A garage band with grand sonic ambitions from Venice, California, The Doors -- Ray Manzarek, Jim Morrison, John Densmore, Robby Krieger -- is the toast of Greil Marcus’s latest book, The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years. It’s a brisk sweep through the history of the strangely endlessly influential yet condemned by perennial popularity rock group from the revolutionary rumors of “Light My Fire” on El Lay stations in 1967 to the Marat-like finish of the lead singer in New Orleans in 1971.
Marcus is certainly a scholar, he’s proven that in books like Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces, but his delectable value is similar to that of punks playing music from the character of their alienation and universal human need, as opposed to a band trying to be punk rockers. It’s in the mystery of chords skipped, facts chopped for flow, pursuit of the contradictions to the passed along view. The Doors is a comfortable read because you’re in the hands of a writer who coaxes rumination on the reader’s part by being unafraid to riff on endless ascensions and crescendos of ideas, images, and juxtapositions. It’s a dialogue with the subject, and you feel edified, entertained, and honored to share it in as a reading experience.
The Doors were essential to me as a young American pre-hardcore punk, even before X covered “Soul Kitchen,” probably because Patti and Iggy were the Lizard King’s Saint Paul in the mystery religion of rock. (OK, at least the first LP was.) And my own cultural draw to the hazy, lurching bliss of the band isn’t particularly different from Marcus’s, even if he had been able to actually see them live and continues to experience them through remnants like the like the Boot Yer Butts! bootleg collection. That Rhino Handmade release from 2003 is heavily relied on here, to hear the medley-like stitches between The Doors’ own organ-bass-drum riff driven compositions and the source material of Elvis (“Mystery Train”), Indian music, Junior Parker, etc.
Also, consider how at odds The Doors were with the “love” bands of San Francisco; their lack of relationship with “pop art” bands as they reconnected with the crass rock and jazz which people who wanted the 60s to be tamed resisted, and in their gauche distance from any sort of realism or coherent topicality. Thomas Pynchon is used as a very revealing touchstone here, with the band the source of Inherent Vice, his Cali-noir novel full of scum at the highest and in the lowest recesses of the region. (I always wanted to write a novel or movie based on The Paranoids, the band from The Crying of Lot 49, but The Doors’ very existence sort of made that seem redundant.)
The play acting involved in Morrison’s vocals, where mystery tramps transform into blues preachers, and the snake handler-consciousness of the band, continues to inspire preachers kids to play in greasy jeans with copies of Rimbaud in their back pockets. Marcus covers this moment when the band spawned and roared “Fire!” with a lack of fanaticism but a playful respect, avoiding nostalgia, instead focusing on the actual weight of glory, for better or worse, of a line sung/spoken as “This is THE end.”
The cover of Satan Is Real, the country gospel LP recorded by Alabama-born Louvin Brothers back in a B&W television world, has been the topic of jovial discussion since punks first had group houses and soul kitchens to hang thrift store albums in. It’s gaudy, weird, and earnest about a corny world of religion to the point of begging to be mocked. The music on the album, which we rarely kept the disc of to listen to -- which is why it was fetching $500 on collector’s markets, they became rare through evisceration in the market place -- with its finger-pointing song titles, was felt utterly resistible.
This is what it’s about, according to Charlie Louvin, the author of the book about he and his brother Ira, also called Satan Is Real: “Most of our gospel songs weren’t really guilt songs, but they were obvious songs. They’d tell you if you were a good person, a righteous person, then you can go to heaven. But if you think you can do anything you want and still go to heaven, you’re full of shit.”
Ira, Charlie’s older brother, guzzled whiskey and beat wives and roared at audiences for being lousy drunks themselves, was full of shit. But he also sang like an angel with his brother, and Charlie claims he wrote better songs than he did, even the overtly Christian ones, which have been covered by other artists such as The Byrds and the Violent Femmes. If you “get” the self-incriminating irony but miss the glorious harmonies and gorgeous world of pain and redemption in the anthems and hymns of the Louvin Brothers, you only have yourself to blame.
Charlie often had to beat the hell out of his brother, the worst of it was when the latter called their mother a bitch on the way to the Grand Ole Opry. Ira would end up getting shot several times by his wife while he tried to strangle her with a phone chord. Lucinda Williams calls Charlie a “real punk” for standing up and Stoically carrying on making beautiful music in spite of his terrible sibling -- but it’s obvious both are archetypes of American rebels: The kind that sometimes keep fighting for love and kindness no matter what, and those who didn’t quite mentally survive the beatings of a father or the lack of compassion others had when it happened. The late Charlie gives his fiery, creative brother his due here even he had to “give it to him” another way when Ira wasn’t busy baiting Elvis and promising to give up the drink.
I missed Soul Coughing in the 90s, but what I caught sort of reminded me of a Doors of that generation -- what we liked to call “musos,” technically adept players redefining their ideas of “soul” through keyboard weirdness (samplers, not organs, with SC), a strange concept of bass (a double acoustic, not the lack of one in The Doors), and a drummer who won’t leave the damned jazz alone.
If you have any criticisms of the creative lounge-alt power pop Soul Coughing made, leader Mike Doughty probably has more. He shares them plenty in his “recovery memoir” The Book of Drugs, along with specific venom for the characters of his band mates, and producers, and certain women, and drug dealers, and probably most of all himself. It’s full of weird and spastic drug stories, and desperately trying to stay off drug stories, and the glimpses of grace that come between those events.
Doughty is a compelling writer, even when he rackety-rambles. And he does quite a bit, but the nature of this unnamed literary genre sort of encourages that as its Jouissance. I admit that some of the short, intense, strange anecdotes are my favorites (being yelled at as a clown by workers in a truck and then turning and seeing an actual clown behind him; punching a close friend to get him to leave his apartment) , but I love staggering down his corridors of often repeated rants against weed self-delusion, his exasperation with a god he prays to but doesn’t think exists (yet thinks atheists are far too presumptive about the mysteries of the universe). He was just another kid who wanted to be Lou Reed, who makes some surprising cameos in the subtexts and possibly several scenes of the book. The bones in a chair scenes of utter addiction are as throttling as any you’ve read, but he holds back no secrets as much as he told himself lies through that very dark period of his life.
Doughty’s lucid creativity as a memoirist shouldn’t be surprising, as he’s been doing poetry reading, blogging, crafted plays, and wrote a long running column called Dirty Sanchez for the New York Press (which could stand compiling, even if there’s some overflow with this book). The eviscerating honesty, sometimes very charming self-deprecation, and attention to personal and musical cultural detail makes Book of Drugs an awesome read, more than once. And it will certainly get me out to the next solo Mike Doughty show he plays anywhere around here.