In 1966, America was bitterly divided over a controversial war. An actor wanted to become governor of California. And the Doors recorded their debut album.

Flash forward 37 years and only a few details in the aforementioned scenario have changed. Now, it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, not Ronald Reagan, running for California’s highest elected post. Americans are debating our country’s war in Iraq rather than Vietnam. And, after a long hiatus, the Doors are back.

Well, not quite THE Doors. After all, singer and poet Jim Morrison is still dead. And drummer John Densmore has declined to join the reunion. So the band’s two other original members — keyboard player Ray Manzarek and guitarist Robby Krieger — with some fresh recruits, have reinvented themselves as The Doors of the 21st Century ("Doors 21st Century" for short).

Ty Dennis, who has played in the Robby Krieger Band for several years, is on drums. The group now has a bass guitarist, Angelo Barbera, another Krieger Band veteran and a protege of jazz master Jaco Pastorious. This means Manzarek no longer has to use his left hand to play piano bass in concert. And filling Jim Morrison’s big boots (and black leather pants) is Ian Astbury, lead vocalist of heavy British rockers, the Cult. The tour will bring Doors 21st Century to the PNC Arts Center on Saturday, August 23.

"Well, here we are again," says Ray Manzarek in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "It’s like looking at a strange reflection of the ’60s in a dark mirror, and we’re embarking on our musical career one more time. It’s strange how life has a way of doing a full-circle thing."

The seeds of Doors 21st Century were planted three years ago when Manzarek, Krieger and Densmore performed a tribute to the Doors for a segment of VH1 TV’s "Storytellers" series. They were joined by a number of different singers filling in for Morrison, including Scott Weiland (of Stone Temple Pilots), Scott Stapp (Creed), Perry Farrell (Jane’s Addiction, Porno for Pyros), and Travis Meek (Days of the New), as well as Astbury.

"That was a lot of fun, we had a great time doing it," Manzarek recalls. "Then I resumed my periodic touring with Michael McClure, the San Francisco Beat poet, and Robby went back to playing with his band. And people kept coming up to us at our individual concerts and saying, `I saw that thing on TV, when are you gonna take it on the road? Come on, go play live!’ Then, all of a sudden, we got an offer from Harley-Davidson to perform at their 100th anniversary celebration last September. And we decided, `Why don’t we do this already? Let’s go play some music!’"

Now 64 years old, Manzarek sounds rejuvenated by the past year’s concerts. "It’s just a sheer delight to perform Doors songs again for an audience. I only wish John Densmore was along for the ride, but he’s chosen not to come.

"But Ty `The Monster’ Dennis, as we call him, has a very 2001 style of playing. As a rhythm section, he and Angelo are just so locked together. And my left hand (Manzarek refers to each of his hands as if they were people) loves not having to play repetitive bass triads anymore and being allowed to roam free over the keyboards like my right hand always has."

As for Astbury, Manzarek looks upon him as being similar to his legendary predecessor: "Jim Morrison is that dark, brooding, curly-haired archetype, and that’s exactly what Ian is. He’s a Christian who’s into Native-American spirituality, and he’s got that touch of the shaman about him, just like Jim Morrison. It’s like Ian is Jim’s Scotch-Irish cousin."

So how are they different?

"The main difference is that he’s not Jim Morrison," says Manzarek with a laugh. "Jim Morrison was perhaps the best poet of his generation, and Ian is not. But Ian has a voice that’s equal, perhaps, to Jim’s. And he’s a whirling dervish on stage. He doesn’t drink. He’s looking at 40 in the near distance, and he’s still in great shape. He has not abused his body, which, ultimately, unfortunately, led to Jim Morrison’s demise."

So far, Doors 21st Century concerts have been glowingly received across generations and cultures, from the U.S. to Japan, where the band recently toured. "They were singing along!" Manzarek says of the Japanese audiences. "And there was a bunch of young people out there — teenage Japanese jitterbugs. They were singing and bopping, dancing and slamming. It was something to see."

But it hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing for the new band. For one thing, original drummer Densmore has sued Manzarek and Krieger for breach of contract, alleging that, following Morrison’s death, the three had agreed not to use the name "Doors" unless all three of them were involved. However Densmore was unsuccessful in his attempt to slap the band with a restraining order to stop the tour.

"We asked John from the beginning to play live with us," says Manzarek. "First he said he’d gotten tinnitus, a bad ringing in the ears, from playing that `VH1 Storytellers’ program. And I don’t know whether or not he can take two to two-and-a-half hours of hard-rock physical pounding on drums. But I don’t think he wants to admit that, either. So I think he’s tried to make it seem that the purity of the original Doors was being violated.

"But Ian Astbury feels instinctively that he’s honoring Jim Morrison by singing Jim’s words to the public. And that’s exactly the way Robby and I feel. We think Jim would be overjoyed, because he was a poet, first and foremost, and here are his words being sung in a living, rock ‘n’ roll context one more time."

Doors 21st Century also briefly faced a lawsuit filed by Stewart Copeland, former drummer of the Police, and now a busy composer of scores for films and television. Though they had originally hired Copeland to replace Densmore, the group had to let him go when he broke his elbow last winter, because his post-recuperative commitments conflicted with the Doors’ schedule. Happily, the parties quickly settled the suit out of court and remain on friendly terms. Doors 21st Century still hope to involve Copeland in the recording of their upcoming album.

Don’t expect that album to surface until sometime next year. Doors 21st Century are still writing material. For help, they’ve turned to poet Michael McClure, cult rocker/author Jim Carroll (who wrote "The Basketball Diaries"), John Doe of the acclaimed Los Angeles punk band X (whose early albums were produced by Manzarek), and Astbury. They also hope to recruit singer/poet Henry Rollins. "We’re gonna keep that poetic Doors tradition going," says Manzarek.

The material worked up so far bears such titles as "The Street of Crocodiles," "Tension," "Just Like Sherlock Holmes," and "Cops Talk," a moody rocker that was well received last April when Doors 21st Century played at Philadelphia’s Tower Theater.

For the upcoming leg of the tour, Doors 21st Century will open with a few classics, such as "Roadhouse Blues," "Break on Through (To the Other Side)" and "When the Music’s Over." Then, they’ll play the original Doors’ final studio album, "L.A. Woman," which was released in 1971 only a couple of months prior to Jim Morrison’s death. The set is something the group had planned way back when but never got the chance to do.

By realizing that plan, Doors 21st Century follow in the footsteps of Brian Wilson, who in recent years has performed the entire classic Beach Boys album "Pet Sounds," and Love with Arthur Lee, who have revisited Love’s 1967 magnum opus, "Forever Changes," on stage.

"We’re glad to be a part of the revival or reinvention trend that’s happening," Manzarek says.

The concert at the PNC Bank Arts Center will serve as a dress rehearsal for the following evening’s Jones Beach show in New York, which will be filmed for a DVD, to be released next year.

Meanwhile, what seems like the umpteenth Doors anthology has just been released, a two-disc set entitled "Legacy: The Absolute Best." The collection includes a previously unreleased "work-in-progress" studio recording of "Celebration of the Lizard." The Doors started working on it during the sessions for their third album, 1968’s "Waiting for the Sun," but never quite completed it in the studio, save for a fragment called "Not to Touch the Earth." Until now, only an in-concert version of "Celebration of the Lizard" has been available, on the album "Absolutely Live."

"Songs — especially long pieces like that — do not come out of your head completely formed," explains Manzarek. "The Doors would work and work and work on it — mold it, shape it, bend it, twist it. And you will hear a different `Celebration of the Lizard’ than is on `Absolutely Live.’"

Something else the original Doors never got to do was perform in Paris, where Jim Morrison shed this mortal coil. The new group plans to play the City of Lights on December 9, after visiting Morrison’s celebrated gravesite the day before, on what would have been his 60th birthday, in Paris’ Pere Lachaise cemetery.

"Jim could not be buried in a more appropriate place," Manzarek reckons. "It’s an artists’ and poets’ cemetery. Oscar Wilde is there. So is Chopin. It’s tree-lined, along little cobblestone streets. It’s a fabulous, charming cemetery."

Isn’t publicizing this grave-side visit likely to create an unseemly fan and media frenzy? "I don’t think so. The French are very dignified. I’m not worried about that at all," Manzarek replies.

Manzarek was surprised by the mixed reaction he received from fans last April. From the stage of the Tower Theater in Philadelphia, he called for environmental reform, peace, and the defeat of George W. Bush in the next presidential election. Exercising his freedom of speech earned him some intense booing.

"It gives one pause," he laughs. "It makes you think, `Why are you people at a Doors concert? Aren’t there some fascist bands for you to go hear?’

"The Doors do not believe in violence," he continues. "The Doors do not believe in oil as the only way to fuel our economy. You want to hear `Light My Fire’ live but you don’t feel we’re qualified to be political commentators? And yet, Arnold Schwarzenegger is running for governor!"

The Doors 21st Century, PNC Bank Arts Center, Holmdel, 609-520-8383. $25 & $55. Saturday, August 23, 8 p.m.

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