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.
You quote Jim Morrison as saying that a Doors concert was a “public meeting called by us for a special kind of dramatic discussion.” You’ve said elsewhere that this line moved you and that it is a good definition for what criticism should be. Can you expand on that?
It’s a remarkable thing for any performing person to say. A novelist could say that: Any novel by me is a public meeting that I’m calling for a certain kind of dramatic discussion between whoever might be reading and myself. And even if it’s imaginary and we’re not face-to-face, I create this novel to spark that conversation. It’s a deeply empathetic, democratic, humble and yet arrogant at the same time, thing for someone to say. It’s clearly the statement of a thinking person, that it struck me as not only a wonderful thing to say, a characterization of what a performing event could be, but also really taking place on a level of lucidity and mystery that any good criticism has to aspire to. In other words, I’m not calling a public meeting. I want to be part of that meeting. I want to be in that meeting. I want to be part of that discussion. So maybe the book I wrote is my attempt to join that discussion.
Critic Simon Reynolds, in an otherwise positive review of The Doors in Bookforum, stated that one of your “writing tics” is that you deploy variations on the phrase "the stakes." Does this notion just creep into your work, or is it a conscious decision?
It’s not a conscious decision. It’s a concept, an idea that’s central to my notion of what art is, or for that matter, what life is. There are moments when a lot is at stake, or a lot seems to be at stake, and that can be your own identity, what you’re going to do with your life, whether you’re going to walk through the rest of the day miserable and angry, or feel transported as if everything is in perfect balance. What I love in music, more than anything, is the feeling a listener can so often get, that so much is riding on whether or not the song you’re listening to is going to realize the ambitions you feel inside—whether it’ll resolve itself in a way that will make you think, “I’m so privileged to have been alive to hear the song the way I heard it just now.” That’s what I mean by stakes. When a work of art can raise the feeling that’s all out of proportion to reality. That the fate of the world depends on whether or not a song is going to come out the way it should. You’re going to react to a painting in a way that the painting demands you react. Well yeah, we know the fate of the world doesn’t really ride on those things, but I love the feeling that it does. And that’s what I write about. So whether or not that’s a writing tic as Simon Reynolds says it is, or whether it’s simply the argument that I have to make, is for other people to decide.
Would it be correct to say that this book attempts to remove The Doors’ music out of the nostalgia industry, and to write about these songs as if they were being listened to for the first time?
Sure, that’s what I wanted to do. It’s not a biography of the band, it’s not about anyone’s personality—I don’t care who these people are or were in any personal sense. I’m just trying to listen to the music and live inside these songs for a period of time. That’s all. And I read about The Doors over many years and never came across anything that cared about their music, let alone tried to come to terms with it. The music seemed always to be merely vehicles for a Byronic tragic hero myth. That was of no interest to me.
And that’s where you get into Oliver Stone’s film about The Doors. Which you say plays into the band’s “myth.”
There’s a lot in the movie that’s just guff. There’s a lot around the movie that’s guff. Oliver Stone giving interviews and saying to himself, “what’s the message of this movie? Freedom, now! It once existed, but now freedom is under assault everywhere.” And all this self-promoting nonsense. But in the movie itself there’s a tremendous sense of quest and how dangerous an artistic quest can be. There are three performance sequences that are so tense and dramatic and scary and irresistible. They’re really magical filmmaking. I’m a fan of Oliver Stone. I like his movies, I like his excess, and I think he has a great capacity for empathy and it comes out more powerfully in this movie than in any of his other films, even the formal “I’m identifying with the underdog” movies like Born on the Fourth of July.
A lot of people throw that criticism at you, which I think is wrong, that you do the same thing with Bob Dylan. Mythologize him.
I don't think that’s true. I find Bob Dylan endlessly interesting. I find his work endlessly interesting, not Dylan himself. That’s a sure route to insanity. I find his work incredibly fascinating, with depth that is so unexpected, that comes in places that you’d never think to look for them. Depths of feeling, of resonance, of historical echoing. Depths of empathy for other performers, for historical characters, for other time periods, other ways of life. But I don’t think, I certainly hope that, what I’ve written about his work makes him into some sort of superhuman figure. God knows I’ve written enough terrible mean things about him that ought to go by the wayside.
One of the more surprising parts of the book is where you bring up Pump Up the Volume, the largely forgotten 1990 Christian Slater film about a high school student who starts his own pirate radio station without the intention that anyone will hear the broadcast. You say the main character’s act of putting something out there in the world without a goal to reach anyone—like “a secret agent without a mission,” as you put it—is an act that rejects the “Sixties carnival.” Could you discuss how that is?
The long essay that that’s a part of is about the whole oppression of the 1960s as a frame of reference that’s been handed down to later generations, this whole myth of transformation and courage and rebellion, when everything was up for grabs and now it’s all over and nothing like this will happen again, and older people saying to young people “you missed it”—and god knows how many students I’ve had since 1971 when students came to Berkeley and said, “we missed it, we got here too late, it’s all over!” And I thought this is terrible, it’s not the way you’re supposed to feel when you’re 18 or 19, but I’ve heard the same things in this century. And it’s a form of oppression, the way they’ve been led to feel, that it all happened then, whether it was cultural, political, or most thrillingly you couldn’t tell the two apart, and now everything is separate. And to go back to that notion of the stakes, all the stakes seem lowered in terms of what we can do, what one person or a small group can accomplish, compared to what one person or a small group like The Doors could accomplish in their time. The contrast I drew between Stone’s movie in 1991 and Pump Up the Volume from the year before is that one is about an arena, a great public arena where everything can happen, and the other is of a place where there’s no arena, no public space, where seemingly nothing can happen, and culture takes place altogether in secret, in a clandestine manner on an illegal pirate radio station. To show when there seems to be no possibility of communication, that nevertheless culture can take shape; that public meeting that Jim Morrison talked about can be called. What is Christian Slater, the high school pirate radio station operator, doing? He’s calling a public meeting among all of his fellow students. He’s saying, “say what you think, start speaking for yourself. What do you hate, what do you love?” He’s calling a secret meeting in a public space he himself created.
In one of my favorite chapters of the book, you use The Doors’ song “Twentieth Century Fox” as a springboard to discuss pop art. Could you speak about that connection?
I was just listening to it one day and realizing that this is less of a song and more like Roy Lichtenstein painting—glossy, overblown, full of color. It’s an inch deep, or a centimeter deep. It’s fun and full of life and energy, which seems secondhand, and I started thinking about pop art, which I’ve never really liked, and what little bits of pop art seem to me actually realize the concept, just leaping off that song as if it were a diving board.
To mark the 40th anniversary of L.A. Woman, the album is being reissued early next year with alternative takes of “Riders on the Storm,” “Love Her Madly,” etc., and a never-before heard song called “She Smells So Nice.” The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls just got a similar treatment. What are your thoughts on this endless cycle of reissuing of “classic albums” with tracks tacked on? It seems these songs were originally dismissed for a reason.
The Rolling Stones just did the same thing with Exile on Main St., and boy what a waste of time and money that was. Yeah, they recorded a lot of second-rate stuff and picked the good stuff and put it out. And then they picked the bad stuff and put that out too, and it wasn’t any good. All it did was take away your sense of what an accomplishment, what a heroic piece of work Exile really was. Now, when you sit down and play it all together it’s depressing, and makes the good stuff sound not so good. I have the L.A. Woman reissue, but haven’t had time to play it, but it’s hard for me to imagine that the revelation of alternate takes of all the songs on the album is going to amount to much. But who knows?
To go back to another critic that’s been important to you, Pauline Kael, whom I know was your close friend and a mentor of sorts. I recently read that she was the first person to read your book, Invisible Republic [which was later re-titled The Old Weird America]. In light of what she thought about that book, how would she view The Doors?
Oh, I don’t know. It’s funny, other than my wife, Pauline was the first person to read that book, and I remember very distinctly she thought it was a wonderful book, thought it was my best book, loved the writing, but she said, “But what about this paragraph? What is this terrible, terrible paragraph doing there?” and read it back to me, her voice dripping with contempt, and she said “and this ridiculous sentence!” Which she read with even more contempt. And I said, “That’s what I’m trying to say. That’s the place in the book where I really said what I was getting at better than anywhere else.” And she said, “Trust me, sweetie, you can live without it.” And I didn’t trust her, and I left it all in, and it was a year or two later when I looked back on it and thought, “Oh my God, what was I thinking” and realized how right she was. So Pauline could be very tough and very right and suffered no fools. She was a great inspiration and a good friend.
Have you read the new biography on her? Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark?
I did read it, and I thought it was pretty much of a hatchet job. And I thought it went into areas where a biographer has no business going, which is to say where he was continually judging a writer’s motives and deciding for himself when a writer went too far, said things she shouldn’t have said, crossed imaginary critical boundaries, behaved unethically. If you want to write a polemic, go right ahead. But when you write a biography, where you’re supposed to tell someone else’s story, then that stuff seemed totally out of place to me. And it also seemed that the book was either totally tone-deaf or woefully ignoring all kinds of things that might have made her look better. One can sometimes sense an author getting fed-up with his subject. I imagine Brian Kellow began the book with great empathy and fascination with Pauline Kael, but the deeper he got into his research, the less he liked her or maybe the less he approved of her. That’s the feeling I got reading the book. What begins with affection or fascination turns into animus. You have these incidents where, for instance, where Andrew Sarris can write the most viscous and vile personal attack on Pauline somewhere around 1979 and it virtually goes unmentioned in the book. And so many things of critical importance in terms of her writing and career go unmentioned. And I don’t think he understands Pauline as a writer, as a prose stylist, with an incredible sense of humor and her ability to get that on the page. I don’t think he understands her or cares about her as a writer and her sense of adventure, a sense of getting something right, and to take something small and write social criticism as vivid and pointed and original as anyone was doing in the 1950s, which was so shocking reading her first book, I Lost It at the Movies, the really early pieces. You’ve got a fully formed writer who just can’t wait to get out there and start mixing it up. Who wants to say everything at once and is able to do it. There’s no sense of that in his book. So now you’re going to say, “What do you really think?”
Have you read Lucking Out, James Wolcott’s new memoir? Kael is one of the focal points of the work.
I’m not really interested in what Jim has to say about Pauline. I thought he wrote a really hateful piece about her, which was a matter of putting his obsession with her behind him. He became an acolyte of Pauline’s in a way that was embarrassing to read, when he was mimicking her and celebrating her in The Village Voice. And he was so clearly her boy, her defender. Like I said, it was embarrassing to read. Then a point came when he had to put that behind him and show that he was going to speak in his own voice and no longer needed to have the imprimatur of another critic behind him. I know that Pauline was horribly hurt by that piece. She really never got over it, and she had enormous affection for him. So many times she’d say to me, “Do you know what’s going on with Jim Wolcott?” And I’d say, “No, I really don’t know Jim. I don’t know what's going on with him.” But that was a great loss to her. Their friendship. His withdrawing of their friendship, or whatever you want to call it. I don’t know Jim Wolcott. I’ve met him once. But I’m not real interested in his life and high times.
In a recent NPR interview, he said he regrets how he attacked her in the piece you’re referring to, for what that’s worth.
Fine and dandy. She’s dead, she’s not going to hear it. So what? The question is why did he write that in the first place? My reading is that he did it for the reasons I just said. I could be completely wrong. I don’t know. I haven’t asked him. But you don’t necessarily believe anyone when you ask that kind of question, anyway.
So back to your book. You’ve said that this is the third book— the other two being Like a Rolling Stone and When the Rough God Goes Riding—which you’ve written in exactly one month. Do you think you’re going to continue writing this way?
Those are sort of accidents, where I have a very focused subject, and the books are not that long, and I just completely immerse myself—I don’t do anything else. And it seems to work. But I think it would be crazy to fetishize that and say this is the way to write books. I have no idea what my next book will be or how it’ll be written. The fact is that The Doors book was really fun to write. I had a great time doing it. I just couldn’t wait every day to get to the chapter I was planning to write, and often I’d think about something else on the way to writing that chapter and write another chapter I hadn’t even thought about doing in the morning and doing the one I planned in the afternoon. It was easy—there was no sense of pressure or that I was making some terrible mistake. It was a real pleasure.
Since the book has been published, and while you’ve been out and about talking about The Doors—have you hit on things that you wish were in the book that were left out?
Yeah. One thing I wish I’d included, and I forgot about it, is when I talk about a show The Doors did in San Francisco on Dec. 26, 1967, or right around then, it was a show that I went to and I heard Jim Morrison sing “poor Otis, dead and gone, left me here to sing his song,” with Otis Redding having been killed in a plane crash just weeks before, and thinking how incredibly obnoxious and hateful and vulgar and ugly it was to say something like that, regardless of how Morrison meant it. I’m just talking about how it came off. One of my younger brothers who was at the show with me reminded me—he said, “Did you remember that Otis Redding was supposed to open that show?” and I said “I’d completely forgotten.” And he said “I remember you saying ‘oh no’ when Morrison sang those words.” I would’ve loved to put that detail in, that he was supposed to open that show. When you write a book like this, you worry that your obsession—the thing that has drawn you to this subject matter—will dry up on you and you hope that when you finish the book you won’t have exercised that obsession and in fact that it will stay with you and the music will sound—or whatever you’re writing about—as good or feel as rich as it did before you wrote about it. With The Doors music, that’s certainly true. It’s not like “Oh I don’t want to listen to that again.” That hasn’t happened, so I’m happy about that.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity and space.