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.
And also by Dwight Garner in the New York Times:
The best piece of advice I’ve heard someone give an aspiring rock critic is this: For God’s sake, don’t try to write like Greil Marcus.
It was meant as a compliment. Mr. Marcus’s style — brainy but fevered, as if the fate of Western society hung on a chord progression — is nearly impossible to mimic without sounding portentous and flatulent. This voice is so hard to pull off that 15 percent of the time even Mr. Marcus can’t do it. He takes a pratfall in the attempt.
But, oh my, that other 85 percent. Reading Mr. Marcus at his best — on Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Sly Stone, the Band, Sleater-Kinney, Dock Boggs or Randy Newman, to name just a few of his obsessions over the years — is like watching a surfer glide shakily down the wall of an 80-foot wave, disappear under a curl for a deathly eternity, then soar out the other end. You practically feel like applauding. He makes you run to your iPod with an ungodly itch in your cranium. You want to hear what he hears. It’s as if he were daring you to get as much out of the music as he does.
Mr. Marcus’s acute and ardent new book, “The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years,” is his 13th and among his best. I say this as someone who has never cared deeply or even shallowly about the Doors, a band that to my ears (I was 6 in 1971, the year Jim Morrison died in Paris) has always been classic-rock sonic wallpaper.
[Photo Credit: SF Gate]