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Chapter 7: “Light My Fire”
Richard A. Koenigsberg
The entire essay, Freud and Little Richard: Psychoanalysis, Rock ‘n’ Roll,
and the Liberation of the American Body
, appears here.
Janis Joplin
“You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain.
Too much love drives a man insane.
You broke my will. But what a thrill.
Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire. “
—Jerry Lee Lewis, 1958

In the Sixties, ideas of radical psychoanalytic thinkers such as Reich, Brown and Marcuse—and rock and roll music—converged, leading to psychic and cultural transformations that altered the American character. The revolution of the Sixties, simply put, was a struggle to attain freedom from society—in the name of freedom for the mind and body.

Added to psychoanalysis and rock ‘n’ roll was a third element, drugs. The combination of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” created a potent mix that worked to “blow the mind,” shatter the ego—destroying mental and social structures that inhibited self-expression.

Brown had advocated abandoning the intellect in the name “holy madness.” Performers like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis hinted at ecstasies lurking within the madness. The Sixties was a mass movement whose purpose was to access hidden dimensions of the mind, seeking a more profound experience of existence.

The goal of radicals at the time was liberation—opening the mind and body to love, sexuality and pleasure. The fundamental achievement of this decade, however, was breakdown of the structure of the Western ego. What poured out was the contents of the unconscious in all its forms. The Sixties initiated a psychocultural process whereby what had been repressed—began to “return.”

In the previous Chapter, we saw how rock and roll provided an escape from the burden of prosaic, everyday reality. One rock historian observes:

Rock songs provided their audience with a temporary means of relief, of freedom now. Through the music, listeners found a way to lock into the “away” dimension. Away from all responsibility, worry and doubts, away to sheer ecstasy and the only genuine freedom, sensation.

Rock and roll in the Fifties provided a temporary respite from reality. After “rockin’ on bandstand,” it was necessary for the teen-age girl to “change her trend, be sweet sixteen and back in class again.”

In the Sixties, the escapist impulse intensified. People sought more permanent forms of ecstasy. Rock and roll was a momentary escape into the “away” dimension. In the Sixties, people sought to stay high permanently.

Timothy Leary, ex-Harvard Professor, was the guru of the Sixties who advocated the use of psychedelic drugs and coined the phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” To “turn on” was to consume drugs in order to “tune in” to one’s mind. Once tuned in, one’s own mind would be sufficient, and one could “drop out” of society.

In “Whole lotta Shakin’ Goin’ on,” Jerry Lee Lewis sang:

You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain. Too much love drives a man insane. You broke my will, but what a thrill. Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire.

This song introduced the theme of madness—breakdown of the will—as a source of profound excitement. The rattling of one’s brain—insanity—brought about release of energy as a “great ball of fire.”

In the Sixties, the desire to achieve release—overcome barriers preventing the experience of excitement and pleasure—often took the form of a conscious effort. Ellen Willis writes about Janis Joplin (1976):

Her pursuit of pleasure had the same driven quality (getting high as singing as fucking as liberation): A refusal to admit of any limits that would not finally yield to the virtue of persistence—try just a little bit harder. This was a war against limits.

Janis Joplin was Norman Mailer’s “white Negro:” struggling to break through inhibitions, seeking to destroy her middle-class character—that she experienced as limiting, confining, insufficiently soulful. Like Mailer, she used drugs and sex as vehicles toward liberation. Unlike Mailer, music was the core experience she used to break out of her shell.

Commonly in the Sixties, people sought release—to get high—through a combination of music and drugs (typically, marijuana). Drugs broke down ego-barriers so that music could enter more deeply into the mind. Crystallizing this dynamic was “Light My Fire,” sung as a rocking version by the Doors (1967), and later in a mellower mode by Jose Feliciano (1968):

You know that it would be untrue.
You know that I would be a liar.
If I was to say to you, girl we couldn’t get much higher.
C’mon baby light my fire. C’mon baby light my fire.
Try to set the night on fire.

Was the fire up above (the marijuana joint), or down below? The “fire” of this song differs substantially from Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Ball of Fire.” The latter was a burst of energy—a two-and-one-half minute conflagration lighting up the cool world of the Fifties. “Light my Fire” was a much longer song, suggesting a steady, persisting flame. The fire of rock ‘n’ roll has stabilized—become part of the world.