Greil Marcus’s latest foray into criticism fails to persuade that the bloated “tragic” myth of Jim Morrison and the Doors merits all the attention it gets, writes Stuart Maconie.
Faber & Faber, 224pp, £14.99
When Frank Zappa sneered - his default mode of discourse - that rock journalism was people who can't write, producing stories based on interviews with people who can't speak, to amuse people who can't read, surely he wasn't talking about Greil Marcus. More than any other critic from the baby-boomer generation, Marcus has expanded and deepened the nature of what you might call the rock conversation. His books have placed Elvis in the context of F Scott Fitzgerald and Herman Melville, and attempted to locate punk alongside 13th-century witches and Guy Debord's Situationist International. Like a Sixties college kid trying to convince his scornful, pipe-smoking, Brubeck-and-Bach loving dad that Jimi Hendrix and Van Morrison are, like, geniuses too, the ever-youthful Marcus provides learned and lengthy justifications for the worth of the rock'n'roll he loves.
In contrast to his classics Mystery Train (1975) and Lipstick Traces (1989) - on Elvis and punk - The Doors is a slender monograph aimed at fans. Yet even here Thomas Pynchon, Ian McEwan, François Truffaut and Eduardo Paolozzi are pressed into service to illuminate and paint the backdrop to records by perhaps the most overrated band in the history of rock music.
This last piece of heresy will scandalise many readers - but sometimes this is the opinion, held a little mischievously maybe, of at least one listener. To be fair, I never saw the Doors. I was a child of the Sixties, yes, but only just, and a child. My Sixties icons were Captain Scarlet and Ali Bongo, not Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison.
Perhaps that is why I can never share Marcus's continuing devotion to the band, a devotion he expresses in a heartfelt and sometimes lyrical way. "Imagine what it must have been like to make 'The End'," he writes of their muddled, mythic magnum opus:
No matter how comically overstated it sounded then or sounds now, you can hear that it made the people who made it feel free as they made it. Worldly, tragic, bigger somehow. You can hear that it let them apprehend the terror of freedom and made them move nevertheless forward a note at a time.
This is a beautiful attempt to get under the skin of a rather silly song. A silly lyric, at any rate, one full of exhortations to "ride the snake" to "the ancient lake" and clunking references to Sophocles and the Oedipus myth. And there's the rub. We will never now be able to disentangle the secret, serpentine myth of the Doors from the dumb, sad tale of Mr Mojo Risin', the self-styled Lizard King, James Douglas Morrison.
In many ways, Jim Morrison was the least interesting member of the Doors. Watch the old footage of him, preening in his leather kecks, his self-satisfied, puppy-fat frat-boy face pursed waxily as he declaims some sententious claptrap, and often your eye is drawn to the other stuff going on: Robby Krieger's plaintive, folkish, exotic, defiantly un-rock'n'roll guitar work; Ray Manzarek, professorial and potently psychedelic simultaneously, stabbing at the organ that is the heart of their sound; John Densmore hitting those jazz fills and slashes on the drums, remaining almost disdainfully aloof from the noise around him. But none of these more mandarin presences had Morrison's cocksure self-belief, his hooded eyes, or those leather trousers. And so he lives on. Literally, according to some who fancy that he is hiding out in a shack in the desert, reading Baudelaire, avoiding "the Man" and planning a comeback once he's shed a few pounds.
Marcus gives the music due credence and respect, but he is drawn back ineluctably, and quite understandably, to what the question of what Morrison was all about, what his few years in the spotlight said to the generation to which Marcus belonged. "All I remembered of the Doors," he writes, "all I remembered from the hundreds of times I played their first album, from the few times I played the ones after that, from the dozen times I saw them on stage, was the complex and twisting thrill of being taken out of myself."
He compares his own moment of primal revelation with that of Leonard, the protagonist of McEwan's novel The Innocent, on first hearing "Heartbreak Hotel". In fact, Marcus compares the Lizard King to the King on many occasions, a comparison that is both ridiculous and glibly perfect. Elvis put more feral talent, romance and mystery into one tremulous vibrato or hip swivel than Morrison showed in his entire corpus. Yet the latter's demise does echo, however faintly, that of his Olympian predecessor - an erotically rampant manchild grown fat and tatty and deluded. There is much less noble tragedy in Morrison's story, but both men would seem to prove Scott Fitzgerald's dictum about there being "no second acts in American lives".
The Doors (subtitled A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years) being such a slim volume compared to Marcus's major scholarly works,
a fast reader will finish it in the time it takes to listen to one of the many bootleg recordings of the Doors live onstage. These musical artefacts, compelling and ludicrous by turns, sometimes clear and lurid and raging, sometimes murky and oxidised, form the basis for Marcus's explorations. He moves from "Light My Fire" to "The End", a song at a time, his analysis bolstered by digressions and ruminations on wider cultural topics.
At one point, he turns his elegant wrath on those who seek to lionise the "so-called Sixties":
I found myself constantly getting calls about the Sixties from newspaper and TV reporters. I decided I wasn't going to talk about it any more. The implication seemed to be that anyone who might now had nothing better to do than sit around wondering about the meaning of events that had, at the time, seemed like fun or not fun. As if one's life had been empty ever since.
This is only slightly devalued by coming in the middle of a book that lionises the Sixties over more than 200 pages.
We are in the rarefied air of high-church rock criticism here. Marcus is a magisterial and important writer, one to whom we should all be hugely grateful. Yet sometimes, through no fault of his own, the Holy Greil has also become the touchstone for the worst kind of rock critic: a humourless, sexless, beardy kind who has elevated one kind of pop music - chest-beating, male, pompous - over others that are feminine and joyful, the kind so often derided by hobnailed bores as cheesy, lightweight or a guilty pleasure.
As I read of yet another 14-minute version of "LA Woman" performed in Denver, or the 11 minutes of the "Mystery Train" done in Pittsburgh (it's barely two in the Elvis version), the book bolstered my sense, unfair though it may be, of a group and a culture bloated and pendulous with its own importance, a fatty blowout that leaves you pining for the delicate sorbet of the Chiffons, or Chic, or Whigfield's "Saturday Night". Yes, Greil Marcus on Whigfield. That would really get the mojo rising.
“Stuart Maconie's Freak Zone" is on BBC 6 Music (Sundays, 6pm). His most recent book is "Hope and Glory: the Days That Made Britain" (Ebury Press, £11.99)