Light My Fire

Peter Kurth reviews 'Light My Fire' by Ray Manzarek

Published July 7, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"We don't know what happened to Jim Morrison in Paris," Ray Manzarek insists in his autobiographical memoir of Morrison and the Doors, titled, perhaps inevitably, "Light My Fire." "To be honest, I don't think we're ever going to know. Rumors, innuendoes, self-serving lies, psychic projections to justify inner needs and maladies, and just plain goofiness cloud the truth." Manzarek was "musical leader" and keyboard player for The Doors, but his book, as it must be, is overwhelmingly about crazed, quixotic, muddle-headed Jim. "It really doesn't matter how an artist exits on the planet," Manzarek thinks. "It's the ART ... that matters. It's only the art that matters ... For me, that's what making music is all about. Plucking the notes out of the void. And for Jim it was about plucking the words out of the ether ... Images. Deep and penetrating. Confessional. Sometimes mundane, often profound. Never without meaning."

Manzarek and Morrison met at the UCLA Film School in 1963, and much if not all of "Light My Fire" concerns the powerful, quasi-mystic bond the two men formed as students. Morrison came to California from swampy Florida and Manzarek from Chicago, but both had read the same books, seen the same movies and dreamed the same dreams. Morrison was "in love with the possibility that he could be an artist," Manzarek says. "In love with the idea of freedom! Freedom of expression, freedom of thought." Although Manzarek has written a conventional narrative that includes his own childhood and the multiple peregrinations of the four Doors up until Morrison's death in 1971, it is to Jim the Artist, Jim the Poet, Jim the Prophet that he always returns, writing in a tone so elegiac and in prose so thick with wonder it begins to fog your brain -- appropriately enough, when you think about the Doors. The band's life was short, and the mystique that still attaches to its name is in the nature of an urban legend. The bulk of the Doors' work seems badly dated, and the cultlike following they still enjoy says more about nostalgia than about music.

"We were inside the song," Manzarek writes of the Doors' first musical session in Santa Monica. "And we were inside each other. We had given ourselves over to the rhythm, the chord changes, and the words. We had let go of our individual egos and surrendered to one another in the music ... There was only the music. The diamond was formed and it was clear and hard and luminous." Almost any page of "Light My Fire" contains similarly high-flown riffs: "We'll never make art again. We'll never make love on stage again. Jim and I will never do our Dionysius-and-Apollo dichotomy thing again." Manzarek writes of Morrison as an almost diagnosable split personality -- good boy/bad boy, "Jim" and "Jimbo" -- and attributes Morrison's drug-soaked demise plain and simple to "that rotter, Jimbo. The Doppelgdnger." It's as convincing a description of a whacked-out artist as any other. And when he isn't eulogizing, or lambasting Oliver Stone, or lamenting the triumph of materialism in America, Manzarek provides a reliable inside account of the Doors and their era. We may not ever find out what happened in Paris, but there's enough rock history here to keep Manzarek on the shelves.

By Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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