By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Tom Sellar
By Tom Sellar
By Jessica Dawson
By Tom Sellar
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
Marcus was originally concerned about the relative dearth of material available to him, at least compared to the previous volume. “With Van Morrison,” he explains, “I had 45 years to work with. I had almost a lifetime of somebody’s work, a kind of vast terrain to explore.” With the Doors, though, the discography was slimmer, and confined to a much shorter period of time. “Could I possibly write a book about five years in a band’s life?” he wondered. But his mind was changed by the discovery of a four-CD set of bootleg recordings, carrying the undistinguished title Boot Yer Butt: The Doors Bootlegs. He found them completely captivating.
“These are awful recordings,” he announces with a grin. “This is not some professional or semi-professional bootlegger. These are just people with crappy recording equipment, and maybe they’re in the front, maybe they’re in the back, people are talking next to them... Jim Morrison might sound like he’s across the street, and the band might sound as if it hasn’t come out of the men’s room yet or something, and yet there was something…what’s the right word…” He pauses, searching. “Otherwordly about these recordings, as if you couldn’t believe these performances actually happened. A lot of the performances are very strong and chaotic and broken up by tirades or speeches or the song breaking down and then restarting, or people in the audience screaming abuse. All kinds of stuff is going on. And I just found it mesmerizing.” Here was an artifact that captured the intangible quality Marcus thinks resonates through the group’s best music—one that wasn’t always present on their records.
In the process of writing the book, in playing those odd field recordings and constructing a kind of “shadow version of the Doors’ career,” Marcus stumbled onto some archaeology of his own.
“I remembered that I had a folder of Doors stuff,” he recalls. “It included a handbill from the Fillmore Auditorium where I’d written down the songs they’d played on the back, a bunch of Avalon Ballroom handbills, which were mini-versions of the posters that they’d do for that particular week, and some other things.” Among those other things were newspaper and magazine pieces from the period. “In these old articles, which God knows why I kept them, I guess it was in ’68, Morrison is saying, ‘A Doors concert is a special kind of dramatic discussion between the audience and ourselves, called by us. We’re calling a meeting.’ And I thought that was an enormously rich idea. Whether or not it ever happened in the way he fantasized it, that notion would be in his hand when he’s standing on stage. And there are moments that you hear on this bootleg set, where he says to people just as Joe Strummer would do in 1977 in London, he would say, ‘Why are you here?’… I think he really wanted to know, but it’s also a device, it’s a challenge, it’s a way of throwing people back, and making them wonder why they’re here, what they want, what they expect, what they’re ready to accept or reject.”
That idea—the tension and dialogue between the artist and the audience—is one that has popped up in Marcus's work before, in contemplating the hostility lobbed at Dylan and the Hawks by those notorious British hecklers in his Dylan study Like a Rolling Stone, or Van Morrison’s evasion and distrust of his audience in When That Rough God Goes Riding. It’s a theme that Marcus examines with authority because he remains firmly embedded in that audience; though a member of academia (he lives in Berkeley in the spring while teaching at NYU and the New School in the fall), his style is the very antithesis of “academic.” As his longtime friend and Village Voice colleague Robert Christgau notes, “People who accuse him of academicism generally know very little about academia except that it pisses them off. They're threatened by his seriousness.”
He plans to continue working on these slim, “listener’s diary”-style volumes, primarily because “they’re fun to write,” he says. “They don’t take that long, and with this one especially, I’m really happy with it, partly because I had such fun writing it. So I don’t look at it as this great labor.”
On Monday, November 7, Book Court hosts a release party for Greil Marcus and The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years. 7 p.m., 163 Court Street, Brooklyn, bookcourt.org.