“And you fellas, why don’t you have a nice smile on your faces when you go out there?” said Ed Sullivan, backstage on September 17, 1967, just as the Doors were about to step in front of the cameras to play “Light My Fire.” “There’s no point in being sullen. You know what I mean?” “But we’re a sullen group, Ed,” said Ray Manzarek.
So he said in 1991 in Oliver Stones’s The Doors, anyway. It was the site of the first national Doors scandal, or rather success-through-scandal: As with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones before them, the people running the show, broadcast live, wanted something other from the Doors than what they came to play. For Bob Dylan in 1963 it was “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues” the show wanted axed, and he walked off. For the Rolling Stones earlier in 1967 it was, all too famously, “Let’s Spend the Night Together”; as they were told to do, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards sang “Let’s spend some time together,” with Mick popping his eyes to let the world know it was in on the joke.* For the Doors, CBS demanded they change the line “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher”—supposedly, to “couldn’t get much better.” The network couldn’t have contrived a less musical solution if they’d suggested Jim Morrison sing the chemical formula for lithium. Supposedly, the rest of the band was ready to acquiesce—If it was good enough for the Stones... This was a big deal; more dates were dangled. Supposedly, Morrison said okay.
It’s hard to believe Manzarek, John Densmore, and Robby Krieger didn’t know what was coming. Densmore begins the performance with the huge stomp! of a single shot on the snare—as someone said at the time, it was hard to imagine anyone hitting anything harder. But after that he hits everything else too hard. You don’t hear a beat. You hear nerves, or fear.
Morrison steps into the song languidly, with no tension, no foreshadowing. Unlike Elvis Presley in his third and last appearance on the Sullivan show, in 1957, the only time he was shot from the waist up—with Elvis pointedly looking down at his own body, as if what the camera was now hiding was something he’d never showed when the camera was all the way back, catching him from head to toe, he and his combo in action, playing to each other with joy, abandon, and speed—Morrison dropped no clues. He all but used the tune as a trampoline. “Girl, we couldn’t get much hiiiii,” he sang, letting the rest of higher disappear, letting it slip by as if it hadn’t been there at all, and while at least the sign of the offending word had been present, going out to the nation live, you could believe that in fact this was okay: okay for CBS, an honorable compromise for the Doors. “FIGH-YARRRRGH! YEAH!” Morrison screamed just about a minute in, just before Manzarek begins a seven-second solo, squeezing the song into its single version, as if Morrison was making up for what wasn’t there. His scream was exciting. Nothing else had been.
Morrison came off Manzarek’s solo as smoothly as before. He sang the first verse. He passed over the melody, licking the word fire as Elvis himself might have done, if he’d closed his 1960 post-Army comeback album Elvis Is Back! with “Light My Fire” instead of “Reconsider Baby”—as if, given what Elvis did to Lowell Fulsom’s signature song, infusing every word with a heat that has never cooled, there was any difference.
For the refrain Morrison screamed “FIRE!” again. And then he pulled out all the stops; listening, it sounds as if he’s tearing off his clothes. His voice is suddenly rough, harsh, bearing down, an explosion of pressure. Densmore finds his footing, and gives Morrison his. It’s a different song, a different night, a different place; a different audience is called into being. Now every breath is deep, drawn from all the way down in the chest, the breath you draw before you’re about to leap; each breath is as strong, as sudden, as full of vengeance and lust as that moment when Densmore’s stick first hit the skin.
Morrison’s diction coarsens, the words lose their beginnings and endings, the singer is rushing past the song, the song is coming up behind the singer like a wave, they meet at Morrison’s furious, inflamed higher, which here, with the song taking on its full body, carries no more musical or moral weight than any other word, note, phrase, sound—the sound, right now, of freedom. It’s shocking, how much pleasure freedom can bring: “Come on!” Manzarek shouts from the side in the last chorus, beside himself. Now they’re on the other side. After this, did the song ever need to be played again?
* In November 1955 Bo Diddley was booked, and told by Sullivan to sing Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons,” then the biggest song in the country. He did “Bo Diddley” instead and never appeared on the show again.