I’ve never been a particular fan of the Doors: eight or nine great tracks but in other respects I couldn’t get in to them. It wasn’t that they were just before my time, or that they were too much of their time and too little else for other eras because, for one thing they weren’t that at all, and for another that sort of thing has never stopped me in the past. Some times it just dosn’t click. It’s never stopped me acknowledging that they were one of the major bands of the late Sixties.
It was late last night, and I was just rounding up before going to bed, when I read that Ray Manzarek had died of cancer, aged 74. No matter how late, that meant I had to turn to those two tracks by the Doors that, for me, are immortal. I logged into YouTube and, to my delight, found remastered versions of each that enhanced the sharpness and clarity of the music and, in the case of the first, restored its essential loudness, and its sheer sonic crunch.
This was, naturally, Light My Fire. It was an American no. 1, but did nothing in the UK, where instead we Top 10ed a radically different and acoustic version by Jose Feliciano. Sometimes I am very ashamed of my country: I mean, Jose Feliciano, come on.
It’s the archetypal Doors song, the epitome of their sound, with Manzarek’s organ dominating, simultaneously making a complex riff sound cool and simple, and providing the bass rhythm that allowed the four-piece to function without a bass player. John Densmore provides a tight rhythm that holds the song together over its full seven minute distance, anchoring long solos by, first Manzarek, then guitarist Robbie Kreiger, who otherwise is content to minimise his chops and allow Manzarek to carry the main burden of the music.
And upfront there’s Morrison. The Lizard King, Jim Morrison. His voice soars over the song, deep, wide, containing within it its own space that distances him in front of the music. Even as just a voice, he is a magnetic, charismatic presence, effortlessly drawing the ear into him.
And the song? It’s about sex. It’s about that moment of taking the final leap, of relying on trust in what you’ve built up, of acting not waiting, the first time of going to bed together. And of fucking each others’ brains out. It’s the music that makes this latter point, building and cresting. Morrison is self-confidence, not needing to boast or promise, and the band, through their instruments, speak of the heights of passion that are to come.
We also sent Will Young to no. 1 with Light My Fire, admittedly in a different age. Doesn’t it just shame you to know that.
The other song, though of almost the same length, could not be more different. To me, it’s a book-end. It came out as a single in 1971, after Morrison’s death, and we managed to scrape it almost but not quite into the Top 30. It is,of course, Riders on the Storm.
This song is about night and foreboding, and darkness, rain and the feeling of a late night, long road-trip, with the rain pressing down for hours, no-one else about, the roads slick and anything possible. It begins with, is underpinned by, the sound of rain, of thunder, the most extraordinarily effective use of sound-effects in a song, and the most organic. Again, Manzarek’s keyboard dominates the sound, but he has opted for piano here, and not organ. It’s a cold, clear round, wth cascades of notes reflecting the fall of the rain.
Krieger and Densmore again stay cool. Krieger has his chance to solo in the latter part of the song,strong and passionate yet, like all the song, keep himself within a restraint. This song’s passion is hidden within. Its atmosphere is icy, and does not break. The band hold themselves together. Morrison again sings from a distance, over and above the music. His voice is breathy, he is singing within himself, painting a picture as the Sixties slide away, oblique warnings, the need for love, the presence of threats.
The song settles into itself. It could last forever and still you would want to be in there.
Light and Dark. Outward and Inward.
Thank you Ray Manzarek, thank you Morrison, Kreiger and Dunsmore. Sleep easy.