This is a book to savour. But if you are intolerant of ambiguity, and think that a book about The Doors should resemble all the other books about The Doors, this is not a book for you. And I doubt you'll enjoy this review much, either.
My first experience of The Doors was Riders On The Storm, shortly after Jim Morrison's death, which at the time probably gave the song an extra poignancy. It's always been one of my favourite songs. Like many people, I guess, I came to The End via Apocalypse Now! My early knowledge of the band was such that when I first heard their Light My Fire I was under the impression that they were covering a Jose Feliciano song. Inspired by the line in When The Music's Over, a slide in my presentation to a marketing crowd was headed "We want the world and we want it now".
I've been by turns fascinated and repelled by the Lizard King, appalled by the portrayal of his self-destructive trajectory, priapic, pixillated, progressively paunchy, in Oliver Stone's movie about the band. Greil Marcus seems to share some of this ambivalence, and hinted at some degree of antipathy to Jim Morrison in a newspaper interview (Guardian, 18/2/12). But he's also a lifelong fan and music industry pundit whose insights and associative musings in this short but captivating book give some context to the Doors phenomenon, explaining Morrison's excesses, without excusing them, as typical of his kind: edgy and creative; necessarily sociopathic in never accepting responsibility for his failures, which were as much a part of the legend as the successes. There's a very apposite allusion to the drive on the cliff in Rebel Without A Cause.
Morrison is not alone in his imperfection as rock hero. For example, Ian Curtis, too, had his faults, and Love Will Tear Us Apart is every bit as good as Riders, The Doors never produced an album with the coherence and consistency of Closer, and as New Order Curtis's band managed to prolong and enhance the legacy, where The Doors' legacy more or less ended with Morrison's death. Somehow, though, there's a little more glamour and enigma about the Angelino than the Mancunian.
Marcus's commentary sometimes relates directly to the music. He relates tales about the band's coappearances with Them, offers some wry asides about some of the lesser songs, such as Hello, I Love You (REM's pastiche of this song sums it up, I guess), and offers 20th Century Fox as a precursor to LA Woman, a reflection on the power of pulchritude (but without the now implied insult - who now wants to be a 20th Century Fox?). But the commentary also veers away from the music, as with the reflections on Pop Art in 20th Century Fox, and particularly in the chapter about the "So-called Sixties", where he ponders the social background to the music, and also what it is that constitutes "the sixties". Here I agreed with him that Altamont did not constitute their end point, but wondered how he missed the Yom Kippur war in this sense, a watershed event heralding in the UK the three-day week, the winter of discontent and Thatcherism.
Most of the chapters revolve around, and are named after, a particular Doors song. Early on Marcus introduces us to the bootleg live versions available on Boot Yer Butt, a Rhino compilation which later he reveals was compiled by the band. For the purposes of the book I put together a playlist, following the order of the chapters, to get me in the mood, but also downloaded some of the bootleg versions (the CD collection itself seems no longer in production, and is only available for a couple of hundred quid even second hand). These are well worth a listen, though the quality is patchy to say the least. I downloaded two versions of Mystery Train, and both seem to fall off a cliff without actually ending. Marcus gives interesting commentary to these tracks, remarking on the little side excursions the musicians take, the insertion in Light My Fire of bits of Eleanor Rigby, Fever and My Favourite Things, though my immediate thoughts at this switched to Coltrane and the tune that probably earned him enough money to finance the experiments, Marcus's to Chet Baker.
Towards the final chapters the tone noticeably darkens, and the themes become increasingly eschatological. Writing on The End Of The Night he enters a riff on the Manson family's California rampage, a distant echo of the horrors being performed in Vietnam, and on the links between Manson and several members of the artistic community in the LA area. This segues into the final word on The End, in which he refers at length to a track from Boot Yer Butt recorded in New York in 1968, the final track on the collection though not the latest chronologically. In this he describes a band "at war with its audience", which is so distracted and distracting, heckling and haranguing, anticipating the lyrics out loud, that it's no wonder the song just crashes and burns. Back in 1978 Sham 69 played to an audience including a contingent of boneheaded rightwingers who gathered at the back of the hall and, during the band's set, surged to the front, sparking a fracas from which the band never recovered, and they never played another gig. It was The End of Sham, and the recording in New York sounds like The End of The Doors. Fittingly symbolic.