The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years
By Greil Marcus

PublicAffairs 2011, $21.99, pp210

For about twenty years now, this writer (but I have very sound reasons to believe I'm not alone in this) and "the Doors" (a tag which here stands for the group's three original surviving members, their managers, lawyers, record company men, and so on) have been engaged in a funny competition: to determine how many tacky things "the Doors" can release out of sheer greed before yours truly finds himself transferring his personal disgust for this behaviour on the music recorded by The Doors, as in the original quartet plus their (two) main collaborators: i.e., the music featured on six studio albums and a double live album released in 1967 - 1971, the year the death of the group's one and only celebrity (and the main reason for the group's existence, according to the majority of their fans, critics included) put an end to the story.

I'm perfectly aware of the fact that a mature listener should never permit those personal antipathies towards an ex-post behaviour to cause so profound a change when it comes to one's perception of a work of art. Well, maybe I'm not mature enough, after all. But I hope readers will absolve me for this, by writing the following (partial) list of those tacky acts:

releasing a 4 CD box set - The Doors Box Set - featuring three CDs of "rare and unreleased", plus... a CD of "Band Favourites": i.e., those tracks that each and every Doors fan already owns since time immemorial;

releasing a set of atrocious-sounding "digitally remastered" CDs, which replace the original editions;

releasing all the albums as 40th Anniversary Edition CDs, in a new, repellent re-mix...

... while at the same time having the original editions go out-of-print, so...

... making it impossible for one to get the original mixes, save for the vinyl albums, just re-released;

announcing the release of Live At The Matrix, 1967 - which everybody already owns as a bootleg - in a legit CD edition From The Original Master Tapes (which are known to be existing), then release a set off a bootleg (because the money asked was regarded as being too much?) while denying the fact, only to admit it later;

retouching the cover picture of When You're Strange, Tom DiCillo's documentary about the group (also the CD cover of the documentary soundtrack), in order to minimize Jim Morrison's paunch, and his double chin;

it has to be said that Marcus's book was originally part of a release blitz that also featured the 40th Anniversary Edition of L.A. Woman (meanwhile becoming first a double, then a quadruple CD set); a DVD-V bearing the title Mr. Mojo Risin' - The Story Of L.A. Woman; and, yes, Live At The Matrix, 1967, this time (!) from the original master tapes (also the "just found" tapes of the legendary concerts the group played at the London Fog in 1966); but something went wrong, though, so - at the moment of this writing, at least - leaving the Marcus book as the only piece of merchandise hitting the shelves, while at the same time all sorts of new releases are being announced for the year 2012 ("The Year of The Doors!"). Meanwhile, there's a series of "double 45 rpm set" vinyl albums coming ("There's a sucker born every minute").

Marcus book about The Doors is just the last in a very long line. But if I had to suggest a few titles as being useful when it comes to understanding the music of the group - which is supremely important today, when tons of waste have accumulated on their sound - my list would be surprisingly short:

to get a vision "from way back when", there are two pieces by Paul Williams, which originally appeared in 1967 in the US magazine Crawdaddy! (Rock Is Dead: A Discussion Of A Doors Song; and the fine interview with the group's producer titled Rothchild Speaks), which can be found in the Williams collection titled Outlaw Blues;

there's a volume (published some time ago) by Chuck Crisafulli titled Moonlight Drive: The Stories Behind Every Doors' Song which in its humble ways greatly succeeds in giving readers some useful analysis and descriptions - I was quite pleasantly surprised to find former Zappa bass player Arthur Barrow praising the chord progressions of precisely those middle-period songs which are usually the object of great scorn (and if I'm not mistaken, it's Barrow himself who plays - uncredited - the organ solo, sounding so similar to The Doors' Ray Manzarek, that's featured on If Only She Woulda, off the Frank Zappa album You Are What You Is);

a fine "inside" perspective is offered by Doors drummer John Densmore in the fairly well-known book titled Riders On The Storm;

there are also quite a few fine interviews by guitar player Robbie Krieger and keyboard player Ray Manzarek which appeared on US monthlies such as Guitar Player and Keyboard;

a fantastic piece of writing, the interview with group engineer Bruce Botnick - part of the renowned series Classic Tracks, and so mainly focusing on the group's second album, Strange Days - which originally appeared on UK monthly Sound On Sound, issue December 2003, and which can now be easily accessed on the magazine's website (many interesting facts are discussed, such as the way the sound of the guitar solo in When The Music's Over - for this writer, one of the most beautiful solos in the history of rock - was born).

I have to admit that hearing about a Greil Marcus book on The Doors left me wondering. Of course, there's no doubt that Marcus is a very fine critic. But what kind of critic has never been very clear to me, and I have never thought about him as "a music critic", meaning "a critic who deals with music". "A critic who deals with cultural objects which in very complex ways are linked to music" has always seemed to me the most appropriate definition of his work. Of course, it remains to be seen if his work is of any help in making it easier for one to get the "music"

I hope I'm not wrong if I say that the most famous book penned by Greil Marcus is still Mystery Train: Images Of America In Rock 'n' Roll Music, first published in 1975 and re-printed more than once. I had to think a lot about those "Images Of America" as "cultural objects" before shaking off the impression that Marcus's work was not very useful in helping me understand, say, Randy Newman's music (of course, Newman is one of the main characters in that book). But to me it was not as useful as Bob Doerschuk's interview with Newman - the cover story for Keyboard's February 1989 issue - was in clarifying for me Newman's concept of rhythm and his links to the New Orleans piano tradition.

Of course, I don't mean to say that Marcus's instruments of analysis are not valid, per se. It's that it's very common for this kind of "literary" approach to give results that are quite pleasant to read but which are not very fertile when considered as results. (In lesser, not honest, hands the outcome resulting from this approach is always colourful nonsense.)

So, it was a divergence in our critical approach that made me desist from giving Lipstick Traces: A Secret History Of The 20th Century (1989), and Invisible Republic (1997, later published as The Old, Weird America: The World Of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes) more than a quick scan. While it was my almost complete indifference towards figures such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Van Morrison, and not my indifference for Marcus's work, that made me avoid his book on them.

Of course, Greil Marcus is also greatly praised for being the Editor of famous anthologies such as Stranded (1979), and Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung, by Lester Bangs (1987).

At the end of The Doors Marcus says: "This book was fun to write", and it was a fun read for this reader. I read it twice, and I managed to find only two very minor mistakes: Marcus has Hello, I Love You as released in 1969 (p44), and adds an "i" to "G. Puglese" (p159), the alias chosen by John Sebastian for his contribution as a guest musician on harp on Roadhouse Blues, on Morrison Hotel.

I have to admit that reading the book left me quite puzzled, for many reasons. My eyebrows went way up when I read this sentence: "(...) all I remembered from the hundreds of times I played their first album, from the few times I played the ones after that (...)" (p43). But what about the "A Lifetime Of Listening To Five Mean Years", then? Reading this book I got the impression of Marcus as one of those people who regard The Doors as a group that only released two fine albums, and little more (or, maybe, quite less). Which is a perfectly legitimate opinion (but maybe calling Touch Me and Hello, I Love You "songs The Monkees might have blanched at" is a bit too much?), but one which maybe makes one not really the perfect choice for a book about The Doors? 

Marcus subdivided the book into twenty-one chapters, including a Prologue and an Epilogue. With two exceptions, all chapters are named after song titles by the group. In the course of the book Marcus makes extensive use of horribly-sounding live versions included in a limited-edition box set, a "legitimate bootleg edition" box called Boot Yer Butt! The Doors Bootlegs, whose existence is well know inside the group's most rabid circle of fans, as his source material. Elsewhere, Marcus makes use of those unreleased performances featured in the above-mentioned re-mixed 40th Anniversary CD editions.

Sometimes it appears to be worth it. Soul Kitchen sits beside Gloria, by Van Morrison's Them. Light My Fire takes us back to the group's famous performance at the Ed Sullivan Show in '67. The End, 1968 is witness to a peculiarly confrontational moment between the singer and the audience. While the chapter titled Light My Fire, 1966/1970 reads well. I can't help but wonder why such dubious sounding sources are chosen to illustrate anything worth discussing.

As it's typical for Marcus, there are parallels and similitudes, traveling far and wide. The chapter about L.A. Woman - Dallas, December 11, 1970 - discusses Thomas Pynchon and his novel Inherent Vice, and Don DeLillo. Mystery Train obviously mentions Elvis Presley (but I found the part about Otis Redding to be forced and gratuitous). Quite predictably, End Of The Night mentions Charles Manson, and Ed Sanders's book, The Family. But to me the whole reads quite mannered.

There are two long chapters. 20th Century Fox deals at length with Eduardo Paolozzi and his collage I Was a Rich Man's Plaything (1947); Kirk Varnedoe's book A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern (1990); also Richard Hamilton, Roy Lichtenstein, and the Situazionist Internazional, but I'm not at all convinced that all this is in any way helpful in giving us a better understanding of the Doors track. Easier to read, but in my opinion no more successful, The Doors In The So-Called Sixties deals at length with Oliver Stone's movie about The Doors, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Neil Young, the Buffalo Springfield, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, and the movie Pump Up The Volume. It's an ambitious piece about the Sixties and the aftermath, but I fail to see how the discussion helps us illuminating the group.

I was a bit puzzled by some sentences that made me question the reasons why this book was written. The chapter about When The Music's Over never mentions the guitar solo. It seems Marcus doesn't like Strange Days that much. In The Unknown Soldier In 1968 it's said "(...) Hello, I Love you, which three years before (...) was not the embarrassment it would become in 1968" (pp96/97) - but in '65 that track was just a raw version of All Day And All Of The Night by The Kinks, without that Beatles-like framework to add psychedelic colours, and a certain grace. There are quite a few sentences whose meaning definitely escapes me, such as - in the chapter about People Are Strange - "So often, The Doors lost their songs as the songs took shape" (p111). Sometimes Marcus is quite merciless: "Waiting For The Sun (...) and The Soft Parade (...) were terrible jokes, regardless of who the joke was on" (p149) (maybe I should give Marcus Arthur Barrow's telephone number...). And the album Morrison Hotel "(...) once past its opening blast itself a bland, vague roundelay to nowhere" (quite a masterful sentence, this - and I had to look for the word "roundelay", too).

After I put the book back on the shelf, a sense of uneasiness remained. Why was this book written? (Marcus, of course, is a name critic, one that's not easily motivated by a check appearing in the mail.)

While I was waiting for the most convenient time to write this review, I happened to pay a visit - as I usually do from time to time - to Scott Woods's RockCritics website, where I found a (brief) interviews roundup about this book. It was with great interest that I read this quote, off an interview by Michaelangelo Matos for eMusic:

"Well, I guess the difference is that I made a more emotional connection with Rod Stewart's songs, or they made a connection with me. It's just different from the connections I've made with the Doors' music. I love their music in different ways. With "Maggie May" and particularly "Every Picture Tells a Story," "Reason to Believe," so many other songs, my chest is open, my heart is beating. Everything is exposed. That's the way I want to live. It just seems like this incredible vision of a good life, a life of complete fulfillment. That's what I hear in Rod Stewart, in the stuff that I love the best. There's no question that what's going on in the Doors is chillier. It's more thought-out, more formally experimental - it's different. I love them both, but in a real different way."

Well, everything appears a lot clearer to me now. I'll immediately declare myself quite willing and ready to buy a copy of a book by Greil Marcus on Rod Stewart (but hurry up, Greil: "The future's uncertain/And the end is always near").

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2011 | Nov. 15, 2011