Talking with the influential music critic about his new book, the problem with reissues, and the things people say about Pauline Kael
Over the span of his more than four-decade writing career, Greil Marcus has emerged as arguably America’s most important critic of pop culture. In his latest book—The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years—Marcus dissects the songs of the Jim Morrison-led band, drawing such unlikely connections with their work as Charles Manson, pop art, Thomas Pynchon, and the Christian Slater film Pump Up the Volume. The result illustrates, as Morrison said in a 1967 interview (which is reprinted as the book’s epigraph), “critical essays are really where it’s at.” I spoke with Marcus by phone, and we not only discussed the “mythic” band, but also how the critic Manny Farber had a “huge effect” on him as a writer, why the latest reissue of Exile on Main St. was a “waste of time and money,” the “endlessly interesting” Bob Dylan, and why he thinks the new Pauline Kael biography is a “hatchet job.”
Your new book, The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years, is not a history of The Doors. And throughout it, you hardly touch on the personalities of the band members. Rather, it’s a book about listening to their music. What convinced you that The Doors’ music was worth revisiting?
Really, it was being in the car a lot in the last few years and hearing The Doors on the radio all the time, without looking for their music but hearing it pop up on so many stations and being fascinated that so many years after the fact, after the band ended, this music was still being listened to. If it’s being played on the radio that frequently, and not just one or two songs, but as many as a dozen songs from different albums from different years, it’s because people are calling up the radio stations and asking for it, or they’re calling after they played “L.A. Woman” and saying, thanks, I want to hear that again. So that means that there are all kinds of people out there listening and responding. And I was responding. This was almost all music that I had loved at the time or maybe hated at the time, and some songs like “Roadhouse Blues” or “L.A. Woman” that really became hits over a 40-year period—that weren’t hits when they were released in ’70 or ’71, but year after year on the radio they kind of grew into their true shape. They got bigger, they got noisier and they got wilder than they had been before. So the stuff sounded terrific to me, and I thought, well I can write about this. It fell into my lap that way.
You write that you can hear “L.A. Woman” being played “between every other line” of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 Los Angeles detective novel Inherent Vice. Could you talk about why you made the correlation between Pynchon’s work and that song?
“L.A. Woman” is recorded in 1970 and comes out in 1971. Inherent Vice is set in 1970, just as the Manson trial is about to begin. And both—the book explicitly and the song not explicitly—is really shadowed by Charles Manson, by the crimes he and his family committed, and the specter of more crimes of death and destruction and revenge whether for real reasons or completely random, is just hanging over Los Angeles and a lot of the country at that moment. And both Pynchon’s book and “L.A. Woman” seem to capture both that sense of dread and fear, but also a sense of the absurd, the ridiculousness, the craziness of that moment too, and to laugh at it. “L.A. Woman” is a very funny, loose, free, open piece of music, and Pynchon’s novel is hilarious and scary and upsetting and confusing. And its hero is an almost 30-year-old private eye named Doc Sportello, and he’s part of the atmosphere in the song “L.A. Woman.” He’s the kind of person whose radio plays Doors songs. And maybe he’s too cool to be a fan of the band. Who knows? That’s not the point. Both Pynchon and The Doors are drawing maps of L.A., one in a song and one in a detective story.
The critic Manny Farber shows up in several of your books—particularly his notion of “Termite Art v. White Elephant Art,” with Termite Art, in short, being “go-for-broke art that doesn’t care what comes of it,” whereas White Elephant Art is consciously serious and high-minded art. In The Doors you use the notion of Termite Art to discuss a 1967 performance of “Light My Fire.” Could you talk a little bit about Farber’s influence on your work in general, and how it helped you view The Doors’ live performance?
Farber had a huge effect on me as a writer. I don’t mean I write like him. Farber is, first of all, a great stylist, a great writer. Anyone can read Manny Farber’s film criticism, whether that person is a novelist, a poet, another critic, a historian, and learn a lot about writing by reading him. Part of it is about concision. When I first read him I was dumbfounded and shocked and jealous and even outraged that he could write these conclusive, finished essays on people like Howard Hawks, and they’d be 3 or 4 pages long, and they’d seem to say absolutely everything that needed to be said. It’s like, “I’ll go kill myself now”—not because I wanted to write a book about Howard Hawks, but the notion that you could say everything that needed to be said in just a few pages was terrifying to me. And thrilling too. So Farber’s had a great effect on me, just in terms of, you know, trying not to emulate the way he wrote, but to take heart from how much he could say in so few words. Not that this new book on The Doors was conceived that way, but the notion of writing short chapters, each focused on a certain song or part of a song, is my lesson from reading Manny Farber. His arguments are another question, and his piece “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” is a great manifesto and a great tool for clarifying what moves you, what sweeps you up, what catches you and makes you think, “I have no idea what’s going on but I don’t want it to stop.” And there are times in The Doors music, often when they’re playing live, this sense of someone breaking through walls, because the wall is there. Not so much to get to the other side but to prove that there is another side. Maybe most dramatically in the middle section of “Roadhouse Blues” when Jim Morrison stumbles into these nonsense syllables, which is a written, rehearsed, planned part of the song. And you get the sense of freedom, the sense of someone swimming over Niagara Falls, it’s right there, palpable. You get the sense that every time he dives into that section, it’s different and he feels different and he draws on different reserves and comes out on the other side differently. That’s the tension and excitement that that moment brings. And Manny Farber lays the ground for understanding why and artist would be driven to create that way and what that creation is worth.