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Greil Marcus would like to talk about his iPhone.
“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.”
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.