The Doors formed on the beaches of Los Angeles, in what you might imagine is the tradition of local rock bands since the Beach Boys. In contrast to a lot of 1960s L.A. groups who were transplanted easterners, half of the Doors (the guitarist and the drummer) were born and raised in L.A., while the keyboard player was from Chicago and—so befitting a psychological profile as to be trite—the legendarily incorrigible singer was a navy brat from the Florida coast by way of San Diego. The group’s start in the summer of ’65 couldn’t have been less auspicious. Playing dives like the London Fog, they were regarded with contempt by other musicians of a scene that wasn’t merely explosive but was the pop-cultural equivalent of a white dwarf star. Then they were dropped by their dream label, Columbia, before they recorded a note, and fired from their gig as house band at the Sunset Strip’s Whisky a Go Go for the singer’s declamations about having carnal relations with his mother. Two years later the Doors were the biggest band in America. They so dominated their moment that radio stations polling kids about their favorite group would stipulate two ground rules: You couldn’t vote for the Beatles, and you couldn’t vote for the Doors.
Radio was more prescient than it knew or cared. Not long ago, driving back and forth across the Bay Bridge from his home in Berkeley to his ailing father in San Francisco, Greil Marcus noticed—as he recounts in his fine new book, The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years—that the Doors were the one classic group besides the Beatles he could count on hearing daily. As this past summer drew to a close and I chauffeured my kid to the Santa Monica Pier one more time, the twentysomething Latino parking attendant taking my money approvingly cried, “The Doors!” when he heard my CD player, and I couldn’t help musing how it is that four surrealists who last recorded together four decades ago and were more influenced by Blake, Rimbaud, and Céline than by Elvis, Chuck Berry, and James Brown somehow have endured as the people’s band. L.A.’s dark response to the Beach Boys, the Doors looked to drive off a high cliff into the sea and wipe out a surfer or two on the way to a watery and ecstatic oblivion. Four minutes and 19 seconds stood between the Doors and immortality. These are the minutes a desperate record company dropped from the middle of “Light My Fire,” the seven-minute centerpiece of the debut album that was sinking into its own oblivion when the leadoff single, “Break on Through,” failed to break on through to Billboard’s Top 100. Suddenly a Dionysian dirge was a hit single, snatching the Doors from a doomed destiny as cult figures. Among other things, the Doors were the best example since Presley of how in late 20th-century America, things sometimes happened fast.
I might add now that as the parking guy was cheering my taste, my 13-year-old—considered by his homies suspiciously retro for wearing a T-shirt with somebody as Dawn of Man as the 39-year-old Eminem—snorted from the backseat, “Hippie music.” As well, a couple of years ago I was talking to a smart young critic who was shocked by any advocacy for the Doors: slick frauds, in his view, compared with contemporaries like Love, whose own destiny as cult figures was less doomed than exalted. Decades ago Marcus himself argued that, creatively speaking, the debut was as far as the band got; it’s not always clear whether his new book revises that opinion or elaborates on it. When the Doors became huge, what nascent rock intelligentsia existed at the time adored them. In that ’67 summer of love and peace, a band so brazenly about sex and death was pretty compelling; compared with how the Doors evoked the forbidden, the Rolling Stones sounded adolescent. The vanguard was bound to embrace the Doors right up until the moment it was bound to reject them, when the new music seemed drowning in pretensions inspired by the Beatles and Bob Dylan, and when the sex-and-death guys didn’t have the cachet that the Beatles and Dylan had earned. Blake? Rimbaud? The same critical establishment that would esteem the likes of the Stooges, Patti Smith, Joy Division, and X (none of whom would have existed without the Doors) has had trouble finding its bearings about the prototype ever since, because the Doors understood intuitively what eludes many critics, which is that authenticity is the enemy of audacity.
The best measure of this is that it’s taken someone four decades to write Marcus’s book. Published on the anniversary of the band’s last album and its singer’s death in Paris, the book comes to grips with the Doors without being derailed by the legacy of the egomaniac behind the microphone. It’s a toss-up whether Jim Morrison’s “reputation” as a “poet” helped or hurt the band more; that I’ve put both words in quotation marks tells you how I feel. In a commentary on the DVD of Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie,The Doors, of which only three people on the planet can certifiably be called fans (Stone, Marcus, and me), somebody sneers that Morrison wasn’t just a rock star but an artiste. In fact this gets things backward. Being a rock star was what Morrison was good at. He had a presence that promised sensual derangement and for which women would abandon all virtue; the first major rock vocalist of the time not trying to sound black, British, or like Dylan—in later interviews he confessed his admiration for Frank Sinatra, an influence that makes sense as soon as you become aware of it—he had a voice that floated over a nocturnal soundscape empty of bass and full of space. But Morrison swallowed the Doors’ identity whole, and one of the decade’s half dozen most important American bands became forever mired in assessments of the singer as either a puerile poseur or the shaman savant about whom keyboardist and keeper of the flame Ray Manzarek presumably will continue to proselytize until not a penny is left to be made from the proposition.
If the Doors were the conspicuous anarchists among reigning L.A. utopians like the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas, nonetheless L.A. is what’s missing from Marcus’s book. When he connects the band to L.A. at all, it’s as a prophecy of Charles Manson’s roving midnight slaughters—not unreasonable but reduc-tive—and tellingly Marcus identifies the Doors as the utopians, because he views bloody apocalypse as a more likely utopian outcome than bucolic idealism. Naturally he’s disposed to see the band not only in the national terms by which he came to hear it, but also in the terms that have come to define Marcus as a critic. A founding writer of Rolling Stone, Marcus, in the mid-’70s, abandoned the reviewer’s traditional mandate as consumer adviser and/or opinion spouter to tell the story of a country where the Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional within weeks of a 19-year-old Memphis truck driver’s mash-up of black gospel, rhythm and blues, white hillbilly music, and the Tin Pan Alley pop of Dean Martin. Marcus is America’s greatest living cultural observer because he’s less interested in whether a CD or movie is “good” or “bad” than what it contributes to a larger picture; from his 1975 book, Mystery Train, to The Old, Weird America in ’97 toThe Shape of Things to Come in ’06, Marcus has constructed a grand and haunted American narrative, roping in European dadaists in the process (1989’s Lip-stick Traces) and revealing entire molecular universes in the blood drop of a single song. His passage on “Light My Fire” is the best ever written about a record that most people barely can hear in an old way anymore let alone a new one. I met Marcus 20 years ago after he reviewed a novel of mine as “a failure worth more than other people’s successes”—not exactly a blurb for the paperback but a quintessentially Marcusian formulation that, having read Marcus as long as I had, I accepted as criticism worth more than other people’s flattery.
It’s also quintessentially Marcusian that he ends the band’s story where he begins, in the middle. The familiar rags-to-riches arc behind them, by 1970 the Doors were trying to crawl out from under their own ruins, Morrison having long passed the demilitarized zone of the increasingly erratic into the enemy territory of the abjectly self-destructive, culminating in his arrest for exposing himself onstage in Miami. Befitting trite psychological profiles, this happened in the graveyard of his childhood, if it happened at all, which, posthumous pardons by the governor of Florida aside, isn’t clear. As in his oedipal allegory “The End,” about a new generation raping and killing off the one that preceded it, Morrison seemed to yearn for his own end, and the band—unable to get a gig anymore and still ostracized by the same music community that years earlier had pointedly uninvited them to the Monterey Pop Festival, before the Doors rendered most of those who did attend irrelevant—assumed a final incarnation as disciples of the blues they had always loved. At that point the band was carrying the singer, though in fact it had always carried Morrison more than the audience understood: “The End” would be a shambles without Robby Krieger’s guitar and John Densmore’s drums. Marcus, who has little use for the exoticism of albums like Waiting for the Sun or fitful attempts like “Touch Me” to find a new psychedelic language, clearly is moved by the heroism of a band resolved to retreat from audacity into what they hoped and believed was something more authentic. For me, irresistible radio fodder as they may be, and certainly more than the “hippie music” that invites my son’s scorn, “Roadhouse Blues” and “L.A. Woman” could have been recorded by any other band. No one else could have recorded “Strange Days” or “The Crystal Ship,” the latter of which should have ended their first album because its coda expresses the Doors’ enigmas more exquisitely in two-and-a-half minutes than “The End” does in 12. As a more conventional band, the Doors flickered a while longer, glimpsing in the flames who they once were before being consumed by the fires that they themselves lit.
ALSO: Read our Author Spotlight Q&A with Greil Marcus