Music philosopher Greil Marcus listens back to The Doors and hears dread and light and Thomas Pynchon.
Everybody knows the story of Jim Morrison and The Doors. Rock and roll’s wild child. The band’s dark charisma. Light My Fire. L.A. Woman. Break on Through. Riders on the Storm. .
But it’s different when music philosopher Griel Marcus tells the story. We get The Doors plus Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Lady Gaga, The Manson Family – the existential dread of a generation.
This hour On Point: we’re listening to The Doors, with cultural critic Greil Marcus.
Greil Marcus, music journalist, cultural critic, and author of The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years.
From Tom’s Reading List
Village Voice “As is so often the case when you’re talking to Greil Marcus (or reading his writing), the route that got us to his iPhone began with something seemingly unrelated: a passage in his new book, The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years, in which he defines pop culture as “the folk culture of the modern market… an unknown station playing unknown music, until both turn into secrets everyone wants to tell.” In today’s world, he thinks the iPhone has that quality.”
St. Petersburg Times “Greil Marcus had just moved, but he didn’t have any trouble finding what he was looking for amid the boxes of books and records strewn around the downstairs office of his new house in a leafy neighborhood not far from the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. He had been talking about Bob Dylan’s singing style, and how it has been ever changing through 50 years of performances, and he wanted me to hear a rendition of Like a Rolling Stone from a concert in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1966.”
The Examiner “It looks like November is going to be a good month for Doors book releases. I’ve already written about The Doors FAQ coming this November, and now, noted rock and cultural critic Greil Marcus is releasing a book in November, The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Wild Years.”
As the title track of the Doors last album, released in April 1971, three months before Jim Morrison died in Paris, his ideal of following in the footsteps of Rimbaud replaced by an image of Marat dead in his bathtub, “L.A. Woman” emerged over the years, until after four decades you could turn on your car radio and find all eight minutes of it still talking, jabbering, this bum on Sunset Strip going on about a woman and the city and the night as if someone other than himself is actually listening. You can hear it there, anytime—and you can hear it playing between every other line of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 L.A. detective novel Inherent Vice, set in the spring of 1970, just before the Manson trial is about to begin, a time when, as Pynchon calls it up, the freeways eastbound from the beach towns “teemed with VW buses in jittering paisleys, primer-coated street hemis, woodies of authentic Dearborn pine, TV-star-piloted Porsches, Cadillacs carrying dentists to extramarital trysts, windowless vans with lurid teen dramas in progress inside, pickups with mattresses full of country cousins from the San Joaquin, all wheeling along together down into these great horizonless fields of housing, under the power transmission lines, everybody’s radios lasing on the same couple of AM stations.”
The book is a love letter to a time and place about to vanish: about the fear that “the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness . . . how a certain hand might reach terribly out of darkness and reclaim the time, easy as taking a joint from a doper and stubbing it out for good.”
At the very time in which Pynchon has placed his story—about a rock ’n’ roll musician supposedly dead of a heroin overdose who turns up in his old band unrecognized by his own bandmates (“Even when I was alive, they didn’t know it was me”), a disappeared billionaire developer, a gang of right-wing thugs called Vigilant California, a criminal empire so vast and invulnerable even to speak its name is to make the earth tremble, the first, primitive, bootlegged version of the Internet, and an old girlfriend—people were already talking about the great hippie detective novel. About a dope deal, of course—and an outsider version of Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer. Roger Simon’s Moses Wine—starting out in 1973 with The Big Fix and still on the case thirty years later, wasn’t it. In 1971 Hunter Thompson played the role well in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” but soon dissolved in his own aura. Pynchon’s Doc Sportello somehow realizes the fantasy.
About to turn thirty, he lives in Gordita Beach, halfway between Hermosa Beach and El Segundo, though not on any real-life map. He thinks of himself as John Garfield; he’s the same height. On his wall is a velvet painting he bought on the street: “a Southern California beach that never was—palms, bikini babes, surfboards, the works.”
He thought of it as a window to look out of when he couldn’t deal with looking out of the traditional glass-type one in the other room. Sometimes in the shadows the view would light up, usually when he was smoking weed, as if the contrast knob of Creation had been messed with just enough to give everything an underglow, a luminous edge, and promise that the night was about to turn epic somehow.
That’s as good a description of “L.A. Woman” as any other. It has the textures of ordinary life, and everything about it is slightly off, because the epic is what it’s reaching for, but without giving itself away, without makeup, cool clothes, photo shoots, or any other trappings of Hollywood glamour. Robby Krieger’s guitar is in the front of the music, thin and loose, intricate and casual, serious and quick as thought. Jim Morrison is in the back of the sound, as if trailing the band on the street, shouting that he’s got this song for them, a new-type song for a dime, it’d be perfect, and you can see the Morrison who’s singing, a man who in 1970 did look like a bum, a huge and tangled beard, a gut hanging over his belt, his clothes stained. The 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—this bum doesn’t shuffle down the street, he runs, stops, twirls, runs back the way he came. Maybe the city doesn’t want to see him, but he’s in love with the city and that’s the story he has to tell. He’s not blind. “Motel money, murder madness,” he muses to himself; he can see the fear the Manson gang left in the eyes of the people he passes even as they avert their eyes from his, but he’s not afraid, and he knows he’s not the killer they’re afraid of. The whole song is a chase in pieces, the guitarist tracing half circles in the air, the singer dancing in circles around him, the guitarist not seeing him, the singer not caring.
From the book The Doors by Greil Marcus. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs (www.publicaffairsbooks.com), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.
“People Are Strange” (STRANGE DAYS, 1967)
“Light My Fire” (LIVE) (THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, 1967)
“L.A. Woman” (L.A. WOMAN, 1971)
“Strange Days” (STRANGE DAYS, 1967)
“End of the Night” (THE DOORS BOX SET, 1965/1997)
“The Crystal Ship” (THE DOORS, 1967)
“The End” (LIVE) (BOOT YER BUTT! – BOOTLEGS, 2003)
Gloria” (LIVE) (LIVE AT THE MATRIX, 1967)
“Mystery Train” (LIVE) (LIVE IN PITTSBURGH, 1970)
“Take It As It Comes” (THE DOORS, 1967)
“Roadhouse Blues” [Takes 13-15] (MORRISON HOTEL, recorded: 1969)
“Queen of the Highway” (Original Version) (MORRISON HOTEL)
“Queen of the Highway” (Alternate Version) (THE DOORS BOX
“Riders On The Storm” (L.A. WOMAN, 1971)