I pulled “The Doors” off the shelves before I saw the author’s name. I was looking for yet another lurid.-- and awesome -- cautionary tale along the lines of Danny Sugerman’s “No One Here Gets Out Alive.” Then I saw the author’s name, and the sub-title, “A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years.” Why was Greil Marcus, one of the very few ‘brand name’ rock writers, taking on the ever-notorious Doors?
I bought it knowing full well what to expect: a discourse filled with lots of smart ideas and insight but one that is frustratingly unreadable. One doesn’t read Marcus for a coherent narrative flow but he doesn’t have to make it so easy to put down, does he? The book’s structure -- each chapter is an exegesis on a particular song -- reads more like notes for an essay that somehow missed the editor’s desk.
In “The Doors” Marcus tries to draw the same sort of wild connections between the music and various strands of culture as he did for Dylan and The Band with “Invisible Republic.” This time instead of casting back into history for obscure antecedents he projects the songs outward into their psycho-historical context of the rapidly morphing popular culture of the last half of the 20th century.
That is a solid premise and the music of The Doors is an ideal prism through which to view the era they embodied. BUT, the execution is so scattershot and unfocused the connections get stretched to the breaking point. I understand mapping out the paths between the Doors and the Manson murders, or as the photo-negative of the Beach Boys. But the connections to Nixon or James Rosenquist or Steve Canyon are whisper thin, if there at all. More importantly, if an essay is all free-associative digression, the bigger picture -- if there is one -- disappears. Or the beleaguered re-reader has to look so hard he gets lost in all those trees.
The endless, piled on references are like Dennis Miller on crack. Get them or not, but no matter there will be another one to ponder before the first can be digested. Here’s a typical sentence from his contemplation on “The Crystal Ship:”
“Inside this soft, comforting, deeply elegant song, what Raymond Chandler called the big sleep, what Ross Macdonald called the chill, lingered, lay back on a bed with its lips parted, strolled naked through through the rooms of the song like Evan Rachel Wood in Todd Haynes’s 2011 film of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce.”
Huh? Hemingway, Joseph Heller, Philip Caputo, Jim Jarmusch, Skip Spence, William Blake and Celine also make appearances in this nine page chapter. That’s a lot of heavy stuff for one pop song to support. Weirdly enough. Morrison’s own take on the song -- which Marcus also quotes -- is the most rational: “Compared to some of the stuff I’ve heard in San Francisco, I don’t think it’s too strange. It’s pretty straight stuff.”
The footnotes to each chapter are a scholarly touch that add further digressions. I do not know if they are tendentious or absurd. They do offer an opportunity to cram in more dates, names and places. When I got to the footnote with a reference to “Welcome Back Kotter,” I realized, maybe, a very dry sense of humor was at work. And I started to relax and enjoy the book.
Maybe the idea is simply that the Doors are as worthy of our attention as Elvis or Dylan. The overall megatonnage of their payload was smaller but Marcus obviously sees similarities in the shockwaves they created. And it’s not a stretch to say Jim Morrison had the game-changing sexual charge of Elvis and the poetic/lyrical confidence of Dylan in one weird package.
I agree completely with that. The Doors are sometimes dismissed as facile and obvious and Morrison as a pretentious egomaniac freak. That’s not wrong -- but so what? He was an artist and also a great commercial success. Those are not mutually exclusive and it’s a tremendous achievement to manage the combination. Even for a short period. We can quibble all day long about personal preferences. I am positive Morrison could have held his own on stage with Elvis or Dylan or anyone.
I recommend this book to both the completist and the purist. Marcus has some fascinating, and, yes, gripping, stories of live performances woven through. These are from close listening to live recordings and his own experiences. How the crowd reacts, Morrison’s inebriated confusion, the band vamping behind him. He does capture the strange way Jim Morrison could whip the audience into a frenzy and then seemingly wonder, “Why are the all these people so crazy?”
Marcus can be maddeningly difficult to read and you have to fill in the big picture conclusions for yourself. But he has a very serious take and if you have an affinity for the strange power of the Doors, you’ll want to try it anyway. Small doses work best, though.