Hot Town

Appropriately enough, the three weeks that the song Light My Fire spent as the #1 song on the Billboard 100 in 1967 were the dog days of that summer. That phrase, by the way, refers to

the ancient Romans, who noticed that Sirius rose with the sun from July 3 to Aug. 11. As the major star of the "Big Dog" constellation, Sirius is often called the "dog star." It's the brightest star in the nighttime sky. The Romans assumed that the two stars were acting in league to create the "days of great heat."

I was reminded of Light My Fire by an email from frequent Spectrum contributor Kieron Murphy. Another contributor, Brian Santo (author of our popular May 2009 feature, "25 Microchips That Shook the World" and its hilarious backstory sidebar, "Where in the World Wide Web Is Al Phillips?"), who also received the email, responded:

Even though I was still in elementary school in 1970, I had an intuitive grasp of what was going on with The Beatles, and The Stones, and Hendrix and Joplin and many of the other great artists I heard on the radio. But I never really got The Doors. More specifically, I never really got Morrison. I understand Krieger and Manzarek showed sparks of brilliance. I understand that Morrison's Lizard King schtick was dangerous/sexy. But IMHO, the man was a diffident poet/writer at best, and if he hadn't died (let's assume, for now, that he's really in the grave in Paris that I have actually visited) he would have been off the charts for years and doing "This is not your father's Oldsmobile" commercials with a couple of kids he'd been legally forced to adopt.

It's revealing that Brian would refer to the radio, and it's funny that he would picture the song in, of all things, a car commercial. According to Wikipedia,

when Buick wanted to buy the piece for use in a 1968 TV commercial ("Come on, Buick, light my fire") and Morrison, who had been out of town, learned that other group members agreed, Morrison called Buick and threatened to have a Buick smashed with a sledgehammer on a TV show should the (presumably ready) commercial be aired.

I'm a little older than Brian - not a lot, but perhaps just enough to feel very differently. I was sitting with a friend in a pizza place on 37th Road in Jackson Heights, Queens, my first week of 7th grade, when I first heard "Light My Fire" on the radio. The pizzeria was, literally, ovenlike, the pizza was thin, blistering, and delicious; the time was one of those proverbial fry-an-egg-on-a-New-York-sidewalk afternoons; the song was just as fiery hot and yet slow and lyrical; it was clearly about sex, something that, as a twelve-year-old, I was coming to understand the importance of, if I didn't quite understand it itself; the lyrics were kind of silly but the melody was big and ballad-like and beautiful and it went on forever — I had never heard a seven-minute-long song on the radio, and as the keyboard solo gave way to the guitar solo it seemed impossible to believe it was still the same song playing. It was, I now realize, opulent and yet not in the least self-indulgent. In the pizzeria, my friend and I both stopped talking somewhere during the guitar solo and just listened.

In a 13-minute radio story in 2000, NPR reporter Guy Raz said it "broke the mold of the conventional hit pop song when Light My Fire went to the top of the charts."

Light My Fire clocked in at just over seven minutes. No one in the music industry believed it could work at that length.

John Densmore, the Doors drummer, told Raz, "In those days, if you wanted to be on AM radio, you had to be at three minutes." Raz says the band cut out the solos and "whittled it down to three minutes. But fans who owned the album swamped radio stations with requests for the full seven-minute version."

I wasn't one of those album owners — not yet. Sixteen months later, I turned 13, and of the three birthday albums I got from my friends, "The Doors" was the only one I had requested. The other two were Cream's "Wheels of Fire" and the Beatles' White Album — by then the psychedelic movment was in full sway, led by The Doors' eponymous album and the Beatle's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Sure, Sgt Pepper was the first rock album to win Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards and Rolling Stone magazine has named it the greatest album of all time. But Light My Fire was the song that changed radio forever. Guy Raz again:

No one had ever heard a song like it - seven minutes, free-form, psychedelic, Light My Fire was dark and brooding, haunting and romantic, at the same time. The song is a demarcation point in rock 'n' roll history. It shattered the acceptable boundaries of popular music. Themes of love, mortality, intoxication, and recklessness. All offer a glimpse into the turbulent era that was to come soon after its release.

With satellite radio, digital radio, and podcasts, radio is metamorphosizing today, as it did in the late 1960s. The changes today are technological, though, while back then, as AM gave way to FM, radio  — and music itself — became both more personal and more political.

What's different between now and then is how important radio was - more important, to music at least, than television or any other medium. (When the Doors or the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, it certified a popularity that had been created by radio.) In 10 or 15 years, surely all radio programming will be delivered by the Internet, which will be given the AM and FM frequencies. It seems odd to think that once, the term "wireless" was synonymous with AM radio, and that the two leading communications technologies at the time of the seminal U.S. Communications Act of 1934, radio and telephony, will be digital afterthoughts, little more than a small fraction of the packets riding the TCP/IP radiowaves.

For me and my friends of forty years ago, our favorite DJs defined more than our musical tastes, they helped us think about drugs and sex, philosophy and fashion, war and patriotism. They sometimes set the very calendar we lived by. I remember how, well into the 1970s, each year my friends and I would wait impatiently for the first hot late-spring day. The radio would be set to 102.7. WNEW-FM's afternoon DJ Dennis Elsas would come on the air and play The Lovin' Spoonful's Summer in the City, and so would begin the dog days of summer.

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