Friday, September 09, 2011

Music-criticism geeks take heed: I have an extended review in the new issue of Bookforum contrasting the life-projects of Greil Marcus and Chuck Eddy, via their new tomes The Doors and Rock and Roll Always Forgets.


Reading The Doors, his best in a while, I was struck by how faithful Marcus stays to the way 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 afterwards. At one point he breaks it down, something on the lines of: played the self-titled debut hundreds of times the year it came out, the next one (Strange Days) had strong songs but seemed somehow hollow (the band already self-conscious, playing at being “The Doors”) and then barely listened to the ones that came after, interest picking up only slightly with Morrison Hotel (for “Roadhouse Blues” mostly, the rest of the record struck him as inconsequential) and the final album. Marcus is particularly harsh on The Soft Parade, hilariously abusive in fact (which I enjoyed even though I L.O.V.E. the record, or parts thereof anyway). The book consists of short chapters on specific songs and as it turns out the majority of them are from that first, endlessly-relistened-to album (but often later live versions bootlegged by fans).

This narrative arc of the Doors oeuvre – explosive entrance, rapid fading of powers, belated resurgence — is the standard critical shape for the group’s output and probably representative of how people of Marcus’s generation responded in real-time. You might say that this is the Historical Truth of the Doors. But why should listeners who discover the band subsequently, long after the fact, feel obliged to keep faith with that historical truth as it unfolded so many years ago? More to the point, how could they stay faithful to it even if they wanted to? The way music listening is now organized and freed up by digital archiving systems, trying to abide by that Truth would entail a great deal of effort: not just listening to things in exact sequence, but trying to keep out of your mind what happened next to the band. It's impossible and probably pointless. The knowledge is out there. (Another example of this syndrome is how it's impossible to hear the Joy Division's two albums how they were heard at the time, when fans didn't A/ know that Ian Curtis would kill himself B/ didn't know anything at all of the back story, marital strife, epilepsy, etc).

Exactly eighteen years younger than Marcus (no really, we share the same birthday!), I first encountered The Doors at the very end of the Seventies through various “best of...”’s. I had two different ones on cassette (one was the famous bare-chested Jim compilation), off the same friend whose Stranglers albums I taped (spot the connection). Then a few years later I bought Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine, a gorgeous looking vinyl double album gatefold with a real period-piece sleeve note inside written in the early 70s and oozing this heavy, bummed-out sense of “the dream is gone, but let’s not forget what the prophet Jim told us”. A great compilation, Weird Scenes, but with lots of odd inclusions (“You Need Meat (Don't Go No Further)”, ugh) and the discography totally jumbled up and out of sequence.

I don’t think I heard any of the actual original Doors LPs until much later, in most cases maybe when they’d come out as CDs. As a youth in those far-off days you were limited by what you could afford and there was so much current music making demands on your attention. But the net result of this is that the overfamiliarity of the debut’s famous tracks (through those three comps plus airplay over the years) ensured that the first album, when I did finally hear it, couldn’t possibly have the same overwhelming effect as it did on Marcus and his ilk in early 1967. Conversely, the later LPs seemed “pretty great” because I had fallen in love with the nuggets salvaged from them for anthologies like Weird Scenes. Whereas people like Marcus, upon buying Waiting For the Sun and The Soft Parade were probably so disappointed they didn’t play the records enough to discover the gems. They had already given up on the group.

This ahistorical perspective, the out of sequence listening to a band’s oeuvre, was already possible in the late ’70s, if not earlier. And it's intensified with each ensuing decade: each new generation hears rock’s sprawling, ever-accumulating past in shuffle mode, a kind of de facto and irreversible process of dehistoricisation. (The radio, especially in America, is doing this work also, and has been doing it for a while, long before iPod Shuffle and Spotify). This has its upsides and downsides: music is liberated from its original meanings and the verdicts of either critics or of popular success; gems can be found in the twilight phases of an artist career long after their original audience had ceased to care. On the other hand, music becomes just music, it loses the dimension of what it meant and the reverberations it created in its original time-and-place. Sometimes this means it can be repurposed with new meanings. But mostly, not. Mostly it becomes just-music.