|For a Song
Without closely considering all of the words, it would be easy to assume the well-known Doors song "Light My Fire" fell into a typical pop-song formula: a male singers plea to a woman for some "good lovin." Josť Felicianos smooth acoustic flamenco version probably confirms that assumption for many listeners. But the more sinister-sounding original recording, with Doors singer Jim Morrisons satanic vocals and Ray Manzareks gothic organ riffs invoking vampire movies, expresses more of the lyrics dimensions.
Dont make a liar of me
The song opens with a curious statement whose conditional nature is emphasized by its two "would" clauses: "You know that it would be untrue / You know that I would be a liar ." Each of these clauses starting with "You know " implies the person to whom they are sung might be seeking to deny the substance of the singers proposition (double entendre intended). But the singer wont let her -- two lines later, she is called "Girl" -- off the hook. He not only insists on the truth of his statement; he insists the woman he is addressing knows it is true whether she will admit it or not.
What is "it" that would make him "a liar" if he joined in her attempt to deny it? That they "couldnt get much higher." Immediately after this comes the refrain: "Come on, baby, light my fire (repeat) / Try to set the night on fire." Usually "getting high" or "higher" refers to recreational drug use. Could "my fire" be the singers marijuana joint or pipe -- is he asking for "a light"? I dont think so, because (1) getting higher on marijuana would not require that the woman wield the match, (2) the two of them would not necessarily both get higher if only his "fire" were lit, and (3) most of the songs language is about love -- there is no specific reference to smoking any drug.
The expression "to light [someones] fire" typically refers to sexual arousal, heat and fire being standard metaphors. "He lights my fire." "He has the hots for her." "A hunk-a burnin love." "He is so-o-o hot." Flying above the ground -- literally getting higher -- is also a standard metaphor for sexual arousal. But as the song progresses, a further-reaching possibility emerges, which helps to explain verse 2: "The time to hesitate is through, / No time to wallow in the mire ." The song considers a womans hesitating to increase a mans sexual arousal to be a moral shortcoming. Quite a departure from conventional thinking of the time and of preceding centuries -- though one would hardly know it today from tips routinely offered in magazines and sex-therapy literature.
To wallow in the mire is to roll around in mud or to flounder in it. Pigs and other nonhuman animals literally, deliberately roll around in mud -- to cool off and to cleanse themselves of parasites (though pre-scientific interpretations had it that they were just filthy). Humans wallow metaphorically -- in self-pity, in self-doubt. But according to thousands of years of the "Great Chain of Being" and Christian ethics that adopted it -- thinking that has increasingly been called into question since Darwin -- humans are inherently superior to all nonhuman animals. According to conventional thinking, humans show moral superiority partly by limiting sexual activity to the marriage bed, by female "chastity" (as opposed to other mammals being "in heat"), and males idealizing female "purity."
The "Chain" also instilled in countless minds the notions that men are superior to women and children, whites are superior to blacks and Jews -- and the further "down the Chain" one gets, the closer ones moral worth to that of nonhuman animals, who supposedly exist only to serve humans and have no inherent value. So, when Elvis Presley brought what had been popular black music into white living rooms, and when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones followed, many Americans hit the roof because of the overtly sexual nature of the music, lyrics, and performing styles that excited young women. Morrison upped the ante dramatically by actually taking out onstage what a member of his band called "his serpent." Some found rock degrading, drawing forth our "animal nature." Expressing versus suppressing sexuality and showing versus concealing the human body remain at the heart of the so-called "culture wars," which now involve people halfway around the planet from the US.
Thus, "Light My Fire" goes far beyond the accepted theme of male courting female and subverts conventional morality by declaring a human females acting to intensify a males sexual arousal to be of higher virtue than her "hesitating." The song exhorts against inhibition -- wallowing in the mire -- and in favor of heightened sexual experience, not suppression of desire, as the basis of a good relationship. It conveys a core message of the sexual revolution that was occurring when the song debuted. "Light My Fire" probably took inspiration from the concept of sexual liberation and in turn fueled it further. This is not to explain the lyrics based on the time in which the writer lived. The words themselves convey all of this.
"Light My Fire" hit the scene after introduction of the pill. Ingesting the chemical compound enabled women to do away with the most feared result of sexual intercourse outside of marriage, for which men had been admired, women scorned. Simultaneously, it eliminated the need to either require a male partner to wear a condom -- usurping in some minds the "male role" of calling the shots (double entendre intended) -- or to insert a diaphragm -- less effective than the pill when used, and men often refused to tolerate the interruption. Which brings us back to that fire our singer so badly wants lit.
What about that other fire?
Conventional thought has it that what the singer is asking his partner to do would "bring her low," not make the two of them "much higher." The sexual order is a-changin -- the low ones now will later be high. The implications are significant and help to explain the songs warning that if the woman will not do as the singer urges, they "can only lose" and their love "become a funeral pyre."
Death has long been associated with sexual climax due to the temporary shattering of consciousness and sensation of disintegrating and obliterating boundaries between self and other. In "Light My Fire," the singer says if he and his partner do not abandon themselves to pleasure, their love will die and the fire that occurs instead will be that which burns their loves corpse. He is saying to her, Wouldnt you much rather experience the flames of burning desire than witness those other flames? As opposed to the conventional notion that two become one when they marry, the song implies an extra-marital sexual relationship can produce a third being -- love itself -- which can live or die based on the heights the couple scale or fail to scale.
No wonder right-wingers of various persuasions look to 1950s America to map their preferred future. Then, millions of women who had worked outside of the home during World War II submitted to a rigid housewife-mother role and white-male dominance was re-established on the "home front" of the "war between the sexes." The 1960s, by contrast, brought rapidly expanding horizons in the form of mind-expanding drugs, "privates"-displaying performers like Jim Morrison, open sexuality, sexual equality, breaking down of other long-standing hierarchies, and other phenomena conservatives abhor -- even if many of them violate their own stated principles and seek impunity, and many promote themselves using language of freedom and equality.
The Doors first album came out in 1967, with a six-and-a-half-minute version of "Light My Fire." The edited version released as a single made it to #1. Josť Felicianos flamenco rendition, released in 1968, reached #3 -- not a bad showing for any record, to be sure. It is hard to deny that Felicianos version "hesitates" -- though I wouldnt go so far as to say it "wallows in the mire." The style doesnt signal to the listener, as the wilder, more intensely aflame Doors recording does, that the lyrics communicate something beyond old-style wooing.
We might even conjecture that right-wingers are likely to prefer Felicianos version. Like the recordings of Pat Boone, Amy Grant, and many others, it enables a listener to be hip enough to like rock music without appearing to embrace the freedom and equality promoted by rocks originators and creative geniuses. By deflecting attention from the songs actual complex and culturally innovative message, Felicianos "Light My Fire" allows listeners to enjoy the melody and rhythm while pretending the sexual revolution did not happen or perhaps can be reversed.
Ultimately, this songs power and longevity come from its musicality and the well-crafted succinctness, rhymes, and rhythms of its lyrics. Deceptively simple, it says a lot in very few words. By way of contrast, look how many it takes me to suggest just the most salient points!
...David J. Cantor
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