Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre: A Biography Of The Doors, by Mick Wall


It’s now been 44 years since Jim Morrison shuffled off his mortal coil, and the story of his tumultuous life and early death has been told countless times. In books, magazines, interviews, and even a big budget feature film, it’s almost as if Morrison never left.

The band’s influence is still felt today, and that’s especially true of their lead singer, whose stage persona can be seen, in part or in whole, in the stylings of singers ranging from Perry Farrell to Scott Weiland to Eddie Vedder. When the Doors reunited in the late 1990s to perform on VH1’s Storytellers, there was no shortage of alternative rock gods lining up to pull on a pair of leather pants and do their best impressions of the Lizard King.

It’s a fair point, then, to ask if there’s a purpose to yet another Doors biography. Is there anything new that hasn’t been discussed before? Is there a single anecdote that Ray Manzarek, in the seemingly daily interviews he gave to everybody with a microphone or a pen in the years before he died, didn’t pontificate upon? Based on the latest, from British writer Mick Wall, the answer is no. This is the same story that was told (poorly and with a different ending) in No One Here Gets Out Alive, the Big Bang of Morrison biographies. It’s the same story that Stephen Davis told (very well) in Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend. It’s a similar story to the one told (bizarrely and with little regard for reality) by Oliver Stone in the movie The Doors.

This isn’t to say that Mick Wall brings nothing new to the party, but they’re mostly small anecdotes, like George Harrison inviting Morrison to Abbey Road Studios where the Doors singer met the Beatles while they were recording the White Album. But the main thrust of the story is still the same: pudgy young film student and poet discovers LSD, loses weight, starts writing songs, forms a band, becomes a sex god, has great success, and throws it all away (in one of the worst cases of alcoholism ever documented) while his band members fume indignantly (when they’re not making excuses for him).

Morrison was a star that eclipsed everything in his orbit. It’s why he appears on almost every page of this book, subtitled “A Biography of the Doors”, and the rest of the band drifts in an out. Morrison’s talent was, let’s be honest, limited. He couldn’t play an instrument, his voice was beautifully expressive when he sang in his range but that range was also very limited, his poetry was generally awful even as his lyrics, more disciplined, were often excellent. Forget Ray Manzarek’s constant talk of shamanism and Dionysian ecstasy and the fact remains that Morrison became an archetype. He was the tortured artist, doomed from day one, who transcended death and became a legend.

In many ways, Morrison was symbolic of the decade from which he emerged. He was vital and good-looking, filled with promise, bursting with creativity and a desire to challenge the established order. But, like the Sixties that began with JFK and Camelot, all of that potential was squandered with drugs, promiscuity, and alcohol. By the end of his life, Morrison was a burnt out husk. One of the last things he ever wrote was the scrap: “Last words. Last words. Out. Regret for wasted nights & wasted years. I pissed it all away. American music.” It was in his last journal, along several pages where he had written, over and over, “God help me.”

Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre is very good. It doesn’t add much to the story but it does flesh out one crucial aspect of Morrison’s life: how it ended. The story had first been told in Stephen Davis’s book, but there’s considerably more detail here. Since July 3, 1971, the story of Morrison’s death has been this: he went to Paris to get away from the rock and roll craziness and concentrate on his poetry and to be with the love of his life, Pamela Courson. One night they went to the movies and when they went back to their apartment Jim took a bath. He had a heart attack in the bathtub and passed away. That story has always seemed way too trite for me. I believed it because there was no contradicting story, but it never really seemed right somehow.

It’s not. People are talking now, including the ones who carried Morrison’s body out of the bathroom in a Parisian bar and deposited it in that bathtub. There’s far too many corroborating accounts now not to recognize the truth: Jim Morrison died of a heroin overdose while sitting on the toilet in a bar called the Rock and Roll Circus. In order to avoid police involvement and scandal, he was wrapped in a blanket and carried out the back door to a waiting car. His body was driven home at around 3:00 in the morning and carried up to his third floor apartment, dropped several times along the way. Pamela was mostly passed out, strung out on heroin. They stripped Jim, placed him in the tub, told Pamela what to do (get rid of all the drugs in the apartment) and what to tell the police, and left. Pamela did as she was told, and the French police weren’t really interested in pursuing the matter. It’s a more sordid tale than the myth, but far more believable. Morrison didn’t go to Paris to concentrate on poetry; he went because France wouldn’t extradite him back to the United States, where he was due to be sentenced for the infamous Miami concert. In Paris, he admitted that he was barely reading or writing anything. He was drinking an enormous amount, and had recently begun to try heroin. The heroin that killed him was nearly pure, supplied by Count Jean de Breteuil, Marianne Faithfull’s boyfriend (and former lover of Pamela…it was he who hooked Pam).

Mick Wall’s style is fluid and engaging, though perhaps more befitting a blog than a book. There are many asides and sarcastic comments scattered throughout, and Wall especially seems to hold an intense disdain for Ray Manzarek. While he readily acknowledges Manzarek’s musical skill and his gift of gab, he begins the book by telling how Manzarek had insinuated, in an interview with the author, the old trope that maybe Morrison was still alive somewhere. Rather than shrug it off as Ray being Ray, repeating something that he’s been saying to the punters for over 40 years, Mick Wall seems personally offended by the comment, and almost never fails to include snarky comments when he quotes Ray throughout the book. Some of the snark is funny, but not appropriate for what should be a more dispassionate biographical work. In contrast, the author holds John Densmore in very high esteem (deservedly so…Densmore’s autobiography Riders On The Storm is essential reading for Doors fans, and he is unquestionably the most level-headed and clear-eyed analyst of life with Jim Morrison).

Wall is also surprisingly critical of the music. While he thinks that Strange Days and L.A. Woman are complete triumphs, he’s strangely dismissive of a large part of the band’s brilliant first album, The Doors, and their hard-rocking return to basics, Morrison Hotel. He’s unfairly harsh with both Waiting For The Sun and The Soft Parade, admittedly the two weakest Doors albums but still containing many delights. He savages their performance at the Hollywood Bowl, which I’ve always found to be an extraordinary show, and the showcase they did on PBS (to my mind, one of their best performances on tape). But Wall is clearly a fan. As Morrison devolves, and the band starts to crack under the weight of playing with such a loose cannon, Wall finds it hard to disguise a sense of genuine anger that a band with so much talent could lose the thread so completely.

Wall also refuses to take a position on some of the many controversies of Morrison’s life. He shrugs and backs away from the idea that Morrison was bisexual, though the anecdotal evidence is very strong that the singer was, if not sexually attracted to other men, willing to overlook the gender of whoever was pleasuring him. Was he bisexual or just a drug-addled hedonist? It’s true that nobody will ever know but Wall seems to deliberately shy away from a stance. That’s fair enough, but he’s also agnostic on whether Morrison had been sexually abused as a child. Here there seems to be less room for hesitation. Aside from the fact that he exhibits almost all the signs of the abused child (the addictions, the sexual acting out, the violence toward women, etc), Morrison himself told his lawyer that he’d been abused. In No One Here Gets Out Alive, Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman recall the many instances where a pre-teen Morrison had drawn sexually explicit (and often violent) pictures of children with adults in his notebooks. Sugarman, more a hagiographer than a biographer, dismissed these pictures as being wild and precocious, yet another manifestation of Jim’s towering intellect and Dionysian godhood, when they seemed to me to be a real cry for help. The evidence of Morrison’s abuse is all there, and Wall’s dismissal of it strikes me as cowardly (Wall says that the admission to his lawyer was possibly just more myth making, though by all accounts Morrison was in tears as he told the story). Stephen Davis did a much more thorough job of exploring this angle of Morrison’s life and behavior, including the story of the (male) Florida bar owner who would let the teenaged Morrison on stage to read his poetry in exchange for sex.

Throughout Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre, and most other good Doors books, Jim Morrison comes across as a man who is kind and personable, very witty, insecure (he was hesitant about meeting the Beatles—”What if they laugh at me?” he asked), and extremely intelligent. When he was sober. When he wasn’t sober, and he was drunk more often than not in the last few years of his life, a rage-filled monster emerged. In vino veritas. Today he would have managers shipping him off to rehab and therapy, but in 1971 nobody knew what to do with him, and he paid the price with his life.

Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre is a worthy, though ultimately redundant, addition to the story of the Doors. It doesn’t reach the level of Densmore’s Riders on the Storm: My Life With Jim Morrison and The Doors, Manzarek’s autobiography Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors, or Stephen Davis’s Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend, but it is far superior to the original Morrison biography, the grossly distorted, sycophantic No One Here Gets Out Alive. Wall has done fans a service by providing the comprehensive story of Morrison’s death, but there’s little else here that hasn’t been seen before.

Ash, by James Herbert


It received scant notice on this side of the pond when James Herbert died at the age of 69 in March, 2013. I wasn’t even aware he had died until late in 2014. This demonstrates a considerable cultural difference between the States and England, where Herbert was the most successful and influential horror novelist of all time. His books have sold nearly 60 million copies and he was the leading stylist of what became known in Britain as “nasties”: horror novels that piled up gore, explicit sex, and far out plots, written in a breathless, fast-paced style. The sometimes extreme levels of gore and violence made the books difficult to read at times; the writing style made them impossible to put down. Once begun, you had to finish the book just to see what could happen next. In the 1980s, this movement reached America (by way of the English writer Clive Barker), in a more literary style that became known as “splatterpunk”.

James Herbert, whose first book came out the same time as Stephen King’s Carrie, was a talented writer who was responsible for some of the great horror novels of the past four decades. He started with real pulp, the go-for-the-throat, no-holds-barred horror of The Rats, but by his second novel he was creating believable characters and situations that took horror to new levels. The Fog, no relation to the John Carpenter film, is about a mist of chemicals traveling through the English countryside, turning everyone who comes into contact with it into homicidal or suicidal maniacs. In the most notorious section, a young woman attempts to commit suicide by drowning herself in the ocean, only to have second thoughts and begin to fight the powerful undertow and make her way back to shore. Blocking her way are thousands of people, the entire population of the beach town, walking into the sea like lemmings in a giant mass suicide shortly after the titular fog has passed through. The young woman never makes it back. It’s a genuinely chilling moment, and reveals a dark imagination at work. Herbert never really matched that scene, and his books swung wildly in quality from excellent (The Fog, Shrine, Domain, The Magic Cottage) to mediocre (Moon, The Dark, The Secret of Crickley Hall) to bad (Once, The Jonah, Portent, The Spear). Herbert’s books hurtle along at rocket speed, piling one horror on another, until the reader becomes exhausted. There’s nothing in any of his novels that qualifies as “literary”, but that’s fine. Herbert never made any claims to being literary. As a writer he’s far below the level of his American counterpart Stephen King, though even in his worst books nobody had ever accused Herbert of being boring (as some King books can be). If King is, as he described himself, the “literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries”, then Herbert is the literary equivalent of a White Castle slider. If you like it, you love it, but nobody will ever make the mistake of calling it gourmet cuisine.

Ash is Herbert’s last book, barring any future posthumous releases. It is the continuing saga of ghost hunter David Ash, the protagonist of the earlier, excellent, novels Haunted and The Ghosts of Sleath. Unfortunately, David Ash’s saga and James Herbert’s career close not with the thunderous boom of a sarcophagus lid but rather the dull thud of a pine box.

In this novel, David Ash investigates the paranormal goings-on at a castle in Scotland. A man has been found crucified against a wall, held firmly in place by nothing. There is far more going on at Comraich Castle than a malevolent spirit, however. The castle has been used for over a hundred years by a cabal of extremely powerful people who go by the name the Inner Court and who specialize in making problems disappear. The castle is home to criminals, dictators, and those who could prove harmful or otherwise detrimental to those in power. Adolf Hitler’s aged daughter is kept in a cell in the basement, as are a high-ranking Church of England bishop who is also a notorious pedophile, Moammar Ghadafi who was secretly escorted out of Libya after his body double was assassinated, and Princess Diana’s first-born son (and heir to the throne), Louis, who suffered a severe birth defect that left him with nearly transparent skin. There is also a paid assassin who works for the Inner Court but who is determined to destroy the castle and everyone inside of it before the cancer in his body kills him.

The problem with Ash is that the title character is a ghost hunter and, while there are some supernatural events happening at the Castle, being channeled through the aforementioned unknown daughter of Hitler, those events are few and far between and then largely forgotten as the book winds down.

And this is the biggest issue with the book: as bombs are going off and castle walls are collapsing, as the main characters are desperately looking for a way out of the inferno, the supernatural elements of the book all but disappear and never threaten the heroes. There is a very creepy scene where Ash and his fellow protagonists need to make their way through a spider-infested cave, but that’s it. And even this scene may only be creepy to arachnophobes. A few of the less savory characters, the all-too-human villains, meet their ends at the hands of malevolent spirits but this seems to be almost an afterthought, as if at the last moment Herbert remembered that he was writing a ghost story and backfilled a few chapters with token appearances of the supernatural.

It’s a satisfying end to the story of David Ash, a likeable character whose experiences in earlier books would put Job to shame. It’s not a satisfying end to Herbert’s career, a book from the bad section of his lengthy bibliography. That’s unfortunate because, at his best, James Herbert crafted some of the most intense, horrifying scenes in the entire genre of horror fiction. None of those scenes appear in this book, a too-long, flat, novel that wants to go somewhere but never gets off the ground. James Herbert’s career has sadly ended with his first truly boring book.

Wild Tales, by Graham Nash


Honestly, Graham Nash has always kind of annoyed me. He seemed to be the weakest member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, though most of their hits were written by him. Even more than David Crosby, Nash was the “hippie” in the band. He could sing beautifully and his harmony vocals were never short of amazing, but there was just something that seemed very lightweight about him. Maybe it was hearing the execrable “Marrakesh Express” one too many times when I was growing up that made me anti-Nash. Or maybe it was just that he was the quietest, most laid back member of a group notorious for their egos and volatility.

At the same time, I absolutely love The Hollies, the band Nash formed in England in the early 1960s. Yes, they were strictly second-string in the British Invasion, and their filler-to-fabulous ratio is a bit high, but The Hollies’ Greatest Hits is one of the most flawless pop albums ever released. It shines in its perfection. So when a friend of mine lent me Nash’s autobiography I decided to read it to learn more about The Hollies as much as for any other reason. Surprisingly, I’m less anti-Nash now.

He’s still annoying. The political tangents he goes off on throughout the book are unbelievably strident and reveal a man who doesn’t so much think about these issues than absorb and parrot whatever his fellow travelers and friends tell him. Nash also has an ego the size of Jupiter and he’s not shy about his talent. The book is full of bragging about his vocal abilities and songwriting. On the first of these, his bragging is justifiable. Nash does have a great singing voice and is as good a harmony singer as anyone in the business. On the latter, his songwriting, his boasts are a bit much. Nash has written some really good songs and a few great ones. He’s also written a lot of junk. Despite his claims to the contrary, only Neil Young went on to do considerably greater work after CSNY released Deja Vu in 1970.

Nash is a musical figure so locked into the 1970s it’s hard to picture him beginning in much the same way the Beatles or Stones did. Nash met Allan Clarke in grade school and they discovered that they could sing together. In forming the Hollies, they combined their talents with a love of the Everly Brothers. Nash’s stories here are charming, especially the one about how he and Clarke staked out the hotel where the Everlys were staying in England and actually got to meet them and talk to them. Nash’s love of music is readily apparent, and he makes it very clear that what he always loved most was harmony. In the early days of the Hollies Nash and Clarke perfected two-part harmonies but when guitarist Tony Hicks joined the band, and proved he could sing equally well, they branched out past the Everly Brothers and started working on three-part harmonies, which created a very different dynamic and sound. In this sense, the Hollies were the perfect training ground for Nash.

When Nash met David Crosby, another singer deeply versed in harmony singing from his time in The Byrds, and Stephen Stills, a multi-talented musician, songwriter, and singer, he was able to instantly blend his voice with theirs. Their vocal tones were so perfectly complementary that they sounded like nobody else. It was harmony singing, but a style and level of ability unheard in rock music.

Shortly after they recorded the Crosby, Stills & Nash album, Ahmet Ertegun floated the idea that Neil Young join the band. Nash protested vehemently, afraid that Young’s voice would not blend and worried that Young’s reputation as a somewhat mercurial character would upset the balance. It was only after Nash met Young that he agreed. But in some ways, Nash was right. Neil Young was far too beholden to his own instincts to be a good member of any band. While Young brought a harder edge and some truly great songs to the band, he was far too difficult to work with.

It sounds like a really big deal, but the truth is that in 1969 Neil Young was far from being famous. He’d left Buffalo Springfield and was floating around doing session work and his first, unsuccessful, solo album. Today, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young is considered a “supergroup” but then Crosby, Stills, and Young were journeymen. Arguably the biggest star in the band was Graham Nash, and his star shone brightest in England.

For a band that did very little work together in the 1970s (they released only two studio albums and one live album), they remained hugely popular. Their 1974 tour was the first stadium tour in rock music. They toured and recorded in various permutations. Stills recorded an album with Young, Crosby and Nash worked together and apart. This was how Nash originally envisioned the band: CSNY would be a home base that they could all return to while being free to make music in any other outlet they wished. But through it all, none of the side projects carried the same weight as when three or four would collaborate. The 1977 album CSN was meant to be the followup to Deja Vu, but ended up the sequel to 1969’s Crosby, Stills & Nash after Young dropped out of the sessions. Neil Young didn’t record with the band again until 1988’s American Dream (and the less said about that godawful mess the better). At this point, the band is thought of as CSN and sometimes Y.

Throughout the book Nash is almost exactly how you imagine him to be. He’s still very much enamored of the hippie mentality and still pays a lot of lip service to that long ago ethos. The political lectures scattered throughout the book are annoying, even if you admire Nash’s exuberance and beliefs. Graham Nash is a musician who was at the beginnings of the English rock scene (The Hollies played Liverpool’s Cavern Club more than any band except the Beatles). He played at Woodstock and was at Ground Zero for what became the California sound of the 1970s. More Woodstock, fewer lectures about nuclear power, please. (His lectures might have been more palatable if he didn’t sound like all of his information came from a Greenpeace pamphlet.)

The book is somewhat misnamed. A better title might have been Mild Tales. The truly wild tales of decadence and licentiousness were the ones starring Crosby. Long Time Gone, the autobiography of David Crosby, is a far better book, both for his musical reminiscences and for the genuinely terrifying portrait of drug addiction Crosby paints. In fact, the wildest tales in Nash’s books are the ones about Crosby’s descent into an unparalleled Hell of addiction. Graham Nash had a taste for women and drugs, but never seemed to really lose control. He was remarkably self-possessed and self-assured as a young man breaking into the music business and remained so for his entire career. This, and his basic charm, make him likable (although it also fuels his unlikable ego). His love of music and photography, and his restless creative spirit are also abundant. The book makes a nice companion piece to Long Time Gone, and I’d be curious to see a good autobiography of Stephen Stills, another character blessed with musical genius and titanic ego. (Neil Young is too eccentric to write a decent autobiography, but Shakey by Jimmy McDonough is a fascinating biography.) Separate and combined, their lives are one of the most interesting rock stories ever written, spanning almost every music scene from England’s 1950s to Greenwich Village in the early 1960s to Los Angeles in the late sixties and throughout the seventies. For now, only Crosby and Nash are speaking up.

All These Years, Vol. 1: Tune In, by Mark Lewisohn

All These Years, Vol. 1: Tune In, by Mark Lewisohn

For most Americans the story of the Beatles begins fifty years ago today when a plane carrying the four longhairs from Liverpool landed at John F. Kennedy Airport, and kicks into gear two nights later when the band played on The Ed Sullivan Show to what was then the largest television audience of all time.

Of course, that is not where the story begins. The Beatles didn’t spring forth fully formed, like Athena popping out of Zeus’s head. In one incarnation or another they’d been playing and singing for almost six years by the time Sullivan introduced them. These six years are probably the least known but, in many ways, the most fascinating and important period in the band’s history. Now author Mark Lewisohn has finally released the first volume of his projected trilogy about the band, and the work more than lives up to the expectations.

Lewisohn has long been known to Beatles fans as the world’s leading expert on the subject, the author of the essential The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions that details almost every minute the band spent in the studio. He’s as close to an “official” expert the band has; with their permission he was given access to every note they’ve recorded (including all the unreleased stuff), he’s written liner notes and books, and he wrote the biographical prefaces to The Beatles Anthology (the officially sanctioned story of the band, in their own words). With Tune In, he’s outdone himself.

This is not simply a biography of The Beatles. This is the Moby Dick of rock and roll biographies. It is so richly detailed, so deep, and so complex, that it’s like seeing the Beatles for the first time in high-definition Technicolor after years of viewing them in grainy black and white. Lewisohn leaves no stone unturned here. True, it’s not really that important for even obsessive fans (guilty!) to know how much George Harrison paid for an amplifier in 1962, but those nitpicky details are deftly woven into a narrative arc that emphasizes the story over the minutiae. It’s a story told with cheek and humor, completely appropriate for the subject, and is bathed in loving detail. Lewisohn is clearly a huge fan, but he’s not worshipping at the altar here. Paul McCartney could be petty, narcissistic, and jealous. John Lennon was often cruel and cutting. Pete Best, it is clear, was a lousy drummer who couldn’t keep time if the lives of millions were at stake. None of the Beatles practiced monogamy, though both Lennon and McCartney demanded their girlfriends be subservient in almost all ways.

The early years of the band contain stories that all hardcore Beatle fans know:

  • When John was five he was forced to tearfully choose between his mother and father;
  • the head of Decca records refused to sign the Beatles, telling their manager Brian Epstein “Guitar groups are on the way out”;
  • George Martin heard the Beatles demo and liked it enough to bring them in, agreeing to sign them when he met them and was impressed by their humor and spirit;
  • when Pete Best was fired it was because the Beatles were jealous that their “mean, moody, and magnificent” drummer got all the girls;
  • bassist Stuart Sutcliffe died a sudden, shocking death;
  • after he was sacked, Pete Best told his best friend, Beatles roadie Neil Aspinall, to continue working for the band because “they’re going places”;
  • the Beatles never tried marijuana until they met Bob Dylan;
  • Lennon and McCartney spent the early years feverishly writing songs together.

The stories are so well-known, why do we need another Beatles biography? Well for starters, this is the first biography that states with complete authority that not a single one of these stories is true. Lewisohn has talked extensively not just with the people closest to the band, but their neighbors, schoolmates, employers, and everyone else with whom they had contact. His command of the facts and of the story is so overwhelming that the reader is left in awe of both his basic knowledge and the years of research he put into the book. When the facts are unclear, Lewisohn acknowledges it. When he cannot speak authoritatively, he presents all known sides of the story. Still, the number of myths he dispels is astounding.

Lewisohn wisely avoids foreshadowing for the most part. There are a handful of references to what will come later, but Tune In is set in the time it covers. This gives the book a sense of immediacy that too many biographies lack. The story builds gradually, sprawling over 800 pages (not including the end notes!), and covers only the time period ending on January 1, 1963. At book’s end, the Beatles are still over a year away from landing at Kennedy Airport. At book’s end, the airport was still called Idlewild because Kennedy himself was nearly a year away from Oswald’s bullets. Ed Sullivan, Shea Stadium, Sgt. Pepper, the Maharishi, Apple Records…these are stories for future books. Tune In ends with “Love Me Do”.

But this is the story of The Beatles. It’s all there. The guys that charmed the hardened and cynical New York press and won over the hearts of America are present and accounted for. The irreverence, humor, and restless creativity that later made Revolver are here in their early stages. Too many Beatles books think the story begins where this book ends; the early years are dismissed as a time when an amateurish act went to Hamburg and learned how to be a good band.

Essentially, that summary is true. The Beatles were a band with limited skills and a small repertoire who went to Hamburg, Germany to be the house band at the Indra Club, the sleaziest bar in town, before making their way up the musical ladder to the Kaiserkeller, the second sleaziest bar in town. Hamburg was such a high pressure situation that it turned the rough coal of the band into a brilliant diamond. It was in Hamburg that their repertoire expanded enormously because they refused to repeat any songs on the same night, and they had to play for four and half hours a night, six hours on the weekend. They learned songs on the fly, essentially rehearsing in front of crowds of drunken and often violent locals and sailors. In Hamburg they learned to put on a show, pressured by the Indra’s manager who would bellow “Mach schau! Mach schau!” (“make a show”). The show they put on, had it been seen in 1977, would have been called “punk rock”. Stomping, jumping, screaming, joking with and at the audience…the young band developed a visceral, exciting act to go with the music. They went to Hamburg as Liverpool’s also-rans. Nobody thought of them as being anything special. The best band in Liverpool was widely acknowledged as Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, featuring drummer Ringo Starr. When they came back from Hamburg, they were the best, tightest, band in Liverpool, probably the best band in England, and possibly the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world. As such, they became stars in their hometown, attracting a rabid, fanatical following.

They would return to Hamburg four more times, the last two times being brief contractual obligations around the time of “Love Me Do”. Each time they appeared in a higher class of low-class bars. By the time they came back from Hamburg for the third time, they had played the equivalent of almost four and a half hours every night for eight months. That’s just Hamburg, and doesn’t include their countless sets in Liverpool’s Cavern Club. When you consider that type of pace, sustainable only by the young (and full of amphetamines), it’s nearly impossible to imagine a band becoming more tempered. Even when Stuart Sutcliffe quit the band in order to stay with the woman he loved, they carried on as if nothing had happened by forcing McCartney to (reluctantly) play bass. But Lewisohn also takes great pains to point out how unusual the Beatles were. It wasn’t simply that they were the best band in Liverpool, something that almost everyone in the city acknowledged in 1961. They were different. At a time when nearly every band in England was modeled after Cliff Richard and the Shadows (a singer and backing group), the Beatles all sang (even Pete Best would sing once or twice a night), and they sang harmonies, something no other band in Liverpool was doing. They were very funny, bringing their boundless love of The Goons and John’s Lewis Carroll-esque wordplay into their act. They were more than a rock ‘n’ roll band; they were the first rock group, comprised of inseparable friends (and Pete Best on drums). Lennon was clearly the leader at this time, but McCartney and Harrison were near equals. There was no star; they were all stars.

The entire history of the early years of the Beatles is laid out here and, despite the millions of words previously written about the band, there are a wealth of revelations. John, Paul, and George played as a trio named Japage 3? Brian Epstein was not their first manager? George Martin was forced into producing the Beatles as punishment for having an affair with his secretary? A recording contract was offered only because EMI wanted the publishing rights to “Like Dreamers Do”? Beatles roadie and right-hand-man Neil Aspinall, a teenager himself, was having an affair with Pete Best’s mother…and is the father of Best’s half-brother? Aside from a few very early attempts when they were still known as The Quarrymen, John and Paul didn’t start writing in earnest until after they got a recording contract? Brian Epstein became the manager of so many Liverpool acts not because he liked them, but because it enabled him to hold a near monopoly on the Liverpool music scene (and thus promote the Beatles even more heavily)? The Beatles introduced the fledgling Detroit music scene to England, by being the first band to do a Motown song on the BBC?

This is the complete story of the early years. Many myths are destroyed; many are confirmed. The true story is better than the myth. The drugs and drink are here; the rampaging, insatiable sexual appetites of young men away from home and living in squalor on Hamburg’s naughtiest street are here; the German art crowd of “Exis” is here, teaching the young band through their example that there are no rules to art; Brian Epstein’s tawdry, dangerous taste for rough trade sex is here; the violent streets of post-war Liverpool are here; most of all, the music is here. Large sections are devoted to who the young band was listening to, who they liked, and who they didn’t like. Barrels of ink are spilled detailing their love for Elvis, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, and Carl Perkins among many others. It brings them alive in a way that is not just “the Beatles as pop music icons” but, rather, young men in love with rock ‘n’ roll. They were music obsessives, scouring the record shop at NEMS (managed by the young Brian Epstein), for the latest and greatest singles from America. They were The Beatles as the world knows them and loves them, at a time before anyone outside of Liverpool and Hamburg had heard of them.

The book is not without flaws, but most of them are frustrating and not serious. Lewisohn often describes interesting photographs, but doesn’t include them with the photos in the book. Sometimes the level of detail is all too much. There are several dog whistles to Beatles fanatics (even including some Rutles references) that would sail over the heads of non-fanatics. The next volume is not due out for another five years, and the finale five years after that…and that is the most frustrating thing of all. Regardless of these picayune flaws, All These Years, Volume 1: Tune In is the definitive biography of the savage young Beatles, and Mark Lewisohn is their Boswell. It is difficult to imagine anyone else even bothering to tell the story after this. Any future books about the band will more likely be narrowly focused to an event, an album, or even a song. There is simply no further need for another biography. Tune In sits along Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Elvis Presley at the pinnacle of books about rock and roll music.

Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King

In 1977 Stephen King gifted the world of horror fiction with a simple, elegant ghost story. The Shining was King’s third published novel and is still considered by many of his fans as one of the best novels he’s written. Among most King fans, there’s a general consensus that the books he wrote in his early days are his best. The rankings change, but most discussions about the “best” of Stephen King start with The Shining, The Stand, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone, and Pet Sematary. There’s also strong support for It and The Dark Tower series, but to this reader both of those works suffered from severe cases of bloat.

One of King’s saving graces is that even when his novels are overstuffed they’re so easy to read that the extraneous pages zip by without much effort being required. Of course, this is also a criticism…the pages that are crucial to the story also pass quickly without much effort. For this reason, many of King’s novels are fairly forgettable. Does anyone really have any memory about the plot points of From A Buick 8? Insomnia? Lisey’s Story? Needful Things?

This isn’t true of his earlier novels. King’s early work benefited greatly from being shorter and simpler than most of his recent novels. Carrie, clocking in at under 300 pages, was about a girl with telekinesis. ‘Salem’s Lot was about vampires. The Shining was a ghost story. Pet Sematary was, in essence, a zombie story. They were brief, intense, and very memorable. Compare these streamlined tales with the sprawling mess of Under The Dome or the alternate world-hopping of the thousands of pages that make up The Dark Tower.

Now King has released his first proper sequel (not counting Black House, his collaborative effort with Peter Straub that was ostensibly a sequel to The Talisman but was more closely affiliated with The Dark Tower). Doctor Sleep picks up the story of Danny Torrance, the little boy with the big shine who barely escaped the swinging roque mallet and possessed countenance of his father at the Overlook Hotel. Dan is now an adult with a serious drinking problem, restlessly moving from one spot to another, looking for any place he can call home. His mother is now deceased, as is Dick Hallorann. The ghosts of the Overlook Hotel continued to plague him for years after the boiler blew the place sky-high, but Dan has learned how to lock the ghosts away in his subconscious, a plot point with much potential that never goes anywhere.

The bulk of the novel focuses on a newly sober Dan, in touch with a girl named Abra Stone. Abra has the shining as well, the brightest ever seen, and she is in danger from a group of psychic vampires who call themselves The True Knot.

It is this group, semi-immortal beings that feed off the psychic energy of children with the shining by torturing them to death and inhaling their essence, that ultimately undermines a story with a great deal of promise. The brief description of The True Knot is compelling, but the execution falls very far short. They are possibly the least effective villains King has ever created.

To all outward appearances, the True Knot seem to be middle-aged and elderly people who drive all over the country in tricked out RV campers. While their true age can be hundreds of years, they remain susceptible to disease, accident, and any of the other millions of ways mere mortals can die. Fairly early in the novel they kidnap, torture, and inhale the shining of a boy who has the measles. Because they are not immune, the True Knot then begins dying off from the measles. It’s enough to make you wonder whether, in their hundreds of years doing this, they had ever before met a child with a communicable disease. Apparently not.

The group’s leader, an Irish woman named Rose The Hat because of the top hat she wears, believes that if the group can get Abra Stone’s powerful shine into their systems that it will cure them. The problem is that the True Knot is about as competent as the Keystone Kops. Whenever Rose attempts to establish a psychic link with Abra, the young girl swats her aside effortlessly. The attempt to kidnap Abra is successful, but results in the deaths of almost the entire kidnapping party. The kidnapping itself is short-lived. A trap is then set by Dan Torrance, Abra’s father, and Dan’s friends from the local Alcoholics Anonymous. With very little drama, almost the entirety of the True Knot is dispatched, leaving only two survivors of the group. They, too, are easily taken care of.

The set up for the novel works. The True Knot’s base of operations is a campground in Colorado, on the site of the old Overlook Hotel, which brings Dan back to that haunted ground for the first time since the Peanut Farmer was President. It’s easy to see the potential here: Dan Torrance is back at the site of the Overlook; his subconscious is stuffed full of the ghosts that called the Overlook home; he is engaging in a pitched battle with psychic vampires who want to swallow the essence of his shining. All of this time I thought, Here it comes…Dan’s going to release them…the woman from 217, Horace Derwent, Lloyd the bartender…and the full battle will be on between the ghosts and the True Knot with Dan and Abra guiding the action with the shining. Pretty cool, huh?

Yeah, but none of that happens. The ghosts stay in Dan’s subconscious. Abra is thousands of miles away from the action and never in real danger. The True Knot puts up a fight worthy of a bunch of easily tricked, elderly people with the measles. And then it’s over.

The problem that plagues Doctor Sleep is that you never feel like the good guys are in any real danger. They’re constantly one step ahead of the True Knot. There is good in the novel. King’s portrayal of Dan Torrance is terrific, and the interactions between Dan and Abra are real and warm. There are enough connections to The Shining to make it a genuine sequel, even if the connections are never built upon. But Stephen King novels rise or fall on the strength of the villains, and the True Knot are as scary and intimidating as a group of mischievous puppies. That makes Doctor Sleep a huge disappointment. The Shining, one of the greatest ghost stories ever written, deserves better.

I Wanted My MTV

In 1981, Gil-Scott Heron’s proto-rap song was proven wrong; the revolution was televised.

It started slowly, and there were plenty of technical problems in the beginning, but eventually the little cable channel known as Music Television completely changed the look, sound, and feel of television. In all likelihood, it was the most significant change to popular culture since the Beatles landed at JFK. And all it did was play commercials twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Make no mistake: music videos are commercials. They were nothing more than advertisements for albums, tours, and artists. They’d been invented back in the 1960s as a way of appearing on television shows without having to actually appear on the shows. It’s impossible to determine what the first music video is: was it the “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence in A Hard Day’s Night? Was it the video for “Paperback Writer” that featured the Fabs in a garden standing around and looking like the coolest gang on the planet? Was it by music video pioneer Mike Nesmith, who in the 1970s married his songs to short films that had nothing to do with Nesmith or the song? The debate can go on forever, and in the end it’s not the important. What is important is that a small group of television executive wannabes came up with the idea of creating a video jukebox and airing it all day, every day. They hired five personalities to introduce the videos. They launched the channel on August 1, 1981 by playing a ten minute clip of rockets being prepped and countdowns being intoned before a voice said, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll” and the promo for the Buggles’s “Video Killed The Radio Star” began.

The first ten years of MTV are considered the Golden Age of the channel, back when it still played music videos and before it degenerated into a series of reality shows that celebrate the worst of human behavior. A big part of that is simply nostalgia. I certainly had a love/hate relationship with MTV (I wrote an article for my college newspaper about “Empty V”), but I also could not stop watching it. Starting when MTV came to my local cable company in January 1982, when I had free time, my channel was set to MTV.

Even now, when I hear a song that was a hit in the early 1980s, I can see the video in my mind’s eye. I can’t hear “Centerfold” without seeing Peter Wolf running in slow motion through a corridor filled with beautiful women doing cartwheels. “Rio” calls to mind images of the Duran Duran boys cavorting on beaches and a boat. “Jesse’s Girl” makes me picture Rick Springfield standing with his legs spread, playing the guitar as if he was sawing a two by four. The music of that era is inextricably linked with visual images.

I have always loved music videos. Growing up in the 1970s, long before MTV, YouTube, DVDs, etc., there was no way to establish a connection with the band other than albums. I would stare at the pictures of the bands on the LP covers. Too young to attend concerts, this was the only way to know what the bands looked like. To see them performing, even miming to a song, brought the musical experience to a different level. It made the artists into something more than iconic photographs; it made them performers. To see the Beatles on the cover of Sgt. Pepper was one thing; to see them walking around in the streets of London in the “Penny Lane” video was a revelation. Looking at them now, it’s like looking into a time capsule and seeing old or, in too many cases, dead musicians when they were alive and full of youth and energy. I still get a thrill when I see a performance clip of a favorite artist that I’ve never seen before, whether it’s a live clip, a lip-synced TV performance, or a promotional video is irrelevant to me: it’s like watching home movies of my favorite bands.

Two recent books tell the story of the channel from different perspectives. I Want My MTV is an oral history that gathers stories from everyone involved: musicians, video directors, executives, on-air talent, behind-the-scenes movers and shakers. It’s an extraordinarily good book that leaves no stone unturned and recounts those early years straight up through the alternative rock explosion of the early 1990s. It is filled with stories of sex, drugs, rock and roll. There’s an entire, hilarious, chapter about Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonight” video that the rocker claims destroyed his career. There are ribald stories about the making of videos (including an unforgettable image from the making of Van Halen’s “Pretty Woman” that will sear itself into your brain). The origin of MTV’s first attempts at programming are discussed, from Yo! MTV Raps to 120 Minutes. MTV was a player at all the major musical events of the 1980s, including Live Aid, Farm Aid, the US Festival (remember that one?). This is like reading a fast-paced, funny history of 80s rock music. Much of that music was lousy, and almost all of it was over-produced, but the stories are great. The scope of the book is so large, it’s one of the few rock books worth a second read.

The second book, released just a few weeks ago, is another oral history called VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave. This book focuses exclusively on the five people who were the original Video Jockeys, and it is nowhere near as successful as I Want My MTV. Of the original five VJs, only four survive. J.J. Jackson died in 2004. The main problem of the book is that the only real storytellers among the five were Jackson and, to a lesser degree, Mark Goodman. This is likely because both came up through radio, and both had extensive experience in the rock music world before MTV. Jackson was the first American DJ to play Led Zeppelin on the radio, and he was considered a friend by many of the big bands of the day. When doing promos and appearing on MTV, both Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey refused to talk to anyone except Jackson. They were all hired for their looks: Nina Blackwood was a smoldering hot wannabe actress who knew very little about music, but she filled the niche of the “Video Vamp”; Alan Hunter, another aspiring actor and dancer, knew next to nothing about music (though he’d appeared in David Bowie’s “Fashion” video), but he could be goony and funny in front of the camera; Martha Quinn, a recent NYU grad who’d never held a job before, was the perfect America’s Sweetheart choice with her pixie-ish look and “golly gee!” demeanor; J.J. Jackson was the black elder statesman who knew rock history inside and out; Mark Goodman was the knowledgeable, Jewish/ethnic guy. When you consider that one of the behind-the-scenes guiding lights of MTV was Mike Nesmith, it’s ironic that the VJs were assembled much like The Monkees, with each designed to appeal to a different demographic.

Throughout VJ you learn the stories of what it was like to be there at the beginning when nobody, not talent, crew, or executives, had any idea what they were really doing. The problem is that for too much of the book, which is about half the length of I Want My MTV, they reminisce about things that are of little interest to the general audience: where they shopped, who they were dating, what kind of apartments they lived in. A couple of eye-popping things do emerge from these stories, like the fact that Mark Goodman was taking full advantage of his fame by bedding every woman he could find, including MTV contest winners, or the mind-boggling idea that Martha Quinn dated former Dead Boys/Lords Of The New Church singer Stiv Bators in what must be one of the most unlikely, and cringe-inducing, pairings in rock history. Both Hunter and Goodman also fueled much of their time with cocaine, while J.J. Jackson was hitting the clubs almost every night.

Where VJ fails is where I Want My MTV so gloriously succeeds: the music and, specifically, the music videos. Since three of the five knew very little about music, and none of them were present at the creation of the videos they were playing, their stories about interviewing or hanging with the stars of the day tend to be very self-oriented (Nina Blackwood recounts Johnny Cougar attempting to seduce her, Martha Quinn talks about how she flubbed an interview with David Lee Roth). There is almost nothing about the videos they were playing. The most surprising revelation in the book is that the VJs filmed their segments in advance: four segments per hour, each only one minute long. These characters, who seemed so much a part of the viewers’ lives, were only on air for four minutes an hour. For somebody like me, who could not tear himself away from the channel in those after-school hours, Martha Quinn seemed as ubiquitous as “Hungry Like The Wolf” and “She Blinded Me With Science.” It’s oddly disconcerting to learn that these characters who seemed like such a huge part of my musical life were, in fact, bit players.

VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave is a forgettable book that is akin to listening to people sitting around reminiscing about their salad days. What it lacks is electricity, and this is something that I Want My MTV, one of the funniest books about rock, provides in spades. Many of the stories in VJ are also in I Want My MTV, but come across as fresher and funnier. The latter book is the one to read.

And if you want to know why MTV doesn’t play music videos anymore, here’s the answer with more truth than you probably want to hear:

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.