Thursday, October 8, 2009

I have been obsessed of late with the snare shot that opens The Door’s “Light My Fire”. I was five when the song was released, in 1967, and the image that first came to me, in the back of my parents’ convertible, in the middle of the Northern Californian night, waiting at the roadside to see if my father would be commandeered to fight a forest fire, was of a match exploding.

Although the image remains, the imagery has changed. First when I was fifteen, after eating what looked like a handful of dirt but was, as promised, magic mushrooms. This time the snare shot went on forever; and as I returned to the exploding match, I did not see the black that preceded it but that which the match illuminated: a huge grey room, not unlike the underground parking lot where we hid, giggling, the song coming from a hotel shuttle bus.

Then, in my mid-twenties, the title essay from Joan Didion’s The White Album (1979), her chronicle of California and the 1960s. After reading the section where she hung out at a Doors recording session, I cued up Track Six, Side One of the band’s first album and waited for the pow! Only this time, instead of a huge grey room, I saw a wood-panelled studio, mike stands and Ray Manzarek’s organ.

Not long after that, in 1990, an interview with an ailing Leonard Bernstein, where he was asked about compact discs. He said he liked them, but missed the room, the grand halls where the music he knew and loved was recorded. Then he said something I have never forgotten -- how new technology brings with it new opportunities, as if technology itself was a material. Bernstein’s complaint was that digitally recorded music “just hangs there,” without floor or walls or ceiling, and that the composers of today should be composing with that in mind.

Last week, while sampling a new batch of digital “radio” stations, I heard “Light My Fire” again. This time it was not the exploding match or the underground parking lot or the Doors’ recording sesseion but something I remember from our trip down the coast, while stopped at my grandmother's house in Pacific Palisades. This was something that had happened across the street -- someone running around with a gun. I remember my grandmother ushering me inside, but not before I looked over my shoulder and saw a man take aim at a green-and-white VW microbus. Pow! Then that avalanche of notes from Ray Manzarek’s organ.

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