Faber & Faber, £14.99, 224pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years, By Greil Marcus

 

Greil Marcus records that, in 2010,listening to the radio on a regular car journey around San Francisco revealed that The Doors got more airplay than anyone else of their era, and with a greater number of songs - though they weren't a Bay Area band. As Marcus tells it, this drove him to re-assess their work and to reconsider the grotesque fetish status the 1960s have acquired as the enviable Neverland of stalled possibility, used to render impotent all that comes after.

In a sense, this is two books trying to be one. Readers looking for the judicious critic of Marcus's classic book Mystery Train may be disappointed by the more associative and contradictory character of The Doors, but it's a fascinating and desperate effort to nail something that was vanishing even as it happened. Marcus's arguments with himself provide a good deal of energy.

His basic contention, which receives its best expression here, is that The Doors, for all their commercial nous and the half-digested bits of literature and philosophy so typical of their times (and ours: pop music is even more absurdly pretentious now), were looking to make something unforetold take place in performance. The terrible revelation – roughly, that the only way life was tolerable was to view it as aesthetics, à la Nietzsche – was followed by a still more terrible one. Time did not therefore end in a fiery eruption of blood, whisky and semen. There were days to be got through.

It took six years for Jim Morrison to convert his eerie beauty into alcoholic wreckage, but the body of work The Doors produced contains a high proportion of great songs from almost every stage of their brief career. To mention "Soul Kitchen", "The Crystal Ship", "Peace Frog", "The Changeling" and the serenely nihilistic "Hyacinth House" demonstrates their diversity. The final Doors album, LA Woman, fulfils their promise and suggests that they were by no means finished, though Morrison was already marked for death.

The Doors ought not to have worked at all. The band can sound aimless, but they suddenly awaken with a power and strangeness that no other band (The Only Ones excepted) has quite matched, balanced on the austere and unpredictable drumming of the great John Densmore. Morrison was not a poet. The verbal impulse was rarely sustained and his taste was unreliable, but he understood the power of phrase and line in the dramatic context of song and performance, and his tone and timing could be astonishing.

Compared to black music, rock has proved pretty flimsy. Very little of it can still hold its own like The Doors, 40 years on. Marcus is right to give them his troubled and scrupulous attention. As a rule of thumb, distrust people who profess to dislike them. Anyway, we've got the numbers.

Sean O'Brien's latest collection, 'November' (Picador), was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize

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