11/16/2011 05:29 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2012

Rock Is Dead: The Doors Killed It

The Doors might have been the first musical discovery of my own youth; after glomming onto my big sister's Beatles, Stones, and yes, Monkees records, I bought all I could by The Doors. My choice might not have been a healthy omen.

"Manson's shadow is everywhere," recalls Greil Marcus in his fascinating, exasperating, and some will say mercifully brief new book about The Doors' rapid rise and fall. And that too was not usually a positive thing. In the summer of 1969, Manson (and the Altamont concert a few months later) came to stand for the darkest side of the 1960s and the end of any dreams thereof. But in fact few knew about the crazed cult leader and mastermind of murder before then, and The Doors burst into the American pop mainstream in 1967 with their debut self-titled and best album with creepiness and threat already fully intact. The LP concluded with the extended opus "The End", wherein the singer/narrator acted out an oedipal murder/sex fantasy that was about as far from the imagined flowery Summer of Love that year as the Manson murders proved to be two years later, in the same week as the fabled peace-and-love Woodstock festival.

But Marcus is writing there about "LA Woman", the title song of The Doors 5th and last real album, and about Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel Inherent Vice, set in Los Angeles in 1970 where and when that LP was recorded. It's one of the few Doors songs Marcus seems to like (although he adores the original "Light My Fire"). But their music sure seems to have stuck with him, ever since he saw them perform multiple times. His new book is subtitled "A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years," and his take on the Doors discography seems to be that their sophomore LP, Strange Days, still held some power; the 2nd and 3rd records "were terrible jokes, regardless of who the joke was on," and the 4th and 5th had their moments and even more embarrassments (Marcus does aptly single out the "forest chant" titled "My Wild Love" from the 3rd LP, "Waiting for the Sun,", as unique and worth hearing -- I recall it frightening me as a kid, and it in fact sounds like something from a slave ship, full of menace)..

But then in 1971 Jim Morrison died in Paris under somewhat mysterious but mainly pathetic circumstances. He was a great blues singer at a minimum who had rapidly devolved from being the sexiest rocker since Elvis -- "He's hot, he's sexy, and he's dead", as the famed Rolling Stone 1981 cover had it, or as Marcus puts it, "He had Elvis's Greek God looks, his seductive vampire's hooded eyes; like Elvis he communicated the disdain of the beautiful for the ordinary world -- into a fat bearded self-parody with a "gross, slobbery voice."

Around that time, my mom was driving me to the clothes store for some 'back to school' duds, and "Light my Fire" came on the radio, as it did constantly back then. "I recognize this song", she said, although her tastes ran more to opera. I did too. You couldn't really avoid it. A junior high elementary music teacher, trying to be hip, played "Strange Days" for us, trying to break down the title song's structure. I wondered what Mom might think about the lyrics to "The End", or to the later hit "Riders on the Storm": "There's a killer on the road/his brain is squirming like a toad/take a long holiday/let the children play/ if you give this man a ride/ sweet family will die"...etc. It wasn't exactly The Monkees.

It's always struck me as strange that Mr. Manson seized upon the sunny music of the Beach Boys and Beatles for his psychotic projections. He seems to have never mentioned The Doors, who not only fit his persona, but were from LA to boot. "In 1968, dread was the currency", recalls Marcus, mentioning the RFK and MLK assassinations, along with Vietnam, Camus, and much much more, including seemingly random associations, as is his wont. But by then Morrison and The Doors had already moved into trying to sell more records, with "hits" such as "Hello I Love You" or "Touch Me" -- songs Marcus easily labels as garbage akin to Elvis' reviled movie music. And by then the band was "a band at war with its audience" with "contempt on both sides." Marcus references many bootleg concert recordings, some online, but most listeners won't have the patience to watch and listen to those. The Doors' "official" recordings offer plenty of evidence of the decline Marcus describes.

Morrison once reflected about "The End" that "I didn't realize people took songs so seriously and it made me wonder whether I ought to consider the consequences... " So it seems he was lucky that Manson and his "family" did not seem to be big fans or the "consequences" might have been even worse than they were.

But Morrison did seem to take his own lyrics seriously, wanting very much to be a poet taken seriously by all comers. Marcus, writes that The Doors "saw themselves as much in the tradition of fine art... the stream of art maudit that carried Blake, Poe, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Jarry, Buneul, Artaud, and Celine to their doorsteps, -- as in the tradition of rock n' roll itself..." That's a lot of name-dropping, but rings true in that those are some of the same literary figures Patti Smith reveres in her very fine National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids. As the five years rolled quickly on, The Doors attempted extended overblown "suites" such as "The Soft Parade," Celebration of the Lizard," and "Rock is Dead" -- which all had their great moments, and embarrassments, and pretensions, and deserved high marks for ambition at a minimum. Kind of like a book by Greil Marcus, for example.

Jim Morrison took the revering a bit too far though and died from it, in the process giving the term "Dionysian" a higher profile but not a good one. One could argue they took themselves a bit too seriously. Marcus relates how, in one of those unintentionally hilarious grandiosities of pop and film stars, how at least some of The Doors envisioned themselves occupying the White House at some point. Drummer John Densmore wrote in his memoir that "He imagined himself (it's hard to tell whether "he" here is Jim Morrison or keyboardist Ray Manzarek) as Secretary of State. Sounded like fantasy time to me, but I think a part of Ray thought it would really happen. I thought Jim was too crazy to be as popular as he was already!"

Indeed. Marcus conveys some of the madness of the times and the artist like few other authors have, even as he diverts into discussions of say, architecture. Like, say, Manson, Morrison seemed obsessed with some sort of apocalypse, personal or otherwise. "The future's uncertain but the end is always near," he advised (loudly) in the great "Roadhouse Blues." He would never have guessed that just last year he'd be issued a formal "pardon" from Miami officials for "indecent exposure, public obscenity, and inciting to riot" onstage there 40 years earlier. The surviving Doors rejected the pardon, stating that "Four decades after the fact, with Jim an icon for multiple generations -- and those who railed against him now a laughingstock -- Florida has seen fit to issue a pardon... We don't feel Jim needs to be pardoned for anything... His performance in Miami that night was certainly provocative, and entirely in the insurrectionary spirit of The Doors' music and message. The charges against him were largely an opportunity for grandstanding by ambitious politicians -- not to mention an affront to free speech and a massive waste of time and taxpayer dollars."

So there we have it -- Dionysian visions devolving over the decades into tea party-like arguments about governmental waste. Whatever one might think about Morrison's music and persona, the fact that legal arguments linger on, books are still written about him, and mostly, that his music plays on and on via all manner of media -- but not used commercially, thanks to an agreement the band made before he died that any sellout had to be unanimous -- means that even though he joined the "Forever 27 club" and died young albeit already past his prime, he triumphed in at least some ways, living on in our ears. Which can be kind of scary.

The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years
Greil Marcus Public Affairs Books; 210 pages; $21.99