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Mr. Jimbo Metastasizing, or, You Can’t Always Death What You Want: Greil Marcus On The Doors

(originally published in slightly different form, February 2012 in The SunBreak; special thanks to Tony Kay)

Mid-afternoon, a pizza place I’ve patronized through several incarnations; the TV is on because the TV must be on in this “kind” of place. Specifically The Doors starring Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison is on, and Val-as-Jim lies supine (after a slip, I think) under a knife, and he wants the knife or at least he’s afraid to chicken out and admit he doesn’t.

“Yeah, yeah,” he exhorts from the rug, and the knife slips and the knife cuts other people’s skin but the person with the knife wants what Jim wants, or at least is chicken to admit otherwise.  “Give me some death,” Jim beckons, “give me some death,” and he sounds, not even resigned, entitled, even a touch tired, that he has to ask at all.

And from the radio on at that same time, Mick Jagger, from a few years before the incident shown on screen, roasts this image of Jim, taunting, “You can’t always get what you want.”  Even in the truncated version of the Stones song, rushing all the punchlines, blunting the poison elegance, Mick’s got Jim, at least this Jim, beat for Dietrich weariness. Done that, that, and a little of this, stood in that line, survived that soirée, nothing left to do now but half-prance archly over this Bozo on the floor. “If you try sometimes/You might find…” a skeptically pregnant pause…”you get what you need.” And off slithers Jim to get his prescription filled, although it takes a while longer than (even the long take on) Mick’s screed.

Greil Marcus’ new book The Doors:  A Lifetime Of Listening To Five Mean Years tackles sex, death, decadence, flirting with disaster, the many-splendored harvest of dedicated disaster, and the toxic effects of the ’60s as a cultural consensus, all refracted through the Doors’ signature tunes and their ever-expanding (legal) live catalog.  He took questions through email. He encourages listeners to track down any Doors version of “Louie Louie” (“Has there ever been a bad version of ‘Louie Louie’”?)

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 Andrew Hamlin: Your re-examination of the Doors came about through intense listening to both the radio hits, which everyone is presumed to know, and a wide variety of bootlegged live material being officially released for the first time.  Which songs, did you find most profoundly transformed onstage?

Greil Marcus: “L.A. Woman” becomes more ghostly, more bottomless. “Roadhouse Blues” can climb walls and leap buildings. Most fascinating to me was the way “The End” became a provocation—from the audience. “Light My Fire” utterly changes shape—or loses shape—in live performance from 1967 to 1970, with all these standards floating in and out of it. Maybe there was a sense that they could never recapture the kinetic dynamism of the record, so they didn’t try, and simply came at it as if it were an altogether different song.

Hamlin: You’ve mentioned that some recordings on “Boot Yer Butt!” were so amazingly bad, recording-quality-wise, that it’s hard to tell a band is playing at all. Was your first inclination to give up on such material, or did you feel some kind of fascination from first listen?

Marcus: I’ve always been attracted to really horrible bootlegs—it’s like being a little kid and sneaking into a cave you were told you should absolutely never go near.

Hamlin: You told Jason Bailey at the Village Voice how some people fear liking the Doors, or admitting to liking them, because “People are afraid of being moved by somebody who is so fucked up.” Does this account for the rapid turnaround for the Doors in the ears of critics–from veneration in the first Rolling Stone Record Guide to loud, rude laughter in the second?  Do you sense other factors at work?

Marcus: I’m sure there are a lot of reasons. People might have once been moved by “The End,” or believed that this meant rock & roll was finally art, and then become embarrassed at their own enthusiasm, innocence, or dumbness. But I really don’t understand anyone turning their backs on the band if they ever heard “The Crystal Ship” for what it is. People should never be embarrassed over what they like. The idea of guilty pleasure is corrupt.

Hamlin: In one of the book’s most intricate chapters, you describe how you followed ’60s nostalgia, the feeling that everything important was over and done with, as “a form of oppression.” Was that oppression visible, palpable, from the first?  Did it creep up on you insidiously? What were the most important signposts?

Marcus: The first form Sixties nostalgia took was regret, loss, a sense of time having moved on and left countless people stranded. The best account of that is Henry Bean’s novel False Match, which is set in Berkeley in the early seventies and came out in 1982. But it was the mass media—network radio and TV, major newspapers, etc.—that made it into an industry, creating these meaningless anniversaries of great events that everyone was supposed to be thrilled to have taken part in or somehow excluded from history by having missed. And I know from too many and too varied experiences that this was felt by all sorts of people younger than I am as a smug dismissal, as a condescending sneering—I was there, you weren’t, nothing you can say can ever be of any interest to me. Why did history pass me by? Why was I born too late?

 Hamlin: In that same chapter I was struck by your analysis of Allan Moyle’s film Pump Up The Volume, which “Against the Sixties carnival…insists on a desert, geographically and culturally, literally and metaphorically, and says that where there seems to be nothing, something new can appear.” I thought of three films which I believe inspired Volume: Jonathan Kaplan’s Over The Edge, in which geographically/culturally isolated teens lash out, half-accidentally, at the ploughing-under of their only oasis; Sidney Lumet’s Network, in which Peter Finch’s Howard Beale keeps trying to waken his watchers to their own possibilities, only to find himself commodified by his bosses; and Moyle’s own earlier film Times Square, in which a young woman dons garbage bags and garish makeup to shock and provoke, only to disappear into a safety net of identically-dressed fans.  Your thoughts on those films and their inter-related ideas?

Marcus: I can’t see the connection to Network, which I thought was very nearly a fascist manifesto, and haven’t seen Times Square. Over The Edge was co-written by a friend of mine—for that matter I was vaguely friendly with Jonathan Kaplan at the time—and set in Fremont, a sort of jerry-built next-door version of the surburbs in which I grew up, and much as I wanted to like it, it never came to life to me. I always felt like I was watching movie actors (Matt Dillon is particularly bad)—as with The Breakfast Club or The Outsiders, which are better movies. But there’s a fierceness in the characters, or maybe the actors, in Pump Up the Volume—as if the actors wanted to go so far into their characters they might become something like them.

Hamlin: Lester Bangs wrote in his “Bozo Dionysus” essay that Morrison “was at his best as a poet of dread, desire, and psychic dislocation, so he was also at his best as a clown.” Elsewhere, Lester opined that Elvis should replace Morrison in the Doors. Your thoughts on Lester’s thoughts?

Marcus: He also called Morrison “Oafus Laureate,” which is a lot sharper. Elvis shouldn’t have replaced Morrison in the Doors, though he could have—they should have joined him. They’d do “Dirty, Dirty Feeling,” “Reconsider Baby,” and “Feel So Bad”—and encore with “It’s Now Or Never” and “Viva Las Vegas.”

Hamlin: On the subject of uprisings, I found a set of comments on the Occupy movement credited to you (and translated, apparently, from German). Are these your actual thoughts on the movement? Have your opinions changed at all more recently, especially since new developments in your new home of Oakland?

Marcus: I’m not sure what you mean by “Are these my actual thoughts,” unless you mean were they written by someone else and published under my name—it was written for Die Zeit and published in English in First of the Month. Certainly it’s what I thought, and unhappily what I think now—that the movement, in terms of how it might affect the nation, or the world, at large, is a sideshow that does not want to dirty its hands with power and is content with saying that something isn’t right and demanding that something be changed, like, you know, whatever, never mind. That’s not to say that the movement and any or every one of its manifestations didn’t or couldn’t deeply change those who have taken part in them—that’s something else.

What’s been happening in Oakland has been the kidnapping of many enthusiastic and often naïve people by others who, to my mind, are in love with performing their superiority over society as such, and instantly turning anyone who demurs into a total enemy deserving of no more respect than a cockroach, such as Oakland’s mayor Jean Quan. I’m always shocked to see white, middle-class people righteously declare their contempt for, and for that matter physically threaten, a small Asian-American woman who has, all her life, had to brush off, ignore, and be consumed with rage over slights those who spew contempt at her couldn’t imagine.

Police are more than capable of dropping all professionalism and treating demonstrators, peaceful and orderly or not—and certainly not all demonstrations have to be or should be peaceful and orderly—as enemies. I’ve seen it myself too many times. They are capable of taking out their own class resentment against those whom they might perceive as privileged and protected. But they are not the enemy anymore than they were in earlier times. They are not paid agents of the capitalist conspiracy.

Hamlin: Do the Doors without Morrison interest you at all? Does Morrison without the Doors interest you at all? Why and/or why not?

Marcus: No. Morrison as a poet or filmmaker didn’t and doesn’t interest me—he was a great and unique singer and rock & roll star, two different roles. When you ask about the Doors without Morrison, I assume you mean in their separate projects or collaborating with others—there are no Doors without Morrison. I have great interest in John Densmore’s book Riders on the Storm and in the book I’ve read he’s publishing this year.

Hamlin: The Boot Yer Butt! anthology appeared in 2003. Since then Bright Midnight Archives released several more albums of live Doors material. Do any performances on the latterday releases fascinate you? If so, what and why?

Marcus: “Roadhouse Blues” on the 1970 Pittsburgh album is terrific. But most of the stuff I’ve seen is from 1970, and at that point too much was the same night to night.

Hamlin: As I finished your book Lipstick Traces years ago, I was left with the impression that the situation you describe–a state where people feel free to step up and speak, no matter how twisted or incomprehensible or wrong that speech–cycles through history like a virus. It makes an outbreak and then submerges beneath the skin of society, never vanishing, but never obtaining victory. Is that an accurate assessment? Do the Doors constitute an outbreak?

Marcus: It’s an exactly accurate assessment, at least of what I meant. The Doors performed it—whether it went under the skin, I don’t know. Yesterday a student asked me the same question about Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” one of the greatest records ever made, but an explosion that it seems nobody heard. When 8 Mile ended I thought it was a wonderful, tough, epistemologically new movie—the way rap replaces and expands ordinary speech—and as soon as “Lose Yourself” began under the credits crawl it was as if the movie never happened, the music was so powerful—those wild, desperate voices surging over the humps of the song over and over again.

Hamlin: A question I always feel obligated to ask you: What are you listening to now and why? You mentioned to Mr. Bailey the prison recordings of Mattie Mae Thomas…

Marcus: At the very moment, Jennifer Castle’s Castlemusic. Sort of vague at the start, taking on inscrutable folk and Buddy Holly echoes at the end. I’ll probably play it all day. And Alison Faith Levy’s “Itsy Bitsy Spider” redone as “Be My Baby” with fabulous new lyrics about monkeys and hippos, on her forthcoming World of Wonder.

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