmen. Whatever was left of my self-esteem was beaten out of me, and I transformed from a popular extrovert into the shy, quiet guy I am today.
Thankfully I wasn’t the only kid going through an awkward phase. Bill Wolff always stuck by my side, and my twin brother, Ronny, was also a loyal companion. Keith Wallace lived next to an orange grove where we’d all engage in blood orange fights, and Steve Davidson let us spy on his older brother as he tried to bed his girlfriends. We spent every weekend of our junior high years on a perpetual search for a party, but even if we had found one I doubt we would’ve had the nerve to go in.
Destruction and vandalism were our other outlets. One night my friends and I snuck into a housing development under construction in Brentwood, broke some windows, plugged up all the sinks, and left the water running. We justified our actions under a banner of protesting overdevelopment, but in truth we were just bored. And sexually frustrated.
Somehow we always got away with our antics—until the time Bill Wolff and I decided to play chicken with a couple of tractors on the construction site of the new Palisades High School. They had left the keys in the ignition: how could we possibly resist that kind of temptation? It turns out tractors are pretty hard to drive, with all those levers and stuff. We got them moving but didn’t know how to work them too well, so we eventually smashed into each other and beat it out of there. I don’t know who saw us or how they recognized us, but later that day the police came to my parents’ door. I’ll never forget the disappointed look on my mom’s face. I had broken her heart.
I shied away from abject destruction after that but I found new forms of mischief when I entered high school. My friend Roy Thompson had an older cousin named Steve Scott who had a driver’s license, so he’d steal his mom’s ’57 Chevy station wagon and we’d cruise around looking for trouble. One night we stole a box of fifty wrenches from behind a hardware store just because it was there. On other nights we’d spot a car full of gang members, flip them off, and the chase was on. Steve knew the alleys of Santa Monica like the back of his hand. He didn’t have much engine power at his disposal in that station wagon, but he could outmaneuver anyone. And if they got too close, Roy and I would hurl stolen wrenches at our pursuer’s car.
Roy, Steve, and I would create our own meager little parties by driving up to beer outlets and stealing their half-empty kegs (to us they were half full). One of the local street gangs—either the Dukes or the Gents—once paid us to provide beer for a graduation party, since we always bragged about how easily we could procure kegs. We scavenged what we could from the nearby outlets, but on that particular night all the kegs we found were nearly empty. We dropped off our haul at a local park where the party was already in full swing. These were white guys straight out of West Side Story, with their gang names embroidered on varsity jackets, but they were still pretty tough compared to us. When they realized we had given them practically dry kegs, we peeled out in Steve’s mom’s Chevy while the gang chased after us with baseball bats.
My parents tried to keep my brother and me away from our troublemaker friends, because clearly none of this was our fault: we were precious little angels being corrupted by an evil influence! But I kept getting into trouble and my grades kept sinking, and when it turned out I would have to repeat my junior year of high school, reality finally set in. My parents enrolled me at a private prep school near Silicon Valley called the Menlo School. It was over 350 miles away from all the bad apples I was spending time with, like Bill Wolff.
Except a year earlier, Bill Wolff’s parents had the exact same idea. Instead of putting 350 miles between us, they inadvertently put us in the same dorm.
Every morning in elementary school, all the students would gather around the flagpole with our hands on our hearts, and a kid named Loring Hughes would play the bugle as the Stars and Stripes were raised. While everyone else focused on the flag, I focused on the bugle. I don’t know if it was the sound of it or the fact that Loring was the center of attention for the whole school, but it was the birth of my desire to become a musician. I took some trumpet lessons but they stuck me in the third chair position in the school band, and eventually demoted me to steadily pounding on a bass drum.
Guitar was the next instrument that called to me. I first strummed one at my friend Bob Wire’s house when I was twelve, and I kept finding excuses to hang out with him and strum it again. I was intrigued by the guitarists in my neighborhood, like Henry Vestine, who would later go on to play in Canned Heat. Whenever I walked by Henry’s house, I would hear the liquid sound of his electric guitar, heavy with reverb and tremolo. Less famous but more influential to me was a guy named Hial King, who was a master of saxophone and drums as much as guitar. His playing impressed me for sure, but what really stuck with me was his look. At first glance, most people probably noticed his greasy pompadour hairdo and his polished penny loafers. But behind it all he was short and dumpy and not much better looking than me, the outcast nerd. Yet all the girls were interested in him. That set off a light bulb in my brain: the guitar could be the cure.
When I arrived at Menlo, there was a Hawaiian guy named Keoki King who lived across the hall from me and had an old Martin 000-21 acoustic. He had found it in a barn on his dad’s ranch so it was in rough shape, but I hope he held on to it: it would be worth thousands today. He didn’t play guitar much so he was always happy to loan it to me. After our classes we would be locked in our dorms, so the choice was either studying or twanging away on Keoki’s guitar. To me, that wasn’t a choice at all.
I played Keoki’s guitar practically every night at Menlo until I finally got an instrument of my own: a traditional flamenco-style acoustic made of lightweight cedar with an ebony fretboard, sculpted by master Mexican luthier Juan Pimentel. Once I picked it up, I almost never put it down. And my theory about the guitar being the key to coolness was proven correct: everyone at school suddenly became my best friend so they could get their hands on my Juan Pimentel acoustic.
Aside from the extended rehearsal time, Menlo also bathed me in new music brought in by other students from all over the country. For the first time I heard Robert Johnson. And B. B. and Albert and Freddie King. The blues. The real deal blues. It was also the peak of the American folk revival, which fed me Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Lead Belly, and—my personal all-time favorite—Bob Dylan.
Rounding out the mix was a healthy helping of flamenco. My dad had a record called Dos Flamencos, an entrancing ballet of classical guitar by Jaime Grifo and Niño Marvino. The intricacy and delicacy of it left me awestruck. Bill Wolff and I decided we would be the next Dos Flamencos. But we were still Dos Beginner Guitarristas.
Over the summer break, Wolff and I split the cost of guitar lessons with some notable flamenco instructors: Peter Evans and Arnold Lessing. They used to play regularly at a place called Casa Madrid on Pico Boulevard, accompanying traditional Spanish dancers who mesmerized Wolff and me with their expressive moves and swishing, swirling sevillana skirts. With regular lessons and diligent practice, we went from terrible to not bad pretty quickly. And when we returned to school, we continued to hone our skills every night after lockdown.
In addition to the gossamer, ethereal sound of flamenco, I was also drawn to the clunky, campy sound of jug band music. Well, not so much the sound as the image. The guys on the cover of the first Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band album looked like goofballs, but they also looked stoned, and being stoned was cool. Wolff, in fact, immediately ran out and bought round blue sunglasses just like the ones jug player Fritz Richmond was wearing on the album cover, predating John Lennon’s trendsetting round sunglasses by several years. The music itself was so unapologetically corny that it felt almost defiant. My schoolmates and I snuck out to see Jim Kweskin and Dave Van Ronk live at clubs around the Bay Area. We also caught a show or two featuring Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, with Jerry Garcia, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, and a fellow Menlo student named Bob Weir, all three of whom would later go on to form the Grateful Dead. Everyone at school always talked about how cool Bob Weir and the Mother McCree’s guys were, so my friends and I started thinking that if we formed our own jug band, we could be the cool guys everyone was talking about.
The beauty of jug band music was that it didn’t require too many real instruments. I played guitar, Wolff pulled double duty on guitar and washboard, Scott played kazoo, Jerry played a washtub bass, and Phinizy sang and played the jug. We called ourselves the Back Bay Chamber Pot Terriers, which was Phinizy’s idea. He was from the Back Bay area of Boston. The rest of us were California born and bred, so the name didn’t make much sense. But we heard if you were from the Back Bay you were cool, and Phinizy used to have a band with the same name and wanted to use it again. Out of all the bands I’ve been in over the years, it’s certainly not the worst name I’ve played under.
We performed only once, at a meeting of the school’s Women’s Auxiliary. I thought we’d be off in a corner somewhere providing background music while the ladies socialized, but when we arrived there was a stage and microphones and rows upon rows of well-dressed, middle-aged women sitting and staring at us expectantly.
We ran through a handful of jug band covers, mostly Jim Kweskin songs like “Washington at Valley Forge.” With the tchk-tchk-tchk of the washboard and a chorus that went “Voe doe dee o doe,” it was objectively silly music, and certainly not what a room full of moms would have preferred. The weight of self-consciousness was heavy on my shoulders as we played. But they loved us! They didn’t jump out of their chairs and dance or anything, but it really seemed like their smiles and applause were genuine. Maybe they were humoring us, but it was my first time onstage, and the validation of a crowd—even just a crowd of politely clapping old ladies—was enough to ensure it wouldn’t be my last.
- “Set the Night on Fire is always warm, often funny, and frequently revelatory…an intimate and honest look inside one of the most compelling outfits in music. It towers above the piles of other Doors documents as a powerful reminder that the truth can be more fascinating than the myth.” —People
- “Doors guitarist Krieger riffs melodiously through the discordant and harmonious measures of his life and times with the band in this galloping, episodic debut.” —Publishers Weekly
- “Krieger [is] just as compelling as a writer as he is with his vast carousel of Gibsons…But besides the treasure trove of new Doors anecdotes in his memoir, the guitarist and singer-songwriter candidly reveals many other personal stories about “living and dying.”—Vulture
- “Set the Night on Fire is the best memoir by a band member of one of the era’s most unique—and mythologized—groups.”—Houston Press
- "Krieger relays untold anecdotes and he's ribaldly funny...Everyone remotely connected to the Doors has written reminiscences of the Lizard Kingdom, but this is one of the very best."—MOJO
- On Sale
- Oct 12, 2021
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Little, Brown and Company