Monday, March 5, 2012

The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening To Five Mean Years by Greil Marcus
Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism by Chuck Eddy
director's cut, Bookforum, fall 2011

by Simon Reynolds

Rock’s accumulated past is accessible as never before thanks to the Internet’s vast and ever-growing archive. From the most mainstream star to the most obscure lost artist, five decades of music, video and information is just a mouse click or scroll-wheel twirl from our ears and eyes. Yet it is precisely this unprecedented proximity and vividness of the past in the digital present that makes book-length cultural analysis more essential than ever. The emerging Cloud is a messy mass of decontextualized sounds and visuals. Long-form music writing supplies an element of distance and abstraction that cuts through retro culture’s welter of senseless sense-impressions and facts, allowing the clear signal of truth to emerge.

Greil Marcus and Chuck Eddy, two legendary rock critics with new books, have adopted radically different approaches to the pursuit of music history’s elusive truths: the iconographer versus the iconoclast. In a 1986 interview, the young Eddy declared that “the thing that bugs me about rock criticism more than anything else, and this applies to both Marcus and Christgau . . . is what I would call a hero-worship syndrome.”

Marcus has never been quite as reverential as Eddy made out, but he is interested in making the music he loves seem as important as possible. One of Marcus’s writing tics is variations on the phrase “the stakes” which crop up whenever he feels there’s something world-historical and momentous at play in a particular song or performance. Of The Doors’s “Take It As It Comes”, he writes “there’s too much at stake. Too much has been left behind.” Eddy is far less invested in notions of significance and resonance; he’s more concerned with the sheer pleasure of music, which for him includes all the amusement that can be extracted from it, often at the artist’s expense. Eddy’s urge to deride can sometimes seem to over-ride his delight in the music. But it also reflects his gut reflex to demystify—to bring music back into the realm of everyday life, in pointed contrast to the lofty-minded Marcus’s attraction to the instant myths that spring up around rock.

Marcus’s books have always combined a historian’s scrupulousness with facts (unlike his British counterpart Nik Cohn, who never let accuracy get in the way of a good story) with an alertness to the larger-than-life dimensions of what Cohn once called “Superpop . . . the image, hype and beautiful flash of rock'n'roll music.” As rock’s first self-conscious mythographers, The Doors are such a perfect subject for this approach that it makes you wonder why Marcus waited so long to write a book about them.

Too often in his last decade of output, there’s been a feeling of sinewy strain to Marcus’s prose, like an ageing acrobat struggling to pull off the tricks that worked so well before. The Shape of Things To Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, for instance, reached repeatedly for a profundity that eluded the author’s grasp. But last year’s Van Morrison: When that Rough God Goes Riding, a slim volume on the stout singer from Ulster, showed signs of renewed agility. Now The Doors is a firm stride towards the recovery of full powers. Like the preceding book about another mystic-minstrel named Morrison, The Doors is not a rock bio or an exhaustive study of a band’s oeuvre, but a deliberately fragmentary overview that seeks to convey the essence of the band via brief meditations triggered by particular songs and performances.

A long-established Marcus technique is his knack of writing about a song as if it were a drama unfolding in real time, as though the band were discovering what the tune is about during its recording. This is fiction, of course: in most cases, songs are written and honed further through live performance long before being taken into the studio, where the band runs through multiple takes and builds up the sound through overdubs until the recording achieves the definitive and polished form that the world hears. Marcus’s odd insistence on treating song as events rather than constructions can get wearing. The Doors features endless variations on tropes of an “untold story” gradually emerging out of a song. Elsewhere the song is personified: “as the music edged into its seventh minute, it seemed to have developed a mind of its own: you can hear the song musing over itself” But this overfamiliar approach picks up new credence here, because many of the songs Marcus examines are not studio versions but elongated and improvisatory concert renditions bootlegged by fans. Gathered for official release in 2003 as the four-disc set Boot Yer Butt!, these lo-fi recordings are genuine real-time events: We hear the inebriated Morrison ad-libbing, the band struggling to keep up or pushing the music even further out. Many of these versions document, as Marcus writes, “the drama of a band at war with its audience,” reflecting Morrison’s determination to take the Doors out of the realm of entertainment and into confrontational living theater.

This spirit matches Marcus’s own fierce commitment to bringing back a sense of rock as an Event, a series of ruptures in History, and to rescue the music from the dead time of repetition and nostalgia. The latter phenomenon is explored in a brilliant chapter entitled “The Doors in the so-called Sixties”. It starts with Marcus’s surprise at constantly hearing the Doors on his car radio during the late 2000s and his further astonishment that songs like “L.A. Woman” had “never sounded so relentless, so unsatisfied, in . . . 1971 as they did forty years later.” Discussing Oliver Stone’s Doors biopic (which, unusually, he rates highly), Marcus pinpoints the secret reason behind the media’s obsessive drive to commemorate and revisit the Sixties: “A sense that since [then], life had been empty . . . The anniversaries were attempted funerals . . . But the funeral never seemed to end, and the burial never seemed complete.” Although Marcus has himself arguably been complicit in this nostalgia industry through authoring several books about Dylan, he writes about his own resentment of the babyboomers’s stranglehold on rock history, which has burdened subsequent generations with a sense of belatedness: “then was when it all happened.... you were born at the wrong time; you missed it.” Waiting in line to see Oliver Stone’s movie, surrounded by kids in their teens and twenties, Marcus wonders “why they had no culture of their own to rebuke us with.”

In The Doors, though, Marcus comes to terms with the idea that the greatest Sixties music cannot be buried and forgotten—whatever the fate that befell the musicians in the ensuing years: death, disgrace, dwindling powers—because it still feels too alive. Despite the encrusted legends and the attrition of repetition, the rolling majesty of the Doors’s supreme songs and the clarity and mystery of Morrison’s best lines (“learn to forget,” “speak in secret alphabets,” and so many more) ring out with the force of its original newness and nowness. Marcus connects this imperishable potency and promise to specific properties of the band’s playing: “Early on, Robby Krieger developed a way of saying, in a very few quiet, spaced notes on his guitar, that something was about to happen.”

The triumphant sections of The Doors recreate the sensation of hearing these songs for the first time. There’s a thrilling blow-by-blow account of “The End,” two great takes on different “Light My Fire” performances, and many marvelous evocations of particular passages of playing, from the few seconds of eerie Ray Manzarek organ at the start of “Strange Days,” to “LA Woman,” where Krieger’s guitar is “thin and loose, intricate and casual, serious and quick as thought itself.”

The closer that Marcus sticks to the music, the better; he draws strength from its inexhaustible vigor. But when Marcus strays, things get more labored and less convincing, as with the meandering attempt to use “20th Century Fox” as a route through Pop Art. Ultimately, The Doors is rather like a Doors album, or more precisely, those five Doors LPs that followed the matchless self-titled debut: Killer and filler juxtaposed such that it’s hard to believe the same band was responsible.

Marcus stays faithful to how the band’s records impacted him as a first-time, at-the-time listener: blown away by the debut, disappointed by most everything that came after except for the odd twilight track like “Roadhouse Blues”. Exactly eighteen years younger than Marcus, I first encountered The Doors through various “best of...”’s, which means that the overfamiliarity of the debut’s famous tracks ensured that the album, when I finally heard it, couldn’t possibly have the same overwhelming effect; conversely, the later LPs seemed “pretty great” because I adored the nuggets salvaged from them for anthologies like Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine.

This ahistorical perspective, already possible in the late ’70s, has intensified with the ensuing decades: Each new generation hears rock’s sprawling, ever-accumulating past as an out-of-sequence jumble. The link between music and History that has obsessed Marcus from 1975's Mystery Train onwards, and which he wants to protect and resurrect, is corroded by this encroaching atemporality, the result of a revolution in music delivery systems, mechanisms such as iPod shuffle and Spotify that insidiously dissolve the divisions between decades and genres. But fans and critics have also actively hastened this process, eagerly rearranging rock and pop history into new shapes, deposing established greats from the rock pantheon and elevating lesser lights. Foremost among these revisionist critics is Chuck Eddy.

The upstart Eddy began his career voicing frustration with his babyboomer elders (including Marcus) who “miss a lot” (meaning, mainly, new music evolving out of the traditions of metal and disco). Reviewing one of Aerosmith’s mid-90s albums, Eddy jousted again with Marcus, taking issue with the latter’s dismissal of the band as destined to be a mere footnote in rock history. Eddy argued that this was not only condescending to the middle-American masses who raised lighters to songs like “Dream On,” but ignored the way Aerosmith had anticipated and even contributed to hip hop (with “Walk This Way”). The spat contrasted Marcus’s belief in the righteous necessity of a rock canon with Eddy’s compulsion—at once moral and temperamental—to deface and contradict that canon at every opportunity. This attitude infused Eddy’s The Accidental Evolution of Rock ‘N’Roll: A Misguided Tour Through Popular Music (1997) and it can be found on almost every page of his new anthology Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism.

Near the end of the book, sounding sincerely indignant, Eddy rejects his reputation as a contrarian. Still, it’s hard to think of another word to characterize a taste trajectory that’s veered so consistently far from the music that his rockcrit peers consider relevant and praiseworthy. All critics have pet bands that nobody else in the profession has any time for, but Eddy is a bit like the dotty old lady with forty cats. He’s often way out of alignment with critical consensus but he’s not a straightforward populist either. His first book, 1991’s wonderfully heterodox heavy metal guide Stairway To Hell, snubbed mega-selling mainstays of the genre such as Iron Maiden and Judas Priest in favor of minor figures like Kix and Teena Marie.

Eddy’s eccentricity is not only refreshing and entertaining; it’s also valuable. Whether it’s aberrant taste or simple capriciousness (he admits in one early piece, “frankly, if I tried hard enough, I could probably convince myself that any tripe was terrific”), something compels Eddy to pay attention to music that no other music journalist can be bothered with with (Oi!-punk bands still operating today, for instance). Not only is this a vital counterbalance to the critical herd-mind, but it’s also a reminder of how much music-making and music-fandom exist outside the media radar, and never make it into the official narrative.

If rock history written long after the event can’t help but be distorted by a hindsight-wise sensibility, collections of music journalism suffer from the opposite problem, as Eddy notes, writing of “the folly of reviewing records in real time, when ten or twenty years down the line might be more reliable.” His dispatches from the frontlines of music journalism contain many examples of Eddy being precociously on-the-money: he notices the shape-of-grunge-to-come stirring in the Pacific Northwest as early as 1986, and celebrates acid house before hardly anybody outside of Chicago had heard of it. But this clairvoyance is sabotaged by a tendency to prematurely write things off. By 1989, Eddy’s decided that “all that Seattle crap sounded the same and would never amount to nothing.” He would be equally dismissive of acid house’s European progeny, rave culture.

Of course, rock writing isn’t really about racing tips. It can, however, be about a kind of prophetic or messianic mode of utterance, whose cadences are thrilling even when you don’t share the writer’s own faith. That’s one reason why, if I had to choose between Marcus and Eddy, I’d probably go with the author of The Doors. Marcus’s impulse to aggrandize, even deify, his subjects, leads him to godlike music more reliably than Eddy’s impulse to do the opposite: Wisdom trumps wisecracks.

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