Greil Marcus: The Doors - A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years
In The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years, Greil Marcus challenges preconceptions of what form a book devoted to a band and its music can take. We can usually assume an author enjoys the work) of his subject, even if, with some healthy but polite objectivity, the writer can highlight the shortfalls as well as the virtues.
When it comes to Marcus and The Doors, however, there's a love-hate relationship. The California-based author often waxes rhapsodic about the band's live performancesone of the main sources for this is an official bootleg of live performances Boot Yer Butt! (Rhino Handmade, 2003)but he's almost as quick to point out the lapses in judgment, most attributed to lead vocalist Jim Morrison, that muffle the impact of those performances. In fact, Marcus seems to take the off-balance moments personally, to the point that his sense of disappointment is one of the major themes of the book, albeit an unwritten one.
His reaction is similar when it comes to his observations about The Doors' studio work. While he applies an almost surgical detail to his examinations of individual tracks and their place within the context of the group's body of work, the harshness of his judgments is startling. Take, for instance, his view of "Hello I Love You," from Waiting For The Sun (Elektra, 1968): "a song abut a real situation...is made into something stupid by a jerky arrangement."
By the time this book is over, though, the one-time prominent contributor to the early Rolling Stone has his feelings about The Doors in the proper perspective. That, in turn, allows him to sum up the long-term legacy of the group, not just from his references to Oliver Stone's movie, recordings including The Doors Box Set (Elektra, 1997), but also from that of a fan who saw them many times in their early days. Given his history of examining the cultural impact of musicians such as Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and The Band, Marcus maintains his credibility with his suggestion that the band's debut foreshadowed the pall cast over California by the Charles Manson case in 1969.
Even more important, however, is the discerning view he takes of Morrison's embrace and subsequent rejection of celebrity, and how the late songwriter/poet sought to expose the artifice and superficiality of the rock concert experience, particularly when it came to audience expectations: "In this setting The Doors were a presence. They were a band people felt they had to see...They didn't promise happy endings." In that light, it is a breathless exercise in suspense to read the blow-by-blow examination of the breakdown of the bond between the audience and band, specifically Morrisonor, more accurately perhaps, the persona he had createdthat occurred at a show in 1968.
Thought there are some dry moments, Marcus is generally humorless in his discourse, but that's especially appropriate given this particular subject. Equally trying at times, but ultimately illuminating, are his astute comparisons of the work of The Doors with artists in other media; his effort in doing so as he discusses a pop art exhibition becomes a somewhat trying tangent, but when he stays closer to his subject, as in his insights into film actors' evolution focused on Val Kilmer, who played Morrison in the aforementioned movie, he broadens our understanding of how many different forms creativity can take.
And that includes the written word. The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years is the absolute antithesis of the kitschy graphics that enclose its pages.