In The Doors, music critic Greil Marcus takes a serious look at the controversial 1960s band through its music.
Your full-length appreciation of the Doors flies in the face of many of your fellow music critics, who have not been kind to the band since lead singer Jim Morrison died in 1971.
Well, it’s an interpretation, not a reinterpretation—it’s the first real thinking by me about their music. I had always remembered Jim Morrison saying that the Doors first album was “only a map of our music.” That was an extraordinarily eloquent thing to say about any album. As I began listening again to their reissued CDs with alternate takes and studio conversations, as well as countless bootleg concert recordings, I thought more about that “map,” and the book made itself—the project chose the book.
Unlike most books about Jim Morrison and the Doors, you don’t focus on anything biographical about the band.
I never had the idea of using anything except their music, which really told their true story. The Doors had a seriousness of intent during the 1960s. You could not be a thinking person during that time and not be overwhelmed with dread, with fear, with terror. And to be at a Doors concert was to be in the presence of a group of people who accepted the present moment at face value. The best of their music, especially live, confronted that moment. Morrison himself said that a Doors concert “is a public meeting called by us for a special kind of dramatic discussion.” When I first read that, I thought, that’s criticism. I wish I had written that.
But you also write that, beyond the dread, the band’s music still strikes a chord “of possibility, of promises,” that is just as valid now as it was in the ’60s.
I think that for so many young people now, the 1960s remains this great myth. A complicated myth, but a myth with the notion of possibility at its heart. Unlike many bands from the ’60s, the Doors still represent that notion. People still bring something to the Doors when they listen to the music. They either bring a yearning for that sense of possibility, or perhaps a corrupted memory of that sense of possibility. But once you are listening to the songs, the music still delivers.
Is there any song that you feel best represents the band’s musical artistry?
“L.A. Woman,” an explosion of musical freedom and vocal freedom. A guy walks down the street, gets in a car, drives from one end of Los Angeles to the other, and thinks, “This is where I belong, I understand this place, I love this place, I hate this place.” As a dramatization of ordinary talk about 1970s L.A., I’ll take “L.A. Woman” over Joan Didion’s “Play It As It Lays” any time.