When it comes to defending the greatness of Jim Morrison — at parties, at karaoke, in the afterlife — the lizard king’s most faithful subjects will always have a one-liner to fall back on. It’s corny, and it’s efficient. “Don’t knock the Doors.”
But if your interrogator persists, hand him a copy of Greil Marcus’s latest book, a brainy, prosey, frequently brilliant account of what it was like to listen to Morrison leading this dark-hearted Los Angeles rock quartet in its heyday — and what it’s like today. The legendary rock critic says that seeing the Doors live provided “the complex and twisting thrill of being taken out of myself.” Today, he hears them lingering on the airwaves next to the likes of Lady Gaga and Train.
Much like the Doors’ music, Marcus’s writing can be heavy stuff. Abstaining from light biography in favor of thoughtful meditation, he remembers the Doors as they soundtracked the menace of their times. He wrestles their reputation back from those who now associate the band with revisionist memories of peace and love or dismiss it as pretentious mush. (It was pretentious, maybe. Never mush.)
“In 1968, dread was the currency,” Marcus writes of the year the Doors released “The Unknown Soldier,” a song that’s still as odd and vertiginous as the day it was recorded. “It was what kept you up at night, and not just the night Bobby Kennedy was shot. . . . Dread was why every day could feel like a trap.”
Describing “Soul Kitchen” from the band’s 1967 debut album, Marcus writes that “like every other Doors song, it changed shape according to the mood of the band, the city, the hall, the audience, the weather, the news, whether Morrison was in love with the song or consumed with hate for anyone else who claimed to love it, whether he was drunk or sober or just drunk enough not to care what anybody else thought.”
That shape-shifting legacy appears to have been lost on the following generations who have flattened Morrison — along with poor Bob Marley — into a dorm-room poster. The generation gap troubles the author in an anecdote about waiting outside a theater with his wife and moviegoers a generation younger to see Oliver Stone’s 1991 biopic “The Doors”:
“We felt cast out of time,” Marcus writes, “waiting with people who seemingly wanted to claim as more theirs than ours what we’d gone to see every weekend. I wondered why they had no culture of their own to rebuke us with.” (Nirvana’s “Nevermind” wouldn’t come crashing out of the sky for another six months.)
Then Marcus takes a sharp turn and offers an eloquent defense of Stone’s long-dismissed film, calling Val Kilmer’s overwrought Morrison “more than right.” My gag-reflex memories of Stone’s movie made this viewpoint tough to consider — but I quickly bumped it to the top of my Netflix queue.
That’s because Marcus has the ability to play tour guide in the places we think we already know. It’s exactly what makes him one of the greatest music scribes to ever do the job, and it’s what makes this book worth reading, love or hate the Doors. Whether Marcus is describing the crack of John Densmore’s snare drum or positing “L.A. Woman” as the secret soundtrack to Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Inherent Vice,” his writing will send you sprinting back into the music, senses sharper than before.
To truly try and make sense of the Doors’ prophetic rock-and-roll miasma, you’ll need all five of them.
Richards is the The Post’s pop music critic. Follow him on Twitter @chrisrichards.
A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years
By Greil Marcus
PublicAffairs. 210 pp. $21.99