The Doors: A Lifetime Spent Listening To Five Mean Years, by Greil Marcus

In the Afterword to this slim book, Greil Marcus says that the book was a lot of fun to write. I’m sure it was, but it wasn’t a lot of fun to read.

The book is not an analysis of the music of the Doors, nor is it a biography, nor is it a review. It is a deeply personal examination of a select group of songs or, in some cases, performances.

Sometimes the examination doesn’t even cover the entire song. For example, the chapter on “Strange Days” is about the first seven seconds of the song. Marcus maintains that Ray Manzarek’s brief keyboard introduction holds everything the Doors were striving to do…and that the remaining minutes of the song are psychedelic drivel.

Other chapters are so cryptic they defy a description. From the chapter on “My Eyes Have Seen You”:

Another staircase: Tenochtitlan, to the top, in a sprint, then looking down as the fireworks begin.

That is the entire chapter: a mysterious reference to the Aztec capital and, I assume, the stairs leading to the top of the sacrificial altars. But maybe not. I don’t know. Whatever, the sentence provides no real glimpse into the song.

Then there are chapters that have almost nothing to do with the song. There is a lengthy chapter on “Twentieth Century Fox” that is little more than a reminiscence of Marcus’s time spent at a Pop Art exhibit in Paris.

It’s frequently confusing. Marcus writes in a prose that borders on hallucinatory. The opening chapter about “L.A. Woman” steps to the gates of surreal. And yet, Marcus often succeeds at capturing the spirit of the Doors through his prose. A dry examination of the Doors—focusing on what the keyboards were doing, or how John Densmore modified a salsa beat for a particular song, or how Jim Morrison’s voice was recorded—can be fascinating. Just watch the Classic Albums DVD of The Doors for a really interesting look at how the particulars of the music came together. But what Marcus appears to be shooting for here is to have his prose match the anarchic spirit of the band: this is written language that gets arrested onstage, that exposes itself, that flies so high on LSD you think it can never come down, that stops in the middle of what you’re reading and takes off in a new, different direction. This is not expository prose, this is the textual equivalent of a Doors concert.

Of course, Doors concerts were notoriously iffy affairs. When they were on target, the Doors were incredible. When Morrison wasn’t too drunk and/or high, the Doors made magic. But then there were the nights like in Miami, when Morrison was reduced to a drunken cartoon whipping out Mr. Mojo Fallin’ (or pretending to) and berating his audience as a bunch of slaves. Marcus unfortunately succeeds in approximating those nights, as well.

The chapter on “Twentieth Century Fox” is the longest in the book, and torture to get through. The chapter on “L.A. Woman” is little more than a book review of the Thomas Pynchon novel Inherent Vice. He writes of the “cocktail jazz” version of “Queen Of The Highway” as if he were a Beat writer in a jazz club, imagining an alternate history where the Doors are the Ray Manzarek Quartet, waiting for the opportunity to play with Chet Baker. All very yada-yada-yada, and says nothing about the song. At least, nothing that someone who isn’t Greil Marcus can appreciate.

There are some excellent chapters, though, where the style of writing catches the reader and gives the same sort of head rush that great music can provide. “Take It As It Comes” gives weight to a great, largely forgotten, song. An examination of a performance of “The End” from the Singer Bowl in 1968 clearly shows the tension between band and audience, as the crowd was already trying to reduce the band to the single of “Light My Fire”. There is even a chapter (“The Doors In The So-Called Sixties”) that gives an appreciative view of Oliver Stone’s over-the-top movie, The Doors. My memory of that movie is not a good one—too many naked Indians, too much precious self-referential dialogue—but Marcus makes me want to see it again.

What comes through loud and clear, and what I find the strangest part of the book, is that Marcus doesn’t really seem to like the Doors. He’s clearly a fan of the first album, but little that follows it. He even writes of “the hundreds of times” he listened to the first album and “the few” times he played the others. He shows absolute contempt for Waiting For The Sun and The Soft Parade (whose opening track is ridiculed as “‘Tell All The People’—not to buy this album!”), and finds little good to say about even such classic albums as Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman. The subtitle of the book is “A Lifetime Listening To Five Mean Years” but it’s obvious that most of that lifetime was spent listening to one 11-song album. It makes one wonder why he even wrote the book. Clearly the Doors mean a lot to him, but for all of his rapid-fire non-sequiturs and kaleidoscopic prose, the reader is left wondering why he holds them so close to his life.

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The Listening Post: November 2011–January 2012

Life interferes with blogging sometimes. Hence the lateness. But music still provides the soundtrack.

  • Feeling You UpTruly. Where on Earth did this album come from? Oh, Seattle. Truly was a very late-entry into the Seattle sweepstakes. While they formed in 1990 and released a couple of singles on Sub-Pop, their first album didn’t see light until 1995 after Cobain had killed himself and the pop-punk of Green Day was ruling the alternative airwaves. But Truly had a pedigree: the bass player was Hiro Yamamoto who was part of the original Soundgarden, and the drummer was Mark Pickerel, who played with Screaming Trees. And yet, the album sounds nothing like what you would expect. Far from the crushing weight of Soundgarden or the molten psychedelia of Screaming Trees, Feeling You Up is a densely textured dreamscape of an album. The songs slide and glide, swirling like a thick fog. There’s an almost Stone Roses-ish quality to some of this, minus the annoying pretensions to dance music. There’s no shortage of rock on the album, but the heavier moments are heavy in a 1960s way, not in a grunge/punk way. The production throughout is stellar, with every instrument and sound effect clearly jumping out of the speaker. Songs like “(Intro)/Public Access Girls”, “Wait ‘Til The Night”, “EM7”, “Come Hither”, and “Leatherette Tears” feature strong melodies backed by music that is both heavy and trippy. Only the title song, a boring instrumental, falls flat. Feeling You Up sounds like nothing else from 1997, and holds up beautifully all these years later.
    Grade: A
  • Up On The SunMeat Puppets. The third album from Arizona’s Meat Puppets is where they found the sound that would carry them through the rest of the decade. Meat Puppets was all LSD-addled hardcore dirge, and Meat Puppets II had great songs but paper-thin production. But Up On The Sun carries both tunes and excellent production. The elegantly wasted country-rock the band called its own is in full flower here. There are no songs on this album that are less than good, solid listens, and much of it either approaches or achieves greatness. Even the tossed-off songs, like “Maiden’s Milk” with its insane whistling melody, “Hot Pink”, and “Seal Whales”, are a reminder that bands simply can’t get away with stuff like this anymore. The indie labels of the 1980s, like SST for whom the Meat Puppets recorded, allowed bands much more leeway, and on albums like Up On The Sun it allowed those bands to create works that hung together as a cohesive whole. While “Maiden’s Milk” might draw confused reactions if it were to pop up on an iPod playlist, it fits perfectly after the opening track and before the excellent “Away.” There was a sound to these records, with even the weak parts providing texture. The strongest tracks (“Animal Kingdom”, “Swimming Ground”, “Buckethead”, “Too Real”, “Enchanted Forest”, and “Creator”) are among the finest tracks the Puppets ever recorded, equaling or surpassing the classic triptych of “Lake Of Fire”, “Plateau”, and “Oh Me” (not coincidentally the three songs Nirvana covered on Unplugged) from Meat Puppets II. Meat Puppets recorded better albums later. With a couple of exceptions this band got better as time went on, but this is the album where they first successfully blended country with punk and psychedelia. It’s the cornerstone that later albums like Mirage and Huevos built upon.
    Grade: B+
  • Safe As MilkCaptain Beefheart & His Magic Band. An early exposure to Beefheart’s notoriously difficult Trout Mask Replica put me off the Captain for a long time. I’m still not sure I’m ready to swim with the Trout again, but Safe As Milk, the début album from the Magic Band, has gone a long way to convincing me to give Trout another chance. Safe As Milk is generally considered Beefheart’s most immediately accessible album but it’s still bizarre enough to draw puzzled glances from most listeners. Beefheart is a blues aficionado, and he mixes Howlin’ Wolf with early Frank Zappa and the avant-garde to craft a mutant strain of blues that is unlike anything else. Beefheart’s vocal range is simply astounding, and confounding. He sings like a real soul man on tracks like the fantastic “Yellow Brick Road” then growls like a feral beast on others like “Electricity” and “Plastic Factory”, his vocals sounding like Howlin’ Wolf with a sore throat. It’s difficult to believe both voices come from the same man. The surrealism of the lyrics (song titles give a clue: “Zig Zag Wanderer”, “Abba Zaba”, “Sure Nuff ‘N Yes I Do”) and the off-kilter, Zappa-inspired arrangements (the opening of “Autumn’s Child” could have been lifted directly from Freak Out) make this a challenging listen, but it is more than worth the effort. This is blues and pop music, dressed in psychedelic and avant-garde finery. On repeated listens, great melodies start to emerge and the band, led by a young guitar virtuoso named Ry Cooder, is more muscular and musical than Zappa’s Mothers. A classic.
    Grade: A+
  • NumbHammerbox. Released in the same year as Nirvana’s In Utero, Pearl Jam’s Vs., and Smashing Pumpkins’s Siamese Dream, Seattle rockers Hammerbox simply didn’t stand a chance. Which is too bad, because Numb is a good, rocking album with two tracks that belong on any anthology of the Northwest rock scene: the ferocious “Hole” and the grunge ballad “When 3 Is 2”. The rest of the album falls short of the standard set by those two songs, but none of it is bad and songs like “Hed”, “No”, “Outside”, “Trip”, and “Simple Passing” are very good. The musicianship is excellent throughout, and Carrie Akre’s a vocal powerhouse. The album’s a bit uneven, with several tracks mired in a sort of generic “grunge” sound, but when it’s good it’s very good.
    Grade: B
  • Dry As A BoneGreen River. Before Pearl Jam, there was Mother Love Bone. Before Mother Love Bone, and before Mudhoney, there was Green River, named after the notorious serial killer that haunted Washington and the Northwest. Green River was the boot camp for Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Steve Turner and Mother Love Bone’s/Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard. Formed today, this would constitute a grunge rock supergroup, but back in the mid-1980s it was just the first outlet for musicians who would later become famous. The fact is, the desire for Green River’s work to be a lost, neglected gem—like a rudimentary Temple Of The Dog—meets reality. There are some good moments on Dry As A Bone—”Searchin'” and a scorching version of Bowie’s “Queen Bitch”—but the album itself is flat. Green River lacks all the elements that make Mudhoney and Pearl Jam superior outfits: melody, lyrics, tunes. This is flailing sub-Sabbath riffing. As a historical document, it’s interesting in the same way that hearing a young Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker playing in The Graham Bond Organization is interesting. But these players would get a little older, refine their talents, and produce better work than this. Dry As A Bone does not sound like the work of a band. It sounds like musicians trying to find their way.
    Grade: C-
  • Some Girls (Deluxe Edition)The Rolling Stones. Please, oh please, let the next deluxe re-release be Beggars’ Banquet… Following last year’s deluxe reissue of Exile On Main Street, the Stones have now put out a 2-disc version of Some Girls. This is actually a better example of a deluxe edition than Exile. The second disc has no songs that otherwise appear on the album. This has the effect of making it a new, lost album from a period when the Stones were doing truly great work. While the bonus disc is not as strong as the original album, it is still an excellent batch of songs, ranging from the hilarious skewering of Claudine Longet, the French singer and wife of Andy Williams who beat the rap for murdering her boyfriend, Spider Sabich (“Claudine”), to the simple piano/vocal of “Petrol Blues”. Along the way there are country influences (“Do You Really Think I Care” and a cover of the Hank Williams song “You Win Again”), traditional blues (“Keep Up Blues”) and the reggae lilt of “Don’t Be A Stranger,” and even a raunchy, comic, update of “Stray Cat Blues” (“So Young”). The New York influence that permeated the original 1978 album is also there, with references to the city, the subways, and even the specificity of “the D train.” What is not here is the disco influence that gave the world “Miss You” but, considering the near-travesty of 1980’s Emotional Rescue album, perhaps that’s for the better. Keith sings the ballad “We Had It All” with great tenderness, and they romp through a cover of “Tallahassee Lassie.” The twelve extra tracks constitute a strong album that would have been a worthy successor to Some Girls and, while it’s easy to see why a track like “Claudine” was shelved (the subject was already dated by 1978, and the lyrics may well have touched off a libel lawsuit), it’s difficult to understand why these gems were left on the cutting room floor.
    Grade: A+ (original album)
    Grade: A- (bonus tracks)
  • Clear SpotCaptain Beefheart & His Magic Band. “Mr. Zoot Horn Rollo, hit that long lunar note and let it floooooooooooooat,” says Captain Beefheart as guitarist Rollo does just that, using a slide to ride a single note for all it’s worth in “Big-Eyed Beans From Venus”. It’s a pretty good summation of what you get with Beefheart: a bit of surrealism (what is a “lunar” note?), great musicianship, avant-garde lyrics. 1972’s Clear Spot is more mutant blues, and as accessible as 1967’s Safe As Milk. The arrangements are more straightforward, even as some of the lyrics become a little more outre (what is one to make of “Big-Eyed Beans From Venus”?). Clear Spot seems to me to be the best entry point for anyone interested in Beefheart’s career. The music blends blues with soul and rock, while Beefheart’s vocals once again range from the sublime (“Too Much Time”) to the ridiculous (the aforementioned “Big-Eyed Beans”). Along the way, there are a few missteps like “Circumstances” and the spoken word piece “Golden Birdies”. But those missteps are offset by tough blues rock tunes (“Crazy Little Thing”, “Long Necked Bottles”, “Nowadays A Woman’s Just Got To Hit A Man”) and songs that are just flat-out beautiful (“My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”, “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles”). Beefheart’s voice is an acquired taste, like Howlin’ Wolf’s, but at the end of the day it is a simply extraordinary instrument. Clear Spot is not quite as good as Safe As Milk, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great album.
    Grade: A
  • Parallel LinesBlondie. Thanks to the disco crossover “Heart Of Glass” and the tough rockers “One Way Or Another” and “Hanging On The Telephone” there was no escaping Blondie’s Parallel Lines in 1978. The edited version of “Glass” (it cut the words “pain in the ass”) was all over AM radio, and “Another” and “Telephone” were all over FM. Blondie was so ubiquitous at this time that I never bothered to investigate the album, even though I liked the singles. In fact, those singles were so prevalent that even now, 34 years later, I can only hear them so many times before I reach for the “skip” button. Fortunately, there is much else to like about Parallel Lines. Blondie shared a love of early 60s pop music with some of the other NYC punk bands, but while the New York Dolls camped up their “girl group” tributes (“When I say I’m in love you best believe I’m in love L-U-V”) and the Ramones absorbed the hooks and melodies of bubblegum music and regurgitated them at 100 MPH, Blondie pays tribute to that era with unabashed sincerity (listen to their version of “Denise” from the Plastic Letters album). Which means that for all the hype of Blondie being a “punk” band from the hallowed halls of CBGB’s, Parallel Lines is a pretty straightforward pop album. Drummer Clem Burke adds power to the pop, and a song like “Fade Away And Radiate” is both musically challenging and lyrically interesting. But Debbie Harry’s sultry delivery ties almost every track back to groups like the Ronettes of the Shangri-Las. The singles from the album are the best songs here, matched by a few tracks but never surpassed, but overall this is a very good album.
    Grade: B+
  • More Songs About Buildings And FoodTalking Heads. The first album from Talking Heads, ’77, was brilliant. This album, their second, is as consistent as its predecessor, but only hits the same heights three times: the last two songs, a hit version of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River” and “The Big Country”, stand taller than the nine songs that lead up to them and “I’m Not In Love” features a herky-jerky rhythm and stop/start chorus that makes the song endlessly listenable. That doesn’t mean the rest is bad, only that those three songs are amazing. The other eight tracks are uniformly excellent, making this an album with no truly weak spots. If the album suffers at all it’s only because it sounds very similar to ’77, and the first album will always get the nod over the second when both albums are cut from the same cloth. Where the album succeeds in besting their début is in the musicianship and production. ’77 was largely David Byrne’s show, but here the Heads sound more like a band of equals.
    Grade: A
  • Black SessionGrant Lee Buffalo. One of my Top Concerts of All Time was the alternative rock also-rans Grant Lee Buffalo at Irving Plaza, in 1998 when they were touring behind their final album, Jubilee. Black Session is a bootleg recording from what appears to be French radio. The sound quality is excellent, despite the occasional between-song intrusion from a French DJ, whose only recognizable words (to me) are Grant-Lee Phillips, Paul Kimble, Joey Peters, and, strangely, Kurt Cobain. The show dates from the Fuzzy era, circa 1993, and goes through that album’s highlights: “The Shining Hour,” “Jupiter and Teardrop,” “Fuzzy,” “America Snoring,” “The Hook,” and “Soft Wolf Tread.” There’s also a solid run-through of the as-yet-unreleased “Demon Called Deception,” a quick take on the theme to the movie Deliverance, and an unreleased track called “Stockton”. With the exception of “Stockton,” a song that is wrapped in its own pretensions and has understandably never been officially released, the live recordings here breathe fire into the studio versions and, in most cases, surpass them. The drums snap harder, the bass throbs with more intensity, the guitar wildly swings between intricate 12-string picking and harsh distortion. Grant-Lee Phillips, one of the best singers of the day, howls throughout as if his life depended on it. It’s a stark reminder of what live rock music is supposed to sound like, and casts a large shadow over Phillips’s post-band career as a balladeering acoustic troubadour. “Stockton” is a bummer of a closing song, but the ferocious version of “Fuzzy” that precedes it is more than enough to forgive all sins.
    Grade: A