Original title: Greil Marcus – The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years
I’ve been pretty fortunate lately in picking books to read. I mean, not so long ago I was close to simply putting multiple titles in one wholesome review. Reason for that is the uniformity of rock biographies which are distinguished from one another only by the band’s name. It would seem, however, that I was rather closely guided in a single direction, meaning that there are many paths which the writings about music follow. I just wasn’t following all too closely.
Nowadays, I find the literature about rock, metal music or popular music in general extremely intriguing. The authors are obviously skilled, knowledgeable and well-versed in scripture. The ideas they share are undoubtedly interesting. Their views are as many as there are personalities writing them down. Both young or aging authors, whether they are music critics to begin with or just music aficionados, musicians or just listeners… Popular music, like pop-art some time before, is more and more considered a serious form of art. Hence, the serious approach to analyzing it and further ways to explore its roots, influences and means. All down to its impact on society, contemporary or more recent in age.
So, where do we place this book? It’s most definitely not a biography. One can easily tell Mr. Marcus is not in the least bit interested in writing a biography of a band that’s been extensively written about. He doesn’t want to bombard you with tons of details you can easily find online. He’s a writer, a genuine author, with things to say, a clear opinion he needs to express. And he uses this tome to express it.
When taking this book into your hands, you do not sit down for a reading session. The author sits you down next to himself, and pushes the play button. The chapters here are individual songs. Particular versions of particular songs. This way, Mr. Marcus picked his “best of” compilation, burned it on a CD and is ready to guide you through it. Literally, the book is somewhat of a “director’s commentary” to The Doors’ greatest takes. Well, the author’s pick, anyway. He assembles a set of various bootleg recordings as well as studio takes and outtakes. The ones he finds most profoundly impacting his thoughts and feelings. His own emotions, naturally, as he “selfishly” chooses tracks that he feels the deepest. Write your own book if you have other ideas.
The description of the book on the publisher’s website contains a sentence by legendary Mr. Salman Rushdie: “No one reads a song like Greil Marcus.” Within the sentence is the whole stylistic order of Mr. Marcus’ authorship. In proving Mr. Rushdie true, the writer sees each song as an ocean he’s about to dive in. A whole ocean of meaning, different interpretations, endless possibilities for seeing how the band reacts to the song. For seeing how the song reacts to the band and the members’ personalities, their current emotions and the ever unpredictable Mr. Morrison. The way these songs evolve and develop in a live setting… The way they are built in a studio… The author clearly feels them. He thinks them through and understands them. At the very least, he gathers his own interpretation which he presents on these pages.
He dissects these tracks. Hell, as the author proves these songs very much alive, mutating, slithering like lizards, even to this day, he might be “accused” of vivisection. Also, while at that, Mr. Marcus doesn’t stop to focus where everyone else does. He pays attention to the mystique figurehead which is Mr. Morrison and his words. Of course he does. They are huge parts of the band’s appeal. But the author goes beyond. He crawls inside the notes behind the voice, traversing the labyrinths within the beats, the keys, the strings… Sometimes it reads like the man listens to each tone individually, investigates the motivation behind playing that exact one, before collecting them into a song.
At the same time, Mr. Marcus is not an uncritical fan of the band, which is another breath of fresh air when it comes to authors of “rock books”. They tend to be full of praise, glorifying the music or the persons behind the music. Greil Marcus doesn’t shy from pointing a just and sometimes even harsh criticism to certain aspects of The Doors’ existence and creation. However, even in these instances, he remains poetic. His style doesn’t change. If there was ever a rock critic with a word painting, I’m not going to pretend, I still haven’t found one as profound as Mr. Marcus. Perhaps I’m missing someone, but still… Even the Serbian translation, which can sometimes cripple the original text very much, in this instance cannot ruin the author’s stream of thought. In fact, the translation is trusted to a person with skills in both literature and rock ‘n’ roll, so it is rather good.
Now, while all of the above might already put these pages on the “must read” list, I need to point out the one chapter that doesn’t concern a concrete song. First of all, the chapter in question would be much better put to use as a bonus chapter or some sort of addendum. It is wildly out of place sitting in there, being chapter number five (including the prologue), being preceded and followed by those described above as guides to certain The Doors’ songs.
Be that as it may, and I swear it’s the one fault to the chapter itself, it is a beautifully insightful view into the phenomenon of not only The Doors but the whole societal shift of the Sixties (note the use of capital lettering on the word) and the impact the era still holds today. Mr. Marcus investigates the emerging pop-art culture, the force it still presents and its expansion that takes over the focus of ever-new generations of followers, thus preventing them from achieving their own cultural independence. Just by looking behind, the view forward into the future is dimmed. Read the chapter, I won’t reveal any more. Believe me on this, the author is making some real fine points there.
Pick your poison, basically. That one chapter or the other twenty, including a prologue and an epilogue, or all of them together, this is an outstanding book. Of course, don’t even try before you gather together all the songs from the author’s pick for a compilation. Then, and only then, you can dig into these pages. Without those sacred sounds the book holds its worth, but your reading experience will be infinitely poorer.
Also, the book doesn’t require an immense knowledge of The Doors’ music. It is there to teach you, even if you’re a relative novice, like me. Naturally, if you’re a representative of the curious generations that were too young to be present (really present) for the Sixties, you will definitely want to read this. It paints a picture. And then some.