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Greil Marcus Listens To The Doors

Rebroadcast: originally aired November 2, 2011

Music philosopher Greil Marcus listens back to The Doors and hears dread and light and Thomas Pynchon.

Members of the Doors pose for an undated publicity photo. From left; John Densmore, Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison. Morrison died in 1971 at age 27. (AP)

Members of the Doors pose for an undated publicity photo. From left; John Densmore, Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison. Morrison died in 1971 at age 27. (AP)

Everybody knows the story of Jim Morrison and The Doors.  Rock and roll’s wild child.  The band’s dark charisma.  Light My Fire.  L.A. Woman.  Break on Through.  Riders on the Storm.  .

But it’s different when music philosopher Griel Marcus tells the story.  We get The Doors plus Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Lady Gaga, The Manson Family – the existential dread of a generation.

This hour On Point: we’re listening to The Doors, with cultural critic Greil Marcus.

-Tom Ashbrook


Greil Marcus, music journalist, cultural critic, and author of The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years.

From Tom’s Reading List

Village Voice “As is so often the case when you’re talking to Greil Marcus (or reading his writing), the route that got us to his iPhone began with something seemingly unrelated: a passage in his new book, The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years, in which he defines pop culture as “the folk culture of the modern market… an unknown station playing unknown music, until both turn into secrets everyone wants to tell.” In today’s world, he thinks the iPhone has that quality.”

St. Petersburg Times “Greil Marcus had just moved, but he didn’t have any trouble finding what he was looking for amid the boxes of books and records strewn around the downstairs office of his new house in a leafy neighborhood not far from the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. He had been talking about Bob Dylan’s singing style, and how it has been ever changing through 50 years of performances, and he wanted me to hear a rendition of Like a Rolling Stone from a concert in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1966.”

The Examiner “It looks like November is going to be a good month for Doors book releases. I’ve already written about The Doors FAQ coming this November, and now, noted rock and cultural critic Greil Marcus is releasing a book in November, The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Wild Years.”


As the title track of the Doors last album, released in April 1971, three months before Jim Morrison died in Paris, his ideal of following in the footsteps of Rimbaud replaced by an image of Marat dead in his bathtub, “L.A. Woman” emerged over the years, until after four decades you could turn on your car radio and find all eight minutes of it still talking, jabbering, this bum on Sunset Strip going on about a woman and the city and the night as if someone other than himself is actually listening. You can hear it there, anytime—and you can hear it playing between every other line of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 L.A. detective novel Inherent Vice, set in the spring of 1970, just before the Manson trial is about to begin, a time when, as Pynchon calls it up, the freeways eastbound from the beach towns “teemed with VW buses in jittering paisleys, primer-coated street hemis, woodies of authentic Dearborn pine, TV-star-piloted Porsches, Cadillacs carrying dentists to extramarital trysts, windowless vans with lurid teen dramas in progress inside, pickups with mattresses full of country cousins from the San Joaquin, all wheeling along together down into these great horizonless fields of housing, under the power transmission lines, everybody’s radios lasing on the same couple of AM stations.”
The book is a love letter to a time and place about to vanish: about the fear that “the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness . . . how a certain hand might reach terribly out of darkness and reclaim the time, easy as taking a joint from a doper and stubbing it out for good.”

At the very time in which Pynchon has placed his story—about a rock ’n’ roll musician supposedly dead of a heroin overdose who turns up in his old band unrecognized by his own bandmates (“Even when I was alive, they didn’t know it was me”), a disappeared billionaire developer, a gang of right-wing thugs called Vigilant California, a criminal empire so vast and invulnerable even to speak its name is to make the earth tremble, the first, primitive, bootlegged version of the Internet, and an old girlfriend—people were already talking about the great hippie detective novel. About a dope deal, of course—and an outsider version of Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer. Roger Simon’s Moses Wine—starting out in 1973 with The Big Fix and still on the case thirty years later, wasn’t it. In 1971 Hunter Thompson played the role well in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” but soon dissolved in his own aura. Pynchon’s Doc Sportello somehow realizes the fantasy.

About to turn thirty, he lives in Gordita Beach, halfway between Hermosa Beach and El Segundo, though not on any real-life map. He thinks of himself as John Garfield; he’s the same height. On his wall is a velvet painting he bought on the street: “a Southern California beach that never was—palms, bikini babes, surfboards, the works.”

He thought of it as a window to look out of when he couldn’t deal with looking out of the traditional glass-type one in the other room. Sometimes in the shadows the view would light up, usually when he was smoking weed, as if the contrast knob of Creation had been messed with just enough to give everything an underglow, a luminous edge, and promise that the night was about to turn epic somehow.

That’s as good a description of “L.A. Woman” as any other. It has the textures of ordinary life, and everything about it is slightly off, because the epic is what it’s reaching for, but without giving itself away, without makeup, cool clothes, photo shoots, or any other trappings of Hollywood glamour. Robby Krieger’s guitar is in the front of the music, thin and loose, intricate and casual, serious and quick as thought. Jim Morrison is in the back of the sound, as if trailing the band on the street, shouting that he’s got this song for them, a new-type song for a dime, it’d be perfect, and you can see the Morrison who’s singing, a man who in 1970 did look like a bum, a huge and tangled beard, a gut hanging over his belt, his clothes stained. The voice is full of cracks and burrs, and an inspiring, crazy exuberance, a delight in being on the streets, in the sun, at night under neon, Blade Runner starring Charles Bukowski instead of Harrison Ford—this bum doesn’t shuffle down the street, he runs, stops, twirls, runs back the way he came. Maybe the city doesn’t want to see him, but he’s in love with the city and that’s the story he has to tell. He’s not blind. “Motel money, murder madness,” he muses to himself; he can see the fear the Manson gang left in the eyes of the people he passes even as they avert their eyes from his, but he’s not afraid, and he knows he’s not the killer they’re afraid of. The whole song is a chase in pieces, the guitarist tracing half circles in the air, the singer dancing in circles around him, the guitarist not seeing him, the singer not caring.

From the book The Doors by Greil Marcus. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs (www.publicaffairsbooks.com), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.


“People Are Strange” (STRANGE DAYS, 1967)
“Light My Fire” (LIVE) (THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, 1967)
“L.A. Woman” (L.A. WOMAN, 1971)
“Strange Days” (STRANGE DAYS, 1967)
“End of the Night” (THE DOORS BOX SET, 1965/1997)
“The Crystal Ship” (THE DOORS, 1967)
“The End” (LIVE) (BOOT YER BUTT! – BOOTLEGS, 2003)
Gloria” (LIVE) (LIVE AT THE MATRIX, 1967)
“Mystery Train” (LIVE) (LIVE IN PITTSBURGH, 1970)
“Take It As It Comes” (THE DOORS, 1967)
“Roadhouse Blues” [Takes 13-15] (MORRISON HOTEL, recorded: 1969)
“Queen of the Highway” (Original Version) (MORRISON HOTEL)
“Queen of the Highway” (Alternate Version) (THE DOORS BOX
“Riders On The Storm” (L.A. WOMAN, 1971)

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  • Expanded_Consciousness

    Break on through to the other side. Jim Morrison was the great American rock poet. The Doors were both timeless and timely. A deeply felt life expressed through poetry, the voice, and music. It is still worth perceiving life through those doors. Kafka would have loved them.

    “The band took its name from the title of Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, which itself was a reference to a William Blake quotation: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite” (Wiki).

    “The Doors of Perception is a 1954 book by Aldous Huxley detailing his experiences when taking mescaline. The book takes the form of Huxley’s recollection of a mescaline trip that took place over the course of an afternoon, and takes its title from a phrase in William Blake’s poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” (Wiki).

  • RolloMartins

    The Doors, America’s most over-rated band. 

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      Who sounded like The Doors before The Doors? No one.

      Who sounded like The Doors after The Doors? Tons.

      • Harveycan

         Nicely put. It reminds me of the old adage about the Velvet Underground. Not that many people heard their music, but everyone who did formed a band.  I think the Velvets were working some of the same dark perimeter that the Doors were, conceptually speaking, but with a different wardrobe….and different drugs fueling their party.

    • Fredlinskip

      I agree- and to think, The Archies got so little respect. 

    • Harveycan

       You think it’s the Doors and not say…..Bon Jovi or The Eagles?  Thanks for the opinion, RM.

  • brettearle

    Jim Morrison’s work was haunting–plain and simple.

    Unfortunately, I think, the group’s music underscored one of the themes of Sixty’s music: Anarchy.

    Had the inference not been there, Morrison’s talents, in retrospect, might have been more revered, amongst non-aficionados of that decade. 

    • 1Brett1

      What do you consider anarchical about their music itself? 

      • brettearle

        Morrison was not my favorite musician, from that era.

        But that doesn’t mean I disliked his work, nor does it mean that I wasn’t drawn to it.

        Although I don’t like a great deal of the music from the 60′s, I thought his work was, nevertheless, better than most.

        Though I had been aware of his reputed literary depth, I had never taken the time to assess, at any length, the possibility of his deeper vision.

        From the standpoint of the listener–without, perhaps, a background in music–I had concluded that the basic beguiling sound of his work–combined with some of his lyrics–seem to exude a sense of Chaos.

        And, when talking to some others–who, like me, wished to take his music, within the context of the times–it might have been easy to scapegoat Morrison and to put him out on the fringe…..simply because the general SOUND of his music felt, to some, as emotionally subversive.

        “Riders on the Storm” might be a good example of these issues, I think.

        I am an enormous Pynchon fan…..

        • 1Brett1

          Morrison provided lyrics and some melody lines for his vocals…the music itself was created by the others in the band (he didn’t contribute to that part), and there was little about the music itself that would bring the concept of anarchy to mind. 

          There was a haunting quality to many of the songs’ music; I believe this is because they relied heavily on many of the songs being in minor keys. For some reason that seems universal; we humans hear minor keys, chords and scales as haunting…

          • brettearle

            I am, in some way, addressing the untrained ear’s take on Morrison’s music.

            I was not the only one who felt that way about The Doors–in terms of how they were regarded.

            Of course, it was `easy’ to take it that way, in a way–because a part of the 60′s protest movement went even beyond a sense of Revolution.

            There seemed to be those, who regarded the country’s state of affairs as possibly collapsing into chaos/anarchy:

            MLK, Robert Kennedy, the Chicago 7, Agent Orange, the Tonkin Resolution, Kent State….

            All these `things’ fueled an erroneous association between the tragedies of the Times and the Music….except, by extrapolation– maybe cuts, such as Lennon’s “Revolution”.

            Especially groups such as Cream, Country Joe, pink Floyd, and the Doors were regarded as hippie scapegoats.

            The Doors stood out to me–because their work came across as much more sophisticated…..and, therefore, perhaps, to the “Moral Majority”, as more of a threat.

            I am not necessarily speaking of my personal opinion–as much as I am speaking of the perceived assessment of The Doors, by some.

          • 1Brett1

            I thought you were speaking to the music itself. If the music had been accompanied by typical pop lyrics of, say, boy meets girl, they fall in love and get married, etc., would the “music” be heard (by an “untrained ear’s take”) as anarchical? 

            Morrison’s “war protest” songs (which were more examinations of the individual human impact and toll of war rather than an out-and-out protest of war) were much more subtle and less in the realm of making authorities worry about his subversive nature than they worried about other music artists. Where his behavior came into question was in much more pedestrian concerns of public decency (his stage behavior) and modeling excessive drinking and drugging.

            Lennon’s song “Revolution” was really about the ’60s not being a revolution at all, but that it was more of only a small handful of people with ideas to change society while the rest saw it as a kind of  fashion statement (he was criticizing the ’60s).

          • brettearle

            Let’s address the Morrison matter and contemplate Lennon, another time (although your point about Lennon is quite interesting)…

            I remember talking to a woman in her 60s about Al Qaeda, shortly after Bush II declared war (or `declared war’) on Iraq.

            When I made an attempt to separate out Al Qaeda from Saddam Hussein, she wished to rope them, together.

            As a raw analogy, that is my point about “The  Doors” :

            To the untrained ear, or the casual observer, or otherwise a skeptic of the 60s era, it is easy to marginalize Morrison and to, “rope him in” with violence, drugs, anarchy, chaos, and psychosis.

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      “The book The Doors by the remaining Doors quotes Morrison’s close friend Frank Lisciandro as saying that too many people took a remark of Morrison’s that he was interested in revolt, disorder, and chaos ‘to mean that he was an anarchist, a revolutionary, or, worse yet, a nihilist. Hardly anyone noticed that Jim was restating Rimbaud and the Surreal poets.’”
      - Wiki

  • raevj

    I love the Doors.  It is the music of my childhood.  My parents were Huge Doors fans and now that my father has passed i can’t listen to a Doors song without picturing myself as a child riding around in the back of a station wagon with my entire family singing along to Jim Morrison.

  • Brian Benoit

    I was in Russia for a few weeks in the 1990s when Yeltsin came to power, and I was surprised with how compelling twenty-something my interpreter found Morrison & the Doors. It seems to have been the chaotic freedom the music & his personal journey represented. 

  • 1Brett1

    As a rock lyricist, Morrison had a knack for helping that form transcend its preceding formula of lyric writing. 

    He didn’t live long enough to be considered a serious poet, which is a shame…It’s difficult to say what he would have done with poetry had he lived. We tend to mythologize the icons of those times. 

    His work doesn’t really stand as poetry on it’s own, without its music and context, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have become a fine poet. The comparison to a young Rimbaud is valid, and Rimbaud was one of Morrison’s favorites.

    • Harveycan

       How about the middle section of The End as the first real Rap? Now that’s transcending the preceding forms of lyric writing for ya!!!

      You seem to maybe underestimate the value of mythologizing….Maybe you mean to say that we tend to “idealize” the icons of those times?

      Neither Keats nor Shelly lived very long either. Too bad, they could have been really serious poets if they had made it to a ripe old age…..

      • 1Brett1

        The form of Rap that is heard today takes its origins from certain artists who engaged in very similar forms just after the Harlem Renaissance, and who also were associated with the Jump Blues forms.

        No, I meant mythologize; it has several connotative interpretations. I do agree, however, that its power can not be underestimated. As far as Morrison is concerned, “idealized” works as well, however. I was on the threshold of being a teenager when Morrison became famous, and was a teenager when he died (and had all of the LPs when they came out, even being influenced to write poetry because of him). I saw how he was perceived at the time and how history has viewed him over time.

        As far as your last paragraph…if you are comparing Morrison to Keats or Shelly; he was not in their league.

        By the way, I am not inclined to mythologize or idealize anyone; it’s okay if you wish to engage in such, however. Feel free. 

        • Harveycan

           1Brett1– I was not comparing them as poets. Of course there is no comparison!! I was being sarcastic. You had said Morrison did not live long enough to be considered a serious poet, and my examples were a way of saying that early death, per se, is not the ultimate arbiter of what makes poetry good or serious.

          Hey, no attempt at mythologizing going on here, though it can be difficult not to do so when reflecting on the passage of time and how Morrison has been seen through the decades. There are many myths about him, as many as there are interpretations, I suppose.

          I am not sure how you see my remarks above as “presumptuous” but I guess all else is “rendered null and void”. I am not sure if THAT is presumptuous or just arrogant, Brett. Just because you had the Doors’ vinyl when it came out, and Morrison inspired you to write poetry doesn’t mean that you understand him.

          My point was that you were ascribing things to Jimbo that could be ascribed to many people in the 1966- 1970 time period, and that the logic of what you were saying did not seem to hold water. It seemed unflattering and unfair in its….well,  presumptuousness as a pseudo-psychoanalytic take on Morrison’s inner psyche. (I think drugs from the 60′s ARE looked at in mythologizing ways, when it was really much the same as it is now–experimentation and/or self-medication leading to excess and ruined lives). But I don’t think we know enough to have the inside track on how drugs functioned in the economy of Morrison’s personality, as you were positing up above. I mean, you don’t KNOW that stuff, you are imaginatively interpreting it. That’s fine, too; I just disagree.

          I was trying to keep it somewhat more grounded — he was a young rock n roll star living in a time where drug experimentation was widely sanctioned, at least among the youth underground, and he was one of maybe millions who indulged. Was he trying to use those experiences to further his writing and visions? Probably. Does that make him  “impatient with living out experiences and knowledge acquisition through the traditional route”? (Whatever that means….). No more than Coleridge or DeQuincy with their opiates, Rimbaud with his glass of absinthe, or Lennon & Co with their Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds. It makes them artists, Brett, artists who tripped and used those trips to inform their work. I would say they were not “impatient” with experience, but rather they were hungry for experience and savored it in ways that ordinary non-artists did not. They would process those experiences on a whole other level. I can’t see why you seemingly think there is one standard way of experience that leads to knowledge, and that Morrison was trying to subvert or bypass “it”. Along with millions of others, I guess…. That is a pretty heavy pronouncement, that is what I was trying to say. Not one-up you, but certainly I have a difference of opinion. Guess that null&voids me….

          Beyond that, someone like Morrison crossed over the river Styx rather early, on Ferryboat #27. The drinking did him in. Look at Keith Richards–could anyone have predicted he’d still be on two pins in 2013? Some it takes, some it spares…

          If I was going to join you in psychoanalyzing Morrison it would be a field day….His father an Admiral in the Navy… the childhood visions on dawn’s highway… dropping out of school…living on the beach… His salvation was his ability to write and sing, along with the organization & structure that was provided by Ray and the Band. Otherwise, he’d have been a bearded old freak on roller-skates out on Venice Beach…

          We sound like we are only a few years apart. One of my first 45′s was Wishful/Sinful…

  • Aaron Miller

    I like The Doors, but I’m not enthralled by them. Their music is existential and lacks the perception derived from real-world experience. I’ve just “discovered” Sixto Rodriguez (Searching for Sugar Man) and THAT’S a voice which is both philosophical AND grounded, probably because even in his young years Rodriguez was imbued with the meaning of experience because he lived it. To me, Morrison was an intellectual desperate to fabricate experiences without actually experiencing them.

    • 1Brett1

      Your last sentence, in particular, is spot on…I believe this led to Morrison’s problems with drugs; he was impatient with living out experiences and knowledge acquisition through the traditional route and kept seeking those experiences through drugs, which degenerated into excess. And, ultimately, death.

      • Harveycan

         Wow, that is some really bloated and unconvincing psychoanalysis guys…First of all, Morrison was a product of his times. LOTS and LOTS of people were indulging in drugs, trying out communal living, experimenting with free love, etc. Were they all “impatient with living out experiences and knowledge acquisition through the traditional route”? Were they all “fabricating experiences without actually experiencing them”? Secondly, How do you pretend to such sweeping knowledge of Morrison? Yours is one of the most unempathic and misguided opinions I have ever heard in regard to Morrison. Morrison was a sort-of intellectual guy who looked around at his world and saw things that were beautiful and things that were horrible. He seemed both deeply connected to his experience and vision, yet somehow he remained remote and unengaged, always rambling along…a Rimbaud-esque sleeper on the beach…His work was an attempt to express what he saw, like any artist or poet. He saw himself primarily as a clown, and there is some truth to that. His life was one long pratfall that ended in an early and senseless death. His body just gave out, much like Charlie Parker. Morrison was a seeker, and drugs were a tool for him, and yes it degenerated into excess, but that is addiction for ya!!!! I think you guys are over-thinking this, and in a rather nasty & unenlightened way. You don’t sound like you much like or get what Morrison and the Doors were about. Why you need to put it down so harshly, I really don’t know. You must be fabricating your experiences somehow….

        • 1Brett1

          Some people were casualties, some were not. I’d say he was a casualty…he died through unfortunate circumstances in a drug overdose, after all.

          Oh, and your presumptuousness renders what could be a fairly interesting interaction between the two of us null and void.

          I have a lot of thoughts about Morrison–and I did write in one of my comments that he prompted me to begin writing poetry (along with many other poets from various points in the history of the medium)–but I have only commented on some of my thoughts.

          But, hey, if discourse is nothing more than a debate of one-upmanship for you, so be it.

    • Fredlinskip

      I believe Morrison likely had more “real life” experiences than vast majority of people for one so young.

      • Harveycan

         Right on!!!

  • J__o__h__n

    The audience shouldn’t have the same power as the performer.  I hate audiences that talk during songs.  I didn’t pay to listen to loud drunk idiots or their bored girlfriends chit chat. 

    • Harveycan

       Tell ‘em to shut the #@*& up, John!!!

  • MarkKnoeller

    I hear in their sound the scene of challenging the status quot, encouraging us to re-evaluate what is really good for us. 

  • ToBeOr

    I was told, many years ago, that Crystal Ships refers to the Oil platforms off the California coast, lit-up at night. When I drive the Ventura coast at night I often look at the platforms and imagine huge ships passing through the night…glowing, made of crystal, or just seeming crystal clear and ephemeral. What have they done to our fair sister?

  • ToBeOr

    I was told, Years ago, that the “Crystal Ships” referred to the Oil platforms off the California coast, lit-up at night. When I drive the Ventura coast at night I often look out over the ocean and view the Oil derreks as large ships, glowing, made of crystal or just crystal clear and ephemeral, passing through the night. What have they done to our fair sister?

    • Harveycan

       I think it had something to do with inspiration from a poem by Baudelaire…Invitation to the Voyage from Fleurs de Mal, if I am remember correctly. …I don’t know if they had oil rigs offshore in 1966-67…Sounds more like your vision, not Morrison’s!

  • Karin Linehan

    Wow! Listening to Tom and his guest reminds me how profoundly that generation screwed up the world.  I also listened to The Doors fanatically…and then I got over my bad self!  

    • Harveycan

       I guess it would have worked out better if Nixon had won the election in 1960, or maybe if Goldwater had won in 64….Maybe they could have kept it all in line…No protests, no drugs, no Woodstock…sounds like a lot of fun!

      How old are you, KL?

      Just how did things get so screwed up by that generation? Don’t you think anything was contributed by those times? Has some other generation done any better?

  • Duras

    I read John Densmore’s book while in high school.  I proceeded to read every single book that I know Morrison read.  (Morrison had a nose for great books.)  Many weak personalities latch onto magnanimous personalities, and the weaker ones never let go.  Maybe there was something about Morrison that forces us to move on–anyway, Morrison’s influence pushed me toward intellectual pursuits.  That trajectory inevitably allowed me to leave Morrison behind. 


  • HLB Engineering

    I wonder when they’re going to establish the stream for this show. Maybe too busy focused on bombs and marathons to be bothered now. That’s the problem w. folks today: too single minded about their daily events & situations.

    Thanks much. HLB

    • Harveycan

       Is there a way to download the show as a podcast?

  • harverdphd

    Back Door Man…the first, the best

  • christophertwood

    All the comments talk about Morrison, but realize Robbie K. wrote a number of their songs. 

    Also the Doors was as much about the musicianship: Manzarek’s classical piano training, Densmore feel for African/Brazilian beats, and Krieger’s jazz influences. It was rather incredible compared to their peers in the late 60s and early 70s.

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