The Doors: “Light My Fire” (The Doors, 1967)
Somewhere in the middle of last week, Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist for the Doors, died of cancer. I wasn’t able to follow the coverage. I barely had time to eat this past week—no food and no sleep is a combination with peculiar effects, to say the least.
But as I kited in a daze from engagement to engagement and task to task, Manzarek stayed back there in my mind, and I threw a few Doors songs on my laptop so I could listen to them as I worked to knock out the last bits of a first draft. They’re on my iPod, so they shuffle past every now and then, mixed with other things, but I haven’t sat down and listened to “Crystal Ship,” “End of the Night,” “You’re Lost, Little Girl,” “Break on Through,” or “Waiting for the Sun” intentionally in quite a long time.
Last year (I think; it feels like five years ago), I did a series of posts on the Doors, including a couple where I asked people what they thought of the band. Doug at Life’s Grand Parade described them as “Baby’s first rock band.” It’s a funny way of putting it, but it’s not untrue, really. The Doors aren’t anyone’s end point; they’re a band you walk through to get to other things, a sort of training ground for listeners who want to get into farther-out stuff but still want that tether to the blues and the sharp chorus, and the frontman with charisma.
Which is not to say they don’t have merit as their own thing. The way people use them isn’t theirs to control, and the Doors were, at heart, a band with ideas at a time when ideas carried a great deal of currency in rock music. Some of those ideas were fantastic, some not so much, but it adds up to a fascinating whole body of work. The Doors were exactly as awesome as you thought they were in high school, and exactly as terrible as you thought they were in college.
Jim Morrison is, for obvious reasons, thought of as the voice of the band, but when I listen to them, I really hear four voices; three of them are just speaking through instruments. Sometimes, there are other people in the room—Clear Light bassist Douglas Lubahn, the odd oboe player—but it’s really these four guys, who have read a lot of philosophy and beatnik road stories and tried out meditation and obtained degrees they aren’t using, trying to make sense of all that in the form of songs.
Ambition of the kind the Doors poured into their music is risky. As the Field Music song says, “them that do nothing never make mistakes.” The Doors have been punished by critics for ages for going out on a limb and often failing to come back with the kind of results that the post-punk world says are okay. Their earnestness, their belief in what they were doing, has become a sort of concrete wreath for them in certain circles, circles where the response to that is to criticize the ego inherent in thinking you’re doing something special.
But if any artist ever made and sold art without just a little bit of ego invested in it, I have not heard of that person. Little things like me writing this and putting it out there have dribs and drabs of ego attached to them—writing a suite in which you proclaim yourself the lizard king in front of lots and lots of people is different only by degree.
Ray Manzarek was hardly a passive partner in all of the Doors’ creative excesses; he was Morrison’s equal creatively, just as responsible for the sound of the band and the occasionally wooly-headed poetry at the heart of the songs. His organ gave the music its essential color, whether he was playing it clean as he did here, on “Light My Fire,” or covered in weird distortion, as he did on “Waiting for the Sun.”
The Doors’ debut came out in January, 1967, before every other boundary-shattering landmark album that came out that year, and it moved the goalposts, not just with “The End” drawing its Oedipal fantasy and sitar-based guitar tunings out past ten minutes, but also with all that confidently deployed philosophy and instrumental interplay. Manzarek’s solo on “Light My Fire,” as long as a lot of pop songs of the era, is a pretty strong step toward progressive rock, jam bands, and the importation of jazz principles to rock. If nothing else, a whole lot more people heard it than the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s “East-West.”
Manzarek did other things—produced The X, guested on Echo & the Bunnymen and "Weird Al" Yankovic tracks, etc.—and they all come up in the obituaries I’ve been catching up on this week, sometimes to fill out the story, and other times in what seems like an attempt to prop up the story with credentials more acceptable to publication’s audience. Which is fine—you have to play to your people, I guess.
I’ll miss Manzarek. I liked his playing a lot, and I think his most famous band was important and necessary and good, even when the ideas got a little off the rails. I love that the Doors were willing to go out there and act like they were shamans tapped into some deep well of philosophical knowledge. I love that they took themselves seriously doing silly things. I love that I loved them, then hated them, then came to like them again as I worked through all the ways that music gets tied up with your self-identity when you’re in your 20s. I love that they’re the kind of band that some people adore and others loathe. I love that this song still sounds this good so many decades later.
RIP, Ray. Your band made things a little more interesting.