At first glance, the Doors seem to be an unusual object of study for Greil Marcus, the music critic and cultural historian who likes to draw connections between punk music and world history (“Lipstick Traces”) or Elvis Presley and the American myth (“Mystery Train”). The Los Angeles band is, after all, an act that these days mainly gets airplay for a few scattered hits such as “Light My Fire” and “Break on Through (To the Other Side).” They wouldn’t seem substantial enough for Marcus’ intense gaze. And besides, didn’t Oliver Stone already spend too much time engaging us in a discussion about the Doors’ legacy?
But as he often does, Marcus dives deep, in this case into rare tracks, seminal performances and offhand interviews. The band of Morrison, Manzarek, Densmore and Krieger — referenced by last name only, like old high school friends (they are of course the late frontman Jim Morrison as well as keyboardist Ray Manzarek, drummer John Densmore and guitarist Robby Krieger) — is in fact worthy of the author’s scrutiny. As he makes clear, this is a band “at war with its audience,” and thus merits a paradox-riddled Marcus-ian exploration.
Readers don’t need to be especially familiar with the Doors’ music to appreciate Marcus’ meanderings. But they’ll need to know, or at least quickly adjust to, the author’s unique blend of rock criticism, cultural commentary and first-person narrative, which once again takes the form of impression more than argument. It’s not often one finds a meditation on a song — say, the Doors’ ode to that woman fashionably lean and late, “Twentieth Century Fox” — wandering into a discussion of the Pop Art movement, post-feminist sexual politics and the author’s own childhood. His impressionistic style jumps to even greater heights when he analyzes a performer’s intentions. Of “The End,” the Doors’ guitar-heavy breakup song, Marcus writes that as the song progresses, “the singer ... contemplate[s] the perfection of his own isolation, his own renunciations, his own beauty.”
To the extent there’s a central argument in Marcus’ book (the subtitle is a reference to the band’s 1966-71 heyday), it’s a compelling if not earthshaking one: The Doors prefigured the nervous doom of today’s world while embodying the volatility of the 1960s. In his fragmentary thoughts about Doors songs and performances, Marcus pieces together a case that Morrison was indeed the poet, anarchic spirit and generational symbol his fans have made him out to be. And he became that way, of course, by not trying to be any of those things at all. This is a musician who declares that he wants to “specialize in having fun” and who, as Marcus describes, conducts a “race against language for its own sake.”
Through lines, though, are not Marcus’ forte. Even when he’s breaking down a lyric he can quickly find himself somewhere else (it’s not as many leaps as you’d expect from the Doors to Val Kilmer’s early work in “Top Secret!”) or engaging in some fanciful wordplay. Contemplating a Doors rendition of Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” Marcus says that “it was a performance that, with no audience, with no one to care, to mull it over, to pick it apart, crossed over into priapic self-parody and instantly crossed back into impotent self-loathing, but at the end still allowed the song to sound like itself,” ) a kind of abstract thought that may mean everything or nothing — and, in any event, may be the most instances of phallic puns ever crammed into an academic sentence.
The author once again returns here to the 1960s (or the Sixties, capital-letter intended), the decade with which he is most associated. Even as Marcus expresses skepticism about how the decade has trickled down in pop culture — he declares that its great legacy is silence — Marcus is only too happy to drape himself in its vestments. Like so much of the author’s writing, this apparent paradox becomes a kind of riddle: Is he making an argument for the era’s contradictions or simply working out an argument as he goes along?
In the end, though, the specific conclusions may not matter much. Marcus finds in the Doors’ search for meaning an importance that far outstrips anything they find. “No artists faced that glamorous void [of art’s relationship to life] with more flair, curiosity and heedlessness,” he says. It’s a sentence that might equally be applied to the author’s work.
The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years
Public Affairs: 224pp., $21.99