âââ, “I went to a movie,” from Hopkins, 225â26.
Charlie Poole, “If I Lose, I Don't Care” (Columbia, 1927). For the country inside one of the most American songs America has ever produced, see the anthology
“You Ain't Talkin' to Me”: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music
(Columbia, 2005); for the soul, Loudon Wainwright III, “If I Lose,” on
High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project
(2nd Story Sound, 2009).
Light My Fire, 1966/1970
N THE STUDIO IN 1966, the song took shape in two parts: the first half, through Ray Manzarek's solo, and the second half, running Robby Krieger's solo through to the final choruses and then the end.
It's all of a piece. All across Manzarek's solo there is a beast to one side, John Densmore, who with the constant, pushing insistence of tumbling drums, could be eating the music whole, spitting it back. At unexpected moments he pulls back, pulls Manzarek with him, his sound suddenly full of open spaces, and you hear a stick hit the snare as a single event. With Krieger's solo he is more circumspect, as if the beast isn't sure what species of animal it's now faced with, as if it's willing to wait to find out. As the passage goes on, so fluidly from
Krieger, Densmore repeats the single snare shot he used to kick the song off, the first thing you hear, its echo immediately swallowed by Manzarek's opening fanfareâand, at the end, almost the last thing you hear. From start to finish, Densmore's hand is on the wheel; that is why everyone else sounds so free.
Following not Krieger's original composition but Ray Manzarek's mad-scientist lab work, the whole performance is one great circle. The taleâlike a founding story, Moses with his tablets, Fred C. Dobbs with his lottery ticketâhas been told so many times, acted out bit by bit in Oliver Stone's
, because it's a good story.
Just off the beach in Venice, the band is trying to find its music. Morrison has some songs; nobody else does. Like a high school teacher, he gives everyone an assignment: come back with a new song. Only Krieger does: a verse and a chorus. “I was trying to do something that was reminiscent of âHey Joe,'” he said years later, “the version by the Leaves”âan L.A. band whose principal distinction was that they were likely the first of far too many groups to record “Hey Joe,” and possibly the least convincing. For a song about a man killing his unfaithful lover, the Leaves sound like they're playing with matches. But they did have a bright sound and they played fast. Krieger's ambition revealed the germ of trash and chart-chasing at the heart of the high, churchlike seriousness of the band at its most distinctive, for better or for worse: Krieger was trying to write a hit. Why else write songs?
It didn't take anyone long to realize it was a song. As Morrison came up with the second verse, rhyming “mire” with “pyre,” both words were too literary, too far from the ordinary language of the pop song, to have been on Krieger's mind. But
then came the part of the story that made it a story, and made the song something more.
Manzarek thought the music needed a frame, a kicker, something to seal itâsomething that would let the listener pull it out of the air, something that would let the musicians put it there. Go out to the beach, he said. Leave me alone while I figure it out. He gives a technical explanation:
All my classical studies came to fruition. A simple circle of fifths was the answer. The chords were G to D, F to Bb, Eb to Ab (two beats on each chord), and then an A for two measures. Run some Bach filigrees over the top in a turning-in-on-itself Fibonacci spiral.
“Like,” he said, now a poet, someone trying to get you to see what he heard, “a nautilus shell.” You can hear him tell Krieger, Morrison, and Densmore exactly that, and sooner than later the music taking exactly that shapeâa closed but continual MÃ¶bius strip neither musicians nor listeners could escape, something so right, and so unlikely, it almost made no sense.
Announcing itself, announcing the song, announcing the band just after Densmore's first drumbeat, the piece Manzarek devised is thrillingâthrilling as a promise, thrilling as a thing in itself. If the song itself wasn't so eager to say everything all at once, you'd linger over Manzarek's fanfare, wanting to hear it again; it would block the song. But you forget it.
Morrison sweeps through the first verses and choruses like a visitation, a magic carpet on its way to somewhere else, and Manzarek steps into his solo. There is something cheesy, something all but ? & the Mysterians about his soundâto one
ear, the tinny, trebly organ never varying, but to the other ear never boring, textures and shifts of tone and points of view always changing, fast, impossible to track, a car rushing up and down the canyon roads, then out on the Pacific Coast Highway in the middle of the night, a Porsche Spyder, Jan and Dean's woodie, a zebra-striped hearse, from beginning to end anything with a motor and four wheels. Both ears are hearing the same thing at the same time.
When Krieger appears, just after three minutes, it's a surprise, because you've forgotten there's a guitar in the music. Anonymously chording all through Manzarek's solo, as unvaryingly as the bass piano Manzarek uses to plant the rhythm, Krieger has disappeared from his own song, and when he emerges, it's more than a surprise, it's a shock. This is man-on-horseback music, all grandeur, nothing rushed, as stately as a marble staircase, a full-size copy of
The Winged Victory of Samothrace
, or Eric Clapton's solos in “All Your Love” and “Spoonful”: that close to white elephant art, close enough to the immortal to stay on the air for its lifetime without one note ever predicting the next.
In Honolulu, in April 1970, the band spent almost twenty-one minutes in the song. When Krieger stepped in after seven and a half minutes, he turned it toward “My Favorite Things”; two minutes later he was playing hard, searching for a pulse the song might have always hidden, and at twelve minutes he was still flying. He was reclaiming his song; at this point, you've forgotten that Jim Morrison too was ever part of it, and so it's a shock in turn when, after more than fourteen minutes, Morrison returns, as if from limbo, or backstage, or the men's room, to turn the song again, this time into “Fever,” then “Summertime,” then the Doors' own “Love Hides.”
But in 1966, in the studio, there is no accounting for Krieger's hold on the music: the lines he is crafting are so sonically clear, so emotionally transparent, that when he cuts into a fast flurry of notes it's as if the whole edifice is about to crack. Then the flow is back, the coast highway now stretching into the night farther than you can see or even imagine, Manzarek is surfing behind Krieger, Manzarek's shifts and slides appearing and disappearing seemingly without will or intent, carried by Krieger's waves, a great smile, all pleasure, loose in the water, and you might wonder: How can this ever end? How can they get out of this? How will they ever get back to the song? It's like seeing a movie you've seen a hundred times before and still not believing that what happens next will, that you can't change it, that you can't stop the shot, the slamming door, the fall from the bell tower.
They get back with Krieger pulling up short, as if at a roadblock; it's the only jarring moment of the song. But as Krieger stops, John Densmore increases the speed, and soon everyone has followed him over the crest of the music, right into the arms of Manzarek's shining shell, no longer a fanfare, but a confirmation that life is not the same, terrain has been crossed, and the day won't end as it began.
Something is about to happen
, that roll of organ chords said at the start;
something has happened
, they say now.
At the beginning, in the studio, in the first verses, there's an echo on Morrison, creating a hollow, reverberating effect, so that he feels bigger than life, floating above the action, all knowing, all seeing. Smooth, full, rounded, not a crack or a tear, it's not a blues voice, not a rock 'n' roll voice, perhaps closer to Dean Martin's than anyone else's, if Dean Martin could ever bring himself to the pace of “Light My Fire.” But
now, at the end, with the verses and choruses repeating, Morrison too has made the journey, and when he returns with “The time to hesitate is through,” you believe this isn't just a line he's spouting, or using; he's learned that it is true, and his goal, for as long as the song remains his, is to explain how and why this is so. He does it with physical force, pressing on the words, the melody, pulling the organ, the guitar, the drums toward him, until finally at the end his voice can tear.
Densmore again hits his snare, a single beat, but harder, cleaner, than the sound that began the song. Manzarek follows one more time with the little circle the performance has followed, expanded, from the start. It is the most satisfying ending imaginable: it doesn't leave you wanting more. It leaves you shaking your head in delight.
“Light My Fire,”
âââ, Honolulu Convention Center, April 18, 1970, collected on
Boot Yer Butt! The Doors Bootlegs
(Rhino Handmade, 2003).
Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek, in The Doors with Ben Fong-Torres,
(New York: Hyperion, 2006), 43.
Leaves, “Hey Joe” (Mira, 1966, #31).
Eric Clapton, “All Your Love,” on John Mayhall with Eric Clapton,
âââ, “Spoonful,” on Cream,
“You're Not Going to Be Remembered”
HEN ACTORS MIGRATE from movie to movie, traces of their characters travel with them, until, regardless of the script, the setup, the director's instructions, it's partly the old characters speaking out of the mouths of the new ones, guiding a new character's hand into a gesture you remember from two or twenty years before. This transference can be immediately unsettling: Joan Allen and Tobey Maguire as mother and son in 1997 in
The Ice Storm
barely a year later make each movie a version of the other, and each character a version of the people who, as you watch,
the actor and actress are playing somewhere else.
Don't they remember?
you almost say out loud in the theater as Maguire's David tries to get through to Allen's Betty Parker in
, and the answer is, they doânot just the actors, but the characters.
As Harvey Keitel moved on from his first role in Martin Scorsese's 1968
Who's That Knocking at My Door
, through Scorsese's
in 1973, his
in 1976, James Toback's
in 1978âKeitel's best and most extreme performance, seemingly folding everything before and after into a single Jimmy as he breaks into piecesâall the way to Abel Ferrara's
in 1992, to Quentin Tarantino's
in 1994 and on from there, the roles aged Keitel in the strongest manner. He thickened, even coarsened, over the decades; his flesh slipped, his skin went dull, but his eyes burned more brightly when he was old than when he was young. Even playing himself in the stupid finale of
in 1995, he seemed to carry all of his past roles with him, somewhere in the back of his mind, in the fatigue or in the vehemence of his gesturesâand also, in those flinty eyes, the viewer's own memory of those roles. The uncanny appears: with this double memory in play, Keitel moves and speaks as if he is conniving with himself, playing what we haven't seen him do yet against what we've seen him do before.
But the uncanny gains in resonance the farther the echo is from its source. In
, in 1991, Val Kilmer's Jim Morrison is drunk on a plane with his road buddy Tom Baker, played by Michael Madsen, an actor who, when you watch him now, no matter what his role or when the movie was made, always seems to be doing a version of his Mr. Blonde
razor dance to “Stuck in the Middle with You” in
. It's March 1, 1969; Morrison and Baker are on their way to the Miami concert that will upend the Doors' career. Baker looks over at Morrison's belly, which seems to be ballooning as we watch. “What are you going to do when the music's over?” he says, Madsen's face revealing the slightest embarrassment over the telegraphed self-referentiality of the script. But his face retrieves a sense of the real for the next line: “You're not going to be remembered, Jim.” And so after dying in the bathtub in the last scene of the movie Kilmer's Morrison migrates through nearly a score of rolesâan uncredited, out of focus dead Elvis in
, an unsuccessful Bruce Wayne in
, barely noticed as Doc Holli-day in
or barely seen as Simon Templar in
, part of the scenery as Willem de Kooning in
, until finally, with Jim Morrison the one part still burned onto Kilmer's face, he turns up again in L.A. in 2003 in Bob Dylan's
Masked and Anonymous
, scars or scratches down his cheeks, long hair, a loose beard, now herding sheep and goats in a tiny encampment in a parking lot, sharpening a big knife, ranting about God and man and corruption and vanity, all but automatically mouthing
What have they done to the earth? What have they done to our fair sister?
from “When the Music's Over.”