No Doors, No Radio: An Interview with George Winston, Part II

George Winston in Concert
George Winston, Playing in Concert

(Our interview with American pianist George Winston, continued from Part I.)

DE: You worked with Ray, how was it working with someone who you’re previously a fan of?

GW: Well, it was pretty amazing, I hung up the phone 4-5 times when I was calling him for the first time, I‘m going to hang up I’ll call him later, but you have to do it, you have to call him. So he made it seem you’ve  known him for 20 years, of course. We did a little piano thing in New York in the rehearsing for that, he wanted to do two piano’s with no singing, not him on organ. I don’t play with anybody very well but I said “I can weave my way through this,”  because he is one of my influences. I have a really hard hearing time somebody else when I play, I just don’t have the group gene. I was never very good with a band, I kind of don’t have that play with people gene part of me, I don’t have belief gene, I don’t have a breeding gene, I mean I’m missing a lot genes. It was great because we were getting to “Light My Fire”, I said, ‘Ray, you should play your solo, relax, but I do play Robby’s solos,’ so it worked out great. “Night Divides the Day” was released, he was in New York, I think promoting the film he did, “Love Her Madly”, so it kind of synchronicity of the schedules. He’s such a great guy, it’s great to communicate about things, we both love Al Kooper. He founded the first Blood, Sweat and Tears, “Child is the Father to the Man “ I said, “I noticed a second of “House in the Country.”” We went to see where they did that first album. We were in New York, we had to go. “Night Divides the Day”, the second line in “Break on Through”, I wake up when the sun sets, so, to me the night is my day. Ray asked me, “what am I going to call a Doors album?” And the cover, what are you going to do for a cover for a Doors album? I don’t know what I’m to do for “No Clocks”. Actually, I have the cover. I grew up in Montana and when I tour there you see a million animals, and once in a great while you see a red fox, and it is striking. I’m going to have a picture of a red fox in the snow for an album called “No Clocks”, so occasionally someone might go ‘oh yeah, a fox, “Twentieth Century Fox:, “no tears, no fears, no rules, no clocks,”’ I’m going to make people work for that one!

DE: What songs are you planning for “No Clocks”?

GW: Working through the songs, “L.A. Woman” is taking forever, I want to do it, I work out all the parts everybody’s doing. Well, first of all I play the piano before I know their parts, I play the piano to make it all work, I research what they all do, and then go back to the piano, it’s a piano piece, it’s not transcribing The Doors. I like to approach it uneducated, then educated, it takes as long as it takes. “L.A Woman” I first looked at it a couple of years ago as far as trying to play it. “Break on Through” I’ve been trying since ‘67 and I’m about eighty percent there on that, I think I know what to do. One of the live versions that Bright Midnight released there’s the line “there she sits all by herself,” I want to use those licks, those lines he’s singing, and not to be clever, but it works! Of course it works he did it! It’s hard playing Jim’s vocal line on the right, and Robby’s on the left so I’m kind of, do I do it with octaves? I’m still kind of working it out, then I set it aside for a while, I mean that’s the first piece I ever heard of The Doors, I have to do it, it’s like you’re underwater you have to have oxygen. You know, it may take ten more years, if that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes. It’s like the apples are going to grow on the trees when they want to grow, not when I tell them to grow. It’s also about setting it aside and living life too.

DE: When I was listening to “Night Divides the Day”, it seemed that Robby’s guitar parts in “Love Her Madly” translated really well to your piano playing, did you find that to be true?

GW: I was playing the James Booker left hand, I wasn’t trying to emulate Robby. The James Booker left hand is mainly what I use for anybody. I think that was a good accident I was trying to get that same driving kind of thing. It can’t sound like piano transcription, it has to be they are a piano piece, if somebody had never heard The Doors and they heard that, they would say, ‘oh, that’s a pretty good piano, what’s the name of that?’ On “Back Door Man” they didn’t do everything Willie Dixon did or John Hammond Jr, they just found out how to do the song, and in a way they taught me what to do with theirs. They’re the ones that started me playing. Professor Longhair is the one that started me playing after I quit in the late 70’s, so I got two chances, I’m the luckiest man in the world.

DE: You’ve mentioned that your left hand is James Booker and your right hand is Jim Morrison, or maybe I confused them?

GW: Left hand James Booker, right hand Jim Morrison that’s the main temperament, not on purpose, but that’s kind of what it ended up being.

DE: Ray also talks about his left hand is for boogie woogie, and his right hand is for more Bach like notes. When you were playing with him did you find a lot of common ground in your approaches?

GW: We rehearsed to see what meshed. I played a lot of different left hands, so I simplified my left hand so certain things wouldn’t clash with his left hand. I modified the James Booker left hand so the notes would come out and double some of Ray’s notes. He’d be more the older boogie-woogie and I’d be more New Orleans, some of the New Orleans stuff comes from boogie-woogie, Professor Longhair very much came from boogie-woogie, James Booker came out of Professor Longhair, it’s a matter of not having things clash with the left hand not getting too muddy down there. All I did was follow what he did and then complement him. I’m not a duet player, I regard myself as I was backing him up, if you were a drummer, what’s the man doing, let me do the stuff that’s appropriate for what the song is. He’s the composer, so I said, I’ll just try to complement him the best I can, I’m not that great at it, I figured out what parts to do in practice, and they weren’t some the parts that I would normally do. If in doubt keep it simple. There’s nothing to prove, here let’s just the song good.

DE: Have you met Robby and John?

GW: I met Robby very, very briefly one time, just for a second, just between one place and another, Ray introduced me real quick. I’ve never met John, maybe some day.

DE: John is the drummer, do you think percussion would enhance what you do?

GW: I use the piano as a percussion instrument, because it is, you’re striking. James Booker sounds like a trap set, stride piano sounds like Gene Krupa, Professor Longhair sounds like a conga drummer. I do use some of John’s parts like “Light My Fire” and the “Break on Through” intro, I have to have that thing in there in some way. That whole thing on “Light My Fire” when they go three against two, it was like the pianist, guitarist and the drummer were one, and the fact they had simple bass lines gave that grounding, and that groaning kind of thing, in a way like a traditional jazz band in New Orleans in the early 20th century, they were all improvising as they were playing, and the fact that the base wasn’t, whether they were using a bass player playing Ray’s lines or Ray playing a consistent bass, that’s part of their sound, that everybody wasn’t going off the bass kept it all coherent, much like in a Dixieland band, the banjo players would be consistent back then in the 40’s, the trumpet, trombone and clarinet were all moving around each other, and they [The Doors] were kind of doing that too, they were weaving all within the cord structure and bass line, having that constant bass freed it up so when they had a bassists in the studio they asked them to play Ray’s bass line. The one Ray would use when playing live, it was part of the sound to have that bass weave that kind of situation. It gave them more freedom to improvise, and Jim improvised a lot too. Have you seen the video the making of the first album? [Classic Albums: The Doors]

DE: No, I haven’t.

GW: It’s about the making of the album, interviewing Ray, Robby and John. A lot of Bruce Botnik doing the faders so you can hear how it was before they mixed it. You can hear The End, Jim going fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, you had to take that out. People think there’s censorship now, try back then? It was much worse back then, that whole story Jim couldn’t even say ‘high,’ I thought he was saying ‘seek it,’ ‘seek it,’ which would make sense ‘seek it,’ ‘seek it,’ ‘break on through’ ‘seek it.’ He was saying ‘she gets high’ and they were cutting out the high, and it was effective in its own way.

I have all their live Bright Midnight recordings, it’s really wonderful to hear. I had all the old tapes from Kerry [Kerry Humphries, Doors Collector Magazine], it was very educational to hear things live, some times Ray would play a different cord, a bass note comes up some times, I would use that, then it spurred me on, maybe I’ll think of something else, the more I get educated, the more I think of too. When you’re hearing old cassettes you can and can’t hear what’s going on, it’s kind of good because you have 3 or 4 things instead of one now. You have all the things you thought was this, which some don’t work out, but some do, it’s all part of the incredible experience with The Doors. When I met Ray I said ‘I tell you right now, I have a lot of stuff I’m not supposed to,’ he said, “well, people want it, why not?’ Ray is the ultimate guy that gets asked the same question by everybody in the history of the planet, I’m only going to ask one Doors question, ‘when did you switch from the vox to the Gibson organ?’ He said about June ‘67. The first time I ever saw them, Ed Sullivan, September of ‘67, man I was glued to that TV and the way Jim sang ‘fire’ twice in that version rearranged my DNA even more, there was something about those guys that was completely unlike any other, it was so much more than anybody else. I didn’t have an occurrence like that again until I heard Fats Waller or Professor Longhair.

DE: When you’re playing The Doors’ music does it make it any less mysterious or give you an insight into it?

GW: It never seemed mysterious to me it, it was like, ‘this is it,’ it might be mysterious why this is it, but if you know this is it, there’s nothing to fix. If you have a cat and love the cat every time you see the cat you have this huge love, there’s nothing to fix, there’s nothing to think about. I just love to play the songs, I play them at the live shows, I kind of wore out all the ones from the first record [Night Divides the Day]. I’m playing “Love Hides”, some times, I play “Keys to the Kingdom”, I think the little ballad Jim did in “Celebration of the Lizard”, I’m working on “Break on Through” and “Unknown Soldier”,L.A. Woman”. I credit Jim Morrison with ending the Vietnam War, he didn’t say ‘lets end the war’ he said ‘the war is over’ and finally in 1975 everybody else heard it. I credit him with some of that, that ending, just saying its over. I credit the people the same who did it too, I credit him with the insight to say it’s over.

DE: You’re on tour right now, how’s that going?

GW: I’m out about 80% of the time which is what I like to do. I’ll be doing some benefits for Japan service groups, I did some for Haiti service groups back when that happened. Can’t do everything but we all do what we can, I’ll try to do a couple recordings that will benefit the Japanese. Right now it’s not even over. Haiti was over in 60 seconds, when is it over? It’s never happened where there was an earthquake, tsunami, and the nuclear plants, this is as bad if there had been a hurricane after the oil spill, no one would have known what to do with that, it’s unprecedented. I have a lot friends over there, I’ve been there 20 something times, I have a lot relationships in Japan. When I go there it feels like going to Massachusetts, after all these years spending a month a year there, every year.

DE: Do you have any new projects coming out?

GW: In 2006 I did “Gulf Coast Blues Impressions”, after Hurricane Katrina, Volume 2 is coming out later this year. New Orleans still, driving through the 9th ward it still looks like a film, unreal, like the hurricane happened last week or last month.

DE: How about “No Clocks”?

GW: Hopefully it won’t take 35 years like the last one, I think it’ll be out in a few years.

DE: Thank you for talking with me today.

GW: Thank you.

For information on George Winston appearances and recordings please visit his website.

Originally published in two parts on March 28 & 29, 2011.

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