A Lifetime of Listening
to Five Mean Years
by Greil Marcus
Greil Marcus is one of the remaining first-generation Rolling Stone rock critics who, in his old age, has evolved into something of a Methuselahian sage for the artist and band's populating the Rock and Roll Canon. He is a fine writer, beautifully evocative at times, a widely read gent who brings his far-flung references of history, aesthetics, politics, and mythology into his generalized ruminations on the movement of human history and how it was reflected and caused by the emergence of pop, rock and soul music. If he has any thesis at all, his idea is that these were not merely forms of entertainment and distraction; they were cultural forces that changed the way we live. As fine a prose stylist as he can be and as momentarily persuasive as he can seem in his richer passages, Marcus puts forth little in the way of criticism; he rarely, in his late writings, spend the time to let you how songs, lyrics work internally convincingly.
The Doors were a mixed bag for me; the first two albums are among the essential rock albums of all time, with the remainder alternating between the proverbial poles of brilliance and balderdash. As a band, they were sublime and unique, with the odd combination of blues, flamenco, classical, jazz, Artaud, and epic theater being crafted in their hands to create a sound and feel that was singular and instantly identifiable. As a vocalist, Jim Morrison was often as evocative as the most significant fans proclaim, and it fit the half-awake twilight that seemed to be his constant state of consciousness. As a poet, though, I thought he was simply awful, fragmented, crypto-mystic, the surrealism that, save for some striking and memorable lines, collapsed from its flimsy elisions and obtuse vagaries. In his posthumous collections, the pieces read too often, like the notebook jottings of an introspective 17-year-old. I say that as a thoughtful 17 year and is now a reflective 65-year-old. Morrison might have become the poet he wanted to be had he written, edited, and finesse his work as he desired when he left for Paris. I will say, though, that being the vocalist in the Doors allowed him to go through his writings and poems and select many of the more robust passages for the band's more theatrical songs. The Doors, ironically, seemed to be an institutional editor for Morrison's words, forcing the bard to decide which of his jottings was the most powerful, concise, emphatic.
The matter of craft isn't Marcus's most serious concern. With the Doors, though, he does an excellent job of explaining what I've always felt for some time that Jim Morrison was pompous, vacuous to a significant extent, a mediocre poet, a pretentious intellect who happened to have some things going for him: good looks and sex appeal, an appealing the baritone voice could bellow or fashion a slumbering croon, and that he was in a band of good musicians that compelled him, in the songwriting process, to peel away the most dreadful riffing in his poems and boil it all down to the genuinely strange, exotic, and provocative. The result of that combination of Morrison's affectations and the talents of the other band members made for several first-rate original songs. Save for the near-perfection of their first two albums. It also made for some mostly uneven records where Morrison's drunk insistence on being a drunk put his worst tendencies on full display. Marcus is bright and remarkably succinct on his subject. His judgments are shrewd and knowing, the key one being that while saying upfront than in any other life Morrison would have yet another counter-cultural tragedy left for dead and forgotten, rock and roll made him at least briefly pull his resources together and give the world something memorable beyond his pretentiousness.