Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Rump of the Sixties: The Doors – A Lifetime of Listening to Five Wild Years by Greil Marcus

Looking over the pieces I've written in the last year, I've spent a good deal of time dealing with the troubling legacy of the Sixties. Even my next book, which I'm now writing and preparing for publication, begins with the early promise of that decade and follows the subsequent ones as if tracing the endless ripple of a pebble tossed in the sea. My preoccupation is not based on my age either (although I grew up in the Sixties), or holding on to some sense of nostalgia for better times. I'm also not locked into the glory days of my youth (they weren't very glorious to begin with) and clinging to some talisman against the bitter cold. Although there are some people I know who decided to stop listening to music, reading books, and seeing movies that didn't conform to the values they treasured when they were young, I'm not grappling with the Sixties, either as an idea or a time and place, as a means to avoid the realities of the current decade. Quite the contrary.

As far as popular culture goes, for me, it still lives and breathes in the present. For instance, I'd love to write more about contemporary music; why I'm mesmerized by Matthew Friedberger's sinewy guitar that snakes its way through The Fiery Furnaces' "Two Fat Feet" from their debut 2003 album Gallowsbird's Bark; how Seattle's Fire Theft seems to effortlessly embody in their single "Chain," an emotional hailstorm, the void left by Nirvana; or, the impish joy I hear in Rachel Nagy's libidinous "very nice" that kicks off The Detroit Cobras' "Ya Ya Ya (Looking For My Baby)," a full-tilt boogie that would make John Lee Hooker smile; on how I'm moved in the most peculiar way by The Handsome Family's "Weightless Again," a song that both laments and justifies suicide in a manner as wistfully satirical about the subject as Steely Dan's "Any World (That I'm Welcome To)"; or why Okkervil River, on I Am Very Far, and the Decemberists, on The King is Dead, continue to rehabilitate our notions of what constitutes musical Americana.

As much as I continue to enjoy new music, it's still too immediate, too much of its time, for me to reflect back on it with any real authority. It has yet to trace its own path into the future where it might find a meaning for itself beyond what it represents now. What I enjoy in writing about Sixties culture is the task of putting to the test the relics that have stood the test of time, as well as the things that haven't; that is, figuring out what new meaning continues to breathe life into work that could have (and maybe should have) expired a long time ago. In a sense, that's the underlining theme of The Doors A Lifetime of Listening to Five Wild Years (Public Affairs, 2011), where critic Greil Marcus ponders the dark magic of the L.A. group The Doors, a rock band dead for over forty years now, but hardly gone from cultural relevance. In examining what they mean today, indeed how they've endured both on the radio and as part of the embroidery of the lost Sixties, Marcus not only reveals the obvious (that they weren't really a group of their time), but that they somehow (despite this) characterized their time, and took on the leaner, meaner, violent side of that decade's demise. (As Marcus reminds us, they weren't one of the 'love' bands.) And their best music, like that pebble in the sea I mentioned earlier, continues to ripple along as if they never went away.

The Doors isn't a biography of the band, of which we've already had more than a few books, but rather a trip through the grooves of some of their records (a trip that Marcus's book on Van Morrison, When That Rough God Goes Riding, also took). What he finds is a band that defies nostalgia since their music doesn't bring the comfort afforded nostalgia. When vocalist Jim Morrison, organist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore launched The Doors with their 1967 single "Light My Fire," not their best song, the remaining few years before they broke up, after concert riots, internal upheaval, alcoholism and court cases over Morrison's alleged indecent exposure at a Miami show, they began to chart an unsettling and unmistakable shadow side of the late Sixties.

Author Greil Marcus
"There are times in The Doors' music, often when they’re playing live, [that there's a] sense of someone breaking through walls, because the wall is there," Marcus recently told Atlantic magazine. "Not so much to get to the other side but to prove that there is another side." In The Doors, Marcus traces the contours of that other side. For me, his proof in its existence is captured best in a quote from British novelist Jenny Diki (The Sixties, 2009). If Diki suggests (I think correctly) that most Sixties' idealists "didn't see it coming, the new world of rabid individualism and the sanctity of profit," The Doors in songs like "L.A. Woman," "Twentieth Century Fox," "The Crystal Ship," "Roadhouse Blues" and "People are Strange," definitely did. You don't hear it so much in the content of the lyrics, but in their sound, the attitude of refusing no quarter. It wasn't an expressed pessimism exactly, but instead a sense that within those lofty ideals of those determined to change the world, The Doors anticipated something that would soon become what Dikki called "the disappointed remnant, the rump of the Sixties." I could see that remnant recently in the hopeful, but lost faces, of those young idealists of the Occupy Movement as they were moved from the parks they occupied.

Apocalypse Now

Perhaps this is why we need to catch up to The Doors, even if sometimes their songs loom up too obviously. For instance, their Oedipal epic "The End" would find too comfy a home thirteen years after it was recorded in Francis Coppola's opening and closing of Apocalypse Now (1979), where the Vietnam War became a psychedelic hangover, a muddle of Sixties despair. But maybe the group loomed up better in a brief moment in Brian De Palma's Casualties of War (1989), where a group of American soldiers have kidnapped a young Vietnamese girl with the intent of raping her. One of the soldiers leans close to her, while they walk through the jungle to eventually arrive at her horrible fate, serenading her intimately with "Hello, I Love You," perhaps The Doors' most insipid song (next to "Touch Me" which might have worked with equally chilling effect in the film). The Doors, in their best and worst music, were a reminder of a truer calling of the events of the late Sixties, hovering even further over the election of Barack Obama (and the broken idealism among his supporters in the aftermath). In The Doors, Marcus takes in those five mean years 1966-1971 and examines with a sharp alacrity why this music refuses to be relegated to oldies radio status.

The Doors

Oddly enough, though, the book came about because Greil Marcus was hearing The Doors on the radio while driving from Berkeley to San Fransisco. In between listening to current hits like Lady Gaga's infectious "Bad Romance" and Train's "Hey, Soul Sister," Marcus kept hearing The Doors popping up with regularity. But it wasn't just "Light My Fire" (in its short or long versions). "At any given moment in 2010 you could hear 'Light My Fire,' 'People are Strange,' 'Moonlight Drive,' 'Touch Me,' 'Love Her Madly,' ...What were all these songs doing there? And why did most of them sound so good?" In the book, he sets out to answer those questions. To the first question, he discovers that listeners were calling up either to request the song, or thank the DJ for playing it. As for the second question, Marcus offers up the idea that the songs had grown into the shape they now take in 2011, as if they were made for an audience that hadn't yet arrived. ("Is everybody in?" Jim Morrison once asked while opening a concert. Apparently not until now.)

In a number of relatively short chapters, Marcus seizes on a song, a performance (often a bootlegged recording) and opens up a territory that the tune begins to map. In the case of "L.A. Woman," Marcus hears the song as an unacknowledged soundtrack to Thomas Pynchon's 2009 detective novel Inherent Vice. Pynchon's book, which is set in the L.A. of 1970, has the aura of the Charles Manson murder trial hanging over it. The book's pot-smoking private eye, Doc Sportello, is caught up in an absurd web of intrigue as funny and unsettling as Elliott Gould's Philip Marlowe's was in Robert Altman's 1973 The Long Goodbye (set not much later in the Seventies). Marcus describes the book as "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.'"

The Jim Morrison of "L.A. Woman"
In that vanishing time, Marcus hears The Doors' epic poem to the city of lost angels, "without makeup, cool clothes, photo shoots, or any other trappings of Hollywood glamour." Jim Morrison's voice in "L.A. Woman" is stripped, too, "full of cracks and burrs, and an inspiring, crazy exuberance." In Pynchon's book, Marcus tells us that "Manson's shadow is everywhere." But he's also present in the Jim Morrison of the song. Instead of the svelte, dark prince who dominated the cover of The Doors' debut LP, Morrison now looks "like a bum, a huge and tangled beard, a gut hanging over his belt, his clothes stained." Could it be that he's a reflection of Manson in his fat Elvis period? "[A]fter four decades you could turn on your car radio and find all eight minutes of [Morrison] 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," Marcus writes. The point is that someone is continuing to listen, even all these years later.

Athough Marcus finds more substance and value in Oliver Stone's overwrought film The Doors (1991) and Allan Moyle's 1990 Pump Up the Volume (a failed Nineties redux of Rebel Without a Cause) than I can, he's firmly convincing when describing The Doors' work as music that shimmers with dread at a time when political assassinations, international student upheaval and an unpopular war raged on. "The Doors were a presence," Marcus writes. "They were a band people felt they had to see  not to learn, to find out, to hear the message, get the truth, but to be in the presence of a group of people who appeared to accept the present moment at face value." For instance, he accounts for how "The Unknown Soldier," a 1968 single included on their album Waiting for the Sun, was an obvious piece of agit-prop. But Marcus also goes on to accurately claim that the song contained more of its time than it seemed by its content alone. "Neither Martin Luther King Jr., or Robert F. Kennedy had been shot when 'The Unknown Soldier' was released as a single in March, but people were already asking, incessantly, under their breath, maybe when either man appeared on the nightly news, which could be almost every night, if it would happen, and when it would happen," he says.

I remember buying the single as it slowly climbed the charts just before King was murdered and a couple of months before Kennedy was also shot and killed. At first, the song did seem silly with its dramatic marching and the laying of graves for unknown soldiers. But, by that summer of 1968, I could barely hear the song without weeping. When Morrison yells, "Breakfast where the news is read/ Television children fed/ Unborn living/ Living dead/ Bullets strike the helmet's head," I wasn't hearing Morrison singing about an abstract war anymore, or even more literally the Vietnam War, I was hearing the gunshots that took out two prophetic figures that might have changed the outcome of the decade, and perhaps the years that followed. On the album version of "The Unknown Soldier," when the song ends with the pealing of church bells and Morrison crying that "the war is over, it's all over," I heard instead the bells of the churches where King would lie in state in April and Kennedy would lie in state in New York that June. It wasn't the war that was over, no, it felt like the future was over. And I could barely come to ever play the song again.

Robert Kennedy's assassination in Los Angeles in 1968

If the current generation is tired of hearing about the Sixties, you can hardly blame them. Often when it is celebrated in the media, as Marcus suggests, it is done with the condescending tone of Too Bad You Weren't There. (Curiously, nobody made me feel that way about the Forties and Fifties when I was growing up. But entitled Baby Boomers are a completely different breed from the post-War generation,) Marcus however confronts that condescension by enlarging the meaning of the decade and perhaps why The Doors remain one of its ugly reminders. He does it by implicating what we've seen happen to the culture since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were elected during the Eighties. "Both did better than simply run against the Sixties: they kept the time and the idea alive by co-opting its rhetoric, by so brilliantly taking its watchwords, or its slogans as their own," Marcus writes. "'Adventure,' 'risk,' 'a new world' these were emblems no conservative movements had claimed since the 1930s, when the movements that did trumpet such words named themselves fascist." If the Tea Party today can be considered the right-wing version of the Sixties' Yippies, the Sixties haven't really gone away, nor are they very likely to anytime soon. The Doors A Lifetime of Listening to Five Wild Years is not only a evocative chronicle of a band that perhaps saw it all coming, it is also a sobering account of just how their music partly took us here.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. In January 2012, at the Miles Nidal Centre JCC in Toronto, Courrier will be doing a lecture series (film clips included) based on Reflections. Check their schedule in December. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.


  1. Thanks for this insightful review, I'll be looking out for this book.

  2. Kevin, may I have your permission to reprint your article on www.jimmorrisonproject.com? You will be given full credit as the author, along with a link back to your original post. Thank you for your consideration.