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The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years

Published: 2011-11-16
Listening Again to Rock's Wild Child and Finding Grandeur and Dread. 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. “The End" sounded ruinous and sublime in “Apocalypse Now." But please don't make me listen to “Hello, I Love You" or “Touch Me" again. I'm pretty sure Jose Feliciano will be singing “Light My Fire" in hell.

Mr. Marcus's achievement in “The Doors" is to isolate and resurrect this band's best music and set it adrift in a swirling and literate cultural context. He catches “the sweep, the grandeur, the calmness" of their songs. He underscores Jim Morrison's otherworldly appeal: “Unlike any rock 'n' roll singer since 'Heartbreak Hotel' devoured the world's airwaves, he had Elvis's Greek-god looks, his seductive vampire's hooded eyes; like Elvis he communicated the disdain of the beautiful for the ordinary world."

He captures, excellently, how Morrison unnerved, during the Charles Manson years, everyone who saw the band. “Here's this nice-looking person on the stage all but threatening you with a spiritual death penalty," Mr. Marcus writes, “and turning you into a jury that convicts yourself."

Don't come to “The Doors" looking for a history of the band; Mr. Marcus dispenses with that in one short paragraph in front. Don't arrive looking for another overview of Morrison's childhood, or a fresh account of his arrest in Miami in 1969 for exposing himself onstage.

Don't come looking for hagiography, either. He's fully aware that some of the band's music “carries the smell of falsity, pretension, bad poetry." Some of the Doors' music was so fetid, Mr. Marcus writes, that “Morrison sounded as if he had a bag over his face, so no one would know who was singing it."


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