The Doors Prove Strange Days Are Still With Us

Dec 3, 2011
Originally published on December 3, 2011 5:27 pm

To this day, Jim Morrison is one of the most significant frontmen to grace the rock stage. His band, The Doors, was unpredictable, mysterious, thrilling — even frightening.

In his new book,The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years, music writer Greil Marcus explores how the rock group came to define an era yet remain relevant today.

Even after all these years, people are still drawn to the band. It's definitely because of the music, Marcus tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Rachel Martin, and, of course, Morrison himself. Yet what really made the band magnetic, he says, was something deeper.

"There was a sense of dread all through their music," Marcus says. "A sense of running away from anything that smelled of a happy ending, because that was false — they caught that current that everyone felt under their skin."

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"L.A. Woman," "Hello, I Love You," "Light My Fire" -- the music of The Doors is as popular today as it was in the 1960s when the band was filling clubs up and down the California coast. The Doors were unpredictable, mysterious, even frightening, and audiences couldn't get enough.

Music writer Greil Marcus was there, too, witnessing the band's epic rise and fall. He's now written a new book. It's called "The Doors: A Life of Listening to Five Mean Years." I spoke with Greil Marcus and asked him what draws people back to The Doors after so many years. And he said, sure, it's the music. And, yes, it's Jim Morrison. But what really makes the band magnetic, even still, is something deeper.

GREIL MARCUS: There was a sense of dread all through their music, a sense of shying away or walking away or running away from anything that smelled of a happy ending because that was going to be false. It was going to be sentimental. And in these times of assassination, of war, of riots all through American cities, they caught that current as something that everybody felt under their skin. The argument that was going on in the music was, look out. Watch your back. Be ready to run at any moment.

MARTIN: I want to play a little bit of an example of that idea, of that theme, of the darkness really.


JIM MORRISON: (Singing) This is the end, beautiful friend. This is the end, my only friend, the end of our elaborate plans, the end of everything that stands, the end...

MARTIN: The Doors use that space a lot. They take advantage of silence and pauses between notes.

MARCUS: You know, listening to that passage you just played, those opening moments from "The End," listening to Robby Krieger's very, very few notes on his guitar, that says something's about to happen. It's not going to be over quickly. And you may not be exactly the same as you were when you started to listen. That's a fearsome prospect, and it's also incredibly attractive. Who's not going to open that door?


MORRISON: (Singing) Waiting for the summer rain, yeah.

MARTIN: In the book, you do, to a certain degree, tell the story, tell the narrative of the band, but a lot of this book is just your meditation on the music itself and thinking about these songs. One of the songs you talk about in your book is "Mystery Train." What was Morrison's approach to this song?

MARCUS: This is an old Elvis Presley song, and this is a song that real Elvis connoisseurs have always loved, and The Doors loved this song. It starts out with a wonderful clickity-clack train song.


MORRISON: (Singing) Sixteen coaches long.

MARCUS: And then Jim Morrison, it sounds like he's just jumped on the train, looked around, doesn't like what he sees, and he starts singing this song in a slobbering messy voice...


MORRISON: (Singing) Well, that mean old train took my baby. He's gone.

MARCUS: if this isn't the train he wanted to be on.


MORRISON: (Singing) Train, train, coming down the line.

MARCUS: And in this case, you find Morrison drifting through the song, getting off the train, getting back on the train, and other songs begin to come into his mind, and moments come where suddenly he is on the train and he begins to shout.


MORRISON: (Singing) Whoo. (Unintelligible). Woo-hoo.

MARCUS: The band finally is coming up behind him, again, with this clickity-clack and the clickity-clack, and you don't want this to end. You don't want the train ever to reach its destination, but finally, it does. And they slow the song down. You feel the train slowing down. And they go right up to the railhead. Jim Morrison sings the lines with which he began the song...


MORRISON: (Singing) People get ready.

MARCUS: People get ready for this train to glory, and that wasn't the train you just rode on. You rode on a train of confusion, of desire, of fear. That wasn't what the ride was about at all.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Greil Marcus about his new book. It's called "The Doors: A Life of Listening to Five Mean Years." What changed for you now as you listened to this music after spending so much time with it?

MARCUS: You know, spending a lot of time with this music, for me, meant going to their shows in 1967, playing their records when they came out, but really hearing the music on the radio over the years, and a lot more so over the last five, six, seven, maybe 10 years than ever before. "Roadhouse Blues" and "L.A. Woman," two of their greatest recordings, were not hits when they were released in 1970 and 1971. You didn't hear them on the radio then. You hear them on the radio now. These are songs that became hits over 40 years.

MARTIN: What was it particularly about "L.A. Woman" that has given it such staying power? I mean, you hear it all the time today still.


MORRISON: (Singing) I see your hair is burning...

MARCUS: It's the sense of ordinary everyday life. It really does have the feeling of somebody walking down the street talking to people, talking to himself...


MORRISON: (Singing) If they say I never loved you, you know they are a liar. Driving down your freeway...

MARCUS: You know, maybe a little addled, maybe a little crazy, but someone who's just full of exuberance and wants to tell everybody about it.


MARTIN: I wonder if through this examination, this very close look at this music, if you discovered new things.

MARCUS: Yeah. You play a song again and again and again. You let it drift past you. You turn - listen to it as hard as you can and you never know what's going to hit you. And what I hear as the whole of the music is a feeling that we don't know what the next day is going to feel like. We don't know if there's going to be a next day. And so you better say what you mean. You better tell what you're afraid of. You better do it right now.


MARTIN: In 1971, The Doors' lead singer, Jim Morrison, flew to Paris, and he died there, but all kinds of questions lingered then, even today, about the specifics of his death. And, you know, it shows how he became this star of mythic proportions. Is it possible to divorce the power of this music from Jim Morrison?

MARCUS: When I listen to this music, I hear someone who's alive and who's struggling and who's trying to get something across. I hear someone who's beset with confusion and moments of really uncanny clarity, somebody struggling to say what he wants to say, and so many times succeeding.

MARTIN: That's Greil Marcus. He's the author of the book "The Doors: A Life of Listening to Five Mean Years." Greil, thanks so much for talking with us. We really appreciate it.

MARCUS: It was a real pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CRYSTAL SHIP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.