The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years, by Greil Marcus, Faber & Faber, RRP£14.99, 224 pages
It is a combustible combination: Greil Marcus, America’s wide-ranging and uninhibited rock historian, has turned his attentions to The Doors, the 1960s supergroup which draped its dark, gothic themes over the latter part of that decade. Marcus is an inspiring analyst of popular culture’s possibilities; The Doors’ doom-laden downer-rock signalled the slow death of west coast hippy hopefulness. Their careers all but ended in ignominy when their charismatic front man, Jim Morrison, was arrested in Miami in 1969 for pulling his penis out of his trousers during a performance. Anyone who considers Marcus’s work to be a little behind its time may care to note that Morrison was ultimately pardoned for his misdemeanour by the Florida Clemency Board in December 2010. Some flashes cast a lengthy shadow.
Marcus’s book, like its predecessors, is far from an orthodox biography or cultural analysis. He riffs like the meanest of guitarists, with erudite passion and bold, imaginative leaps. He places rock music, its stars and antiheroes, at the centre of America’s cultural history. His greatest book, Mystery Train (1975), is the best single argument for taking pop seriously.
So what brings him back to The Doors, a full 40 years after Morrison’s death in a Paris bathtub? A mixture of nostalgia – he saw several of the group’s concerts in California – and a wish once more to experiment with form. Using scrupulous analysis of the music as a launch-pad, his writing takes flight into denser atmospheres. The reader unfamiliar with his work will either find these excursions inspired, or preposterous. Here is Marcus on guitarist Robby Krieger’s work on The Doors’ most famous song, “Light My Fire”: “This is man-on-horseback music, all grandeur, nothing rushed, as stately as a marble staircase, a full-size copy of The Winged Victory of Samothrace … close enough to the immortal to stay on the air for its lifetime without one note ever predicting the next.”
Marcus doesn’t quite make the case for such exalted claims. For most people, The Doors’ music was a mostly uneasy mix of Morrison’s tortured poetry and keyboard player Ray Manzarek’s baroque doodling on the organ (or should that be Baroque doodling? Manzarek described his distinctive motif on “Light My Fire” as “some Bach filigrees … in a turning-in-on-itself Fibonacci spiral”).
If we are to take their recorded legacy more seriously, says Marcus, we have to think ourselves back to their era. He urges us to imagine what it was like to record “The End”: “No matter how comically overstated it sounded then or sounds now, you can hear that it made the people who made it feel free as they made it – worldly, tragic, bigger somehow.” The song’s potency was not lost on Francis Ford Coppola, who used it to accompany the napalm bombing sequence in Apocalypse Now in one of cinema’s greatest-ever opening sequences.
It was The Doors’ greatest moment: they had arrived in the right place at the right time. Contrast that triumph with their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show a dozen years earlier in 1967, when they were asked to substitute the lyric “Girl we couldn’t get much higher” in “Light My Fire” to “couldn’t get much better”. Morrison ignored the request, of course, letting rip with a “furious, inflamed ‘higher’” that was the sound, says Marcus, “of freedom”. (It also rhymed.) The rest of the world may have been scandalised, but caught up eventually.
The Doors claims to bypass the death cult that surrounded Morrison, but Marcus cannot help imagining the mise-en-scène of the singer’s return from his final exile, “a half-crazy Nature Boy in a dystopian future Los Angeles ruled by Third World gangsters”. The five, mean years during which The Doors made their music has turned into a lifetime of myth-making. But Jim Morrison, the man at the centre of it all, whose only friend was the end, ended his life friendless. Somewhere between the myth and mythomane was the music, and Marcus effectively persuades us to listen to it all over again.
Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer