The Doors are one of those groups that achieved fame via their own unique path. Their musical style borrows from the blues but includes hints of John Cage, the seeming chaos of free jazz and the beautiful not quite anarchy of Messiaen. Lyrically, they could be as complex as Blake or as trite as high school love poems; sometimes in the same tune. Always surrounded by an aura of dread, their music could also make a teenybopper dance. Cultural critic Greil Marcus is a fan. His latest book, The Doors: a Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years makes that abundantly clear. Marcus, whose topics have included Elvis, The Band, Van Morrison, punk rock, and Bob Dylan, has never written so obviously as a fan. In his case, however, that is not a drawback. If anything, his understanding of The Doors is enhanced by his fandom. Consequently, so is the the reader’s.
More than almost any rock band–especially one that remains as popular as the Doors–the music they created is quite visceral. Sure, other musicians may have released a song or two (or maybe even an album or three) that hit you in a place somewhere between revelation and a raw unadulterated sexual experience. A sampling of my list of such songs would include “Whole Lotta’ Love” by Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” James Brown’s “Try Me,” The Stones “Gimme Shelter,” Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falletinme Be MiceElf) Again, the Beatles’ “Revolution,” the Grateful Dead’s “China Cat Sunflower,” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Of course, this is nowhere near a complete list, but I hope you get the idea. You feel these songs before you think about them. Almost the entire catalog of The Doors could end up on this list.
The first time I heard “Light My Fire” was on the radio in 1967. At that time I was a casual music listener. Indeed, my radio spent a lot more time dialed into baseball games then it did to music. Within a year that would change and part of the reason was The Doors. “Light My Fire” was different from any Top 40 music I had ever heard. By the beginning of 1969 I owned The Doors’ first and second albums. Their music thrilled me, its hint of something dark and weird reminding me of the anti-LSD movies they were starting to show us in my junior high gym class. Movies that, for better and worse, were supposed to scare us youngsters away from psychedelics and other drugs but did the exact opposite for some of us.
Marcus captures this aspect of The Doors well. In a manner mastered only by him, he takes a particular performance of a song and turns it into a journey into the myth and meaning of The Doors and rock and roll itself. On the way he dissects pop culture, Hollywood, the Woodstock myth and occasionally life itself. And that journey he takes the reader on is that reader’s alone. You know how when you’re on a road trip; there’s a couple other folks in the back seat with you, the driver and the passenger riding shotgun up front in their own world occasionally checking in with the backseat riders, the billboards, scenery and other vehicles flying by. Every person in that car is going the same way and to the same destination yet each individual experiences the journey their own way. That’s how meaning is extracted from Greil Marcus’ criticism. He’s in the car but sometimes he’s the driver and sometimes he’s in the back seat. His narration never stops and its meaning is never singular.
Listening to certain songs can occasionally become events. Just like I can remember where I was when I heard JFK had been shot, I can remember where I was the first time I heard “Like A Rolling Stone.” The circumstances of the first time I heard “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is as clear to me as the moment the Red Sox clinched their first World Series victory in 86 years. The Doors have a few songs like that. The one that rings clearest in my rock and roll memory is “When the Music’s Over” from their Strange Days album. While not the first time I heard it, the most memorable hearing I have of this song is this: I was sitting in an apartment one block from Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue. I was with my girl friend at the time, three Chicana teenagers and a guy who had just been released from California’s Soledad prison for his role in a biker fight gone terribly awry in which two people ended up dead. I was imbibing in some of Berkeley’s finer offerings and cheap beer. The women were drinking cheap wine and our biker friend was celebrating his recent release. I put Strange Days on the turntable. When we got to that last song he walked over to the turntable and turned up the volume. He played that song over and over. Every time the line that goes “Cancel my subscription to the resurrection/Send my credentials to the house of detention/ I got some friends inside” he would stand up, put on his leather jacket and shout the lyrics. Not only was he his own Jim Morrison, he was singing to his buddies still behind those ugly walls. That memory did more to capture the essence of The Doors than most anything else I can think of, at least until Marcus’ book came along.
I read most of The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years while on a plane flight to Asheville, NC from my new home in Vermont. My destination was one of my favorite musical events: the annual Xmas Jam put together by the guitarist Warren Haynes. This event always includes a lineup of musicians from the blues and rock world that would usually take an entire weekend to see. Instead Haynes gets them all up onstage over the course of seven or so hours. The show always involves musicians jamming on songs and with each other in combinations one may never see again. This year’s guitar-heavy show included the band Los Lobos, a set of electric jazz from Bela Fleck and some friends that included saxophone great Bill Evans, a long set from Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s quintet and, finally, Gov’t Mule. There was also a one-night only band led by Atlanta rock guitarist Kevin Kinney (accompanied by guitarists Audley Freed and Jackie Greene). Haynes sat in on at least one song per set and was part of Lesh’s band for the entire set. Guitarist extraordinaire Jimmy Herring (Aquarium Rescue Unit, Allman Brothers, Jazz is Dead) sat in with the Bela Fleck’s band (who were also joined by drummer Jeffrey Sipe) and joined Lesh and Gov’t Mule for a couple songs each.
Appropriately the show ended with Gov’t Mule doing a version of “When The Music’s Over.” After all, music is your only friend…
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.