How the Doors Set the Night on Fire



(Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal)

About six minutes into the song, a visibly stoned Jim Morrison bent over and pointed his leather-clad rear toward the Hollywood Bowl audience. Sensing trouble, keyboardist Ray Manzarek yelled “Jim!” The warning worked. Morrison stood up, retook the mike and completed the hit song: “Light My Fire,” as seen on “The Doors: Live at the Bowl ’68” (Eagle Rock), a newly restored DVD released Monday, Oct. 22.

Collaboratively written by the band in 1966, “Light My Fire” leaves a trail of history behind it. Originally lasting more than seven minutes, it featured one of rock’s first extended album solos. When the shorter single was released in ’67, it reached No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart, and the following year, José Feliciano won a Grammy for his cover version.

Mr. Manzarek and Robby Krieger—two of the Doors’ surviving members—talked about the song’s famed keyboard intro, the Fats Domino connection, and why the single was faster-paced than the album version. Edited from interviews.

Ray Manzarek:By March 1966, we were running out of songs. Up until then, I had been putting chord changes to Jim [Morrison’s] sung lyrics. At a band rehearsal, Jim said, “Everyone go home this weekend and write at least one song.” But when we regrouped the following Tuesday, only Robby had written one. He called it “Light My Fire.”

Robby Krieger: I was living at my parents’ home in Pacific Palisades [Calif.] at the time. In my bedroom, I came up with a melody inspired by the Leaves’ “Hey Joe.” I also liked the Rolling Stones’ “Play With Fire,” so I wrote lyrics that used the word fire.

Mr. Manzarek: We had been rehearsing in the downstairs sunroom of a beach house at the very end of North Star Street near Venice [Calif.]. The people who lived upstairs were at work during the day, so we could bang away without disturbing anyone.

When Robby played his song for us, it had a then-popular folk-rock sound. But John [Densmore] cringed. He said, “No, no, not folk-rock.” He wanted it to sound edgier. He added a hard, Latin rhythm to the rock beat, and it worked.

Mr. Krieger: As Jim sang, he changed the melody line a little to give it a bluesy feel. Then he came up with a second verse right off the top of his head: “The time to hesitate is through/No time to wallow in the mire…”

Mr. Manzarek:Once the lyrics and melody were set, we realized we could jam as long as we wanted on the song’s middle two chords—A-minor and B-minor—the way John Coltrane did on “My Favorite Things” and “Olé.” All of us dug Coltrane’s long solos.

But we needed some way to start the song. At the rehearsal, I started playing a cycle of fifths on my Vox Continental organ. Out came a motif from the Bach “Two- and Three-Part Inventions” piano book I had used as a kid. It was like a psychedelic-rock minuet.

We didn’t use a bass player—I played the bass notes on a Fender Rhodes keyboard bass while my right hand played the Vox, which could be cranked up to a screaming-loud volume. My bass line for “Light My Fire” grew out of Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill,” which I loved growing up in Chicago.

Mr. Krieger: We started playing the song at the London Fog on the Sunset Strip in April and May 1966 and at the Whisky A Go-Go between May and July. Onstage, the song became this rock-jazz jam. Audiences loved it.

Mr. Manzarek: In August ’66, when we went into Sunset Sound to record our first album, producer Paul Rothchild wanted us to record “Light My Fire” just as we had been playing it live. We recorded two takes—each one lasting over seven minutes. Nobody was recording extended solos on rock albums then.

Mr. Krieger: Afterward, Paul felt the song needed a little more drama at the end. Because Paul loved what Ray had done with the minuet in the beginning, he said, “Hell, let’s put it at the end, too.” So he spliced in a copy of Ray’s minuet after Jim’s vocal, as an outro.

Mr. Manzarek: Paul brought in Larry Knechtel of the Wrecking Crew to overdub a stronger bass attack. Then the master was blasted into the studio’s cement echo chamber, which gave the song reverb.

Mr. Krieger: A few months after “The Doors” album came out in January 1967, Elektra founder Jac Holzman called and said the label wanted a single for AM radio. Dave Diamond, an FM disc jockey in the San Fernando Valley, had been playing the album version and was getting a ton of calls.

Mr. Manzarek: But a single meant our 7:05-minute album version had to be cut down to 2½ minutes. Everyone groaned, but Paul said he’d take a crack at it. When we heard the result the next day, the organ and guitar solos were gone. Robby and I looked at each other and said to Paul, “You cut out the improvisation!”

Paul said: “I know. But imagine you’re 17 years old in Minneapolis. You’ve never heard of the Doors and this is the version you hear on the radio. Would you have a problem with it?” Jim sat there and said, “Actually, I kind of dig it.” We agreed.

Mr. Krieger: It was gut-wrenching to hear my guitar solo cut, but I actually liked the single better. I was never crazy about the album version. It had been mixed at a very low volume to capture everything. On the radio, it wasn’t very loud or exciting. The single, though, snapped. The secret was that Paul had wrapped Scotch tape around the spindle holding the pickup reel, so the tape would turn a fraction faster. This made the pitch a little higher and brighter, and the song more urgent.

Mr. Manzarek: I first heard the AM single with my wife, Dorothy, in our VW Bug. Dorothy started bouncing up and down like a jumping jack. I was pounding on the wheel. What a feeling.

Mr. Krieger: At first, I didn’t like José Feliciano’s 1968 version. It was so different and laid-back. But after a while, I came to love it. He made our song his own, which got others to record it. Thanks to José, the song is our biggest copyright by far.

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