Exactly half a century ago - July 29th 1967 - this song hit Number One on the Billboard Hot One Hundred. This essay is adapted from Mark's book A Song For The Season:
It was 50 years ago today-ish that Sgt Pepper was going on about how it was 20 years ago today. That's to say, the "Summer of Love" is half a century old: It's longer ago today than the summer of flappers and charlestons and bootleg gin was back in 1967. But, boomers being the most self-absorbed generation in history, we're going to be living with boomer pop culture until the very last one keels over at the age of 130 singing "Give Peace A Chance". So we might as well get used to it. And, to be honest, there's one aspect of the Summer of Love I'm quite partial to. What was America's Number One song in that bright new hazy psychedelic dawn? Oh, come on, baby...
Come on, baby, Light My Fire
Come on, baby, Light My Fire
Try to set the night on fire...
It set the summer on fire five decades back. The single was edited down to under three minutes, but the disk jockeys played the original seven-minute album track anyway, from the Doors' eponymous album The Doors. And within a few years it was established as one of those iconic long-form works - "Bohemian Rhapsody", "Stairway To Heaven", "A Day In The Life", "Like A Rolling Stone", etc - that are regarded as the acme of rock. The crude formula seems to be: Length + psychedelic lyric = art. "Light My Fire" comes in at big hit sound 35 on Rolling Stone's Top 500 Songs of all time, and places similarly on other lists of all-time blockbusters. But "Light My Fire" can't be confined to the long-form psychedelia category. For one thing, unlike "Bohemian Rhapsody", it's one of the most "covered" songs of the last 50 years. Once upon a time, that was the natural expectation of a hit tune: it would have seemed extraordinarily reductive to say, okay, some guy's already sung "It Had To Be You" or "The Way You Look Tonight", we better find something else to do. Yet, in an age of singer-songwriters, the idea of a song being particular to one artist became an iron law and deviations therefrom were regarded as "covers", the very term indicating something less than an authentic experience. "Light My Fire" must rank as one of the most covered covers of the rock era, and oddly enough it was taken up by the same kind of singers who, a decade earlier, would have been singing standards: the easy listening crowd, the MOR set, the Europop VIP loungers. Who does "Light My Fire"? Everybody. José Feliciano. Astrud Gilberto. Jack Jones. Les Brown and his Band of Renown. Trini Lopez, Nancy Sinatra, Al Green, Minnie Riperton, Helmut Zacharias, Etta James, Woody Herman, Mae West, Johnny Mathis, Charo, Horst Jankowski, Edmundo Ros and his Orchestra, Ted Heath and his Orchestra, the Enoch Light Singers, the Burbank Philharmonic... As Mitteleuropean groovers like to say, "Gekommen auf Baby, mein Feuer beleuchten!"
My favorite "cool" version is by Julie London, who's so blasé about the whole business you get the feeling you could be rubbing sticks together all night and never get anywhere near to lighting her fire, notwithstanding the orchestral nudges she's getting from the flutes and bongos. And my favorite live version is not the Doors in Boston but Shirley Bassey at the Royal Albert Hall in London a few years ago. Dame Shirl first sang it on her album Something back in 1970, and, while I'm not saying that inside every iconic psychedelic rock track is a faintly camp easy-listening classic trying to break out, for a select few of them that's certainly the case. (By the same token, the all-time greatest version of Queen's "We Are The Champions" was Liza Minnelli's at the Freddie Mercury memorial concert at Wembley: unlike all the scruffy rockers, Liza was the only performer who had the size of the song, and of the performer. Likewise, if you'd stuck Freddie in black tights and a fedora, I'm sure he'd have done a passable "Cabaret".)
The easy listening guys don't have a monopoly on "Light My Fire" - Amii Stewart did a disco version and UB40 had a hit in their distinctive West Midlands semi-ska style. But, granted the enduring cult around the late Jim Morrison, there's something about "Light My Fire" that seems to appeal to millions of people who've never heard of the guy and have zero interest in the counter-culture. And why not? After all, the song owes its creation in part to Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Here's how it happened: The Doors were one of those artsy college-boy groups. Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek had met at UCLA's film school, where Morrison had already come up with the name for his band. Technically speaking, he didn't yet have a band but it's always useful to keep a moniker on tap just in case you need one and Jim thought his was a winner: The Doors. It was an allusion both to Aldous Huxley - The Doors Of Perception - and William Blake - "There are things that are known and things that are unknown, in between the doors", which is so good it could almost be by Donald Rumsfeld. Two months after graduation, Ray bumped into Jim at Venice Beach and asked him what he'd been up to. And Jim read him a song he'd been working on, then called "Moonlight Drive", which is certainly not to be confused with "Moonlight Bay" or "Moonlight Becomes You" or "Give Me The Moonlight" or any previous moonlight songs:
Let's swim to the moon
Let's climb through the tide
Penetrate the evening that the city sleeps to hide
"I'd never heard lyrics to a rock song like that before," said Ray Manzarek - and that was before he heard "The Horse Latitudes":
Children of the caves will let the
Secret fires glow
When the still sea conspires an armor
And her sullen and aborted
Currents breed tiny monsters
True sailing is dead
And the first animal is jettisoned
Legs furiously pumping
Their stiff green gallop
And head bob up
In mute nostril agony
And sealed over...
"We talked a while," said Manzarek, "before we decided to get a group together and make a million dollars." Two isn't really enough for a group, unless you're Wham!, in which case it's too many. But fortunately Ray was into meditation and in his class were two other fellows, John Densmore and Robby Krieger. So they had the manpower, they had the name, they were ready to go. Jim told everyone to go home and try writing a new song. The following day, Robby Krieger strolled in and announced he'd come up with one.
"Way to go, man!" said Jim Morrison. "What's it called?"
"I call it 'Light My Fire'," said Krieger. "I only have a first verse." And he sang:
You know that it would be untrue
You know that I would be a liar
If I was to say to you
Girl, we couldn't get much higher
Come on, baby, Light My Fire
Come on, baby, Light My Fire
Try to set the night on fire...
John Densmore, the band's drummer, thought it sounded like a Sonny and Cher song, or something for the Mamas and Papas. Fey and folky. Not a trace of William Blake. And you can see how Densmore might get that idea, if all you heard was the verse and chorus. It sounds kind of generically folk-rocky - the redundancy of being a liar after being untrue followed by a generalized assertion of highness.
But, on the other hand, everyone thought it was a very cool title: "Light My Fire". "What are the chords, man?" asked Manzarek. And Krieger started to show him - A minor to F-sharp minor. "Whoa, that's hip," said Manzarek, impressed. Up to a point. "But it needs work."
So they set to it. The first thing they required was a second verse. That's Jim Morrison's contribution. He mulled it over and came up with:
The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire
Try now we can only lose
And our love become a funeral pyre...
It's no "Moonlight Drive", but it takes it out of Sonny and Cher/Mamas and Papas territory and pushes it closer to "Riders On The Storm" turf. "The time to hesitate is through": Seize the moment! Very Sixties. What's the worst that can happen? "Our love become a funeral pyre." Heavy, man!
But who cares about the reason with such great rhyme? That's what I love about the lyric. In an age of sloppy "time/mine" false rhymes, "Light My Fire" is almost like a rhyming exercise. There are only two rhymes in the song - "fire" rhymes and "you" rhymes, or two-and-a-half if you include the internal rhyme of "light my fire" with "night on fire". But Krieger's rhymes - "liar/higher" - are conventional pop fare, whereas Morrison's verse sounds like the rhyming dictionary is being stretched to its limits - "mire" and "pyre", but he refuses to tire or preach to the choir. And, if we're a long way from William Blake, you're surprised he didn't get to Lewis Carroll: "'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe..." Indeed, the one impure-ish rhyme - "through/lose" - is rather Carrollesque in the way it carries over the "s" to the "and..." of the next line. The overall result is a weird combination of free love in a constrained form.
By now, John Densmore had warmed up to the number, and decided to do a Latin thing during the verse and a full-throttle four-on-the-floor rock beat for the chorus, a distinction which had the effect of making a very minimal pop song sound more complicated than it was. Okay, we've had two verses, so how about an instrumental break? The Doors were not a conventional rock combo: Robby Krieger was really a flamenco guitarist, and John Densmore and Ray Manzarek were jazz guys. Manzarek's hero was John Coltrane, and what he heard in Krieger's tune was Coltrane's famous recording of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound Of Music. "Things" is a waltz, and "Fire" is four-four, but the chord progressions are basically the same - and, in a killer live performance in Vancouver, Manzarek made the hommage explicit by turning his solo on "Light My Fire" into a medley of "Favorite Things", "Summertime", "Fever" and "St James' Infirmary". On the original album track, the back-and-forth between Manzarek's keyboards and Krieger's guitar is analogous to the give-and-take between Coltrane's soprano sax and McCoy Tyner's piano on "Favorite Things". So the next time The Sound Of Music turns up on TV and Julie Andrews starts going on about bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens, remember that there's a direct line between those brown paper packages tied up with strings and wallowing in the mire when our love becomes a funeral pyre. "My Favorite Things" was one of Ray Manzarek's favorite things, and he drew on it for "Light My Fire". (Ed Driscoll, one of my favorite music writers on the Internet, suggests that Gil Evans' 1957 "Jambangle", which predates the writing of "My Favorite Things" by two years, may be the original model for "Light My Fire". Which takes the song even deeper into standard territory, as, aside from his other talents, Gil was an arranger for Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis et al.)
But it wasn't just Rodgers and Coltrane Manzarek nodded to: Everyone in the band understood that a number like this couldn't just open with your standard pop intro, so he rummaged around for a moment and pulled out a bit of cod-Bach - those circling fifths on the front of the song that tell you this isn't Sonny and Cher, this is Art, with a capital A and a gatefold sleeve.
It was the whoa-that's-hip harmonics that sold it to the MOR crowd. If you're an arranger or an orchestrator, there's not a lot you can do with most rock songs: they're harmonically very limited. But "Light My Fire" was born as a kind of medley of possibilities - jazz, rock, Latin, pseudo-baroque, all on one track - and in the late Sixties easy-listening arrangers loved playing around with it. The Doors let the song down in just one respect, I think. Krieger's verse didn't need just a second verse, but a third and a fourth. It sort of hints at some primal power - the elements, man: earth ("mire"), wind ("higher") and fire ("pyre"). But it needs still more elements - maybe undergrowth ("briar"), rubber ("tire"), onion rings ("fryer") or a Tolkien allusion ("shire"). If you hear it without the five-minute Coltranesque solos, the problem with the song is that you run out of lyric. That's why, in the hugely successful Jose Feliciano version, the poor guy's reduced to going "LightMyFireLightMyFireLightMyFireLightMyFireLightMyFireLightMyFire", which sounds like a 911 call for an emergency third verse that never comes. Yet the Feliciano version was such a hit that it became the cover version which half the other cover versions are covering. When Will Young, the first winner of Britain's "Pop Idol", got to Number One with "Light My Fire" in 2002, he was in effect remaking not the Doors' version of the song but Jose's. And the whole "LightMyFireLightMyFire" groove became such a ubiquitous bit of filler that even Sinatra, who never recorded the song, nevertheless liked to evoke the Feliciano shtick: For the last quarter-century of his career, whenever he did Don Costa's jumpin' arrangement of Stevie Wonder's "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life" in concert, he used to wrap up the song by growling "LightMyFireLightMyFireLightMyFire" - which could, indeed, stand for an entire sub-genre of swingin' rock covers. Sinatra, it's safe to say, intended his Jose Felicitous coda parodically. He loathed "Light My Fire". Driving from Palm Springs to Los Angeles one day, he heard it start on one station, flipped to another, heard it again, flipped to another, heard it a third time, and then pulled the car over, ripped out the radio and crushed it under his foot, leaving it to wallow in the mire while he drove off in a state of great ire.
Just because the song needed more lyrics didn't mean everyone was on board with the ones it already had. Invited to perform on "The Ed Sullivan Show", the Doors were instructed to eschew "Girl, we couldn't get much higher" for "Girl, we couldn't get much better", which, unlike "Girl, you're starting to perspire" or "Girl, my pants are in the dryer", doesn't even rhyme. Come the big night, on live TV, Jim Morrison forgot to sing "better" and sang the usual "higher". Ed Sullivan was so furious he refused to shake Morrison's hand: Man, you couldn't get much ruder. The producer said they'd never be booked on the Sullivan show again: Girl, we couldn't get re-hired.
But what did they care? Fifty years ago, it was a bizarre freakish one-off of a song that caught the ear of all kinds of folks. The boys were right: "Light My Fire" is a great title. If it takes a psychedelic Summer of Love to give Shirley Bassey a real boa-shaker of a number, so be it. And, long after "Riders Of The Storm" has been forgotten, somewhere in some Mitteleuropean tavern some elderly Continental groover with a Hammond organ will still be cranking out "Gekommen auf Baby, mein Feuer beleuchten!"
~This essay was adapted from Mark's book A Song For The Season. Order your personally autographed copy today, exclusively from the Steyn Store. And don't forget, if you're a Mark Steyn Club member, you get special member pricing on that and over 40 other books, CD and other products at the Steyn Store just by entering your special promo code at checkout.
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