Monday, January 9, 2012

Mystery Brain

The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years is vintage Greil Marcus -- for better and worse

The following review was posted last week on the Books page of the History News Network site.  

Greil Marcus is the Ernest Hemingway of cultural criticism. I don't mean that in terms of style -- Hemingway's laconic prose is light years away from that of the effusive, endlessly analogizing Marcus -- but rather that Marcus, in a manner perhaps only paralleled by Pauline Kael, has inspired a generation of bad imitators. Myself among them.

I discovered Marcus somewhat belatedly, at the time of the second (1982) edition of his classic 1975 study Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Roll Music. I read the book multiple times in ensuing iterations, enchanted by its intoxicating prose, despite the fact that it would be years before I heard much of the music on which it was based. I was thrilled by the idea that popular music could be a subject of serious fun. It's hard to imagine that I would have ever received a Ph.D. in American Civilization, specializing in the history of popular culture, had I not encountered that book at a formative period in my life.

Though he has been a consistently productive magazine journalist, Marcus's output as a writer of books was relatively modest in the twenty years following Mystery Train, notwithstanding that his 1989 book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century has had the heft and durability of a major study. But in the last two decades -- and in the last five years or so in particular -- his pace as a writer, editor and collaborator has picked up. He's taken to writing quick, impressionistic books on subjects like Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years represents relatively fresh territory, not only because the band has not really been a long-term fixture of his writing, but also because the group has always had a mixed critical reputation. Conventional critical wisdom holds that while the Doors produced a few deeply suggestive songs that have had a remarkably durable life on FM radio, lead singer Jim Morrison in particular was, in the main, undisciplined at best and boorishly pretentious at worst. Though his overall stance toward the band is positive, Marcus does not fundamentally challenge this view, instead focusing on what he considers the band's best work in its brief life in the second half of the 1960s.

I use the word "focusing" loosely; Marcus has never been an especially tight writer. Indeed, as a number of impatient readers have complained, the Doors are less the subject of this book than a point of departure for a series of riffs on subjects that seem loosely connected at best. A chapter whose locus is generally on the 1991 Oliver Stone biopic The Doors jumps (or perhaps lurches) from there into an extended analysis of the now obscure 1990 Christian Slater film Pump Up the Volume for reasons that are never entirely clear. If you look up Slater in the index of the book, you'll find him sandwiched between The Situationists, Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons" and Josef Svorecky on one side, and Grace Slick, Bessie Smith and Peter Smithson on the other. As one who considers himself about as well read as anyone in 20th century cultural history, I find myself wondering if Marcus could possibly expect anyone to keep up with him as he leaps from pop music to architecture to crime fiction and back again.

He can exasperate at the level of individual sentences as well. He writes of "The End," one of the better-known songs in the Doors canon, that "The furious, impossibly sustained assault that will steer the song to its end, a syncopation that swirls on its own momentum, each musician called upon not just to match the pace of the others but to draw his own pictures inside the maelstrom -- in its way this is a relief, because that syncopation gives the music a grounding you can count on, that you can count off yourself." To which I say: Huh? He describes "Roadhouse Blues" "not as an autobiography, not as confession, not as a cry for help or a fuck you to whomever asked, but as Louise Brooks liked to quote, she said, from an old dictionary, 'a subjective epic composition in which the author begs leave to treat the world according to his own point of view." Marcus has long been lionized as a founding father of rock criticism, and one can't help but wonder whether he and others regard him as beyond the quotidian vagaries of line editing.

But there's a reason Marcus is lionized. At his best he opens cultural windows that can only be jimmied open with unconventional prose. Of the long shadow cast by his generation, he writes, "This is what is terrifying: the notion that the Sixties was no grand, simple, romantic time to sell to others as a nice place to visit, but a place, even as it is created, people know they can never really inhabit, and never escape." (Coming of age in the seventies, I certainly had that oppressive feeling.) He describes the prescient dark mood of the Doors by noting that "After Charles Manson, people could look back at 'The End,' 'Strange Days,' 'People are Strange,' and 'End of the Night' and hear what Manson had done as if it had yet to happen, as if they should have known, as if, in the deep textures of the music, they had." Yes: the Doors did ride a curdling cultural wave as the promise of the early sixties gave way to the kind of mindless violence of the Manson murders. Marcus distills the essence of the band better than they ever had themselves: "They didn't promise happy endings. Their best songs said happy endings weren't interesting, and they weren't deserved."

Marcus is like a stand-up comedian who only speaks in punch lines, refusing to set up the payoff (in this case, brief biographical sketches, career overviews, and something resembling a systematically offered sense of context). Such omissions appear to be an avowed (Beat) aesthetic, even a moral principle: You don't get to the old weird America by traveling down familiar highways. The problem, for him no less than the pop artists he writes about -- Jim Morrison in particular -- is that in the negotiation between reader and writer there's a thin line between bracing challenge and alienating self-indulgence, and it's hard to avoid concluding, as much as I hate to, that there are times when I feel Marcus crosses it.

I find myself thinking about Marcus the way he felt about Elvis Presley: awed by his talent but dismayed by his lack of constancy. I've got this idea that asking him to be different would be ungrateful at best and stupid at worst, failing to value the very devil-may-care quality that made him special in the first place. And I'm not sure how much in the way of evolution I should expect of any person old enough to have earned social security benefits, among other benchmarks. But I also feel not to ask would also be a betrayal of sorts, a willingness to settle that Marcus taught me long ago is a seductively dangerous temptation in American life. So I'll say: thank you, Greil Marcus. You changed my life. And I'll ask: Should we go somewhere else now?