Greil Marcus Breaks Through The Doors

by Dmitry Kiper

The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years
by Greil Marcus
PublicAffairs
2011

 

In the twenty-five minutes it takes to drive from Berkeley to San Francisco—in the spring of 2010—Greil Marcus made a curious discovery. Flipping through radio stations in search of a good song, he was surprised to notice that The Doors, whose reign lasted only from 1966 to ’71, were still getting plenty of airtime. You know the songs: “Light My Fire,” “L.A. Woman,” “People Are Strange,” “Love Her Madly,” “Riders on the Storm,” “Break on Through,” “Roadhouse Blues,” “The End.”

In his new book on The Doors, Marcus wonders, “What were all these songs doing there? And why did most of them sound so good?”

The result of Marcus’s ruminations now makes for an exciting and detailed exploration of The Doors’ place in American culture. Like his previous books—Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music; Dead Elvis; Lipstick Traces; The Old, Weird America, which chronicle the life and times of Robert Johnson, Sly Stone, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, The Band, The Sex Pistols and other performers—The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years is more than just a gloss of a band’s music.

In The Doors Marcus contrasts the popular perception of the 1960s (“the so-called sixties,” populated by self-sacrificing activists) with the real ’60s, which, according to Marcus, were—for the most part—a time when “people who could have acted, and even those who did, or believed they did, formed themselves into an audience that most of all wanted to watch.”

The book is divided into two long critical essays and seventeen compact explorations of the band’s songs. The first essay (mentioned above) discusses The Doors in the ’60s. The other examines The Doors’ song “Twentieth Century Fox” as Pop Art. These essays are far more conceptual, ambitious, and slippery than Marcus’s shorter discussions of the songs. But it is here, in the soaring and intrepid descriptions of The Doors’ songs, where some of the sweetest pleasures of this book reside.

In “L.A. Woman,” Marcus writes, Morrison’s voice is

full of cracks and burrs, and an inspiring, crazy exuberance, a delight in being on the streets, in the sun, at night under neon, Blade Runner starring Charles Bukowski instead of Harrison Ford.

And in “The End,” a 12-minute mad séance that wraps up The Doors’ debut album, Marcus celebrates the moments

when the performance feels as if it’s about to tear itself to pieces. … No element in the music seems to anticipate any other, to call any other fourth; the performance is a dance around a fire, with the pace determined by the flickers, which can’t be anticipated.

On page after page Marcus’s beat-by-beat descriptions lead us to a new understanding of The Doors’ music and the emotion and intent behind it. While listening to “People Are Strange,” he writes,

It isn’t hard to believe the singer knows what he’s talking about. Robby Krieger’s guitar smoothly, confidently, walks Morrison into the tune, and some of that confidence stays with him, until the last word of the first verse. ‘Faces look ugly, when you’re alone’ slips by, sung so lightly it’s like a firefly, but that lightness is gone two lines later.

Although Marcus generally examines Jim Morrison’s lyrics together with The Doors’ music—delving into the effect they create as one entity—he sometimes zooms in on just the words. About “Soul Kitchen”—a song on which Morrison sings, “Let me sleep all night in your soul kitchen”—Marcus writes:

It’s an image, as quietly dramatic a sexual image as any could be. For all of Jim Morrison’s unbearable poetic extravaganzas on Doors albums, those two words are poetry, translating something almost beyond words into ordinary language … ‘soul kitchen’ is too unlikely, too immediately right.

At times, Marcus’s writing gathers so much momentum you have to remind yourself to slow down, to take it all in—an effect produced by Marcus’s ability to shift seamlessly from an analytical approach to an impressionistic one, from descriptions of how the music sounds to how it feels.

Yet with the same confident elegance with which he lifts them upbringing The Doors to new heights—Marcus beats them down. Precisely because he takes the band so seriously, Marcus is compelled to point out what he considers to be weak or sloppy. With one hit he smashes half of The Doors’ entire studio output by declaring that the albums Waiting for the Sun (1968) and The Soft Parade (1969) were “terrible jokes” and that Morrison Hotel (1970) was a “bland, vague roundelay to nowhere”—except for the opening track, “Roadhouse Blues.”

The music is all slices, knives cutting into the song, each penetration leaving it stronger, bigger, more a thing in itself, impervious to any error.

In other words, it’s perfect.

 

 

 

Dmitry Kiper is a New York City writer working on short stories, photos, poems, songs, and other curiosities. He is currently a fellow at the Writers’ Institute at the City University of New York.