Instruments With Souls, or What Weird Al and Ray Manzarek Have Taught About Making Music of the Soul

May 29, 2013 at 11:25 am, by

Long gone are the days of “Weird Al” Yankovic rocking out on his accordion with Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz making flatulent sounds with his hands to “I Love Rocky Road.”

In fact, as soon as the song emerged from the studio and went onto the big stage, it seems that the flatulent sounds left the room, and the playing got to be a little bit sloppier–like rock and roll worthy of Joan Jett’s approval.

Fast-forward just under 30 years after the 80’s rock imitations of Weird Al, and we find Weird Al still poking fun at the young, hot musicians. But those chart-topping musicians hardly play their own instruments. In fact, hardly anyone is playing instruments anywhere as much as their producers simply program certain sounds into the hits.

Yankovic, on Alpocalypse, hardly plays his accordion–thusly reproducing ever more closely the sounds of the spoofed songs. For example, “Party In the CIA” is as heavily electronic and stiff as Miley Cyrus‘ original “Party In the USA.”

And, live, for some reason, Yankovic’s shows of late have taken on a form appealing to Beliebers and Lady Gaga‘s monsters. “Party In the CIA” is just as stiff live as it is on the recording–and, even watching the DVD of The Alpocalypse Tour–we can now see Weird Al live basically reproducing note-for-note the studio version while performing in front of the music video in the background.

While I love seeing Weird Al live, the concert of his I saw in October felt to me more like a karaoke night featuring Weird Al. Despite his band being with him, the pre-recorded music which they accompanied took away from my appreciation of the hidden talent in front of me.

My daily prayer includes Psalm 150–a listing of different musical instruments whose expressivity are said, or part of a command, to praise God. But the Psalm ends curiously: kol hanneshamah tehallel yah, haleluyah (“Let all breath praise God, Hallelujah!”).

A literalist would argue with the Psalmist, for musical instruments do not breathe. But a poet is more likely to understand. Musical instruments not only breathe, but they also are given life by the musicians who work them. They are given extraordinary lives by extraordinary musicians.

Last week saw the passing of Ray Manzarek, the founding keyboardist of The Doors. His wild, rocking keyboard riffs are well-known from the band’s hits, such as “Hello, I Love You,” “Touch Me,” and “Light My Fire.”

It was precisely this psychedelic sound Weird Al spoofed in his mind-altered soundscape of “Craigslist.” The professional he is, Yankovic enlisted the talents of one Ray Manzarek to play the organ on this Doors style parody.

I would venture to guess that most fans of The Doors do not think about what Ray Manzarek sounded like when he was practicing what later became classic rock hits. Instead, many of us are inclined to think of the final products.

So credit must be given to Al Yankovic, who, in an age where his own music tends to be always perfect–because it is prerecorded (to keep up with the kids)–released a video of Manzarek recording his organ parts for “Craigslist.” And, as one might imagine, Manzarek was not perfect, and we hear an utterly human side of this rock god: bad notes, bad rhythms, missed cues, and all.

Undoubtedly, what made Manzarek incredible was not just his virtuosity but his humanity: his talent, checked by his margin of error. It is the same quality that made Yankovic’s genius in the 80s so fun live: the ingenuity, and the mistakes (missed notes, rushing, etc.). While mistakes are a reason to love a human, and they are a reason to hate a computer; which is why pre-recorded music must be flawless.

For musicians, the best music to make is soul music. Not pre-programmed music. Music from the soul. Music that a musician can produce from the heart but no one else could ever replicate.

Let all breath make music. Or let breath cease to breathe.

May Ray Manzarek’s memory and music breathe on as blessings in the history of sound.

“Breath of breaths; everything is breaths.”Ecclesiastes 1:2

Ray Manzarek, of The Doors: 1939-2013.

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