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:
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;
a set of atrocious-sounding "digitally remastered" CDs, which
replace the original editions;
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;
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;
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;
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").
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
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;
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);
fine "inside" perspective is offered by Doors drummer John Densmore
in the fairly well-known book titled Riders On The Storm;
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;
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
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
"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
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.)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
(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."
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 2011
CloudsandClocks.net | Nov. 15, 2011