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“Look at the iPhone,” he says, picking it up from next to him on the couch in his crisply decorated, sun-soaked West Village apartment. “You know, it’s good looking…” He pushes the button at the bottom, and his home screen pops up. “I mean, isn’t that cool?” He points at the app logos. “What does that mean? Look at all those talismanic symbols—I wonder what they are?” He contemplates the object. “It was derided by all sorts of people, and I was probably one of them, as some sort of expensive status symbol, or just the latest electronic fetish object … But then people discover not only is it beautiful, not only is it cool—in the best sense of the word—but it’s also useful. And it really does make life easier. And not only does it make life easier, but it makes life more interesting and fun.”
Mr. Marcus was not asked for a pro-Apple testimonial. As is so often the case when you’re talking to Greil Marcus (or reading his writing), the route that got us to his iPhone began with something seemingly unrelated: a passage in his new book, The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years, in which he defines pop culture as “the folk culture of the modern market… an unknown station playing unknown music, until both turn into secrets everyone wants to tell.” In today’s world, he thinks the iPhone has that quality. “But on the other hand,” he continues, and being Greil Marcus, he then proceeds to connect this same notion to Mattie May Thomas, a mysterious singer recorded by a folklorist in a Mississippi women’s prison in 1939.
Connections like that, so seemingly random yet stitched so effortlessly into the texture of our vast cultural map, are a cornerstone of Marcus’s writing, which has torn through countless publications and 12 books on topics from punk to Dylan to Elvis to Clinton to Dadaism to The Manchurian Candidate. The new book is about the Doors, but true to form, it’s not just about the Doors, any more than Invisible Republic was just about the “Basement Tapes.” It is also about Lady Gaga, Thomas Pynchon, Oliver Stone, Don DeLillo, Pump Up the Volume, Them, Train, Ed Sullivan, Wild in the Streets, Wallace Berman, Chet Baker, and the Manson Family.
Like his 2010 tome Van Morrison: When That Rough God Goes Riding, The Doors is not a biography; these books are less about the artist than about the experience of listening to them. He chose to eschew personal details “except in the most minimal way necessary to give the reader grounding.” He hadn’t initially intended for the Van Morrison book to be the first of a series, but he was struck, while driving one afternoon, by the sheer volume and variety of Doors songs he was hearing on the radio.
He had always liked the band. He and his wife saw them “many, many times” in San Francisco in 1967, as they were breaking out, and after that as well. In writing about them now, he asked, “What drew people to them? What drew me to them? And I ended up saying something like, ‘People wanted to be in the presence of a group of people who seemed to accept the present moment at face value.’ In other words, to take it with the seriousness that it deserved. And the present moment, in 1967, ’68, ’69, was horrible… To accept the present moment at face value—that’s a big deal. That’s hard to do.”
Marcus is well aware that many contemporary music critics dismiss the Doors as pompous, overblown, tiresome. “There’s a way in which people find the Doors embarrassing,” he admits. “Often people did then, and people do now. They find their excess embarrassing, they find their or Morrison’s inability to tell something good from something bad embarrassing—and you know, a lot of what they did was awful, terrible. But behind embarrassment is fear. People are afraid of being moved by somebody who is so fucked up.”
While he’s not attempting to change anybody’s mind (“I’m not trying to make people appreciate the Doors,” he insists), Marcus certainly makes a persuasive case for the sheer visceral power of the music. Writing about a live performance of “Roadhouse Blues” in 1970, he goes off on one of his wonderful riffs, where he seems to match the musicality of the performance with his own energy, tempo, and momentum. “With each measure of vocal sounds the pressure in increased,” he writes, “the pressure is deeper, the abandon more complete, the freedom from words, meaning, song, band, hits, audience, police, prison, and self more real, precious, and sure to disappear around the next turn if you don’t keep your eyes on the road.”